If football had one player who we deemed The Natural, the one to whom the game seemed to come most easily and who mastered so many different disciplines and who might be regarded as the greatest player who ever lived, it would be Sammy Baugh.
The former star tailback at Texas Christian, who then helped invent the modern quarterback position with the NFL's Redskins from 1937 to 1952, died Wednesday night at his Texas home at age 94.
Sure, picking the greatest football player ever is a theoretical exercise and an impossible question to answer with any final authority.
Jim Brown might be the most obvious answer. He dominated the game like nobody before him and his production stands the test of time. He probably could have done more, too. But he was a product of the two-platoon era, he played only offense in the NFL, and we'll never know what might have been.
Brown was physically gifted, to be sure, and he dominated other sports, too. Some say he's the greatest lacrosse player who ever lived, in addition to being football's greatest running back. But judged solely by his exploits on the gridiron, he was not The Natural.
Baugh, then, is the surest answer, an all-purpose player who not only could do it all, but who did do it all, and who did it all as well as anybody in history.
He's one of the great passers in history, with numbers that stand the test of time. He was a dominant defensive back, with numbers that stand the test of time. And he's one of the great punters in history, again with numbers that stand the test of time.
Offense, defense and special teams – Slingin' Sammy Baugh was a master of every discipline, a true Da Vinci of the gridiron.
Baugh was a Texas schoolboy phenom, born in the football-rich town of Temple, which later produced Mean Joe Greene.
He landed at TCU in the mid-1930s, sparking the greatest period of football success in school history. As a junior, he led the Horned Frogs to a 12-1 record, a victory over LSU in the 1936 Sugar Bowl and to a claim to the mythical national title. The lone loss came at the hands of Southern Methodist, in a battle for the Southwest Conference title that famed sportswriter Grantland Rice called "one of the greatest football games ever played."
Yes, Rice had a flair for hyperbole. Notre Dame's Four Horsemen, for example, were not "outlined against blue-gray October sky" as Rice looked down on the game from his vantage point up in the press box.
So, given this history, Rice may or may not have seen one of the greatest football games ever played that day in Texas. But we do know he witnessed probably the greatest football player who ever played that day.
Consider that the Horned Frogs had never won a bowl game before Baugh arrived on the scene. Then they won two bowl games with Baugh their star player, following their Sugar Bowl victory of 1936 with a win in the very first Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1937. TCU spent 60 years after Baugh's departure before winning two more bowl games.
Baugh exploded onto the pro football scene as a rookie in 1937, leading the Redskins to their first NFL championship. In the title game, he passed for a then-record 358 yards and three third-quarter touchdowns to lift the Redskins to a 28-21 come-from-behind victory over the Bears.
To put those 358 yards into perspective, remember that the single-season passing record at the time was just 1,239 yards. Baugh produced more than one quarter of the season record – in fact, nearly one third of it – in a single game, and a championship game no less. It was a Ruthian performance that, compared with the standards of the day, we'll never see again from a passer.
Baugh was also a key player in one of the greatest upsets in NFL history. The Bears entered the 1942 championship game with an 11-0 record and they still stand today as the single most dominant team in NFL history, scoring 376 points, while surrendering just 84.
Yet Washington, a stout 10-1 in 1942, carried the day, 14-6, thanks largely to a Baugh TD pass that lifted the Redskins to a 7-6 lead, and to a huge goal line stand, with Baugh on defense.
But Slingin' Sammy certainly took his lumps in his career.
Baugh was on the receiving end of the biggest beating in NFL history, as the Bears smacked the Redskins, 73-0, in the 1940 championship battle that is credited with ushering in the era of the T formation and the modern passing game – an era and a game that Baugh would soon master.
He took the beating like a man. In a famous story about Baugh, he was asked by a reporter if a dropped TD pass early in the game might have made a difference.
"Yes," Baugh said. "We would have lost 73-7."
Baugh also played the role of goat in the 1945 championship battle against the Cleveland Rams.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame recently wrote about that game on Dec. 16, the 63rd anniversary of the contest. According to the HOF, Baugh dropped back to pass from his own end zone, but his throw hit the crossbar – remember, the goal posts stood on the goal line back then, not in the back of the end zone like they do today. By the rules of the day, the Rams were awarded a safety for the pass that hit the cross bar. The two points proved the difference as Baugh's Redskins lost, 15-14.
Besides being a consistent presence in championship football, Baugh produced numbers that continue to rank among the best ever. In fact, he's responsible for not one but two of the greatest individual seasons in NFL history.
In 1943, he became football's first Triple Crown winner
– leading the league in passing (1,754 yards), punting (45.9 yards per boot) and, as a defensive back, INTs (11).
The picks are the most remarkable figure from that remarkable season. After all, he made those 11 INTs in just 10 games – one of the only players with more picks than games in a season.
But here's another way to look at it: Washington's opponents that year attempted just 193 passes. So Baugh picked off nearly 6 percent of every pass attempted against his team – and that's assuming he was on the field for every defensive down.
To put it in modern terms, when teams average about 500 pass attempts per year, it would be like a defender hauling in 28 or 29 INTs in a single season. But nobody comes close today. In fact, the last player to match Baugh's 11 picks in a season was Dallas defender Everson Walls back in the 16-game campaign of 1981. Nobody's done it since.
Baugh nearly duplicated his Triple Crown season of 1943 in 1945, when he again led the league in punting, while producing a passing season for the ages. His passer rating that year was 109.9, a mark that has been surpassed just six times in the 63 years since, and four of those players are named Manning, Brady, Young and Montana – guys playing with modern rules that gave them every advantage in the book.
Baugh posted his 109.9 passer rating in a year in which the league-wide rating was 47.4. It was much like Babe Ruth hitting 60 home runs in 1927, when entire American League rosters were hitting 26 and 28 home runs.
Baugh also completed 70.3 percent of his passes in 1945, a mark surpassed just once in the 63 seasons since (70.6 by Ken Anderson with Cincy in the nine-game 1982 season). On defense, he nabbed four interceptions.
Again, the performances were Ruthian in size and scope compared with anything that came before them and much of which has come after them. The knock on Baugh is that he dominated a watered-down league depleted by service in World War II, which is true. But remember, Baugh dominated before the war and still after the war.
Punting was the other great skill Baugh performed better than just about anybody ever. His career punting average of 45.1 stood as the NFL record for more than half a century, until current Oakland punter Shane Lechler surpassed it last year. Baugh, however, still holds the single-season standard, booting each kick he made in 1940 an average of 51.4 yards. It's a mark that may stand forever.
But the stats and numbers are only part of the story.
Baugh was also a football revolutionary as one of the first modern quarterbacks – a guy who took direct snaps from up under center and who handled almost all the passing duties. Before that time, in the era of single-wing football and all its various incarnations, any back might have taken the snap – usually from what we'd now call the shotgun. And any back might have passed, on the rare occasions that they did pass.
Baugh's Chicago contemporary, Sid Luckman, generally gets most of the credit as the first great T-formation (i.e., modern) quarterback, and perhaps deservedly so. After all, he played the position first, and his passing numbers over his career were, in many cases, better than Baugh's.
But it seems they needed each other to change the way the game was played. They were both the big stars of their day, and both so successful that proved the viability of this new form of football and paved the way for the modern offensive game we know today.
But Baugh helped invent the modern QB position while still excelling at the old-school-style football, too: punting and playing defense as well as anybody ever.
He was the pro football performer who did it all, a Da Vinci of the gridiron who mastered every discipline, and changed the way we thought of the game. Baugh was and always will be the Natural.