Stories You Should Know: The All American Football Conference

All American Football Conference

Since the creation of the National Football League in the early 1920s, there have been many challengers to the League. Coincidentally, four times the name of the league making the challenge was the American Football League. The first attempt was in 1926 when the best football player in the world, Red Grange, led the effort against the NFL. It failed miserably, shutting down after one season. 

Two other versions of the American Football League were in operation in 1936-1937 and again in 1940-1941. They both failed also. The 4th version of the American Football League formed in 1960 and it had a much different outcome. Eight teams began play for the AFL in 1960, the league added another team in 1966, and then a tenth team in 1968. This version was a major threat to the established NFL, which eventually agreed to merge the two leagues in 1969.

All ten franchises in this version still exist; The Boston Patriots are now the New England Patriots, the Buffalo Bills, the Houston Oilers who are now the Tennessee Titans, the New York Titans are now the New York Jets, the Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City and are now the Chiefs, the Denver Broncos, the Los Angeles Chargers moved to San Diego and then back to Los Angeles, the Oakland Raiders also moved to Los Angeles and then back to Oakland. They are scheduled to move to Las Vegas next year. The two expansion franchises added later are the current Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals. This version of the AFL was a huge success. 

Since then there’s been more failed attempts to challenge the NFL (WFL, XFL), but before the 1960 version of the American Football League, there was another league that had a huge impact on professional football and forever transformed the National Football League. 

The All American Football Conference was formed in 1944, the brainchild of Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward. Due to World War II the league did not begin competing until 1946. The delay prompted NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden to comment, “They should first get a ball, then make a schedule, and then play a game.”

Sports Editor of the Chicago Tribune and creator of the All American Football Conference

Layden’s skepticism was misplaced. The new league had wealthy owners, probably wealthier than their NFL counterparts. They would get plenty of publicity, since the founder of the league was the sports editor of a major newspaper and more importantly they signed really good players. Talent was readily available because,  with the end of the World War II, many quality players were available as free agents. In 1946 the AAFC signed over 100 players who had previous NFL experience, and 40 of the college top all stars, including two Heisman Trophy winners, Frank Sinkwich and Angelo Bertelli. The league would field eight teams in their inaugural season; the Brooklyn Dodgers, Buffalo Bisons, Chicago Rockets, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Dons, Miami Seahawks, New York Yankees, and San Francisco 49ers. 

The AAFC with their big money was able to sign Heisman winner Frank Sinkwich away from the NFL.

The NFL originally took a hard line against the new league, but the AAFC made quick inroads into the professional football market. The Cleveland franchise chose Ohio State head coach Paul Brown to run their club. Brown was a first rate innovator who immediately turned Cleveland into a powerhouse. Cleveland had lost their NFL franchise to Los Angeles in 1946, so the Browns, being the only team in town, would outdraw all the NFL teams during their four years in the new league. 

The league was divided into two 4-team divisions. The problem from the beginning was the performance disparity between the best teams and the weakest ones. The New York Yankees won the Eastern Division with a record of 10-3-1, with no other team in the East winning more than three games. The West was much more competitive, with three of the four teams finishing above .500, and the fourth, Chicago, barely under .500 at 5-6-3. Paul Brown’s Cleveland team was the class of the league, and beat the Yankees in the championship game, 14-9.

Seven of the eight teams were still there in 1947. Only the Miami franchise did not return. They were replaced by the first version of the Baltimore Colts. This created a major threat to the Washington Redskins of the NFL. Many of Washington’s key players defected to the AAFC, including their coach, Ray Flaherty. The Redskins, an NFL powerhouse for the previous ten years fell into a 20-year funk, not fielding a competitive team until the hiring of George Allen in the early 1970s. The AAFC season result was the same as 1946. Cleveland won the West (12-1-1) and the Yankees won the East (11-2-1). The Browns won the Title Game again, this time the final was 14-3. 

In 1948 the new league began negotiations with the NFL, but the same eight teams competed for the championship. The balance of the two divisions continued to expand. The two best teams were in the West. On November 14th the 10-0 Browns met the 10-0 San Francisco 49ers in Cleveland before a crowd of 83,000, the largest crowd to ever watch a professional football game up to that time. Cleveland won 14-7, then two weeks later shocked the 49ers in San Francisco with a thrilling 31-28 come-from-behind victory. Despite only losing twice, San Francisco missed the playoffs as Cleveland completed an undefeated regular season at 14-0. They would cap the year with a 49-7 thrashing of the 7-7 Buffalo Bills in the Championship Game. A season for the ages, which is largely forgotten today (you of course can read about it here)

Due to fierce opposition from several NFL teams, the AAFC struggled to compete in 1949. The New York and Brooklyn franchises merged, so they were down to seven teams. They decided to abandon the two division structure and have one 7-team league and play a 12-game schedule. The playoff model was the top four finishers to face each other in a 4-team tournament. Cleveland again had the best record at 9-1-2, followed by the 49ers at 9-3, the Brooklyn/New York franchise at 8-4, and the Buffalo Bills at 5-5-2.

In the first round Cleveland beat Buffalo, then San Francisco eliminated Brooklyn/New York. This created a Championship Game between the league’s two best teams. It didn’t matter, as the Cleveland Browns won their fourth straight championship with a 21-7 win in the final.

Both leagues saw a decline in attendance in 1949, pushing each one towards some kind of peace agreement. The stuffy old NFL felt very superior to the AAFC, with Redskins’ team owner George Marshall dismissing the new league with this pronouncement, “the worst team in our league could beat the best team in thier’s.”

Brave words but not accurate. The Browns were the best team in football. Marion Motley was the best running back in all of football, and Paul Brown was probably the best coach, but most telling was that Cleveland had the most valuable player in football behind center in Otto Graham (See where he ranks in the Greatest of All Time).

Despite this the peace negotiated prior to the 1950 only allowed three AAFC franchises into the NFL. The Baltimore Colts, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Cleveland Browns. Also, the Los Angeles Dons were allowed to merge with the NFL Rams creating a powerhouse on the west coast. The Buffalo Bills tried hard to get in, but failed to get the unanimous vote required, when four of the thirteen owners voted against their application. The decision to take Baltimore and exclude Buffalo was probably a mistake, as this version of the Colts only survived one year in the NFL. An expansion team was awarded to Baltimore in 1953, and that is the franchise that is now the Indianapolis Colts.

Every year between 1946 and 1949, after winning the AAFC championship, the Cleveland Browns would challenge the champion of the NFL in an end of season contest, but the NFL always refused. With the merging of the two leagues, the NFL decided to start the season pitting the defending champion of the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles, against the defending champion of the defunct AAFC, the Cleveland Browns, in the season opener in 1950. This was the most hyped game in the history of professional football, called “The World Series of Pro Football”. The game drew more than 71,000 fans in Philadelphia, and the undivided attention of the sporting public. In the most important game in NFL history up until that time, the Browns crushed the Eagles behind the steller play of Otto Graham, 35-10.

Cleveland cemented their claim as the best team in football by winning the Eastern Division title with a record of 11-2, and then beating the loaded Los Angeles Rams in the NFL Championship Game on a last second field goal, 30-28. Their 5th straight championship.

Despite only existing for four seasons the All American Football Conference had a major influence on professional football. The NFL excluded black players from 1934 until 1945, while the AAFC was aggressive in signing them. This gave the AAFC a huge advantage, and forced the NFL to follow suit. 

The AAFC played a 14 game schedule years before the NFL. Paul Brown was the first coach to initiate a zone on defense. He also was the first coach to use film when preparing for an opponent. 15 players from the AAFC are now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including maybe the greatest winner of all time, Otto Graham. 

Graham would play 10 seasons as quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. His team’s 4-year record in the AAFC was 52-4-3, a .929 winning percentage, and all four championships. He then went into the NFL, where his team won six straight Eastern Division Titles, and three of the six NFL Championships Games they participated in. Their overall record in those six years was 61-14-1. In three of his six seasons in the NFL Graham won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. No quarterback in history has had that kind of success, not even Tom Brady. Graham then retired from football. 

The success of Paul Brown, Otto Graham, and the Cleveland Browns in their first years of the NFL just confirms the quality of the All American Football Conference, but other teams also produced players that would produce big results in the NFL.

Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch started his career with the Chicago Rockets in 1946. He would go on to be a big star for the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, having a monster year in 1951 when the Rams won the NFL Championship.

The Chicago Rockets came up with the legendary Y.A. Tittle in 1948. After three outstanding seasons with the Baltimore Colts he would be picked up by the San Francisco 49ers, after the collapse of the Colts, in 1951 and be a mainstay in the NFL until 1964.

The franchise with the second best record in the AAFC, the San Francisco 49ers, signed former Stanford quarterback Frankie Albert. His best years were in the All American Football Conference, but he did play three years in the NFL. His teammate, Joe Perry led the AAFC in rushing yards in 1949, a feat he would accomplish two more times in the NFL in 1953 and 1954. These were the years that Perry would team with Hugh McElhenny, Ollie Matson and Tittle in a Hall of Fame backfield which is probably the greatest of all time.

And of course there is the Cleveland Browns. Otto Graham is in the discussion as the greatest player of all time. Marion Motley led the AAFC in rushing in 1948, and did the same thing in the NFL in 1950. Lou Groza was their left tackle, but also their kicker. He would spend his entire Hall of Fame career in Cleveland, being a part of all their championship teams, including their last one in 1964.

There is a case to be made that the AAFC was better than the NFL. There champion sure was. The four years of this upstart league should not be dismissed. Considering that it only lasted four seasons, It’s impact on the pro game was massive. Let that be its legacy.

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