Five weeks into our sports-history focus with another edition of NFL Thursdays, and this time it’s the 1954 NFL MVP award to analyze. We laid out our process here, from the start, let’s get right to it.
1954 NFL MVP: A standout player carries a bad team to a good season
A quick glance at the leaders in interceptions for this season shows us both Tom Landry and Don Shula in the Top 20—and Dick Lane at the top of the league again, this time with 10 INTs for the Chicago Cardinals. That’s an interesting group right there.
But we digress …
Seven of the NFL’s 12 teams in 1954 finished above .500, making for a more potentially competitive discussion for the MVP Award. With no defensive standouts, however, we will be focusing on the offensive guys, and we always start with the quarterbacks.
Only three QBs threw more touchdowns than picks this season, and no one separated himself via QB rating. The Cleveland Browns won the East Division with a 9-3 record and then blitzed the Detroit Lions in the championship game, 56-10, but their QB—Otto Graham—threw just 11 TDs in the regular season while getting picked off 17 times. Doh!
On to the runners, since there is no distinguished passer in the bunch this time around. The two top running backs in the league both played for the also-ran San Francisco 49ers, a team that finished 7-4-1, two games behind the Lions in the West Division.
Joe “The Jet” Perry led the league by a huge margin in yards (1,049), while also leading the NFL in carries (173), posted the second-best average per carry (6.1 yards) and finishing third in rushing TDs (8). His teammate, John Henry Johnson, was second in yards (681) as the two backs combined for 302 carries in the regular season—with 11 combined fumbles, including six by Perry.
Throw in Hugh McElhenny, the 49ers third back, and the S.F. offense ran the ball with this trio 366 times for 2,245 yards! That’s 6.1 yards per carry … how did the 49ers ever lose? Well, 15 fumbles from these guys probably didn’t help. But San Francisco lost two games by a combined 8 points and had a tie, so that cost the 49ers a chance at the title.
While receivers Pete Pihos, the 1953 MVP here, and the 49ers’ Billy Wilson led the league with 60 receptions each, Chicago Bears receiver Harlon Hill led the NFL with 12 TD catches while also averaging a league-best 25.0 yards per catch. His yardage total (1,124) was second in the league. He did this for an 8-4 team that finished second in the West Division—and with two different QBs, too, one of whom completed less than 50 percent of his passes.
Look at the situation: George Blanda started seven games for Chicago, throwing 15 TDs and 17 INTs, while Zeke Bratkowski started the other five games, tossing 8 TDs and 17 INTs as well. That’s 34 picks thrown by these two guys, and while Bratkowski did complete 51.5 percent of his throws (somehow), Blanda completed just 46.6 percent of his passes.
Combined, these two QBs threw for 34 picks while completing just 48.2 percent of their attempts. Those are brutal stats, and yet somehow, Hill still managed to put up monster numbers for a team that finished in second place behind the defending NFL champs. Oh, and he never fumbled the ball once, either.
[If Hill’s name is familiar to you, it’s probably because the NCAA Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy is named after him: He played college football at a very small school, Florence State Teachers College, now known as the University of North Alabama.]
It was an incredible season for the Bears receiver—especially on a Chicago team featuring a top runner that averaged just 3.2 yards per carry while fumbling 12 times (Chick Jagade). That’s why Hill is the 1954 NFL MVP, because there’s no one else on the Bears offense that contributed much to an 8-win season.