Showtime in Tinseltown

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 28, 2011



(Ed. note: this article originally ran on March 6, 2006. With the passing yesterday of once voluptous bombshell extraordinaire Jane Russell, pictured here with pro football Hall of Famer and former husband Bob Waterfield,  we take another look the NFL's very first glamour team, a team that earned some of its glamour thanks to Russell's Hollywood star power.)
 
By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Mike Carlson
 
In the cardboard boxes lined up on our trolls' version of Strivers Row, the usual definition of "Greatest Show On Turf" is watching members of the 225 Club work off their overindulgence by crawling under tailgates in a stadium parking lot. They're more convenient than the rest rooms, and besides, you never know what you might find discarded by your fellow fans.
    
But we are aware that out in the civilized world, the term is generally thought to refer to the heyday of Mike Martz's St. Louis Rams offense, though Martz himself has joined the ranks of the discarded and now finds himself in Detroit, where NFL dreams go to die. (Since this piece first ran, Martz has moved to Chicago, where offenses go to die.)
 
On this very website, astute Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor John Molori suggested the NFL solve its Los Angeles vacancy by moving the Saints there, giving them Matt Leinart, and letting the then-soon-to-be-unemployed Martz coach them. "It would be a gridiron version of Showtime for Tinseltown," he wrote. 
     
There are two small problems with that. First, if the NFL really wants to rent space in L.A. to a new team, it would be cleaner and easier to move USC into the NFC West, and let Arizona play in the Mexican League.
   
Second, L.A.'s already seen its gridiron version of Showtime, on natural grass, not turf. They were also called the Rams, and from 1948 to 1953, they were arguably the greatest offensive machine the NFL has ever seen, peaking in 1950 and 1951.
 
In 1950, the L.A. Rams averaged an NFL-record 38.8 points per game (2.0 PPG more than the No. 2 team on the list, the 2007 Patriots). They gained 5,420 yards in just 12 games, and then increased that total to 5,506 yards in 1951. Pro-rated to 16 games, that's 7,341 yards, more than Mike Smartz' Rams ever achieved. In both 1950 and 1951, they led the league in first downs, net yards, and passing yards.
 
Here's how the Rams of the 1950s stack up against the Rams of more recent vintage:
 
Team
Record
PPG
YPG
Title Game
1950 Rams
9-3
38.8
451.7
L 28-30
1951 Rams
8-4
32.7
458.8
W 24-17
1999 Rams
13-3
32.9
414.9
W 23-16
2000 Rams
10-6
33.7
458.4
n/a
2001 Rams
14-2
31.4
433.1
L 17-20
 
The Rams of the 1950s boasted the NFL's leading passer three years in a row, with two different guys: Bob Waterfield (1951) and Norm Van Brocklin (1950 and 1952). This wasn't Marc Bulger replacing Kurt Warner! This was conscious use of a strategy that "the book" says cannot work: alternating two quarterbacks. Both just so happened to pass their way into the Hall of Fame. 
 
And it's not like alternating Warner and Bulger either, because Waterfield (pictured here) and Van Brocklin were better, and their contrast in styles was more extreme. It was more like alternating Bob Griese and Dan Fouts.
   
Waterfield, the team captain, was one of only three Rams left from the 1945 NFL champions.  As a rookie that year, he had won the league's MVP. Waterfield was a field-general type quarterback, who also led the league at various times in punting and placekicking.
 
After winning that 1945 title, the Rams Modelled Cleveland for L.A., opening the door to Paul Brown and the AAFC Browns (the Rams played in Cleveland from 1937 to 1945). But the move to L.A. helped create the team's glamorous image: Waterfield married buxom bombshell Jane Russell (pictured here in all her boobius, farm-girl glory), which was a hell of a lot more impressive in its time than, say, Angie Harmon
   
Van Brocklin was a complete contrast, a classic pocket passer with a strong arm and a fiery temperament. In 1951, "Dutch" threw for 554 yards and 5 TDs in one game against the N.Y. Yanks. No one outside NFL Europe has thrown for that much since. Warren Moon has come closest, passing for 527 yards in 1990. In 1960, Van Brocklin, too, was the MVP, leading the Eagles (yes, the Eagles) to the NFL title.
    
The team and its passing game was built by Clark Shaugnessy, a great college coach and one of the innovators of the T formation. His squads went 14-8-3 in the 1948 and 1949 seasons. Shaugnessy, according to fullback Dick Hoerner, "got rid of the slackers and molded the team into a well-oiled machine."
 
In 1949, Shaugnessy's Rams went 8-2-2 and lost the NFL title game 14-0 to Steve Van Buren and the Eagles, when the "Mud Bowl" brought the Rams back to soggy earth. 
 
Waterfield was L.A.'s primary quarterback, completing 154 of 296 passes(52%) for 2,168 yards (7.3 per attempt), 17 TDs and 24 INTs (since defenders were allowed to hit the receiver until the ball was in the air, interceptions were much more common in that era). The rookie Van Brocklin (pictured here) threw only 58 passes, but completed 32 of them (55.2%) for 601 yards (10.4 per attempt), 6 TDs and 2 INTs.
    
Shaugnessy was creative, using multiple sets, flummoxing defenses by switching players from side to side, and deploying his backs as receivers to flood areas of the field. Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, a college tailback, became a flanker. With both ends (Tom Fears and Bobby Shaw) split, the three-wideout set was created. But Shaugnessy, the Martz of his day, didn't get along with management, and he was fired after the 1949 season.
   
He was replaced by Joe Stydahar, a Hall of Fame tackle with the Bears' famed "Monsters of the Midway" (1936-42, 1945-46). In 1950, Stydahar made the bold move of splitting his quarterbacks' time almost equally, and the results were impressive:
 
QB
Comp.
Att.
Pct.
Yards
YPA
TD
INT
Van Brocklin
127
233
54.5%
2,061
8.85
18
14
Waterfield
122
213
57.3%
1,540
7.23
11
13
 
Incredibly, Van Brocklin and Waterfield also split the punting:
  • Van Brocklin punted 52 times, averaging 40.1 yards.
  • Waterfield punted 11 times, averaging 42.4 yards.
The 1950 Rams went 9-3, tying the Bears for the NFL National Conference crown (it was known as the Western Division before 1950 and the Western Conference after 1952). They beat the Bears 24-14 in a tie-breaking playoff, but lost the championship 30-28 to Otto Graham and the Browns, in Cleveland, on a last-second field goal by Lou "The Toe" Groza.
 
Fears in 1950 caught a very modern-looking 84 passes for 1,116 yards and 7 TDs in just 12 games, including 18 receptions in one game, which stood as a record until Terrell Owens came along and broke it with his 20 catches against Chicago in 2000. Here are the numbers for Fears projected over a 16-game season:
  • 112 catches, 1,488 yards, 9 TDs
Hirsch added 42 catches for 687 yards (16.4 per catch) with 7 TDs. Glenn "Mr. Outside" Davis, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Army, caught 42 passes for 593 yards (14.1 yards per catch) and 4 TDs out of the backfield. For a player catching passes out of the backfield, it was, again, another very modern-looking stat line. 
    
Although they didn't win the title that year, many Rams players believed the 1950 team was better – particularly in the line and defensively – than the 1951 team that did win the title. The 1950 Rams featured speed at running back: Davis was also the leading rusher (88 attempts for 416 yards, 4.7 yards per attempt), but Vitamin T Smith, Paul Barry, and even defensive backs Jerry Williams and Tommy Kalamair all averaged over 4 yards per carry. Dick Hoerner and Deacon Dan Towler did the inside work less successfully, but both big ballcarriers averaged more than 17 yards per catch out of the backfield.
    
Having switched to two quarterbacks in 1950, coach Stydahar made another innovation the next season, discovering a variation on Shaugnessy's speed-based attack. The team's leading runner, Davis, was a shadow of what he'd been at Army, due to a badly treated knee injury that he had suffered while making a movie about himself and fellow Army Heisman winner Doc "Mr. Inside" Blanchard in 1946, before they began their active military service. When Davis rejoined the NFL, his straight-ahead speed was still there, but he'd lost much of his elusiveness. 
 
Strangely, Hirsch's move to receiver had similarly been dictated by knee injuries.
    
In 1951, L.A. played San Francisco in back-to-back weeks. In the first game, the Rams put extra defensive backs at linebacker to try to counter L.A.'s speed.  Stydahar, looking to overcome the smaller, faster defense he faced, decided to play his three big backs at the same time, in what became known as the "Bull Elephant" backfield.
   
The key was that one of those three elephants was Paul "Tank" Younger (pictured here), the first NFL player from a black college (Grambling). In his first few years in the league (he was a rookie in 1949), Younger had been used at tackle and linebacker by the Rams, but only sparingly at running back, even though he was a college fullback. 
 
Given the chance to run with the ball – and teamed with Towler and Hoerner, all three of them over 220 pounds – he was a sensation. In fact, all of them averaged more than 6 yards per carry in 1951. Here's how the three fared that season:
 
Player
Att.
Yards
Avg.
TDs
Towler
126
854
6.8
6
Hoerner
94
569
6.1
6
Younger
36
223
6.2
1
 
With so many talented ballcarriers and so much success on the ground, the Rams threw less in 1951. But Hirsch had his breakout season as a deep threat:
  • 66 catches, 1,495 yards, 17 TDs
That's a remarkable 22.7 yards per catch and 124.6 yards per game. His 17 touchdowns tied a record set by Don Hutson in 1941. The record stood for 33 years, until Miami's Mark Clayton caught 18 TDs passes in Dan Marino's breakout 1984 season. (Randy Moss now holds the record with 23 TD receptions in 2007.) 
 
Projected over 16 games, Hirsch in 1951 had perhaps the single greatest receiving season in NFL history (pictured here). His projected receiving yards and TDs would have both been NFL records today:
  • 88 catches, 1,993 yards, 23 TDs
Fears chipped in with 32 receptions and averaged 16.5 yards per catch. Smith hauled in 16 passes at 17.4 yards per catch. When you look at the eye-popping averages per reception across the Rams receiving corps in 1951, you can almost see the defenses stacking to stop the big runners and then getting burned over the top. It does seem that those stacked fronts did negate the effectiveness of Davis and Smith as outside rushers, as they were held to a scant 3 yards per carry.
Despite throwing fewer passes in 1951, both QBs were more effective than they were in 1950. The similarity between their numbers was eerie:
  • Waterfield averaged 8.90 yards per attempt.
  • Van Brocklin averaged 8.89 yards per attempt .
  • Waterfield threw for 13 TDs.
  • Van Brocklin threw for 13 TDS.
  • Waterfield threw 10 picks.
  • Van Brocklin threw 11 picks .
  • Waterfield completed 88 of 176 passes (50.0%).
  • Van Brocklin completed 100 of 194 (51.5%). 
  • Waterfield punted just 4 times but averaged 41.5 yards per punt.
  • Van Brocklin punted 48 times and averaged 41.5 yards per punt.
The NFL's six-team National Conference was very balanced that season. The Rams won with an 8-4 record, just ahead of Detroit and San Francisco (both 7-4-1) and Chicago (7-5). The level of competition is another reason why the 1950 team is often thought superior. The Browns, meanwhile, steamrolled the American Conference with an 11-1 record while outscoring opponents better than 2-1 (331-152). But this time, the Rams prevailed in the championship, winning 24-17. The decisive TD was a 73-yard strike from Van Brocklin to Fears, arguably the biggest catch in Rams history.
 
It was the first playoff loss for Clevland after winning five straight championships in the AAFC and NFL.
    
That game was the apex of the Rams' budding dynasty and of pro football itself in L.A. Stydahar quit after the first game of the 1952 season and was replaced by Hamp Pool, who went 23-11-2 through 1954 but watched as Bobby Layne's Lions ascended in the West. Sid Gillman, another offensive innovator, took over in 1955 and won the West. But the Rams lost the title game 38-14 to the Browns. 
 
The Rams by then were aging and in decline, and Gilman wound up with a losing record in five seasons (28-32-1), capped by a woeful 2-10 campaign in 1959. For the 1960 season, he headed across town to the AFL's upstart L.A. Chargers (they moved to San Diego in 1961, after one year in Tinseltown). Giliman's successor with the NFL's L.A. entry, Waterfield, fared much worse in the next three seasons (9-24-1).    
    
Stydahar, the architect of the most explosive offense in NFL history, left the Rams to take a job on George Halas's staff in Chicago. But the following season, he took over the Chicago Cardinals, where he had two unsuccessful years (3-20-1). Stydahar might have thought he was in line to replace Halas, but when Papa Bear stepped aside in 1956, he was replaced by Paddy Driscoll. Then Halas returned two seasons later.
 
Stydahar's was a classic case of someone fine-tuning a well-oiled machine, a Hall of Fame lineman who was perhaps able to see things the great offensive mastermind Clark Shaugnessy could not. For two seasons, it worked, and Joe Stydahar's scoring machine was the Greatest Show on West Coast Grass – and maybe the greatest ever.

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