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Redskins by the (Jersey) Numbers: #33 - Sammy Baugh

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The one and only Sammy Baugh. Probably the greatest player in Redskins history. Possibly the greatest player in NFL history.

“Singular.”

If one were going to summarize the career of Washington Redskins legend Sammy Baugh in a word, that would be it: Singular.

Consider the fact that Baugh came to the Skins in his rookie season of 1937. It was the team’s first year in Washington. Baugh led them to a world championship, instantly establishing the team as a D.C. cultural fixture, and himself as the face of the franchise.

He did so wearing #33. By the time he retired 15 years later, he had forged a legacy unparalleled in NFL history to that point, and perhaps even since. Because of that legacy, the Redskins retired his number.

He is the only player in the history of the franchise ever to have his number formally retired.

As such, he is the sole Washington Redskin ever to wear #33, making him not only an easy choice for this series, but both figuratively and literally the only choice.

Singular, even.

It would be a great disservice to Mr. Baugh for me to gloss over his accomplishments simply because he’s the lone candidate to take the honor of being selected for this list. I would never do such a thing.

Starting at the beginning, then, Sammy Baugh was a lanky kid from Sweetwater, Texas who excelled at football, baseball, and basketball. In fact, he looked early on like he was destined to be a pro baseball player. He wound up attending TCU specifically because Dutch Meyer, who coached all three sports, told Baugh he could be a three-sport player if he wished.

Baugh continued to be a football and baseball standout for the Horned Frogs. He threw 30 touchdown passes over his final two seasons of football for the pass-happy Frogs, a huge figure for the era. Baugh captured All-American honors in each of those years. He led TCU to wins in the 1936 Sugar Bowl over LSU and in the inaugural edition of the Cotton Bowl in 1937. Baugh earned the MVP award as the Horned Frogs won 16-6 over Marquette.

Still, there was baseball to consider. Baugh was a terrific third baseman, and the St. Louis Cardinals wanted him to be their shortstop of the future. He actually played a season of minor league baseball after his rookie year with the Redskins, but he abandoned the pursuit when it became clear that his teammate Marty Marion, and not Baugh, was going to be the Cards’ shortstop for the next decade.

Baugh left baseball for good, but he took from his days on the diamond the nickname by which football fans would remember him: “Slingin’ Sammy.”

Some of the groundwork for Baugh’s NFL success had actually been laid two years before Baugh arrived in D.C. Up to 1935, the football the NFL used was more like a rugby ball. The ball changed that year, shortening its “long axis” (think running your finger along the surface of the ball from point to point), but keeping the length of the ball the same (if you drew a line inside the ball from point to point).

Put simply, the ball was less round, slightly more “pointy,” and, most importantly, easier to grip and more aerodynamic. It was still rounder and more blunt at the ends than the ball the NFL uses today, but the changes toward a more modern ball helped set the stage for the NFL to have its first great passer emerge. And that man would be Sammy Baugh.

Baugh was the sixth overall pick in the 1937 NFL Draft. George Preston Marshall had tried to sign Baugh earlier in 1937, but to no avail. After the draft, Baugh signed with the Redskins for $8,000 (about $139,000 in today’s dollars), which made him the highest-paid player on Washington’s roster. An embarrassed Baugh later regretting asking for so much money when he discovered what other players like standout Cliff Battles made. Baugh was simply oblivious to the going rate for NFL talent, especially for the stingy Marshall’s Redskins.

Baugh was a star from the start. He played tailback, defensive back, and punter. Note that, in the pre-T-formation days, the single-wing tailback (or left halfback) was the offense’s primary passer.

Named All-Pro as a rookie, Baugh set an NFL record by completing 81 passes during the then-11-game season. He also led the league in passing yards, yards per attempt, yards per completion, and yards per game.

The Redskins went 8-3 and won the NFL’s Eastern Division. That sent them to the NFL Championship Game, where Washington would take on the favored 9-1-1 Bears in Chicago. Baugh cemented his place as a Redskins legend by putting on an exhibition of passing that made it look as if he had travelled to 1937 from some distant football future.

Baugh completed 18-of-33 passes for 335 yards and three touchdowns as the Redskins beat the Bears 28-21 to capture their first world championship. Baugh posted a passer rating of 107.5 for the game. Keep in mind that Ed Danowski had led the NFL in passer rating that year with a mark of 72.8. And, again, Baugh led the league in passing yardage by throwing for 1,127 yards in 11 contests. He threw for about three games’ worth of yardage in the NFL Championship.

The win put Baugh and the Redskins on the map. Having won the world title in their first year in a new market, the Redskins were now established as a major part of the city’s sports scene.

Baugh continued to dazzle during his next few seasons, making the Pro Bowl in 1938 and 1939. The Redskins returned to the NFL title game in 1940, again facing the Bears. Although the Redskins had beaten Chicago earlier in the year, this championship contest became famous (or, for Redskins fans, infamous) for its uniquely lopsided outcome: Chicago crushed Washington 73-0 as Baugh threw a couple of picks and never got on track.

Nonetheless, 1940 had been a great season for Baugh up until the final game. He was again All-Pro, leading the NFL in every offensive passing category, including setting a new NFL record for passer rating. Baugh’s mark of 85.6 was a robust 12.8 points higher than the previous record. On top of that, Baugh set a new record for completion percentage, with 62.7 percent, a beyond-outstanding number for that era.

Clearly, pro football had begun to change, thanks in large part to Baugh.

But Baugh set another record in 1940. This was a record that, unbelievably, still stands. And he didn’t even set it as a quarterback.

No, instead, Baugh posted a 51.4 yards-per-punt average. To give you an idea of how amazing it is that this record still stands, of the NFL punters who have posted a per-punt average of 50 yards or better for a season, the others hit those marks in 2008, 2012, 2012, 2011, 2011, and 2009.

In 1942, Baugh was All-Pro yet again, and led the Redskins to another NFL title contest. For the third time in six seasons, the Skins would play the Bears for a world title.

But this Bears team was different. Chicago entered the game unbeaten and untied, and was attempting to become the first-ever NFL champ to finish a year with a perfect record. The Redskins had lost only once themselves.

Despite Washington’s 10-1 record, and despite the game being played at Griffith Stadium in D.C., Chicago was favored by three touchdowns.

Yet, the Redskins prevailed.

Baugh didn’t have his best game as a passer, throwing only one touchdown against two interceptions, but the Redskins defense (Baugh included) played its best game of the season, holding the Bears to zero offensive points.

Washington had captured its second NFL title, this time in front of a home crowd that had sold out the game three weeks in advance.

Baugh would keep the Redskins in contention the next few seasons. He led them back to the title game in 1943, but the Bears got their revenge in a 41-21 game at Wrigley Field in which Baugh threw two touchdowns and posted a 105.2 rating in the losing effort.

Somewhat lost in the disappointment of a year that ended in defeat was the fact that Baugh had set an NFL record for most interceptions in a season by picking off 11 passes. On top of his interception record, Baugh also led the NFL in passing and punting. Of all of Baugh’s feats, leading the NFL in those three categories is one I’m quite sure will never be equaled.

The Redskins made it back to the NFL Championship again in 1945. Baugh was now officially a “quarterback,” as the Redskins had switched to a T-formation the previous year. Baugh had set yet another incredible NFL record that season: He completed 70.3 percent of his passes, a record that stood for decades before (just barely) being topped by Ken Anderson during the strike-shortened season of 1982. Nobody would top 70.3 again until Drew Brees in 2009. Baugh’s mark is still the fourth-highest in history.

I want to pause here to break this down a bit further. Of the almost innumerable achievements Baugh attained, that completion-percentage record might be the most jaw-dropping. Yes, leading the league in passing, punting, and interceptions is the most unlikely to be equaled again, but it is almost unbelievable that the completion percentage he posted in 1945 ever happened in the first place.

It would be an understatement to say that the rules of that era made it much tougher on passers (and offenses generally) than the rules do today. It’s unthinkable that a passer in the 1940s could complete over 70 percent of his passes over the course of an entire season. To put this in perspective, Baugh was one of only four passers in the entire NFL who completed more than half of his passes. Sid Luckman finished #2 in completion percentage that year, with a mark of 53.9 percent, far below Baugh’s number.

However, the Redskins ultimately lost the 1945 NFL title when a strange rule cost Baugh two points. In those days, the goal posts were on the goal line. As Baugh dropped back to pass into his own end zone, a gust of wind pushed his throw into one of the posts. Whereas in later eras that simply would have been an incomplete pass, the rule at the time treated that as a safety. Those two points cost Washington dearly, as they fell 15-14 in the Rams’ final game in Cleveland. George Preston Marshall made sure that that game would also be the last for the rule that prevented his team from capturing another world title.

In 1947, the Redskins posted their first losing season since Baugh’s arrival, but Baugh did tie his own team single-game record by throwing six touchdown passes against the Cardinals. The Skins would briefly bounce back in 1948 with a 7-5 record, but the downturn in ’47 was a harbinger for the direction of Washington football for the next two decades. As Slingin’ Sammy entered the twilight of his career, the Redskins began a two-decade journey during which they became more and more a stranger to winning football.

Baugh made his final Pro Bowl in 1951, although his most prolific days were far behind him. He retired after the 1952 season, claiming 13 NFL records set at three of his positions. In addition to his punting record, some of his other marks still stand today. Baugh led the NFL in passing six times, a figure matched only by Steve Young and surpassed by no one. He also led the NFL in lowest interception percentage five times, which has never been matched.

In addition, Baugh still has the second-highest career punting average in history, behind only Shane Lechler. He led the NFL in punting four times to go along with his six passing titles. He was also the first man in NFL history to record four interceptions in one game, a mark that has never been broken and seldom matched, and has only been tied by two Redskins (Dan Sandifer and DeAngelo Hall).

By the way, in that same four-interception game against the Lions, Baugh also threw four touchdown passes and had an 81-yard punt.

Given his mountain of achievements and records, it’s little wonder that Sammy Baugh was part of the charter class of the NFL Hall of Fame in 1963. Not only that, but Baugh was also elected unanimously, the only player to earn that honor (George Halas was also a unanimous selection). Even without that detail, Baugh’s list of honors and recognition would be immense.

He was part of the NFL’s 50th Anniversary Team and its 75th Anniversary Team. In their respective countdowns of the greatest college football players of all time a few years ago, ESPN, SPORT Magazine, and College Football News all had Baugh in the top five. The Associated Press ranked Baugh third in its 1999 rankings of the greatest NFL players of the 20th century. He was named one of the top 100 athletes of the 20th century by ESPN, Burt Sugar, and the Associated Press. The NFL Network named him the 14th-best NFL player ever in 2010. They had previously named him the most versatile player in NFL history in 2007.

The only knock on Baugh’s otherwise-unimpeachable legacy is that he played the bulk of his career when the NFL hadn’t established itself as a truly major, national sport. The NFL was significantly behind Major League Baseball and even college football in terms of popularity. There were fewer teams, and there wasn’t a team west of Green Bay during the first half of his career. Speaking of the first half of his career, there were no black players in the NFL at that time. The NFL’s last black players left the league after the 1933 season, and no black players would return until the end of World War II, when Baugh had already established himself as one of the biggest stars in the league.

That said, Baugh could obviously only play under whatever circumstances existed at the time. And while the NFL wasn’t nearly what it is today in terms of competitiveness, athleticism, and popularity, it’s also true that the rules of the day were stacked severely against offenses and passing in particular.

Somehow, though, Sammy Baugh outplayed those rules. He managed to show that a truly gifted passer could excel in the NFL. He also showed that the passing game could be a huge part of a winning team’s championship seasons. Baugh’s unprecedented success as a passer may have been the catalyst for the NFL to take the next step in its evolution into the league we know today.

With respect to people like Darrell Green and Chris Hanburger, in my view, Sammy Baugh’s is the greatest career in Redskins history. It’s fitting that his is the only number that the franchise has officially retired. It’s also entirely plausible to make an argument that Baugh is the all-around greatest player in NFL history.

Whether you agree with that argument or not, there’s no question that Baugh had a combination of achievements that was unprecedented and continues to put him in a category of NFL greats that is truly unique.

Singular, even.

Poll

Is Sammy Baugh the best all-around player in Redskins history?

This poll is closed

  • 97%
    Yes
    (181 votes)
  • 2%
    No
    (4 votes)
185 votes total Vote Now