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When the Browns threw zero passes - and beat the Eagles

The Jan. 16 NFL playoff doubleheader began in New England with 11 consecutive Tom Brady throws and ended in the Arizona desert with a series of spectacular pass plays.

The Jan. 16 NFL playoff doubleheader began in New England with 11 consecutive Tom Brady throws and ended in the Arizona desert with a series of spectacular pass plays.

Overall, during that pair of pitch-and-catch victories by the Patriots and Cardinals, the four quarterbacks combined to throw the ball an astonishing 177 times.

In the NFL of 2016, those games were hardly aberrations.

The just-completed regular season was the pass-happiest in history. Teams averaged a record 35.7 throws a game, which led to league passing records for average completions (22.5), yards (243.8), and touchdowns (1.64).

In a sport in which rules have tilted drastically toward the aerial game, it's difficult now to remember when champions ran to glory. It's harder still to conceive of a game in which one team - the winning team, no less - failed to throw a pass.

But that's exactly what took place on Dec. 3, 1950, when the host Browns defeated the two-time-champion Eagles, 13-7, without putting a ball in the air.

Though it had happened four times previously, it hasn't reoccurred in the subsequent 65 years and probably never will. What caused it to happen on that long-ago Sunday in Cleveland was a quirky combination of bad weather; sound football; and, especially, revenge.

"He," Cleveland coach Paul Brown said afterward of bulletin-board comments by his Eagles counterpart, Greasy Neale, "did get our men steamed up."

Another league?

The historic game had its origins two months earlier.

On Sept. 16, the Eagles and Browns met before 71,237 fans at Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium, a crowd drawn there by a matchup being dubbed football's "First World Series."

Neale's Eagles had won the previous two NFL championships. The Browns, meanwhile, had captured all four titles in the just-shuttered All-American Football Conference and were one of three AAFC teams joining the NFL that season.

Despite Cleveland's success, the older league looked disdainfully at its competitor. "Another league?" Redskins owner George Marshall had said. "I did not realize there was another league."

Neale, the crusty, chatty Eagles coach, didn't believe any NFL team, let alone one from the AAFC, could play with his squad.

"This is the best team ever put together," he said that summer. "Who is there to beat us?"

The Browns, as it turned out, manhandled those Eagles in the ballyhooed 1950 opener. Otto Graham threw for three touchdowns and 346 yards in the 35-10 rout. Cleveland, said the New York Times, was "better, stronger, smarter."

Afterward, a chastened Neale remarked that Brown would make "a better basketball coach because all he does is put the ball in the air."

Perhaps if Neale had studied film as closely as his counterpart, he would have kept his mouth closed. The Browns had a balanced offense.

"People think of the Browns with Otto Graham as pass-happy, but they ran," said David Cohen, a former Inquirer copy editor who has written a book on those teams, Rugged and Enduring: The Eagles, The Browns and 5 Years of Pro Football. "[Their fullback] Marion Motley led the NFL [in rushing] that year."

The Browns were having little trouble in their NFL debut season. They were 8-2 when the 6-4 Eagles traveled to Cleveland for the Dec. 3 rematch.

Knowing Brown and his team had bristled at Neale's comments and that the Eagles were eager to atone for an embarrassing loss, newspapers played up the angle.

"Revenge-Minded Eagles," read a headline in the Chicago Tribune, "Out for Blood."

Neale, who apparently couldn't help himself, gave the Browns more ammunition that week. If the Eagles couldn't win a third title, he said, he hoped the Giants, then tied with Cleveland, would.

That Sunday at Municipal Stadium, 37,490 fans braved awful weather to see the rematch. One brought a hand-lettered sign. "Nuts To You, Neale!" it read.

The rainy and cold conditions made Cleveland's field tricky to navigate. Still, Philadelphia quarterback Tommy Thompson, perhaps looking to surprise the Browns or maybe because star running back Steve Van Buren was banged up, came out throwing.

On the game's third play, a Thompson pass was intercepted by the Browns' Warren Lahr. He returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.

'The boys were mad'

In the slippery conditions, Cleveland was content to defend its lead and play for field position. Horace Gillom punted 12 times, often on third down. Lou Groza added 35- and 43-yard field goals in the second and third quarters, respectively.

The Eagles' only points came with barely more that a minute to play, on a 2-yard run by Jim Parmer.

The stats made it seem a mismatch. Motley's 11-yard run in the second quarter was Cleveland's only first down. In addition to zero passing yards, the Browns ran for only 69. All-Pro Motley finished with 12 carries for 16 yards.

The Eagles, meanwhile, had 10 first downs, 81 passing and 86 rushing yards. Thompson threw 23 times, completing eight. But he also had two interceptions, and those, along with two lost Eagles fumbles, negated their statistical edge.

"That Gillom did a great job of punting in the mud," said Neale. "He kept us in our own territory."

Later accounts contend Brown, eager to prove a point to Neale, had ordered Graham not to throw. They overlook the fact that the quarterback did try one pass, a completion that was wiped out by a motion penalty.

Revenge issues aside, the run-only strategy was likely a logical by-product of the conditions that led to four Philadelphia turnovers.

"It wasn't some weird kamikaze stunt by Paul Brown to avoid throwing the ball," said Cohen.

In any event, Brown quieted Neale and the rest of the NFL. His Browns captured that 1950 title and appeared in the next five championship games, winning two more. Soon, NFL coaches were aping his scientific approach while trying just as hard not to mimic Neale's talkativeness.

"Neale was shooting off his bazooka," Brown said after the game. "His comments were bad for football. But he did get our men steamed up. [Captain] Tony Adamle called a secret huddle before the kickoff. The boys were mad."