December 11, 2009

1949: Browns Defeat 49ers for Last AAFC Championship

It was fitting that the last championship game of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) would be between the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. The Browns had dominated the league during its four-year run, compiling a 47-4-3 record and winning all of the championships. But San Francisco had the second best team, with a 38-14-2 record. Unfortunately for the 49ers, they were members of the Western Division and placed second behind the Browns in each of the 1946-48 seasons.

In 1949, the AAFC fielded seven teams instead of eight (the Brooklyn Dodgers merged with the New York Yankees) and the division alignments were done away with; the teams played a 12-game schedule (as opposed to 14 in the previous years) and those with the top four records qualified for the postseason.

Cleveland finished in first place with a 9-1-2 record, while the 49ers placed second at 9-3. The New York Yankees, who had twice won the Eastern Division and lost to the Browns in championship games, came in third at 8-4, and fourth place went to the Buffalo Bills at 5-5-2. The Browns defeated the feisty Bills, 31-21, in the first round, while San Francisco beat New York, 17-7.

A few days before the championship showdown on December 11, word leaked that a merger agreement had been reached between the AAFC and NFL and that this would be the AAFC’s final season. Thus, attendance for what was a very strong matchup was just 22,550 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.

The Browns, coached by the innovative and exacting Paul Brown, were a balanced team, led by QB Otto Graham (pictured at left) who passed effectively to ends Mac Speedie (the league leader in ’49 with both his 62 receptions and 1028 yards) and Dante Lavelli, and the running of FB Marion Motley (pictured above) and halfbacks Dub Jones, Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones, and Bill Boedecker. San Francisco, under Head Coach Buck Shaw, had the mobile lefthanded QB Frankie Albert, who threw a league-leading 27 TD passes during the season, 12 of them to star end Alyn Beals. FB Joe Perry led the AAFC in rushing (783 yards) and halfbacks Johnny Strzykalski, Sam Cathcart, and Verl Lillywhite were all effective runners. The 49ers also handed the Browns their only loss during the season.

The field was slushy, but there were no turnovers by either team. “Special Delivery” Jones scored the only touchdown of the first half about midway through the first quarter on a two-yard run. Motley provided the most spectacular play of the game in the third quarter when he ran 63 yards up the middle to put the Browns ahead, 14-0.

The 49ers finally got on the board early in the fourth quarter, after a 74-yard drive, when Albert passed for a 23-yard TD to end Paul Salata. But the Browns ground to a third and final touchdown on a 69-yard drive of their own, resulting in a four-yard run by Dub Jones with under nine minutes left to play. The 21-7 score held up, and Cleveland had a fourth and final AAFC championship.

The Browns defense did a good job against the strong 49ers running game. Perry had just 6 carries for 36 yards, while QB Albert was the leading rusher with 41 yards on 5 attempts. As a team, San Francisco gained 122 yards on 33 carries for a 3.9-yard average, well below the average during the season of 5.5. Albert completed just 9 of 24 passes for 108 yards and the TD.

Otto Graham didn’t put up big numbers, completing 7 of 17 passes for 128 yards and no touchdowns. But he ran for 62 yards on 9 carries, putting him third behind Motley (75 yards on 8 rushes) and “Special Delivery” Jones (the workhorse with 16 carries for 63 yards). As a team, the Browns averaged 5.3 yards per attempt in compiling 217 yards on the ground.

The end of the league didn’t mean the end for the Browns or 49ers; both were accepted into the NFL, along with the Baltimore Colts. Cleveland continued to thrive in the older league, participating in six consecutive championship games, and seven in eight years, while winning three of them. It took San Francisco far longer to finally win a championship (following the 1981 season). The Colts folded after a year, only to be resurrected in 1953 out of the ashes of the failed Dallas Texans franchise. And while the AAFC’s Buffalo Bills went down with the remainder of the league, the name was revived by the AFL’s Buffalo entry in 1960.