Tuesday, August 14, 2018

JOHN BRODIE: A 17-Year Journey

By T.J. Troup
Art Credit: Merv Corning
When you play seventeen years in the NFL you must have enough ability to keep your position on the team. Before John Brodie's career is explored in detail, let us start with the situation he is entering into. The 1956 San Francisco 49ers have a new coach who happens to be a novice as a head coach, but knows the organization since he was once upon a time their quarterback.

The Niners struggled in 1955 under one-year head coach Red Strader, and the belief is that Frankie Albert can lead them back to prominence. He has a quarterback in Y.A. Tittle, and in the draft they take Earl Morrall. By midseason of  1956 and Morrall gets a chance to start, and though he has his moments, his rookie season is not what was expected.

San Francisco has never had a strong linebacker corps, and the trade of Morrall to Pittsburgh brings in outstanding outside linebacker Marv Matuszak. Someone has to back up Tittle and in the first-round of a very talented group of youngsters in the draft comes Stanford All-American John Brodie.

The 1957 Western Conference race is very contentious with the 49ers fighting to stay at the top thus Brodie watches from the sidelines the first six weeks. Late in game seven in a loss to the Rams John attempts his first pass late in the game. Incomplete on a long pass for Conner. The next week the contending Lions also beat San Francisco and late in the game Brodie completes 5 of 6 for 71 yards, and his first touchdown toss (20 yards to Billy Wilson). December 1st, and the Niners are in New York to battle the Giants in a game both teams must have to stay in contention.

When the Giants have the ball there are two men watching from their respective sidelines; right corner Dick Nolan of New York, and back-up quarterback John Brodie. Phil Bengston's defensive game plan is superb in blitzing Conerly into defeat. This will not be the last time Brodie & Nolan will be linked. San Francisco returns home and Tittle is injured late in the game. Brodie enters with the Niners knocking on the winning touchdown door at the Colt fourteen-yard-line. McElhenny convinces Brodie to throw a deep out in the end zone and he will be there to catch it. He does!

John Brodie gets his first start in the final game of the campaign against Green Bay at Kezar. Just one win away from meeting the Lions in a divisional play-off. Brodie struggles; Tittle comes off the bench and San Francisco wins. The disheartening home loss to Detroit in the play-offs is another lesson for John to learn as he watches the big lead evaporate. Frankie Albert decides to start Brodie instead of first team all-pro Y. A. Tittle to begin the '58 season. John plays well in the victory over Pittsburgh (quarterbacked by Earl Morrall), but the Rams hammer the Niners the next week, and for one week Tittle is back in the saddle as the starting QB.

Watching the complete game on film of the 49er victory over Philadelphia in week four shows what a young John Brodie is all about. When the Niners come out of the huddle in their tight slot formation Brodie stops, puts his hands on his hips stares at the defense and then puts his hands under center. Brodie gains 276 yards passing on 13 completions in the victory.

His first completion of the game San Francisco is tight slot left and the slot receiver R.C. Owens runs an out pattern as left split end Clyde Conner runs a slant and catches the ball for a 13-yard gain. Conner about to be tackled laterals to Owens who strides down the sideline for an additional 48 yards and Brodie's longest completion of the year. Later John fires over the middle to McElhenny for a 59-yard touchdown.

His outstanding performance allows him to start the next three games. The Rams again beat the Niners easily as Brodie again struggles. Though he throws passes in three more games he is again replaced by Tittle as the starting quarterback. 1959 begins with a new head coach in Howard "Red" Hickey. Hickey makes bold promises as San Francisco jumps out to a commanding lead in the western conference. Brodie does not attempt a pass in the first seven weeks, but late in the year he starts against both Cleveland and Baltimore as the 49ers fade to fourth place.

Hickey again states emphatically that San Francisco is a contender in 1960, and in the first game against Detroit Brodie comes off the bench and passes San Francisco to victory. He starts against the Bears in Wrigley the next week but this time the loss does not send him back to the bench. John starts the next week against Green Bay and the Phil Bengston Packer defense blankets his receivers and pressures him into an 0 for 13 performance and back to the bench.

Editor Don Schiffer put out a handbook during this time, and he would have thumbnail sketches of the players. These are quotes from Schiffer on the early part of Brodie's career. 1959 he states "nifty passing quarterback who spells Y.A. Tittle". 1960 he states "saw limited action in '59—top gunner in '58 with 59.9 completion percentage". October 30th, 1960 is a turning point for John as he again comes off the bench and guides the Niners to victory over the contending Bears. He will start the rest of the season.

San Francisco is 3-4 after the loss to Detroit, and then has two weeks to prepare for the expansion Cowboys. Brodie does not have one of his better passing games against the Landry led Cowboys (they will face each other again), but in the first half Brodie takes off and runs for gains of 25 & 30 yards! Though not considered a runner, he sure shows his athleticism and has also proven he is effective rolling out to his right. One of his top skills is his ability to fake the run and throw.

November 27th, 1960 is a fateful day in 49er history as Hickey has a so-called new game plan to limit the pass rush of the defending champion Colts. Hickey calls it the "shotgun", and is basically a form of a spread offense with wingbacks who can run or go out for passes. Much has been written about this game, yet so much more could and should have been told about this game. The Colts punt on their first possession and San Francisco on their first play from scrimmage aligns in the spread as Brodie completes to Owens for 10 yards. The Niners drive to the Baltimore fourteen before Tommy Davis kicks a field goal. First blood to the 49ers. A clipping penalty on the punt return has the Colts starting from their own six-yard line.

The master himself Johnny Hightops drive his steeds 94 yards and the lead on a pass to Berry. The next time Baltimore has the ball they drive 54 yards and score to take a 13-3 lead. San Francisco starts on their own thirty-yard line. In the spread on first down at their own forty-one, a bad snap from center in the spread formation has Brodie scampering to not only get the ball but avoid the onrushing Colts—he can't and a sack for a loss of 38 yards.

The next Baltimore drive ends with strong safety Dave Baker intercepting at his own fourteen. Brodie from the spread pitches to Owens for 29, and then Conner for 19. Last play of the half and John lofts the ball high for Owens in the end zone (let's call it the alley-oop re-visited) for 38 and a touchdown. Folks, we have ourselves a ballgame at 13-10.
During the third quarter the Niners revert back to the t-formation and drive for a touchdown by J.D. Smith and the lead. Next 49er possession back to the spread, and eventually a punt. Unitas completes two straight for 65 yards and retakes the lead 20-17. Early in the 4th quarter deep in San Francisco territory, a fumble recovered by Matt Hazeltine stops the Colts. This next drive by the Niners is the one that should have been covered in-depth, and has not been TILL NOW.

San Francisco switches from the T-formation to the spread more than once on this drive, and the key play is the 51-yard completion to Conner from the T!

Second down and eleven at the Baltimore fourteen with Brodie in the spread. The Colt defense has adjusted to the spread by going to a 3-4 look spaced evenly across the formation with Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb as a stand-up linebacker to the strong side. Brodie cannot find a receiver and darts up the middle for 5 yards until a sledge hammer forearm shot from the Big Daddy knocks him out of the ballgame.

Tittle enters the game, and Davis kicks a 15-yard field goal. Unitas long pass is intercepted by Mertens on the 49er seven. Aligned in the T-formation Brodie back in the game gives to Roberts who is tackled by the Big Daddy for a safety, and the lead at 22-20. Myhra misses a field goal and with 2:32 left in the game San Francisco has one last chance. Tittle is at quarterback for two plays, and is then replaced by Bobby Waters at quarterback in the spread. The youngster completes to Dee Mackey for 20, and then again for 19, but on this second completion Mackey laterals to Owens who sprints down the sideline for the remaining 22 yards and the winning touchdown.

When Dave Baker intercepts again on a Colt flea flicker it is not Brodie at quarterback, nor Waters, but Tittle under center in the T-formation running the ball into field goal range. Davis kicks the 17- yard field goal to put the game out of reach at 30-22 with just 19 seconds left. No writer has ever written that Hickey went back to the T-formation when he was emphatic that the spread was the only way to win the game?

San Francisco beats the Rams the next week as Brodie is sensational with a short passing game setting up the showdown in Kezar against the Lombardi Packers. Brodie plays poorly, and the Packer mudders take over first place. The rematch with the Colts at Kezar is another 49er victory, but Brodie again in inaccurate.

Entering the 1961 season Hickey has decided that Brodie will be the starter. Tittle is traded to New York, and the Niners draft tailback Billy Kilmer to rotate in at quarterback with Brodie in the spread. Much has been written about the '61 campaign, the ups and downs of the Niners, and Hickey's statements of why he abandons the spread? The second half of the year in the T-formation the 49er offense is a yard gaining machine because J.D. Smith runs for yards behind an excellent offensive line, and John Brodie has matured into a quarterback that can throw accurately and shred a secondary.

The last five games of the year he completes 73 of 137 for a whopping 1,364 yards! R.C. Owens gains over 1,000 receiving, yet is the first 1,000 yard receiver in league history to not be chosen for the pro bowl. Schiffer's 1962 handbook he states "quietly coming to the top of his performance" and " not likely to run club when it shifts to the shotgun".

What a foolish statement since Hickey has decided not to be bombastic on any predictions for 1962, and though San Francisco may on occasion align in the spread, the Niners are a T-formation team with Brodie as the starter. John plays well late in the year and throws for a career-high 18 touchdowns, but San Francisco with a record of 6-8 is under .500 for the first time in Brodie's career.

The 49ers entering '63 are not only not contenders, they are void of talent at too many positions. John Brodie has recovered from his spring auto accident, and starts the first three games of '63, but his arm injury sidelines him for the rest of the season. Hickey is replaced by Jack Christiansen, and the woeful last-place 49ers are at the bottom. One final quote from Schiffer " too many varying offenses have delayed the development of John Brodie". By far the best publication in this era is Street & Smith's Pro Football. Billy Kilmer is now a running back only, and the new young talent brought in the challenge Brodie for the quarterback position is quick, hard-throwing George Mira.

Bernie Casey has improved each year and by 1964 is one of the top wide receivers in the western conference, and is joined by Dave Parks to give Brodie the best targets he has ever had. Parks needs polish and experience, yet he is the complete package: swift, sure-handed, can run every route, and is tough as nails, and relishes the opportunity to run after the catch.

Christiansen, like most coaches, would relish having a balanced offense, but the Niners are lacking talent in the running game. The offensive line is a team strength and will only get better. San Francisco begins 1964 with a 2-2 mark and Brodie is poised and accurate. San Francisco drops four straight, and Christiansen gives Mira a chance for two games, but late in the year it is back to Brodie. There are trades and drafts that re-vitalize a team.

Abe Woodson was a fine combination corner/kick returner for the Niners, yet he is traded for tough running John David Crow of the Cardinals. When healthy Crow is a lethal combination of a power runner who can catch, and block. The draft brings Ken Willard in to play the other running back position. One of the best offensive lines in football opening holes for two relentless power runners, combined with a two excellent receivers in Parks & Casey.....for the first time in many years John Brodie has weapons.

Quoting Bob Oates in the '63 Street & Smith's Yearbook "John runs well, handles the ball smoothly, and is a clever passer though is arm may not be the strongest in the league". "If he has a glaring weakness it is that he seems subject to "off" days, a distinction which is not exactly unique". For the preview of '65 Oates states "Brodie is a quarterback who can do everything a quarterback has to do pretty well. He can throw short with reasonable accuracy, he can throw far enough and he scrambles decently. The problem with John is that he isn't great at anything".

The 49ers in 1963 scored only 198 points. The 49ers in 1965 will score 421 points. Amazing what happens if you give a quarterback some weapons. Problem is the 49er defense with only a handful of decent defenders allow 402. While passing stats don't tell the complete story, they are an indicator. Brodie completes 30 of 40 for 505 yards with 5 touchdowns and no interceptions the first two games of the year. Though no quarterback in this era can maintain such gaudy numbers, he sure gives it his all. The Detroit Lions in 1965 still have a strong defense, but a substandard offense. The Minnesota Vikings have a terrific versatile offense, and a pathetic defense.
There are three very strong contenders in '65; the defending conference champion Colts led by John Unitas, a revitalized Packer team led by Bart Starr, and the surprising Chicago Bears led by rookie sensation Gale Sayers, and aided by passing champion Rudy Bukich. These three teams have defenses that can limit or even stop an opponent. Brodie does not, yet San Francisco leads the league in scoring.

John has so many excellent games that choosing which one to detail is difficult. November 28th in Minnesota Brodie gains 209 yards on his 10 completions, with 5(his all-time high) touchdown passes in a 45-24 win. Last day of the season is the game to be discussed. Brodie is coming off a decent performance in the Wrigley Field loss to the Bears where the porous defense allowed 61 points, and the team now has a 7-6 record. The opponent are the men from Green Bay who know they cannot lose since the Colts won the day before to finish 10-3-1. Brodie throws into the right flat early and larcenous Adderley left corner par excellence pilfers the pigskin and trots into the end zone.

John must not get down since he knows the Niner defense cannot stop Green Bay. Brodie does throw two more interceptions, but he also completes 26 passes against the best secondary in the league. Those 26 completions gain 295 yards, and 3 scores as San Francisco ties Green Bay forcing a playoff.

For the season Brodie sets a new standard with 242 completions. For a moment lets reflect on how many accurate passers have come before and during Brodie's career, yet he ranks first for a season in this key category. A true evaluation though must ask the question; did Brodie attempt the most passes ever in a season? The answer is no. Six times a quarterback had attempted more than 400 passes in a season (Brodie attempted 391).

Attending the Pro Bowl was always a joy for me in those days, but John had one of those days a quarterback never wants to have. Against Eastern Conference all-stars  he completed 14 of 29 for 180 yards, with 6 interceptions in the 36-7 loss. What can we expect for the 49ers in '66?

One of the publications of that era was the Pro Football Almanac (the caption at the top "The Biggest, Best Pro Football Magazine"). Who is our cover boy?  None other than John Brodie. The story on our cover boy begins with a quote from Johnny Lujack, "He seems to get better every year. He can become one of the best in the league". The story details how Brodie went to the official as team captain after Dave Parks called a timeout against the Rams. Brodie did not want the timeout and let the clock run before calling time. Davis kicks the game-winning field goal as the Rams now had only six seconds to work with.

The main question for 1966 was simple yet incisive—could the 49er offense duplicate 1965? November 13th of 1966 and we are in Chicago as the 49ers with a 4-3-1 record take on the floundering Bears. George Allen has left the Bears and is now head coach of the Rams, and as such Jim Dooley calls the defense for Chicago. He rolls the coverage to Dave Parks since Parks was prolific in '65 and off to a strong start in '66. Brodie realizes this and pinpoints Bernie Casey on the other side. Casey gains 225 yards on 12 catches in the 30-all tie.

The NFL goes through realignment in 1967 with four divisions with four teams each. The Coastal division has the low flying Falcons, but two juggernauts in Baltimore & Los Angeles. Christiansen has San Francisco off and winging with a 5-1 record, before the bottom falls out. Brodie struggles the second half of the year, and both rookie Steve Spurrier, and George Mira play down the stretch(Brodie starts just one of the last four games of the year). The highlight of the year is the victory over the Rams in the Coliseum (their only loss) as he gained 269 yards against a George Allen coached defense with 3 touchdowns. Christiansen is dismissed, and the new man in town is taciturn Dick Nolan.

Christiansen, with his background on defense, was supposed to strengthen that part of the team, and never did. Nolan also has a defensive background, and he has a systematic plan to do so. Mira plays very little, as Dick Nolan knows that Brodie can lead his team. Parks has left for New Orleans, and Bernie Casey is a Ram. A trade with Cleveland has brought in pencil-thin Clifton McNeil and Brodie instantly builds a strong connection with the former bench player as he leads the league with 71 catches for just under 1,000 yards.

The victory over the Falcons in Atlanta to close the season gives the Niners a 7-6-1 mark. For a moment lets take a look at the overall record for the last 86 games. San Francisco has won just 33. Will the Niners ever be a contender before Brodie retires? 1969 is more of the same as they win just 4 of 14. Nolan painstakingly is building the defense, and there is improvement in the pass rush, and linebacking play, but the secondary is still a work in progress.

John Brodie has another new receiver in 1969 in the rookie from Stanford Gene Washington. The youngster displays quickness, speed, and route running ability—he just needs experience.

Quoting Street & Smith's in 1970 "watch Brodie. Football has seldom presented a better pure passer". His arm injuries from '69 have supposedly healed, and the secondary with rookie Bruce Taylor and Roosevelt Taylor for his first complete season in the city by the Bay—John Brodie in his 14th season might have a contending team again? November 8th, 1970 in Wrigley Field where Brodie has won just once in his career. San Francisco enters the game with a 5-1-1 record, with the Allen Rams nipping at their heals at 5-2.

The passer rating is a tool that has served me well over the years, and Brodie's for this game is 147.5. Having the play by play and watching the highlight film though is the real indicator that John Brodie has reached the pinnacle of his career. Half-time and the Bears lead 13-10. Brodie has completed 8 of 12 for 94 yards. Chicago takes the second half kick-off and drives to the Niner twelve. Percival kicks a 19 year field goal to up the lead. The rest of the half is all Brodie at his best. He completes 13 of 16 for 223 yards. He reads the Bear blitz and delivers a deep strike to Gene Washington for 79 and a touchdown. Twice in the red zone a man who has been knocked for inability to read coverage throws to the open man for scores. During this game Brodie completed his 2,000th pass to join only three other men in this category.

In late November Brodie struggles on successive weeks in the losses to Detroit and Los Angeles, but the 7-3-1 San Francisco 49ers win their last three as player of the year John Brodie throws for seven touchdowns. The improved Nolan defense does their part, and for the first time Brodie has led San Francisco to top. The road victory over the Vikings on a frozen field in Minnesota sets up the NFC title game in the last game at Kezar. Brodie's long strike to Washington convinced Landry to roll coverage and Dallas with Thomas running sweep after sweep into the boundary (short side of the field) advance to the Super Bowl.
Being on the cover of Sports Illustrated is an achievement, and the Pro Football Issue for 1971 has John Brodie standing with hands on his hips calling out what he sees. "Here Come the 49ers". San Francisco starts 6-2 but the Rams who have beaten Frisco twice are in a position to win the division on the last day of the '71 season. Tom Brookshier & Pat Summerall commented on 31-27 win over the Lions at Candlestick on the outstanding show This Week in Pro Football—that it was one of the best games of any season. Brodie uses his ground game superbly as Ken Willard at one point carries eight of eleven plays to eat up the clock, yet the key plays are completions by Brodie to his now star wide receiver Gene Washington who torches right corner Al Clark of the Lions twice. On the Lion ten yard line Brodie drops back and runs a quarterback draw for the winning 10 yard touchdown. No doubt everyone except John was surprised that he ran on the well-executed play.

Beating the Redskins at home set up another showdown with the Landry Cowboys, and again the future Super Bowl champion Dallas played suffocating defense. The years have taken their toll, but having Spurrier is a godsend as Brodie misses plenty of playing time with injury. San Francisco is 4-4-1 with five games to go in '72. The 49er defense, with assistance from Spurrier are now at home in Candlestick to play Minnesota before 58,502 with the division title on the line.

Watching the highlights of John warming up on the sideline rotating his now ancient arm and then entering the game is moment that will be captured for all-time. Can he bring the 49ers back? Of course he can as he throws to open receivers underneath, in-between, and behind defenders. He throws 15 passes, and the Vikings snare two of them, but the sure-handed Niner receivers grab 10 for 165 yards, and the two touchdowns to win a 3rd consecutive division crown. Roger Staubach will long be remembered for his pinpoint accuracy in bringing Dallas back from the dead to beat San Francisco at Candlestick 30-28, yet Brodie has now guided San Francisco to three straight division titles. John Brodie is the starter at the beginning of '73 in his 17th campaign, but he is just not the passer he once was.
Art credit: Chuck Ren

He plays well in the October victory over New Orleans, but has very poor games against the Rams and Lions. Nolan starts him for the Saturday nationally televised game against the Steelers, but John wobbles a pass downfield that John Rowser intercepts and returns for a touchdown. He completes 6 of 12 for 79 yards in his final game.

No quarterback wants his pass to be intercepted, let alone returned for a touchdown. Brodie while he did throw his fair share of interceptions was not victimized nearly as often as many other quarterbacks in throwing a "pick six". Only 13 times in his career (five by the Rams). John Brodie attempted 1,395 passes in his career against the Lions, Bears, and Vikings, and only two were returned for scores.

Before going any further it is time to go back to quotes from publications. From '69 through the mid '70's a new football magazine came on the horizon; Pro Quarterback.  The magazine was at times insightful, and sure had some strong opinions. February of '71: "John Brodie always has had a style which impresses people, whether they're teammates, rivals or professional observers". "If I had an obstacle course for passes" said one scout, "where they had to throw a variety of passes, I think Brodie would rank right up there at the top. Maybe behind Joe Namath, but right in there with Unitas and Jurgensen".

October of '71 Brodie is on the cover and the story on him: A Championship for San Francisco? A quote from John himself: "I always thought if the pieces were put together properly, our direction would be up. And it is. We're in a better position now than we were even at the close of last season".  1972 Super Bowl issue there is an evaluation of the quarterbacks and he ranks at the top with a "4" in set-up speed & throwing ability, but just 2.5 for reaction under pressure. The article states that scouts saw deficient areas, thus he failed to convince them of his ability overall.
That said, as a man who coached receivers at the college level, and worked with quarterbacks—my view of John Brodie's career watching film of him is as follows. He is just a cut below being a Hall of Fame quarterback due to his inconsistency. What stands out about Brodie is simple—R.C. Owens gained 1,000 yards receiving with Brodie, and did nothing after he left San Francisco. Parks & Casey had standout seasons and games catching passes from John. Parks in particular has stated that he should have never left Frisco.

Casey, though he played well with Gabriel and the Rams, was at his best in Frisco. Clifton McNeil had one monster year with Brodie, and did very little anywhere else. Gene Washington was on his way to superstardom with Brodie, yet when John was injured and then retired Washington just did not catch as many passes. John Brodie could build a synergy with a receiver that only the greats can do. A receiver can run a sharp route, get open, and have sure hands, yet he has to have someone to throw the ball with timing and accuracy. John Brodie displayed that over and over.


  1. Great job coach Troup. Does Brodie remind you of any qbs in todays game or recently?

  2. Great post coach! Enjoy reading the research and history.

  3. Another outstanding, in-depth examination, Coach! Brodie was indeed a great field general and it's nice to see him get some ink. Great!

  4. I enjoyed the heck out of this article, Coach! No doubt Brodie’s three best seasons were 65, 68 and 70. He was as good or better than anybody in those seasons and richly deserved his MVP award in 70. The only time I didn’t like him is when he won that 1970 playoff game at the Met.

  5. Great article, though the 49ers of the 50s, 60s and 70s should have been champions. It's still hard to believe that Paul Brown of Cleveland, let Y.A Tittle get away !!

    Dave Parks is another example of a HOF career being derailed by trade and injuries...

    I hope Billy Wilson along with Brodie, gets more HOF consideration...John David Crow is underrated as well.

  6. Saw John Brodie once in person at Kezar against the Rams, in a loss in 1969, a very close game in which the defense could not stop a Ram score late. Rookie Kwalick dropped a sure TD pass at the 3 with ten seconds left, as Brodie drove them down field in the last few minutes of the game. I was really pissed off. Some Ram fan got in my face, where I sat with friends right under the old scoreboard at Kezar. I hit him with the cast that was on my right arm from breaking it in football practice at Bellarmine about a month sooner.