After the 1949 season, the AAFC finally had to admit that it couldn’t compete with the NFL on a league-wide level, and during the offseason the two leagues merged. Three of the AAFC’s franchises, the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts, were absorbed into the larger league. This would give the NFL 13 teams across two divisions. It was largely accepted that the Browns would have little trouble adapting to the higher level of competition found in the NFL, but what were teams like the Colts, who had just come away from a 1-11 season in a weaker league, and the 49ers, who had succeeded in the AAFC despite battling deep inconsistency, going to be able to do to establish themselves as legitimate franchises?
One major benefit about being in the NFL was that, for the first time, the 49ers would be able to take part in a college player draft. They scored an immediate hit with their 1st round pick, defensive tackle Leo Nomellini, but didn’t draft anybody else of substance except for pass-catching WR/TE Billy Wilson in the 22nd round.
1950 was a season that did not host a whole lot of important games for the 49ers. On September 17, they played their first home game as an NFL franchise, against the New York Yanks. At that point, the sky was still the limit. The roster was largely unchanged from its AAFC days, and the 49ers had arguably been, though inconsistent, the second best team in the AAFC over the full four year course of its existence. That alone was reason for optimism. And the first game was almost a good start, even. The 49ers outgained the Yanks on both the ground and through the air, and if not for 4 offensive turnovers, they likely would have defeated the Yanks easily. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and the Yanks won 21-17.
That was the start of an ugly skid. The 49ers lost their next 4 games and, aside from a 24-29 loss to the Yanks, not one of them was particularly close. The losing streak ended on October 22, though, against the then 3-2 Detroit Lions. The 49ers executed a balanced attack against the Lions, and 3 Frankie Albert TD passes, as well as a defensive effort that netter 4 turnovers, led the 49ers to a hair-breadth victory, winning the game 27-28. The next week, they won again. October 29 marked the first time that the 49ers and Baltimore Colts would play each other outside of the AAFC, and the 49ers superiority continued in the new league. The winless Baltimore Colts made a game of it, and where the Colts torched the 49ers in the air, the 49ers ran over the Colts on the ground. In the end, it was running that won the day, and the 49ers won the game 14-17.
On November 12, the 49ers marched into Cleveland to complete the former AAFC team world tour. The 49ers were 2-6 at the time, compared to the Browns who were standing tall at 6-2. What had been a bitter rivalry for the 49ers in the AAFC was little more than a simple mismatch in the NFL. The 49ers turned the ball over 9 times in this game, and never really stood a chance in what became a 14-34 loss.
The rest of the season followed pretty uneventfully, with the 49ers notching their only other win at home in the final game of the season, to finish the year a miserable 3-9.
Player Profile: Billy Wilson
Billy Wilson was drafted by the 49ers in the 22nd round of the 1950 NFL draft. He was not actually on the professional roster until 1951, but his involvement with the team began in 1950 when they made him the 283rd overall selection.
Billy Wilson was a pass-catching Tight End (Wide Receiver) for the 49ers from 1951-1960, and played his entire career with the team. He was elected to the Pro-Bowl 6 times during his 10 year career, and was a first team All-Pro in 1957. When he retired, he was the 49ers all time leading receiver in yards, and tied with Alyn Beals as the 49ers all time leading receiver in TDs. To this day, he’s sixth on the team’s all-time receptions list. For context, the five guys ahead of him were all drafted after Bill Walsh became the head coach. He’s fifth on the 49ers all-time in receptions yards and tied for fourth all time for the 49ers in receiving TDs. For a guy who played 10 seasons in the NFL long before the modern passing era and during a time when there were only 12 games in a season, those numbers seem fairly astronomical.
After he retired, Wilson remained with the team for a long time as an assistant coach and player scout, and is one of a number of forgotten players who should always be remembered as a true 49er. In 2000, he was rightly enshrined in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.
There are a few things that struck me about this team. The first was Billy Wilson (obviously, since I did my player profile on the guy). I love doing this historical stuff because I learn about these awesome players who I knew next to nothing about beforehand. Previously it had been Alyn Beals, Johnny Strzykalski, and Bruno Banducci who I’d fallen in love with. I was familiar with Joe Perry, but I didn’t know a lot about him. And suddenly I discover Billy Wilson, a guy who was a 22nd round draft pick. Just imagine that. 22 rounds! That would essentially be the equivalent of an 8th round in today’s NFL. And he was never anything but a star in the league. The fact that to this day, even with Gene Washington and even with the Walsh Era guys, you could make a salient argument that he’s one of the teams’ top five all-time receivers just astounds me. I love Billy Wilson. Do you love Billy Wilson?
The other thing that strikes me is that, man, this team should have been better than 3-9. Even at an NFL level, Johnny Strzykalski and Joe Perry were electrifying. Alyn Beals and Alex Lloyd were a formidable receiving group. Frankie Albert was never anything to sneeze at. Buck Shaw was a legendary coach at every level he’d been. This was a good team. But it was a good team undone by turnovers. Frankie Albert, for all of his remarkable talent and big play ability, was just so mistake prone and threw almost 10 more INTs than he did TDs against NFL defenses that season. Joe Perry fumbled the ball 11 times in 12 games. The turnovers were frustratingly bad and completely debilitating.
I can’t think of a (49ers) team off the top of my head that had so much talent but shot themselves in the foot so much. Which brings me to my comment starter: What’s the best 49ers team that you can remember in a BAD season?