1956 NFL: Raw and Rugged
Skillful rookies Unitas, Moore and Starr begin to shine
By Glenn Guzzo
Strat-O-Matic will re-create two classic NFL seasons this summer, 1956 and 1974. Here is a preview of the 1956 NFL.
This was a historic season in the growth of the NFL: The first year of every-game television showed the country a dramatic Western Division race and a year of transition – the first without the sideline presence of QB Otto Graham, head coaching legend George Halas and 1955’s leading receiver, Pete Pihos, but introduced rookies named Unitas, Moore, Huff and Starr. It was the last time (and the only time in the ‘50s) that Chicago had two winning teams.
This was a rugged and raw, impose-our-will NFL, one that ran 61 percent of the time but threw deep when it passed – completion average was only 50 percent and the interception rate was 7.3 percent. Only four starting quarterbacks threw for more touchdowns than interceptions. But completions averaged 14 per catch on go-for-broke passing. This was not today’s field-goal league. Washington’s 17 FG and 68 percent success rate led a league that connected on only 51 percent of 3-point attempts.
Still, there was no lack of excitement as teams averaged 20.4 points per game each.
The ’56 season featured the breakaway runs of Hugh McElhenny (long run of 86), Ollie Matson (79), Lenny Moore (79) and Frank Gifford (69) and the potent power running of Rick Casares (4.8 per carry), Alan Ameche (4.8), Joe “The Jet” Perry (4.5) and Tank Younger (4.5). Green Bay QB Tobin Rote led the league in passing TDs (18) and was second in running TDs (11).
Though teams averaged only 23 passes a game, Green Bay’s Billy Howton (55 rec, 1,188 yds, 12 tds) and the Bears’ Harlon Hill (47-1,128-11) averaged almost 100 yards receiving and a touchdown per game. San Francisco’s Billy Wilson led with 60 catches (at 15 yards per catch), thrown by veteran Y.A. Tittle and rookie Earl Morrall.
Only four teams had winning records – two contenders in each division – in a season of parity. Only 2 ½ games separated the other eight teams in the 12-game season.
Each division had a defining moment:
In the East, both the Giants and the Cardinals were 5-1 until New York beat Chicago 23-10 at Yankee Stadium and never relinquished first place.
In the West, 9-2 Detroit visited the 8-2-1 Bears in Wrigley Field as favorites on the basis of a 42-10 victory over the Bears two weeks earlier in Detroit. But in a 3-0 game in the second quarter of the regular-season finale, Bears DE Ed Meadows, notorious for his mean streak, blindsided Lions QB Bobby Layne on a running play, knocking out the Hall-of-Famer with a concussion. The Bears won, 38-21.
The championship game featured the Bears’ league-leading, 30-point-per-game offense against the Giants’ league-best defense, the one that led the NFL in fewest yards allowed, fewest yards per rush and most sacks. No contest, as the Giants dominated every facet of the game, one of the most lopsided outcomes in NFL championship history, 47-7.
The carded teams in Strat-O-Matic’s “six pack” are the New York Giants (8-3-1), Chicago Bears (9-2-1), Detroit Lions (9-3), Chicago Cardinals (7-5), Washington Redskins (6-6) and San Francisco 49ers (5-6-1).
NEW YORK GIANTS: An efficient offense suffered the fewest turnovers (27) and sacks (4) in the league, while Frank Gifford led the team in rushing, receiving and scoring. QB Charlie Conerly completed 52 percent of his passes and threw more TDs than interceptions. RBs Alex Webster and Mel Triplett complemented Gifford by combining for 16 TDs. But it was the top-ranked defense that made this team famous. With an impregnable DL of DE’s Andy Robustelli and Jim Katcavage and DT’s Rosey Grier and Dick Modzelweski, hard-hitting rookie MLB Sam Huff and Hall-of-Fame DBs Emlen Tunnell and Jimmy Patton, the Giants yielded the fewest yards, the fewest yards per rush and led the NFL in sacks (32).
CHICAGO BEARS: The Bears scored 30 points per game, gained the most yards and lost the fewest fumbles. Ed Brown led the NFL in passing, tops with both 57 percent completions and a sensational 9.9 yards per pass, notably to WR Harlon Hill, who averaged 24 per catch. Rick Casares led the league in rushing yards (1,128) and TDs (12) while averaging 4.8 per carry, while HB Perry Jeter averaged 5.3 in a supporting role and returned a punt for a TD, as the Bears were one of four teams with both PR and KR TDs.
DETROIT: The Lions went from last overall in ’55 (3-9) to almost first overall in ’56 if not for a season-ending loss to Chicago that denied Detroit a spot in the championship game. Led by predatory DBs Yale Larry, Jimmy David and Jack Christensen, who combined for 23 of the team’s 28 INTs (second best in the NFL), and MLB Joe Schmidt, the defense yielded the fewest TDs (20)
CHICAGO CARDINALS: The ever-explosive HB Ollie Matson averaged 4.8 yards per rush, 13.3 per reception and 28 per kickoff return, scoring on all (including a 105-yard kickoff return) and amassing 1,524 all-purpose yards. Sensational pass defense led by Linden Crow (league-best 11 INTs) and Night Train Lane yielded an NFL-low 44.9% completion rate while intercepting an astonishing 11.5 percent of the passes thrown against them.
WASHINGTON: A sturdy defense led by ballhawk DB Norb Hecker and DE Geno Brito helped the ‘Skins survive tragedy and misfortune. Star HB Vic Janowicz, the former Heisman Trophy winner, suffered brain damage in a training-camp auto accident and was lost for the year. QBs Al Darow and Eddie LeBaron both were injured. Washington’s D responded by holding eight foes under 20 points, despite special teams that yielded three return TDs. Still, three halfbacks combined could not equal Janowicz’ TD total of ’55, Washington topped 20 points only once and fell from a contending 8-4 a year earlier to 6-6.
SAN FRANCISCO: Weak defense and the ineffective debut of rookie QB Earl Morrall kept the the 49ers out of contention, but Y.A. Tittle led them to four victories and a tie in their final five games. Tittle had the league’s top receiver in end Billy Wilson and a potent running tandem in “Hustling” Hugh McElhenny (916 yards, 5.0 per carry, 8 TDs) and Joe “the Jet” Perry (4.5/carry).
LOOK IN THE WINDOWS:
As always, the full NFL is available in Strat-O-Matic’s computer game. Highlights from uncarded teams:
Baltimore (5-7) made the undrafted Unitas the regular QB in the fourth game when George Shaw was injured. Unitas became the No. 2-rated passer, one of four with more TDs than INTs and with 56 percent completions. Fellow rookie Lenny Moore exploded for 7.9 yards per rush in a stellar running attack led by Alan Ameche (4.8) and including HB Billy Vessels (4.9). Carl Tasseff returned a punt 90 yards for a TD.
Cleveland (5-7) led the league in scoring defense and fewest pass yards allowed. DE Bob Gain, LB Galen Fiss and DB Don Paul (7 INTs) led the charge.
Green Bay (4-8) had a deadly passing tandem in Rote and Howton, but the defense was worst in yards allowed, yards per rush (5.1) and fewest sacks (9), though it was fourth best in INTs.
Los Angeles (4-8) After a one-sided loss in the ’55 championship game, the Rams made the dubious decision to dump star DL Andy Robustelli and Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, started young QB Billy Wade over heralded veteran Norm Van Brocklin and tumbled from first in the West to last, despite a nearly unstoppable running game featuring HBs Ron Waller (6.5 per carry) and Tom Wilson (7.3) and FB Tank Younger (4.5). Receivers Crazy Legs Hirsch, Leon Clarke and Bob Boyd each had at least 30 catches and at least 17 yards per catch.
Philadelphia (3-8-1) had the league’s worst record after a 3-4-1 start. The Eagles struggled both offensively and defensively. We’ll find out what a starting QB (Bobby Thomason: 4 TD passes, 21 INTs) with a 12 percent interception rate looks like.
Pittsburgh (5-7) had future Colts head coach Ted Marchibroda as the QB, who threw 12 TDs. Leading receiver Ray Mathews averaged 17 per catch.