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On This Date in Sports December 16, 1945: Rams Leave with Title

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Two years after a one-year hiatus due to a player shortage, the Cleveland Rams beat the Washington Redskins 15-14 to win the NFL Championship at Municipal Stadium. The result proved controversial as a safety in the first quarter led to a rule change as Sammy Baugh's pass out of his own end zone hit the goal post leading to two points for Cleveland. It would be the final game for the Rams in Cleveland as they moved to Los Angeles a month later.

The Cleveland Rams were forced to shut down for the 1943 season as they did not have enough players to field a team due to manpower shortages from World War II. They had posted a mediocre record of 5-6 in 1942. The Rams started strong in 1944, winning their first three games, but won just one of their final seven games and finished 4-6. Not much was expected for the Cleveland Rams with their new coach Adam Walsh. However, they jumped out to a 4-0 start beating the Chicago Bears twice. After a 28-14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Rams rebounded to win their final five games, finishing with a record of 9-1 as quarterback Bob Waterfield was named MVP. 

With a passing attack led by Slingin' Sammy Baugh, the Washington Redskins were one of the premier franchises in the NFL. They and the New York Giants dominated the era in the Eastern Divison. The Redskins had won the Eastern Division three out of four seasons, between 1940-1943. Each time they faced the Chicago Bears in the NFL Championship, winning in 1942. After a disappointing 6-3-1 season in 1944, Washington was back with a vengeance in 1945, posting a record of 8-2 for coach Dudley DeGroot. 

Hoping to draw more fans, the game was played at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, instead of the smaller League Park where the Rams played their home games in 1945. Despite the Rams' success on the field, they had struggled financially all season. It would be a bitterly cold day by the lake, as 32,178 fans braved the sub-zero temperatures to watch the NFL Championship Game. Trying to keep the field in playable shape, the field was covered in hay bales the week before the game. During the game, players on the sideline used the hay bales to stay warm as game time temps were -8F, the coldest championship game to date. 

The game would be a defensive struggle as neither team could get going in the frigid conditions. The Rams pinned the Redskins deep in their own territory in the first quarter, leading the first score of the game. Looking to get out of trouble, Sammy Baugh attempted a pass out of his own end zone. In an era when the goalposts were at the front of the end zone, Baugh had his pass hit and land in the end zone. At the time, such plays resulted in a safety giving the Rams a 2-0 lead. It would be a tough day for the Redskins' quarterback as he was knocked out of the game with bruised ribs in the second quarter. 

The Redskins would take the lead in the second quarter as Frank Filchock connected with Steve Bagarus on a 38-yard touchdown pass. The Rams offense would get on track just before halftime, as Jim Benton caught a seven-yard pass from Bob Waterfield. Waterfield's PAT was blocked but, after teetering on the crossbar, went over, giving Cleveland a 9-7 lead after two quarters. 

The Rams extended their lead to 15-7 on the first possession of the second half when Jim Gillette had a 44-yard touchdown catch, but Waterfield missed the extra point. The Redskins kept the pressure on Cleveland, scoring late in the third quarter when Bob Seymor caught an eight-yard pass from Filchock, capping a 95-yard drive. 

Down 15-14, the Redskins dominated the fourth quarter but could not get the ball into the end zone. Joe Aguirre missed two field goals that could have given Washington the lead, one that was 46, and the other was 31 yards in length. The Redskins would get one last shot in the final minute, but Albie Reisz picked off Frank Filchock to give the Rams the championship.

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Fans in Cleveland would not be able to enjoy the Rams' title as owner Dan Reeves announced that he was moving the team to Los Angeles one month later. The Rams would be replaced by the Cleveland Browns, who began play in the upstart All-American Football Conference in 1946. The Browns would dominate the AAFC, winning the championship in all four seasons that the league played before moving on to the NFL in 1950. After the season, the NFL changed the rule that cost Washington, ruling passes that hit the goalposts incomplete instead of a safety after heavy lobbying from Redskins' owner George Preston Marshall.