Earlier this week, I looked at the NFL offenses of the 1940s. However, the NFL was not the only major football league during this time. The upstart All America Football Conference capitalized on the NFL’s wartime talent drought and built a league reputable enough to poach NFL stars, coaches, and fans, and ultimately force a merger.
Although the NFL does not officially recognize AAFC stats, wins, or championships,1 the league was arguably far closer to the NFL than the early AFL ever was. AAFC owners were, in general, wealthier than their NFL counterparts, which allowed them to attract talent away from the NFL. Influential Chicago Tribune editor Arch Ward was the founder of the AAFC, and his media influence popularized the upstart league in a way that perhaps only Jim Thorpe and Red Grange were able to do in the NFL. The AAFC owners were also more open to integration, which increased the size of their talent pool significantly.2
Despite the AAFC’s comparability to the NFL, I will follow the elder league’s lead and look at the AAFC’s stats separately. As before, the primary stat I’ll used is Total Adjusted Yards per Play:
TAY = Yds + 20*TD + 9*(1d – TD) – 45*Int – 25*Fmb
Without further ado, let’s see some stats.
The following table shows the offensive measurements of every AAFC team, and it is initially sorted by marginal adjusted yards (but you can sort any way you’d like, as always). Read it thus: The 1947 Cleveland Browns played 14 games, scoring 410 points and gaining 5547 yards on 775 plays. They had 28 turnovers and 214 first downs. In all, they had 6857 TAY at a rate of 8.85 per play. Their TAY/P was 3.24 above average, which gives them 2508 marginal adjusted yards. For reference, they gained 490 TAY per game.
The Cleveland Browns were the powerhouse of the AAFC, and they may have been the best team in professional football during their entire tenure in the lesser league. Led by legendary Massillon coach Paul Brown, the namesake franchise fielded four of the top five offenses of the AAFC era (keep in mind, the AAFC only lasted for four years). This dominant team had such a strong roster and coaching staff that they compelled the NFL champion Cleveland Rams to pack up and move to California.
Quarterback Otto Graham may have been the best quarterback in football during the latter half of the decade, and his legend is certainly bolstered by his ten consecutive championship game appearances, but he was far from the only player responsible for throttling opponents. In addition to Automatic Otto, Cleveland rostered a Hall of Fame center (Frank Gatski), tackle/kicker (Lou Groza), receiver (Dante Lavelli), and running back (Marion Motley) on offense. In fact, Graham and Motley were named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and Groza was later named the 1954 NFL MVP by Sporting News. This all star squad decimated opponents3 game en route to winning every AAFC championship game.
All four Browns teams produced over 1000 marginal adjusted yards and gained at least 1.65 MAY per play. San Francisco fielded the better offense in 1948, but Cleveland’s consistent rule over the realm remains remarkable.
In terms of sheer volume, the 1948 San Francisco 49ers are the most prolific offense of the AAFC, gaining 510 TAY per game. With quarterback Frankie Albert having a career year passing to stud receiver Alyn Beals,4 as well as the two headed attack of Joe Perry and Johnny Strzykalski rushing all over their opponents’ will to win, this team was a force to be reckoned with. They had the unfortunate luck of being in the same division as the Browns, to whom they suffered their only two losses of the season. Although they didn’t get to play for a championship, they were clearly the second best team in the league.
While they weren’t otherwise as dominant as they were in 1948, the 49ers consistently produced great offenses. Their worst offensive season came in 1947, when they were still .39 TAY/P better than average and ranked third in the league in points scored. While Cleveland’s worst offensive season ranks fifth among all AAFC offenses, San Francisco’s worst season ranks a respectable twelfth. In fact, no other non-Browns team in the league boasts more than one season better than the 49ers’ worst output.
The Buffalo Bills (different from the AFL Bills) were the only other AAFC team to have an above average offense three times. With quarterback George Ratterman and halfback Chet Mutryn leading the way, Buffalo was especially potent on offense during the final two years of the league. Ultimately, however, their potent attack was no match for Paul Brown’s wrecking crew; they lost the 1948 championship game 49-7.
The New York Yankees were generally sub par offensively, but they fielded one of the best-ever AAFC offenses in 1947. That year, Ray Flaherty‘s squad ranked second in scoring and marginal adjusted yards while finishing third in total adjusted yards. All Pro tailback Spec Sanders led the charge with 18 offensive touchdowns and over 1400 yards from scrimmage to go supplement his 14 passing touchdowns. Unfortunately, they could only muster a field goal against the mighty Cleveland defense in the title game.
The 1948 Baltimore Colts (unrelated to the Indianapolis Colts) produced the best non-Browns-non-49ers offense of any AAFC team. Hall of Fame passer Y.A. Tittle is the primary reason for their offensive success, posting 20 touchdowns with him arms and legs and producing a modern looking 90.3 passer rating. Even though 1948 proved to be a fluke, and the team returned to mediocrity in 1949, they were one of the three teams absorbed by the NFL in the 1950 merger.5
The Bad and the Ugly
In this case, the term “the bad and the ugly” describes most teams from the AAFC. While the Browns were clearly as good as any NFL team, and the 49ers were respectable as well, the league was incredibly top-heavy. The other ragtag group of teams were rarely a serious match for Cleveland and San Francisco.6
The worst of these teams is debatable, depending on your definition of the term. The Miami Seahawks played one awful season, finishing last in both points scored and points allowed, before folding. Their -1610 MAY is the second lowest finish of any team.
The Chicago Rockets/Hornets, for their part, fielded the single worst offense of any AAFC team and never had an above average squad. The best offense they ever put on the field ranks eleventh worst of all AAFC teams. Not even the preternaturally talented Elroy Hirsch could lift this team from the depths of offensive decay.
The Brooklyn Dodgers also never found offensive success. Even when quarterback Glenn Dobbs led the league in touchdown passes (1946), the offense as a whole was poor. To balance it out, their defense may have been even worse. The team disbanded after three years in the AAFC.
AAFC Offenses on Average
In order to provide some context for the numbers in the above table, I’ll show you the league averages for the four years the AAFC existed.
If you recall from the article on NFL offenses during the same era, you’ll notice that the AAFC, in general, produced a slightly lower per game offensive output. This could mean that offenses weren’t as skilled, the defenses were stronger relative to the offenses, something else, or nothing at all.7 Even though the two leagues didn’t operate under congruent rules, they both experienced the same significant statistical leap from 1946 to 1947.
After this offensive explosion, and the subsequent AAFC-NFL merger, league offenses saw a steady upward trend that lasted until the defense-dominated 1970s. By adding two powerful teams to their league, the NFL was able to increase its overall strength and provide a better product on the field. Specifically, by bringing Paul Brown into the fold, the NFL finally recognized and began to copy the brilliant innovations he instituted. Brown’s influence, in concert with the novel three-end passing attack of the Rams, laid foundations for offensive football that are still in place today. We’ll look at those in more detail next time.
- Unless, of course, they want to bring up Otto Graham‘s ten championship appearances and seven championship wins. ↩
- Ward was actually offered the role of NFL commissioner on multiple occasions but turned it down due to differing opinions on the vision for the league’s future. ↩
- Except for the otherwise innocuous Los Angeles Dons, who somehow defeated them twice and lost another close before losing in embarrassing fashion in their final two meetings. ↩
- Beals is an interesting case. He had double digit receiving touchdowns all four years he was in the AAFC, and then he gained just three more after the merger. He was the AAFC’s all time leading scorer. ↩
- Unsurprisingly, they folded after just one year. ↩
- Buffalo, Los Angeles, and New York were a tier above the bottom dwellers in the AAFC. They were consistently better than the Colts and would have presumably been superior additions to the NFL. The Dons actually joined forces with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, which almost certainly helped the Rams win the 1951 NFL title. The Yankees were disbanded and their players split between the Giants and Bulldogs. The Bills saw a few of their players join the Browns and the rest get thrown into a league draft. ↩
- That’s not very conclusive, but you’re never going to hear me claiming to know everything. I don’t trust anyone who does. ↩