Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Saying Goodbye to Slingin' Sammy Baugh

The death of Washington Redskin legend and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh earlier this month represents an end to a chapter in the early history of the NFL. Sammy Baugh played sixteen seasons with the Washington Redskins from 1937 to 1952. In the first nine seasons of his career, he led the Redskins to two NFL championships and five Eastern Conference titles. When he retired in 1952 he was the greatest passer in NFL history. In between Baugh redefined the role of the quarterback and made the forward pass a vital, essential part of the game itself.

Before Baugh came along the forward pass was a desperation measure to be solely when the offense faced a third and long situation and even then when the ball was thrown it wasn’t thrown with any particular grace or style. Baugh changed that. He brought beauty, power, grace, and style to the quarterback position and made the pass a viable option on first and second downs.

Before Baugh, NFL offenses used the single wing or double wing formations which were earlier forms of today’s shotgun formations that heavily emphasized running. When Baugh joined the NFL he changed that. Standing in the tailback position (in the single wing and double wing the quarterback was a mere blocking back) Baugh would take snap and look to pass to his ends or wing backs. Invariably Baugh would find the open man and sling a bullet to the receiver, usually for huge yardage. (In the 1937 NFL championship game against the Chicago Bears, Baugh connected for TD passes for fifty-five and seventy-seven yards). Whereas NFL teams used only three defensive backs now they had to use four or more defensive backs against Baugh thus revolutionizing NFL defenses just as Baugh was revamping NFL offenses.

Baugh was an incredibly accurate thrower. In 1945 he completed 70.3% of his passes; a record never to be broken. (Baugh threw 182 passes and completed 128 of them—modest by today’s standards but today’s NFL quarterbacks throw 180 passes by week four of the regular season).

Not only was Baugh accurate he was also supremely confident in himself. During Baugh’s rookie season Redskins coach Ray Flaherty was outlining a pass pattern on a chalkboard and he told Baugh, “When the receiver reaches here, you hit him in the eye with the ball.” Baugh shot back deadpan, “which eye?”

(Baugh wasn’t joking about hitting a player in the eye. Late in his career when he was a living legend, Baugh was given a cheap-shot hit by an opposing rookie defensive lineman. Baugh admonished the rookie to take it easy whereupon the impertinent rookie gave Baugh another cheap-shot on the very next play. Baugh told his linemen to let the rookie through on the next play—which they did—whereupon Baugh threw a line-drive pass that hit the rookie right between the eyes and knocked him out—remember football fans they didn’t wear face masks in those days).

And yet Baugh was more than a passer. In those days when players played both offense and defense, Baugh was a decent defensive back who once intercepted four passes in one game. Baugh was also one of the greatest punters in the NFL, averaging forty-five yards a punt—which is still exceptional in today’s game. Indeed Baugh was a master of the quick kick—a play never seen in today’s game. Many a time Baugh would fade back to pass only to fool the opposing defense by quick-kicking the ball thus trapping the opposing team deep in their own territory. In the 1942 NFL championship game against the Chicago Bears, Baugh launched an eighty-five yard quick kick that caught the Bears flat-footed. The Redskins would win that game 14-6.

Sammy Baugh’s impact on the game went beyond the football field. Baugh’s presence on the Washington Redskins made the nation’s capitol into the pro football capitol of America. In 1937 Redskins owner George Preston Marshall moved the team from Boston to Washington and desperately needed a big star who could draw big crowds to watch his team. Sammy Baugh was that star and when he won the NFL championship in his rookie season (only one of two NFL quarterbacks ever to do that if I’m not mistaken—the other was Bob Waterfield in 1945 with the Cleveland Rams) Baugh made the Washington Redskins a viable NFL franchise which it remains today. Baugh also was the first in a long line of great Redskin quarterbacks who would lead the ‘Skins to victory: Eddie LeBaron, Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien. It was Baugh who laid the foundations of the iron covenant that exists today between the Redskins and their loyal fans.

Sammy Baugh should be revered by football fans because he was a vital link in the evolutionary chain of the quarterback position in the football. Before Sammy Baugh came along the greatest football quarterback was Bennie Friedman. Baugh took the antecedents that Friedman established in the realm of forward passing and elevated them to an unprecedented level. When Baugh retired in 1952 his standards would be taken up (and surpassed) by NFL legends Otto Graham, John Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Peyton Manning. Simply put, the achievements his successors made would not have been possible without Sammy Baugh paving the way.

All NFL quarterbacks today owe Sammy Baugh a debt of thanks.

As do NFL fans as well.

Thanks for the memories Sammy Baugh. Rest in Peace.

Happy New Year.

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