- The Washington Times
Monday, December 21, 2020


The Washington Football team, with a 6-8 record, is on the verge of winning the NFC East division title. The stars are aligning. After a hard-fought loss to Seattle Sunday, Washington has Carolina and Philadelphia left to finish the season and win its first division title since 2015.

No one should be holding a parade for a team that might win its division with a losing record, or, at best, a .500 mark. But such titles have been difficult to come by under owner Dan Snyder’s tenure — just three in 21 years, and one of them, in 1999, he basically inherited in his first year of ownership from John Kent Cooke.

So even a tarnished title will carry some sense of accomplishment. It’s not like that era when titles were expected — no, I’m not talking about Joe Gibbs and his three Super Bowl titles, four NFC championships and five NFC East titles.

When Washington football was all shiny and new after the franchise moved from Boston in 1937, fans came to expect title games, starting with an NFL championship in their very first year in the District, one of two NFL championships in the early years — five NFL Eastern division titles from 1937 to 1945.

Title games seemed like business as usual — until they abruptly ended following the 1945 season with a bizarre championship game where Washington lost a chance at third championship because of gentlemen and footwear.

After a 6-3-1 mark and a third-place finish in the NFL East in 1944, Washington came back in 1945 and had a strong season, posting an 8-2 mark, with Sammy Baugh completing 128 of 182 passes — 70.3% — for 1,669 yards, 11 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

They would face the 9-1 Cleveland Rams in the NFL title game.

There was a brutally cold wind blowing off Lake Erie that Dec. 16, with temperatures reportedly 8 degrees below zero. After five inches of snow had fallen the day before, the playing surface at Cleveland Municipal Stadium was frozen and slick. But Washington was prepared for the conditions and brought sneakers to use in case the footing was too slippery.

The Rams, playing at home, did not.

Rams coach Adam Walsh appealed to Washington coach’s Doug DeGroot’s sense of fair play and asked DeGroot to not use their sneakers, since the Rams didn’t have the same equal footing, so to speak.

DeGroot said yes.

Think about that for a moment in today’s NFL. Or for that matter, yesterday’s NFL or tomorrow’s NFL. Anytime. What do you think the dean of decency, the revered Joe Gibbs himself, would have done if Bill Parcells came to him before an NFL championship game and made the same plea? Good luck and a prayer, perhaps.

DeGroot did this without the knowledge of Washington Football owner George Preston Marshall, who would learn of the pregame gentlemen’s agreement at halftime — when, after the first half, it became apparent that it was time to go to the sneakers.

The game would become known not just for the sneaker deal, but also a game-changing play that sabotaged a Washington score that would result in a rule change.

In the first quarter, with Washington deep in Cleveland territory, Baugh passed to Wayne Milner in the end zone. But the ball hit the uprights, and under league rules at the time, it was ruled a safety, giving Cleveland a 2-0 lead. On a day like this, every point would count.

Baugh had to leave the game later in the quarter with bruised ribs, but backup quarterback Frankie Filchock connected with Steve Bagarus on a 38-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to give Washington a 7-2 lead. Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield found Jim Benton on a 37-yard score, and Cleveland led 9-7 going into the locker room at halftime.

Center Al DeMao told me in an interview for my book, “Hail Victory,” about what took place in the Washington locker room.

“Marshall came down to the locker room and told Coach DeGroot, ‘Okay, Doug, let’s get out the sneakers.’ Doug said meekly, ‘Mr. Marshall, we made a gentleman’s agreement that we wouldn’t use the sneakers.’ He was, in essence, fired right then and there. Marshall said, ‘This is no gentlemen’s game. That is the last decision you will ever make as coach of (Washington Football).”

The Rams would score early in the second half to take a 15-7 lead. Washington would score again to make it a one-point game. But they missed two fourth-quarter field goal attempts, and Cleveland won its first NFL championship. Then they left town for Los Angeles.

According to the 1974 book, “Washington Redskins,” Milner said of the sneakers, “If we had worn them, there’s no question but we would have been a more effective team. We could have beaten Cleveland.”

What would follow was a 27-year title drought until George Allen took Washington to the Super Bowl in 1972 — not even a division title to celebrate for hope.

So Washington Football fans will hang their hopes on any division title — like any port in a storm that sometimes never seems to end.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan and Tuesdays and Thursdays on the Kevin Sheehan Show Podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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