September 18, 2011

1949: Scores by Defense Propel Browns Over Yankees

The Cleveland Browns had won three All-America Football Conference championships and were unbeaten in 26 straight games (they were tied twice, including the ’49 season opening game against Buffalo) as they took on the New York Yankees on September 18, 1949. The powerful club added DB Warren Lahr and tackle Darrell Palmer for its fourth season, as well as HB Les Horvath (pictured at right), a former Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State who had played two years for the NFL Rams. Typically, the Browns had no trouble scoring points with their well-balanced offense, but on this day it would be up to the defense to pull out another win.

The Yankees, now combined with the defunct Brooklyn Dodgers for the AAFC’s fourth season, were coached by Red Strader and were operating out of the T-formation for the first time. Don Panciera was the starting quarterback, and the backfield also featured halfbacks Buddy Young and Sherman Howard and FB Bob Kennedy, although it was missing star running tailback Orban “Spec” Sanders, who had twice led the league in rushing but missed all of ’49 with a knee injury. The line included tackles Arnie Weinmeister and Martin Ruby, guard Joe Signaigo, and center Brad Ecklund, and the defensive backfield had outstanding players in Tom Landry, Otto Schnellbacher, and Harmon Rowe. While the Browns had played two games and gone 1-0-1, New York opened its season just the previous week at Buffalo and was 1-0.

There were 26,312 fans at Municipal Stadium on a rainy day in Cleveland. They saw the visitors score first, on a 25-yard field goal by Harvey Johnson. But still in the first quarter, Horvath picked up a fumble by New York’s Young and ran 84 yards for a touchdown.

The Yankees outplayed the Browns, who were without star FB Marion Motley due to a rib injury, and put heavy pressure on star QB Otto Graham (who no doubt missed Motley’s outstanding blocking as well as his running). But while New York was inside Cleveland’s 20 yard line on six occasions, and three times inside the 10, the Yankees couldn’t put any more points on the board.

After turning the ball over on downs in the third quarter at the one foot line, the Yankees missed an opportunity to score a defensive touchdown of their own when Graham, fading back into his own end zone, threw a pass that hit G Johnny Mastrangelo in the stomach, but he dropped the ball.

Late in the fourth quarter, DB Tommy James intercepted a pass by Panciera and returned it 27 yards for a TD. Lou Saban, kicking in place of Lou Groza, added his second extra point and the Browns survived to win, 14-3.

New York outgained the Browns (311 yards to 125) and led in first downs (15 to 5). Otto Graham completed just 4 of 10 passes for 36 yards and the Cleveland offense never penetrated deeper into New York territory than the 47 yard line.

The Browns went on to win two more games before being beaten convincingly by their arch-rivals, the 49ers. While that briefly put them in second place, they went 5-0-1 the rest of the way to top the AAFC (which went without divisions in its last year, due to the reduction to seven teams) with a 9-1-2 record. Along the way, they handily defeated New York at Yankee Stadium by a 31-0 score. The Yankees finished third at 8-4 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the second-place 49ers. Cleveland defeated Buffalo in the first round and San Francisco for a fourth league title before moving on to the NFL.

Les Horvath, who was strictly a reserve, retired after the ’49 season to go into dentistry (he had a successful practice for many years in Los Angeles). Tommy James (pictured below), who had started his career in the NFL with Detroit in 1947 before moving over to the Browns in ’48, stayed with Cleveland for another six seasons before finishing up with the Baltimore Colts in 1956. His interception against the Yankees was one of 34 that he accumulated (8 in the AAFC, 25 in the NFL) and his only one that he returned for a touchdown, although he did score on a fumble recovery in 1953.