NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Alley Oop Is Born

06 Jan

It’s the final week of the NFL regular season, which is a sad time for me since it means the final Throwback Thursday feature of the season. Two old western rivals, the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, close out the year with a game against each other. For the final TBT post of 2021, we’ll look back on a game from October 6, 1957 played between these 2 clubs that became the birthplace of a play from those early years of the NFL, the “Alley Oop” pass. Both the Rams and 49ers boasted exciting offensive clubs in the 1950s. The Rams featured a future Hall of Fame coach in Sid Gillman and a pair of Hall of Famers in Norm Van Brocklin and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, while San Fran’s attack came courtesy of their “Million Dollar Backfield” combination of QB Y.A. Tittle, halfbacks Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry and fullback John Henry Johnson, all future Hall of Famers.

Despite already being the first week of October, this was only the second game of the season for these California rivals. The NFL played a 12 game schedule in those days, and the season started later. The 49ers were coming off an opening week loss while the Rams had won their first game. Rams’ running back Tommy Wilson quieted the boisterous Kezar Stadium crowd with a 21 yard touchdown run, the only scoring in the first quarter. San Francisco grabbed the momentum back when they pinned the Rams on their own goal line, and Leo Nomellini burst through and tackled Wilson in the end zone for a safety. Tittle then took charge, leading a pair of scoring drives which he topped off with touchdown throws of 23 yards to Billy Wilson and 46 yards to R.C. Owens, his favorite target. That gave the Niners a 16-7 halftime lead, but Tittle and the offense went cold in the second half. Van Brocklin, the proud warrior, connected with Leon Clarke on a 70 yard touchdown bomb, and while the San Francisco offense continued to sputter, the Rams added a pair of Paige Cothren field goals to open up a 20-16 lead.

49er coach Frankie Albert, in an attempt to light a fire under his struggling offense, decided to attempt a trick play when Tittle drove the club into the red zone as the game clock wound down. It had been dubbed the “Alley Oop” pass, and it entailed Owens running to a spot in the end zone and Tittle lofting the ball high to a spot where the athletic Owens would outleap any defender and come down with a completion. The play worked, as Owens snagged the pass for an 11 yard game-winning touchdown in a 23-20 49er win.


R.C. Owens demonstrates the “Alley Oop” at practice


In today’s NFL, that play is commonplace and known as “high-pointing” the ball or perhaps as the “back shoulder” throw, or “Hail Mary” pass. Tall, athletic receivers and tight ends are all used as “red zone” targets, plus today’s players are making amazing athletic plays every week. But in 1957, the play was a big deal. It was named after a comic strip caveman of that name and of that era. There was also a novelty pop song about the caveman, recorded by The Hollywood Argyles, being played on pop radio stations at the time. The term has long vanished from football jargon today, but is still used in basketball to define an above-the-rim pass to a teammate to set up a dunk. Owens made enough of an impression in San Francisco to earn a place in the team’s Hall of Fame, and he also can make a claim to fame for changing the rules of the game. He used his jumping abilities in a game once to bat away a field goal attempt by leaping up over the crossbar and knocking it away. The NFL outlawed “goaltending” the next season.


Alley Oop, the cartoon caveman

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