The 49ers had a lot of question marks going into 1948. Two years in a row, the team had gotten off to blistering starts only to sputter in the second half, unable to overcome either of the two dominant league powers in 7 of their total 8 matchups thusfar. 1946 had been a year of promise, with a strong offensive core run by a local coaching legend and managed by a talented first year quarterback. 1948 was supposed to be a year of progress. The core offensive group had returned, with a year of pro experience under Frankie Albert’s belt, there was no reason to expect anything but improvement. And yet, the offense failed to live up to expectations and the defense was eminently vulnerable. Though the team racked up gobs of yards on the ground on what seemed like a weekly basis, the passing game was maddeningly inconsistent and rarely flashed the brilliance that had been promised by so many of the successes of the before.
And despite warranted fears that the team might be regressing and that important changes might be necessary to make it to the next level, the 49ers stayed the course going into 1948. They returned every one of their offensive skill players, and made their most significant additions from a pool of available youth, many of whom would only have the opportunity to contribute consistently on defense.
The question marks remained. Would the passing game be capable of playing well and playing consistently? Would the new, largely inexperienced starters on the offensive line and on defense be the difference between vulnerability and effectiveness? Would staying the course be the key to prolonged success, or was the team regressing and in need of greater change than they seemed willing to make? Only the games could tell the story.
Thanks to some kind of strange, beautiful order, the 49ers opened the 1948 season at home against the Buffalo Bills. The 49ers and the Bills had experienced roughly identical seasons in 1947. They had both been in contention for much of the year only to ultimately fall to a seemingly insurmountable division power (the Browns for the 49ers and the Yankees for the Bills). By the last game of that season, a game that pitted the two teams against each other in San Francisco, both teams had been eliminated for weeks and came in with identical records. In some act of beautiful, frustrating symmetry, they tied the game and finished the season under exactly the same circumstances.
This time things were not so even. The 49ers opened the season looking for blood. The passing game was on point and the running game was typically strong. Though the defense was still victimized by a potent Buffalo offense to the tune of 467 total yards (including nearly 300 on the ground), the 49ers were never really threatened in this home opener and rode their own offensive resurgence to a 35-14 victory.
Game two of the four game homestand pitted the 49ers against the hapless Brooklyn Dodgers. The 49ers steamrolled through this game, riding 269 passing yards and over 200 running yards (which surpassed any of their offensive performances from the year before) to an easy 36-20 win. An encouraging sign was that the defense limited the dons to less than 100 yards in the air, and less than 250 yards of total offense. Though the team played well in this game, the performance was regarded with an air caution. How would the team respond to stiffer competition? Could the defense withstand the league’s elite offenses?
The next game would be a true test of some of these questions. The perennial championship contending New York Yankees strolled into town with a 1-1 record that came behind two underwhelming performances. Still, this was the Yankees and they represented a hurdle that the 49ers had failed to jump since their inception. This time would be significantly different. The 49ers knew they had something to prove and they played with a fire that the Yankees were unable to match. Surprisingly, it was the defense that made the difference this time. The offense managed the game when they had the ball, but it was the 6 defensive turnovers in this game that gave the 49ers an overwhelming 41-0 victory. This was the kind of overall performance that the fans in San Francisco hadn’t seen in over year, and the kind of dominance that created a justified air of excitement among both fans and players.
The last game of the homestand brought the cross-state and divisional rivals Los Angeles Dons to town. Over the last few years the Dons had danced around .500, just behind the 49ers, but always a threat. They came into this game 2-1, and the Niners made sure that they wouldn’t stay on the bright side of .500 in San Francisco. By this time the 49ers were running on all cylinders and the offense took advantage of Los Angeles for over 500 total yards, nearly 300 of which came on the ground, while stifling their southern cousins on defense to the tune of less than 100 yards through either the air or the ground. This 36-14 affair was an easy win, and the 49ers left San Francisco on a high note.
The 49ers were off to a blisteringly fast start, but they had started fast before. They key to the season was going to be maintaining the momentum they had built during their first 4 games over the course of their final 10. They would be on the road for the next 4 games, but it didn’t even prove to be a speed bump. Over the course of this road trip, they traveled to Buffalo, Chicago, Baltimore, and New York, and didn’t encounter a single challenge along the way, coming out with 38-28, 31-14, 56-14, and 21-7 victories in each game respectively. This trip also saw the team’s best and most consistent offensive output of the whole season, as they racked up 536 total yards (split 268/268 right down the middle) against the Bills.
The sterling 8-0 record for the 49ers was good enough to tie the team for first place in the division, but they still had one major hurdle to jump this season. They still had to play the Browns twice, and they wouldn’t get their first chance for another three weeks. In the meantime, the 4-3 Colts were coming to town, and it was the same glorious story another week in a row. Almost 400 yards on the ground and a stifling defense, and the 49ers had another victory, beating the Colts 21-10.
At this point, it would have been easy to look ahead to their matchup against the Browns a week later, and perhaps it was a blessing that it was an awful 1-9 Chicago team that came to town that week. The 49ers barely sneezed as they ran all over Chicago (328 rushing yards, in fact) for an easy 44-21 victory.
That victory sent the 49ers on the road to Cleveland for a matchup they had been two years and 10 undefeated games in the making. The 49ers had beaten the Browns the first time the two teams had ever met, but had failed to so much as scratch the Champions since. This year, things were going to be different. The 49ers had never been this good. They had never had such a good chance to beat this team. But things wouldn’t be different, after all. The Browns defense completely stifled the 49ers offense. The 49ers had over 200 fewer yards than their season average, and were held to single digit points for the only time all season. The Browns won the game 7-14, and the 49ers were back to playing catchup.
Luckily, the 49ers wouldn’t have to wait another 10 games to get their revenge. The next week they would head to Brooklyn, and then they would come home to take on the Browns in San Francisco. The team knew that if they lost another game, they might be eliminated before they knew it, and they beat the Dodgers handily. Though the defense appeared to be wearing down, the offense was back on point and the 49ers scored a season high 63 points on the way to a 63-40 victory.
Which brought the Browns back to town. This was the most important game the 49ers had played in over a year. If they won this, they would remain in contention. If they lost, they would be eliminated. It was the first game the 49ers ever played that had truly epic circumstances. In the end, though, it wouldn’t be much different. For the first time in two years the 49ers offense made a dent in the Brown’s defense, but like usual it just wasn’t enough to dethrone the champs. The 49ers lost 28-31, and even though they had one game left in the season (which they won 38-21 in Los Angeles), the season was over. They were eliminated again. But it was a wild ride while it lasted.
Thanks to the wonder of technology, I actually lost my original article yesterday to a file glitch, and then my favorite resource for these season posts was down for maintenance all day today. So, I did the best I could with the time and one still fairly awesome resource I had time to reference. Here it is: