The San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns were both 1-0 as they faced each other on September 27, 1970. The 49ers, in their third year under Head Coach Dick Nolan, were coming off of an injury-plagued 4-8-2 record in 1969 but had the tools in place to do much better. QB John Brodie (pictured above) was an experienced and able passer and there was quality at wide receiver and running back. The defense was effective as well, and the placekicking problem of the previous year was resolved with the acquisition of PK Bruce Gossett. The 49ers started off with a Week 1 win against the Redskins.
Cleveland, coached by Blanton Collier since 1963, was in a new division thanks to the AFL/NFL merger, having been placed in the AFC Central. A perennial contender in the NFL’s Eastern Conference, it was anticipated that the Browns would dominate the AFC competition. QB Bill Nelsen was a good leader and passer, although playing on gimpy knees, and star WR Paul Warfield had been dealt away during the offseason in order to trade up for QB Mike Phipps of Purdue in the first round to be groomed as the successor. WR Gary Collins and TE Milt Morin were proven pass receivers, and HB Leroy Kelly a consistent performer. The Browns defeated the Jets the previous Monday night.
There were 37,502 fans in attendance on a hot day at Kezar Stadium. The 49ers advanced 63 yards in eight plays on their first possession as John Brodie threw to HB Doug Cunningham for a 29-yard gain and capped the series with a swing pass to FB Ken Willard that covered the final five yards for a touchdown. Bruce Gossett added the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
Cleveland responded with a six-play, 68-yard possession. Bill Nelsen connected with Leroy Kelly on first down for a 41-yard pickup and FB Bo Scott swept for the final three yards and a TD. Don Cockroft added the game-tying point after.
With the game still in the first quarter, the 49ers got a big defensive play when Nelsen was hit while passing and SS Mel Phillips intercepted for the 49ers, who returned it 35 yards for a touchdown. Gossett’s conversion made it a 14-7 contest heading into the second quarter.
The teams exchanged punts before the Browns put together a 95-yard drive in 10 plays, the big one a Nelsen completion to WR Fair Hooker that gained 69 yards to the San Francisco 16. The 49er defense held and Cockroft kicked a 20-yard field goal to make it 14-10.
The 49ers advanced to the Cleveland 43 on their next series, losing WR Dick Witcher to a shoulder separation along the way, and a holding penalty forced a punt. However, San Francisco got another break on defense two plays later when Scott fumbled and DT Roland Lakes recovered at the Cleveland 15. On the next play, Brodie threw to WR Jimmy Thomas for a TD. Gossett added the extra point and the Niners led by a 21-10 score.
The Browns came back with an 80-yard drive in eight plays. Nelsen completed five passes, with the longest to Milt Morin for 27 yards and two to Hooker, for 18 yards and finally an eight-yard TD with 1:12 remaining in the first half. There was still time for the 49ers, but the clock ran out on them at the Cleveland 22 and the score remained 21-17 at halftime.
Cleveland’s first series of the third quarter ended with Kelly running 33 yards up the middle for a touchdown. With Cockroft’s point after, the Browns had their first lead of the day at 24-21. The teams traded punts and Cleveland then took six plays to advance 83 yards, helped along by a 28-yard pass interference penalty. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Willard (pictured at left) carried on a draw play for the last nine yards and a TD. Gossett’s extra point attempt was blocked, but San Francisco was back in front by 27-24.
The visitors fought back with a five-play, 80-yard drive. Nelsen was knocked out of the game when, under a heavy pass rush, he suffered a leg injury after completing a pass to Hooker that gained 62 yards to the San Francisco eight. Blanton Collier chose to go with Don Gault, who had spent time on the taxi squad, over Mike Phipps and Gault handed off to Kelly on the next play for an eight-yard TD. Cockroft’s extra point was successful and Cleveland was back in the lead at 31-27.
After a short series by the 49ers, the Browns, with Gault at quarterback, initially appeared to move the ball well. A throw to Gary Collins picked up 23 yards but, three plays later, LB Dave Wilcox intercepted a pass and returned it 11 yards to his own 36. On second down, Brodie connected with Thomas, who made the catch over LB John Garlington and raced the remaining 35 yards for a 61-yard touchdown. Gossett converted.
Down by three points and with eight minutes left on the clock, there was still plenty of time for the Browns. Taking possession at their 24 following the ensuing kickoff, they ran three plays and, facing fourth down and less than a yard to go, chose to punt. In a key series, the 49ers then controlled the ball for 13 plays (nine of them carries by Willard), going to the air only once. The Browns finally got the ball back at their 30, but with only 22 seconds left to play. San Francisco held on to win by a final score of 34-31.
Cleveland had the edge in total yards (448 to 435) while the 49ers led in first downs (24 to 20). The Browns turned the ball over four times, which proved critical, while San Francisco had none.
John Brodie completed 20 of 31 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Ken Willard ran effectively, gaining 105 yards on 22 carries that included a TD in addition to a score on his lone pass reception. WR Gene Washington had 5 catches for 40 yards but Jimmy Thomas was the pass receiving star for the 49ers with four for 78 yards and two touchdowns.
For the Browns, Bill Nelsen was successful on 14 of 25 throws for 308 yards and a TD, but also gave up an interception that led directly to a score, before being knocked out of the game. Fair Hooker (pictured at right) caught four passes for 157 yards and a touchdown and Gary Collins contributed four receptions for 68 yards. Leroy Kelly rushed for 74 yards on 16 attempts that included two scores and also gained 54 yards on two pass receptions. Bo Scott ran 15 times for 48 yards and a TD but gave up a critical fumble.
“You can’t blame the defense for two of the touchdowns,” said Coach Collier in defeat. “You can’t make as many mistakes as we did and win in this league.”
The 49ers lost the following week but went on to top the NFC West with a 10-3-1 record. They reached the NFC Championship game before falling to Dallas. Cleveland was without Bill Nelsen due to damaged knee ligaments the next week but won with Gault and Phipps at quarterback. However, the Browns slumped during the second half of the season and finished at a disappointing 7-7 and second in the AFC Central.
John Brodie had his finest season as he led the NFL, completing 223 passes for 2941 yards and 24 touchdowns, which were all league-leading figures. He was the consensus MVP and received first-team All-NFL and Pro Bowl honors.
The performance by Jimmy Thomas was his best of the season. Appearing at halfback as well as wide receiver, he caught a total of 12 passes for 221 yards (18.4 avg.) and scored one more TD for a total of three.
The unheralded Fair Hooker also had his best game of the year, not reaching the hundred-yard threshold for the remainder of the season (or his career, for that matter), but he did emerge as a pleasant surprise for the Browns with 28 catches for 490 yards (17.5 avg.) and two TDs.