Jan 222014
 
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New York Giants at Cleveland Brown (November 6, 1955), Rosey Brown (79)

New York Giants at Cleveland Brown (November 6, 1955), Rosey Brown (79)

New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part II)

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

(Part I)

Innovation via Delegation

The New York Giants first sought Army Black Knight Head Coach Earl “Red” Blaik as the replacement for Owen. After he declined the offer, assistant coach and former end Jim Lee Howell accepted the job, but only on the condition that he would be able to hire a staff consisting of coordinators on both sides of the ball – a unique idea at that time. Howell said, “Before the war, they didn’t specialize in coaches. One coach taught everybody everything.” Yet Howell foresaw a structure where the coordinators would handle their own sides of the ball, studying film, drawing up game plans, and grading their players while he oversaw the operation in more of an administrative role.

Landry had already served in a player-coach role under Owen, which not only would continue but expand. Instead of merely teaching Owen’s concepts to his teammates, Landry, who was regarded as an introspective genius by his peers, would be counted on to conceive his own game plans, a task he relished with aplomb. While playing in the Umbrella, he was already thinking ahead, visualizing a strong line that covered all possible gaps, linebackers who flowed to the point-of-attack, and a defensive backfield that covered zones on the field. Howell said, “Landry was brilliant, very, very smart. He could size up a situation very quickly and get it right.”

Sensing the defense was in good hands, Howell went outside the organization to fix the broken offense. Blaik suggested to the Giants his backfield coach, who badly yearned to coach in the NFL. Vince Lombardi (who went by Vinnie) had been a very successful high school coach at St. Cecilia’s in New Jersey before serving his five-year apprenticeship under Blaik at West Point. Among the things he picked up from one of the nation’s highest-regarded coaches was organization of practices, film study (still a relatively new idea at the time and not widely used), and an emphasis on unit execution rather than deception.

Working from Blaik’s dynamic power T-Formation, Lombardi saw many possibilities, which included implementing Single Wing blocking techniques for the offensive line (i.e. pulling guards) that he had learned while playing at Fordham. Howell liked what he saw in this burgeoning coach, “Lombardi teaches the style of football I like and believe in. Vinnie is daring and he is brainy. He knew what he could do with the players. His was very basic in his thinking. He was just a fine coach.”

The basic tenet of Lombardi’s philosophy was that players need condensed, uncomplicated information. “A few men working closely together in a spirit of discipline, singleness of purpose, and a commitment to excellence could succeed no matter the odds.” This was distilled to perfection with his signature play, the sweep.

Giants had been last in rushing in 1953. That would not be the case in 1954. Gifford teamed with new fullbacks Alex Webster and Mel Triplett. Left tackle Rosey Brown blocked and pulled. And the Giants plowed their way through the eight-man defensive fronts that were predominant of that period. Lombardi’s wider line splits made the defensive middle guard (today referred to as the nose tackle) vulnerable to double-teams.

The concert of destruction that took place at the snap was a choreographed framework that allowed for improvisation in accordance with how the defense reacted. The guards pulled. The lead guard blocked the defensive halfback and the offside guard blocked either the inside or outside linebacker. The center blocked back on defensive tackle. The onside offensive tackle chipped the defensive end, and then sealed the outside linebacker. The fullback or halfback blocked the defensive end, and then led the ball carrier into the hole, while the tight end influence-blocked the defensive end away from the point-of-attack. The reads of the ball carrier and his blocker (a halfback or fullback) was to determine the edge blocking, and the runner would decide whether to cut inside or take play to the edge.

Over time, Gifford would also have the added option of throwing the football. If Gifford made the proper read and a big play was available, he would pull up and loft a pass over rolled up defensive backs.

Lombardi humbly stated of his soon-to-be legendary sweep, “There is nothing spectacular about it. It’s just a yard gainer. It’s my number one play because it requires all eleven men to play as one to make it succeed, and that’s what ‘team’ means.”

The players noticed the differences immediately when they met at camp that summer. Halfback Kyle Rote noted, “When Howell took over in 1954 we started to have separate offensive and defensive meetings. Before, we all met in one big room. But the offense and defense became separate and definitive units under Jim Lee.”

Eagle Defense, Power T-Formation

Howell had traveled to Mississippi that off-season and promised Conerly if he came back he would be better protected. To make the existence of his reluctant quarterback more comfortable, the A-Formation was discarded, the T-Formation fully installed, terminology simplified, and a system of automatics that enabled Conerly to change the play at the line was developed.

Lombardi was also a breath of fresh air to Gifford. At the first practice the coach told the player, “We’re through fooling around with you. You’re a back now.” The stronger line would take time to gel, but players like Brown, Jack Stroud, and Ray Wietecha were soon to become stalwarts in the newly renamed Eastern Conference, and they gave the Giants a new attitude.

Although the Giants’ offensive system was largely ground-based and built around Gifford, the passing game was also vastly improved. End Bob Schnelker was the deep threat while Kyle Rote ran clever patterns underneath. Whether the pass was coming from Conerly or Gifford was the defense’s guess. Lombardi said, “Two intangibles make Gifford great – his versatility and his alertness. He gives the opposition fits by keeping it off balance. If the secondary comes up fast to check his run, he’ll heave the ball downfield; if the defense holds back, Frank’ll keep on running.”

The changes were evident early during the regular season. The Giants started the season 4-0, with point totals of 41, 51, and 31 in impressive wins. Week 6 brought a 24-14 loss at Cleveland, but the Giants bounced back with romps over Philadelphia and Washington.

Disaster struck in back-to-back games at the Polo Grounds at the end of November. Gifford injured his knee during a 17-16 loss to the Rams, and Conerly injured his knee on the first play of the rematch with Cleveland, which the Giants lost 17-6. The Browns went on to defeat Detroit for the NFL title.

Emlen Tunnell (45), New York Giants (November 28, 1954)

Emlen Tunnell (45), New York Giants (November 28, 1954)

Despite the third-place finish, the Giants carried optimism into the offseason. Lombardi’s sweep proved to be a success – Gifford’s 5.6 yards per carry led the Eastern Conference. The passing game’s efficiency improved exponentially – in 1953 the Giants’ ends caught a total of three touchdown passes; in 1954 they scored 20. There was a feeling of improvement, accomplishment, and a belief in the new systems being taught by the staff.

Motley left the Browns after the season, but Cleveland made it six consecutive conference titles in 1955 regardless. The Giants started the season slowly and sputtered to a 2-5 record after a physically-tough loss at Cleveland. But they would not lose again. The highlight of their 6-5-1 season was a 35-35 tie with the Browns in the final Giants’ football game at the Polo Grounds (although nobody knew that at the time).

This game marked the first time Howell started Don Heinrich at quarterback, ostensibly to allow Conerly to “spot flaws in the Browns from the bench.” Not all Giants players liked this sometimes controversial strategy, including the supposed number one quarterback himself. Conerly said years later, “You can’t see a damn thing from the bench. It’s the worst seat in the place. I don’t know why they did that.”

The crowd of 49,699 for the game billed as the “grudge match” was the largest in New York that year. Two future NFL head coaches started for Cleveland at linebacker: Walt Michaels and Chuck Noll. The running game by committee for the Browns was Curley Morrison and Ed Modzelewski (whose brother Dick would join the Giants in 1956). On occasion, Brown would deploy five wide receiver sets to confound Landry’s growingly versatile 6-1-4 defense.

The early advantage in the coaching chess game went to Howell as Heinrich staked New York to an early 14-0 lead. However, Graham calmly led his team back and Cleveland took the lead 21-14 late in the third quarter. The Giants, now led by Conerly, immediately tied the game 21-21 on a disputed play. Price was seemingly on his way to a 20-yard touchdown run, but was hit and fumbled at the goal line. New York’s Bob Schnelker came out of the fracas with the ball. When the Giants were awarded a touchdown, the Cleveland bench erupted in protest.

The Giants’ defensive front harassed Graham on the ensuing possession, and forced a Cleveland punt. Conerly engineered a 65-yard drive that he capped off with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Rote in the back of the end zone. Graham responded with a precision drive of his own, tying the game 28-28. Noll gave the Browns the lead when he intercepted a Conerly pass and returned it 14 yards for the score. The Giants took over on their own 15-yard line, and Conerly drove the Giants 85 yards for the touchdown, converting several third downs along the way. The decisive play was a pass completion to Gifford at the Cleveland 15, where he broke a tackle and raced into the end zone for the 23-yard score. Ben Agajanian’s point after knotted the game 35-35.

Graham was the original master of the yet-to-be-named two-minute drill. All opposing defenses and coaches feared his prowess when there was little time left on the clock. He rarely made a bad read, extended plays with his feet, and would run for yardage when necessary. The three minutes left on the clock probably felt like an eternity to player-coach Landry after the kickoff.

Graham opened the proceedings on his own 27-yard line with a bootleg to the New York 45. Just like that, the Browns were nearing the edge of Groza’s field goal range. Two Morrison rushes pushed the ball down to the Giants’ 19-yard line, and Modzelewski plunged to the 14. Groza came on for a 21-yard attempt with 0:25 on the clock, but Phil Knight leapt high from the line and blocked the kick. New York recovered the loose ball while the Polo Grounds crowd rocked in bedlam. Conerly had time left for one desperation pass, which was completed to the middle of the field as time expired. Regardless, the New York fans gave the Giants a standing ovation as they exited the Polo Grounds. Cleveland went on to their sixth consecutive championship game appearance after the season, and sent Graham off to retirement with a 38-14 win over Sid Gillman’s Los Angeles Rams.

Coordination and the Man in the Middle

Significant changes took place for both teams prior to the 1956 season. Brown was frustrated with finding a suitable signal caller for his offense and rotated Tommy O’Connell, George Ratterman, and Babe Parilli under center. The Giants, on the other hand, found a quarterback for their defense. Landry retired as a player and was now a full-time, fedora-wearing coach on the sideline. As a player, Landry knew his own physical limitations, so he had dedicated himself to being the smarter player. He was always aware not only of his own responsibilities on the field but also those of his teammates. In the burgeoning days of Owen’s Umbrella, while Landry coordinated the secondary, he envisioned all 11 players operating in a similar fashion. As he grew into the responsibilities of coaching, Landry began to teach his teammates the concept of reading offensive tendencies, which he called “keys” during film study.

Landry’s central theory was that an offense’s possibilities were limited once its personnel were on the field and a pre-snap formation was aligned. Post-snap, the defense would then read each offensive player’s first step to see where the play would go. Landry distilled it down to a science. For example, the weight a guard had on his front hand could predict whether he was going to drive block or pull on a run, or drop back to protect on a pass. Landry wanted a smart player like himself to realize the defense’s potential.

Sam Huff came to camp as a guard, but was converted to middle linebacker, a new position that evolved from watching film of Bill Willis on the Browns. On some occasions, Willis would be a half-yard back from the line of scrimmage, either in a three-point or two-point stance. But Landry used Huff as a fully declared linebacker, a full yard back from the center, always in a two-point stance, which allowed him to read the offensive backfield. Landry said, “Sam was a very disciplined player. The thing that made him so good was that he would listen, and he would do what was necessary to operate our defense. The effectiveness of the 4-3 depends on the defensive team recognizing a formation, knowing what plays can be run from that formation, and then recognizing keys that tell them the likely play or plays to expect.” Huff attributed the success to his teammates, “We played as a team on that Giants’ squad. I had help. The defense was set up so the defensive linemen actually kept the blockers off me.”

When the two 1-1 teams met in Week 3 at Cleveland, the strain of lacking an on-field leader had already worn on Brown. Always way ahead of his time, he conceived of radio communication between himself and the quarterback to get the plays called. The Giants were onto him early, and designated rookie end Bob Topp to sit on the end of the bench and decipher the Browns’ plays with a receiver tuned in to Cleveland’s frequency. Brown eventually reverted to his rotating guard system to send the calls in, but the Giants rolled to their first win over the Browns in three years, 21-9, behind the strength of a rushing attack that compiled 256 yards. On Monday, The New York Times declared “the Giants handled the Browns the in the manner the Browns used to handle the Giants.” On Tuesday,NFL Commissioner Bell barred electronic coaching devices on game day.

The Giants flexed their muscles with four more wins over Eastern Conference opponents, three of which took place on their new home field at venerable Yankee Stadium, just across the Macomb Dam Bridge from the Polo Grounds. When the Giants and Browns met in Week 11 for their rematch, 4-6 Cleveland was in the unfamiliar position of looking up in the standings at 7-2-1 New York. Brown must have used that as motivation, as the Browns defied expectations and manhandled the Giants in the rain and snow on the muddy field in a 24-7 romp.

The Giants clinched the Eastern Conference the following week with a win at Philadelphia, then won their first NFL Title since 1938 when they defeated the Chicago Bears at Yankee Stadium 47-7. Gifford had a season for the ages. He led team in both rushing yards and pass receptions, for the first of four consecutive seasons, and led the NFL with 1,422 total yards from scrimmage (819 rushing, 603 receiving). Gifford scored nine total touchdowns, five rushing and four receiving, and added two more scoring passes from his option role on the sweep. He also had 161 total yards and a touchdown in the championship game against the Bears. His receiving the NFL MVP award was almost anti-climactic.

The Browns made good use of their draft position following their first losing season in team history, taking fullback Jim Brown from Syracuse. The quarterback situation was still somewhat unsettled, as Brown split starts between O’Connell and Milt Plum, but the effects were minimal as their greatest success came when they were handing off to Brown, who led the NFL as a rookie with 942 yards and nine touchdowns. Brown would lead the NFL in rushing eight of his nine seasons, and this was the only one in which he did not go over 1,000 yards. He would also grow into a receiving threat over time, and lead the NFL in total yards from scrimmage six times.

Umbrella Defense, Split T-Formation, Wing-T Formation

The Giants opened the season at Cleveland in what would be a tense defensive battle. Brown rushed for 89 yards on 21 carries, but neither team accumulated 200 total yards of offense. Cleveland won on a Groza kick at 0:23, 6-3. The Giants rebounded to win seven of their next eight games, fueled in part by another Landry defensive innovation: a linebacker “red dog” in which at the snap of the ball, Huff or one of the outside linebackers would immediately attack the backfield.

When the calendar turned to December, the 7-2 Giants were just a half game behind the 7-1-1 Browns. New York dropped games against San Francisco and Pittsburgh, rendering the finale against Cleveland meaningless in regards to the Eastern Conference standings. However, the Giants-Browns rivalry had achieved Yankees-Red Sox status, and the advance ticket sales for the game were 50,000 and the turnstile count for the game was 54,292, the Giants’ largest home crowd for the season.

This was the first game where Landry assigned Huff the explicit responsibility of keying solely on Brown. Landry said, “Our defense was not designed specifically for Sam Huff to stop Jim Brown, our defense was designed to stop the offense we were working against. Our defense was based on coordination. Sam was just one of the 11 people who were coordinated. Specifically, the front seven was coordinated against the run. He was just one element in that group. But he got great recognition, which he deserved, because in this particular defense he was stopping Jim Brown, who is almost unstoppable. ” Huff versus Brown almost became a rivalry within a rivalry.

The Giants’ offense played well. Heinrich and Conerly combined for 282 passing yards and Gifford scored two touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving. New York led 28-27 with under 7:00 left on the clock, but Plum lead Cleveland to the winning score as Graham had done so many times before. Brown had another strong outing for Cleveland, rushing for 78 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown in the 34-28 victory. Cleveland returned to the championship game but lost again to Detroit.

Reckoning and Recognition

The Football Giants’ ascension in New York’s consciousness came at just the right time. Following the 1957 season, both the Baseball Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers left town for California. Yankee Stadium was the fulcrum of professional sports in New York for all of 1958.

The first meeting between the two Eastern Conference stalwarts did not take place until the first week of November when the 5-0 Browns hosted the 3-2 Giants. A raucous crowd of 78,404, the fourth largest in Cleveland professional football history to-date, packed Cleveland Stadium but went home disappointed after a second-half come-from-behind effort by New York.

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (November 2, 1958)

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (November 2, 1958)

Brown looked unstoppable for Cleveland in the first half, rushing for a 58-yard touchdown (his 15th of the season in just his sixth game!) but the aerial game struggled. Plum completed only four passes for the entire game and was intercepted twice by Jimmy Patton.

The Giants’ attack was balanced. Conerly tossed three scoring passes, two to Webster in the second half, the last of which came with less than three minutes remaining. They brought Conerly’s career touchdown pass total to 140, which placed him second all-time behind Sammy Baugh’s 187. The unlikely hero was Triplett, who outrushed Brown on the day 116 yards to 113 (which was 50 yards below Brown’s season average). It would be the sole 100-yard effort in Triplett’s career.

Landry’s coordinated defense truly came into its own in the second half. He had noticed keys on Cleveland’s formations that tipped off when Brown was getting the ball, and when he was being used as a decoy and the ball would go instead to Bobby Mitchell. Huff’s reads of Brown were nearly flawless, as Cleveland had only 23 plays from scrimmage in the second half, gained only two first downs, and never crossed the 50-yard line. Cleveland’s 17 points were far below the 35 they had averaged over their first five games.

The defense-first trend continued for the Giants throughout the season. The 1958 Giants would end up being the lowest-scoring team of Howell’s tenure with 20.5 points per game. But the New York fans not only didn’t mind this brand of football, they relished it. Landry recalled, “We knew we were something special in New York. The city was just on fire. It was amazing the way they supported the Giants, and the defense. This was a brand new thing in pro football, because no one even knew when you played defense until the late fifties.”

Cleveland and New York met for the final game of the regular season at Yankee Stadium with the Eastern Conference crown on the line. The 9-2 Browns stunned the 63,192 in attendance on the first play from scrimmage. Brown galloped through the middle of the Giants’ 4-3 front untouched and outran the secondary for a 65-yard touchdown. It was all defense for the remainder of the half as Pat Summerall and Groza exchanged field goals for the 10-3 halftime score. The Summerall field goal came after an uncharacteristic Cleveland fumble, which was recovered by Jim Katkavage on Cleveland’s 39-yard line.

As the snow fell during the scoreless third quarter, the Browns’ confidence increased. Their opening possession of the third quarter took a full 12 minutes off the clock, but the drive ended without points as the Giants thwarted a fake field goal attempt. Conerly’s unit was unable to move the ball and punted as the period came to a close. The big play to start the game loomed as the possible difference in a trip to the NFL Championship. This game took on the feel of a stare-down between two rugged defensive outfits.

Early in the fourth quarter the unthinkable happened as Cleveland turned the ball over in their own territory a second time. Poise and precision had always been hallmarks of Paul Brown’s team, which had committed just 12 turnovers in their first 11 games. Plum fumbled on his own 47-yard line and Andy Robustelli recovered for New York at the 45. Stymied by Cleveland’s defense all day, Lombardi’s unit seized the sudden change in momentum and struck quickly on his signature sweep/option. On first down, Conerly faked to Webster and handed off to Gifford who ran toward the right sideline. As he neared the boundary, Gifford spotted Rote coming open behind the defense. He pulled up and lofted a deep pass for a 39-yard advance to the Browns’ six-yard line. After a rush for a loss and incomplete pass by Conerly, Gifford completed a touchdown pass to Schnelker between two defenders on another sweep/option to tie the game 10-10 with just over 10 minutes to play.

Bob Schnelker (85), New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

Bob Schnelker (85), New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

The Giants’ defense forced a punt after two sacks of Plum by Rosey Grier. But the offense failed to capitalize despite favorable field position when Summerall’s 33-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left. The kicker remembered, “I’d have liked to have gone anywhere but back to the bench. But four or five of the guys came over and told me to forget it, that they’d get me another chance.”

Summerall did get another chance. The New York defense forced another three-and-out. The Giants fielded a short punt near mid-field (the exact yard line was impossible to determine on the now snow-covered field). Three incomplete passes left the Giants’ last hope hanging in the balance on fourth down and 2:07 on the clock, with a tie as good as a victory for Cleveland. Confidence was lacking for a Giants’ offense that had struggled all day. On third down they had missed a sure touchdown connection between Conerly (who was only 10-for-27 on the day) and Webster. “I had (the defender) beat pretty good, five or six yards. But the ball came out of the snow – I know that’s no excuse – and it went right through my hands and I dropped it on the five-yard line.” Webster said, “It would have been an easy six points.”

Howell took the unusual step of overruling his offensive coordinator Lombardi, who wanted to call another pass play, and sent Summerall on to the field for a desperation kick attempt. Summerall said, “I couldn’t believe that Jim Lee was asking me to that. That was the longest attempt I’d ever made for the Giants. It was a bad field and it was so unrealistic. Most of the fellows on the bench couldn’t believe it either.” Wellington Mara shared the popular belief, “That Summerall kick was the most vivid play I remember. I was (up in the press box) sitting next to Ken Kavanaugh and Walt Yowarsky and we all said, ‘He can’t kick it that far. What are we doing?’”

The attempt was logged officially from 49 yards, but some believe it was further. Summerall said, “No one knows how far it had to go. You couldn’t see the yard markers. The snow had obliterated them. But it was more than 50 I’ll tell you that.” Rote supported that theory. He remembered standing on the 50-yard line and said that Conerly spotted the ball, “two yards past me.”

Pat Summerall (88) and Charlie Conerly (42), New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

Pat Summerall (88) and Charlie Conerly (42), New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

Regardless of the actual distance, any kick on that snow-covered field in the wind was going to be a formidable task. As Conerly cleared a spot for the placement, he heard Cleveland players shouting “stay onsides!” to one another. The snap, spot, and hold were perfect as could be, but the ball’s trajectory was not.

Summerall described the kick’s near wayward flight, “I knew as soon as I touched it that it was going to be far enough. My only thought was that sometime you hit a ball too close to the center and it behaves like a knuckleball, breaking from side to side. It was weaving out. But when it got to the 10 I could see it breaking back to the inside.” Conerly felt a little better about it, “I looked up as soon as Pat hit the ball. It looked real good and it made me feel real good. There was a lot of guilt riding on that one.”

Pat Summerall's Field Goal is Good, Cleveland Browns at New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

Pat Summerall’s Field Goal is Good, Cleveland Browns at New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

Summerall was mobbed by teammates as Yankee Stadium erupted in delirium. Plum moved Cleveland near mid-field where Summerall’s counterpart Groza attempted what was thought to be a 55-yard field goal, but it fell well short of the cross bar. The Giants survived 13-10 and had forced a playoff for the right to face the Baltimore Colts for the NFL Championship.

The perfectionist Paul Brown blamed himself for the loss. He stayed up that night and re-watched the game film. He concluded he made a tactical error by running the ball too much, perhaps caused by overconfidence from the game’s first play. After that 65-yard touchdown run, Brown was held to just 83 yards on 25 carries.

Brown was not the only one looking back; history was not on the Giants’ side. The Giants were 0-2 in the franchise’s two previous standings tie-breakers. The 1950 loss at Cleveland lingered in recent memory, but another from the past resonated as well. After the 1943 season, New York was tied atop the Eastern Division with Washington 6-3-1. The Giants forced the playoff by defeating the Redskins not only once, but twice, to close the season. However, despite the playoff being held within the friendly confines of the Polo Grounds, Sammy Baugh and his teammates exacted thorough revenge by whipping the Giants 28-0. Defeating the same team three times in the same season was believed to be an unrealistic expectation by most observers.

The players did not seem to notice the doubters however. Practices at Yankee Stadium were unusually spirited throughout the week, crisp and hard-hitting. The enthusiasm carried over to the game on a bright but bitterly cold 20-degree Sunday in front of 62,742 eager fans.

Jim Brown received the opening kickoff and advanced it 45 yards. Plum completed a pass before Brown fumbled on a hit by Katkavage that was recovered by Grier. Heinrich returned the favor however and threw an interception of his own. After a Cleveland punt, Heinrich threw a second interception. The New York defense held again. And Conerly took the field and crafted a 12-play, 84-yard drive, mixing runs and passes. The final play of the drive was a bit of razzle-dazzle drawn up by Lombardi earlier that week.

The play started out as a simple sweep left by Webster on the Cleveland 18-yard line. Webster then handed off to a reversing Gifford sprinting right. Gifford cut through a hole behind the right guard. Racing up field, Gifford juked a safety then surprised everybody when he lateralled to a trailing Conerly. The old quarterback was hit at the goal line but fell into the end zone for what would be the game’s lone touchdown. Conerly said, “It was something new we put in this week. The lateral on the end was optional.”

The Browns responded with another drive into Giants’ territory, but Groza’s 46-yard field goal attempt was wide left and short. Conerly engineered another drive that Summerall capped with a three-pointer to give the Giants a 10-0 lead at the half. Cleveland managed one more scoring threat late in the third quarter when Don Maynard lost a fumble returning a punt. Plum moved the Browns to the New York six-yard line, but following two sacks, Huff intercepted a pass on the first play of the fourth quarter. Cleveland never threatened again. After a quick exchange of punts the Giants ground away the clock with their power running game and controlled the ball 10 of the final 11 minutes.

Pat Summerall (88), New York Giants, Eastern Division Playoff (December 21, 1958)

Pat Summerall (88), New York Giants, Eastern Division Playoff (December 21, 1958)

The furiously-fought game’s stars were the magnificent front four, who wrecked Cleveland’s blocking schemes. Robustelli, Katkavage, Grier, and Modzelewski kept Huff free from interference and harassed Plum and Jim Ninowski every single snap. Brown endured the worst showing of his otherwise sterling career with eight yards on seven rushes. Taking into account Brown’s 20-yard run in the third quarter, it means Brown lost 12 yards on his other six carries! Huff said, “Cleveland likes to run its plays to perfection. As long as they run the play perfect, they figure your mistakes will beat you. Well, here I was knowing Jimmy would run and just where he would run. I wasn’t about to make any mistakes.”

The fans in attendance helped fuel the inspired front four’s engine, roaring their appreciation every time the defense held and the Cleveland offense trudged to the sideline. Brown said, “They just played even harder than last week, more determined.” Cleveland was held to a meager 86 yards of offense and seven first downs. The Giants had two times as many plays from scrimmage, 80 to 40, and they controlled the pace with 211 yards on 53 rushes. This was only the second time the Browns were held scoreless in nine NFL seasons, and it was the first in 114 games. The last occurrence was the very first meeting between the two teams in 1950. Howell acknowledged the impressive performance, “They played the best defensive ball I ever saw a club play against a real good team.” Katkavage succinctly stated, “We just played better under pressure.”

The Giants hosted the Baltimore Colts the following week in what became known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Giants’ fans would probably disagree as their team lost the first overtime game in NFL history, 23-17. But the stage had been set for professional football to capture the nation’s imagination. After the season, Lombardi moved on to Green Bay. The Giants repeated as Eastern Conference champions in 1959, this time on the arm of NFL MVP Charlie Conerly who blossomed under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Allie Sherman. The clinching-game was on a Yankee Stadium field flooded by delirious fans who were probably somewhat in disbelief of the one-sided 48-7 score over Brown’s Cleveland team.

By the end of the next decade, football not only surpassed baseball as the National Pastime, it had become a national obsession, dominating television ratings in season while commanding headlines throughout the offseason. This was a far cry from the game’s humble stature at the opening of the decade when NFL box scores were fortunate to receive a few paragraphs of type while being buried on the sports pages alongside the previous day’s finishers in the money at the local race track.

The two teams represented the American / Eastern Conference in all 10 NFL Title games in the 1950’s, with the Browns winning three (’50, ’54 & ’55) and the Giants one (‘56.) Each franchise is well represented from the era at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Frank Gifford (16), New York Giants (December 6, 1959)

Frank Gifford (16), New York Giants (December 6, 1959)

Cleveland: Paul Brown, Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Dante Lavelli, Len Ford, Frank Gatski, Lou Groza, Doug Atkins, Mike McCormack, Jim Brown, Henry Jordan, Willie Davis, Gene Hickerson, Bobby Mitchell

New York: Steve Owen, Emlen Tunnell, Arnie Weinmeister, Tom Landry, Frank Gifford, Roosevelt Brown, Vince Lombardi, Andy Robustelli, Sam Huff

The head-to-head outcomes were remarkably even, with Cleveland holding a 10-9-1 regular-season advantage, and both teams winning a conference tie-breaker.

New York Giants vs. Cleveland Browns (1950's)

10/1/50New York 6 at Cleveland 0
10/22/50New York 17 vs Cleveland 13
12/17/50New York 3 at Cleveland 8 (American Conference Playoff)
10/28/51New York 13 at Cleveland 14
11/18/51New York 0 vs Cleveland 10
10/12/52New York 17 at Cleveland 9
12/14/52 New York 37 vs Cleveland 34
10/25/53 New York 0 vs Cleveland 7
12/6/53New York 14 at Cleveland 62
10/31/54 New York 14 at Cleveland 24
11/28/54 New York 7 vs Cleveland 16
11/6/55 New York 14 at Cleveland 24
11/27/55New York 35 vs Cleveland 35
10/14/56New York 21 at Cleveland 9
12/9/56 New York 7 vs Cleveland 24
9/29/57 New York 3 at Cleveland 6
12/15/57New York 28 vs Cleveland 34
11/2/58New York 21 at Cleveland 17
12/14/58New York 13 vs Cleveland 10
12/21/58 New York 10 vs Cleveland 0 (Eastern Conference Playoff)
10/11/59 New York 10 at Cleveland 6
12/6/59New York 48 vs Cleveland 7
The Rivalry That Changed Professional Football: New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part I)
Jan 202014
 
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Emlen Tunnell (45), Tom Landry (49); New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (October 1, 1950)

Emlen Tunnell (45), Tom Landry (49); New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (October 1, 1950)

New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part I)

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

When most people think of a fierce rivalry, the first image to arise is often a series of intense, physical contests – two teams meeting on the field, imposing wills, doling out punishment, one trying to outlast the other. One rivalry during the NFL’s transformative stage encompassed all of that while transcending the physical scrums along the line of scrimmage. When New York and Cleveland jousted for American and Eastern Conference supremacy, the games were more than a battle of brute strength. The coaching staffs engaged in contests of creativity and attempted to outsmart one another. The game of football and its fans still reap the rewards to this very day.

The Father of Modern Professional Football

The organization and structure of football practices are now taken for granted, but it was Paul Brown’s reforms that profoundly altered the way teams prepare for football games. George Halas, a legendary innovator in his own right, credited Brown with “turning the league into an organized, highly skilled endeavor instead of a bunch of big lugs whaling the daylights out of each other.” Brown himself humbly stated his motivation for organizing his practices was to instill a sense of pride into his assistant coaches and players. He wanted them to feel that football, as a full-time occupation, was important, and something worthy of complete dedication.

Brown was strong-willed and did not waver on a conviction. “I believed strongly in the things that were necessary for us to win, and I refused to tolerate any exceptions to those beliefs.” He held his staff and players to high standards. “I always believed that young men want to work in an atmosphere of reasoned discipline and order, and respond better under those conditions.” As a result, the following major innovations that Brown began not only changed the way football was played, but how it was perceived by the general public:

  • Full-time player scouting
    • Character was as equally important as athletic skill; “selfish or disloyal, or those who could not adjust their individual skills to our team concepts” were dismissed from consideration
    • “The ability to perform under pressure is the mark of a great player”
    • Standardized the 40-yard dash after calculating the average distance needed to cover a punt, the most repeated play in football
  • Film study
    • Not only of opponents, but self-scouting and recognizing his team’s own tendencies
  • Playbooks
    • Players were required to take notes during meetings and routinely quizzed to gauge their retention
    • If players understood why they were doing something, “they were more apt to be in the spirit of the occasion”
  • Took play-calling duties away from the quarterback
    • Initially sent plays in by rotating offensive guards; later pioneered the use of transistor radios in the quarterback’s helmet
    • Provided the quarterback with “check-with-me” calls to use at the line of scrimmage if the defense’s alignment was unfavorable
  • Instituted a year-round conditioning plan
  • Racially re-integrated professional football
    • Brought Marion Motley and Bill Willis to the Browns in 1946; no black players had been on an NFL roster since 1934
  • Meticulously pre-planned practices
    • Handed out itineraries to players
    • Morning practice would be spent on all aspects of a single rushing play, then afternoon practice on a passing play
  • Designed an attacking passing offense
    • Conceptualized read-and-react option routes (today known as ”option routes”) and timing patterns
    • Analyzed the geometry of the football field, exploiting open space by spreading defenses away from the line of scrimmage
    • Taught offensive linemen to block passively on pass plays, forming a ”pocket” for the quarterback
    • Conceptualized zone blocking for the offensive line to maximize the capabilities of fullback Jim Brown

More than anything, Brown was passionate about teaching. The list of men who played under and coached alongside Brown, eventually finding their own success as head coaches, is unparalleled:

  • Weeb Ewbank
  • Lou Saban
  • Blanton Collier
  • Don Shula
  • Chuck Noll
  • Don McCafferty
  • Bill Walsh

Brown was tagged as football’s first “genius,” a title he disdained, even if it was merited. His colleagues did not dispute it. They knew they had to be prepared and have their teams performing at their best when they faced Cleveland, and that is what served to further the game of football more than anything else. Head coaches did not want to be embarrassed. They readily adopted Brown’s practices and spent extra time studying film, developing counter plans as they anticipated how Brown would try to beat them. Brown inspired innovation among his colleagues, which is possibly the greatest of all possible legacies.

An Unlikely Protagonist

Giants’ head coach Steve Owen had enjoyed a great run with his team from 1933 through 1946, winning eight Eastern Division titles and two NFL Championships. During his tenure, New York made playing defense a brutal art form. Owen pioneered defenders playing off of the line of scrimmage when most teams deployed seven-man lines and relied on safeties to clean up on ball carriers who may have slipped through cracks in the front wall. Hall of Fame center and linebacker extraordinaire Mel Hein recalled, “Owen brought in the 5-3-3 in 1937 and we first used it extensively in 1938. The 5-3-3 was especially effective against Chicago’s T-Formation. Since we had linebackers left, right and center, none of us had to go running after the first fake. We could wait in our positions to see if the play was coming. Also, we ran stunts from this defense, with the linebackers and linemen crisscrossing as they rushed.”

Passing offense innovations accelerated with the arrival of precision quarterbacks such as Washington’s Sammy Baugh and Chicago’s Sid Luckman. Deft receivers like Don Hutson caused problems for defenses packed near the scrimmage line. Large, slow linebackers were exposed in coverage. Many teams adopted Earle “Greasy” Neale’s 5-2-4 Philadelphia Eagle defensive alignment that became known as the Eagle Defense. Earle said, “This defense was most effective against the tight T-Formation. A man-in-motion or a flanker spread it out.” The four defensive backs covered more of the field, but it would soon be discovered that this defense was still vulnerable.

The Giants were mired in a malaise of decline when the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) merged with the established league prior to the 1950 season. Realignment brought change and new challenges. The Eastern Division was rechristened the American Conference when it inherited the four-time champions of the rival league. The Browns’ 52-4-3 legacy, which included professional football’s first perfect season [15-0] in 1948, preceded them, even if NFL stalwarts were loath to recognize their accomplishments.

Owen’s football roots were firmly grounded in single-wing style formations, having a hand in the dirt and winning the battle on the line of scrimmage. He hadn’t brought a new offensive concept to the game since his A-Formation in the early 1930’s and the Giants were among the last teams to resist adapting to the modern T-Formation.

Defensive coaching was minimal in the late 1940’s. Teams met as large groups and 80% of the meetings and practices were spent on offense. Defenses lined up at the line of scrimmage, beat the man in front of them, and then pursued the ball carrier. There was little or no anticipation whatsoever. Aside from accounting for a man in motion, pre-snap defensive alignments did not change.

The Umbrella Opens

Brown proved to be a catalyst for change. Knowing he would face Cleveland twice every season, Owen spent the offseason studying game film of his new opponent. Owen had the foresight to realize brute force was not enough to get the job done against this “finesse” team. He needed to account for the open spaces on the football field. The Giants played a 6-1 defensive front, and Owen took advantage of the talent on his roster, knowing he had rangy, athletic defensive ends. They would align in their standard front, but at the snap of the ball the ends would drop out and cover the flats, while the defensive halfbacks would retreat. The two safeties covered the deep middle, and the result was an umbrella-like coverage. He thought this would serve the dual purpose of controlling the Browns’ precise passing attack while still being able to defend bruising fullback Marion Motley.

The scheme looked great on paper. Fortunately the Giants received a small bonanza of their own from the AAFC that made it come to life on the field. The New York Yankees were one of the teams that gave the Browns some competition during their four-year reign. Although they never defeated Cleveland, New York tied them once in 1947 and opposed the Browns twice in the AAFC Championship Game, nearly defeating them in 1946 before an Otto Graham-led 4th quarter comeback sent the Yankees home with a 14-9 defeat. The strength of the Yankee team was its defense, and Owen’s umbrella was supported by four newcomers from the Yankees: Arnie Weinmeister, Otto Schnellbacher, Harmon Rowe, and Tom Landry.

Single Wing, A-Formation, 5-3 Defense

Weinmeister was a rare physical specimen. At 6’4” and 240 pounds, he had the strength to consistently win skirmishes in the trenches, but it was his fluid athletic ability, speed, and the desire to dominate that set him apart. He regularly terrorized quarterbacks in the pocket and tackled backs and receivers downfield. When Weinmeister joined the Giants, he told Owen the way to defeat Cleveland was “to knock them on their butts.” Weinmeister and fellow tackle Al DeRogatis were charged with crashing the pocket on pass plays, and funneling Motley to linebacker John Cannady on rushes.

Schnellbacher, Rowe, and Landry formed a unique blend of talents with Emlen Tunnell and were the key to the success of Owen’s strategy. Defensive halfbacks Landry and Rowe played with solid technique and rarely gambled in their coverage. Tunnell had great range and ball instincts. He often freelanced through the secondary, and usually had the speed to recover from a misread. Schnellbacher combined instincts with technique. What set them apart as a unit was all four were exceptional tacklers. Tunnell recalled years later, “That was the best tackling backfield I ever saw. Everyone knew what the other fellow was going to do and that’s what made it so much fun.”

The two-time defending NFL Champion Eagles did not have much fun when they faced Cleveland on Saturday night of the NFL’s showcase opener. The pro passing game was relatively unsophisticated at this point, and Brown took a quantum step forward for this game by splitting both his ends wide on the line of scrimmage. Brown believed, “You had to integrate the running game with an intelligently conceived passing offense to win in pro football.” He also refused to allow the defense to dictate where the ball would be thrown.

Neale’s Eagle Defense was subsequently shredded by quarterback Graham’s sharp passes to ends Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli. When Neale adjusted by having his two linebackers cover the flats, Graham had Motley pound into the undefended middle. When the linebackers pinched in, Graham sent halfback Dub Jones around end to catch a pass in the short middle or sent Motley wide on a sweep. After the 35-10 thumping, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell congratulated Brown and told him Cleveland was, “the most intensely coached team I have ever seen.”

The Giants opened their season the next day in Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers 18-7, playing their standard defense, as Owen dared not tip his hand to the shrewd Brown. The schedule makers did New York a tremendous favor by giving them a bye for Week 2. The Browns traveled to Baltimore and whipped the Colts 31-0 while Owen drilled his new scheme to perfection at practice.

The Giants visited Cleveland in Week 3, and the results of the new defense were so profound they may have even shocked Owen himself. As New York’s defense came to the line, they showed a standard 6-1 front. At the snap, the ends quickly dropped to cover the flats and the defensive halfbacks dropped to cover the deep sidelines while the safeties covered the middle. The four down linemen attacked the backfield while the linebacker spied on Motley. The Browns were unprepared but, more surprisingly, were slow to respond to the strategy.

Emlen Tunnell (45), New York Giants (October 22, 1950)

Emlen Tunnell (45), New York Giants (October 22, 1950)

Graham did not complete a single pass in the first half and was intercepted three times. The Cleveland fans, so used to seeing their team trounce the opposition, booed their team as they went into the locker room trailing 6-0. In the second half, Owen anticipated Brown altering his strategy. Cleveland came out in the third quarter shortening the pass routes of the ends and running wide, but Owen had closed the Umbrella, blitzing his defensive backs, pressuring Graham, and plugging any rushing lanes. The 6-0 score held up, marking the first time the Browns had ever been held scoreless. So impressed was the multi-talented Tunnell, he later said, “We did such a job that afternoon that I never again wanted to play offense.”

Tunnell still clearly recalled the details years later when he was a Giants’ assistant coach, “In 1950 we developed a defense against the Browns that came to be known as the Umbrella. Our ends, Jim Duncan and Ray Poole, would drift back and cover the flats while tackles Arnie Weinmeister and Al DeRogatis and guards Jon Baker and John Mastrangelo were charged with rushing the passer and containing the run. The lone linebacker, John Cannady, was told to follow the Brown fullback wherever he went. Tom Landry played the left corner, Harmon Rowe the right, I was the strong safety and Otto Schnellbacher the weak. If you would look at this alignment from high in the stands it looked like an opened umbrella. In truth, it was the same 4-3-2-2 used today. We did go into other formations, but mostly we used this 4-3 arrangement. It was so successful against the Browns that we beat them twice. The first time we played them we shut them out, the first time that had ever happened to them.”

Given the challenges Cleveland’s offense presented, DeRogatis explained the defense’s strategic goals. “The modern 4-3-4 defense came into being largely because of the fantastic ability of the old Cleveland Browns to make a defense look bad. With great ends, a great blocking and running fullback, and a phenomenal quarterback, the Browns, coached by Paul Brown moved with awesome finesse over almost everyone they met. As a result, Steve Owen devised the Umbrella Defense, which dropped the standard six-man defensive line, to go to at least a version of the 4-3-4 which most teams use now. Against the standard six, the receivers could beat you short; the swing could wreck you outside; the fullback forced you to protect the middle; and the quarterback, who could do anything, passed, ran, screened, drew, and kept you off balance. So the 4-3-4 was born and almost revolutionized the game.”

The teams met for a rematch in front of 41,734 enthusiastic fans at the Polo Grounds three weeks later. The 4-1 Browns punctured the 4-1 Giants’ Umbrella with 13 second-quarter points. The final seven came seconds before the half following a major mental error by New York return-man Jim Ostendarp. On the kickoff following a Lou Groza field goal, Ostendarp let the ball hit the ground and roll to the one-yard line, where Cleveland recovered. Graham plunged for the touchdown on the next play to increase Cleveland’s lead to 13-3.

Owen altered his defensive strategy for the second half after Weinmeister left the game with a knee injury. Instead of having the ends drop off in the Umbrella they rushed Graham relentlessly. Poole and DeRogatis harassed Graham, who completed just four passes and lost 71 yards in sacks over the final 30 minutes. Cleveland crossed midfield just once. The Giants’ offense completed the comeback on a bit of razzle-dazzle when quarterback Charlie Conerly faked a hand-off to Eddie Price and flipped the ball behind his back to Joe Scott who raced around end for an uncontested touchdown and a 17-13 win.

Weinmeister boasted after the game, “We were smarter and better. We proved that defense was more important than offense. A lot of people thought the first win was a fluke. We knew it wasn’t and we were determined to prove it to everybody else.”

Cleveland rolled through the remainder of their schedule unblemished. The Giants fell flat versus the Chicago Cardinals the week after their victory over the Browns. The ship was righted quickly, and New York won impressively the rest of the way, including an amazing run where they scored 50 points three times in four weeks. The Giants and Browns finished tied atop the American Conference with 10-2 records, necessitating a playoff in Cleveland.

Bitterly cold temperatures limited attendance to 33,054 fans. The field was frozen and Owen obviously recalled how basketball shoes helped his underdog Giants pull off an upset against the heavily-favored Chicago Bears in 1934. He brought enough on the trip so the entire squad would be outfitted for the full 60 minutes. The master of preparation Brown would not be outdone; Cleveland took the field in black Chuck Taylors.

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (December 17, 1950)

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (December 17, 1950)

After the Browns went up 3-0 early in the first quarter, both defenses took control. The icy field made it impossible for backs and receivers to cut sharply, and for passers Graham, Conerly, and Travis Tidwell (Giants) to plant and throw. The teams would combine for just six pass completions and 91 passing yards for the entire game. Owen mixed the A-Formation with the T-Formation throughout the first half, before committing solely the A for the second half

Five minutes into fourth quarter, New York’s Gene “Choo Choo” Roberts whipped around right end with interference in front of him. Before he could reach the end zone, Roberts was caught from behind on the Cleveland 4-yard line by Bill Willis after a gain of 32 yards. Two plunges by Price netted just a single yard (Willis was in on both tackles). On third-and-goal from the three, Conerly tossed a touchdown to end Bob McChesney, but the Giants were flagged for a false start. On the next play, Conerly’s pass was intercepted, but Cleveland was called for defensive holding. The Browns’ fans were in a full-throated frenzy, on their feet chanting “Hold that line!” as they exhorted their defense.

On first and goal from the four, Price ran for one, but the Giants were penalized for an illegal snap. On second and goal from the eight, Joe Scott was tackled for a five-yard loss by Willis. Conerly’s third-down pass was deflected incomplete and the Giants settled for a field goal and 3-3 tie after the frustrating series.

Taking possession with 6:10 left in the game, Graham led the Browns on a march downfield, including three Graham rushes for 36 yards. However, like the Giants on the previous series, Cleveland settled for a field goal after having a goal-to-go situation. With time on the clock for one last desperate drive, Conerly was tackled in the end zone for a safety, completing the Browns’ quest for revenge on the only team to defeat them in the 1950 season. Cleveland went on to defeat the Los Angeles Rams (who ironically had left the city of Cleveland following an NFL Championship in 1945) in one of the most thrilling championship games in history, 30-28.

Despite falling short in the playoff game, the Giants’ three-game series with the Browns that season had to be considered a success. In 180 total minutes played, Owen’s Umbrella Defense surrendered only one touchdown to an offense that routinely piled up points against the rest of the league. The Browns led the American Conference with 310 points scored, and their average margin of victory was just over 13 points. In their three games against New York, their aggregate 21 points came from the lone touchdown, four field goals, and a safety from their defense.

Brown poked some holes in Owen’s Umbrella the next season. Cleveland swept the season series with New York, won the American Conference title but lost to the Detroit Lions in the NFL Championship game. In 1952 the Giants swept the Browns, but Cleveland three-peated as conference champs, and lost again to Detroit. The significance of these two campaigns came to full fruition in 1953. While Brown furthered the offense of the future, developing and expanding the roles of the Split End and Flanker in T-Formation variations, Owen never fully adapted to the T-Formation, and continually reverted to his familiar A-Formation. This stunted the development of quarterback Conerly.

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (October 12, 1952)

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (October 12, 1952)

The nadir came in an ugly 62-14 December loss to Cleveland at the Polo Grounds that was so bad even backup quarterback George Ratterman threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter after Graham had been pulled. The Giants’ leadership was forced to admit their 23-year steward for the franchise needed to retire. The archaic offense was inept, scoring a meager 179 points over the 12-game season. The once-formidable defense was ragged; the league caught up to the Umbrella scheme and there was no counter strategy on the horizon. The locker room was despondent; many players contemplated early retirement.

Multi-threat performer Frank Gifford, who played both ways and averaged 50 minutes per game at the end of the season while the Giants struggled with injuries, recalled, “The last five games of 1953, I didn’t come out. I played offense and defense; I was kicking off, running back punts, kicking field goals. I was really questioning whether to come back in 1954.” A significant part of Gifford’s frustration was the inability of Owen to figure out a role that maximized his abilities. Gifford had been a star tailback for USC in college, but Owen relegated him to defensive halfback. “I would have cut the good looking son-of-a-bitch if he hadn’t been our top draft pick,” said Owen.

Quarterback Conerly, who was the NFL Rookie of the year in 1948, would turn 34 the next season. He was tired of being beaten up not only on the field behind a faltering offensive line, but by the booing Polo Grounds fans who hung up signs reading “Back to the Farm Charlie.”

The Rivalry That Changed Professional Football: New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part II)