Prior to Sammy Baugh’s entrance into the NFL in 1937, offenses were mostly run-oriented. Players such as the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski, the Giants’ Tuffy Leemans and the Redskins’ Cliff Battles dominated the headlines. The pass was pretty much a secondary option.
That changed in Baugh’s rookie season, when the Redskins’ first-round draft pick proved that the pass can be a formidable weapon. He completed 91-of-218 throws for 1,127 yards—all league-highs—and earned first-team All-Pro honors.
Slingin’ Sammy’s breakout game was in the NFL championship against the Bears at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on Dec. 12, 1937. Playing in the single-wing formation, he completed 17-of-34 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns – unfathomable numbers at the time – and almost single-handedly carried the Redskins to a 28-21 win in their inaugural season in D.C.
While putting on a passing clinic, Baugh withstood frigid, 15-degree temperatures and a frozen field draped with ice and snow. Brutal ground conditions left one player after another cut, bloodied, dazed and staggered. In addition, the game resembled a slugfest; tempers flared repeatedly, and players took swipes at each other all day.
“I never saw so much blood after a ball game in my life,” Baugh said in an interview in 2000. “Every time you hit the frozen ground you landed on little pebbles, and you’d get scraped, and you’d be bleeding. It was a terrible day to play. Your footwork was bad. You’d try to turn, and you’d slide. You couldn’t keep your balance very well on that icy ground. It was the worst game I ever played in terms of the conditions. They were bad.”
The lead changed hands four times. The Redskins struck first when Battles scored on a seven-yard reverse. The Bears responded with two quick touchdowns, and the Redskins were further jolted early in the second quarter when Baugh banged a knee and left the game. He returned just after halftime to enthusiastic cheers from the 3,000 Redskins fans on hand.
Baugh didn’t disappoint them. Like a surgeon, he began picking the Bears’ defense apart while completing seven-of-nine passes with three touchdowns, in what Francis Stann of The Evening Star called “probably the greatest 15 minutes of play in history.” Baugh found help on the receiving end from the man called “The Money Player,” Wayne Millner.
Millner’s initial score came after Baugh, using the screen pass, invented by Redskins coach Ray Flaherty and unveiled that day, found Millner in the flat. He raced toward the end zone, outrunning two defenders, and completed a 55-yard scoring play.
Chicago drove 72 yards to regain the lead, 21-14. But seconds later, an off-balance Baugh whipped a pass 20 yards downfield to Millner, who again outran defenders and scored on a 77-yard play. The conversion tied the game at 21 and, after the Redskins’ defense held, Baugh and company took possession on their 20.
Washington soon faced a fourth-and-inches at midfield. Riley Smith, the quarterback, disdained a punt and sent fullback Don Irwin on a plunge. In a collision of gladiators, Irwin smashed into the Bears’ ironman, Nagurski, and made a first down by an inch. Two plays later, Baugh hit Ed Justice on a 35-yard scoring pass, and Smith converted for a 28-21 Redskins lead.
The Bears panicked in the final quarter. They discarded their pet running game and threw pass after pass with little luck. Smith’s interception with about a minute left sealed the win.
The victory was just the beginning for Baugh, one of the original 70 Greatest Redskins and a man who crafted perhaps the greatest all-around career in NFL history. In his 16 seasons, all in Washington, he threw for 21,886 yards and 186 touchdowns, all-time NFL marks when he retired in 1952. He also was a record-setting punter and defensive back in the days of single-platoon football. In 1994, he was named one of four quarterbacks on the NFL 75th Anniversary Team and a member of the NFL Two-Way Team.
The Redskins’ legend passed away in 2008.
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He also hosts a TV show called “Burgundy & Gold Magazine.” His web site is www.redskinshistorian.comand his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.