By T.J. Troup
"If it weren't traditional to punt on fourth down, I'm convinced Y.A. Tittle
would have passed, and with his ability, I would have gone along with him 100 percent". This quote by Kyle Rote
came after spending his final year with Yelberton Abraham in the Giants Eastern Division title season of 1961.
When the AAFC ended after the 1949 season; Tittle's NFL career began, and so does our story. The 1950 green clad Baltimore Colts were the by far the worst team in the league. Opening day, at home, George Blanda
kicks off for Baltimore (his only game with the team) and the beginning of a 1-11 year.
Adrian Burk starts at quarterback, yet later in the first quarter, Tittle enters the game. With a double tight end full house backfield, with left halfback Chet Mutryn going in motion to the right, Mutryn catches Y.A.'s pass for 5 yards in the right flat and this is the first of many, MANY completions for the man from Marshall, Texas.
Five games into the season Tittle had completed 44 of 87 passes for 507 yards, with nary a touchdown toss, and seven interceptions. The Baltimore receiving corps is not very talented as the early season targets of North, Owens, Spinney and Oristaglio either do not finish the year with the Colts or are moved to another position.
The only constant in the offense is halfback Mutryn thus early in his career Tittle demonstrates he knows how to use halfbacks as receivers out of the backfield.
November the 5th and Baltimore won their only game of the year and Y. A. gains a season-high 277 yards passing. Evaluating the film of this game shows his interesting technique as he drops back to pass: he hops at the end of his drop—so we have the "Tittle hop".
November the 12, on the road against Pittsburgh, he completed 24 passes in the 17-7 loss. Tittle is the FIRST quarterback in league history to complete as many as 24 passes in a game for three different teams. Paul Salata
has left the 49ers and becomes the first receiver that develops a synergy with Y.A. as he catches 40 passes for 506 yards over the course of the last five games of the year.
A remarkable achievement that has gone unnoticed. Tittle has won the job over Burk (though he plays in every game and starts the season finale against the New York Yanks). Watching from the sideline during the Giants record setting performance against the hapless Colts shows Tittle the value of having a rushing attack that can control the ball and put points on the board. The disastrous season ends with Y.A. leading the league in completions. The Colts are disbanded and Tittle is chosen 3rd in the 1951 draft by San Francisco to be the back-up for Frankie Albert. Bob Williams was chosen by the Bears with the second pick, and for a moment let us consider what would have happened IF the Bears would have taken Tittle.
Later, the 49ers would have what is known as the million dollar backfield; yet if Harlon Hill
would have been a slot receiver the Bears in '57 would have had Rick Casares, Willie Galimore, Hill and Tittle in the same backfield—maybe not a million, but worth a few bucks!
Noting how many failed "snap takers" Chicago had during this decade, a duo of Tittle & Blanda would have served the Bears well. December of 1951 and the 4-4-1 Niners are in Detroit taking on the contending Lions. Tittle has come off the bench in relief of Albert for the tenth time during the year. San Francisco leads 20-10 and head coach Lawrence "Buck" Shaw wants Tittle to use the running game to cement the victory, but Y.A. throws deep, and when he takes himself out tells Shaw "I'm sorry Buck, but all I want is touchdowns against those ______!
The 49ers end the season with another victory over Detroit, and Bert Bell has an unusual schedule for 1952 as San Francisco will play Detroit twice in the first three weeks. Tittle is accurate in the victory over the Lions in week one, and starts and plays well in the week two destruction of Dallas. The 49ers have added to their backfield a legendary runner in Hugh "The King" McElhenny to join fullback Joe "The Jet" Perry
behind a strong offensive line. San Francisco can sure run the ball, and for balance has an efficient passing passing. The superb game film from October 12th, 1952 (thank you Steve Sabol) shows a powerful pass rush against the Lions and a strong run defense.
The Rams have rotated quarterbacks by quarter for three years now, and the Niners do also with Albert & Tittle. Y.A. completes 13 of 18 for 90 yards in the shut-out victory. Late in the game Tittle is under duress and eludes the Lion pass rush as he weaves his way back towards mid field. He zips an underhand pass upfield to Bob White in one of the most entertaining plays of the year.
Tittle is athletic and a quick thinker on his feet, never at a loss for improvisation. Halfway through the season McElhenny is on his way to a 1,000 yard season, but nagging injuries derail his playing time, and San Francisco falters to finish 3rd.
Again, time for a visual—on November 9th the Niners are at the Polo Grounds and Tittle fades back towards his own goal line drawing in the Giant pass rushers. He flips to "The King" and away McElhenny goes helmet pulled off, sprinting down field on a 77 yard pass play. This is still a grand visual, yet what about Tittle. . . he will and can throw from anywhere on the field. Frankie Albert retires, and San Francisco along with Los Angeles are the main contenders against the champion Lions entering 1953.
San Francisco starts 2-0 but in the loss to Detroit 24-21 Y.A. is injured as his cheekbone is smashed by Jim David on a bootleg touchdown run. His return on November 1st is a game for the ages.....as the Bears & 49ers combined for 91 passing attempts to set a new league record. Y.A. is back! The only loss during the last seven games of the campaign is a hard-fought loss to Cleveland. For a moment it is time for another visual. McElhenny would many times align as a flanker and his post pattern touchdown reception shows the accuracy and velocity of a Tittle pass.
Y.A. leads the league with a 7.7% touchdown pass percentage. San Francisco may have finished 9-3 in 1953, but they know they can win it all in 1954. The first seven games of the season San Francisco scores 217 points yet has a record of 4-2-1. The firepower is there guided by Tittle; who has come to be known now as the "Bald Eagle", but the defense falters time and again and again San Francisco cannot win a division title. Management decides Shaw is not the man to lead the Niners, but 1955 is a certifiable disaster with Red Strader in his only year as head coach. The offense changes shape and though Tittle leads the league in touchdown passes, he attempts to do too much, and also leads the league in interceptions.
December 2, 1956 and San Francisco is still on the road (4th game in a row) in Baltimore. Tittle enters the game having thrown 2 touchdown passes all year. He has shared time with number #1 draft pick Earl Morrall and the Niners have a 2-6-1 record. Y.A. shreds the Colt secondary to the tune of 14 of 18 for 284 yards and two touchdowns in the 20-17 win (a passer rating of 155.8 the second time he has hit this threshold to date).
The 1957 season is one of the most interesting in league history for a number of reasons. Questions abound in the Western Conference; can the Bears defend their conference title? Can Detroit continue to play strong football under a new head coach? Are the Colts that much improve under second-year man Johnny Unitas? The upset loss at home to the Cardinals does not derail the Niners as they win five straight. Rookie receiver R.C. Owens has given Y.A. a new weapon and a term for historians—"the ALLEY OOP" with Owens using his height and jumping ability leaps under the lofted accurate toss by Tittle. Bob Fouts said it best, November the 3rd in Kezar down 31-28, "This has got to be the ALLEY OOP there is not enough time for anything else" When Owens makes the leaping winning touchdown grab Fouts voice cracks as he joyously calls "The 49ers beat the Lions".
San Francisco overcomes a three-game losing streak by beating New York on the road and Baltimore at Kezar. The 7-4 49ers will start new phenom John Brodie at quarterback due to Tittle's leg injuries. The rookie struggles and here comes Y.A. off the bench. His play calling is masterful in using Joe Perry in the run game, and roll out passes to the right. During his time with Frankie Albert, a staple in the 49er offense was Albert faking beautifully and rolling left, and thus when Tittle entered the game same play, but roll right. Y.A. is the best in the league at this maneuver and very accurate throwing on the run to his right. He also rolls right and will screen back to the left. Tittle can do it all.
Tittle is an efficient 10 of 14 for 94 yards in the victory over Green Bay to force a one-game playoff against Detroit scheduled for December 22nd, 1957, at Kezar. Championship game tickets are printed as San Francisco knew they would take on Cleveland in the title game. Ahead 24-7 at the half as Tittle completes 12 of 19 for 186 yards and 3 touchdown tosses. The lead melts under the Lion comeback and Tittle struggles as he completes 3 of 8 for only 31 yards with 2 interceptions. Detroit ahead 31-27, but Y.A. has time to win the game and completes 3 straight for 31 yards on the last drive till he is intercepted. His first playoff game ends in defeat.
Evaluation of his season of 1957 shows a quarterback that completed over 60% of his passes. Due to injuries in the offensive line San Francisco allows more sack yardage than any other team, and add to that Tittle runs 40 times. Why is this important—he does NOT fumble once during the entire season! Though San Francisco is outscored during the year, the success brings optimism for 1958. Albert's last year as head coach is a difficult one for Tittle as Brodie starts six of the first seven games of the season. Y.A. starts all five remaining games and the disappointing Niners finish 6-6.
Receivers coach Howard "Red" Hickey is the new head coach in 1959 and Tittle is back in the saddle as the starter, and San Francisco roars into first place with a record of 6-1. The Western conference is loaded with defending champion Baltimore, and the Bears as viable contenders. For the first time in his career Tittle is not playing up to his capabilities as the Niners fade to 7-5. He plays in four of the final five games and throws just one touchdown pass, while having 8 intercepted. Tittle begins the '60 season three starts and a 2-1 record, but he throws just 49 passes in the final nine games of the year.
He is a team player and helps John Brodie as much as possible, but he wants to play and believes he still can. The excuse Hickey uses is that Y.A is not mobile enough for his new spread formation known as the "shotgun". This is folly, and will be explained as we finish his saga.
Tittle has a very successful insurance business due to his intelligence, and affable personality but will he accept the trade to the Giants and the East coast? He knows in his gut he can still do it, thus under new head coach Allie Sherman he will learn a new and more complex offense. He shares the position with veteran Charley Conerly, yet he is playing masterfully and has found a new synergy receiver in lean long legged Del Shofner. Y.A. developed a special ability to find Billy Wilson over and over again in San Francisco (three times Wilson lead the league in receiving), and he helped the Mara family orchestrate the trade for Del.
|One the far left is #29 for the Rams who is Del Shofner who caught passes from Tittle with the Giants|
The Giants lose badly in the 1961 title game in Green Bay, but Tittle quickly overcomes the loss as New York after 20-17 loss to Pittsburgh in 1962 leads his team to nine straight victories as he sets a new record for touchdown passes in a season with 33. Tittle uses the imaginative Sherman offense to consistently put points on the board. His use of formations and plays is simply outstanding, and New York has the Packers on their home turf for the title. The blustery winds and a great Packer team defend their title. Tittle still has his boundless enthusiasm for the game. He has displayed team spirit and integrity when he threw 7 touchdown passes against Washington and refused to go back into the game to try and get a record eighth.
In Murray Olderman's exceptional book The Pro Quarterback
he has a page for each man detailing his favorite play. Quoting Y.A.:
- "There's only one pass that can't be stopped when it's done right. That's the weak side sideline pass. I used it a lot when I teamed with Del Shofner, our left end on the New York Giants. It's a timing pass. You set up seven yards. The receiver can go downfield 11 yards in the same period of time. I always believed in throwing to the outside, because in the middle there's always trouble. You can't predict how a linebacker or safety is going to react. It looks like a man is open, and then a strange hand reaches up from nowhere. On this sideline pass, there's only one man can get at the receiver. The way this play works, the quarterback has only one choice. He hits the left end immediately or not at all. The beauty of it is, if the man isn't open, you can throw the ball out of bounds and not risk an interception In running this pattern, incidentally, Shofner didn't break it off sharp like a lot of ends. He found out he could get to the spot of the ball faster, and also keep the defensive back off of him by rounding the corner instead of cutting off his right foot, which had to slow him up a little".
To emphasize Tittle's point about interceptions—all quarterbacks throw them including Y. A. yet in his career he threw just 5 interceptions that were returned for a touchdown. Neither the Bears, Lions, Packers or any of the Eastern conference teams ever returned a Tittle interception for a touchdown!
Cleveland, under Collie,r with Brown, a very improved St. Louis team and a hard-bitten group of Black & Gold Steelers make the Giants work to defend their conference title. Tittle uses the run game, and though he is a master at the run action pass due to his faking ability—he is known for his ability to exploit coverages and use all his receivers. Walton, Gifford, Morrison, Thomas, and especially Shofner give him weapons, and boy oh boy does he know how to use them.
The details of the November the 10th game against the Eagles are as follows: The 6-2 Giants have positioned themselves with wins over Cleveland and St. Louis to have a solid shot at winning the division. Early in the game Tittle sends Phil King over the middle on a circle route for 38 yards and a touchdown. Philadelphia comes back to tie on a McDonald touchdown. Tittle steps up into the pass pocket and lofts a high archer to right tight end Aaron Thomas for 40 yards. Y.A. rolls right and finds Morrison at the back of the end zone for 7 yards and a score. Tittle has the Giants aligned in a double tight end formation, and Shofner runs his corner route to perfection from tight end left for 45 yards off of a run action play fake. 28-7 at the half and Tittle wants more and he connects with former teammate Hugh McElhenny on a circle route for 24, and later drops back doing the "Tittle hop" to complete an out pattern to flanker Frank Gifford for 14 yards and a score.
Tittle completes 16 of 20 for 261 yards and three touchdowns, with nary an interception.....a passer rating of PERFECTION of 158.3 at the age of 37. The Bald Eagle had played in 9 of the first ten games of the 1963 season and completed 156 of 255 for 2,263 yards, with 27 going for touchdowns, and just 4 intercepted. A passer rating of 118.8—.but there are storm warnings on the horizon.....over the course of the last four games he completes 65 of 112 for 882 yards, with 9 touchdowns, and 10 intercepted; a rating of 72.8. Why the drop-off? Forcing passes? December weather? This is going to be the veteran Giants last chance to win a title.
Wrigley Field and the Bears defense on this frigid day. Defensive coordinator George Allen knows how to put a game plan together. His use of the Clark Shaughnessy blitz package coupled with both zone and man coverages has put the Bears in the title game. Tittle's record-setting 36 touchdown passes be damned, we have the defense to stop the Bald Eagle! New York forges a 10-7 lead, but the crippling hit by Larry Morris in the second quarter forces Tittle in taking cortisone shots at half-time. He cannot roll out, and he cannot achieve his goal of a championship.
The iconic photo of Tittle in the end zone in 1964 is not the photo for me. My visual of him is a strong-armed quarterback in the pocket with his wide base and 3/4 arm throwing motion zipping passes to all his receivers, then jogging to the sidelines with his childlike enthusiasm punching the air with his fist. Today would have been his 91st birthday, and this is my tribute to one of the finest gentlemen to ever play the game. My hope is that somehow his daughter Diane will have the opportunity to read this saga. R.I.P. Y.A.