Thursday, December 16, 2010

December 16, 1945: Off the goalpost

CLEVELAND - One of the strangest sights when watching film of old NFL games is seeing the goalposts located in front of the end zone, rather than behind it. It looks so odd, and it brings up the questions of whether any players crashed into it, or what happened if a ball hit the goal post.

About that second question...

The 1945 NFL Championship Game was played in subzero temperatures in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on December 16. The Cleveland Rams had gone 9-1 to win the Western Division and earn the right to play the Eastern Division champion Washington Redskins. With a kickoff temperature of 8 below, this was the coldest championship game up to that point.

Early in the first quarter, Sammy Baugh, Washington's hall-of-fame quarterback, dropped back into his own end zone to throw a pass. As he let the pass go, it hit the goalpost and fell to the ground. You would think that the rules in that situation would merely call that an incomplete pass. You would be wrong. Under the rules of the day, it was a safety, two points for Cleveland.

Those two points ended up looking monstrous as the fourth quarter began with Cleveland leading 15-14. Washington twice marched downfield to get into field goal range, but Redskins kicker Joe Aguirre missed both attempts. The 15-14 score held and Cleveland won the championship.

Washington owner George Preston Marshall was furious that such a bizarre rule led to his team losing the championship, and he became the leading voice in the movement to change the rule for the following season. Starting in 1946, a pass that hit the goalpost and fell to the ground was ruled simply incomplete, not a safety. (The league didn't get around to moving the goal posts behind the end zone until 1974. One step at a time, I guess). It was too little, too late for the Redskins, though; the Redskins didn't return to the championship game until the Super Bowl era, when they lost to the 17-0 Dolphins in 1972. Washington finally exacted a bit of revenge when they won the Super Bowl following the 1982 season.

Cleveland's championship celebration was short-lived. Less than a month later, owner Dan Reeves got permission to move the team to Los Angeles, partially to take advantage of the 92,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum, and partially so the Rams wouldn't have to compete financially against the Browns of the AAFL. The Rams remain one of only two teams to relocated the season after winning a championship, along with the 1962 Dallas Texas (who moved to Kansas City). On the bright side, one condition the city of Los Angeles put on the Rams to allow them use of the Coliseum was that the Rams had to integrate. Thus, the Rams became the first NFL team to play black players.

Cleveland Rams players trying to stay warm during the 1945 NFL Championship Game

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