1950 marked one of the first major mergers in the NFL’s 31 year history. Three teams from the All-American Football Conference, the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Colts joined the NFL. Other teams in the AAFC merged into their NFL counterparts in the same cities. For example, players from the AAFC New York Yankees were split between the NFL’s New York Giants and New York Bulldogs who later changed their name to the Yanks. A “dispersal draft” was held to reallocate the rest of the seven team AAFC players into the NFL who did not make the merger.
1950 also saw the NFL input the free substitution rule. Until this time, teams we’re only allowed to substitute out three players at a time which required players to play on both sides of the ball. The rule allowed teams to have a designated offense, defense, and special teams, just like we see in the game today.
Television helped increase the popularity of the sport through the 50s, but it also was a reason why attendance at games was nearly cut in half. In 1953, courts upheld a ruling that allowed teams to blackout home games in the home teams market, and by 1956 all teams could broadcast road games only. If you wanted to see your team play at home, you had to go and buy a ticket. A few regular season games were broadcast nationwide, but it was the 1958 Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants that made the NFL’s popularity soar to new heights. The game featured 12 Hall of Fame players and was the first sudden death overtime game. Appropriately called “the greatest game ever played”, it ended with Alan Ameche diving into the endzone to secure a 23-17 win for the Baltimore Colts.
The Baltimore Colts had seven players earn spots on the NFLs All-decade team for the 1950s. Lenny Moore, Alan Ameche, Raymond Berry, Dick Barwegan, Jim Parker, Gino Marchetti, and Art Donovan.
There were All-Star games in years past, but the conference vs. conference format was instituted in 1950 and called the “Pro Bowl”.
San Francisco 49ers Joe Perry becomes the first African-American to be named NFL Player of the Year. Perry was the all-time rushing leader at the time of his retirement (1963) with 9,723 yards and is the first player in history to record back to back 1,000 yard rushing seasons.
Two records set in the 50s still stand today. The L.A. Rams Dick “Night Train” Lane Intercepted 14 passes in 1952, and the Rams Norm Van Brocklin tossed for 554 yards in a single game in 1953.
Jim Brown played his first game for the Browns (1957) and Vince Lombardi coached his first game for the Packers (1959) in this decade.
Those are the best of the best from the 1950s. But does Z-Score agree? Z-Score is a measure of how far above or below the average something is, operating on a scale from -4.0 to +4.0 where 0.0 is average. For a full explanation on Z-Score, refer to this article. Of the #1 ranked most above average players in a season according to Z-Score, only Otto Graham in 1955 was also named the Player of the Year. It goes to show that other things such as championship game appearances played a role in the voting. You can see Jim Brown was named AP Player of the Year in his rookie year of 1957, despite having the 11th best season that year according to Z-Score.
10 best seasons from the 1950s according to Z-Score.
10. Hugh McElhenny, RB, San Francisco 49ers, 1952 – Z-Score: 1.7531 – McElhenny led the league in all-purpose yards in 52’ with 1731. An 89 yard scamper was the longest run from scrimmage that year, and he averaged an astounding 7.0 YPC. Not to mention a 77 yard reception once, and 10 TDs. No Player of the Year was awarded in 1952, but McElhenny topped the list of RBs that year, and this ranks as the second best season by a RB this decade.
9. Del Schofner, WR, Los Angeles Rams, 1958 – Z-Score: 1.7592 – Schofner earned first teams All-Pro honors in 58’ while leading the league in receiving yards with 1097. He reeled in 51 passes and eight touchdowns. Baltimore Colts receiver, Raymond Berry, was named player of the year in 58’ in some publications despite averaging 66.1 yards per game, versus the 91.4 yards per game amassed by Schofner. Berry caught just five more balls, and scored one more TD than Schofner, but his Colts did win the title in 1958.
8. Harlon Hill, WR, Chicago Bears, 1954 – Z-Score: 1.7839 – In an impressive rookie campaign, Harlon Hill averaged 25 yards per reception and also a league leading 12 TDs. Hill’s 1124 yards ranked second behind the Rams Bob Boyd’s 1212 yards. Despite topping the WRs list by Z-Score in 54’, Boyd, and the Eagles Pete Pihos were named first team All-Pro. Hill was second team.
7. Raymond Berry, WR, Baltimore Colts, 1959 – Z-Score: 1.8105 – Johnny Unitas won the AP Player of the Year in 59’, but his favorite target did his part to help Unitas and the Colts to their second straight title, and Berry topped the Z-Score list in 59’ and hit the receiving triple crown as he led the league in receptions (66) yards(959) and TDs (14). In fact, he led the league in catches in each year from 58’-60’ He was thought to be Player of the Year by some in 58’, but he was better in 1959 (and even better than this in 60’, but that’s on our next list).
6. Billy Howton, WR, Green Bay Packers, 1952 – Z-Score: 1.8296 – Another outstanding rookie makes the list. Howton edged out afore mentioned Hugh McElhenny for top Z-Score in 1952. He led the league in receiving yards with 1231 and also found the end zone 13 times. Despite the impressive numbers, Detroit’s Cloyce Box and San Francisco’s Gordie Soltau earned first team All-Pro. Box was our second ranked WR behind Howton. Soltau is ranked seventh best. Soltau caught two more balls, but scored six less TDs and over 450 less yards receiving than Howton.
5. Lenny Moore, RB, Baltimore Colts, 1958 – Z-Score: 1.9170 – Moore led the league in yards per carry in each of his first three seasons, including 7.3 yards in 58’. In this season he also posted his career best, 1536 yards from scrimmage. Problem is, Lenny Moore wasn’t the feature back on this Colts team. He received 132 touches, while Alan Ameche got 184. Moore was a first team All-Pro though. His 11.64 yards per touch was far and away the best. Runner up was Joe Perry at 6.59 Y/T. Moore scored 14 TDs despite the small number of touches. 14 were second best to Jim Brown who scored 18, but had 263 touches. One shy of exactly double the opportunities as Moore.
4. Otto Graham, QB, Cleveland Browns, 1955 – Z-Score: 1.9187 – Graham is the oldest player in the 1950’s top ten, posting this best season at age 34. In fact he’s the only one in his 30s that made the top ten. As mentioned before, this was the lone season in this decade that highest Z-Score equaled Player of the Year. Graham wins his third Player of the year award after taking the Browns to their sixth straight championship game. Just as an example of how times have changed, his 53% completion percentage led the league. Average in 1955 was 48.71%. In 2013, Brandon Weeden was dead last in completion percentage…at 52.8%
3. Harlon Hill, WR, Chicago Bears, 1956 – Z-Score: 2.0031 – (see #2)
2. Billy Howton, WR, Green Bay Packers, 1956 – Z-Score: 2.1771 – Hill and Howton had two of the best years of the decade at the same time. Both are making their second appearance on the top ten in this, their third years in the league. They were the only two receivers to crack 1,000 yards (Hill – 1128, Howton – 1188). Both were also the only ones with double digit TDs (Hill – 11, Howton – 12). However, it was Frank Gifford on the title winning Giants that took home player of the year, despit finishing a distant third to these two men in 56’.
1. Elroy Hirsch, WR, Los Angeles Rams, 1951 – Z-Score: 2.9797 – “Crazy Legs” had easily the best season of the decade. Over 2.0 on this scale is elite, near 3.0 is other worldly. 66 receptions led the league. 1495 receiving yards shattered Don Hutson’s record of 1211 yards set in 1942. The record stood for ten years until Charley Hennigan broke it in 61’ (1745 yards). Second place in yards in 1951, Gordie Soltau, 826 yards. Hirsch also had 17 TDs. Leon Hart was second with 12. It’s bordering on blasphemous the Otto Graham and not Crazy Legs Hirsch was 1951’s Player of the Year. He helped lead the Rams to a rematch in the title game with the Browns which L.A. beat Grahams Browns, 24-17.
Quickly, the 10 worst seasons in the 1950s10. Frank Tripucka, QB, Dallas Texans/Chicao Cardinals, 1952 – Z-Score: - 1.4182 9. Rob Goode, RB, Washigton Redskins, 1954 – Z-Score: – 1.4431 8. Bill Bowman, WR, Detroit Lions, 1954 – Z-Score: – 1.4869 7. Eddie Price, WR, New York Giants, 1953 – Z-Score: – 1.4898 6. Jug Girard, WR, Detroit Lions, 1955 – Z-Score: – 1.4927 5. Leon Heath, WR, Washington Redskins, 1952 – Z-Score: – 1.5996 4. Lamar McHan, QB, Chicago Cardinals, 1954 – Z-Score: – 1.7011 3. Bobby Layne, RB, Detroit Lions, 1953 – Z-Score: – 1.7051 2. Tobin Rote, QB, Green Bay Packers, 1950 – Z-Score: – 1.7761 1. Johnny Olszewski, RB, Chicago Cardinals, 1955 – Z-Score: – 1.8985
The most average season of the 1950’s:Y.A. Tittle, QB, San Francisco 49ers, 1956 – Z-Score: – 0.0004
It appears as if the Rookie of the Year voting is pretty spot on as it jives with Z-Score for the most part.
It’s no wonder the Colts we’re so good near the end of the decade, but it’s a bit shocking that Johnny Unitas didn’t top the list at all. Unitas was 2nd in 57′, 5th in 58′ and 8th in 59′.
Next up…It’s the 1960s. Stay tuned