Wednesday, June 29, 2022

1952 CLEVELAND BROWNS: "Complain About The Present, And Blame It On The Past"

By TJ Troup 
Otto Graham

Lately have been playin' the hell out of Don Henley's solo work, and of course his songs with the Eagles...thus the title for today's saga on the '52 Browns.
Beginning in 1949 with a return to two-platoon football; strategy is changing on offense as teams game plan on how to attack the 5-3-3 defense. Yes, there are teams that attempt to play the 6-2 at times, and of course the Giants and Steve Owen fashion an early 4-3 or 6-1. The Eagles are the first team to deploy four men in the secondary almost every down. 

The 1950 season set a new standard with 55 passing attempts a game, but in 1952 passing attempts per game rises to 56. Otto Graham also sets a new record for most passing attempts in a season with 364. We will begin with the Cleveland offense that led the league in total offense with 4,352 yards. 

Lou Groza earns a pro bowl berth and is the starter at left offensive tackle. He is consistent in all facets of offensive line play. Abe Gibron joins his teammate in Los Angeles for his performance at left guard. Very quick, and combative he pulls often on both running and passing plays. 
Lou Groza
Frank Gatski continues to do yeoman's work at center, while John Sandusky does his job at right tackle. Lin Houston and John Skibinski share the right guard position, often bringing in plays—it does not really matter who is listed as the starter since they probably played equally. Both men are adequate in technique and performance. Ed Sharkey will get some playing time at guard, while both Bob Gain and Jerry Helluin fill in at tackle. Overall, as a group, they are just a shade better as run blockers than pass blockers, but there are times Graham holds the ball too long, and since he set the record for most pass attempts in a season those men held up well against the pass rush. 

Cleveland backs combine to help the Browns finish third in the league in total yards rushing. Halfback Dub Jones aligns at flanker, halfback, and sometimes even goes in motion. He must be accounted for on every play since he scored six offensive touchdowns. Early in the season, Sherman Howard played well at halfback, but down the stretch it is Ken Carpenter luggin' the leather at an impressive 5.7 per carry. Harry Jagade late in the season starts at fullback and demonstrates he can run with power inside, and off tackle. Rookie Ray Renfro also gets an opportunity to showcase his talents late in the campaign. 

Watching film of Marion Motley is always a joy, yet he is not the focal point of the offense due to his recurring knee injuries. Marty Glickman in the New York Giants highlight film calls Motley the "Big Train"...and he sure is a locomotive roaring down the tracks. He still has speed for a big man, and no one, and I mean no one runs with more power. Ask Roy Barni of the Cardinals? Motley is a capable receiver when called upon, and is a ferocious pass blocker. 
Marion Motley
Graham does not run as often as in the past; simply because he does not need to. His 20 touchdown passes ties Jim Finks for the league lead, but he does throw 24 interceptions—which also leads the league. Graham has superb touch on his passes and is accurate most of the time. 

Since Dante Lavelli is injured early in the campaign, rookie Darrel Brewster gets an opportunity along with punter Horace Gillom at right end. When Lavelli returns the Browns passing game is back to being one of the best in the league. Lavelli is excellent on double-cut routes, and not only is sure-handed.....he can make the spectacular catch. Seven times in '52 a Cleveland receiver gained over 100 yards receiving in a game as again a new standard has been set with 43 one hundred yard receiving games. 
Dante Lavelli
Mac Speedie does not go to Los Angeles for the Pro Bowl, but he does lead the league in receptions with 62. His speed and sharp cuts terrorize right corners throughout the league. Many times you see him open on stop patterns making the catch, and then gaining yardage after the catch since corners played "off" of him. His best pattern is the post, and when Graham lofts the ball deep you see the opposing safety quickly headed over to help the corner attempt to defend Speedie. Mac Speedie would be my choice for offensive MVP. The New York Giants 17-9 victory in October sets the stage for another dog fight to win the division and has established that this is the best new rivalry in pro football. 

Bert Bell sure did no favors for Paul Brown since Cleveland has to play both Detroit and Los Angeles the first half of the season. The Lions hard-fought victory on November 2nd shows one and all that this is by far the best Detroit team in many years. Cleveland rebounds to win two straight for the third time already in '52. When the Eagles beat the Browns at Municipal Stadium on November 23rd we have a three-way tie for the division crown. Though all three teams have a chance to win the division, there is no doubt the Browns can win when it counts. 

After beating Washington easily the Browns shut out the Cardinals 10-0. Four times in 1951 Cleveland shut out an opponent on their way to the title game. Since the Browns have again recorded a shut-out, let's take a long look at the Cleveland defense. Many teams still aligned in a 5-3-3 defense, but the Browns version has very subtle and very effective nuances to their alignments. 

Left corner is manned by tough, quick, and opportunistic Warren Lahr. He is an excellent tackler and backs down from no receiver in man coverage. Right corner is held down by Tommy James most of the time, yet Rex Bumgardner and late in the season Don Shula also get playing time there. James shined on opening day against the Rams as he played the ball in flight in textbook style. Cleveland ranked 3rd in the league in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 50.1 (league average was 57.7). Cleveland linebackers must be able to help on pass defense in both man and zone coverages. 

Rookie safety Bert Rechichar had to cover ground, and always be in position to make a play. Though he lacked great speed, he took proper angles in pursuit, and in playing the ball in flight. Rechichar ranked among the league leaders in interceptions with six. At times opponents were able to complete the deep ball since Rechichar had so much ground to cover, yet his rookie year was sure a success overall due to his ability to tackle, and take the ball away

Hal Herring starts at right linebacker all year, and though he does not stand out he is consistent. Acquiring Walt Michaels from Green Bay was a key in '52 as he played all-around inspired football. Michael's would red dog, along with his pass defense responsibilities (twice he intercepted two passes in a game). The youngster has a bright future in Cleveland since he also played the run so well. Tommy Thompson did not go to the Pro Bowl, yet he had a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Savvy, instinctive, and a top-notch tackler, he would align shaded away from the gap that Bill Willis is responsible for. Sometimes he would even go down in a three-point stance as a defensive tackle in a 6-2 defense. 

These three men helped the d-line finish third in the league in stopping the run. Starting at left defensive end was George Young, and he had a fine campaign against sweeps on his side, and rushing the passer. John Kissell started at left defensive tackle most of the year, yet Bob Gain also got some playing time there. Jerry Helluin started a handful of games at right defensive tackle, and due to his size, he was sure difficult to move. Neither Kissell nor Helluin was much of a pass rusher. 

The nominal starter at right defensive tackle was Darrell Palmer. He just might be the most underappreciated d-lineman in the league. Tremendous strength, excellent at shedding blocks, and a disruptive force in pillaging the pass pocket—Palmer is just flat-out one damn fine football player. 

Len Ford led the league in sacks in 1951, and since he began '52 in much the same fashion he just might have registered 31 sacks over a nineteen-game span. You might want to read that again? From his stand-up stance the big man powers and/or rockets into the offensive backfield while also being a force against the weakside sweep. Len Ford definitely earned his pro bowl berth. The Browns were one of six teams that recorded at least 42 sacks in '52. No, that had never been done before, as the pass rush for the first time ever averaged 310 yards per team. 

The catalyst for the Browns defense is middle guard Bill Willis. He may be the lightest middle guard in the league, but he is strong, and when he explodes out of his frog-like stance into his assigned gap responsibility he is a nightmare for centers. He uses his hands well to shed blocks, and his pursuit angles and quickness get him to the ball carrier time and time again. 
Middle Guard Bill Willis for a run stuff

Willis is an excellent pass rusher and coupled with Ford they can dominate a game all by themselves. He would be my choice for defensive MVP, and yes he joined Len Ford at the Pro Bowl. 
Middle guard Bill Willis with excellent pass rush for a sack
 There were seasons in NFL history where the total amount of field goals was less than twenty, and in 1952 Lou Groza pumps 19 football's between the uprights for a new record. What a weapon to have when drives stalled! 

The return game was average at best, with the exception of Ken Carpenter's outstanding punt return performance against the Redskins. The Browns were adequate in covering kick-offs, but as the season progressed were vastly improved in punt coverage. Horace Gillom led the league in punting even with having one blocked. The kicking game overall was a Cleveland strength.

 Philadelphia could tie the Browns for the division title with a victory over Washington, and a Cleveland loss to the Giants. This becomes moot as the 'Skins upset the Eagles, yet the final game of the season for the Browns was one of those games you can just watch over and over again.

Cleveland scored just 46 points in their five previous regular-season games against New York, but the Giants had scored just 53 points in winning three of the five games played. No one expected a 37-34 barn burner. This game had everything. A hook and ladder pass play touchdown. A team that played virtually error-free football as NYG did not allow a sack, did not turn the ball over, and was penalized only 15 yards. After the Browns scored late, they still had a chance if they could recover an onside kick. NYG aligned in a double wing, the -A-formation, the T-formation, and a version of the spread. Controlling the tempo was key though the Giants were outgained. Overall one helluva game to watch. 

We all know that Detroit won a hard-fought title game fight, yet the 1952 Cleveland Browns were sure a fascinating team to research. If you don't believe that listen to Don Henley sing "Get Over It".


  1. Great article.

    I've seen Lavelli and Speedie be ranked over each other at seemingly equal amounts. Which WR would you put first and for what reasons?

  2. I appreciate these write ups Coach Troup because they give insight into these player’s skillsets that stats simply won’t tell us

  3. Another great piece, Coach!

  4. The Game Before the Money

    1. Made a mistake trying to post above....

      Super piece and thanks for posting those videos. What a ferocious pass rush Cleveland had! Willis what a monster in the middle!

      Important rookie class for Cleveland that year, too. Rechichar, Renfro, and Brewster all were important for future Browns teams.