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He was just as good a coach in 1949 as he had been in 1948, but we got off to a miserable start—why, I don't honestly know. Sometimes you are snakebit and there is nothing you can do about it, and it was that kind of year.
That was the year the split T was big, and when Cecil was fired, Walter Driskill, who had been general manager, was made head coach. He had coached with Jim Tatum at Oklahoma and believed in the split T, and I was in almost the same position I was to be in later at San Francisco. I was not a split T quarterback. For that reason the coach did not think much of me, and I sat on the bench.
The next year and a half nearly destroyed all the confidence Isbell had instilled in me. We did not get any better under Driskill than we had been under Isbell. There is only a narrow gap between a good football club and a bad one, and a new coach very often widens that gap instead of closing it. He reshuffles personnel, installs new systems and different ideas and it takes a long time for a club to recover its balance. Then failure stamps failure on your mind and you begin to expect to lose.
When the old All-America Conference went under between the 1949 and the 1950 seasons and Baltimore was taken into the NFL, we became a swing team playing an impossible schedule. Instead of playing home-and-home schedules in our own division, we played every club in each division once.
This, of course, posed a very tough problem, since you faced a new team each week and had to study new defenses. Except for San Francisco's and Cleveland's these were completely new to us. We had never seen any NFL club on the field before.
You could expect us to be bad under the circumstances, and we were. Then the Colts dissolved, and I was thrown into the draft and picked by the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the 1950 season. I was happy to be with a team that had a chance to win the title.
It might seem funny for a quarterback to feel good about going to a club with an established quarterback like San Francisco's Frank Albert, but I didn't mind. Originally I had been drafted by Cleveland, but before I could worry much about competing with Otto Graham for a job I was sent to Baltimore in a league move to help out the weak sisters. The situation was a little different in San Francisco. Frank Albert was the heart of the 49ers, but he was older than I was, and Tony Morabito, who was the owner of the team, had assured me that I would get a chance to play. Tony was an honest and forthright man and I trusted him. I was right to do so.
I played a little in my first year with the 49ers—not as much as I would have liked to. It was a little tough to learn the offense, since Buck Shaw was as relaxed a coach as I have ever seen. We went out to practice my first afternoon with the club and Buck said, "O.K., fellows, let's run some plays." I didn't know any plays because I hadn't been given any. I found out that the 49ers played football for fun and often Albert would invent plays in the huddle. When he felt like it he would pull Leo Nomellini. the All-Pro 250-pound tackle, out of the line and let him carry the ball from fullback on a play he called 31 Nomo. Nomo got murdered, but he liked it and it relaxed the club.
I learned a lot from Albert. I can't say he was friendly to me when I joined the club; it's funny, but the older you get as a player the less friendly you are to the rookies coming up at your position. Albert and I have been good friends since we left the 49ers, but we weren't then.
What I learned from Frank I learned unbeknownst to him and, I guess, unbeknownst to me at the time. For Frank, football was completely a game of feeling. Defenses were less complicated in 1951 than they are these days. Most clubs played the old Eagle defense, with a five-man line. They might slant one way or another or use a red dog, but they were basically the same. That was when I found out that football does not really have to be complicated. Frank never bothered much about the defenses. He ran the club emotionally. The game was himself. He made the club feel the way he felt and he did things from instinct, not frequency charts. I am not saying you could play it that way today, but I am sure Albert would be a great quarterback today, no matter how the defenses were rigged.