The title for the saga on the Niners of '52 comes from a Georgia Satellites song. Not sure how many drummers could hit the skins like Mauro M. San Francisco lost twelve of their first eighteen games after joining the NFL in 1950. Down the stretch in '51 San Francisco beat the Lions twice to finish a strong 7-4-1. Thirty-seven men took the field for the Niners in '52; with eight men in their last year, and six in their only year.
This is a team that already has a core of solid players, and has five key rookies joining the team. The Niners open at home in Kezar against Detroit, and outplay the Lions in a convincing 17-3 victory. Since the Lions have now scored just 30 points in their last three losing performances against the Niners....let's start with the San Francisco defense.
So, who lined up where? Possibly the reason that sources that attempt to list the starters have never studied film? San Francisco under the guidance of Phil Bengston the defense usually aligned in a 5-3-3, yet that is not the only defense the Niners played. Strong, rangy Ed Henke from his stand-up stance started each week at left defensive end. He shed blocks well, and was very capable in pursuit. He was an excellent pass rusher and earned a Pro Bowl berth for his outstanding season. Doak Walker stated Henke was the best left defensive end in football.
Pro Football Archives lists that Ray Collins did not start in any of the eight games he played. Collins started opening day at left d-tackle, and though he did not play every week, he did start in other games. Collins was not much of a pass rusher, but he was a rock in defending the run. Al Carapella, and Don Campora (he plays some o-tackle also) will also play at left d-tackle, and also right d-tackle. They are very similar in style, and are more than adequate at defending running plays.
When Visco Grgich is injured early in the year—Bob Momsen takes his place at middle guard. The former Detroit Lion is one of the unsung heroes of the 49er defense as he demonstrates he is capable as a pass rusher, and excellent at jamming up the middle on running plays. Leo the Lion Nomellini plays both left and right defensive tackle, and while he is still learning the subtle nuances of d-line play he has the amazing physical traits all coaches want. Lightning quick for a big man, and relentless when he is on the field on defense he is headed for stardom.
The first week in November of 1952 we are going to elect a new president here in America, and only one 49er cannot vote in the election. Why you ask? Charley Powell is only 20 years old. Powell may lack experience, but he is fast, athletic and motivated. Powell played in more than the seven games listed by PFA, and he did start at right defensive end during the campaign though he also would fill in for Henke on the left side. Rookie Pat O'Donahue lacks size, yet he also starts at right defensive end. He is active, and disruptive on the edge.
At times the Niners would line up with Jim Powers at left corner as San Francisco was in a 5-2-4 defense. Powers would move to right outside linebacker in the 49er 5-3-3. Powers was a willing run defender and tackler. He was an adequate pass defender. Rex Berry's versatility was key to any success for the Niners on defense. When Powers is at left corner, Rex is the left safety, and when Powers is at right linebacker Berry moves to left corner. Tenacious, quick, and he has learned his lessons quickly. Berry played the ball well in flight, and was outstanding in pursuit.
Jimmy Cason was the nominal starter at safety in the 5-3-3, or the right safety in the 5-2-4. Cason was adequate in all facets of secondary play. Sam Cathcart filled admirably for Cason at times during the year. Lowell Wagner was deserving of consideration for a trip to the pro bowl. Some folks believed he was the best corner in the league, and he played his best football against the Lions and Bears (five interceptions). San Francisco finished sixth in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 56.3 (league average was 57.7).
Don Burke was the left linebacker in the 5-3-3, but usually played right linebacker in the 5-2-4. Burke was able in pursuit, and an excellent tackler. When evaluating Hardy Brown as a Colt and Redskin in 1950 was surprised at how ineffective he was. During the 1951 season he was dramatically improved, yet the main question to be answered in the city by the bay is simple...could Hardy Brown be a difference maker in the NFL at 196 lbs? His unique style of tackling known as the "Tulsa Hump" could take an opponent out of the game, and put him on the injured list.
Film study shows him delivering a blow with each of his shoulders depending on his pursuit angle. Quoting Mickey Herskowitz in his must read book The Golden Age of Pro Football "Hardy Brown didn't make the Hall of Fame, but teammate Y.A. Tittle called him pound for pound, inch for inch, the toughest football player I ever met...he was so tough he was damn near illegal". He did not red dog often in 1952, and his pass defense skills are adequate at best. What Brown did do is force fumbles, make big hits, and energize his teammates. He was quickly becoming a folk hero, and his continued improvement sent him to Los Angeles for the pro bowl. Hardy is the Niners defensive MVP.
Frankie Albert is in his final season, and shares the quarterback position with talented passer Y.A. Tittle. Though different in style, both men are successful in leading the 49ers down the field to score. They both contributed during the five-game win streak to begin the season. Tittle had a passer rating of 82.1 for that five-game stretch, while Albert was even better at 107! Albert's passing efficiency the last seven games of the year was a dramatic drop-off to (50.5), and he was not alone as Tittle was also not as efficient since his passer rating for the last seven games was (57.7). Buck Shaw's offense needed to be balanced both run and pass, and the stats prove San Francisco was not.
Albert was still superb at fakes, the roll-out, finding the open receiver on the move while delivering the pass with "touch"! Tittle could zip the ball into tight windows, was also a master at the roll out though his was the opposite direction (right). Though both men had running ability, they knew their job was to complete passes, and lead this team.
The 49er offense has plenty of variation in their formations, and as such Wilson will be in tight many times, he will also split out. Wilson latches on to 23 passes, and is very effective in the red zone as he would down block, and quickly release to the flat.
Diminutive J.R. Boone would align as a flanker, and did start at left end. He did carry the ball as a halfback, but his real value was as a receiver. Sure-handed and very quick, and as such a nightmare to tackle in the open field...Boone was productive and effective when called upon.
Gordy Soltau started till late in the season at left end. His long strides, and ability to find open areas gave Albert and Tittle the target they craved. Soltau ranked among the league leaders in receiving all year. Gordy made the difficult catch look easy, was a willing blocker,and as such earned a pro bowl berth.
Billy Wilson was the right end, and opening day Bill Jessup started at left end, and caught passes in the first two games, then injured was replaced on the roster for a few games by Al Endress. When Jessup was healthy again he played in the game against the Rams at Kezar.
The line splits each team uses is an indicator of the type of running game that team will use. Since the Niners have larger splits than most teams they also create lanes for opposing pass rushers, and as such San Francisco allowed more sack yardage then most of the teams in the league with 396 yards. Stability was key as we see the same men each week at the same positions.
Left offensive tackle was rookie strongman Bob Toneff. Powerful on the drive block, but at times struggled at pass blocking. He did earn some All-Pro recognition. Nick Feher began the year at left guard, but when injured early in the campaign was replaced in the starting line-up by rookie Jerry Smith. Since he played so well while Feher was healing, Nick was not able to regain his starting post though he did play plenty during the year. Smith was adept at the drive block and could pull when asked.
Pro bowl bound Bill "Tiger" Johnson was outstanding in dealing with the different styles of middle guards around the league. Johnson's fist fight with George Connor of the Bears earned him league wide respect. Pete Wismann played some center, long snapped, and even some linebacker during the year. Stumpy pugnacious Bruno Banducci was the starting right guard.
Though the NFL had adopted two platoon football in 1949, here we are three years later and we still have men that play both ways. Much has been written about who logged the most snaps during a game, there is no doubt Leo Nomellini in 1952 would rank in the top three. His technique, strength, and powerful explosion at the snap are whey he could have easily been lineman of the year in the NFL. Though we know the legendary names of 49er running backs for this decade; we will start with the men who got playing time.
The tragic illness of Norm Standlee brought his career to an end, and as such Johnny Strzykalski and Ben Aldridge will fill in at fullback. Bob White earned his letter, yet Joe Arenas is the left halfback most of the time when the Niners align in a fullhouse backfield. Joe "The Jet" Perry will rank among the league leaders in yards gained from either his fullback or split back position. Was anyone quicker out of his stance than Perry? Joe was effective on sweeps, and draws, yet his forte is on the trap play, or off tackle due to his ability to explode into the secondary.
A sparse crowd in Dallas the second week of the season sees their Texans get crushed by San Francisco 37-14. The 49ers continue their road trip by heading to the motor city to face a Lion team seeking revenge. Since both the teams were considered contenders, and have the complete game film lets take an indepth look at this game with a then record crowd of 56,822. Neither team scores in the first quarter, but the tempo has been set by the Niner defense.
Hardy Brown, Henke, and Nomellini with help from their friends stuffs every Detroit running play. On the Lions second possession we see Henke and Nomellini at their best when pillaging the pass pocket. Early in the second quarter San Francisco drives goalward on a mixture of run and pass plays. Perry goes off tackle to the right behind a crushing Nomellini block to set up Billy Wilson's touchdown.
Later in the quarter the 49ers have gained field position and drive 48 yards to score. Near the goal line San Francisco goes into a fullhouse "T", and runs repeatedley. When in doubt run off tackle right behind Leo, and McElhenny scores. The second half is much the same. Albert scores on a sneak, and in the 4th quarter Don Burke grabs an errant tipped Dublinski pass and trundles 35 yards for a touchdown.
All three Lion quarterbacks got sacked in the game, and the Detroit running attack by committee gains 15 yards on 13 carries. Bobby Layne will not ever, ever give up, and when he bolts up the middle on a draw play in the 4th quarter he is met by Hardy Brown and the Tulsa Hump. Just too damn bad that ESPN or the NFL Network knows this play exists—since it takes us back to high school football in Fort Worth and Dallas. Oh yeah, Layne gets knocked right on his ass. The famous quote of "you are not part of the NFL till you beat the Bears" is about to come to fruition.
The 40-16 victory at Wrigley is famous since it is the coming-out party for Hugh McElhenny. When he returns a Curly Morrison punt 94 yards for a touchdown he has now gotten the attention of everyone around the league. The Bears punt team in early '52 had Conner, Blanda, Sprinkle, and Turner. How many rookies have ever returned a punt for a touchdown with four future Hall of Famers coming at them?
San Francisco drove 80 yards for the first score in the first quarter, and the drive began with McElhenny gaining 19 yards. The Niners played well in the first half, but there is no let up in the second half of this statement game. Frankie Albert gives the game ball to McElhenny and calls him the "King of the Halfbacks" thus his nickname for the rest of his career. McElhenny gains 103 rushing, and 122 on punt returns.
After four games McElhenny has gained 668 all purpose yards and is on pace to set a new record since the "Commanche Kid" Billy Grimes of the Packers had gained 613 in his first four games in 1950 when he gained 1,896 all purpose yards. The return match with Dallas is a game that would intrigue everyone who relishes the pass rush as this record setting game has quarterbacks going down for 151 yards. Both Marchetti and Nomellini record sacks in this game, and since Leo played right offensive tackle they faced each other many times during the game. Wow!
The painful loss at home to the Bears sends the 49ers off and winging to New York to play the Giants. Thanks to the incredible filming done by Winik films we see some great footage. Tittle passing from his endzone to McElhenny flanked right on a slant where he beats Menasco and dashes, and weaves for 77 yards until Tunnell can haul him down. The stalwart efforts of the Giants front seven stopping the 49er ground game. New York wins to stay in contention, yet San Francisco is still much alive in the National Conference.
The come from behind victory over the Redskins keeps San Francisco in first place. McElhenny scored on a 46 yard run in the 4th quarter. San Francisco at 6-2 controls their own destiny and rookie sensation McElhenny has gained 589 yards rushing on just 70 carries! He ranks third in the league though Price and Towler have carried the ball much more.
Sunday November 23rd in the Los Angeles Coliseum the Rams know they must win to stay alive in the National Conference. The article written by Walt Daley of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin is entitle "McElhenny—Rookie of the Year??" details aspects about Hugh. Buck Shaw claims " McElhenny's prowess as a broken field runner is the result of rather uncanny split-vision". When the Rams take the return match at Kezar we have Niners in a tailspin at 6-4.
Still at home the 49ers face a much improved Pittsburgh Steeler team. The dominant Black & Gold victory eliminates San Francisco from contention. Before telling the tale of the last game of the year let's take a look at the kicking game in San Francisco. Frankie Albert continued to punt well in the twilight of his career, and as the holder on place kicks would pass. Soltau made half of his field goal attempts. 49er punt coverage was adequate unless they were kicking to Lewis or Christiansen. Arenas and Boone returned punts, yet McElhenny was the key man again in both categories.
Now at 6-5 and facing a Packer team that also was in contention at 6-3, but now 6-5...one of these teams finishes with a winning record. The impressive 24-14 win ends the season on a high note, yet what could have been? Sport Magazine named McElhenny player of the year, yet no doubt even with an impressive rookie class around the league he is no doubt the rookie of the year.
Murray Olderman's terrific book The Running Backs has a bio on each of the greats, and the chapter on McElhenny has his favorite play. Described by Coach Buck Shaw the quarterback reverse pivots, and tosses wide to the right halfback McElhenny called 49 Quick Toss. Shaw states "In my 38 years of coaching college and pro football, McElhenny was the greatest open field runner I ever coached or saw in action".
Steve Sabol had a diner built inside of NFL Films years ago and in one corner were portraits of Elvis and McElhenny otherwise known as Kings Corner. RIP Hugh McElhenny.