NFL reaches West Coast, is fairly stable despite war in ’40s
A look at the NFL’s third decade, the 1940s:
The NFL reached the West Coast for the first time when the defending champion Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles for the 1946 season. After stabilizing for the first time in the late 1930s, the league was mostly unchanged in its third decade except for adjustments made during World War II.
The war led to more than 1,000 players interrupting or postponing their pro football careers. As a result, the 10-team league went down to eight for one season, in 1943. The Cleveland Rams suspended operations, while the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers merged for the season.
The count went back to 10 in 1944 with the return of the Rams and the addition of the Boston Yanks, while the Steelers merged with the Chicago Cardinals just for that season. The combined team, called Card-Pitt, went 0-10.
After the war, the NFL service roster, limited to men who played in league games, totaled 638. Of those, 21 died in action.
Before the better-known AFL merger of 1970, the All-America Football Conference laid the foundation for what amounted to the NFL’s first merger. The AAFC played the final four seasons of the 1940s, with three of the seven remaining teams joining the NFL in 1950: the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts.
The Philadelphia Eagles played in the last three championship games in the decade, winning the last two. That was after going 5-27-1 in the first three seasons of the 1940s.
While the Redskins knocked off the unbeaten Bears for the 1942 championship, they lost in the title game three times. The New York Giants were 0-3 in championship games during the decade.
“Slingin'” Sammy Baugh, Washington’s top draft choice in 1937, gets credit for being the NFL’s first big-yardage passer. The former TCU star led the NFL in passing, punting and interceptions in 1943. Baugh led the NFL in passing six times and finished with 21,886 yards, 187 TDs, a 45.1-yard punting average and 31 interceptions.
Baugh was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s first class in 1963.
Sid Luckman, the second overall pick by the Chicago Bears in 1939, created a rush of teams using the T-formation after leading the Bears to a 73-0 demolishing of Baugh and the Redskins in the 1940 championship game. The 1943 MVP threw for 14,686 yards and 137 touchdowns and made the Hall of Fame in 1965.
When he retired after the 1945 season, Green Bay receiver Don Hutson had a record 488 catches. The next most at that time was 190. The “Alabama Antelope” had 99 career touchdown grabs, a record that stood for more than four decades. He went into the Hall of Fame with Baugh in ’63.
Bob Waterfield was the NFL MVP in 1945 as a rookie while leading the Cleveland Rams to the championship. Then the former UCLA player got to go home to California when the franchise moved to Los Angeles following that title season. Waterfield was a three-time All-Pro and led the league in passing twice. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Lukman in ’65.
Bill Dudley, drafted No. 1 overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1942, didn’t really get his career going until after the war. In 1946, Dudley was the MVP while leading the league in rushing, interceptions, punt returns and lateral passes attempted. The former Virginia standout also played for Detroit and Washington. His Hall of Fame induction was in 1966.
Steve Van Buren was a four-time NFL rushing champion for the Eagles while leading the league in punt returns as a rookie in 1944, and kickoff returns in 1945. The former LSU star was the first player with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons while finishing with 5,860 yards before retiring at 30 after eight seasons. He also went into the Hall of Fame in 1965.
George Halas (HOF class of ’63) left the Bears in midseason in 1942 to join the Navy, so Luke Johnsos and Heartley Anderson led the club for the rest of that 11-0 season before the title game loss, and for the next three years. After falling short of the title game the last two seasons with Johnsos and Anderson, the Bears won the championship again in 1946 when Halas returned.
Ray Flaherty won two titles in seven seasons with the Redskins, leaving for the New York Yankees of the rival AAFC after the 1942 championship. He won at least 10 games the first two years with the Yankees but didn’t finish the third season. After coaching the Chicago Hornets the final year of the AAFC, Flaherty didn’t return to the NFL. He made the Hall of Fame in 1976.
The 1940s were the only decade covered entirely by one coach for the Giants, part of Steve Owen’s 23-year run with one of the NFL’s storied franchises. His only three-year stretch without a winning season came at the end of the decade, but he led the Giants to the title game three times in a span of six seasons. He was a 1966 entrant into the Hall of Fame.
The Bears’ 73-0 rout of the Redskins for the 1940 championship remains the most lopsided game in NFL history. Remarkably, Harry Clarke was the only player to score more than one touchdown (he had two). The Redskins threw eight interceptions, three of them returned for TDs. It was the first championship carried on network radio, broadcast by Red Barber to 120 stations of the Mutual Broadcasting System, which paid $2,500 for the rights.
The goal posts, which were at the goal line at the time, played a huge role when the Cleveland Rams beat the Redskins 15-14 in the 1945 championship game. With gusting wind and bitter cold in Cleveland, Sammy tried to throw from his end zone early in the game and hit the crossbar, leading to a safety for a 2-0 Rams lead. Cleveland scored a touchdown just before halftime, and Bob Waterfield’s extra-point kick was partially blocked and landed on the crossbar, teetering there before dropping over for a 9-7 lead. That point ended up being the difference.
Art Rooney, who founded the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1933, sold that franchise to Alexis Thompson in 1940 and bought part interest in the Philadelphia Eagles. Rooney and Bert Bell traded the Eagles to Thompson for the Pirates, and the Steelers were born. Rooney entered the Hall of Fame in 1964.
In 1946, halfback Kenny Washington and end Woody Strode signed with the Los Angeles Rams to become the first blacks to play in the NFL in the modern era. Guard Bill Willis and running back Marion Motley joined the AAFC with the Cleveland Browns. Willis and Motley both eventually played in the NFL and were voted to the all-decade team. Motley, who played at South Carolina State and Nevada, led the NFL in rushing in 1950 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1968, while Willis was inducted in 1977.
In 1948, halfback Fred Gehrke of the Los Angeles Rams painted horns on the Rams’ helmets, the first modern helmet emblems in pro football.
The merged Philadelphia-Pittsburgh team of 1943 was called the Steagles by fans. Home games were divided between the cities. … In 1949, the NFL had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season for the first time: Van Buren and Green Bay’s Tony Canadeo (HOF class of 1974). … The 1972 Miami Dolphins are recognized as the only undefeated team in NFL history. Two years before joining the NFL, the Cleveland Browns went 15-0 in the AAFC. While the NFL recognizes records of the old AFL (American Football League), it doesn’t include AAFC marks.
- Chicago Bears
- Cleveland Browns
- Los Angeles Rams
- New York Giants
- NFC East
- NFC North
- Washington Redskins