Game 3: 1948, Cleveland Browns at San Francisco
In 1948, the San Francisco 49ers emerged as a serious threat. Both teams played in the Western Division, and so only one was going to make it to the Championship game. The Browns were undefeated at 10-0, but they were given a Herculean challenge by the schedule maker.
Nowadays if a team plays on Thanksgiving, they get nine days off. Not our Browns. They had to play the Yankees in Cleveland on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, then fly to the west coast to play the Los Angeles Dons on Thanksgiving, and then play in San Francisco the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
In other words, the Browns had three games in eight days. Perhaps the rationale was that they got to save on travel expenses by staying on the West Coast, but no question about it, this was the most grueling schedule in history.
To make a long story short, the Browns managed to thump the Yankees, 34 to 21 and also the Dons, 31 to 14. However, Graham suffered a severely sprained knee on a hit by 270-pound lineman Clyde Johnston and would have only two days to recover. The 49ers were 11-1, having lost and could tie the Browns by beating them in San Francisco.
By winning out they would at least force a tiebreaker game to decide the division and possibly win the division outright. If the Browns were to somehow win, they would clinch a third straight trip to the Championship game. For all intents and purposes, it was a playoff game. For one of the few times in team history, the Browns were underdogs because of the grueling schedule and the physical condition of Graham and the other beat-up Browns.
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The plan was for Graham to sit this one out, but on the first series, Tony Adamle recovered a fumble on the San Francisco 40 yard line (about 2:10 on the video), and out trotted Otto. On the first play, Otto faded back about 8 yards and threw a bomb to Lavelli in the middle of the end zone. The ball must have traveled about 53 yards in the air, and Graham tossed it like it was nothing.
Later in the first quarter, Groza punched through a field goal at 5:30, and the Browns had a surprising 10 point lead.
But the 49ers were not done. The second quarter was all San Francisco as future Hall of Fame fullback Joe Perry delivered several nice runs including a 4th and 2 scamper at about 8:50, and then punched it in from the two-yard line at 9:20. On the next possession, they lateraled to Johnny “Strike” Strzykalski who rambled for 29 yards despite being knocked down a few times, and the Niners scored again with a pass from Frankie Albert to Alyn Beals to take a 14-10 lead going into halftime. The Browns were clearly worn down from the 49ers running game.
Then Paul Brown made a bonehead play call thoroughly befitting Freddie Kitchens at his finest, going for it on fourth and two on their own 29-yard line (sorry coach Brown, but journalistic integrity prevents me from making a kinder characterization of this call). Of course, the 49ers stuffed the play at about 12:50. Then Frankie Albert connected in the end zone with Alyn Beals again, this time on a 29-yard scoring strike that put the 49ers ahead 21-10.
Miraculously, however, the Browns mounted a comeback with a 73-yard drive mainly featuring Special Delivery Jones, who made a few nice catches and runs. Ultimately, Motley finished with a six-yard reception, though the scoring play did not survive on film. Lou Groza is seen kicking the extra point at about 15:00.
The 49ers went three and out, and on the next possession, Graham connected with Lavelli for about 40 yards. Infuriatingly, this play and the touchdown pass to Dub Jones did not survive on film. Nevertheless, the Browns took a 24-21 lead. Next, the 49ers continued to meltdown as a halfback option play turned into an interception by Tom Colella. Graham tossed his fourth touchdown pass of the afternoon to Special Delivery Edgar Jones. Again the scoring play has not survived on film, but Groza’s extra point is shown at 17:00.
In the fourth quarter, the 49ers pulled with three points with a long 78-yard drive capped by Frankie Albert to Joe Perry, seen at about 19:00.
Thereafter they controlled the ball on the ground, taking six minutes off the clock. Ultimately, when the 49ers finally got the ball back, there were only 50 seconds left, not enough time to mount a drive and Cleveland was able to eke out a 31-28 victory.
The most remarkable aspect of the game was that it was the third game in an eight-day period. Harold Sauerbrei, writing for the Plain Dealer, quoted Brown,
"“Under the circumstances, it was Otto’s greatest performance.”"
In his 1990 book written with Jack Clary, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Brown wrote:
"“The real measure of our ’48 team was its ability to play and win three games within eight days, something no football team before, or since, ever has been asked to do.”"
That was an impressive feat by an impressive team.