Sunday, April 10, 2022

1947: "Kicking the Dirt on the Fire"

By TJ Troup 
During the 55 games played in 1946, NFL teams combined to gain 15,736 yards passing—an average of 286 yards a game. The NFL increased the number of games played in 1947 to twelve, thus a 60 game season. 

Passers pitched the pigskin all over the field during this remarkable year and gained 21,670 yards—an average of 361 yards a game and a 75-yard per-game increase! Never before had the league shown such an increase in passing yardage. How and why did this happen? 

Yes, teams still did run the ball, and a prime example was in Green Bay where the Packers attempted at least 50 running plays in both games against the Lions. When did that ever happen before? Having studied the stats and watched game film of all the teams, and of course, the men who threw the ball came away with the following; ready? 

Here goes...

The T-formation was used with more frequency, and with the use of motion and alignments with three receivers to one side of the field defenses did not have skilled pass defenders to stop, or even limit the passing game. Though all the teams still aligned in either a 6-2 or 5-3 defense; much more often you saw defenses attempt to combine some form of hybrid zone coupled with man coverage. 

Many defensive coaches had never seen these offensive alignments, and when you add to that the confidence level by passers and receivers as they controlled this territorial game via the air lanes...the passing game was not only here to stay, but would continue to evolve. 
The passer rating became part of the NFL statistically in 1973, yet we can evaluate the passers by using this valuable tool. The 1946 leader was Sid Luckman with a mark of 71.0. He tied Bob Waterfield for the league lead in touchdown passes with 17. Luckman ranked third in '47 with a mark of 67.7, but he threw for an impressive 24 touchdowns. 
The Bears had a history of using backs as receivers, and that continued in '47 as George McAfee shined in catching the ball. Luckman had two outstanding ends in Ken Kavanaugh, and Jim Keane. The Bears were the only team in the league to have both ends catch at least one pass in every game. Luckman in October threw for over 300 yards in back-to-back games—unheard of for that era. Back to the key question of who did lead the league in passer rating? 
Why none other than Slingin' Sammy Baugh with a mark of 92.0 He ranked sixth in '46 with a mark of 54.2, so why such an improvement? Clark Shaughnessey joined the Redskins as an offensive advisor, and though we don't know how well they worked together; there is no doubt that Sam took to this new improved version of the T-formation, and we have Baugh finding an ever better receiver out of the backfield than Steve Bagarus was in 1945 in Bob Nussbaumer. Bob caught at least one pass in every game, and demonstrated an ability to run every type of "underneath" pass pattern to get open. Nussbaumer finished second in the league with 47 receptions. 
Rookie Hugh Taylor exploded on the scene on opening day with 212 yards on 8 receptions, and though he could not sustain that kind of production he forced defenses to focus on him when he was in the game. The rest of the ends on Washington were plodding slow, yet Sam got them the ball. The rest of the backs also caught passes here and there as Baugh set three new league records. When the Redskins lost to Green Bay on October 19th Baugh completed passes to NINE different Washington receivers! There is no way he would do that the next week against the defending league champion Bears right? Right? Ten different Redskin receivers caught passes in the 56-20 loss. 

Washington was the first team to have five different players have a 100-yard receiving game in a season. Taylor caught at least one pass in all ten games he played, and to finish off Washington, and this is amazing; on Wednesday, November 26th when the weekly league leader stats came out, Washington had five men (Nussbaumer, Saenz, Taylor, Duckworth, and Poillon) among the league leaders, five of the top ten in the Eastern Conference! 

Watching film of Sam throwing the ball is a joy to behold but he was not the only passer to have success in 1947. Tommy Thompson directed the Philadelphia Eagle attack with aplomb, and when you have a runner like Van Buren thundering through defenses; the opposition just might not be ready for a pass. 
Black Jack Ferrante and Neil Armstrong shared the left end position. They played well, yet the key was rookie right end and future Hall of Famer Pete Pihos. During a five-game stretch at one point in the season the Eagles gained just 540 yards passing on 39 completions, yet in each of those games there was at least one completion for a minimum of 35 yards! 

Thompson and the Eagles usually threw short, but every game they burned an opponent with a big passing play to augment the potent Philadelphia running attack. When you set team records passing you should be remembered by the folks that cheer for that team.....yet Clyde LeForce is rarley mentioned in Lion history. Rookie LeForce shared the quarterback position with veteran Roy Zimmerman in a vastly improved Detroit air attack.

Zimmerman's best game by far came against the Giants as he completed 9 out of 10 for 143 yards. The next week Roy was awful, and LeForce takes command under center. He is the first Detroit Lion to ever throw for over 300 yards in a game, as Clyde was masterful against Washington in November. In that game he also threw four touchdown passes, thus now with 18 TD passes the Lions had set another team record (the old record was 16 in set in 1944). Detroit, for first time in team history, threw for over 2,000 yards as a team, old record was 1,674, so they bettered the mark by almost 800 yards. John Greene came on strong as the season progressed, and gained over 100 receiving in the loss to the Bears on Thanksgiving. 

The Packer defense focused on the veteran receiver in the December game, and with Zimmerman sharing time with Margucci at quarterback in the league finale Ralph Heywood latched onto 5 passes for 128 yards. Bob Snyder in his lone season as head coach of the Rams fielded a team that was strong on young talent in many areas, yet the foundation was built upon quarterback Bob Waterfield and left end Jim Benton. 

Benton led the NFL in receiving yards for the past two years, but now in his last campaign he discovered he was very popular with defenders around the league since everywhere he went on a pass route there were linebackers and defensive halfbacks waiting for him. Though he caught passes in every game but one; he was not near as productive as the two previous seasons. Not once all year did a Ram catch passes for over 100 yards. Possibly the lack of production by Benton was a cause of Bob Waterfield's less than stellar season? 

During a seven-game stretch he had a passer rating of 17.5—yes, youngsters you read that correctly. Jim Hardy came off the bench and had a few decent performances, but otherwise, the Ram passing game was average at best. Halfback Jack Banta weaved his way through the New York Giant defense for 64 yards—this is the only time a Ram receiver gained over 50 yards on a pass play all year. Owner Dan Reeves reached the conclusion that Snyder's offense was not well suited for his "franchise" quarterback. Since Shaughnessy spiced up the Redskin air attack, Reeves hired him to replace Snyder, and hopefully spark some life into the Los Angeles air game. 

Indian Jack Jacobs saved his best for last during 1947 as he completed 26 of 55 for 319 yards against the Lions and Eagles in December. Ranking among the league leaders in receiving all year were ends Goodnight & fact, Goodnight caught at least one pass in every game, and Luhn would have joined him, but was shut out by the vastly improved Cardinal secondary in October. Seemed like Indian Jack only focused on them as the game against the Lions in late October showed. The record-setting Green Bay running attack ground the Lions into the turf—maybe that is why it is called the ground game? That afternoon Luhn & Goodnight caught all seven of Jacobs completions. Luhn & Goodnight both had 100-yard receiving games during the year. 

The defending Eastern Conference champion Giants started Niles at tailback to begin the season. He showed he just did not have the talent to succeed in the NFL. Coach Owen shifted athletic Frank Reagan to tailback against Washington in October as the New York passing attack showed some life, but the next week against Boston the Giants gained only 120 yards on 13 completions, and the Mara family pulled the trigger on a blockbuster in season trade. 
Former league rushing champion Bill Paschal went to Boston, and the Yanks heralded "pitcher" Paul Governali came to New York. Though the Giants lost to the Eagles in November Paul pitched passes through the Philadelphia defense for 341 yards! The highlight of the season though for New York and Governali was his performance against the 'Skins in December as he gained 255 yards on just 12 completions, with four going for touchdowns. 

Many men got an opportunity to catch the ball for the Giants during the campaign but New York did not have a 100-yard receiver all year. When Governali left Boston the number one question was simply, who now plays quarterback for us? Boley Dancewicz played well in the loss to the Lions early in the season, thus he was thrust into the triggerman role, and the youngster sure had his moments. When your team gains 26 yards rushing on 24 attempts you are going to lose. 

Ok, there are some teams that take a while to become productive running the ball...oh, the Yanks are not one of those teams? The upset win over a powerful Eagle team brought the 'Skins to Boston on the last day of November. 

Having the beautiful color film shot from classic angles is a joy to watch, yet the real joy was viewing Don Currivan set a league record. He switched jersey numbers that afternoon and he gained 181 yards on just three catches. Currivan's burst of speed took him by the Burgundy and Gold in victory for the Yanks. 

Currivan did not catch a pass on opening day, so he caught at least one in the final 11 games of the year, but much more important, he had a nine-game streak where he caught 18 passes for 680 yards, averaging 37.7 a catch! 

Lanky Hal Crisler was the key target early in the year, and he caught passes in ten of the twelve games; thus Dancewicz had two fine ends to pass to. 

When you look at the receiving leaders section of the weekly leaders page the league puts can't help but notice that the NFL made errors on Currivan's weekly production. Can this crusty old warhorse/researcher figure out which games? Just not sure, yet takes nothing away from the new lethal passing combination of Dancewicz to Currivan. Bet you knew that.

Dr. Jock Sutherland knew he could and would have success with his single-wing attack in the Steel City. The trade of Dudley to Detroit meant someone else was going to play tailback in Pittsburgh. Johnny "Zero" Clement was effective and productive luggin' the leather, yet his passing was a key reason why Pittsburgh was going to earn a playoff berth. 

Exhaustive film study of the single-wing tells us that the formation can have multiple alignments, and become a nightmare for defenses with misdirection, and passes thrown against unsuspecting defenders. Clement was a much more accurate passer than his predecessor Bill Dudley, and when you have him firing the ball on wingback reverses, and tailback rollouts..the Steelers finally have a varied and productive offense. Will the Black and Gold run the ball? Is a blast furnace in Pittsburgh hot? Blocking backs, fullbacks, wingbacks and of course, ends got the chance to latch onto the pigskin. 

Through the first nine games of the year with the exception of the blowout loss to the Rams the Steelers had their fair share of long gainers each week with their air attack. Val Jansante was an excellent left end for Pittsburgh, but no Steeler receiver will ever gain over 100 yards receiving for Dr. Jock...just not going to happen, but Jansante did catch at least one pass in every game. When Johnny Clement got hurt early in the Bear game, the passing game struggled. 

Walt Slater had completed a few passes when he played tailback substituting for Clement all year, but he could not carry the load. Gonzalo Morales completed just 8 of 27 for 78 yards and threw four interceptions in the back-to-back losses to the Bears and Eagles. One more victory and the Black & Gold earn a playoff berth. Slater gains 68 yards on his five completions in the regular-season win over Boston, and he also gains 70 yards rushing. He just was not Johnny Clement. 

Looking at the season stats of the Chicago Cardinals during almost any year in the early '40s would quickly tell you this is not a very talented team. Enter a coach with a plan—Mr. Jimmy Conzelman. Executing that plain in the T-formation was Paul Christman. Joe Ziemba's outstanding book details the growth for Christman in '45 & '46. Chicago now has two teams that truly believe they are going to be champions. Who are those teams you ask? Why the defending champion Bears, and the new kids on the block from the southside...the Cardinals. 
The balanced Cardinal offense demonstrates over and over all year they can run the ball, and they sure can pass the ball. The Lions and Cardinals had a few games of offensive futility in years past, but opening day off the bench rookie Ray Mallouf completes 5 of 7 for 110 yards. Very impressive when you add to that—the starter Paul Christman threw for over 300 yards as Chicago set a team record for yards passing in a game. Billy Dewell and Mal Kutner will be among the league leaders in receiving all year. 

Five times in '46 a Cardinal gained over 1000 yards receiving in a game, and they matched that in 1947. Dimanchef and Trippi were fine receivers out of the backfield or in motion and then running a pass route, but the offense centered around Christman getting the ball to his two very talented ends. Since this is still single platoon football we have men who will catch a touchdown pass, and intercept in the same game. How many times in 1947 you ask? Eleven times, and twice Kutner accomplished this feat. We even had two men do it in the same game when Compagno of the Steelers and Pritchard of the Eagles accomplished the "double". 

Sport Reference had decided to keep me on retainer, and my first project for them in 2022 is to list every individual pass attempt for the entire league, Yes folks it is possible to list all 2,991 passing attempts, and accomplished. There is always the possibility of an error, yet have double-checked my "work", and with the valuable resources I have...a story can be written from the stats. Would relish questions and comments from any and all of you out there in football land.


  1. Coach troup I was wondering what some of Sammy Baughs favorite patterns to throw were and was cup blocking by offensive lines very primitive in those days?

  2. Fascinating stuff as always, Coach TJ. I keep trying to tell people that the NFL was more than three yards and a cloud of dust in the late 40s.

    The Bears averaged 6.1 yards per play in 1947. That would have tied them for first with Tampa and San Francisco in 2021. And Slinging Sammy's team averaged 5.8 yards per play - the same as Aaron Rodgers' Packers in 2021.

  3. ....hey Alen Bailey. Baugh used every pattern imaginable ....from simple stop patterns by his ends who would release go straight up the field, turn, and Sam got the ball out of his hand quickly, and of course with accuracy. Passes to his backs(some with motion, and some from alignment in the backfield) the classic circle route, up the sideline, quickly looking back for the ball. When Taylor joined the team....due to his speed and was his best, and the deep ball weapon for the 'Skins. Virtually no cup blocking, Sam would half roll right, or take a step right, and then reverse pivot, look and throw left. Thanks The Game Before the Money....the only way to understand/realize what the NFL was becoming in 1947 is to watch film....and am blessed to have some(of course wish I had more). Every time I watch I learn. Offense as you state was becoming efficient/productive, and at times big plays. That is why I wrote the book on the '50's to explain that defense had to address improved offensive strategies.

  4. As usual, if you want THE most in depth detailed account of NFL history, go to Coach Troup.

  5. Coach TJ....I want to see the research on the 2991 when convenient! (and of course your observations/conclusions!!!)