October 5, 2011

1952: Rookie Ollie Matson Scores 2 TDs as Cards Beat Bears

The Chicago Cardinals had a new head coach for 1952 in Joe Kuharich, who had played for the team in the 1940s. They also had a rookie who set a collegiate career rushing record on Kuharich’s successful Univ. of San Francisco team in FB Ollie Matson (pictured above). Matson was fresh from winning two medals in the Olympics at Helsinki (bronze in the 400-meter run, gold as a member of the 1600-meter relay team) and, at 6’2” and 220 pounds, had a rare combination of size and speed. He was also versatile and, at least initially, Kuharich’s preference was to utilize him primarily as a defensive halfback as well as on kickoff returns.

Beyond Matson, who was optimistically referred to as “The Messiah” among Cardinals fans, there wasn’t a great deal of talent. Charley Trippi, once a great halfback during the team’s glory years in 1947 and ’48, had been converted into a mediocre quarterback. They lost their season-opening game to Washington by a 23-7 score.

On October 5 the Cardinals took on their cross-city rivals, the Bears, before 34,697 fans at Comiskey Park. The Bears, typically a strong team under owner/Head Coach George Halas, had beaten Green Bay in their opening game and came into the contest as 13-point favorites.

There was no scoring in the first quarter, but George Blanda kicked a 39-yard field goal early in the second period for the Bears. They followed up by driving 66 yards to a one-yard touchdown plunge by FB Fred “Curley” Morrison to extend the lead to 10-0.

Following the touchdown, Matson took the ensuing kickoff at dead center on his goal line and went 100 yards as he swerved down the sideline for a touchdown, passing the last defender, HB Billy Stone, with ease. The score remained 10-7 at the half as the Cards’ offense was never able to penetrate beyond midfield prior to the last two minutes of the second quarter.

After a scoreless third quarter, Matson struck again, this time in his defensive role as he returned a fumble by HB Chuck Hunsinger for a 34-yard touchdown, running over the unfortunate (and much smaller) Stone along the way and giving the Cardinals a 14-10 lead.

Late in the fourth quarter, with less than three minutes remaining, Cardinals DB Roy Barni recovered a fumble by end Gene Schroeder, who had caught a pass from QB Steve Romanik. On the next play, Trippi (pictured below) faked a pass and then scored for the Cards on a 59-yard run down the middle of the field. It was the icing on the cake as the Cardinals defeated the Bears, 21-10.

The Bears won the statistical battle, outgaining their intracity rivals (297 yards to 216) and accumulating more first downs (17 to 13). However, they also turned the ball over more often (5 to 3), and two of those turnovers led to scores for the Cardinals. FB Jack Dottley of the Bears had a notable performance, running for 121 yards on 24 carries in defeat.

The Cardinals won their next two games to improve to 3-1, but then lost five straight and finished in a tie for last place in the American Conference (along with the Redskins) with a 4-8 record. The Bears had an uncharacteristically poor season, falling under .500 for the first time since 1945 at 5-7 for a fifth-place finish in the National Conference.

Ollie Matson’s performance had fans calling for him to be used more on offense. “We are trying to work Matson into our offense,” Joe Kuharich said. “But as it is he's much too valuable to us as a defensive half.”

Kuharich did work his multitalented star into both platoons, and Matson ran for 344 yards on 96 carries with three touchdowns at fullback, caught 11 passes for 187 yards and three more scores, intercepted two passes on defense, and scored a second TD on a kickoff return as he ranked second in the league in that category with a 31.2 average. Overall, he scored 9 touchdowns and was fourth in the NFL with 1241 all-purpose yards. Matson was a first-team All-Pro choice by the Associated Press as a defensive halfback (modern cornerback) and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

Matson missed all of the 1953 season due to military service, but returned to the Cardinals in ’54 and was a force to be reckoned with, at both halfback and fullback on offense as well as returning kicks. By the time he was traded to the Rams following the ’58 season, he had twice led the NFL in all-purpose yards, had rushed for a total of 3331 yards, gained another 2150 on 130 pass receptions, and averaged 10.9 yards per punt return and 28.5 yards per kickoff return while bringing back three of the punts and six of the kickoffs for touchdowns – the latter a new league career record. He was named to the Pro Bowl in all six seasons with the Cards and was a consensus first-team All-Pro in each of the first five (he was a consensus second-team choice in 1958).

Matson ran into some controversy, primarily after being traded to Los Angeles for nine players, due to high expectations, but as talented as he was, he couldn’t lift subpar teams into contention. Still, with his impressive all-around abilities, he played for 14 years in the NFL (eventually being reunited with Coach Kuharich, who quit the Cardinals after one year, in Philadelphia) and became the first to accumulate over 10,000 all-purpose yards. At the time of his retirement, he ranked second to only Jim Brown with 12,884 total yards (5173 rushing, 3285 receiving, 595 returning punts, 3746 returning kickoffs, 51 returning interceptions, 34 returning fumbles) and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.