We’re rumblin’ and stumblin’ on, four weeks into our sports-history focus with another edition of NFL Thursdays, with the 1953 NFL MVP candidates next up on the docket. We’ve laid out our process here, so here we go with the first fall of NFL football under President Eisenhower.
1953 NFL MVP: Tricky situation that comes down to … fumbles?!
First, let’s start with the defensive candidates. One year after picking Dick Lane for the 1952 MVP, we don’t really have any comparable performances this year from the prevention side of the line. Teams stopped throwing at Lane, though, for sure, as his interception total dropped to just three.
However, four other players registered double-digit numbers for INTs, so none of them really stood out in a year when only four quarterbacks threw more touchdowns than picks.
Moving to those QBs, Cleveland Browns star Otto Graham had an amazing season in leading his team to its East Division title with an 11-1 record. Graham posted a 99.7 QB rating while throwing 11 TDs and 9 INTs. What made his QBR so great was his completion percentage (64.7) and his yards-per-attempt mark (10.6).
No other QB in the NFL during the regular season completed more than 57.5% of his passes, and no other QB managed more than 8.4 yards per attempt. Graham was head and shoulders above the rest, leading the best team in the league to another NFL Championship Game—although Cleveland did not win it, facing the Detroit Lions.
In the rushing category, San Francisco 49ers fullback Joe Perry led the league with 1,018 yards and 10 rushing TDs. His per-carry average (5.3 yards) was fourth best. But he also fumbled eight times, which was the fourth-worst total in the league.
It’s hard to overlook those turnovers, as we discussed the last two seasons with Los Angeles Rams FB Dan Towler. Incidentally, Towler had another good season, finishing second in yards gained (879), second in yards per attempt (5.8), third in TDs (7)—and eighth in fumbles (6).
For receivers, Philadelphia Eagles wideout Pete Pihos had a superb season, leading the NFL in receptions (63), receiving yards (1,049), and receiving TDs (10). He also was tenth in yards per catch (16.7), so overall, he was the best pass catcher in the league during the 1953 season. And Pihos didn’t fumble once, either.
A quick gander at the standings shows us the 49ers went 9-3 to finish one game behind the Lions in the West Division, while the Eagles finished 3.5 games behind the Browns in the East. Second-place finishes add value to the statistics above, of course.
Contextually, three different Browns backs combined for 1,009 yards on the ground, meaning Graham had some support in the running game. Meanwhile, San Francisco QB Y.A. Tittle finished second among passers with an 84.1 rating (tied with Norm Van Brocklin of the Rams), so both runners above had solid support, too. The Eagles also had a three-pronged running attack, with a trio combining for 1,104 yards.
Thus, no candidate for the MVP above did it all by himself. We face a quandary here, certainly, as Approximate Value (AV) sabermetric ratings aren’t available for the 1950s: We’re on our own here in looking for a distinct MVP candidate.
To us, it does come down to Graham and Pihos, as Graham’s QB rating was the highest in the NFL since 1945 when Sammy Baugh posted a 109.9 rating for the Washington Redskins.
However, Pihos basically won the “Triple Crown” for receivers in 1953, and that stands out to us more, considering Graham’s season wasn’t really historic, per se. Don Hutson pulled off the trick five times from 1936-1944, as did Elroy Hirsch in 1951—and Hirsch was our MVP pick, for historic reasons, though. No wideout would do it again until 1959.
[Perry also pulled off a “Triple Crown” for runners, as also led the league in rushing attempts. However, his turnover issue drops him in value when we consider that Pihos didn’t fumble once the entire season.]
That makes is easier for us to name Pihos our MVP for the 1953 season.