October 1, 2010

1950: Giants “Umbrella” Defense Shuts Down the Browns

After dominating the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) for four seasons, winning all four league title games, the Cleveland Browns took up residence in the NFL in 1950 and continued to win there as well. The Browns opened at Philadelphia, against the defending NFL champion Eagles, and beat them handily, 35-10. The following week they rolled over the Baltimore Colts, who also came over from the AAFC, by a 31-0 score.

Under innovative Head Coach Paul Brown, Cleveland had been utilizing a precision passing attack that NFL teams had not seen before (a prototype of the modern West Coast offense). QB Otto Graham threw to ends running sideline routes and backs on flare-out passes that the predominant defenses of the time – the 5-3-3 and 5-2-4 (Eagle) devised by Eagles Head Coach Greasy Neale – were unable to stop. Not only were the passes difficult to defend against, but by forcing the defensive linemen and linebackers to spread out, they became vulnerable to trap and draw plays up the middle.

On October 1 the Browns hosted the New York Giants at Municipal Stadium. However, the Giants came prepared. Head Coach Steve Owen (pictured above) devised a new defensive scheme in response to Cleveland’s passing attack. In addition to four defensive backs, as in the Eagle defense, he put six players on the line, but the ends often dropped back into pass coverage (like modern outside linebackers) and the middle guard was frequently backed off the line, creating a new position – middle linebacker.

The new scheme came to be called the “Umbrella” defense as, when diagramed, the defensive backs were fanned out behind the middle linebacker, who appeared to be the stem of the defensive umbrella. Essentially a 6-1-4 alignment, when the ends dropped back into coverage it became like a modern 4-3-4 defense.

The defensive backfield was made up of solid performers that included halfbacks Emlen Tunnell and Harmon Rowe and safeties Tom Landry and Otto Schnellbacher. John Cannady was the pioneering middle linebacker, behind a line anchored by All-Pro tackles Arnie Weinmeister and Al DeRogatis. The new defense proved more than adequate to the task against the Browns.

There were 37,647 fans in attendance on a humid but dry day as the Giants scored in the first quarter. Capping a 51-yard drive in which HB Gene Roberts rushed for 34 yards, FB Eddie Price bulled over for a touchdown from three yards out, but the extra point attempt was missed due to a fumbled snap (Roberts, pictured below, proved to be the key player on the Giants offense, rushing for 77 yards on 12 carries).

That was all that the Giants could muster, playing conservatively against the equally tough Cleveland defense, but the Browns were unable to advance into New York territory at all during the first half. Graham failed to complete any of his first seven passes.

Cleveland finally made it across the 50 yard line on three occasions during the second half, but twice gave up the ball on downs, at the New York 38 and 12 yard lines, to end long drives. On the last advance, late in the fourth quarter, the Browns were at the Giants’ eight when Graham and FB Marion Motley collided in the backfield when attempting a hand off on a trap play and fumbled; LB Dick Woodard recovered for the Giants to end the threat. New York held on to win by a 6-0 score.

It was the first time the powerful Browns had ever been shut out. They also had not lost a home game since three seasons before, in 1947 to the Los Angeles Dons.

Safeties Schnellbacher and Landry (pictured at left), who had both faced the Browns in the AAFC, played especially well in thwarting the vaunted Cleveland passing attack. Otto Graham completed just 12 of 30 passes for 127 yards and was intercepted three times.

Afterward, a philosophical Paul Brown said “At least we weren’t beaten by a big score. We just lost to a better team. New York was ready for us.”

The Giants proved to be ready when the teams met again in New York three weeks later, winning 17-13. No other club was able to beat Cleveland and the Giants lost games to the Steelers and Cardinals along the way; as a result, both clubs ended up tied atop the American Conference with 10-2 records at the end of the regular season. However, in the tiebreaking playoff, the Browns finally beat the Giants in another defensive struggle, 8-3, and went on to win the NFL Championship game against the Rams.

The new defense didn’t take hold right away, but the 4-3-4 became the predominant alignment by the end of the decade and, along with the 3-4-4 that was adopted by some teams starting in the 1970s, continues to be used.

The mastermind of the “Umbrella” defense, Steve Owen, was dismissed as head coach of the Giants following the 1953 season after 23 years. His innovative defensive coaching, combined with a preference for conservative, run-oriented offenses produced a 151-100-17 record (2-8 in the postseason).