November 30, 2011

1952: Rams Hold Off 49ers to Win Key Division Battle

The November 30, 1952 game between the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams featured two 6-3 teams that were in contention in the NFL’s National Conference, but appeared to be heading in different directions.

The 49ers, in their third season after coming over from the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), had gotten off to a 5-0 start. Head Coach Buck Shaw’s team had an exciting offense that was benefiting from the addition of rookie HB Hugh McElhenny. However, one play - a decision by veteran QB Frankie Albert to fake rather than punt from deep in his own territory that came up short against the Bears - led to the first loss of the year. It also led to bad relations between Coach Shaw and Albert and the whole season unraveled from there. They lost three of their next four games, including a 35-9 thrashing at Los Angeles the week before. Albert lost his starting job to Y.A. Tittle and there was open talk of dissension on the club. However, on this day they were motivated to try and win for their captain, FB Norm Standlee, who was hospitalized with a mild case of polio.

Meanwhile, the defending-champion Rams had fallen into disarray during the preseason. The defense was performing badly and Head Coach Joe Stydahar was feuding with assistant Hamp Pool. When LA lost its opening game to the Browns by a score of 37-7, Stydahar resigned and Pool was elevated to head coach. It didn’t pay immediate returns as the club fell to 1-3, but the defense finally jelled and, with the win over the 49ers the previous week, the Rams had reeled off five straight wins and were back in contention for another title. The quick-striking offense was still the team’s greatest strength, utilizing the quarterback tandem of Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield, ends Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, and a stable of fine running backs led by FB “Deacon Dan” Towler.

There were 51,000 fans in attendance at Kezar Stadium on an overcast day. The game was billed as a “grudge fight” between the two West Coast rivals, and both teams were fired up right from the start.

The Rams scored first, in the opening quarter, driving 59 yards in nine plays capped by a 15-yard touchdown pass from Van Brocklin to HB V.T. “Vitamin” Smith. San Francisco tied the game early in the second quarter, climaxing a 15-play, 55-yard drive with a five-yard scoring pass from Tittle to end Gordie Soltau. Waterfield kicked a 27-yard field goal to again put the Rams in front following a 75-yard possession and the halftime score was 10-7.

Waterfield kicked another field goal in the third quarter, from 32 yards, and then two interceptions of Tittle passes by DHB Jack Dwyer (pictured at left), a local product out of Loyola of Los Angeles, set up LA touchdowns

The first of the TDs was by Towler, who charged 29 yards down the middle of the field for the score following two outstanding passes, to Fears and Hirsch. The second pickoff gave the Rams the ball on the San Francisco 15 and “Vitamin” Smith scored on a two-yard carry. It appeared to be a runaway for Los Angeles at 27-7 heading into the fourth quarter.

However, Tittle brought the 49ers back in the final period. First, in a two-play possession he threw twice to end Bill Jessup, first for a 58-yard gain on the last play of the third quarter, followed by a 10-yard scoring pass to start off the fourth. Then, following an interception of a Waterfield pass by LB Jimmy Powers that gave the Niners the ball on the LA 22, Tittle fired a scoring pass to McElhenny in the end zone. The big lead was down to six points at 27-21.

However, the 49ers missed an opportunity to take the lead after recovering a fumble at the LA 13 on the following kickoff return when LB Hardy Brown knocked the ball loose from FB Jack “Moose” Myers, bringing the home crowd to a frenzy. However, in a key series, the defense held and San Francisco was forced to turn the ball over on downs.

The Rams capped the scoring late in the fourth quarter by keeping the ball on the ground, most notably on a 51-yard carry by HB Woodley Lewis. Towler pounded into the end zone from three yards out for the touchdown, giving LA a 34-21 win.

It was an impressive performance by the LA defense which held San Francisco’s top-ranked running attack to 67 yards in 27 carries – and most of that came on a 24-yard run by Joe Perry and 11-yard carry by McElhenny. The Niners had just nine rushing yards in the first half. Meanwhile, the Rams piled up 251 yards on the ground. Overall, they outgained San Francisco by 388 yards to 208 and had more first downs, 19 to 14. Both teams turned the ball over three times. LA sacked Tittle five times, but the 49ers weren’t able to dump either of the Rams’ quarterbacks for a loss.

Dan Towler rushed for 132 yards on 19 carries. Woodley Lewis, with his long run, gained 64 yards on just three attempts. Norm Van Brocklin completed 12 of 18 passes for 100 yards with a TD and an interception and Bob Waterfield added three completions in seven throws for 37 yards with one picked off. Tom Fears caught 6 passes for 45 yards while “Crazy Legs” Hirsch gained 47 yards on his 4 receptions.

For the 49ers, Y.A. Tittle went to the air 26 times and completed 10 for 155 yards with three TDs but also three interceptions. Joe Perry gained 53 rushing yards on 14 carries.

Six receivers caught two passes apiece, with Bill Jessup (pictured below) accumulating the most yards with 68. Jessup was available to the 49ers on a weekend pass from the San Diego Naval Station, although he exceeded his 150-mile limit and was disciplined by the Navy afterward.

The loss essentially knocked the 49ers out of contention - they split their final two games to end up in third place in the National Conference with a 7-5 record. Los Angeles won its final two contests to end up tied atop the conference with the Lions at 9-3. However, the Rams lost the resulting playoff game at Detroit, thus losing out on a shot at winning back-to-back titles.

Dan Towler led the NFL in rushing with 894 yards on 156 carries (5.7 avg.) and 10 touchdowns. San Francisco’s Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny placed third and fourth with 725 and 684 yards, respectively. McElhenny topped the league by averaging 7.0 yards per carry and also had the most all-purpose yards with 1731.