Monday, July 6, 2020

1949 NFL Season in Review

By Andy Piascik
The 1949 season saw another close two-team race in the West and one of the biggest runaways in NFL history in the East. It also saw the transfer of the Boston Yanks to New York where owner Ted Collins re-named them the Bulldogs. And perhaps most important, 1949 marked the end of the war between the NFL and the All-America Football Conference as a peace agreement was reached in December just before the two leagues played their Championship Games. The terms called for the admission into the NFL of the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts, and most of the New York Yankees (who would essentially merge with Collins’ Bulldogs) beginning in 1950.

The game on the field continued the inexorable march toward the two-platoon system. Directly related was the continued shift to more passing. There was also the ongoing return of players from the military as well as the graduation from college of many who went straight from high school to the service and who were coming into the NFL as older-than-usual rookies.
Chuck Bednarik
Philadelphia great Chuck Bednarik was a prime example of the latter. Bednarik entered the Army Air Corps upon graduating high school in 1943 and enrolled at Penn in 1945 after two years in the service. Having served as a waist gunner on 30 bombing missions, Bednarik, like many of his contemporaries, went into the NFL in 1949 as a man mature beyond his years.
Another Drop in Attendance

Attendance was down for a third consecutive year in 1949 to 23,916 per game. That was a decrease of more than 2,000 per game from 1948 and more than 8,000 a game from the all-time mark established in 1946. The good news for the NFL is that a long, steady rise would begin in 1950 and the league’s average attendance has never been as low as 23,916 again.

A Sudden Resignation and a Failed Coaching Experiment
Jimmy Conzelman resigned suddenly as head coach of the Cardinals early in 1949 after leading Chicago to two consecutive conference titles and an NFL championship in 1947. Phil Handler replaced him and was eventually joined by Buddy Parker as the Cards employed co-coaches. The experiment did not work as hoped and the Cardinals fell from 11-1 to 6-5-1. Parker left in disgust at the co-coach approach and soon re-surfaced in Detroit where he would guide the Lions to championship heights. For the Cardinals, the changes in coaches were among a series of events that coincided with and contributed to the end of their brief status as an elite team.
Two Titles in a Row for the Eagles

The Eagles became the fourth team in NFL history to win consecutive league championships. Philadelphia’s 11-1 record remains the best in franchise history and they raised their record to 28-7-1 for the three straight years they finished first in the East. They also upped their record for the six-year period from 1944 through 1949 to 48-16-2.

The Eagles also accomplished the extremely rare feat of leading the league in both most points scored and fewest points allowed in the same season. Philadelphia was frequently dominant in victory in 1949 as they won games by scores of 28-3, 49-14, 38-7, 38-14, 44-21, 42-0, 34-17, and 24-3. They pitched two shutouts and had a total of six games where they allowed seven points or fewer. It all added up to a remarkable 19.2 per-game point differential that is one of the very best in pro football history. 

The Eagles charged through the East and finished 4½ games ahead of second-place Pittsburgh. The Steelers hung close for a while and were actually tied with Philadelphia for first place at 4-1 but were blown out of Forbes Field by the Eagles on October 30th. That game was the beginning of a tailspin for the Steelers as they went 2-4-1 after their 4-1 start, including two losses to Philadelphia by a combined 48 points.

The T-Formation and the Passing Game
The T-formation grew more popular as the offensive alignment of choice and the related move toward a more pass-oriented game continued. The league average of 357 passing yards a game was slightly higher than 1948 and the second-highest in league history at that point, just a few yards off the highest-ever mark of 1947. It was a trend that would continue. With the luxury of hindsight, it’s clear 1946 marked the final season of one era and 1947 the first of another.

The 1949 season saw Sid Luckman, the NFL’s first T quarterback, lost his starting job to Johnny Lujack. It had been a great run for Luckman since his rookie season in 1939. With him at the helm, the Bears won four championships and had several of the most dominant seasons in league history. Individually, Luckman won passing titles, set numerous passing records, and was the NFL’s MVP in 1943. He retired after the 1950 season and was part of the third class elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. 

8-2-2 versus 9-3
For the third year in a row, the race in the West went to the season’s final day. As in 1947 and 1948, the Bears were one of the two contestants and they came up just short once again. In the two previous seasons, they were beaten out by the Cardinals. In 1949, it was the Rams as Los Angeles finished 8-2-2 and Chicago 9-3.   

It wasn’t until 1972 that the NFL changed the way it calculates winning percentages where ties are counted as half a win and half a loss so an 8-2-2 record today comes to .750. Had the current means of calculation been in force in 1949, the Rams and Bears would have tied for first and played a playoff to determine Western supremacy. Calculated the old way, however, ties were discarded and the Rams’ 8-2-2 record translated to an .800 winning percentage. That left the 9-3 Bears out in the cold with a winning percentage of .750.

It marked the fourth and final time in NFL history that the old way of calculating winning percentages came into play in deciding first place. The other three times were in 1925, 1930, and 1932 before the league split into two divisions so on those occasions, the old-style basically determined the league champion. For the Bears, 1949 was another of a long series of heartbreaking endings in the post-war era.

Outstanding Individual Performances
Gene Roberts of the Giants finished fourth in both rushing yards and receiving yards while scoring 17 touchdowns, one short of Don Hutson’s NFL record. Roberts also became the first running back to top 200 receiving yards in a game with 201 in New York’s 35-28 win over the Bears on October 23rd. Incredibly, Roberts duplicated the feat three weeks later with 212 receiving yards in a 30-10 victory over the Packers. Seventy-one years later, Roberts remains the only running back in NFL history to catch passes for 200 or more yards in a game, something he did twice in a mere three weeks.
SteveVan Buren
Steve Van Buren set an NFL record with 1,146 rushing yards as he won an unprecedented fourth rushing title and third in succession. He also set several career records including that for most rushing yards, eclipsing Clark Hinkle’s mark.
Tom Fears
Tom Fears broke another of Hutson’s many records with 77 receptions as he led the league in that category for the second year in a row. And Sammy Baugh extended his record by winning a sixth passing title, a mark he still holds together with Steve Young.
Bob Mann
In what at the time were both very rare occurrences, Fears and Bob Mann of the Lions topped the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards while Tony Canadeo of the Packers joined Van Buren in topping the century mark in rushing yards. George McAfee and Frank Seno set career marks in several kickoff return and punt return categories, respectively, while Detroit rookie Don Doll tied one record with four interceptions in a game and set another with 301 interception return yards. The latter mark, set in a 12-game season, stood until well into the 16-game era when Deion Sanders broke it in 1994.

Fears, Waterfield and Van Buren were among those who made most or all of the all-pro teams. Dick Huffman of the Rams did likewise as he continued as one of the game’s best linemen. Pete Pihos of the Eagles, Buster Ramsey, and Pat Harder of the Cardinals, Ray Bray of the Bears, Fred Naumetz of the Rams, and Dick Wildung of the Packers were also honored as among the best at their respective positions. Neither the NFL nor any major media outlet named a Most Valuable Player, though Van Buren would likely have been the winner if any had. He did win the MVP honor awarded by the Washington D.C. Touchdown Club.

Games of Note
September 23rd at Memorial Coliseum (17,878): Rams 27 Lions 24
In a Friday night opener before a meager crowd at the cavernous Coliseum, the Rams began their trek to the Western title with a come from behind win over the Lions. The game marked the debut of rookie quarterback Norm Van Brocklin as Los Angeles began four years of alternating between Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. A standout at the University of Oregon, Van Brocklin was another rookie who, like Chuck Bednarik, went straight from high school to the military before attending college.

Both Van Brocklin and Waterfield threw touchdown passes as Los Angeles rallied from a 24-17 fourth-quarter deficit to win. The winning points came on a 46-yard field goal with 2:15 left by Waterfield. The game was also the first as a Ram for Elroy Hirsch, who had spent the three previous years in the AAFC and was one of a few and by far the most prominent player to jump from the rival league to the NFL.

October 8th at Shibe Park (34,597): Eagles 28 Cardinals 3
The Cardinals had lost the previous week to the Bears and this one-sided defeat that dropped them to 1-2 was a further indication that this season would be different from their first place seasons of 1947 and 1948. The Eagles utilized a familiar formula as their defense held the Cards to 57 net passing yards, had four sacks and intercepted three passes while Van Buren and company rushed for 296 yards and four touchdowns.  The Cardinals fell two games behind the Rams and basically would not be a factor in the conference race. Philadelphia, meanwhile, improved to 3-0.

October 9th at Wrigley Field (42,124): Rams 31 Bears 16
The previous week, the Bears had vanquished the Cardinals, the team that edged them out in the West on the last day of the two previous seasons. This was the first of two Chicago losses to the Rams, the team that by season’s end would establish itself as the new power in the West. With the additions of Van Brocklin, Hirsch, fullback Tank Younger, and halfback Vitamin T. Smith on offense, the Rams were much improved and were en route to the first of three straight Western crowns.

Hirsch teamed with Fears and Bob Shaw to give Los Angeles a potent three-receiver line-up under head coach Clark Shaugnessy, the master innovator, and all three caught touchdown passes from Waterfield as the Rams rallied from a 16-3 deficit. The total yards were about even and the Bears actually outgained the Rams through the air, but in a theme that recurred again and again in this era, the Bears turned the ball over eight times including seven interceptions. They fell to 2-1, a game behind 3-0 Los Angeles, and spent the rest of the season unsuccessfully chasing the Rams.

October 16th at Wrigley Field (50,129): Bears 38 Eagles 21
Chicago rebounded from their home loss to the Rams as they completely shut down the Philadelphia running game and handed the Eagles their only loss of the season. The Bears piled up 200 rushing yards of their own while stifling the Eagles to the tune of 42 yards on 32 rushes in improving to 3-1. Van Buren was held to 15 yards on 15 carries and the Eagles fell to 3-1.

Chicago outgained Philadelphia 457 yards to 255 and had a 28-14 advantage in first downs. Despite that, the Eagles led 14-7 early and were within 28-21 in the fourth quarter until George McAfee returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown. At season’s end, the Bears and their fans were left to wonder what might have been had they won the West and played the Eagles again for the league title in a Championship Game that would have been played on the same Wrigley Field turf.
October 23rd at the Polo Grounds (30,587): Giants 35 Bears 28

The Giants were in the midst of a mediocre season but they roused themselves to inflict a damaging blow on an old rival. The Bears were coming off their spirited win over the Eagles and the loss to New York dropped them to 3-2, two full games back of the Rams. Chicago lost the conference crown by percentage points to Los Angeles so the defeat to the very beatable Giants was damaging in the extreme.

One factor that came into play was an apparent bit of sentimentality by the usually unsentimental George Halas. The Bears’ owner and head coach started the fading, New York City-born Sid Luckman in a game played not far from where Luckman had starred at Columbia University. Luckman played terribly as the Giants built a 21-0 lead and the Bears came up short despite Johnny Lujack playing sensationally in relief with two touchdown passes and 319 yards in just over a half. Chicago’s Jim Keane tied an NFL record with 14 receptions in a losing cause.

October 30th at Forbes Field (37,903): Eagles 38 Steelers 7
Pittsburgh and Philadelphia went in tied for first but the Eagles clearly established they were the best team in the East in front of one of the Steelers’ largest home crowds ever as they improved to 5-1. It was another dominant effort by Philadelphia as they rushed for 237 yards and three touchdowns with Van Buren leading the way with 103. The Steelers dropped to 4-2 and, perhaps because of frustration on Pittsburgh’s part at being blown out, the teams engaged in a prolonged fight in the third quarter that resulted in two players from each side being ejected. 

October 30th at Memorial Coliseum (86,080): Rams 27 Bears 24
Before the largest crowd in NFL history to that time, the Rams again rallied for a thrilling victory over the Bears. Two Chicago touchdowns in the fourth quarter erased a 20-10 Los Angeles lead, but the Rams scored late to pull out the victory. Waterfield led the way with 303 passing yards, 143 of which went to Tom Fears on 11 receptions.

Gerry Cowhig’s winning touchdown run from the one was set up by a 57-yard kickoff return by rookie Tom Kalmanir followed several plays later by a Chicago penalty for pass interference in the end zone. Though it may sound like a broken record, the Bears again killed themselves with seven turnovers and 103 yards in penalties. The Rams improved to 6-0 and increased their lead to three games over the 3-3 Bears.

November 6 at Shibe Park (38,830): Eagles 38 Rams 14
The Rams went in undefeated but were manhandled by the Eagles before a crowd that was a Shibe Park record for football in a showdown between the two division leaders. Philadelphia continued its recent dominance of Los Angeles as the Eagles improved their record against the Rams to 5-0-1 since 1944 and their overall record in 1949 to 6-1. The victory increased their lead in the East to two games while the Rams’ loss and a Bears win closed the gap in the West to two games. 

The Eagles had a 472 to 264 advantage in total yards and 264 of them came on the ground. Los Angeles scored first but it was all Philadelphia thereafter as the Rams turned the ball over five times. Few at the time would likely have been surprised that the game was a preview of the Championship Game played six weeks later.

November 13th at Forbes Field (20,510): Rams 7 Steelers 7
In the second leg of their Pennsylvania road trip, the Rams rallied for a touchdown by Fred Gehrke with just 24 seconds remaining to gain what turned out to be a valuable tie and up their record to 6-1-1. The game was played in a steady rain on a muddy field and the Steelers did not attempt a single pass. Pittsburgh generated little offense after they scored first in the second quarter and played conservatively thereafter.

The Rams weren’t hindered much by the Pittsburgh defense as they totaled 362 yards from scrimmage. But three turnovers and several occasions where they came up short on fourth down kept Los Angeles off the scoreboard until the final seconds. Gehrke capped a 59-yard drive with a touchdown plunge from the one.

November 20th at Comiskey Park (34,100): Rams 28 Cardinals 28
For the second straight week, Los Angeles had to rally late to salvage a tie. Combined with the Bears’ win over Washington, the Los Angeles lead in the West narrowed to one game, with the Rams at 6-1-2 and the Bears at 6-3. As with their game the previous week, rallying for a tie proved crucial to the Rams winning the West.

As mentioned, the Cardinals were a shell of their teams that had gone 9-3 and 11-1 the previous two seasons. Though still potent on offense with an average of 30 points per game, Chicago slipped badly on defense in 1949 to where they were near the bottom in all major statistical categories. The Cards were overwhelmed by a powerful Los Angeles offense as they relinquished 465 yards and fell to 4-4-1. The tying score came midway through the fourth quarter on a 12-yard interception return for a touchdown by the Rams. Los Angeles had a chance to win on the game’s final play but Chicago blocked Waterfield’s short field goal try.

December 11, Memorial Coliseum (44,899): Rams 53 Redskins 27
The Coliseum scoreboard showed the Bears comfortably ahead in what turned out to be a 52-21 thrashing of the Cardinals in their finale so the Rams knew at kickoff that they had to beat Washington to claim the crown in the West. To that end, Los Angeles took control early on one touchdown pass each by their two great quarterbacks in the first quarter. Their lead grew to 34-7 at halftime and 53-14 in the fourth quarter.

The Rams piled up 584 total yards, 405 of which were through the air. Waterfield and Van Brocklin split duties throughout, with Waterfield throwing for 235 yards and two touchdowns and Van Brocklin passing for four additional scores. Bob Shaw tied Don Hutson’s record by catching four of those touchdown passes and Tom Fears caught two more as part of a 10-catch day that, as mentioned above, enabled him to break another of Hutson’s records for most receptions in a season.

December 18, Championship Game, Memorial Coliseum (22,245): Eagles 14 Rams 0
A weekend of heavy rain turned the Coliseum turf to mud and kept the crowd to little more than one-fifth of the huge stadium’s capacity. The Eagles followed the same formula that brought them so much success over three years as they rode their tremendous defense and the running of Van Buren to a second consecutive NFL title. Philadelphia rushed for 274 yards, with Van Buren leading the way with a Championship Game record 196. The Eagles ran the ball 61 times compared to a mere nine pass attempts, though one of those passes resulted in a Tommy Thompson to Pete Pihos touchdown.

Philadelphia’s defense played superbly and the Rams’ offense did little throughout. Los Angeles gained a mere 21 yards on 24 rushes and Waterfield and Van Brocklin completed only 10 of 27 pass attempts. All told, the Rams had only 119 total yards.

Though the Rams won the turnover battle 3-1, the Eagles came up with a big special teams play in the third quarter that resulted in a touchdown and extended their lead to 14-0. Defensive end Leo Skladany blocked a Waterfield punt, recovered the ball at the Los Angeles two-yard line and went in for the score.

Despite having their two great quarterbacks and other offensive standouts in Fears, Hirsch, Younger, Shaw, and Dick Hoerner, Los Angeles was completely stifled the rest of the way. As impressive as the Eagles winning two consecutive NFL championships is the fact that they posted shutouts in both of their title game victories. 

Philadelphia’s victory in the Coliseum marked the end of a tumultuous, difficult, and groundbreaking decade for the NFL. Just as the league emerged from the struggles of the Great Depression, new hardships began with the United States’ entry into the Second World War. No sooner did the war end than the NFL was confronted with four years of competition from what was until that time its most formidable challenger, the All-America Football Conference.

The decade closed with a peace agreement that stemmed the tide of unmanageable red ink. The peace agreement coincided with the beginning of the almost unbelievable rise of television, a cultural force that would dramatically alter American life and the fortunes of pro football. There probably aren’t too many people beyond a small core of football historians and old-time fans who today would agree with Mickey Herskowitz’s characterization of the 1950s as the sport’s Golden Age, but the 1950s were pivotal in the rise of the popularity of the pro game and the roots for much of the game’s rise in the 1950s lay in the 1940s.

Beyond television and any other factors, the 1940s saw the end of the barring of African-Americans from the pro game. The numbers early on were small, criminally small, but they grew bit by bit until the NFL was full of superbly talented black players who contributed greatly to the game’s quality and popularity. Looking back to that time when the sport was at its finest to that point, we are left to wonder what football and its fans missed because of the pre-1946 barring of black players. In celebrating the greatness of the game in the latter part of the 1940s and what came after, we are also left to ask Why?     

The formidable research efforts of Ken Pullis proved invaluable: first, his work for the Pro Football Researchers Association’s Linescore Project for 1949 and, second, his Progression of NFL Records which is available both from PFRA and in the two editions of The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia.  

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