Monday, February 20, 2017

Youth and the Promised Land: The Champion 1945 Cleveland Rams

By T.J. Troup
QB-S Bob Waterfield
This story begins with a recommendation by John Turney to read James Sulecki's book on the history of the Cleveland Rams. It was Very enjoyable and impressive research done by the author. He does an admirable job on the climatic 1945 season, yet there are some details that fans just might want to know.

The NFL had two very important rule changes in 1945 that Mr. Sulecki does not write about. The first; and most important:  Free substitution was adopted on a temporary basis for the third year in a row and was abandoned after the season and not re-adopted until 1949. The rule change served the Rams well.

The second is moving the hash marks from 15 yards to 20 yards from the sideline. Running a sweep into the boundary before was very difficult, but with the rule change any team with decent speed in their backfield could sure take advantage of this rule change.

The Rams had not had much success in their short history. The champion Packers and an improved Detroit Lion team looked to be the best in the Western conference. The youthful Rams might have been considered be a "spoiler", but a contender? Likely not.

Let's take a look at coaching and personnel. First-year head coach Adam Walsh with strong assistance from George Trafton molded and taught a team that from the outset of the season played cohesive defense. Veteran Floyd Konetsky and Howard "Red" Hickey shared the left defensive end position, while Steve Pritko was superb at right defensive end  (John Turney will detail the line play in a companion piece to this story).
E-DE Steve Pritko, shown here in 1946 in Los Angeles
Elbie Schultz was the nominal starter at left defensive tackle, and rookie Gil Bouley was rock solid starting at right defensive tackle. The starting middle guard was rookie Milan (Mike) Lazetich. What Lazetich lacked in bulk, he more than made up for in shedding blocks and pursuit.

Though Roger Eason got playing time at tackle; the key man rotating in at middle guard and tackle was strong stalwart rookie Len Levy. His background in wrestling coupled with his size made him a difficult man to move.

The Rams usually employed a 5-3-3 defense with late round draft pick Pat West starting and playing well at left linebacker. Second-year man Mike "Mo" Scarry started at right linebacker. Strong in pursuit, he was an outstanding pass defender that compares favorably with Mel Hein and Bulldog Turner. Rookie Joe Winkler spelled both Scarry and West.

The key man for the Rams was starting All-Pro middle linebacker Riley "Rattlesnake" Matheson. When the Rams shifted to a 6-2 defense Matheson would become the left defensive guard.
RB-DB Fred Gehrke
Fred Gehrke usually started at left corner, and Jim Gillette at right corner (and he also saw some action at left corner). Gehrke had his moments on defense with interceptions, but Gillette was far superior in coverage and forcing the run.

Bob Waterfield recorded six interceptions during the campaign (three in the victory over Green Bay) and was a willing tackler. When Bob needed a breather the Rams were very fortunate to have veteran Albie Reisz at safety. He displayed range and tackling ability. George Koch attempted to play corner as a backup, and struggled.

How many teams with a history of losing have ever been able to open a season with back-to-back home shutouts? The offense needed time to gel and with a quick-pursuing defense the Cardinals and Bears could not get into the end zone. The Rams recorded those two victories and then the road trip began.

The offense scored 68 points in crushing the Packers and Bears on their own home fields. The Rams wanted a balanced offense, yet the passing attack was not in peak form the first two weeks as Reisz and rookie Waterfield completed just 9 of 34 passes for only 111 yards.

The productive rushing attack needed help and Waterfield began to supply down the field accuracy as he punctured the secondaries of Green Bay and Chicago to the tune of 23 completions for 390 yards. A balanced offense must have a line that can both drive and pass block.

Tackles Bouley and Schultz, guards Matheson and Lazetich were consistent and did the job. Mo Scarry had a fine season at center. Since Matheson is so valuable on defense; someone must rotate in for him and that someone was "Stumpy" Art Mergenthaler, who lacked experience but he earned his letter with solid play at the guard position.
Rb-DB Jim Gillette
Fred Gehrke (most famous for inventing logos on NFL helmets) played both halfback positions, and rank fourth in the league in rushing. Quick and speedy he could break a long run at any time.  Jim Gillette started at the other halfback post and ranked fifth in the league in rushing. He was a smooth, tough effective runner.
FB Don Greenwood
Strategy in the T-formation usually involves man-in-motion, and both these men are seen often doing so. Don Greenwood is the nominal starter at fullback, yet he would also move to halfback and follow Pat West on power plays. Greenwood demonstrated power up the middle, yet once loose in the secondary he would shift into overdrive and run outside. He finished sixth in the league in rushing.

Waterfield did not run often but when he did he was effective. No one and I mean NO ONE could run the naked bootleg like Bob. He would usually save this play for goal line situations.
E Jim Benton, shown here in 1946 being guarded by Otto Graham
Right end Steve Pritko was productive catching the ball. He ran the corner route very well and scored four times during the campaign. Left end Jim Benton has a season for the ages. Yes, he gained over 1,000 yards receiving, but a closer look tells us much more. The NFL plays 16 games in a season now, and if we take Benton's last eight games and double his totals he would have 88 passes for 2,116 yards! He is not explosive-fast, yet his height, long strides, and superb hands give rookie Waterfield a target to go to.

The 4-0 Rams journeyed to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles before the largest crowd ever at Shibe Park (over 38,000) and we will cover that game in some detail.

The Eagles kickoff and early in the game but neither team could move the ball consistently. Philadelphia uses a unique strategy against the Rams in that number 51 (defensive lineman Enio Conti) will leave his position and go with the halfback that is in motion to assist in coverage. Right defensive tackle Al "Ox" Wistert from his stand-up position will crash down into the left offensive guard and create havoc all game. His strength and quickness allow him to pursue with a vengeance as he makes tackle after tackle and usually draws more than one blocker.

In the following two clips you can see Conti cover the HB from his tackle position and see Wistert (number 70 at right tackle) in a two-point stance and him drawing double-teams. These are typical plays from the Eagles scheme that day:

Cleveland receives the first opportunity with Konetsky recovering a fumble in Eagle territory, but West gives the ball back. Early in the second quarter the Rams again have excellent field position, but again they turn the ball over on a faulty exchange between Waterfield and Gehrke. The defenses continued to dominate, until late in the quarter when Gillette gains 13 on a counter, and Greenwood on a delay/draw pounds out 24.
Jim Benton
Waterfield then completes to Benton for 18 yards. Next, Cleveland motions into a single back wing alignment but Waterfield misfires incomplete. Benton is split left, and Pritko stays in to block with a full house backfield, thus max protection. Big Jim gets behind right corner Mel Bleeker and safety Steve Van Buren is too late to make a play on the well-thrown pass by Waterfield. Benton stretches and makes a finger-tip catch inches above the ground and a Cleveland 7-0 lead.

Then, LeRoy Zimmerman rolls right and heaves a pass 60 yards in the air to a wide open Jack Ferrante who has gotten behind George Koch. They were tied at the half.

Van Buren did a little lugging the leather in this game, as Rattlesnake Matheson again makes open-field tackles, seemingly all day. Van Buren led the NFL in rushing that season, but that day gained only 22 yards on 14 carries.

 An exchange of punts brings about a new strategy as Zimmerman flips to Ferrante over and over again on short tosses between the linebackers. The drive culminates with Zimmerman crashing into the end zone behind fine block by Vic Sears.

The rest of the third quarter is much of the same with neither team moving the ball consistently. Cleveland's drive early in the 4th quarter runs out of gas, and again after an exchange of punts the Rams are backed up deep in their own territory on fourth down. The Eagle rush blocks the punt and takes over on the Cleveland seventeen yard-line.

Mel Bleeker carried three times inside the ten yard-line, and then, behind Bucko Kilroy's block gave Philadelphia a commanding 21-7 lead.

Reisz comes in at quarterback and gives to Gillette and who fumbles the ball to the Eagles. This time the Cleveland defense rose to the occasion and forced a punt.

With Waterfield back in at quarterback the Rams begin an attempt at a comeback but his errant pass is pilfered by Zimmerman who returns to the Ram twenty-one yard line. Left handed Allie Sherman is in at quarterback, and his mobility allows him to fire down the field to Flip McDonald for 21 yards and a touchdown. *An interesting side note from this game; Hickey would pass rush after Sherman, and fifteen years later Hickey would trade an aging Y.A. Tittle from the 49ers to Sherman's New York Giants.

A hustling Pat West nails McDonald at the wall outside the end zone. That caused fans, police, and players converge on the area until order is restored which, as you can see, too a while
Reisz will finish the game at quarterback for Cleveland and pitch a beauty down the middle to Harvey Jones for a 44-yard touchdown (Pro Football Reference incorrectly lists this as a Waterfield touchdown pass). The Philadelphia victory puts them back in the race with Washington, while the Ram loss gives hope to both Detroit and Green Bay.

After the Eagles game, the Rams stayed on the East Coast, and win in New York 21-17. They finally return home and take care of Green Bay 20-7 in a game where the Ram secondary intercepts 7 passes (three each by Waterfield and Gillette). Waterfield was a precision-passer at this point in the season as he completes 11 of 15 passes for 229 yards and 3 scores in the victory in Chicago over the Cardinals.

At five minutes to eleven in the morning on Thanksgiving Day as the captains met for the coin toss for the Western conference showdown between the Lions and Rams. Cleveland goes nowhere to begin the tilt but the Fenenbock's long pass on first st down is intercepted by Gillette.

Third down for the Rams and Benton runs an out pattern and catches the well-timed throw from Waterfield. Right corner Dave Ryan is late on the tackle, and the long-legged receiver gallops 46 yards to the Detroit seventeen yard line before Tassos and deShane can haul him down.

Gehrke sweeps right for 17 yards and a touchdown on the well-blocked play (again PFR there is an error as the run was not 23 yards).

Hickey puts pressure on Fenenbock, but the agile tailback escapes and fires over the middle. The tipped ball is intercepted by Matheson. Cleveland cannot capitalize as Damon Tassos intercepts and returns 22 yards to the Ram twenty-two.

Jack Matheson then drops a sure touchdown pass, and Detroit has to punt and that is followed by a Cleveland punt and Andy Farkas returned the kick to the Cleveland forty-nine before Pritko can make the tackle. On the ensuing drive, Fenenbock bounces off tacklers, and as he runs to the Ram seven before the ever-hustling Steve Pritko brings him down from behind. Lions used an unbalanced single-wing formation as Bob Westfall scores from the three and the score is knotted at 7.

When Detroit has the ball next coach Gus Dorais uses one of his classic plays as fullback Westfall lofts a pass up the sideline to tailback Fenenbock for 30 yards. Gehrke then intercepts deep in Ram territory to quell the drive. His 14-yard return puts the ball on the Cleveland thirty, and Waterfield who has by this time in the season built a synergy with Benton fires to him down the middle on a crossing route. On the pass defensive back Chuck DeShane goes for the ball and missed and it was a touchdown for the Rams.

Dick Weber entered the game for Detroit on the next drive and is very inaccurate on his passes. The Lions punt, and in the next Rams drive Benton makes a brilliant diving catch for 31 yards to put the ball on the Detroit forty-three. Waterfield then rolled right and lofted the ball deep to Benton for 38 yards to the Lion one yard line. Waterfield bootlegs beautifully and Cleveland leads 21-7.

Four minutes remain in the half and the resilient Lions run a reverse on the kickoff. Weber again misfires with Mo Scarry intercepting in Cleveland territory on his deep zone drop.

In the third quarter and Gehrke records his second interception of the day and returns to midfield. Waterfield again finds Benton open; this time on a crossing route for 32 yards to the Lion sixteen. Again Tassos and DeShane make the tackle. Detroit staves off the Rams with a fumble recovery, but a short punt after the offense went nowhere had Cleveland in striking distance again.

The film shows the Lions tried to align and take away Benton but that move leaves Pritko is wide open in the end zone on his corner pattern and a Cleveland lead of 28-7.

Nine minutes left in the 3rd quarter, and the Rams are driving again when the get the ball. Linebacker Damon Tassos makes a one-handed interception inside the five-yard line.

In the fourth quarter  no. 51 Dick Booth makes a spectacular and miraculous catch of a long pass, and trundles into the end zone allowing that the Lions could make a game of it. The Lions next drive, though, ends with a fumble recovered by Gil Bouley.

Cleveland, now staying on the ground, cannot keep the ball. One of the best match-ups of the game is between center Mo Scarry and middle guard Bill Radovich during this sequence of plays. Farkas returns the Cleveland punt to the forty-six-yard line. Fenenbock, on a wing reverse, sweeps right and gained 26 yards to the twenty. Anvil Andy Farkas then gains 23 to the three-yard line. Right end Ed Frutig delays after his down block and is open in the end zone for the touchdown as Detroit narrows the gap to seven.

Two minutes then remained but Cleveland recovers Westfall's onside kick. Cleveland is now the Western conference champion! The Rams dispatch Boston 20-7 to finish 9-1 as Waterfield again has an excellent day passing.
Waterfield in the 1948.
James Sulecki details the Championship game so well there is no need for me to do so. Sammy Baugh won a championship as a rookie in 1937 and in 1945 faced a rookie in the title game under arctic conditions. What does stand out are the passing stats for these two T-formation quarterbacks during the campaign of 1945. Baugh played in all ten games of the season and his passer rating in the eight Redskin victories is an amazing 123.8! Cleveland receivers, led by Benton, average 18.7 yards a catch for the last eight games of the year as Waterfield truly was a difference maker for Adam Walsh and the Rams.

Waterfield was voted the NFL MVP as a rookie and was awarded the Joe Carr Trophy. Ask yourself how many rookie quarterbacks were both a starter on an NFL championshio team and also the NFL MVP and led his team the the NFL's bext record?

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