- May 26, 2019
He was one of the most influential, winningest, and pivotal figures in Washington Redskins history. And most fans have never heard of him.
He was the first head coach of the Washington Redskins â€“ ever.
He lead the Redskins to their first two championships â€“ ever.
He was an innovator and a football genius.
And in 1976, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He was Ray Flaherty.
Flaherty was born in Washington State on September 1, 1903. He was a gifted athlete and played multiple sports at Gonzaga High School, and later at Washington State University and Gonzaga University.
But Ray loved football most of all â€“ and after college played in both the AFL and the NFL, both for the New York Yankees and the Giants. During that stretch he also served as Gonzaga's football and basketball coach, somehow managing to squeeze in a season playing minor league baseball just to stay busy.
But Flaherty's real success was to come not on the playing field, but on the sidelines.
In 1936, George Preston Marshall took a chance on Ray, making him the next head coach of the then Boston Redskins. Marshall's belief in Flaherty paid off immediately as he watched Ray lead the Redskins to a 7-5 record and an NFL Championship game appearance. The title game was supposed to be played on Boston's home turf. But Marshall found the local support for his team lacking, so in the face of lackluster support moved the game to Fenway Park in New York. This sealed the Redskins fate and Marshall decided to move the Redskins to his hometown of Washington, D.C. the very next season. The Redskins succumbed to a dominant Green Bay Packers team lead by another future Redskins coach, Curly Lambeau, 21-6, their lone score coming off a 2 yard Pug Rentner run. But the disappointment of falling short in the 1936 championship would soon be assuaged.
1936 NFL Title Game Video: Redskins vs. Packers
In 1937, the Washington Redskins arrived. Behind a talented roster featuring rookie Sammy Baugh, Cliff Battles, and Don Irwin, the newly relocated D.C. team went 8-3, earning the right to play in another NFL Championship game. In the 4th quarter, tied 21-21 with the Chicago Bears, Sammy Baugh threw a 35 yard TD pass to wingback Ed â€˜Chug' Justice to seal the win and bring the first NFL title ever to it's new host city. Baugh threw for 335 yds that day, perhaps foreshadowing that a run-dominant league was to give way to something far more exciting in the years to come.
1937 NFL Title Game Video: Redskins vs. Bears
Over a 7 year stint as Head Coach of the Washington Redskins, Flaherty would rack up an impressive record, winning 54 times in 75 games. Flaherty's Redskins would return to the NFL Championship game twice more during his tenure. In 1940, the Redskins were again impressive, finishing 9-2 on the season on the strength of Baugh's passing, and a ground game featuring Dick Todd and Jimmy Johnston. 3 weeks before Championship weekend, the Redskins had edged Chicago, prompting Skins owner Marshall to call the Bears â€˜crybabies and quitters'.
But on Dec 8th, 1940, at Griffith Stadium in D.C. the Redskins experienced their own Pearl Harbor. In the Bears locker room pre-game, the legendary George Halas gave the pre-game pep talk, holding up a newspaper with Marshall's disparaging comments. "Gentlemen, this is what George Preston Marshall thinks of you. Well, I think you're a GREAT football team! Now, go out there and prove it!" In front of the first nationwide NFL radio audience ever, they proved it - and then some. Flaherty and the Redskins suffered the most lopsided loss in NFL history. The Chicago Bears got their revenge, delivering a 73-0 drubbing to our beloved Burgundy and Gold, to this day the Redskins worst loss ever.
1940 NFL Title Game Video: Redskins vs. Bears
But in the face of adversity, Flaherty was undaunted. In 1942, in what was to be Ray's final season as Head Coach, the Redskins were dominant. The Skins were to lose just 1 game that year, in Week 2 against the New York Giants, by a single score. Baugh headlined a versatile Redskins offense that year, with both a powerful passing and rushing attack featuring Andy Farkas, Dick Todd, and Bob Masterson.
On December 13th, 1942, the Redskins once again faced the Chicago Bears. At Griffith Stadium, in front of 36,006 fans, it was the Bears who were a prohibitive 3 TD favorite. But this time around, Flaherty's Skins were ready, and the Burgundy and Gold prevailed 14-6 with Baugh hitting Wilbur Moore on a 39 yard TD strike and Andy Farkas scoring on a short TD dive. The game netted $113,000 for the NFL, with Redskins players pocketing $976 for a hard day's work.
1942 NFL Title Game Video: Redskins vs. Bears
Despite a lack of dramatics, it was Ray Flaherty's triumphant swan song as Head Coach for the Redskins. During his tenure in D.C., Flaherty delivered not just 2 NFL Championships but 4 Division titles, setting a winning bar for Washington's NFL franchise that would go unrivalled for nearly 40 years. After the 1942 season, Flaherty admirably set aside sporting pursuits in order to serve as a US Naval officer in America's WWII effort. Flaherty would return to coaching one more time after the war, joining the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), winning two division titles as head coach of the New York Yankees and Chicago Hornets.
During his NFL career, Flaherty was heralded as an offensive innovator. He was the first to adopt and use the backfield screen pass in his offenses. Flaherty was also creator of the â€˜two platoon' system which featured one offensive group for rushing situations, and another for passing downs. This system was key to the Redskins 1942 Championship win against the Bears.
NFL Films â€˜Men Who Played The Game' Ray Flaherty Video
Coach Flaherty's lifetime coaching record was 80 wins, 37 losses, and 5 ties, a .676 lifetime winning percentage. He passed away on July 19th, 1994.
â€œIf I were still coaching, I'd still be stressing fundamentals. You've got to block and tackle and play defense. It's a specialist's game now but it's still a game of fundamentals. That's how you win.â€
- Ray Flaherty