Redskins Hall Of Famer Sammy Baugh Dies At 94

One of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of professional football has died. Sammy Baugh, who played for the Washington Redskins, was 94. Nicknamed Slingin' Sammy, he transformed the quarterback position with his accuracy and long passing.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the first great pro football stars has died. Sammy Baugh, a former quarterback in the NFL, was 94 years old. He was a member of the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and when he was on the field, he did everything, as NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: One of the great quarterbacks in NFL history died in Texas on Wednesday night. And on the same night, the NFL lost the top defensive back and perhaps its best punter. This was no triple tragedy, however; all those skills were embodied in the same man, Sammy Baugh. He was known as Slingin' Sammy during an era when slingin' was not a sought-after skill.

Mr. JOE HORRIGAN (Vice President, Pro Football Hall of Fame): The passing play was one more of desperation than it was of strategy.

PESCA: Joe Horrigan is vice president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He says before 1937, the NFL had never seen an arm like Baugh's.

Mr. HORRIGAN: But, with his tremendous accuracy and his arm's strength and just his great all-around athleticism, it became a first option as opposed to an action of desperation.

PESCA: The impact of the lanky farm boy from Sweetwater, Texas, was immediate, says Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films.

Mr. STEVEN SABOL (President, NFL Films): He took the Redskins to the world championship as a rookie. He beat the Bears in a snowstorm, and it was the first time he ever even saw snow.

PESCA: Sabol went down to Rotan, Texas, to interview Baugh, who rarely traveled after he left football. It was there that he encountered a colorful storyteller, who personified a kind of easy wisdom, so much so that Robert Duvall studied Baugh is the basis for his character Gus McCrae in "Lonesome Dove," Casey Gus explaining ranching the way Baugh described what it takes to be a good quarterback.

Mr. SAMMY BAUGH (Retired Quarterback, Washington Redskins): When you're on the field, you've got to feel like you're the best son of a (beep) out there.

PESCA: Baugh was, and not just as a quarterback; he was a top-flight defensive back, and to this day, holds the mark for most yards per punt in a single season. Every sports fan knows that baseball and horseracing have triple crowns, but football has one, too, and Baugh was the first player ever to lead the league in an offensive, defensive, and special teams category. Since players no longer play both offense and defense, this will never be achieved again. But in case anyone wants to try, here's the punting philosophy that Baugh shared with NFL Films 10 years ago.

Mr. BAUGH: You make yourself a good punter by doing it on your own, because most damn coaches don't know too damn much about punting if you get right down to it.

PESCA: It was Baugh's reinvention of the passing game that was his greatest contribution. When he first started, forward passes were so rare that the rules had not been invented to protect passers. As Baugh told Sports Illustrated in 1969, those linemen could hit the passers until the whistle blew. If you completed a pass out there, and somebody's running 50 yards with the ball, that punch could still hit you. So, Baugh struck back in kind, administrating what Steve Sabol calls frontier justice to a Bears defensive end.

Mr. SABOL: And Ed Sprinkle(ph) came rushing in, and Sammy just took one step forward and threw the ball as hard as he could, right - and hit Sprinkle right between the eyes and knocked him cold.

PESCA: An effective play in the days before face masks. Baugh's precision was such that he could waste a few throws disciplining an opponents and still lead the league in passer accuracy nine times. Other numbers that the defined Baugh's career were 33, the only uniform number ever retired by the Redskins; the six times he made the Pro Bowl; the five children and 23 grandchildren and great-grandchildren he was responsible for; and the 94 years he lived before passing away Wednesday in Rotan, Texas. Mike Pesca, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Mike Pesca writes a weekly column on football on npr.org.

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Weapons Of Mass Distraction

Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens (left) and QB Tony Romo. i i

Some people think reports of squabbling between Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens (left) and quarterback Tony Romo, shown warming up before a pre-season game in August, are a bunch of "hoo-ha." Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens (left) and QB Tony Romo.

Some people think reports of squabbling between Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens (left) and quarterback Tony Romo, shown warming up before a pre-season game in August, are a bunch of "hoo-ha."

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Am I distracting you?

You came to read an article about the NFL, but I have to wonder — are you distracted? Because the Dallas Cowboys are a team — wait, now have you lost focus? No? Then I'll continue: The Cowboys are a team said to be torn apart by distraction. So, how do you feel about these distracting distractions taking your focus away from reading about the role of distractions?

Kind of distracting, wouldn't you say?

That's just a taste of what it's like to be in an NFL locker room during a period of distraction. No matter if the issue is a player who got injured, may have committed a crime or engaged in public criticism of his team, every player will be asked ad nauseam whether it's hard to stay focused. As sportswriter Jeff Pearlman says, "The distraction is usually being asked by the media if you're distracted."

Pearlman would know. He's the author of a few books about teams and athletes who should have been distracted, but somehow weren't. One of his subjects, Barry Bonds, kept hitting home runs, and another, the New York Mets, partied it up all the way to the 1986 World Series title. Pearlman's latest book is Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty.

The book focuses on the Cowboys squads of the 1990s, which make the current team look like the Brigham Young University chapter of Students Against Drunk Anything. Pearlman's take on the latest dust-up in the Cowboys locker room, which reportedly has wide receiver Terrell Owens at odds with his quarterback, is that it's a lot of hoo-ha.

"I think stories about NFL teams losing focus are 100 percent media inventions," says Pearlman, who quit the regular grind at Sports Illustrated because he hated tracking down what he says were instances of the latest "controversy." Pro athletes don't give a darn about what their teammates do off the field, he says, so long as they show up and perform.

For all the headline-generating abilities of former Cowboys Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders, what matters is that those fellows came to play on Sunday. Former quarterback Troy Aikman couldn't care less whether his less upstanding teammates rented a house near the team's headquarters to entertain groupies and snort cocaine. The "White House," as the Cowboys called the den of debauchery, was such a distraction that those Cowboys won three Super Bowls in four years.

I think there's something to Pearlman's discounting of distractions. When the Cowboys weren't distracted, i.e., when they were pulling together after an injury to quarterback Tony Romo, they were awful. This week, during a time of T.O.-inspired distraction, plus the distraction of team owner Jerry Jones questioning running back Marion Barber's toughness, the Cowboys secured the season's most meaningful win.

However, their victory over the New York Giants might have been because the Giants were distracted, as this column would have you believe.

The more likely explanation is that the Giants weren't hurt by the distraction of Plaxico Burress; they were hurt by the absence of Plaxico Burress. That's because a player of his ability always drives a defense crazy — or, you might say, to distraction.

Sticky-Fingered Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins may set a record for the fewest turnovers in a season. While I never even knew who owned the old record (it was the 1990 Giants), this mark is a big reason why the Dolphins have turned their team around from the 1-15 squad they were a year ago. In all likelihood, the Dolphins will play the New York Jets in Week 17 to determine whether they'll make the playoffs. Kudos to quarterback Chad Pennington, coach Tony Sparano and Dolphins team executive Bill Parcells — who also happened to be the coach of that parsimonious Giants team.

Odds Of An All-New York Super Bowl?

Last week, a Giants loss and Jets win slightly improved the odds of the two teams from the Meadowlands being serenaded by Bruce Springsteen in Florida on Feb 1.

According to Aaron Schatz and the gurus at Football Outsiders, there's now a 1.8 percent chance that we'll see this matchup. They calculate that the Jets have a 5 percent chance of making the championship game, while the Giants have a 37.3 percent shot.

Jokers, Chokers And Mediocres

A look at the NFL teams that can't break free from the pack. (To see how the rest stack up, you can go to sites like ESPN or Fox or CBS.)

Houston Texans: They're on the verge of being on the good side of un-mediocre. This is as close to my calling the Texans "good" as it gets.

New Orleans Saints: The Saints are an exciting team, but too often exciting is code for "fall behind and have to scramble to catch up."

Buffalo Bills: Deciding to throw a pass while trying to kill the clock against the Jets was not the coaching brain bungle that some pundits would have you believe. It's just that the resulting fumble and Jets touchdown was a ridiculously horrible outcome.

San Diego Chargers: So they managed to eke out a win over the Chiefs. Eke as in weak.

San Francisco 49ers: CONGRATULATIONS NINERS! You have made the list of the mediocre. Oh, smell the somewhat-less-than-rancid air and revel under gray skies with a 50 percent chance of precipitation. You are truly MEDIOCRE!

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