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Getting In a Word For Slingin' Sammy

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, December 19, 2008

Too often the discussion of Greatest QB Ever begins with Joe Montana.

Occasionally, the pick is one of his contemporaries, John Elway. If somebody closer to 60 years old is in the room there might be some substantive examination of John Unitas. Only if there's a real student of pro football in the mix will Otto Graham's name be tossed.

Hardly ever does the discussion roll back far enough to include Slingin' Sammy Baugh, the greatest Redskin ever, without question, and almost certainly the first great passing quarterback in pro football history. That's because Baugh, who lived to the age of 94, outkicked his coverage, as the old coaches like to say. Baugh lived longer than most of the people who adequately chronicle his extraordinary career. Right now, the 1958 NFL Championship game, a.k.a "The Greatest Game Ever Played" is being celebrated as the beginning of modern professional football.

Baugh retired six years before that game was played. He retired before games were routinely broadcast on television. You have to be approaching 70 years old to have seen him play for the Washington Redskins, and it almost had to be in person.

Luckily, Baugh didn't outkick all his coverage. Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films and probably the smartest, most unbiased football historian anywhere, recalled yesterday in a telephone conversation the very first NFL game he attended.

"I was 9 years old and my father [Ed Sabol, founder of NFL Films] took me to Shibe Park in Philadelphia to see the Eagles play the Redskins. It was 1951. My dad said: 'See the man wearing Number 33? That's Sammy Baugh.' That's all he said," Steve Sabol said.

"It was like pointing out the Empire State Building, the Washington Monument or Niagara Falls. 'That's Sammy Baugh.' That's all that needed to be said to anyone who followed pro football in the 1940s and early 1950s."

Sabol isn't exaggerating one bit. The inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1963, included George Halas, Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Ernie Nevers, Mel Hein, Curly Lambeau and Don Hutson among 17 charter members. And only Halas and Baugh were selected unanimously. The history of pro football simply cannot be written without the story of Slingin' Sammy.

The nickname may have come from his prowess on the pitching mound, but it fit the way he would play the quarterback position. Benny Friedman threw the football down the field in 1928 for the NFL Detroit Wolverines and 1929 for the New York Giants, but Baugh was the first to play the position as we know it today. "Baugh demonstrated," Sabol said, "that the forward pass could be an effective weapon instead of an act of desperation."

Sabol, in poring over game film through the years, discovered something else about Baugh that was radical in the 1940s. "He was the first guy we ever saw on film who passed the ball on first down," Sabol said.

We know, though didn't then, that Baugh also was working at a professional disadvantage (and not just because the football of the 1940s was a lot rounder than the one guys sling around today).

Unlike the quarterbacks most often mentioned in the "Greatest Ever" discussions, Baugh never played for a great coach. "Sid Luckman," Sabol said, "played for George Halas. Otto Graham played for Paul Brown.

Montana played for Bill Walsh. Unitas played for Weeb Ewbank and Don Shula. Elway played for Dan Reeves and Mike Shanahan. But Baugh played for 10 coaches. He played for guys who quit in the middle of the season, who were fired in the middle of the season. Ray Flaherty was probably the best coach he played for. He had no continuity. He never had great teams around him."

No wonder Baugh, facing more than his share of third and 15s, had to rely more heavily than he wanted on the quick kick, often from the tailback in the single wing, which certainly inflated his punting average of 50-plus yards per kick. Still, Baugh led the NFL in passing, interceptions grabbed and punting. Imagine how many millions a player who could do all those things would command today . . . not that he'd be allowed. But Baugh was such a solid tackler he'd often be the first downfield to slam somebody after throwing an interception. "Unitas would do that," Sabol said. "Baugh played safety. He had that tough, prairie strength. He was a leathery kind of guy."

Certainly, he must have been that, among other things, to live such a long, full life. I felt like I got to know more about Baugh than any of my contemporaries because two of the sportswriters who have had a disproportionate effect on me, Shirley Povich and Dan Jenkins, knew Baugh well. Tom Boswell and I would so happily give up our space in The Post today for one, 1,500-word essay/tribute to Baugh by Shirley.

Sabol had come to know Baugh that way, though after his 16-year career was over. Sabol told the story of actor Robert Duval going down to Texas for a visit, ostensibly to study Baugh's manner. Duval then patterned the role of Gus McCrae in "Lonesome Dove" after Slingin' Sammy. Baugh's death Wednesday night hit Sabol hard both professionally and personally. Baugh made for a fascinating interview subject, but he was also the first football player of note Sabol had ever watched in person.

The only autograph Sabol has in his office at NFL Films is one from Baugh, on a Redskins helmet. Sabol has a deep fondness for pro football, but an unwavering objectivity when it comes to players and their contributions to the game. "When you're talking about the greatest players ever," he said, "you've got to start with Jim Brown. Jerry Rice is in that conversation. . . . So is Sammy Baugh."

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