Though perfectly stable as a league since absorbing the AAFC, the NFL’s team structure was still experiencing some issues related to expansion. The Baltimore Colts had been sold back to the league and dissolved following the 1950 season, which had actually reduced the NFL to an even number of teams, allowing for two balanced divisions. Following the 1951 season, the New York Yanks were sold back to the NFL, which would have left the league with 11 teams and, once again, unbalanced divisions. To counter this, the league awarded a franchise to Dallas, and the Texans were born.
The 49ers opened the 1952 season with two games against a strong Detroit Lions team and one game against the expansion Texans. After sweeping the first two games handily, the 49ers went into Detroit where they put up what might have been their most impressive effort of the entire season. Holding Detroit to less than 100 total yards of offense and no points, the 49ers rolled up 28 points, starting with a 3 yard touchdown pass between rising team stars Billy Wilson and Y. A. Tittle. This game would not only be the 49ers biggest win of the season, it also secured an early season series sweep against the team that would end up winning the Championship Game.
The 49ers winning ways continued for the next two weeks as they went first on the road to Chicago to manhandle the Bears 40-16, and then came home to embarrass the new Dallas franchise for a second time, 21-48. At 5-0 and leading the division, the 49ers were riding high.
Things in San Francisco weren’t destined to stay so easy, though. In week six, the team would suffer their first loss of the season, at home to division rival Chicago. In a game in which the team wasn’t out-played – they were far more effective running the ball and throwing than Chicago was, finishing with more first downs and almost 100 more yards of total offense – they were simply outscored. The 49ers hadn’t scored fewer than 28 points since week one, but touchdowns were hard to come by against the Bears, and they lost 20-17.
That first loss opened up the floodgates for San Francisco. Up to that point, they had seemed unbeatable behind a strong defense a powerhouse offense that was fueled by 3 future Hall of Famers in Y. A. Tittle, Joe Perry, and electrifying rookie halfback Hugh McElhenny, but that powerhouse offense would struggle the rest of the season. They split their next two games, losing to a strong Giants team and struggling to defeat a hapless Redskins club. At 6-2 and still on top of the division, though, the season was far from lost.
The 49ers would play their next two games within the division, playing a back to back series against the 5-3 Rams, first in LA, and then in San Francisco. The series would have serious post-season implications, as it could be the difference between the 49ers taking control of the division, or losing control of the season. Week 9 in Los Angeles was a steamroll, and the 49ers lost the game 9-35, but week 10 in San Francisco was the real test. Tied at 6-3 with LA, with a 3 team race for the division going on, a loss would be crippling to the 49ers season.
Unfortunately, that’s just what happened. Despite 3 TD passes from Y. A. Tittle, it was the 49ers stellar running game that couldn’t get things going against the Rams, only running for a mere 67 yards. Meanwhile, the defense got torched on the ground for over 250 yards, and the Rams had an easy go of this 34-21 victory.
Thanks in large part to their 5-0 start to the season, though, the 49ers were still not eliminated. That would have to wait a week, when a 4-6 Steelers team would continue to stifle the 49ers rushers and take away 6 turnovers on their way to a 24-7 victory in San Francisco. Already eliminated, the 49ers 14-24 victory over the Packers in week 12 just didn’t mean much more than that it preserved a second consecutive winning NFL season.
Player Profile: Hugh McElhenny
I was fairly tempted to profile Alyn Beals in this season’s installment, just because he’s become one of my favorite players from these early 49ers teams and he was one of this year’s key losses, but it seems disingenuous not to profile 1952 and all-time 49er great running back Hugh McElhenny.
McElhenny was the 49ers first round pick in 1952, and went on to win the Rookie of the Year award that season, going to Pro Bowl. Known as "The King" in his time, McElhenny was widely recognized as an electric, elusive runner who had first-rate speed, strength, vision, and instincts. As a rookie, he ran for nearly 700 yards with 7 yards per carry. He played with the 49ers for 9 of his 13 pro seasons.
He finished his career with 5,281 rushing yards and 11,239 total yards from scrimmage. At that time, he was only one of 3 players in history to have accumulated more than 11,000 total yards from scrimmage. When he left the team, he was second on the 49ers all-time rushing yards behind only fellow Hall of Famer Joe Perry, and remains 6th on the team’s all-time list to this day. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1982. He went to the Pro Bowl 6 times in his career, twice as a starter.
Man, this must have been a heartbreaking team to be fan of. To start a season 5-0, and then 6-2 in a 12 game year, only to fall completely in the tank for the last 4 weeks. To average over 30 points a game for the first half of the season, and then struggle to score as much as 20 the rest of the way. To have a backfield with two all-star players running the ball at all star levels provide you with no support during critical games of the stretch runs. For a 7-5 third place team, this must have been a tough team to watch. I’d ask us about teams that played so well just to fall so hard, but I don’t really feel like having everybody relive those moments right now.
Instead, I want to focus on a highlight that we can all relate to. 1952. First round draft pick. Rookie of the Year. All Pro. Hall of Fame. Sound like anybody we know? That’s right. Patrick Willis is the new Hugh McElhenny. Except that Willis is also the old Hugh McElhenny. Except that when Willis was the old Hugh McElhenny, he was even better. History just doesn’t record these things. So even in a painful season (2007, anybody), it seems that there is always something to be excited about. An all-star rookie running back. A stud rookie linebacker. Rookies are really great that way. They get us excited. They give us something to believe in for the future.
So in that spirit, let’s have an All Rookie discussion. We’ve had it before (cough, Foochenmiller, cough), but we’ve also never had this many people participating on the site. Who are your favorite all-time rookies, OR (even better) your favorite at-the-time rookies? Mine: Ken Dorsey.
Yeah, shows what I knew.