Friday, June 3, 2022

The 1951 Washington Redskins: "Two Hundred Million Guns are Loaded, Satan Cries 'Take Aim'"

By TJ Troup 
Washington's Gene Brito being tackled by Chicago's George Blanda (#22)

When the saga of the 1950 New York Yanks was completed, I thought to myself is there a team pre-1953 that could be evaluated, and written about that there is enough film to capture who they were, and how well they played? 

Hell yes, there is since thanks to Steve Sabol & Chris Willis at NFL Films have plenty of footage of the Redskins from 1951. The title of this saga comes from Mr. John Cameron Fogerty and one of his classic songs. This is not a team that is playoff bound, yet they are part of a very significant era in league history. 

The significance is the transition on defense in the NFL, and almost as important, how quarterbacks and coaches tried to exploit the adjustments and alignments on defense. A team with a rich history is going to have books written about them, and boy oh boy have plenty to quote in this story. 

Ready? Here goes—

Redskins on defense: opening day against the Lions on the road and Bobby Layne leads a Detroit team that Buddy Parker believes will be a contender to a 35-17 victory. Washington coached by Herman Ball has a number of new starters on defense; especially in the secondary. 

Rookie Ed Salem starts the first seven games at left corner, and though he ranks among the league leaders in interceptions early in the year he cannot keep his starting post the whole year. He hustles, and is a willing run defender but he ends his only year in the league on the bench. Bill Cox starts at left safety when the 'Skins are in a 5-2-4 defense. Cox is an adequate tackler who usually takes proper angles in pursuit, yet many times on film he is beaten on pass defense. 

When Washington is in an eight-man front he is the single safety, and he is being asked to do more than he is capable of doing. The right safety for the 'Skins is a revolving door as many men play the position, and of course,

some are better than others. Billy Cox does get some playing time here, yet Harry Gilmer, Bill Dudley also get a chance to play this spot. The two men though that get the bulk of the playing time are Harry Dowda, and Jack Dwyer. Dwyer moves to left corner late in the year to replace Salem. 

Dwyer is combative, and a decent tackler in his last year in Washington. Dowda is a hitter, hustler, and will play for a number of teams in his career—especially at both corner positions. Neil Ferris is the nominal starter at right corner, and much like Salem he is willing and hustles; he just does not make many plays. Washington ranks 8th in the league in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 64.0 (league average is 55.6). 

The 'Skins win five games during the campaign and the defensive passer rating is 53.9 in those contests, while 69.3 in the seven losses. These numbers and the revolving door in the secondary tells us the secondary is not a team strength. The home opener on October 7th brings long-time rival NYG to town. Just under 24,000 fans watch a strong contending Giant team physically whip the Skins. 

Lean Ed Berrang plays left defensive end for the second and last time in this game. He is replaced by Jim Peebles. Walt Yowarsky becomes the starter at left defensive end, and while is not very effective on wide running plays he has a future in the league due to his athleticism. He probably led the team in sacks, just ahead of Lipscomb, and Hendren. 

Lou Karras is the starter at left defensive tackle all season, and the second-year man battles one and all. He is not an effective pass rusher, but since the team recorded only 147 yards in sacks, that begs the question who was? Middle guard in either the 5-2-4 or 5-3-3 defense is split between massive Jim Ricca and John Badaczewski. Neither man was strong at stopping inside runs. 
Washington in a 6-2 Double Eagle alignment with the
linebackers outside the defensive ends
Right defensive tackle is held down by the best player on the defense; Pro Bowl-bound Paul Lipscomb. Excellent technique coupled with strength, and his ability to shed blocks and pursue were a bright spot during the campaign. When Herman Ball is dismissed after three games George Preston Marshall wants to hire Bears assistant Hunk Anderson. 

George Halas demands that Lipscomb be part of the deal, thus there is league-wide respect for big Paul. Any defensive end who stands 6'8'' inches tall stands out on film, thus Bob Hendren in his last year is easily seen and can be evaluated. Big Bob records a few sacks, and attempts to play the sweep his side, but he is not very quick or effective, and as the year goes on veteran Joe Tereshinski takes over. Tereshinski also plays plenty on offense. 

The Redskins align in a 5-2-4, 5-3-3, and early in the year a 6-2 defense. Add to the mix that in games where they are struggling to stop opposing offenses they even align in a couple strange/exotic alignments. The 'Skins try, they just aren't very consistent. 
Washington, versus the New York Giants, in a more traditional 6-2
with linebackers inside the defensive tackles
Since they have multiple alignments, the linebackers must make adjustments in the varied alignments. Ed Quirk in his last year plays in six games, and in the past he was a rock-solid player, but this year he is a detriment, and rarely makes a play. George Buksar is an excellent pass defender at right linebacker (some at left linebacker), and is an adequate run defender. Al DeMao is listed as the starting center at the Pro Football Reference site. He was not. DeMao is the starting right linebacker most of the year. Experienced and savvy he makes play against both the run and pass, and can be aligned in all defenses and handle his assignment. 

Second-year man Chuck Drazenovich will play fullback on offense early in the year, but he is the key to the defense. Usually, the starting left linebacker in the 5-2, he moves to the middle in the 5-3-3. Charley Cro misses three games (more on that later in this saga), but when he is on the field he is a difference-maker. He has stardom written all over him, he just needs experience. 
       Chuck Drazenovich (#36) forces a fumble
David Elfin's book the Washington Redskins the Complete Illustrated History has a quote from Drazenovich from Jack Clary's book "I always had a good grasp of the game"...boy oh boy did you ever Charley Cro! The defending league champion Browns are playing their home opener on October the 14th, and watching the game film is like watching the varsity scrimmage the JV's...as Cleveland wins handily 45-0. 

The Washington defense has allowed 115 points in three loses, and has a record of 7-22-1 their last thirty games. Is a change coming? Is George Preston Marshall is racist/bigot? Dick Todd understands football and was part of the 'Skins success in the '40s and though he probably spent more time working with the offense, he was a fine defensive back in his playing career, and attempted to solidify the defense. 

Todd's first game as head coach is against the Chicago Cardinals, and watching a 7-3 victory might sound boring, but the 'Skins turn away Trippi and the Cardinals time and time again in the red zone to win. Washington has lost to Philadelphia four consecutive times at Shibe Park, so the 27-23 victory had to taste mighty sweet to Coach Todd and his newly invigorated Tribe. 

Washington returns home to play a Chicago Bears team that is fighting for first place in the National Conference. Drazenovich misses this game, and attempting to play middle linebacker is offensive guard Herb Siegert in his last year. The Bears pound away for over 300 yards running the ball. Siegert is a guard and certainly not a linebacker as the film shows. Ricca has his ass kicked by Bulldog Turner, and no one on defense played a consistent strong game. 

The 'Skins even aligned Buksar behind Siegert for additional strength up the middle to no avail as the Bears went around, and through Washington in a 27-0 loss. The Redskins travel to the Polo Grounds to take on the Giants on November 11th, and are beaten 28-14. Thus the American Conference standings have Washington in sixth place at 2-5 with virtually no chance to win the division title as Cleveland and New York are simply the class of the conference. 

Though very few folks would ever state that the Steelers and Skins were one of the better rivalries during this era, many of their games were hard-fought, and gripping with tension down to the wire. The 'Skins have beaten the Steelers the last two years at Forbes Field, and are ultra-impressive in the 22-7 win. Washington was behind 7-6 at the half thanks to Ray Mathews brilliant punt return score for the black and gold, but the second half is all burgundy and gold as Bill Dudley knocks through three field goals, and fullback Rob Goode scored a late touchdown. Washington returns home to take on the poweful Los Angeles Rams. 

Were the Rams looking ahead to their match-up with the Bears, did Los Angeles just not think the 'Skins were any good? Sure wish I had the complete game film of the 'Skins 31-21 win, but do have a couple of quotes. Rich Tandler in his book "The Redskins Chronicle" states "the Redskins racked up 371 yards rushing in the course of thumping the Rams in a game that was not nearly the contest the 31-21 final score might indicate". Since the 'Skins offense was the reason for victory let's take a long hard look at the Washington offense? 

Coach Todd must have believed that his team could run the ball, and as such that is emphasis when they had the ball. Harry Gilmer was suppose to be the next great quarterback when he entered the league, and he began the year as the starter. Three losses and back in the saddle is Slingin' Sam. Washington will align in the t-formation, and also utilize the spread, and versions of a double wing. Baugh has lost his fastball, and there are games he is picked off, but so was Gilmer who had a rocket arm, and throw the ball a country mile. Baugh in year fifteen almost never has to run, and of course that was never part of his game. 
Sammy Baugh hits Gene Brito (#80) 

Gilmer actually was ranked in the top ten in rushing after three weeks, and had the speed, and elusiveness to get you yards. Did he struggle reading coverage, or being patient? Film study tells us that he would pull the ball down and take off at a moments notice. Baugh still could take his team down the field to victory, and in the upset over Philadelphia he gained 203 yards on his eight completions. The next week though he gained 247 against NYG he was picked off six times—ouch! 

Early in the year Bob Hendren and Gene Pepper got a chance to nail down the right offensive tackle post, but both are found wanting, and as such Coach Todd turns to veteran end Jim Peebles. He is the nominal starter at right offensive tackle the rest of the year. Quoting John Turney "He is athletic, good feet, and his height was an advantage". Both Pepper and Hendren will still get to play some. The starting right guard is Casimir Witucki...otherwise known as "Slug". Listed at 5'11'' 245 he actually looks shorter. Adequate at inline blocks, and pulling on traps and sweeps, he stands out in pass protection since he battles so hard. Again, quoting John Turney, "Harry Ulinski is their best offensive lineman". This is his only year in Washington, and he was the starter all season at center. 

Herb Siegert started at left guard, and was asked to trap, and lead counter plays, and he did this well. Drive blocking and pass protection he is adequate at best. Buddy Brown played both guard positions, and even some d-line. The starting left tackle is Laurie Niemi and quoting John...."Average at best". He struggled in pass protection due to footwork, and was not the pile driver you want on inside running plays. Laurie Niemi was selected for the Pro Bowl, and just not sure how that happened? Later in his career, he played on the defensive side of the ball. 

When the 'Skins did decide to pass there were capable receivers in the Tepee to help Baugh and Gilmer. Left end Bones Taylor began the year among the league leaders with 12 catches for 188 yards after just three games. Since Washington became a running team Taylor was still part of the game plan, just not as often. During the victory over Pittsburgh he did not even catch one pass. Taylor would be split out, but more often than not he was aligned at tight end left, and never ever blocked anyone. 
Again, Baugh to Brito
The right end is 17th round rookie draft choice Gene Brito (in Jack Clary's book great teams, great seasons on page 158 he states Brito was a number one draft pick") oops Jack do some research. A punishing blocker with excellent technique and a never say die attitude, he also was effective and productive as a receiver. Usually on short routes, yet he did make a few long receptions, and a couple were spectacular. His ability run after the catch was also impressive. 

A bright, bright future for this dedicated youngster. Filling in was veteran Joe Tereshinski, and when Joe was aligned at right end, Brito would move to left end, and as sure as your born, the play was a run to Brito's side, and he made the block. Bill Dudley was asked to pass when the tailback in Pittsburgh, but those days are long gone. 

Bullet Bill threw one pass all year. Frigid day in the snow against the Steelers and Bill was on the mark for 13 yards to Brito. Since he does not pass anymore, what does he do? He had his moments running the ball both off tackle, and outside. Washington defeated the Cardinals twice and in those victories Dudley gained 195 yards on just 25 carries! His greatest value though was as a receiver out of the backfield. Surehanded, and an excellent route runner he gained 94 yards receiving in the loss to the Giants. Thirty-eight times during the season of '51 a receiver in the league had a 100-yard receiving game, but nary a Redskin accomplished this achievement—the only team without a 100-yard receiver. 

The rest of the backs caught a pass here or there, with George Thomas the only deep receiving threat. Thomas had speed, yet his longest run from scrimmage was 17 yards. Leon Heath also was given a chance to show what he could do, but besides his outstanding game against the Rams he did very little. Someone had to carry the load, but after three games Rob Goode had gained 96 yards on 30 carries, and Washington was winless. 

Todd changed the focus of the offense and Goode responded. Seven times he gained at least 100 yards rushing in a game, and just three times in his 208 carries did he have a run of longer than 25 yards. Goode was adept running inside following trap blocks, and equally adept at bouncing off tacklers and getting outside. He ended the season with 571 yards rushing in his last five games of the year. How many runners previous to him ever gained that many yards to close a season? Since Washington is 4-5 after the win over the Rams. 

The question is a simple one, can this band of warriors continue to win? They stumble at home in the rematch with Philadelphia, but eke out a win over the Cardinals at Comiskey. Finishing the season at .500 may not seem like much, but considering the start of the season, going 6-3 would be quite an achievement. December 16th at home with a snow-covered field and frigid temperatures will take on a Steeler team that has won just three times, and scored just 163 points all year. 
Rod Goode (#21) carries in snow-covered field in game vs Steelers
The game has been written about due to Jim Finks taking the Steeler offense out of the dark ages as he completes second-half passes to Minarik and Chandnois. Twenty-fourth quarter points puts a "W" in the win column for Pittsburgh, and both teams end with a season total of 183 points scored. The game is chock full of turnovers for both teams. Chuck Drazenovich sparkles against both the pass and run, yet the game belongs to Finks and his receivers. Rob Goode pounded out 107 yards rushing for the 'Skins, yet he loses the rushing title to Eddie Price. 

On page 291 of the NFL Encyclopedia the text states "Rob Goode of Texas A&M became the closest thing the Redskins ever had to a 1,000 yard runner". Where do the 'Skins go from here you ask? Quoting Richard Whittingham's Washington Redskins Illustrated History on page 127; "it proved to be Sammy Baugh's last year as starting quarterback, even though Gilmer again failed to show the greatness he had as a college player". The draft will bring in a couple of quarterbacks, and one of them proves to be a fascinating part of Redskin history in diminutive Eddie LeBaron. That is a story for another day.

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