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Rock of the Redskins, Arm of the NFL

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, December 19, 2008

Sammy Baugh, a man whose face is almost completely forgotten but whose legend is still vivid generations after he retired, is the single star that created the Redskins brand.

When 90,000 people gather in FedEx Field on Sunday to see Washington play the Eagles, please think of Baugh, who died Wednesday at 94, as the founder, the inspiration and the symbol of everything that is burgundy and gold.

The five world championship games, and two world titles, in 1937 and '42, to which he led the Redskins began the NFL epidemic in Washington. Baugh is the root, everything else is branch, or more recently perhaps, twig.

For the current Redskins, who think they get the most out of themselves, this is perhaps all they need to know about Slingin' Sammy and what was meant by the word "work" when he emerged in the 1930s. Baugh would not leave practice until he had completed 100 passes in a row. Now the Redskins nag "stars" to come to practice at all.

My father arrived in Washington in Baugh's rookie season and caught Redskins fever. To me, he embodied the local mania, the way one star athlete and the teams he led can define the habits of a family for decades. My dad cared for no other sport, yet was a Redskins fan 57 seasons. I never heard him curse except when he hit his thumb with a hammer or when a Redskins quarterback, some Jurgensen or Rypien, someone not named Baugh, threw an interception.

Whenever anybody tells me that Vince Lombardi's one-year arrival in 1969 or George Allen's one Super Bowl team or Joe Gibbs's dynasty gave birth to this city's Redskins fanaticism, I know better. The late Shirley Povich didn't have to tell me (though he did). It was Baugh. He brought not just victories but thrills and ignited Washington with a passion even the worst Redskins periods can barely diminish.

In my father's house, all Redskins quarterbacks had a place of respect, yet none was ever compared to Baugh -- this unseen but vividly imagined man who wore No. 33, averaged 49 yards a punt for years, passed more accurately than any human and once intercepted more than one pass a game for a full season.

To this day Baugh remains, even in Washington, that purest of legends, the player who exists only in the retelling of his deeds from parents to children. How many have even seen him in the flesh? Compared to Baugh, Joe DiMaggio was a publicity hound. Better, perhaps, that he retired quietly to his 7,600-acre ranch in Texas, to his 5 children, 11 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, and almost never showed up back here in his "second home" to take bows.

Still, Baugh's enormous stature, as the last living member of the first class inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, contrasts with his near invisibility in a celebrity age. Every decade or so, reporters would seek him out for an update-on-Sam story. They always found him a gentleman, a fellow with an anecdote punctuated by a single "hell" or "damn" and a delicious demonstration of restraint.

In my basement, I have 20 sports pictures. My friends recognize Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and the rest. But one face is a complete mystery to everyone. The black-and-white photo is of a football bench with four players in uniform intently watching the action. Behind them is a packed grandstand. Sitting on the bench among the players, dressed in a classy camel's hair coat, wearing a string tie and an elegant white cowboy hat, sits a man with a lean chiseled face and a big cigar in the center of his mouth.

"Who's that?" I ask. There's never even a guess. "He's the greatest football player of the first half of the 20th century," I hint. Silence. "He's the greatest Redskin ever."

Oh, Sammy Baugh! They all say instantly. Everybody still knows the man who did not invent but unleashed the potential of the forward pass, transforming the NFL.

Yet few, at least these days, understand how completely Baugh modernized the NFL, turning the forward pass from an ugly oblong oddity into the soaring signature of the sport. What Babe Ruth's home runs did for baseball in the early 1920s, Baugh's bombs did for the NFL in the late '30's. Ruth was more Bunyanesque, more outside the parameters of previous imagination. But Baugh wasn't too far behind.

In 1936, the season before Baugh arrived, the average NFL team scored 11.9 points and completed 5.6 passes per game. The NFL completion percentage: 36.5. The entire sport threw only 67 scoring passes to 216 interceptions. A team passed out of third-down necessity or for trickery.

Then came Baugh.

Into this thudding world, where someone named Arnie Herber held such passing records as there were, the 6-foot-2 Texan, who could throw from all angles and drolly asked "which eye" he should hit his receivers in, was a revelation.

As a rookie, starting only five games, he broke the NFL completion record with 81. By 1940, he was accomplishing the inconceivable, completing 62.7 percent of his passes.

For accuracy, Baugh was two generations ahead of his time. His career completion percentage of 56.5, much of it done with a round-ended ball that Eli Manning might have trouble forcing into a spiral, is comparable to Sonny Jurgensen's career mark of 57.1 and better than individual seasons, within the last 10 years, of such Redskins starters as Trent Green, Tony Banks, Shane Matthews, Patrick Ramsey, Mark Brunell and, in his second season, Jason Campbell.

Before Baugh came, only one man ever passed for 1,000 yards in a season. In 1947, Baugh completed 210 passes for 2,938 yards -- both then records by miles. If Ruth quadrupled the prevailing view of how many home runs were possible in a season, then Baugh tripled the notion of how much yardage a team could gain through the air. Just as important, others followed or imitated him, especially Sid Luckman in 1943 and Otto Graham in 1947.

The range of Baugh's skill is almost incomprehensible now. His career punting average was more than 45 yards, but from 1940 through 1942 it was almost 50 yards (49.5). Yes, they liked to quick-kick then. But 50 yards is still 50 yards.

In 1943, he intercepted 11 passes in just 10 games. How good is that? No NFL player has intercepted 11 passes since 1981 and the last man to have more than an interception per game was Night Train Lane in 1952.

Those who saw Baugh in his prime have dwindled to a precious few. We must take the word, across time, of relatives and elders, as well as a few old newsreels where his passes look long, sweet and straight over the shoulder.

We may not know his face when we see it in a photo: ears and nose prominent, cheeks slightly sunken, deep lines in his face before 40 and a middle-distance gaze in his dark eyes as focused as any hawk.

But, as long as people know the Redskins, they will know Sammy Baugh. He's the Texan who branded them.

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