October 9, 2010

1949: Albert & Perry Star as 49ers Hand Browns Only Defeat of Season

Throughout the four seasons of the All-America Football Conference’s existence, the Cleveland Browns were clearly the best team, going 47-4-3 and winning the championship every year, and the San Francisco 49ers were second best at 38-14-2. Games between the two clubs were among the most highly attended in pro football history up to that time. While the 49ers were the first team to beat the Browns in 1946, they had lost the next five encounters, mostly by close scores, and missed out on postseason opportunities because both teams were in the Western Division.

On October 9, 1949 the 49ers hosted Cleveland at Kezar Stadium before 59,770 enthusiastic fans in their first encounter of the year. With the AAFC having dropped from eight teams to seven, division play had been done away with. The Browns, under Head Coach Paul Brown, came into the contest with a 4-0-1 record and had not lost since the sixth week of the 1947 season – including the postseason, a total of 29 straight games (they had been tied twice). San Francisco, coached by Buck Shaw, was 4-1 and had scored over 40 points in three of the wins.

The 49ers jumped off to a quick start with 21 points in the first 10 minutes of the game. QB Frankie Albert (pictured above) started off the scoring with a 16-yard touchdown pass to HB Johnny Strzykalski. Strzykalski scored a second TD a few minutes later on the next San Francisco possession with a short carry from inside the one.

Next, Albert threw his second touchdown pass, of 28 yards to FB Joe Perry, who made an outstanding one-handed catch. Before the first quarter ended, the Browns finally got on the board thanks to a 39-yard touchdown pass from QB Otto Graham to end Mac Speedie. It was followed in the second quarter by a Graham TD pass to end Dante Lavelli that covered 26 yards and Cleveland was down by just a touchdown at 21-14.

San Francisco came back as end Alyn Beals scored the 40th touchdown of his AAFC career on a 15-yard pass into the end zone from Albert. The Browns again closed the gap to seven points at 28-21 on a 13-yard Graham-to-Speedie pass. However, the 49ers scored once more before halftime as Albert tossed an eight-yard TD pass to end Nick Susoeff for a 35-21 lead.

After the high-scoring first half, there was only one score in the third quarter, but it padded the San Francisco margin as Albert threw his fifth touchdown pass of the game to HB Ed Carr.

Early in the fourth quarter, FB Marion Motley scored for the Browns on a 12-yard run down the center of the field, but the Niners responded with Perry scoring on a 49-yard run of his own. Carr iced the cake with a five-yard carry that finished off a 56-yard drive and the 49ers came away with a convincing 56-28 win.

The game was exceedingly physical, although no fights erupted. Both quarterbacks passed well, but the 49ers defense dominated the line of scrimmage and Graham was hit hard and sacked often. San Francisco ran up a season-high 507 total yards, to 367 for the Browns.

Key performers for San Francisco were Frankie Albert, who completed 16 of 24 passes for 249 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions, and Joe Perry, who ran for 155 yards on 16 carries with two touchdowns. Cleveland’s Otto Graham was successful on 13 of 26 throws for 281 yards.

The win put the 49ers (5-1) in front of Cleveland (4-1-1) in the AAFC standings. However, the Browns recovered, not losing again the rest of the way, and finished with a 9-1-2 record. One of the wins came in the rematch with the 49ers in Cleveland, and San Francisco had also lost the week before to the New York Yankees. They once again came in second to the Browns at 9-3. However, in the single-division format of 1949, the top four clubs made it into the postseason. The Browns and 49ers each won their opening playoff game and the teams met for a third time in Cleveland, with the Browns prevailing 21-7 for the last AAFC title.

Joe Perry (pictured at left) was the AAFC’s leading rusher with 783 yards and also had the highest average gain per carry (6.8) on his 115 attempts with a league-leading eight touchdowns (tied with Cleveland’s Motley).

Frankie Albert, a mobile left-handed passer reminiscent of later 49ers star Steve Young, led the league in touchdown passes for the second straight year with 27 (his 88 TD passes were the most in the four-year history of the AAFC). His TD pass percentage of 10.4 was more than three yards higher than his nearest competitor, Otto Graham (6.7). However, he ranked second (behind Graham) in passer rating (82.2) and third in passing yards (1862), yards per attempt (7.2), and yards per completion (14.4). He also tossed 16 interceptions, which tied him for second in the AAFC with New York’s Don Panciera.

The demise of the AAFC after the ’49 season didn’t mean the demise of the Browns and 49ers. Along with the original version of the Baltimore Colts, they were absorbed into the NFL for 1950. The rivalry between the two teams diminished, however, as they played in different divisions and, from 1970 on, different conferences.