Tuesday, December 22, 2015

27-M-Sockem: The Champion Los Angeles Rams of 1951

LOOKING BACK
by T.J. Troup


Bob Waterfield Colorization by John Turney
Since winning their title in Cleveland in 1945 the Rams had improved each season in Los Angeles. Entering the '51 campaign with designs on returning to the title game, the Rams would have a roller coaster ride to achieve their mission.

COACHING: Joe Stydahar was in his second year as head coach (5th with the team), with Eddie Kotal as chief scout (also helped coach the backs). Red Hickey was in his third year coaching the ends, and Ray Richards in his first year coaching both the offensive and defensive line. Hampton Pool tinkered with the offensive and defensive alignments as THE coordinator.

Los Angeles still used much of the Shaughnessy offensive playbook, yet Pool demonstrated creativity during the year when needed most. Defensively the Rams for the first time would go to a 4-man secondary with a 5-2 front. The Ram defensive lineman would sometimes align in the gaps, and both linebackers would red dog. Man coverage was used most of the time, with both zone under, and man under concepts. Los Angeles would use "nickel" coverage, and in the title game even go to "dime" coverage. This team was very well coached.

PERSONNEL: Veteran right defensive end Jack Zilly began the year as the starter(he played in only 5 games). He was replaced by a small college rookie who would achieve greatness in his career. Andy Robustelli though lacking great physical skills improved each week as he became a force as a pass rusher. He shed blocks well, and was adequate as a run defender.

Andy Robustelli. Colorization by John Turney
The defensive right tackle position was handled by Rookie Jack Halliday and Jack Finlay (also played left guard) for most of the year. Late in the year rookie Charley Toogood took over (he went the whole game against Cleveland in the championship). Toogood still had much to learn (he also played left defensive tackle early in the year), but he was much better in run pursuit than the other two. Stan West received some All-Pro mention for his work at middle guard and was selected for the pro bowl. The rawboned stud from Oklahoma battled every center in the league down after down. West was not very productive as a pass rusher, and sometimes would even drop into coverage as a 4-3 middle backer.

Rookie Jim Winkler started at left defensive tackle and gave a portent of things to come as he proved to be one tough hombre to deal with. Left defensive end Larry Brink received some All-Pro recognition, and was chosen for the Pro Bowl. Brink was adequate as a run defender, but his primary purpose was the get the passer, and he was superb at this facet of line play. His sack and forced fumble in the championship was a key play for the Ram defense.

Tank Younger. Colorization by John Turney
Tank Younger in his third season achieved stardom. Late in the year he gained 146 yards rushing on 18 attempts against the Bears (game ball) and Lions. Younger had the speed and blocking ability to help on offense, yet his main role was as the starting left linebacker. He was simply the best in the league. Though effective in zone coverage, he could cover any closed end in man coverage. The Tank could red dog, pursue, and he was a strong reliable tackler. He also was chosen for the pro bowl, and received some all-pro consideration. Right linebacker was the province of the defensive captain: Don Paul. Rugged, nasty, and smart, Don covered ground, red dogged, and was excellent in zone underneath coverage. He, too, was selected for the Pro Bowl.


Since he set the team record for interceptions as a rookie in 1950, teams were hesitant to test right corner Woodley Lewis. He started all year, but was replaced in the title game by Bob Boyd. Herb Rich had endured enough losing in Baltimore in 1950 to last a lifetime, and when he took the field the last 7 games of the season at right safety the Rams had an instinctive ball hawk. Earlier in the season rookie Norb Hecker and Jerry Williams played right safety. Williams though spent much of the year as the starting left safety (he also played a good deal of offensive halfback the first four games of the year). Williams was a fine tackler, and had the speed to cover deep.

Left corner was a revolving door all year as first Tom Keane played (also started as left offensive end), then Boyd and Marvin Johnson were granted opportunities to show what they could do. Johnson started in the championship game at left corner. Coach Ray Richards would have been awarded assistant coach of the year honors for his work with the Ram offensive line.

The 1951 Los Angeles Rams are the ONLY team in league history to start 5 rookies on the offensive line in a championship game. The left tackle was rangy free agent rookie Don Simensen. He displayed excellent technique as a run blocker, and was more than adequate in protecting the passer. Undersized Dick Daugherty could pull, trap, and drive block. He battled quick defensive ends as he would pull in pass protection and kick out. Leon McLaughlin had an impressive first year in the NFL as he also demonstrated skills in every facet of offensive line play.

Early in the year veteran Harry Thompson started at right guard. Thompson was one of the most versatile Rams in that he played middle guard, and defensive end, and was a standout on special teams. Thompson would rotate in at right guard later in the year, as Bill Lange took over as the starter, and quickly became one of the best pulling guards in the National Conference. Lange sprang many a Ram runner on trap plays due to his ability to seal off a defensive lineman. Massive Tom Dahms started all year at right offensive tackle (also played defensive right tackle early in the year). This agile combative youngster battled strong side defensive ends and tackles all year. He has a very bright future. Los Angeles used many men to carry the ball during the year.

Fullback Dick Hoerner in his last year as a Ram still demonstrated he could run inside, and catch the ball out of the backfield. The most improved player on the Rams was halfback Deacon Dan Towler who earned his first pro bowl berth. A willing blocker who could blast away inside, he showed surprising speed on sweeps for a man his size. Towler was also effective as a receiver as he had 6 receptions of over 20 yards during the year.

Dick Hoerner. Colorization by John Turney
Waterfield & Van Brocklin shared the quarterback position again. They ranked 1-2 in the passer rating system for efficiency, and both threw 13 touchdown passes during the campaign. Van Brocklin went the distance in the opening night destruction of the Yanks and set a league record that still stands (554 yards passing). After his disaster in Kezar in October, he threw just 1 interception the rest of the season (85 attempts). Waterfield during the last seven games played more than the Dutchman, yet all would view this situation as two vastly capable men trying to engineer a championship. Los Angeles set league records for yards gained in a season.

Norm Van Brocklin. Colorization by John Turney

The balanced offense must have someone catch the ball; so let's take a closer look. Tom Fears had led the league in receiving the past two years, and begins '51 with 16 catches after 3 games. His injured knee keeps him on the sidelines for much of the next six weeks. He returns to catch 16 passes in the last three games. He can run any intermediate route, catches everything, and has enough speed to get open deep. When he is shelved, Tom Keane, Bob Boyd, and Norb Hecker fill in at left end. While all of them have their moments but none of them is Tom Fears.

Elroy Hirsch used the 1950 season as a learning year at right end. He was productive, and sets the stage for one of the greatest seasons ever by an offensive player. Hirsch in the eight Ram victories caught 42 passes for 1,078 yards, and 14 touchdowns. While he played solid football in the four games Los Angeles lost, he was the difference maker for this team. Trailing in Chicago in December Hirsch made the play of the year when the Rams needed it most (91 yard touchdown) to spark Los Angeles to a blowout win in Wrigley Field. Crazy Legs ran short routes, screens, outs, deep streaks, and square in patterns and became the first receiver since Hutson to put fear in the opposition. In the Ram offense they would use max protection and have Hirsch aligned at closed end right, and pass block. The defense must have breathed a sigh of relief when he was doing this, yet they knew that soon he would be in attack mode as the Ram offense thundered down the field.

Tom Fears. Colorization by John Turney

Elroy Hirsch. Colorization by John Turney

WHAT THE STATS TELL US: Los Angeles ranked first in pass protection as they allowed only 97 yards in sacks all year, while the pass rush garnered 319. Waterfield and Van Brocklin completed only 71 of 155 for 1,042 yards with just 5 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in the four Ram losses, but in the eight wins a much different story. They completed 118 of 218 for 2,254 yards (over 10 yards a pass)with 21 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Towler proved that he was the key to the Los Angeles running game as he gained 704 yards in eight wins on just 83 carries! During the 1950 season the Ram defense allowed the opposition 38 offensive touchdowns, but in '51 they cut that total to 30.

GAME OF SIGNIFICANCE: Los Angeles stood at 3-1 and headed to Kezar in week five, and the 49er staff had a defensive game plan to try and stop the Ram offense. When Los Angeles used their small, quick backs as receivers; the 49ers countered with extra defensive backs aligned as linebackers. The next week in the Coliseum in the rematch Coach Pool countered this San Francisco defensive alignment with the "bull elephant" backfield of Hoerner, Towler, and Younger.

Though the 26 carries for 97 yards is not that impressive this trio demonstrated they could block for each other. Though Coach Pool would alternate his substitutions; the bull elephants reached their peak against the Bears in Wrigley Field as they gained 203 yards on just 25 carries. One of the key plays in this new found arsenal is 27-M-Sockem where the Rams sweep right with Towler carrying behind Hoerner & Younger out of a closed alignment. Dahms blocks down, Hirsch kicks out and the backs lead through the hole.  Los Angeles stands at 7-3 and are about to take on the Lions in the Coliseum. They have beaten Detroit 13 straight, but this Detroit team is vastly improved, and enters the game with a record of 6-3-1. Winner stands alone in first.

Waterfield meets Detroit Captains Hoernschemeyer and Prchlik for the toss. Woodley Lewis kicks off for the Rams, and here we go. Detroit is stopped, and punts. Los Angeles begins on their own eleven yard line and systematically drives 88 yards down the field in 17 well orchestrated plays, until the Lion defense stiffens on their own one yard line.  Los Angeles is pushed back, and Captain Bob kicks a 17 yard field goal. The key play on the drive was a screen pass to Hoerner for 21 yards. Detroit is forced to punt again, and here comes Los Angeles down the field as the quarter ends. The Lion defense again stiffens, and takes over on downs on their own twelve yard line. Pat Harder kicks a 33 yard field goal to tie the game.

A pass interference penalty kept the drive alive. Walker kicks off into a "huddle" of Rams, and tackle Bobby Collier escapes and gains 8 to the twenty-five. Van Brocklin throws two sideline routes to Fears for 18 & 19 yards as Los Angeles moves to the Detroit thirty-two. Waterfield's 40 yard field goal splits the uprights as the Rams again take the lead. Don Doll returns the ensuing kick-off and a piling on penalty on Los Angeles gives Detroit excellent field position at their own forty-seven. Layne completes his first pass attempt of the drive for 11 to Hoernschemeyer, and then the rest is all on the ground(8 plays). Pat Harder on a fullback slant to the right goes around end from the three yard line, and the Lions have the lead. Just 1:58 left in the half, but plenty of time for the Rams, since Detroit is penalized twice for personal fouls, and Waterfield kicks his third field goal of the half(this one from the 17).

The officials, sensing that these teams are ready to fight; calls the captains together at the end of the half, they shake hands as Detroit leads 10-9. The Rams take the second half kick-off and march 79 yards in 13 plays to score. Waterfield had key completions to Hirsch, Fears, and Davis to set up Towler's 2 yard smash over left guard. Los Angeles has regained the lead. Left safety Jerry Williams gets the ball back for the Rams with his interception and 15 yard return to the Lion forty-three. When Los Angeles gains only 3 yards in three plays, Waterfield attempts another field goal.......this one is short and rookie Jack Christiansen dashes to the Ram forty-eight, but a clipping penalty moves the Lions back. Detroit is stopped by the fired up Ram defense and punts. Deep in their own territory, the Rams are forced to punt, and the Lions have won the battle of field position. Can they capitalize?

The Detroit scoring drive is 35 yards in 5 plays. Layne's brilliant call of a double reverse to Walker has the Los Angeles defense out of position, and the Doaker scores from the eleven. Detroit again takes the lead in this seesaw battle. The league's leading offense drives 60 yards, before they run out of steam, and Waterfield kicks his 4th field goal (20 yards). Left defensive tackle Jim Winkler tips Layne's pass, and a hustling Charley Toogood grabs the rebound. Ram ball on the Detroit thirty-nine. The Dutchman drills Hirsch for 18, but the drive stalls, and Tulsa Bob Smith blocks Waterfield's field goal attempt.

The Ram defense stops Detroit and forces another punt. Though the Rams have the ball at midfield they are forced to attempt another field goal, and Waterfield delivers a record tying 5th(this one from the 39). Bobby Layne somehow escapes Ram tacklers on a quarterback draw, gets to the sideline, and rambles for 25 yards to set up shop on the Los Angeles twenty-two. Walker sweeps right, but wait; it is a Buddy Parker staple, the halfback pass, and Leon Hart has a step on Williams. The perfectly thrown pass is complete for the go ahead score. Detroit 24 Los Angeles 22.

The Rams cannot move into field goal range, and Detroit takes over on downs at their own forty-six. The Lions run out the clock and have taken over first place. The final Sunday of the season had four teams that can advance to the championship to play a Cleveland team that has won 11 straight. The Bears lose to the Cardinals, while the Rams crush Green Bay. Detroit can win the division, but San Francisco denies the Lions. The Rams with a record of 8-4 will take on the Browns in Coliseum.

SUMMATION: The aroused Rams finally beat the Browns as the defense makes enough plays to stop Graham and his cohorts. Van Brocklin throws a guided missile up the left sideline to Fears in the 4th quarter to give Los Angeles it's only championship 24-17.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent read.

    Added Quinlan in '52. They had a lot of weapons and he was probably better in doses, but still seems like he should have got more touches.

    Got himself into one of the colorized photos.

    ReplyDelete