It’s the second installment of our NFL Thursday series on the league’s historical awards, and as we start looking at 1951, it’s important to remember how different the league was then that it is now.
A lot of rule changes over the years have created more of a diverse game these days, in terms of style of play and statistical achievement. However, we see through all that for context in our analyses. We promise!
And now, onto the weekly historical debate …
1951 NFL MVP: Clear-cut leader on the field (and in the NFL record book)
With defensive statistics still so incomplete, and quarterbacks still throwing so many interceptions, it forces us to focus on offensive players for MVP analysis, simply because we have a more complete picture of their contributions to a team’s success with the data available.
Six players, including future Dallas Cowboys coaching legend Tom Landry, registered at least eight interceptions in 1951, showing just how hard it was to be a “good” QB in this era. Remember that only two QBs in 1950 that played enough to qualify for the QB rating title actually tossed more touchdowns than picks.
Well, in 1951, that got a little better: a whopping five quarterbacks met that standard, including the two timeshare QBs from the Los Angeles Rams, Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. Strangely, even though Waterfield started 10 games and Van Brocklin just two, the latter attempted more passes than the former (194 to 176), creating an unusual situation when trying to evaluate the two men for the MVP award.
They basically cancel each other out, as they both posted similar QB ratings (Waterfield 81.8, Van Brocklin 80.8) to that of Cleveland Browns QB Otto Graham (79.2). The two teams met in the title game, with the Browns winning 11 regular-season games and the Rams winning eight. None of these QB candidates stand out like an MVP should.
[Irrelevant to this discussion, the Rams ended up winning the NFL Championship Game over the Browns in a classic battle—see the winning TD here at the 41:21 mark, a long pass from Van Brocklin to Tom Fears.]
What about rushers, since our 1950 MVP was a runner? One player that stands out is Rams fullback Dan Towler. We are guessing you’ve never heard of him, and why should you have? However, he was third in the NFL during the 1951 season for rushing yards (854) and second in average per carry (6.8 yards). Yet, he also tied for second among runners for fumbles (7), and you can’t have an MVP who is coughing up the ball that much, even in 1951.
That brings us to receivers, and here is our clear standout of the regular season: Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch. Remember how Fears led the NFL in receiving during the 1950 season? Well, Fears was hurt most of 1951, and Hirsch took his spot as the prime target in the L.A. pass offense. He caught 66 passes for 1,495 yards and 17 TDs, the latter two being NFL records that would not be broken or matched for a long time.
Towler’s presence in the Rams offense adds more value to what Hirsch was able to do, as the L.A. attack was more balanced and diversified than it was in 1950 when it was just Fears, Fears, Fears … all the time, thus devaluing his efforts in context.
Hirsch’s season was statistically historic, and it even felt so at the time, according to an article in the New York Times on December 3: “Waterfield’s scoring throw to Elroy Hirsch, on a play that covered 91 yards, was the longest this season in the league and enabled the former Wisconsin halfback to set a new league record for yards gained on pass receptions in one season … His mark surpassed the record of 1,211 set by Don Hutson of Green Bay in 1942.”
Hirsch turned the league record book on end in 1951, and that is good enough to claim the MVP award in our estimation. It wasn’t until 1984 that an NFL receiver (Roy Green) broke the yardage record (although a few AFL receivers did, but it’s hard to equate the two leagues in that sense), and it was also 1984 when his TD reception record was broken by Mark Clayton.
If you set records that last more than three decades each, you’re the MVP, period.