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49ers Year-by-Year: 1948

Though the AAFC was proving itself to be a legitimate pro league - with a number of teams capable of playing at an NFL level – and a valid economic competitor with the NFL, it was still struggling. In fact, both leagues had dealt with economic strain from the moment the AAFC came into existence, and the AAFC as a whole had lost money in each of its first two years. Nearly all of one league’s problems could be directly attributed to the existence of the other, and the competition between the leagues was creating unexpected financial difficulties for both.

Aside from simply splitting an audience, resulting in fractional viewership for either league, competition actually pushed internal costs up for both the AAFC and the NFL. Perhaps the most difficult effect of the so-called league war was that player salaries had skyrocketed relative to their previous standards as each league vied for the best players to try to get any advantage whatsoever with the fans. Teams were paying more for players while receiving less total at their individual box offices.

1948 was the first year that it began to become painfully clear to the controlling powers in both leagues not only that neither would be able to survive so long as the other remained, but also that there might not be much time to resolve the problem before both leagues would become completely unsustainable.

The AAFC faced internal problems as well. Where the NFL was enjoying a period of uncommon parity and drama in its post-war seasons, the AAFC had gone two seasons with almost none of either. Both seasons had been dominated by two seemingly unstoppable powers in the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Browns, but perhaps even more damning was the apparent talent gap between the handful of teams at the top and the bottom feeders. Teams like the Chicago Rockets were completely overmatched in every facet of the game by even the AAFC’s second tier teams. And the league’s second tier teams, like the Bills and, to that point, the 49ers, had essentially been consistently completely overmatched by the league’s two top tier teams.

Not two years after having officially entered the world of professional sports, the AAFC appeared to be on the losing side of a battle that both sides were losing. Times were tough in the league.

The 49ers:

By 1948, the 49ers were suffering many of the exact same problems that the league as a whole was facing. Though they had established themselves as a legitimate power in their league, and as valid competition for teams like the Browns, they had still just completed two second place campaigns, neither with much late season drama to speak of. They had gone two years in a row without pulling a profit and, though regularly drawing crowds in the tens of thousands, had failed to establish a paying fan base the likes of which the Browns and the Yankees enjoyed on a regular basis. Though times were still good for the 49ers insofar as they continued to put a winning product on the field, they were far from where they needed to be if the team was to remain a viable economic franchise.

They had stumbled through the second half of 1947 after an exciting, red-hot start, and though they had finished second in their division and tied for third in the league, the season had been a step backward in a lot of ways. The passing game that had been so effective in 1946 had been afflicted with inconsistency and ineffectiveness in 1947. The defense that had been so good in 1946 found itself, time and again, taken advantage of in 1947. The series they split with Cleveland in 1946 turned into an easy Browns sweep in 1947. The team had seen regression on both sides of the ball, an alarming amount of turnover on the offensive line, and - ultimately - a worse record than the year before.

1948 was going to be a critical year for the 49ers. Would they continue to wallow in the second tier that they had planted their feet so strongly into already? Would they overcome the hardships of 1947 and, with another year of experience, take the next step and become one of the league’s elite powers? Or, was the regression in 1947 a sign of things to come? Could the team be coming undone already? Only time would tell.

The Players:

Between 1946 and 1947, the 49ers had done little to add either depth or talent to their core group. And as with the year before, the offensive group remained largely intact between 197 and 1948, with the most significant changes again coming along the offensive line. Where they didn't add much starting talent, though, this year the brought in a number of younger talents for immediate depth.

Returning for the third straight year was the entire backfield of Frankie Albert, Len Eshmont, Norm Standlee, and Johnny Strzykalski. Unwilling to make the same mistakes two years in a row, though, the 49ers were did not stand pat with their running game simply because it had been strong the year before. They added depth to both sides of the T, acquiring rookies Forest Hall and Jim Cason to give the established starters Eshmont and Strzykaski some much needed depth and support. Cason would also provide added support on defense as a Safety to try to shore up some of the deficiencies on that side of the ball.

The 49ers returned their two tight ends in Nick Susoeff and Alyn Beals. This was perhaps a sign that the team was continuing to pursue a successful passing game to complement its dominating rushing game, as both players, and especially Beals, had shown themselves to be capable receivers – perhaps more so than either one was a blocker.

Where the 1946 offseason had seen five out of seven players change, including tight ends, on the 49ers starting offensive line, the 1947 offseason was a sheer example of stability by comparison. In addition to the Susoeff and Beals at tight end, returning to the left and right tackle spots were Bob Bryant and John Woudenberg. The other three positions saw changes. The year before, the team had looked either to their bench or to NFL castoffs for replacement players. This year, they looked young. To replace ineffective LG Garland Gregory and C John Schiel, the 49ers turned to two rookies: 25 year old Don Clark to man the guard and the 22 year old Joel Williams to direct the fray from center.

Perhaps most notable, though, was the replacement of two year star, starter, and line stalwart Bruno Banducci with third year player Visco Grgich, who had distinguished himself the year before as a rising star on the defensive side of the ball.

The defense had also seen improvements come though the offseason. Young star Visco Grgich was only getting better, and he was being joined by a sudden infusion of youthful talent starting with rookie safety/halfback Jim Cason and extending to exciting talents like rookie Paul Crowe and second year player Eddie Carr. Established defensive players like Len Eshmont and Johnny Strzyalski would continue to get time, and to make significant contributions on that side of the ball, but if there was a theme for 1948, it would have been youth. The defense was younger. The offensive line was younger. Even the backfield was younger with two rookies prepared to get their feet wet as soon as possible.

Would the relative stability of the offense, combined with the added depth take the unit to the next level, or had the team’s offensive woes the year before been the result of not enough change to a team that had, perhaps, over performed the year before that? The running game was almost assured to remain as a strong as ever, but how would the passing game respond to playing behind a younger, less experienced offensive line? The offense was a mystery, and only playing the games could answer any of these questions.

Would the youth infusion on defense add a spark that had been missing the year before, or would the relative inexperience on that side of the ball come back to haunt the team this year? Would the team as a whole be able to rise above the difficulties of the previous two seasons and finally become a contender late in the season?

Only one thing was sure: with the league on the ropes, they may not have many more chances to make a run for glory. There wasn’t time to wait for things to fall into place.

Primary Citations:

And this is the problem with not citing at the time of writing. I can't remember where I pulled some of this from now, but it's fair to say that I at least pulled from the 49ers official website, and from Glenn Dickey's book "San Francisco 49ers: The First Fifty Years. My apologies. I'll be more studious about this in the future.