I hadn’t played any APBA Football since replaying Super Bowl 48 a while back, but I recently broke out some very old cards and replayed the 1950 NFL Championship Games, one of the more exciting (and meaningful) title games in pro football history.
APBA often imitates life, sometimes to the point where it’s downright spooky. In this replay, one of the two teams had a solid lead and I figured it was just one of those things that happens sometimes. But when all was said and done, the game was a cracker and the similarities to reality were striking, as you’ll see below.
Groza’s Toe, Graham’s Arm Give Browns NFL Title
CLEVELAND (Dec. 24, 1950) – Lou Groza‘s 17-yard field goal nine minutes into overtime gave the Cleveland Browns a 27-24 win over the Los Angeles Rams and the National Football League championship in what is already being called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
The Rams built a 24-3 lead in the fourth quarter, but Otto Graham threw three touchdown passes in the period to tie the game and send it to the first sudden-death overtime period in professional football history. The quarter was part of a remarkable game for the Browns’ signal-caller, who completed 27 of his 33 passes for 441 yards and 3 TDs1In the actual game, he was 22-33 for 298 and 4 touchdowns.. The yardage was a new record (beating Sammy Baugh’s 335 against the Chicago Bears in 1937) and the completions tied Tommy Thompson‘s record set for Philadelphia against the Bears in 1947.
The Rams seemingly had the game won, with a 24-17 lead, one minute to play and possession at the Cleveland 47 yard line. But Norm Van Brocklin attempted a pass to Tom Fears that Bill Willis read and intercepted, returning it to the Browns’ 48. One play later, Graham found Dub Jones for a 52-yard touchdown pass to square the score at 24-24.
Bob Waterfield replaced Van Brocklin with :30 left, but rather than run out the clock and play for overtime, he attempted a long pass down the right sideline that Don Phelps intercepted and returned 38 yards to the Ram 37. Groza attempted a 44 yard field goal at the final gun, but it was wide left, sending the game to overtime.
Los Angeles won the overtime toss, but could not move the ball and the teams traded punts on their first possessions. Waterfield found Fears on a 17-yard pass for a first down to the Cleveland 32 with 10 minutes left, and fortune seemed to smile on the Rams when Dick Hoerner fumbled on the very next play and the ball popped right to rookie Glenn Davis, who ran for nine more yards and another first down. But with the ball at the Cleveland 21 and coach Joe Stydahar fearful that Waterfield had missed three of his four field goal attempts in the frigid conditions, the Rams went with a seemingly safe off-tackle run by Vitamin Smith. Smith ran 14 yards to the Cleveland 7, but fumbled and Phelps was there for his third turnover of the game.
Starting at his own 7, Graham moved the Browns 83 yards in just seven plays, the key one a 49 yard run by Jones where he burst straight up the middle and sped untouched until dragged down at the Ram 44. Graham kept the ball on the ground, alternating Jones, Marion Motley and Ken Carpenter to move the ball to the Los Angeles 10. From there, on third and five, Groza kicked the game-winning field goal to give the Browns their fifth consecutive championship and first in the National League.
“This one will be remembered a long time,” said a spent Cleveland coach Paul Brown. “They’re as good and game a team as we ever played. It took a little bit of luck to win one like that, and we had it.”
“I don’t know what to say,” a dejected Stydahar whispered in a Rams dressing room whose silence was broken only by the sounds of athletic tape being cut off ankles and pads being thrown into lockers. “We had them, and never could quite make a play when we had to.”
“Just one of those things,” said Waterfield. His four attempted field goals tied Jack Manders’ title game record, but he missed a pair and his 16-yard attempt that would have made the score 27-10 in the fourth was blocked.
The Rams, who had moved to the West Coast from Cleveland after winning the 1945 NFL title, took a 10-0 halftime lead on Hoerner’s two-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and Waterfield’s 15-yard field goal in the second. Groza kicked a 15-yarder of his own midway through the third, but the Rams answered with Hoerner’s second short scoring plunge2Tying a record held by 11 other players at that time., one set up by a 54-yard kick return by Davis.
Van Brocklin did not start, but came on for the Rams’ first drive of the fourth quarter and wasted no time getting Los Angeles into the end zone and building a seemingly insurmountable lead. He hit Fears – who finished with a championship-game record 10 catches3Washington’s Wayne Millner caught nine against the Bears in 1937 and Jim Benton of the Rams caught nine against Washington in the 1945 title game. – for 16 yards along the left sideline for a first town, then lofted a long strike down the middle to Elroy Hirsch, who grabbed the ball at the 20 and outraced the Browns’ defensive backs to the end zone. That 24-3 lead, which should have been enough to bring the first pro football championship to California, instead withered and died in the face of Graham’s amazing fourth-quarter comeback.
Jones, Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli all had over 100 yards receiving, with Speedie’ 159 yards and a touchdown coming on nine grabs from Graham.
Replay notes: Some realism included Tom Fears, who had 9 catches for 136 yards in the actual 1950 game and 10 for 145 in the replay. The Browns had 13 first downs passing in the actual game and 14 here. Waterfield actually did miss a 16-yard field goal attempt in the real game (though it was in the first half). And, of course, Groza won both games with a field goal on the final play. This was fun and, as mentioned, pretty spooky when all was said and done.
1 2 3 4 OT F Los Angeles 7 3 7 7 0 - 24 Cleveland 0 0 3 21 3 - 27 LAR - Hoerner 2 run (Waterfield kick) LAR - FG Waterfield 15 CLE - FG Groza 15 LAR - Hoerner 2 run (Waterfield kick) LAR - Hirsch 64 pass from Van Brocklin (Waterfield kick) CLE - Speedie 9 pass from Graham (Groza kick) CLE - Lavelli 63 pass from Graham (Groza kick) CLE - Jones 52 pass from Graham (Groza kick) CLE - FG Groza 17 A - 29,751
Los Angeles – Smith 8-52, Horner 9-21, 2 TD, Kalmanir 3-16, Towler 6-10, Van Brocklin 3-4, Barry 2-3, Younger 2-0, Waterfield 1-(-1), Davis 9-(-2)
Cleveland – Motley 21-52, Jones 4-69, Carpenter 3-17, Bumgardner 1-5, Cole 1-1, Graham 4-0, Phelps 1-(-1)
Los Angeles – Waterfield 17-24-2, 148 yards. Van Brocklin 3-4-1, 147 yards, 1 TD
Cleveland – Graham 27-33-1, 441 yards, 3 TD
Los Angeles – Fears 10-145, Hirsch 6-127, 1 TD, Davis 1-12, Towler 1-5, Boyd 1-3, Smith 1-3
Cleveland – Speedie 9-159, 1 TD, Jones 6-108, 1 TD, Motley 5-29, Lavelli 4-103, 1 TD, Carpenter 1-43, Bumgardner 1-3, Gillom 1-(-4)