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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Steelers - The 1950's (1950-1959)

The decade’s winning percentage crawled towards .500, but no playoff appearances. The game changed to feature more passing, and the defenses responded to this; but not so much in Pittsburgh, where the coaching staffs clung to ‘old style’ football, to predictably poor results.

Tag Line – The best yet: but still not very good.
54-63-3 (.450 pct)
Winning Seasons: 2/10
.500 Seasons: 3/10
Playoffs: 0 seasons


Buddy Parker
A combined 13-9-2 in the final two years of the decade: the only winning seasons in the fifties. On the one hand, a little bit of hope. On the other, eight painful years with a total record of 41-54-1. Quarterback Bobby Layne and head coach Buddy Parker gave the Steelers an identity of tough football, though history largely recalls them as hard drinking good old boys. Things unraveled after Jock Sutherland’s unexpected death and the team couldn’t get on track. Parker is a bit of a legendary Steelers character from the 'old' days. He seemed to fight with everybody from the ball boy up through the NFL Commissioner


THE SIGNAL CALLERS - Regarding Steelers QBs, the 1950s was quite an interesting decade. Jim Finks was at the helm for four seasons and set team records for passing as Pittsburgh grudgingly opened up the offense. Finks went on to a long career as an NFL executive. While in Minnesota, he traded away Fran Tarkenton and then traded back for him. He put together the 1985 (Super Bowl Shuffle) Bears and he was in New Orleans for that team’s first ever winning season.
He was replaced for one season in Pittsburgh by Ted Marchibroda. A successful NFL coach, Marchibroda would lead the Colts during the Bert Jones days. Jones was a really good QB in the late seventies. Marchibroda returned to Baltimore and was at the helm for Jim Harbaugh’s hail mary at the end of the 1996 AFC title game in Pittsburgh.
Next up was Earl Morrall. Morrall took over for an injured Bob Griese in 1972 and actually won more games than Griese did en route to the Dolphins’ perfect season. But he had a bad game in the AFC Championship game (a 21-17 win over the Steelers) and Griese got the nod for the Super Bowl start. Morrall may be best known as the losing QB when Joe Namath led the Jets to the biggest upset in NFL history in Super Bowl III.
Layne in action against the New York Giants
Then, it was Bobby Layne, who would go into the Hall of Fame for his earlier work with the Detroit Lions. For his combination of play and leadership, Layne was probably the greatest Steelers QB until Bradshaw. Lions fans still criticize the team for trading Layne and believe it caused a curse in effect today. There are three more notable quarterbacks I’ll mention below.

THE CHIEF CALLS A PLAY - Pittsburgh refused to shift to a passing mode, at one point starting every game with a run up the middle by Fran Rogel. Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, sitting in the press box, would sing “Hi diddle diddle, Rogel up the middle’ before the Steelers’ opening play of every game.

Art Rooney got so frustrated that he ordered Walt Kiesling to call a pass play to start one game. This was the only time he sent in a play. Grudgingly, the coach followed suit. It was an 80 yard TD! But the Steelers were called for off sides, the ball came back, and Rogel ran up the middle for one yard on the next play. Kiesling said to Rooney, “I told you it wouldn’t work.” That’s typical of how the Steelers crawled through the fifties, conceding progress in the game inch by inch.
TWO STARS ON D - The best player of the decade was defensive tackle Ernie Stautner, who spent his entire 13 year career as a Steeler. He was a nine time pro bowler, missed only six games and entered the Hall of Fame as a 100% Steeler. Stautner went on to a long coaching career, including serving as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator for sixteen years.


Jack Butler was a pro bowler every year from 1951 through 1959 and intercepted fifty-two passes in his career, including four in one game. Butler and Stautner would have fit right in on the great Steelers defenses of the seventies.
SUMMARY – Record-wise, Steeler fans didn’t have much to cheer for, but that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Layne (who did not wear a facemask) is remembered as one of the toughest, hardest playing QBs of all time. And stars like receiver Elbie Nickel, all around offensive threat Lynn Chandnois and defensive lineman Big Daddy Lipscomb were top flight NFL players. But the team just couldn’t put it all together for an entire season. 

TRIVIA – Man. It’s not too tough to single out the WORST personnel move in team history. Johnny Unitas was a high school legend in Pittsburgh before going on to play his college ball at Louisville, having a rather undistinguished career there. The Steelers took him in the ninth round of the 1955 draft. And they CUT him in camp. Walt Kiesling (remember him?) didn’t like Unitas, saying he was ‘too dumb.’ The entire summer and training camp, Kiesling didn’t let Unitas take a single snap in practice. JOHNNY UNITAS!!! The Rooney siblings all liked Unitas, but Art’s standard practice was to let his coaches make their own decisions. So even though Art Rooney thought that Unitas had potential, he backed Keisling.



Johnny U. took a construction job, then worked in a steel mill to feed his family and played semi-pro ball on weekends. In Pittsburgh. Not far from Forbes Field, where the Steelers were struggling. Seriously. Unitas got a last minute offer to try out for the Colts in 1956 and went on to become arguably the greatest QB in NFL history. The losing Steelers certainly couldn’t have used a guy like that now, could they?
The fledgling AFL gave NFL
backups like Len Dawson a
chance to shine
In 1957, they snagged Len Dawson, from Purdue with a first round pick. In three seasons he threw 17 passes, they cut him and he went on to the Hall of Fame as a Kansas City Chief. The Steelers drafted and cut TWO Hall of Fame QBs in an era when they stank. Lovely. And the very next pick after Dawson: some fellow named Jim Brown.


Ditto for Jack Kemp









And as if that weren't enough, in 1957, future Hall of Famer and presidential candidate Jack Kemp rode the bench in Pittsburgh. Yeesh!




13 comments:

  1. The 50s teams were better than most people think. They had two of the best halfbacks in the NFL. But the coaches were not the best. In 1954 they drafted Johnny Lattner of Notre Dame. Instead of rotating Lattner and Chandnois at right halfback coach Keisling should have used all three. Mathews at end and Lattner at left halfback, Chandnois at right halfback. But coach Keisling was more interested in trying to force Chandnois of the team. That was a huge mistake. With a coach like him it is no wonder they couldn't win games.

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  2. The late Mr. Lynn Chandnois could have helped the 54 Steelers if the coach wasn't so bent on cutting him. Only Art Rooney wouldn't let him. With Chandnois and Lattner as halfbacks and Ray Mathews as a wide receiver, things might have been different. Not like "Hi diddle diddle Rogel up the middle.

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  3. Incredible to think that nepotism was what turned it around for the Steelers! I came by my love for the Black and Gold through my Dad, who began following them back in the 1970's. The Super Bowls are great, but in order for anyone to properly appreciate their team, you've got to know their history thoroughly and that includes the losing. Many people today would have applauded Art Rooney Sr. for not tinkering (meddling) with the on-field decisions of his team, but I'm sure that the Steelers would have been better off having Rooney's sons handle things and sooner (when they drafted Abner Haynes in 1960, it would have been a better call to send them to speak to their prospect, instead of Buddy Parker and Bobby Layne, who came knocking on Haynes' door VERY early in the morning, both of them VERY s***faced). Great article about this era!

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  4. Lynn Chandnois came back in 1955 to average 120 all purpose yards a game. Coach Keisling then stated " I don't know what's got into that boy {Chandnois} but he's really playing much better this year. Maybe Keisling couldn't figure out that it was himself that messed Chandnois up by platooning him with rookie Johnny Lattner. Mr. Chandnois had a great year in 1953, in fact one of his best. But Keisling was not a good coach. So he messed up the 1954 season all by himself.

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  5. In 1955 Lynn Chandnois was having a really good year, in fact he probably would have been very high on the leaderboard in a number of categories. The reason he wasn't was because he only played in 8 games that year. As it has been said he was averaging 120 all purpose yards a game. But he injured a knee and missed the last four games that year. Many people think of him only as a return man. But he was a very versatile player. Runing, receiving and returning both punts and kickoffs. I know becuse I saw him play a number of times. And I also have 3 Steeler Highlight DVD's. Two of his best years 1952 and 1953 along with 1954 which was not a good year for him.

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  6. Walt Keisling was not a very good coach !

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  7. William B. SenterMarch 15, 2013 at 4:57 PM

    Amen to that statement !!

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  8. If your 1950's Steelers were that awful, then why did you follow them anyway? - a bit like "hind-sight bringin' things into focus".
    I enjoyed early Dallas Cowboys, they were pathetic but loved to see 'em lose and loved to see 'em win ( - ahh, they did much more of the former, but they also punched that ex-Giant Lombardi and his old fart stars in their chops, and that meant something down in Texas).

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  9. To prove Walt Keisling was not a very good coach here's what he did in 1955. It was Keisling who cut Johnny Unitas. He didn't play Unitas in a single pre-season game that year. And he wanted to get rid of Lynn Chandnois, one of the Steelers two best halfbacks. Ray Mathews was the other. He didn't think Johnny U. was very smart. Steelers from that era have said Keisling didn't know much about the straight T offense, he was a Single Wing man. Well that's why the Steelers were the last NFL team to switch to the T. In fact it was Joe Bach who put the T into the Steelers offense, When Keisling became coach he really didn't know what kind of plays to send in or how to use the people he had on his team. But he did know the "Hi diddle, diddle", play because that's what he opened every game with. The fullback up the middle. Johnny U. probably thought how dumb is that.

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  10. To prove Walt Keisling was not a very good coach here's what he did in 1955. It was Keisling who cut Johnny Unitas. He didn't play Unitas in a single pre-season game that year. And he wanted to get rid of Lynn Chandnois, one of the Steelers two best halfbacks. Ray Mathews was the other. He didn't think Johnny U. was very smart. Steelers from that era have said Keisling didn't know much about the straight T offense, he was a Single Wing man. Well that's why the Steelers were the last NFL team to switch to the T. In fact it was Joe Bach who put the T into the Steelers offense, When Keisling became coach he really didn't know what kind of plays to send in or how to use the people he had on his team. But he did know the "Hi diddle, diddle", play because that's what he opened every game with. The fullback up the middle. Johnny U. probably thought how dumb is that.

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  11. To prove Walt Keisling was not a very good coach here's what he did in 1955. It was Keisling who cut Johnny Unitas. He didn't play Unitas in a single pre-season game that year. And he wanted to get rid of Lynn Chandnois, one of the Steelers two best halfbacks. Ray Mathews was the other. He didn't think Johnny U. was very smart. Steelers from that era have said Keisling didn't know much about the straight T offense, he was a Single Wing man. Well that's why the Steelers were the last NFL team to switch to the T. In fact it was Joe Bach who put the T into the Steelers offense, When Keisling became coach he really didn't know what kind of plays to send in or how to use the people he had on his team. But he did know the "Hi diddle, diddle", play because that's what he opened every game with. The fullback up the middle. Johnny U. probably thought how dumb is that.

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  12. The names of these players entered my mind due to the Bowman football trading cards of 1955. Thanks for bringing these players to life and unfortunately unknown to them at the time, they were painstakingly laying the foundation for the modern Steelers and their Super Bowl successes. The foundation of Chandnois, Mathews, Finks, Rogel, Marchibroda, Elbie Nickel and all the rest. Check out the 1955 Bowman football trading cards some time. These players are all in there.

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