If you’re just tuning in, this is a continuation of my look at NFL offenses throughout history. I started in the 1930s before moving on to the offenses of the NFL and the AAFC in the 1940s. Today, I’m taking a look at 1950s NFL offenses.
After the NFL-AAFC merger, the talent level of the league was at a then-all-time high. Both offenses and defenses were better than ever, and the increased use of the forward pass seduced more and more fans to stadiums. Moreover, the glamorous Los Angeles Rams became the first team to have every game televised, significantly increasing the exposure and popularity of the NFL.1 As more money came in, teams were able to pay players enough so that many could actually focus on football full time. This increased the quality of play, which drew even more fans to the gates, which meant more money…and the cycle continued.
1950s NFL Offenses
The table below contains the offensive information about the 121 team seasons in the 1950s. It is ordered by marginal adjusted yards, but you can sort it by any column. Read it thus: The 1951 Los Angeles Rams scored 392 points and gained 5409 yards on 811 plays. They suffered 37 turnovers and picked up 272 first downs. In total, they produced 6827 total adjusted yards at 8.42 per play. This comes to 3.08 TAY/P above average and 2495 marginal adjusted yards. Per game, they produced 569 TAY.2
Before the popular Greatest Show on Turf, the Rams fielded possibly the greatest offensive dynasty in NFL history. The 1950-1954 Rams produced arguably the top five year stretch of offensive teams the league has ever seen. In fact, four of those seasons are in the top five of all offenses from the decade. Their 1951 output relative to league average wasn’t approached by another NFL team until the Dolphins in Dan Marino‘s magical 1984 season. The 1951 Rams still rank 10th in marginal adjusted yards among all teams in NFL history. That they rank that high with only twelve games of play speaks to their dominance; every team above them played a sixteen game season. Using TAY/P above average, they rank second only to the 1941 Bears among every team in the NFL.
Much of this offensive success is due to the team’s high-flying aerial attack. While most teams still utilized two primary receiving options, Los Angeles employed two wide receivers and a hybrid running back/receiver. This allowed them to overwhelm opponents en route to scoring 38.8 points per game, a record that stands today. The Rams began 1950 by slowly transitioning from Bob Waterfield to the more talented pure passer Norm Van Brocklin. They picked up Elroy Hirsch in the AAFC merger, and they put him across from fellow HOF receiver Tom Fears. With Dick Hoerner and Glenn Davis combining for over a thousand yards out of the backfield, defenses were rarely able to focus on one player to limit the passing onslaught.
In 1953, the Rams added Bob Boyd at receiver and began moving Crazylegs Hirsch into a receiving halfback role, with great success.3 As their stars aged, the Rams were able to find adequate replacements to maintain quality offenses throughout the entire decade. The three season without Van Brocklin at quarterback rate as the three worst offensive seasons for Los Angeles, but they are all above league average. Quality passer Billy Wade replaced NVB in 1958, and the Rams added Hall of Fame snub Del Shofner in 1957 and actual Hall of Famer Ollie Matson in 1959.4 Unfortunately for Los Angeles, all that firepower only amounted to one championship, as two more powerfully balanced teams owned the early part of the decade.
After the Rams, the Cleveland Browns were the top offense of the decade. Their timeline for the decade basically went like this: six incredible years with the best quarterback in the league, Otto Graham, a down year following Graham’s retirement, and three more great years with the best running back of all time, Jim Brown. This, of course, took place under the watchful eye of offensive innovator and all-around coaching mastermind Paul Brown.
Cleveland’s passing offense struggled to match it’s AAFC dominance when it entered the stronger league. However, the balance of their passing and running games (as well as one of the top defensive dynasties ever) led them to five straight championship games. 1953 was by far Graham’s best year in the NFL, and his achievements that year are the primary reason that Cleveland squad produced the third best offense of the decade.
As wear and tear limited Marion Motley‘s effectiveness, coach Brown was forced to lean on Graham and star receivers Mac Speedie, Dante Lavelli, Ray Renfro, and Pete Brewster to make the offense work. Graham was a highly effective scrambler,5 and Fred Morrison helped give the Browns a reasonable ground attack, but the pass became the focus as long as Automatic Otto was under center. Setting up behind virtuoso tackle Lou Groza and throwing to a stable of talented pass catchers enabled Graham to effectively lead the new pass heavy scheme.
Upon Graham’s retirement and the acquisition of Jim Brown, coach Brown returned to a run-first approach to offense. In an era when most teams employed a running back by committee approach, Jim Brown took the lion’s share of his team’s carries en route to leading the NFL in rushing in eight of his nine seasons as a pro. Despite only playing for three seasons in the fifties, Brown ranked fifth in rushing yards and third in touchdowns among all running backs for the decade.6 Despite the presence of Jim Brown, Paul Brown was unable to lead Cleveland to another title without Otto Graham as his quarterback.
The San Francisco 49ers were easily the second most dominant offense of the AAFC. Their transition to the NFL wasn’t as successful as Cleveland’s, but the team did put together a three year run of terrific offenses, beginning in 1952. Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle supplanted aging Frankie Albert as the team’s starter, and fullback Joe Perry continued to lead a dominant ground game. Hall of Fame backs Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson rounded out the San Francisco iteration of the Million Dollar Backfield. From 1953 to 1954, the 49ers achieved their greatest offensive performance of the decade. This was, in large part, due to Perry, who became the first running back ever to rush for over a thousand yards in consecutive seasons.
After Albert retired from playing and became the coach of the 49ers, he introduced short passing concepts that could be thought of as a precursor to the Ohio River Offense developed by Bill Walsh.7 His conservative approach to coaching produced high completion rates, but it didn’t lead to quality offenses.
The Baltimore Colts (the second version, not the failed experiment from the AAFC)8 are a fine example of what a franchise quarterback can do for a football team. They ranged between terrible and average up until they signed an unheralded quarterback named Johnny Unitas in 1956. From that point forward, the Colts fielded offenses that consistently ranked near the top. Although he only played four seasons in the fifties, Unitas led the league in yards and passer rating twice and touchdowns thrice in the decade.
Unitas wasn’t the only all-time great on the Baltimore offense. Receiver Raymond Berry, often referred to as the originator of the timing route, was the Colts’ leading receiver in the latter half of the decade. He was a precise route runner with legendary catching ability.9 If Berry was covered, Unitas could rely on Hall of Fame halfback Lenny Moore to pick up huge yards out of the backfield – as a runner or as a receiver.10
If the passing game wasn’t working, the Colts could lean on All Pro fullback Alan Ameche. While Ameche was no Joe Perry or Jim Brown, he gave Baltimore a hard-nosed grinder who could provide balance to the offense. Whether the Colts opted to pass or to run, left tackle Jim Parker dominated the line of scrimmage. At 273 pounds in the late fifties, Parker was bigger and stronger than almost everyone he faced.11
With four Hall of Famers and another All Pro on offense (not to mention a few HOF players on defense), the Colts won the NFL title in both 1958 and 1959. Their first victory, in what is often called “the greatest game ever played,” came against a Giants team that had just shut out a strong Cleveland offense. Coach Weeb Ewbank, however, devised a ball control attack that kept New York out of the game12
If you sort by team, you’ll notice the 1950 New York Yankees had a pretty good offense but plummeted the following year. After a dreadful 1951 season, Dallas investors bought the team and rebranded it the Dallas Texans. The 1952 Dallas Texans (not to be confused with the AFL team of the same name) is one of the worst teams ever to play in the NFL. After their one and only year in existence, they rebranded again and became the Baltimore Colts. The Colts continued the reign of mediocrity until bringing in Unitas.
The only other standout offenses in the decade belonged to Bobby Layne‘s Detroit Lions. The original master of the two minute drill, Layne was the fulcrum for Detroit’s offensive success. He led the Lions to three titles in a sis-season span with such noted teammates as Bob Hoernschemeyer and the oft-overrated Doak Walker. The only offensive teammate Layne had that actually scared opposing defenses was receiver Cloyce Box.13 Despite playing with inferior talent (compared to what other Hall of Fame quarterbacks had to work with), Layne’s offenses were consistently good-to-great in Detroit. When he left the team, their production nosedived. When he showed up in Pittsburgh, their offense saw an immediate boost.
The Bad and the Ugly
Another team named the Baltimore Colts existed in the NFL for just one year. One of three AAFC teams selected to join the NFL, Baltimore never made much sense as an addition to the league (Los Angeles, New York, and Buffalo were all much stronger teams). However, they seemed like a natural geographic rival to Washington and were brought in to the fold. After just one awful season (and financial turmoil for owner Abe Watner), the Colts folded.
Pennsylvania teams didn’t fare too well for the majority of the decade. The Steelers fielded poor offenses for all but two seasons in the decade – and one of those seasons required a Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm. Philadelphia was similarly bad for most of the decade; like Pittsburgh, one of their only good seasons came with a Hall of Fame quarterback acquired from another team.
The Green Bay Packers fielded some of the top offenses of the thirties and forties, but they were almost always below average during the fifties. Their best offensive season came on the arm of Tobin Rote in 1956. However, it was in 1959 that their fortunes forever changed. Rookie head coach and offensive mastermind Vince Lombardi took over and named Bart Starr the starting quarterback. They achieved moderate success that year, but they became legendary in the following decade (we’ll talk about that next time).
1950s NFL Offenses on Average
The table below displays the league averages for offensive output in the 1950s. It should help provide some context to the table above.
Beginning with the start of our series in the 1930s,14 the forward pass became increasingly prominent, and rules changes allowed offenses to flourish. Consequently, offensive production naturally expanded at a rapid pace. The chart below shows the league average TAY per game each season from 194115 till 1959. Note the steady progression of offensive output.
After disallowing free substitution for the latter half of the forties, the NFL reinstated it in 1950. This laid the groundwork for the position specialization we see in the modern NFL. Specialization meant that quarterbacks (and other offensive specialists) no longer had to focus on playing defense. While this may not sound like a big deal, it was significant for coaches who had speedy receiving threats who otherwise couldn’t make the starting squad due to their defensive limitations. This initially bolstered offenses more than it did defenses, and it wouldn’t be until the 1970s that defenses became the dominant forces fans tend to think of when they envision “old school football.”
Other changes to the rules had a positive effect on offensive production:
- In 1950, the NFL declared that backwards passes and fumbles that went out of bounds would go to the team that last controlled the ball.
- In 1952 and 1953, the NFL redefined illegal motion, allowing offenses more freedom before the snap.
- In 1954, the league rules that an offense can request a clean, dry ball at any time during a rainy or otherwise wet game.
- In 1956, the NFL eschewed the slippery white ball in favor of the standard brown, leather ball.
- Also in 1956, facemasking an opponent was outlawed (however, this did not apply to the ball carrier’s facemask).
- Not a rule, but the NFL Players Association was founded in 1956. This gave employees (player) better footing in contract talks and helped attract more talent to the league.
All of these rules, in addition to an increasingly16 integrated league, helped offenses flourish in the fifties. This offensive explosion made the league more popular than ever, but it was not without major challengers. The 1960 inception of the rival American Football League, with its increased focus on offense, forced the NFL to change its behavior in order to maintain its status as the preeminent professional football league. We’ll talk more about the sixties in subsequent articles.
- They would eventually rescind their television policy, opting only to broadcast away games. ↩
- You may notice that I have removed the column for “games played” in this table. This is because, for the first time ever, every team in the decade played the same number of games each season. ↩
- Hirsch gained 720 yards in his first season at halfback. ↩
- Matson’s best days were behind him, having peaked for the Cardinals, but he was still an effective player for the Rams for a few seasons. ↩
- If you include AAFC stats, he is the all time leader in touchdown runs among NFL quarterbacks. ↩
- His 105.5 yards per game dwarfs that of second place Rick Casares‘ 64.1 YPG. ↩
- And, perhaps ironically, perfected with who else but the San Francisco 49ers. ↩
- Actually, you could say this Colts team is just a continuation of the Dayton Triangles, one of the original APFA teams. ↩
- Although drop stats are not officially tracked from Berry’s era, he is credited with only dropping two passes in his entire career. ↩
- For his career, Moore picked up 63 rushing touchdowns and 48 receiving touchdowns. ↩
- His raw power, in concert with his refined technique, helped him pick up eight consecutive first team All Pro selections. ↩
- Ewbank’s game plan for the game is one of three game plans in NFL history that is on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. ↩
- Stat heads will remember that Box ranks fifth on the list of receiving yards in a single game, with 302 against the Colts. ↩
- For the purposes of our study, I am using the 1930s as a cutoff point. The forward pass actually became more and more common since the first decade of the twentieth century, thanks in large part to President Teddy Roosevelt. ↩
- The first season for which we have reliable first down data. ↩
- Albeit at an embarrassingly low rate. ↩