Sammy Baugh: 1914-2008
One is the feast-or-famine principle, the fact that the years of feast (late '30s through early '50s, 1982-1991) will always be followed by an equal or larger era of famine (the '50s and '60s, 1993-doomsday).
One is that the #2 quarterback is always more popular in this town than the #1, as long as #2 hasn't played recently. One thing the Redskins unequivocally do better than any other NFL franchise is quarterback controversy: Jurgensen vs. Kilmer, Williams vs. Schroeder, Schroeder vs. Rypien, Shuler vs. Frerotte, Johnson vs. George, Danny (shudder) Wuerffel vs. a lick of sanity, Brunell vs. Campbell.
One is that only the number 33 will ever be retired. We love our #7, our #44, our #81, our #42 and #43, and most recently our #28 and we understand that we will never see those numbers on any Redskin player's back even though they have not been officially retired. We understand that #33 is special, that there is a reason no other team of even half the Redskins' age only has one retired number.
The other thing we understand is that #33, Sammy Baugh, will live forever.
Slingin' Sammy Baugh died Wednesday evening of kidney failure and double pneumonia. It is telling that neither one of those ailments was enough to take him down independently, that both had to consipre to attack simultaneously, while he was in a weakened state of Alzheimer's and dementia. And 94 years old.
Redskins owner George Preston Marshall brought Baugh from Texas Christian University to Washington in 1937 to lead a team that had just moved from Boston and was desperately in need of an identity in their new town. Marshall insisted that Baugh buy a cowboy hat and boots to wear for public appearances, despite the fact that the quarterback was a small-town kid with no connection to ranches whatsoever. Baugh would eventually end up retiring to a ranch in Texas after his playing career; ironically, the greatest Redskin of all time would be turned into a cowboy by the team's owner.
And when I say that Sammy Baugh was the greatest Redskin ever, I really mean that I genuinely believe him to be the greatest football player of all time, who just happened to play for the Redskins.
Consider this: in an era when quarterbacks averaged three passes per game, Baugh won the 1937 NFL Championship game against the Bears by throwing for 335 yards and three touchdowns of 35, 55, and 78 yards. In his rookie season, no less. That's nothing short of a 2007 Tom Brady game, a 1999 Kurt Warner game, a 1983 Dan Marino game. As soon as he hit the league, Baugh was transforming it. He invented the forward passing game almost single-handedly from inside the huddle, on the fly.
Consider also: a three-way player, Baugh led the league one year in passing, punting, and defensive interceptions, the only NFL player to ever lead stats on offense, defense, and special teams in the same season--or ever. As a safety, he is still number three all-time for interceptions as a Redskin (31), despite having played in an era where quarterbacks were just starting to pass.
Consider third: he retired with a whopping 13 NFL records, and still holds two of them 56 years later. The two? Punting records. When pundits complain about Ray Guy not being in the Hall, that there are no punters in the Hall, I have to laugh: Hell yes there's a punter in the Hall of Fame. He just happens to be in there as a quarterback. And he was a fair sight better than Ray Guy.
Sammy Baugh was the last living member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural class. He was Babe Ruth. He was Michael Jordan. He was Wayne Gretzky.
He grew into an irascible old cuss who would have shared a hearty laugh at being called an irascible old cuss. Holding nothing but good-natured contempt for the modern game and its players, he separated himself from the pomp and circumstance of the modern NFL, but would occasionally allow himself to be interviewed well into his 80s. These films and transcripts are worth seeking out for their insight, unpredictability and sheer hilarity. The phrase "sharp as a tack" was invented to describe Sammy Baugh in his 80s.
Two-way players are almost extinct now, though Brian Mitchell remains one of my favorite players of all time, a threat on special teams and out of the backfield as receiver, running back, or quarterback. And let's not forget the recent three-way glory of Patriots receiver/returner/defensive back Troy Brown. That was freaking awesome.
Any discussion about the greatest football player of all time must begin and possibly end with two-way players, with special consideration given to those who go all three. As much as I respect great players like Unitas, Jim Brown, Rice, Payton, and Montana, I'd like to see any of them punt for a 50+ yard season average. (You think punting's easy? Try it.) I'd like to see them tackle. I'd like to see how fast Rice is if he's playing all the snaps on defense. I'd like to see how accurate Montana is if he has to deliver ball-jarring hits.
Sammy Baugh is the greatest Redskin of all time, and the greatest football player ever. #33, the cowboy Redskin, has moved on to a bigger, more beautiful ranch. We will never see his like again.
Washington Post article: "The First of the Gunslingers."