On Christmas Eve 1950, in wind chill that made the temperature feel close to zero, one of the greatest football games in NFL history was played between the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns. The nearly forgotten championship featured two revolutionary offenses, 12 future Hall of Fame players, one of the greatest coaches in league history … and plenty of pre-game intrigues.
Would the Browns, who had won the past four championships in the rival All-American Football Conference, win the title in their first season in the NFL? In December 1949, the Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts were absorbed by the NFL after the AAFC folded.
Could the Rams, who featured one of the greatest offenses in NFL history, win the championship in the city they once called home? After beginning as the Cleveland Rams in 1937, the franchise moved to Los Angeles shortly after winning the 1945 NFL title. The Rams remain the only NFL team to relocate after winning a title.
But few of the nation's sports fans would witness a game NFL commissioner Bert Bell called afterward the "greatest...I have ever seen." The 1950 championship, played before 29,751 shivering fans in the 81,000-seat Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, wasn't nationally televised. The game was blacked out in Cleveland and Los Angeles and only available on radio in each city. The 1951 NFL title game—also between the Rams and Browns—would become the first shown on TV coast-to-coast.
Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams Feature Terrific Offenses
Co-founded by Paul Brown, the Cleveland Browns were ground zero for football-reshaping innovations. Game film, playbooks and full-time assistant coaches were among the legendary head coach’s many contributions to professional football. His Browns had a 47-4-3 record in the AAFC, but skepticism surfaced regarding the team's NFL prospects.
“The worst team in our league could beat the best team in theirs,” Washington owner George Preston Marshall said of the AAFC in 1949.
Eager to expose the Browns as a fraudulent dynasty, the NFL matched them against the Philadelphia Eagles in a highly anticipated Saturday night standalone game to start the 1950 season. In 1949, the reigning NFL champions shut out the Rams in Los Angeles to win the NFL title.
“[The NFL] kind of wanted to puff their chest out early in that season,” says Jon Kendle, director of archives and football information for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “They wanted to showcase the Browns may have been the king of the hill in that other conference but that the National Football League was a different ballgame.”
On September 16, 1950, however, the Browns walloped the Eagles, 35-10, turning the Philadelphia-stationed “World Series of Professional Football” into a stage for Brown’s cutting-edge passing game. Browns quarterback Otto Graham threw for 346 yards, nearly tripling the Eagles’ passing yardage (118). This irked Philadelphia coach Greasy Neale, who said afterward that Brown would make "a better basketball coach because all he does is put the ball in the air."
Three months later, the Browns beat the Eagles, 13-7, without completing a pass.
While Brown deployed a quick passing attack, the Rams assembled a remarkable scoring machine. More reliant on deep passing than Cleveland, Los Angeles averaged 38.8 points per game—a record that still stands—and 38 passes per game, far ahead of Cleveland’s 22. Future Hall of Fame receiver Tom Fears led the NFL with 84 receptions; no other pass-catcher eclipsed 54 that season.
The Browns employed the NFL’s rushing leader, fullback Marion Motley, but the season-ending matchup presented a storied array of passing-game talent. The Rams, who had a 9-3 record in the regular season, and Browns (10-2) each featured two Hall of Fame-bound receivers—Fears and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch for Los Angeles; Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie for Cleveland—and three future Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Graham and the Rams’ two-QB setup of Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin).
The teams also had five Black players apiece—including Hall of Famers Motley and guard Bill Willis (Cleveland)—a representation that dwarfed the NFL’s other 11 teams at the time.
Browns Are Three-Point Favorite in 1950 Championship Game
In the championship game, the Browns—three-point favorites, in part, because of the frigid weather—and Rams set a postseason record for combined pass attempts (65). Waterfield’s 82-yard opening-drive touchdown pass to Glenn Davis set another league record.
But a fourth-quarter comeback served as the game’s lasting on-field legacy. Because the Browns botched a second-quarter extra-point try, the Rams held a 28-20 advantage in the fourth. The two-score deficit put Brown’s team to a defining test.
Graham orchestrated two scoring drives on a frozen mess of a field, firing midrange sideline passes—including a 14-yard touchdown toss to Rex Bumgardner to cut the Rams’ lead to 28-27. Following a Rams punt, Graham engineered a 64-yard drive that resembled a modern two-minute drill. This set up Lou Groza’s go-ahead, a 16-yard field goal that gave Cleveland a 30-28 lead with 20 seconds left.
Rams first-year head coach Joe Stydahar summoned Van Brocklin off the bench for a last-ditch effort. "The Dutchman" had suffered a broken rib in the Rams’ playoff win over the Bears, but told his coach he had one or two heaves in him.
Attempting what amounted to a Hail Mary from the Rams’ 47-yard line, Van Brocklin overshot Davis on a pass that sailed into Brown's defensive back Warren Lahr’s arms. Davis escorted Lahr out of Cleveland’s end zone from the 10-yard line, creating one of the stranger endings in playoff history.
“Guys were holding their breath. They didn’t know if [officials] were going to rule it an interception and a touchback or a safety,” Kendle says. “… There wasn’t instant replay back then; they weren’t going up to the booth to get New York’s stance on the play.”
Graham said decades later officials could have ruled the play a safety, which would have tied the score at 30 and forced the first-ever overtime period in an NFL game. But the officials determined Lahr’s momentum carried him into the end zone for a touchback.
Both teams were praised for their play. “In Los Angeles, we probably have the finest personnel any professional club ever boasted," said Bell, the NFL commissioner. "But in the Cleveland Browns, we probably have the most intensively coached team in history.”
Lack of Audience Limits 1950 NFL Title Game Historically
Following Cleveland’s win, a New York sports writer called the game "the most wide open, pass-filled and blood-tingling pro football championship in history." Brown declared there “probably never will be” a game like it.
In 1958, however, a nationally televised championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts was dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Media in 2019 voted that game, won by the Colts with a dramatic final drive led by Johnny Unitas, as the NFL’s best ever. The Rams-Browns 1950 championship game was relegated to 32nd.
“I think the 1950 game, had that been on national television, they may have written the same things about this game,” Kendle says of a game that featured four touchdown passes of more than 25 yards. “Just because it was a similar type of exciting game and there were probably even more fireworks during this game than the 1958 championship game.”
The Rams and Browns met for the championship in 1951 and 1955, Los Angeles winning the rematch and Cleveland taking the third game–both in Los Angeles. But the 1950 game had a lasting impact on the participants.
In the Rams' locker room afterward, Waterfield stared into space while Fears, slumped on a bench, kicked at the floor. Meanwhile, the Browns said a pre-Christmas prayer and celebrated an epic win.
"Did you ever see one as rugged as that?" said Brown.