49ers Year-by-Year: 1954

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent’s Record:

Sept. 26

Washington Redskins

W: 7-41

1-0

0-1

Oct. 3

@ Los Angeles Rams

T: 24-24

1-0-1

1-0-1

Oct. 10

@ Green Bay Packers

W: 23-17

2-0-1

0-3

Oct. 17

@ Chicago Bears

W: 31-24

3-0-1

2-2

Oct. 24

Detroit Lions

W: 31-37

4-0-1

3-1

Oct. 31

Chicago Bears

L: 31-27

4-1-1

3-3

Nov. 7

Los Angeles Rams

L: 42-34

4-2-1

3-3-1

Nov. 14

@ Detroit Lions

L: 7-48

4-3-1

6-1

Nov. 20

@ Pittsburgh Steelers

W: 31-3

5-3-1

4-5

Nov. 28

@ Baltimore Colts

L: 13-17

5-4-1

2-8

Dec. 5

Green Bay Packers

W: 0-35

6-4-1

4-7

Dec. 11

Baltimore Colts

W: 7-10

7-4-1

3-9

Head Coach: Buck Shaw

Key Losses: No Key Losses

Key Additions: HB John Henry Johnson (Unsigned Steeler Draft Pick)

Discussion Starter:

The discussion starter today comes from my struggles with deciding to include John Henry Johnson as the player profile this week, and my decision to remember the disappointments with the successes. So, with Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson in mind (though not necessarily as the rubric), I want to talk about what players have just plain broken your hearts as a fan of this team. Unfulfilled talent, bonehead play, careers cut short, couldn’t stay on the field… take it in whatever direction you want, but keep heartbreak in mind.

1954 was the first year since the NFL and the AAFC merged that the league structure did not change. The Baltimore Colts, though only going 3-9 in 1953, had done well enough at the box office to stick around.

Significant Games:

The 49ers got off to a blistering start in 1954, opening the season with a 41-7 scorching of Washington at home in which Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson, and Y. A. Tittle all ran for TDs while the defense put constant pressure on the Redskins racking up 8 sacks and 6 turnovers for the day. The next three weeks on the road, they kept that momentum rolling, averaging more than 25 points a game as they remained undefeated (a 24-24 tie game with the Rams being the only hitch in the streak).

When October 24th, and a much anticipated matchup with the two-time defending league champion Detroit Lions rolled around, the 49ers looked nearly unstoppable. Joe Perry, coming off of a rare 1,000 yards season, was already back on pace to repeat that feat. Hugh McElhenny, already one of the league’s most electrifying runners, was having by far his best season as a pro to that point. First year player John Henry Johnson looked human only by comparison, and was on his way to a Pro Bowl appearance. With Tittle, Perry, McElhenny, and Johnson (all future Hall of Famers), the 49ers had what would become known as the Million Dollar Backfield.

Beating the Lions would be a statement that the 49ers were ready to take control of the Conference that had for so long belonged to Detroit. San Francisco would not disappoint, and followed their backfield to 270 yards on the ground and 3 TDs (a 60 yard run by McElhenny and two scores by Johnson) to outgun an extremely potent Lions passing game by a score of 31-37 at home. At 4-0-1, and alone at the top of the Conference, the 49ers were in great shape looking ahead to the rest of the season.

That sense of destiny would only last the week, though. Facing the 2-3 Chicago Bears at home, the 49ers jumped out to an early 21-7 first half lead behind TDs from Tittle (a 32 yard score to Billy Wilson), Johnson, and McElhenny. McElhenny suffered a shoulder injury over the course of this game, though, and the loss seemed to take away all of the team’s momentum. Chicago systematically came all the way back in the second half to win the game. With the 49ers’ loss, Detroit regained first place in the Conference, and McElhenny would be forced to miss the rest of the season.

Suddenly plagued by key injuries (the team would also lose star defensive backs Jim Cason and Rex Berry for 3 and 4 weeks respectively, among a number of other role players), the 49ers couldn’t quite recover their momentum, and in the week preceding their rematch with the Lions, they had given up all season in a 42-34 loss to Rams. A game and a half behind the Lions and in second place in the Conference, this rematch with the Lions was as close to a must win game as the 49ers would have all season. But the game was never close. Detroit took advantage of San Francisco’s diminished secondary with a barrage of TD passes, and the 49ers had one of their worst offensive outputs of the season, including 6 turnovers for the game. The 7-48 loss in Detroit would not only mark the fewest points the 49ers would score in a single game that year, but also the most they would give up in a single game for the whole season. It was also a crushing blow to their playoff hopes, falling 2.5 games back with only 4 games to play.

Virtually needing to win their final four games to have a shot at the postseason (and needing Detroit to falter, as well), the 49ers went into Pittsburgh with something to prove. Rallying together one of their best performances of the season, San Francisco defeated Pittsburgh 31-3. The next week, they traveled to Baltimore to play a Colts team that had only won one game all season. What had promised to be an easier game for the 49ers, though, ended up being an extremely even matchup. Baltimore played the 49ers with an extremely even attack, and in the end it was the difference between a field goal and a touchdown that gave the Colts the win, and that eliminated the 49ers from the postseason.

Playing solely to secure their fourth winning season in a row, the 49ers swept their final two games at home to finish the season 7-4-1. Despite the disappointment, 1954 was a landmark year in 49er history. It was this year that Joe Perry became the first player in NFL history to rush for consecutive 1000 yard seasons. It was a year that sent five of the team’s offensive stars to the Pro Bowl (Tittle, Perry, Johnson, Banducci, and Wilson), and 3 more on defense (Nomellini, Al Carapella, and Cason). Statistically, it was a banner year for the team.

Player Profile: John Henry Johnson

John Henry Johnson was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1953, but he was never signed by the team and played his first NFL season with the 49ers in 1954 (he played in the CFL in ’53). As a rookie that season he ran for 681 yards, 9 touchdowns, and an average of 5.3 yards per carry to be selected to his first Pro Bowl. He was stuck by the injury bug that crippled the 49ers in 1955, and only ran for 69 yards the whole season, and 1956 only ended up being a minor improvement, and was his last season with the team.

Even though he didn’t make much of himself during his short time with the 49ers, the three years that he played on the team are remembered fondly as the years of the 49ers Million Dollar Backfield, when they had four future Hall of Famers all playing behind center. The reality is that Perry, McElhenny, Johnson, and Tittle were rarely all healthy at the same during the time that they were on the team, but the fact of so many Hall of Fame players in one backfield at one time remains one of the rarest feats in NFL history.

Johnson was a great player, though, and while he struggled with injuries early in his career with both the 49ers and the Lions, the promise that he flashed in 1954 was finally fulfilled when he joined the Steelers in 1960. Between 1960 and 1964 with Pittsburgh, he rushed for about 5,000 of his near 7,000 career rushing yards, went to 3 of his 4 Pro Bowls, and went over 1,000 yards – still a rare occurrence those days – twice.

When he retired, he ranked third all time in rushing yards, but his career was distinguished as much for his running as for his superior blocking. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987

Musings:

I debated the merits of John Henry Johnson as a 49er for a while before I decided to write him up as the player profile for this season. Surely, there are better 49ers to be given the spotlight. I haven’t written on Leo Nomellini or Jim Cason yet. Little known Gordy Soltau was an extremely consistent, long time 49er receiver who deserves some face time for not just the production he gave this team, but also for the years.

But in the end, I felt that it was appropriate to include a player like Johnson. In 3 years with the team, he was riddled by injuries and barely managed to rush for even 1000 total yards as a 49er, but he was brought in and expected to be a key component of a bruising backfield for a long time. He had a great rookie campaign, and his talent was never in question, but the team’s patience with his inability to produce over the next few seasons could only last so long. I don’t believe that remembering the 49ers means only remembering the guys who did great things, but also remembering the guys who broke our hearts, and Johnson’s time with the team was, really, just a disappointment.

The discussion starter today comes from my struggles with deciding to include John Henry Johnson as the player profile this week, and my decision to remember the disappointments with the successes. So, with Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson in mind (though not necessarily as the rubric), I want to talk about what players have just plain broken your hearts as a fan of this team. Unfulfilled talent, bonehead play, careers cut short, couldn’t stay on the field… take it in whatever direction you want, but keep heartbreak in mind.

For me, I think a few players come to mind. I was a HUGE Ahmed Plummer fan, and we all know how well that worked out. I loved Tim Rattay for doing what he did with so little (as good as he wasn’t, which was the heartbreaking thing). I think Elvis Grbac broke my heart once long ago, but I was young and my memory isn’t doing me any favors. Cedrick Wilson broke my heart once, but we won’t talk about that…

Primary References:

http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1008654/index.htm
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1954.htm

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1953.htm
http://www.profootballhof.com/hof/member.jsp?player_id=106

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/J/JohnJo02.htm

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join Niners Nation

You must be a member of Niners Nation to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Niners Nation. You should read them.

Join Niners Nation

You must be a member of Niners Nation to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Niners Nation. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_9341_tracker