October 6, 2015

1957: Tittle’s 3 TD Passes Lead 49ers to Win Against Rams

Two West Coast rivals, the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, met in San Francisco in the second week of the NFL season on October 6, 1957. The Rams had won their opening game against the Eagles while the 49ers fell to the Chicago Cardinals.

The 49ers were coached by Frankie Albert, once their star quarterback, and were coming off of two straight losing records that included 5-6-1 in ’56. However, after a dreadful 1-6 start they had concluded the season with a 4-0-1 burst, and were looking to build upon that finish. QB Y.A. Tittle (pictured above) was a key to the late surge and, while FB Joe Perry was beginning to show signs of wear, HB Hugh McElhenny remained a potent breakaway threat. The bigger questions related to the defense, in particular the backfield.

Los Angeles was just two years removed from a Western Conference title but had gone a disappointing 4-8 in 1956. While Head Coach Sid Gillman had been revamping the roster, veteran QB Norm Van Brocklin was still behind center and a formidable passer at age 30, although he was being pushed by the younger Bill Wade. While the receiving corps was no longer as impressive as it had been in previous years, there was plenty of talent at running back with FB Tank Younger and HB Tom Wilson who was being joined by first draft choice Jon Arnett, a fleet all-purpose halfback out of USC. The Rams had concerns about their defense but had also finished strong the previous year.

Kezar Stadium was filled with 59,637 fans for the game. The 49ers had the first possession and drove to near midfield before having to punt. The kick by Larry Barnes went off the side of his foot and traveled only six yards to give the Rams the ball at their own 45. Tom Wilson (pictured below) ran for 23 yards around right end on first down and, three plays later, he scored on a 21-yard touchdown carry. Paige Cothren added the extra point to put the visitors in front by 7-0.

San Francisco again had to punt after its next series. Barnes again had trouble when a high snap forced him to rush the kick, and while it traveled farther, it was just 26 yards to the LA 39. However, the Niners got a break when, after Tank Younger ran for 13 yards, LB Matt Hazeltine intercepted a Norm Van Brocklin pass. The 49ers came up inches short when trying to convert a third-and-one and another Barnes punt went only 11 yards. Effective running by Wilson and Younger, with a short pass by Van Brocklin mixed in, advanced the Rams to the San Francisco 16, where the drive stalled, and LA came up empty when Cothren’s 23-yard field goal attempt missed the mark.

The 49ers came alive on offense as Hugh McElhenny ran around end for 16 yards and Y.A. Tittle threw to end Clyde Conner for 14 yards to the 50. Joe Perry ran for eight yards but, as the game headed into the second quarter, two passes by Tittle fell incomplete and Gordie Soltau missed a field goal try from 47 yards.

The Rams punted following their next series and, while the 49ers took over at their 42, a sack by LB Dick Daugherty moved them back 13 yards and Barnes quick-kicked on third down. LA took over at its 25, was penalized half the distance to the goal due to a personal foul, and then a bad pitchout was recovered by Wilson in his end zone for a safety. HB Joe Arenas returned the ensuing free kick 21 yards to the LA 45 and, two plays later, Tittle threw down the middle to Conner who, about to be tackled, lateraled to end Billy Wilson and the fleet receiver ran the distance for a 43-yard TD. Soltau converted and the 49ers were in front by 9-7.

The Rams put together a promising drive in response that featured Van Brocklin passes of 26 yards to end Bob Boyd and 20 yards to end Leon Clarke. The second gave Los Angeles a first down at the San Francisco 14, and two carries by Younger made it first-and-goal at the four. Two running plays picked up two yards, and on third down Wilson fumbled into the end zone and safety J.D. Smith recovered for the 49ers to end the threat.

San Francisco responded to the reprieve by putting together an 80-yard series in nine plays. A short pass to Perry picked up 17 yards and it was Tittle throwing long to flanker R.C. Owens, a rookie with outstanding jumping ability, who outmaneuvered safety Don Burroughs in the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown. Soltau added the point after and the Niners took a 16-7 lead into halftime.

The Rams had the first possession in the third quarter and moved quickly, covering 81 yards in just four plays, to narrow the score. The big play was a Van Brocklin pass to Clarke who went the distance for a 70-yard TD. Cothren’s extra point made it a 16-14 game.

The teams traded punts before San Francisco put together a good drive. McElhenny had runs of 11 and 19 yards but, after reaching the LA 36, two Tittle passes were broken up and Soltau missed a long field goal try. The Rams were in San Francisco territory as the period ended thanks to a Van Brocklin throw to Jon Arnett that gained 36 yards. A pass to Clarke picked up nine yards to the 21 as the third quarter ended and, after two running plays added seven yards, LA moved into the lead with a Cothren field goal from 20 yards that made the tally 17-16.

On San Francisco’s first play after the kickoff, Barnes fumbled and safety Will Sherman recovered for the Rams at the Niners’ 29. Wilson ran the ball five straight times and, after a Van Brocklin pass was incomplete, Cothren kicked another field goal, again from 20 yards. The visitors held a four-point lead at 20-16 with under ten minutes remaining to play.

Smith returned the ensuing kickoff 38 yards and nearly went the distance before FB Joe Marconi tackled him at the San Francisco 41. The 49ers proceeded to advance 59 yards in 10 plays. McElhenny and FB Gene Babb ran to good effect and Tittle carried the ball himself to convert a third down. Tittle passed to Conner for 11 yards and another 11-yard throw was caught by a leaping Owens for a touchdown. Soltau added the extra point to put the Niners back in the lead by three points. The Rams were unable to move the ball in their last two possessions and San Francisco held on for a 23-20 win.

Los Angeles had the edge in total yards (401 to 318) and first downs (19 to 16). Both teams ran the ball well, with the 49ers gaining 196 yards to LA’s 184. The Rams suffered two turnovers, to one by San Francisco. The 49ers were hampered by their poor punting game, averaging just 28.3 yards on six punts (Larry Barnes accounted for four of the kicks, with an average of 24.5).

Y.A. Tittle completed just 7 of 15 passes for 147 yards, but three of them were for touchdowns while he gave up no interceptions. Hugh McElhenny rushed for 109 yards on 21 carries and Gene Babb contributed 57 yards on 10 attempts. Clyde Conner had four catches for 50 yards while R.C. Owens (pictured at right) gained 57 yards on his two receptions, both of which scored TDs.

For the Rams, Norm Van Brocklin was successful on 12 of 20 throws for 217 yards and a TD and he was picked off once. Tom Wilson gained 125 yards on 20 rushing attempts that included a touchdown and Tank Younger had 63 yards on his 16 rushes. Jon Arnett topped the team with four pass receptions, for 65 yards, while Leon Clarke, with his long scoring catch, gained 96 yards on three receptions. 

The win for the 49ers was the first of five straight on the way to an 8-4 record that tied them for first place with Detroit in the Western Conference. They blew a big halftime lead in losing the playoff with the Lions. The Rams got off to a 1-3 start, but defeated San Francisco in the rematch and ended up at 6-6 and fourth in the conference.

Y.A. Tittle received MVP recognition from UPI and was a consensus first-team All-NFL selection as he led the league in pass completions (176) and completion percentage (63.1) and was second in passing yards (2157). Hugh McElhenny ran for 478 yards while averaging 4.7 yards-per-carry and caught 37 passes for 458 yards and was named to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time. R.C. Owens had 27 catches for 395 yards (14.6 avg.) and scored five TDs.  

Norm Van Brocklin placed second in the NFL in touchdown passes (20), yards per attempt (7.9), and yards per completion (15.9), although he topped the circuit in interceptions thrown (21). Tom Wilson rushed for 616 yards on 127 carries (4.9 avg.) to lead the club and was selected to the Pro Bowl.