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49ers Year-by-Year: 1961

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Opponent's Record:

Sept. 17

Washington Redskins

W: 3-35



Sept. 24

@ Green Bay Packers

L: 10-30



Oct. 1

@ Detroit Lions

W: 49-0



Oct. 8

Los Angeles Rams

W: 0-35



Oct. 15

@ Minnesota Vikings

W: 38-24



Oct. 22

@ Chicago Bears

L: 0-31



Oct. 29

@ Pittsburgh Steelers

L: 10-20



Nov. 5

Detroit Lions

T: 20-20



Nov. 12

@ Los Angeles Rams

L: 7-17



Nov. 19

Chicago Bears

W: 31-41



Nov. 26

Minnesota Vikings

W: 28-38



Dec. 3

@ Baltimore Colts

L: 17-20



Dec. 10

Green Bay Packers

W: 21-22



Dec. 16

Baltimore Colts

L: 27-24



Head Coach: Red Hickey

Key Losses: QB Y. A. Tittle, HB Hugh McElhenny, HB Joe Perry, SE Billy Wilson, LB Ed Henke

Key Additions: WR Bernie Casey, DT Roland Lakes, DE Clark Miller, DB Jimmy Johnson, QB Billy Kilmer


Thinking about how the game has changed in such remarkable ways since 1961, I'm just curious to know what you think the most significant change in the way the game is played or coached or run has been in your lifetime. For a lot of people, Free Agency is obviously the end-all gimme answer, but I'm wondering how people feel is you scratch just a little deeper than that.

I think in my lifetime, I feel as though I've seen an honest transformation at the quarterback position. And don't get me wrong, the game is still a (mobile) pocket passer's game and I don't put any stock in the pundit-favorite idea that the quarterback has gone the way of the runner, but... [to see where I'm going with this, read to the end]

In 1961, the NFL expanded to 14 teams by adding the Minnesota Vikings. The schedule was also expanded to 14 games this season in order to accommodate the growing league, and possibly to help put pressure on the new rival American Football League, which had opened its existence in 1960. The NFL was no stranger to competition, having fought a winning battle against the league that the 49ers began in, the AAFC.

Under second year head coach Red Hickey, the 49ers were a team in deep transition on the offensive side of the ball. Though their defense remained largely intact, their offense going into 1961 would be largely unrecognizable from the group that had taken the field only two years before. Gone were future Hall of Fame players Y. A. Tittle, off to play for the Giants, Hugh McElhenny, gone to Minnesota, Joe Perry, retired, and Billy Wilson, also retired. The backfield was instead made up of second year starting QB John Brodie, rising star J. D. Smith and third year halfback C. R. Roberts. Initially favoring the shotgun over the team's traditional T-formation, the new look offense was designed to win games through the air more than they ever had been.

Creator of the shotgun formation, Red Hickey filled his need for a backup QB by drafting an athletic tweener rough running QB in Billy Kilmer, who was an outstanding multi-sport athlete at UCLA, but he saw limited time at the position as John Brodie continued to excel in his young career, relegating Kilmer to HB duties for much of the season.

Despite the makeover, the 49ers opened the season red hot, beating the Redskins at home 35-3 behind 4 John Brodie TD passes, a performance that answered any questions anybody might have had about the quarterback competition. After losing their next game in Green Bay, where everybody was losing at the time, the 49ers ran off three straight dominating victories. They started with a 49-0 drumming of the Lions on October 1st, and then completed their second straight shutout by defeating the Rams 35-0 at home the next week. Amazingly, Jon Brodie didn't throw a single touchdown in either of those games, and Billy Kilmer rushed for four.

Even with Red Hickey's shotgun-pass-first personnel, and without the backfield stars of yesterday, the 49ers were winning their games at this early stage on the ground more than anywhere else. They capped off their winning streak in just this fashion, accumulating over 300 rushing yards without a single passing touchdown in their 38-24 victory over the Vikings.

And then the wheels came off. After rushing for over 300 yards against the Vikings alone, the 49ers seemed to lose their identity as an offense, and managed only 257 in the next three weeks combined - two losses and a tie. The low point of this stretch came in a 31-0 shutout at the hands of the Bears, when the failed to get so many as 150 total yards and gave up 6 turnovers.

After a 17-7 loss to the Rams on November 12th which dropped San Francisco to .500 for the first time since week 2, the 49ers hadn't won a game in over a month and were falling quickly from any chance of a post-season berth. Two and a half games back of the Vince Lombardi coached, Bart Starr led Green Bay Packers, the 49ers would almost definitely have to go undefeated the rest of the way to have any chance.

Facing this kind of uphill battle, the team found itself again and for the next two weeks was firing on all cylinders, defeating the Bears and the Vikings by a combined score of 79-59, while racking up almost 1000 yards of all purpose offense and earning a 7/1 takeaway/giveaway ratio. Most importantly, perhaps, it was at this point that Brodie seemed to take greater control of the games himself, throwing nearly a third of his season touchdowns in those two games alone.

The defining game of the season, though, came the week after, against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts. In a game that went back and forth from start to finish and that nobody could take control of, the 49ers slipped right at the end, giving up a critical 41 yard touchdown pass that doomed them for the game and doomed them for the season. The loss sealed their fate, officially eliminating them, and they finished their season with a rare victory over Green Bay and another loss to Baltimore to end it all.

Player Profile: J. D. Smith

Beginning his active career as a pro with the 49ers in 1958, J. D. Smith helped to bridge the gap between the million dollar backfield of Perry, McElhenny, Johnson, and Tittle, and 1960 seasons that belonged to John Brodie.

J. D. Smith ran for over 1000 yards once in his career, during his first pro bowl season in 1959. He led the team in rushing that year, and in fact went on to lead the team in rushing for each of the next five seasons, earning another Pro Bowl berth in 1962, when he ran for 907 yards and 6 TDs.

During his career as a 49er, Smith accumulated 4,370 rushing yards with a 4.3 yard average and 37 rushing TDs. He also caught the ball for 1,122 yards and 5 TDs during that time. When he left the team in 1964, he was second only to the legendary Joe Perry in the franchise record book for rushing attempts, yards, and TDs, and to this day remains fifth in rushing attempts and yards, as well as fourth in rushing TDs, better than even Hall of Fame teammate Hugh McElhenny.


One thing that just cracks me up about these old teams is how ridiculously bipolar their performances could be. The 1961 season alone, the 49ers went from getting 4 passing TDs from Brodie in a week one demolition of Washington to outscoring Detroit and Los Angeles 84-0 without a single TD through the air, all in the span of 4 weeks. Then, the previously dominant running game goes completely silent until, eventually, Brodie and the passing game start turning All-Star performances again at the end of the year.

This isn't the first season I've noticed this, either. The same kind of thing happened year in and year out all through Y. A. Tittle's reign. Even with those ridiculous running backs, the team would go back and forth on what was sometimes a weekly basis between dominating on the ground, decimating through the air, or coming up empty with both. Only rarely did the two sides of the game balance out in these old days.

And that just makes me think about how the game has changed. Team performances will still fluctuate from week to week, but the entire process is so much more streamlined, composed, and regulated that you always have a pretty good idea what team is going to be bringing what to the table. You have your running teams. You have your passing teams. You have your balanced teams. But you don't really see it a lot where one team is any or none of the above on literally a week to week basis.

And thinking about how the game has changed, I'm just curious to know what you think the most significant change in the way the game is played or coached or run has been in your lifetime. For a lot of people, Free Agency is obviously the end-all gimme answer, but I'm wondering how people feel is you scratch just a little deeper than that.

I think in my lifetime, I feel as though I've seen a transformation at the quarterback position. And don't get me wrong, the game is still a (mobile) pocket passer's game, but the evolution of the position over the last 20+ years has been remarkable from other standpoints. Even over the last 10, the position has become far more cerebral, but also the developmental period for success feels like it has plummeted.

What about you?

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