Monday, June 6, 2016

The Million Dollar Backfield in 1961, Their Best Season?

By John Turney

In 1954 fullback John Henry Johnson was added to the trio of quarterback Y.A. Tittle, halfback Joe Perry, halfback Hugh McElhenny to form what became known as "The Million Dollar Backfield". Eventually, all four were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

That season the 49ers set a then-team record for rushing yards, 2498, which held until 1988. It is still the highest yards rushing per game record since in 1954 it was a 12-game season. The combined 5.7 yards per carry for the 49ers is still the team record. Truly, it was an amazing group of talented players.

Was that the greatest season for the Million Dollar Backfield?

Sadly, John Henry Johnson was traded to the Detroit Lions in 1957 (for Bill Stits) and then to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1960 (for a pair of draft picks). So, really the foursome was only together with the 49ers for three seasons.

In 1954 the foursome accounted for 5066 yards from scrimmage including Tittle's passing yards. McElhenny was a First-team All-NFL by the New York Daily News and a consensus Second-team pick. Joe Perry led the NFL in rushing and was a consensus First-team All-Pro. Johnson, the rookie, was a Second-team All-Pro and Tittle was a Pro Bowler (as were Johnson and Perry).

In 1955 and 1956 the total yards by the backfield were 3660 and 3882 respectively, far lower than in 1954. Johnson played a lot of defense in that period and didn't carry the ball like he did in 1954.

In 1957, Johnson's first season in Detroit he rushed for 621 yards, so adding that into McElhenny and Perry and Tittle, all still with the 49ers they combined for 4659 yards

However, to us, the most interesting season is 1961. Tittle had been traded to the New York Giants. McElhenny was lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the expansion draft. Joe Perry was traded to the Baltimore Colts for a low draft pick and John Henry Johnson was with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In that season they totaled 5256 yards, with all of them having solid seasons, not skewed by a big year by one player. And they did it with an average age of 33½ years. In 1954 the average age of these players was 26½.
Perry filled in for an injured Alan Ameche as the fullback for the World Champion Baltimore Colts and he rushed for 675 yards and caught a career-high  34 passes in a very nice rebound season after an injury-plagued 1960.

McElheny rushed for 570 yards (most since 1956) and tied a career-high with 37 receptions.

Johnson in his second season with the Steelers ran for 787 yards, his career-high to that point, and caught  24 passes, the second-most in his career. 

Tittle, with the Giants, had a fine year completing 163/285 passes for 2272 yards for 17 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. 

In 1962, largely skewed by Tittle's over 3224 passing yards, they topped 1961 with 5643 yards, the highest mark these four players put up collectively. So, in terms of yards, 1961 and 1962 are ahead of 1954. However, 1954 was likely the better season, the players were younger, were honored more in the All-Pro teams but to us, 1961 was very fascinating and worthy of remembering.

Agree or disagree? Post comments below.


  1. Interesting article, John. Four guys past their primes all managing to put it together again at the same time.

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  3. The 49ers Million Dollar Backfield of 1954 was surely a great one but the 49ers running attack in 1948 was even more impressive and may have been the best rushing team in pro football history. Playing in the AAFC the 49ers backfield, led by Frankie Albert, Johnny Strzykalski and Joe Perry rushed for 3,663 yards in 14 games, averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 261 yards per game. Astounding numbers.

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