By Nick Webster
|Len Ford at Michigan|
This long piece is dedicated to T.J. Troup who taught me that ‘the tape never lies’ and Chris Willis who provided so much support in its creation.
Here at The Journal, we enjoy diving deep on some of the best accomplishments, best seasons, and best players in NFL history. We all know about some of the great recent pass-rush seasons JJ’s 2012, Strahan’s 2001, Reggie’s 1987, and with some of the work we’ve done, since published by Pro Football Reference, Bubba Baker’s 1978, and Deacon’s dominance of the mid-’60’s. 1950s pass rush data is even more sparse; however, we do know that some of the great pass rush seasons occurred during that decade, and we’ll dive deep on one of those today.
Given the permanent move to two-platoon football, the 50s was when pass-rushing became a unique skill. No longer was an end’s defensive play valued in the context of his pass-catching or run blocking; for a defensive end, his defensive play became THE only factor in his evaluation. Prior to the 50’s, there were great pass rushers like Bill Hewitt, Jack Zilly, Ed Sprinkle and the like, but these were players who did it all and just happened to excel on the defensive side of the ball rather than being dedicated defenders; save Sprinkler’s later years in the ’50s.
The first wave of great full-time pass rushers were Sprinkle, Andy Robustelli, Norm Willey, Gino Marchetti, and Len Ford. And the first two-platoon breakout pass-rush season was Len Ford’s 1951, which we’ll cover in detail while discussing Ford and his life overall.
Len Ford was born to be a superstar pass rusher. He was tall and long, with size and speed, and would look like any star outside linebacker or defensive end/edge rusher in today’s game.
Ford was used sparingly on offense in 1945 as Coach Crisler pursued the then novel strategy of rotating offensive and defensive lines, but he still produced enough on the defensive side of the ball to join five Wolverine teammates and receive honorable mention, Ford as an end, by United Press. Lenny didn’t even play in the first 4-games of the season but saw meaningful action beginning in the Army game and was a mainstay on defense thereafter. In the loss to the #1 ranked Army team with 70,000 at Yankee stadium in attendance, Ford was called the “center of all eyes . . . only because of his outstanding work at right end.” That Ford garnered such attention was meaningful given that the Wolverines were facing the most formidable team in the nation. Army would go undefeated for the second straight year and featured 1945 Heisman Trophy winner Doc Blanchard and future 1946 Heisman Trophy winner Glen Davis. But it was Ford, not Mr. Inside or Mr. Outside that caught the eye of the New York Times that day.
The following week at Illinois Ford had a breakout game with a forced fumble on a running play, three QB sacks for 23 Yards in losses, and his first career TD on a 15-yard blocked punt return, breaking open what was a 0-0 tie at the time. “Ford was devastating in his attack on the Illinois passing offense. He charged in relentlessly and downed the passer before he can flick the ball. The big, tall, powerful negro can’t be stopped by any one man and Illinois found that out.” The following week against Minnesota, “the lanky Ford delighted the crowd and received an ovation when he left the game for the last time.”
|Ford punches the ball away from a ballcarrier for a first-quater forced fumble at Illinois in 1945|
|Ford comes in unblocked for a second-quarter sack of Illinois QB in 1945|
|[Ford closing in to share an 8-yard sack in the first Quarter of the Rose Bowl]|
|[Ford’s fourth Quarter Tomahawk sack forced fumble in the Rose Bowl]|
|Ford with Coach and Teammates on the sideline at the Rose Bowl]|
|[Final score in 1947 Rose Bowl between Michigan and USC]|