October 15, 2011

1948: Colts Score 15 Points in 4th Quarter to Pull Away from Dons

The Los Angeles Dons were two-touchdown favorites coming into their All-America Football Conference game against the Baltimore Colts on October 15, 1948. Jimmy Phelan, who was in his first year as head coach of the Dons, had developed an offensive formation, the Phelan Spread, in an effort to better utilize star passing tailback Glenn Dobbs. Dobbs, the AAFC’s MVP in 1946 with Brooklyn, had come to Los Angeles in a celebrated trade early in the ’47 season and was a disappointment. Further efforts had been made to revamp the team, which was caught in a struggle with the NFL’s Rams for fan support and revenue, and new players included rookies Herm Wedemeyer, a halfback out of St. Mary’s of California, and end Len Ford from Michigan. LA had a 4-2 record coming into the game, having won their previous two contests.

The visiting Colts, coached by Cecil Isbell, had been 2-11-1 in ’47 but were improved, most notably thanks to the performance of rookie QB Y.A. Tittle out of LSU. They routed the New York Yankees, who had dominated the Eastern Division in each of the AAFC’s first two seasons, in the opening game in which Tittle threw four scoring passes and beat them again two games later, but were 3-3 following a 56-14 loss to the 49ers the previous week.

There was a crowd of 40,019 in attendance on a Friday night at the LA Memorial Coliseum. HB Bill Reinhard scored first by intercepting a deflected Tittle pass and running it back for a 10-yard touchdown.

In the second quarter, and with the ball on the one foot line on a drive helped along by a pass interference penalty, Dobbs surprised the Colts by throwing for a touchdown to end Joe Aguirre, who was all alone in the end zone. Down 14-0, Tittle threw a touchdown pass of 40 yards to end Lamar Davis to make the score 14-7 at halftime. LA’s defensive line, featuring Ford and tackle Butch Levy, dominated for much of the first half – but the tables would turn in the second half.

Wedemeyer and FB John Kimbrough both were injured early, hurting LA’s offense, but then the Colts suffered a blow when Tittle was lost to an injury in the third quarter. Charley O’Rourke, formerly a quarterback for the Dons, entered the game for Baltimore.

O’Rourke engineered a drive that led to a 26-yard TD pass to end Windell Williams that tied the game at 14-14 going into the final period. From there, the Colts proceeded to dominate the fourth quarter.

HB Billy Hillenbrand put Baltimore ahead with a one-yard run and Rex Grossman (grandfather of the modern NFL quarterback of the same name) extended the lead to 24-14 with a 23-yard field goal. The defense added a safety when Dobbs was tackled in his end zone. Grossman kicked his second field goal, from 20 yards, and the Colts came away with a convincing 29-14 win.

Baltimore rolled up 438 total yards and 19 first downs, to 235 yards and 9 first downs for the Dons. FB Buzz Mertes, another ex-Don, led a running game for the Colts that accounted for 169 of that yardage total. Tittle and O’Rourke combined for 269 net passing yards.

The Colts defensive line put heavy pressure on Dobbs, already hurting from an injured hip, who was sacked for a total of 91 yards in losses, including the safety. Dobbs completed just 10 of 28 passes for 173 yards.

Baltimore lost its next three games, all on the road, but won three of the last four and, while that meant finishing with a 7-7 record, it was enough to put the Colts in a tie atop the mediocre Eastern Division with the Buffalo Bills; they lost the resulting playoff. The Dons remained an inconsistent team and also ended up at 7-7 which, in the tough Western Division, meant third place.

Y.A. Tittle ended up as the third-ranked passer in the AAFC and was also third with 2522 passing yards. His 16 TD passes tied for fourth with Buffalo’s George Ratterman, and he also ranked fourth in attempts (289) and completions (161). He threw just nine interceptions. It was a promising start to a Hall of Fame career.

Glenn Dobbs led the league in pass attempts (369) and completions (185), was third in touchdown passes (21), and fourth in passing yards (2403). However, his 20 interceptions placed second. The versatile Dobbs also led the team in rushing with 539 yards on 91 carries (5.9 avg.) and was the AAFC’s top punter with a 49.1 average.

Rex Grossman led the league in field goals with 10, out of 18 attempts. Billy Hillenbrand, who put the Colts ahead to stay against the Dons, accumulated 2067 all-purpose yards, including 510 by rushing and an AAFC-leading 970 yards on his 50 pass receptions. LA’s Len Ford was outstanding on both sides of the ball and caught 31 passes for 598 yards (19.3 avg.) and seven touchdowns. While he performed well again on offense in 1949, with the demise of the league he joined the Cleveland Browns in the NFL and was used exclusively on defense in an outstanding career that was honored, like Tittle’s, with enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.