By TJ Troup
While there are many seasons of pro football history before the merger in 1970 that are interesting; the season of 1949 for me remains one of the most intriguing.
Why you ask? The league mandated, on a trial basis, a two-platoon system, and therefore substitution. Now there would be players and more specifically quarterbacks that did not have to play defense. Still, due to the talent level, and coaches learning how to use the system effectively you had many men who still went both ways.
The difference of course is some of those players spent much more time on one side of the ball than the other. There are ten teams in the NFL in 1949, and while a story could be done on each one...this saga is about the Lions, and their captain Johnny Greene.
The 1942 Detroit Lions would be a finalist for the worst team in the history of the league since 1933. How bad were they you ask? Successful coaches make half-time adjustments, yet the Lions of '42 scored one second-half touchdown in eleven games.
Gus Dorais becomes the coach in '43 and by 1944 Detroit is a strong contending team. Johnny Greene was a rookie who played sparingly, but the next season Detroit and Greene especially played strong football with their second-place finish in 1945. Aligned at left end on both defense and offense he sparkled in the game film that was evaluated.
The Lions of '46 fell to the basement with a 1-10 record. Greene scored on an 88-yard touchdown reception in their only win of the year. Detroit hired former Indiana head coach Bo McMillan to resurrect the team.
The 1947 and 1948 editions of the Lions while showing improvement were still a work in progress, and coach McMillan continually looked to upgrade the roster. The Chicago Cardinals and Chicago Bears were the kingpins of the Western Conference in this era, and in '49 the suddenly powerful Rams added to the strength of the conference.
Can the Detroit Lions in 1949 compete with these three outstanding teams?
Thirty-seven men suited up in Honolulu Blue and Silver in '49, but since Bo came from Indiana the Lions also wore all black uniforms on occasion, and red and white at times. The Detroit Lions were the poster boys in this era for "alternate uniforms"! Twenty-four of the thirty-seven were in their last or only season in Detroit; which of course tells us that coach McMillan is still not sure how much talent he has to work with. The Lions draft was a strange one due to the fact they traded their number one pick John Rauch, but worked a pre-season trade with Philadelphia for quarterback Frank Tripucka.
For those of you who purchased my book "The Birth of the Modern 4-3 Defense" you have come to realize that I am fascinated with who started, and who actually played what positions on their team. That said, here we go.....down memory lane to highlight the season and who played for the Lions of '49.
Coach McMillan believes in a balanced offense, and though the Lions will align in a spread formation a few times, they are almost always in the standard double tight end full house t-formation. Plenty of motion is used, and the ends are either flexed or split out also—and there are reasons why McMillan does this.
After four games in 1946 Detroit had run, if that is the proper word...the ball 70 times for -1 yard. One more time—SEVENTY ATTEMPTS for MINUS ONE YARD. Did not get much better the rest of the campaign with 204 attempts for 468 yards. Can the Lions run the ball in 1949?
The offensive left tackle in his last year in Detroit was big George Hekkers. Adequate in the run game, he struggled as a pass blocker. Marlo DeMarco in his only year was the starting left guard, and while a commendable effort the undersized blocker had difficulty with defensive lineman much bigger and stronger.
Second-year man Jack Simmons was impressive as the starting center using his size and strength to advantage on inside running plays. Stocky Bill Ward demonstrated he could pull, and block in the running game in his last season as a Lion. Howie Brown had played for McMillan at Indiana, and he handled the right tackle post adequately, though at 5'11" he also had difficulty as a pass blocker. Backfield by committee is the best way to describe who carried the ball for Detroit.
Cloyce Box, Bob Smith, and rookie Wally Triplett aligned at right halfback. Box is out of position as a halfback(that will change in the ''50s), and there will be much more said about James Robert Smith when the defense is discussed. Lean, swift, and elusive Wally Triplett could "break" the long run at any moment. Not sure why he was not used more in the game plans?
Camp Wilson is one of only three Lions who played in '46 still on the team, and in his last year at fullback he still can hammer out the tough yards inside, and he is one tough hombre as a lead blocker. He is listed at 6'1'' 200 lbs, yet looks much bigger on film. Injuries have plagued him, and this is his last campaign.
Bill Dudley has played valiantly, and at times impressively in his two years in Detroit, and he is the nominal starter at left half. The "Bullet" goes in motion often, and has proven he is a viable option in the passing game since he catches the ball well, and finds the open area. Dudley still runs hard inside and outside, though he lacks size and speed. Somehow he makes defenders miss tackles, or bounces off their attempts. He is a joy to watch.
Fred Enke is in his second season as the Lion signal-caller. He has a strong arm, is a willing runner to the point that he is actually moved to halfback to run the ball, or throw the halfback option pass. Enke is very inconsistent in his accuracy, and holds the ball too long, yet he will return to Detroit in 1950.
Clyde LeForce in his last year as a Lion shines on film throwing the ball. His performance in the victory over the Cardinals is very impressive. LeForce is accurate, and when in a groove completes pass after pass. He demonstrates he can make every throw, and his timing on deep out patterns to Bob Mann is textbook. LeForce comes off the bench, and later starts a couple games, yet at the end of the year the triggerman post is handled by rookie Frank Tripucka.
Tripuka watched from the bench the first half of the season, then started four of the last five games. Fearless in his belief in his strong right arm..."Trip" fires the ball all over Briggs Stadium, and can while learning on the job the Lions win with him. He will not return in 1950, but will have a long, LONG professional career as a quarterback. Though a couple men take a snap here or there as an end this position is the strength of the team.
Bob Mann ranked among the league leaders in receiving the entire year which is his last year in Detroit. He is a polished route runner with sharp cuts, who refuses to be jammed at the line by opposing linebackers and with his exceptional speed and running ability Mann is one of the true difference makers in the league. He did not recorded any All-Pro recognition.
Johnny Greene entered the year as the all-time leading Lion receiver with 111 catches, and he will add to that total as he also ranked among the league leaders in receiving all year. Many times he is aligned in tight at right end, and is an effective and willing blocker on sealing defensive tackles. Greene's hustle and downfield blocking over the years have also been a key factor for Detroit. He lacks speed, yet gets open deep on occasion, but much more important he "finds" the open area and makes the catch. There are times when I laugh out loud watching film of Johnny's emotional outbursts when he drops a pass. He is the complete competitor, and while Bob Mann is thrown to a lot, the Lion quarterbacks look for Greene in clutch situations. He will return in 1950 for one final year.
Rookie Barney Hafen, and Kelley Mote in his last year in Detroit begin the campaign at left defensive end, though the starter most of the year is Cecil Souders in his last year. Souders turned one hundred years old earlier in 2021, and he is the complete package in a left defensive end. He sheds blocks well, is strong on sweeps his side, able in pursuit, but he is one helluva pass rusher. He probably led the team in sacks, but film study shows him coming off the snap hard, and is relentless going after the quarterback. Early in the year the left defensive tackle post is played by a handful of men including Russ Thomas. He is the third of the three men who remain from '46, but his injured knee does not heal in his final year. Strong and tough at the point of attack, he just cannot stay on the field thus massive
John Treadway in his only year also plays left defensive tackle till his injury sends him to the bench. Souders plays there some, but the second half of the year after a trade with Washington....Mike Roussos is rock solid in filling the breach. Surprisingly he also does not return in 1950?
Les Bingaman is listed at 6'3" 272 in the roster page, and Bing just might have been "only" 272 that year. Impossible to drive block, he will pick a side and get blocked at times, but you can see stardom in his future as he is then very quick for a big man, and even rushes the passer at times. Any defensive coach can build around a middle guard like him, and have success stopping offenses. Rookie John Prchlik is one smart(from Yale), tough hombre and though he is not mentioned often on those outstanding Lion defenses of the '50's you can easily see why he was a factor in the success of the Lions.
Sam Goldman in his only year and later Kelley Mote handle the right defensive end position. Both men are strong pass rushers, though neither stands out in defending the run. No team can have success defending the run without strong linebacker play, and this position has been a revolving door for Detroit for the last few year.
Left linebacker is shared by rookie Johnny Panelli and former defensive back Chuck DeShane. The undersized Panelli will return, and his strong pursuit skills were a key in the four wins by the Lions. DeShane in his last year as a Lion plays in eight games. Jim Mello is listed at 5'10" and 190 lbs, and at times he is the middle linebacker in the Detroit 5-3-3 defense, yet there are other times he is aligned almost as a right safety, but close to the line of scrimmage. This alignment invites other teams to run up the middle, and when you see Elmer Angsman of the Cardinals rocket straight up the field for 82 yards in October you have to wonder why Detroit would align in such a way?
Film study shows Mello hustling, yet he is not a difference-maker in his only year in Detroit. The 15th round of the draft brought rookie Bob Pifferini to the Lions, and he is a key contributor for Detroit in 1949. Excellent at slowing up receivers off the line, and textbook in pursuit and toughness Bob has a nose for the ball, and is a strong tackler. This is his only year as a Lion, and boy oh boy that is an unanswered question since you win with guys like Pifferini!
The league passer rating in 1948 was 60.0, and the Lions defensive passer rating that year was an abysmal 84.8 which ranked Detroit 10th out of ten teams. In 1949 the Lions finished second in the league in the defensive passer rating with a mark of 41.5, the Eagles led the league with an amazing mark of 30.0
One of the most dramatic improvements in league history unfolded when opponents attempted to pass against Detroit in 1949. Mel Groomes shoulder injury limited him to just three games at left corner in his last year as a Lion. He is replaced in the starting line-up by Achille Maggioli....otherwise known at "Chick". He is a strong tackler on sweeps, and more than adequate as a pass defender in his only year in Detroit.
James Robert Smith otherwise known as "Tulsa Bob" began the year with the Chicago Hornets in the AAFC, but after three games joins Detroit. He quickly solidified the right corner post, and was a polished defender in every aspect of the position. Smith returned some kicks and played some offense, but his strength was defending the pass, and pilfering the pigskin. He intercepted in his first five games as a Lion----name the last time that has ever happened?
Thanksgiving day at Briggs he steals a Lujack pass and goes coast to coast for a league-record 102 yards. Tulsa Bob has found a home in Detroit. There are men who just have a instinct for where the ball is going, and make plays. That is the definition of the Lions safety...rookie Don Doll. His range is superb, and he flashes across the screen on wide running plays to make tackles...sure hard tackles. Doll will not break the one-year record for interceptions in a season held by Dan Sandifer of the Redskins, but he will come close. After four weeks Doll has intercepted three passes including a 95-yard return against Pittsburgh when he read a pass in the flat to Hollingsworth, and zipped in front of the Steeler fullback to intercept and score the only Detroit touchdown. Now onto a review of the season week by week and more on Don Doll.
Detroit opens up on the road in the Coliseum against the most improved team in the league, yet has a 4th quarter lead on the Rams before losing 27-24. The write-up in the Philadelphia Inquirer states that the Lions vastly outplayed the champion Eagles going toe to toe physically until late in the game in a 22-14 loss. Detroit had led 14-5 entering the final quarter. Don Doll is written about in the paper as Don "Bell"....gee boys read a damn program.
The Black & Gold of Pittsburgh physically dominates Detroit and at 0-3 the Lions are about to take on the Rams in the rematch in Briggs.
|Dudley carrier vs the Rams, 1949|
Having a complete game film is a joy to watch over and over for strategy and evaluation. Detroit had a 10-7 half-time lead, but this is a Ram team of destiny, and a fourth quarter of turnovers ends with safety Jerry Williams of Los Angeles ranging to the sideline to intercepted Le Force's desperate pass, and then scamper down the sideline to score in a misleading 21-10 loss.
Ok, coach McMillan can you get your boys ready to go to Comiskey to take on the two-time conference champion Cardinals? You betcha he can. Again, with a complete game film we see history unfold as Don Doll intercepts a record-tying four times in the 24-7 upset victory.
Tulsa Bob had a key interception to help get the Lions the lead, but late in the game ahead 17-7 Le Force is flushed out of the pocket rolls left and lofts a deep pass to the left corner of the end zone. Johnny Green began his route as a post, adjusted and dashed for the corner for his 31-yard score and an insurmountable lead when you have a safety like Doll covering the field. Every year the Lion defense gets hammered by the Packer run game, and 1949 is no exception as Green Bay pounds out 251 yards on the ground in the 16-14 win.
Now the Cardinals in a must-win situation and still smarting from the home upset travel to Briggs and level the Lions 42-19...ouch! Detroit has not beaten the Bears since 1945 and that continues at Wrigley with the contending Bears hanging on with a 27-24 win. Detroit is 1-7, and McMillan had won only five of twenty-four entering the season, but this Lion team is different.
The Giants are also in the rebuilding mold and have built a 21-17 lead behind the sterling play of Charley Conerly and Emlen Tunnell, but the Lions have learned how to play football in the second half with 28 unanswered points......keep in mind this is a team that scored 34 all year in 1942.
Excellent performances by a number of Lions, yet right linebacker Bob Pifferini stands out as he pirated two Giant passes, and grabbed a New York fumble and returned the pigskin 13 yards.
The Thanksgiving day loss to the Bears continues to demonstrate this team is a work in progress, but coming up a day to remember against another New York team. Bobby Layne was sold by the Bears to the New York Bulldogs, and while Layne valiantly threw the ball all over the lot all year this is a woebegone team of castoffs and never will be's. Bob Mann and Johnny Greene rank among the league leaders in receiving, and during the year Bill Chipley of the Bulldogs consistently caught the ball from Bobby. Joining him late in the year is veteran Ralph Heywood, and viewing the film of him tying the league record with 14 catches as he battles Don Doll over the middle is why watching film is such a joy. Bingaman blocks a New York extra point attempt, and here comes Tripucka and the Lions after you guessed it—a Don Doll interception that he returned to the New York twenty-eight yard line.
Four straight running plays gain twenty yards, and at the 9:00 minute mark, Tripucka tosses to Johnny Greene for the touchdown. Pendulum-style Dudley converts the extra point as Detroit wins 28-27. The home finale against the Packers and entering the 4th quarter we are tied at seven. Tom Fears will win the receiving title with an impressive day in the Coliseum against the Redskins as he catches 10 for 159 yards. Bob Mann in his last game as a Lion dominates the Packer secondary as he snares 8 for 182 yards.
When the score was tied early in the fourth, the play-by-play states "Tripucka's pass complete to Mann who snatched the ball over his head and eluded one defender to skip untouched into the end zone for a touchdown. Later in the quarter Jug Girard punts for the Packers and again the play-by-play..."to Dudley on the Lions 33 and he broke right through a maze of Packer tacklers to go all the way for a touchdown as Panelli threw a key block on the play".
The Lions win three of their last four, and we all know what is about to happen in the Motor City as the dawn of the decade of the '50s is upon us. Neither Tulsa Bob nor Don Doll intercepted in the victory over Green Bay, though Doll did recover a fumble. These two stalwart defenders recorded 24 takeaways in twelve games.