October 22, 2013

1961: Bears Shut Down the 49er Shotgun

The San Francisco 49ers had raised eyebrows throughout the NFL with their utilization of a new offensive alignment, called the shotgun, for the last five games of the 1960 season, winning four of them. The shotgun was a spread formation with the quarterback taking the snap from about seven yards behind center rather than directly as in the standard T-formation and then typically rolling out with the option to run or pass. Head Coach Red Hickey developed it out of desperation because the offense was not performing well, and the good results assured that it would be San Francisco’s regular offense for 1961.

The 49ers took a step in the direction of fully implementing the shotgun in the 1961 NFL draft when they chose Bill Kilmer, a tailback out of UCLA, as one of their first round picks. He was both mobile and a fair passer, which made him a good fit for the shotgun. Kilmer was one of three quarterbacks on the roster that were alternated throughout the game to operate the shotgun. John Brodie, a fifth-year veteran, was more adept at passing and Bob Waters, in his second season, was a runner (13-year veteran Y.A. Tittle was the odd man out and was traded to the Giants in the preseason). San Francisco was off to a 4-1 start and leading the league in points and total yards as the club traveled to Chicago to take on the Bears on October 22, 1961.

The Bears, coached by George Halas, were 3-2. They had a new starting quarterback in Bill Wade, obtained from the Rams, as well as a promising rookie in TE Mike Ditka. Most of all, Chicago had a solid defense which had at its core the outstanding linebacker trio of Joe Fortunato, Bill George, and Larry Morris.

Chicago’s defensive coach Clark Shaughnessy pulled a page out of his knowledge of the old single-wing formation (among others that were similar to the shotgun) by having the middle linebacker, Bill George (pictured at top), right on top of San Francisco’s center who, having to pass the ball back several yards between his legs, was not well positioned to block. A great player with outstanding instincts, George’s assignment was to shoot through the gap and pressure the quarterback. The defensive linemen also shifted and sought to account for the movements of the running backs – or wing backs – who usually set up at the line. In addition, the Bears adjusted their defensive formations to the relative abilities of the three San Francisco quarterbacks.

There were 49,070 fans on hand for the game at Wrigley Field. The Bears punted following their first possession but got the ball back when FB J.D. Smith of the 49ers fumbled on the first play and Joe Fortunato recovered at the San Francisco 27. Chicago came up empty, however, when Roger LeClerc’s 35-yard field goal attempt was short.

All three quarterbacks contributed as the 49ers moved 20 yards on their next series, but again they turned the ball over when Bill Kilmer fumbled it away at his own 40. Two plays later, Chicago’s Bill Wade threw a pass that was intercepted by CB Jimmy Johnson. The Niners punted and that remained the pattern into the second quarter as neither offense was able to move effectively.

The Bears were winning the battle for field position, however, and after a 27-yard Tommy Davis punt gave them the ball at the San Francisco 48, they finally took advantage. They needed only three plays as, following a four-yard run, Wade threw to Mike Ditka (pictured at left) for 22 yards and then to split end Bo Farrington for a 26-yard touchdown. LeClerc added the extra point for the 7-0 lead.

On the next series, the Bears got the ball back when Harlon Hill, normally an offensive end but now also playing defensive back, intercepted a Brodie pass and returned it 24 yards to the San Francisco 40. Again they scored quickly as Wade, after first being sacked for a seven-yard loss, threw to Ditka for a 47-yard TD. LeClerc again converted and the score remained 14-0 at the half.

It remained the same story as the game entered the second half. The 49ers couldn’t move on offense, and the Bears continued to win the battle for field position. In their second series of the third quarter, Wade completed a pass to Ditka for 23 yards, HB Willie Galimore had a 16-yard run, and on the seventh play Wade again connected with Ditka for a 15-yard touchdown.

Down 21-0, CB Abe Woodson returned the ensuing kickoff 34 yards and a roughing-the-passer penalty advanced the 49ers to their 49 yard line – their deepest penetration since the first quarter. But Kilmer, Waters, and Brodie each threw an incomplete pass and the Niners again had to punt.

Late in the third quarter, Waters was picked off by CB Dave Whitsell to give the Bears the ball at the San Francisco 29. As the game moved into the final period, Chicago moved methodically down to the one yard line but a field goal attempt was unsuccessful. It hardly mattered, especially when Fortunato intercepted a Brodie pass on the next play and the Bears had possession at the San Francisco 27. This time they came away with points when Ed Brown kicked a 29-yard field goal.

With fewer than six minutes left to play, the outcome was not in doubt. The 49ers remained utterly stymied on offense and, following another fumble, the Bears padded the score with a Wade pass to flanker Johnny Morris for a seven-yard touchdown. Adding the extra point, the final tally was a decisive 31-0 for Chicago.

Chicago’s domination was complete. The Bears led in total yards (305 to 132) and first downs (17 to 6), and in the second half San Francisco had a net gain of one yard and one first down. The 49ers had only 40 net passing yards and turned the ball over six times, to one suffered by Chicago.

Bill Wade completed 13 of 22 passes for 171 yards with four touchdowns against one interception. Mike Ditka was the receiving star with four catches for 107 yards and two TDs. Johnny Morris also had four receptions, for 33 yards and a score. FB Rick Casares led the productive ground game with 67 yards on 13 carries.

For the 49ers, John Brodie was successful on just three of 10 throws for 23 yards and tossed two interceptions. Bill Kilmer (pictured below, attempting to escape from Chicago DE Doug Atkins) was two-of-four for 17 yards and led the club in rushing with 36 yards on 7 attempts. Bob Waters was 0-for-4 with an interception throwing the ball and ran for 20 yards on 8 carries. Split end R.C. Owens was the leading receiver with three catches for 32 yards.

The Bears won the next week to improve their record to 5-2, but then lost three straight on the way to finishing 8-6 and tied with the Colts for third place in the Western Conference. San Francisco was right behind at 7-6-1.

Teams followed Chicago’s lead in defensing the shotgun and Coach Hickey eventually abandoned it, although it would be revived by Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s for passing situations. Its use is widespread today, with some variations, but typically not for every down – and not with a three-quarterback rotation.