By T.J. Troup
Jim Finks birthday, and to correct a topic that is important in not only Steeler history but the league itself—the following. Though this saga will focus on Pittsburgh during the '51 campaign, we will begin in 1942. Previous to 1947 the 1942 Steelers were the best team the Black & Gold had put on the field. They are 7-3 when they travel to Wisconsin to State Fair Park to take on the Packers. Pittsburgh gains 254 yards passing in this game to set a team record, and six of the players had their longest reception of the year.
Trailing 10-0 in the 3rd quarter Dick Riffle runs for 7 yards, and laterals to blocking back Vern Martin. Martin runs over the snow ringed field for 54 yards and a touchdown. Green Bay scores twice in the 4th quarter to lead 24-7. Very late in the game, the Steelers drive 68 yards to score and complete 4 passes for 58 yards. The black & gold recover an onside kick, and Bullet Bill Dudley tosses to Martin for 24 yards and a touchdown. The Packers recover the onside kick to end the game. Many teams have gained at least 254 yards passing in a game, yet the key here is Pittsburgh is entrenched in the single wing. Jock Sutherland took Pittsburgh to the brink of a division title in '47, but his death brought a pall over the organization and the team. He is replaced by young Johnny Michelosen. Pittsburgh begins '48 with a 2-1 record but falls apart to finish 4-8.
Joe Geri rotate from tailback and wingback until the 4th quarter. Off the bench comes rookie Jim Finks and his first pass is right on target to left end Bill Long on an out pattern for 13 yards.
This play should have been a foreshadowing; Michelosen is convinced that Gage and Geri can do the job. Finks gets a chance to play in midseason with the injury to rookie Don Samuel and throws his first touchdown pass against the Giants. He has the longest run of his career (38 yards) comes in the victory over the Bulldogs, but over the course of the last five games of the year he completes just 6 of 25 for 96 yards without a touchdown and with 5 intercepted. Finks plays in the secondary and intercepts in the loss to the Bears, and in the last game of the year catches a 17-yard touchdown pass from blocking back Charlie Seabright. He has shown he is athletic and versatile as a rookie, but how much of a chance will he get to play tailback in 1950? He throws passes in the first two games, but Joe Geri has a standout season running, and even sometimes passing as Pittsburgh finishes at 6-6.
Pittsburgh has a record of 16-19-1 entering 1951 during the Michelosen era. Pittsburgh with the 9th pick in the draft takes fullback Butch Avinger who never plays for the Steelers, and with the 20th pick comes Chuck Ortman. The Black & Gold passed on lineman Dick Stanfel, Mike McCormack, and Bill George—ouch! Nine rookies make the team in '51 highlighted by Dale Dodrill, and free agent Jack Butler.
Darrell Hogan. Though Hogan plays hard he does little to help his team during the year.
When Pittsburgh shifts to a 6-2 defense Hogan becomes a defensive guard, and he is driven back repeatedly on running plays. The opening day starter at left defensive end is rookie Tom Jelley. Jelley is listed as having played in 5 games during the year, and this is just flat wrong, as he plays in at least 8 games. Jelley will start the first four at left end, play some offense early in the year, and then the last two weeks of the season returns and plays right defensive end.
The left defensive tackle is George Hays for the first four games, and then shifts to left defensive end for the next seven games. Carl Samuelsen rotated in early in the year at left defensive tackle and then becomes the starter. He is woefully slow in pursuit but holds the fort on running plays right at him. Lean bowlegged Dale Dodrill is the starter at middle guard till a mid-season injury against Philadelphia. He struggles at times getting off a block, but sure demonstrates he has a future in the league due to his pursuit and aggressive play. The second half of the year John Schweder starts at middle guard.
Ernie Stautner is the right defensive tackle, and he is much improved. Ernie is outstanding in pursuit and is effective in penetrating the pass pocket. The right defensive end is Bill McPeak who is in his third year, and also shows improvement. He is excellent defending the sweep and is a relentless pass rusher. The right linebacker is Frank Sinkovitz in his fifth season. Though he hustles, he just does not make much of a difference during the year, and the newspapers state that the fans booed him towards the end of the year.
Jim Finks began the year as the starting right corner but was moved to safety with the struggles of Chuck Ortman and rookie Ray Mathews. Finks will start at safety from the fourth week through the close of the campaign. The third week of the year Jack Butler starts at right corner and improves each week. A fearless tackler and instinctive pass defender this youngster with experience will prove to be one of the best corners in the league till he is moved to right safety in '56.
Howard Hartley is in his fourth year and has already intercepted 14 passes in his career, but the best is yet to come. Howard is one of the few defensive backs in any era to intercept at least 10 passes in a season and not be chosen for the pro bowl. Pittsburgh finishes third in the league in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 46.6 and intercepts an impressive 11.28% of all opponent passes.
The Black & Gold defense will have many strong games during the year. The problem for this team is the offense. So, who took the field for the Steelers when they had the ball? Veteran Val Jansante begins the year at left end, but he is the subject of venom by fans and leaves the team at midseason. He is replaced by rookie Henry Minarik. His only year in the league is a fascinating one and will be detailed later in this saga. Since Pittsburgh is in the single wing they align both tackles to the same side. Lou Allen in his second year and veteran team leader Frank Wydo do a commendable job in the run game, but both have difficulty in pass protection.
Pro Bowl center Bill Walsh leads the offensive line and is superb at the center snap and making his block. The left guard is second-year man Dick Tomlinson, while the right guard is pro bowl bound George Hughes. Evaluating Hughes is a challenge since the expectations for a pro bowl guard are high, and George does not shine near as often as I thought he would.
Elbie Nickel. Sure-handed and a willing blocker, he has his moments, yet the issue is always the same.....when Elbie is open who is accurate enough to throw him the ball? Joe Gasparella does not throw very much, and at the beginning of the year is the starting blocking back, but after four weeks he leaves the Steelers. He is replaced by Truett Smith, who is only adequate as a blocker. In the Steeler single wing the tailback and wingback switch positions many times during a game.
Left-handed Lynn Chandnois aligns so he can roll left to throw, and he usually is at his best running on outside plays due to his speed. Joe Geri is selected for the pro bowl, and over the years there have been other players chosen that did not earn their way to Los Angeles. Quoting Abby Mendelson from his book on Steeler history "one wonders how Geri earned such honors". He is not effective running and is inaccurate passing. He is often replaced by Chuck Ortman. The rookie from Michigan is a willing runner, but is not very productive. Ortman just does not display the accuracy you need to have in an NFL passer. He is in and out of the line-up all year.
Jerry Nuzum is now a fullback (wingback earlier in his career), and shares playing time with Fran Rogel. Since the Steeler running game is moribund at best, and so much depends on the fullback pounding out yards up the middle neither man can be considered a team strength. Pittsburgh enters the last game of the season having scored only 160 points in eleven games. During the wins over the Cardinals, Packers, and Eagles the defense played solid football, while the offense did just enough. They have been shut-out twice by Cleveland, and the rumor is Johnny Michelosen might be replaced though Art Rooney denies this.
Dick Todd has been coach of the 'Skins for eight games with a 5-3 record and Washington is at home on this fateful final day of the season with a chance to finish 6-6. This is the game that will be detailed, and explain the future of Pittsburgh Steeler football. The captains meet on a snow-covered field with sunshine creating December shadows. There will be 14 turnovers in this game(seven by each team), partially due to the weather conditions on this frosty cold afternoon in our Nations Capitol. The first play from scrimmage shows Rob Goode who is trying to win the rushing crown taken down in the open field by Jerry Shipkey one on one. Washington punts and the Steelers as they have so often during the year align in a double wing formation.
The differences between the single and double wing are not nuanced, they are striking. No writer or historian has ever commented that the Steelers of Jock Sutherland have virtually abandoned the single wing for the double wing! Washington fumbles on their next possession and Ortman now in at tailback bounces a pass off of Truett Smith's chest to linebacker Chuck Drazenovich. The Steeler defense grudgingly gives ground as Baugh mixing his plays beautifully moving deep into Pittsburgh territory.
Bill Dudley after a reception and dash down the sideline. Dudley though puts three points on the board with a field goal. Ortman has the Steelers in the single wing, but throws incomplete, and they punt. Baugh throwing deep up the left sideline for Dudley has his pass intercepted as Butler leaps into the air. Ortman fumbles the ball to defensive end Walt Yowarsky and again the 'Skins have the ball. Baugh rifles a pass down the middle through the frosty air only to have Hartley intercept. Ortman out of the double wing misfires and Harry Gilmer intercepts.
Second quarter and with all day to pass Baugh locates Joe Tereshinski behind Shipkey. Joe catches the well-thrown pass on the Pittsburgh five and trots into the end zone. Washington 10 Pittsburgh ZERO. The Steelers go back and forth from the double to single wing, but Ortman is sacked after moving the ball to the Redskin fourteen on a pass to Minarik (Pro Football Reference does not list any sacks in this game which is in error) since he holds the ball too long. He did this all year and as such the Steelers finished 10th in this category allowing 318 yards in sacks for the year. Geri badly misses his field goal attempt.
Washington punts and Ortman completes passes to Nickel and Chandnois before again misfiring to Drazenovich. Sammy Baugh has the 'Skins aligned in the t-formation then the double wing, but the staunch Steeler defense forces a punt. Chandnois in the double wing tries to run to no avail, and Pittsburgh again has to punt. Pittsburgh forces a punt, and Ortman aligned in the double wing to pass for three straight plays cannot find a receiver and runs every time till he is again intercepted. We are at half-time in this hard-fought, yet flawed game of turnovers and punts. Ortman begins the second half in the double wing and throws incomplete and is hit by Lipscomb. He is injured and replaced by Joe Geri.
Ortman over the last seven games has a passer rating of 18.4 as he completed just 43 of 114 for 502 yards with just 1 touchdown, and 10 intercepted. Geri proceeds to throw three straight wobbly misguided passes and then punts. Washington goes nowhere and punts. Geri out of the double wing is hammered by Drazenovich when he runs, but on the next play complete his only pass of the game to Chandnois. Geri cannot get the first down on a running play and punts.
Rob Goode fumbles when hit running to his left and a hustling Bull Schweder playing the game of his life recovers. Joe Geri is hit by Paul Lipscomb as he releases his pass and is replaced by none other than starting safety Jim Finks. Finks first pass is pilfered by Gilmer, but Washington now in the t-formation cannot move and punts. Finks has the Steelers aligned in the old Sutherland single wing and after avoiding the rush completes to Minarik on a crossing route, and then out of a double wing completes to Minarik at the sideline.
Jim then completes to Chandnois on an out pattern, and to Nickel up the seam. Finks is sacked by defensive end Bob Hendren. Finks cannot gain the necessary yardage when he runs, and the Steelers again punt. Washington in the T-formation is again stopped and punts the ball back to Pittsburgh, but Finks fumbles the ball back to the 'Skins.
Very late in the 3rd quarter, and Baugh is intercepted by Shipkey on a textbook linebacker zone drop play. This is the turning point in the game. Finks out of the single wing completes to Minarik as the quarter ends. Fourth quarter and the Steelers have not scored a point since the first half of the Eagle game on November 25th (thirteen quarters). First play of the quarter out of the standard single wing Finks well-thrown pass hits the mark as Chandnois catches the ball on his sideline route, and scampers 40 yards down the sideline to score.
The Redskins are in the 'T' and go nowhere, and punt again. Finks completes an out to Chandnois, and then comes back to him again on an out route. His passes have a slight wobble in the frigid air, yet his timing is superb and he is accurate. Finks cannot find a receiver and runs. The momentum and promising drive ends as Drazenovich rips the ball loose from Rogel.
Washington cannot move again and punts again. Finks completes another out to Chandnois, and then finds Minarik open on the other side of the field on a skinny post for 37 yards. Chandnois catches another pass, and when Finks cannot locate either Chandnois or Minarik he flips to Rogel who makes a fine one-handed catch and trundles deep into Redskin territory. Rogel punches it in and Pittsburgh leads 14-10.
The Skins fumble the kick-off back to Pittsburgh, and Finks still in the standard single wing rolls right and takes off for 22 yards. Joe Geri re-enters the game and burrows his way into the end zone to score. His extra point attempt goes off the left upright, but no matter a ten point lead late in the game. Washington is aligned in a wing formation with Ed Salem at tailback instead of Baugh, and one of his balloon passes is intercepted by Howard Hartley.
Finks and Geri are in the game at the same time as the Steelers run out the clock. Pittsburgh has set a new team record with 288 passing yards, and Finks was a very sharp 14 of 24 for 201 yards. For the first time in team history two receivers for Pittsburgh gained over 100 yards receiving; Minarik in his last game as a pro, and Chandnois for the second time in the season. Questions arise? How come Finks was not given an opportunity sooner? Quoting Ray Didinger in his superb book on Steeler history states "the tough little defensive back everyone said should have been throwing the ball all year."
Why use Geri and Ortman when neither could hit the ground with their hat? Pittsburgh aligned in the double wing so many times in the year attempted more passes than ever before in team history and had so little to show for it. Art Rooney dismisses Michelosen, and Joe Bach returns to Pittsburgh. Finks leads the league in touchdown passes in 1952 as Chandnois and Ray Mathews display their skills receiving. Elbie Nickel gains over 200 yards as a receiver in the final game of the '52 season against the Rams.
Finks will have his struggles after Joe Bach leaves due to ill health and Walt Kiesling returns. Those two men just could not get on the same page philosophically. Five times Finks would attempt at least 40 passes in a game, yet the Steelers off to fast starts in both '54 and '55 could not sustain their winning. Finks leaves the Steelers after 1955, and sure had success in helping build the Vikings and Bears, yet he should also be remembered for that fateful frosty day in Washington when the starting safety moves again to tailback and passes his team to victory.