Towler was something close to unstoppable in 1951, averaging an incredible 6.78 yards per rush attempt that season. Only Beattie Feathers of the 1934 Bears
produced a higher average...
—Kerry J. Byrne, Author and Sportswriter
—Red Hickey, Long Time NFL Player, Coach, Scout (1941 – 1986)
— Kerry J. Byrne
What do you know about former L.A. Rams star Dan Towler? Not much, right? Hell, neither did we. We certainly heard of him. Former CHFF contributor Mike Carlson wrote a great piece about those old Rams teams a few years back. But we didn't realize that Towler was such a fascinating statistical case study – a bright, shining star who lit up the NFL for an oh-so-brief but spectacular three-year period unlike any before or since.
While you were getting ready over a red-hot weekend for the big holiday ahead, the sad, sorry souls of Cold, Hard Football Facts were doing what we do best: churning data in a dark lonely room, with our sole source of physical comfort warm bottles of 33 Lager and a World War II era ceiling fan rattling overhead.
Hey, it’s not a great life. But it is our life. And just for off-season kicks and giggles, we wanted to take a look at one of our pet issues from another point of view: the unbearable lightness of the running game.
We ran a list this weekend of the most effective individual rushing seasons in history, those ball carriers who posted the highest average per rush attempt over the course of an entire campaign (min. 100 attempts).
We imagined the numbers would show us that precious few of the most effective rushing seasons in history translated to team-wide success. After all, the NFL is a passing league. And, more importantly, it’s always been a passing league.
Here are the high-level findings:
So those findings support what we expected. A great running back rarely equates to great team success.
But it was the name Towler that really leaped off the list at us.
Only two players appeared in the list of top 30 most effective rushing seasons three different times: the amazing Jim Brown, who you already know as probably the greatest football player of all time; and Dan Towler, a name that few football fans today recognize. "Deacon Dan" became a preacher in later life and studied for the ministry at USC during his playing days with the Rams. He played just six seasons in the NFL (1950-55).
And, for a three-year period in the early 1950s, Towler was the closest thing the NFL has ever produced to an unstoppable ball carrier. Here is his production over the three seasons from 1951 to 1953:
That is incredible production, especially back in the 12-game-season era. Keep in mind, as stated above, that only 15 running backs in history averaged 6.0+ YPA over the course of an entire season.
Towler averaged more than 6.0 YPA over the course of three straight seasons, though actually topped that mark in the first of the three seasons.
But here’s the compelling part: in a sport where teams are carried to success by their quarterbacks, you could argue Towler is the closest thing the NFL has ever seen to a running back who carried his team to a championship.
Of the 31 players on our list, only two were so prolific for NFL champions: Marion Motley of the 1950 Browns and Towler of the 1951 Rams. In fact, they faced each other in consecutive NFL title games, splitting the two encounters.
Towler was something close to unstoppable in 1951, averaging an incredible 6.78 yards per rush attempt that season. Only Beattie Feathers of the 1934 Bears produced a higher average. (By the way, Feathers' 8.44 YPA for the 13-0 Bears was so anomalous it's really too bad they don't have the game film. It's almost unfathomable that a guy could produce so high an average.)
Granted, Towler played with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks that year: Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. Those two QBs combined to lead the NFL in passer rating three straight years from 1950 to 1952. And all CHFF readers know that passing efficiency is the singular key to championship success in the NFL.
But no running back in NFL history ran so dominantly – and ran so dominantly for an NFL champion. Even Jim Brown, in his lone championship season of 1964, averaged a relatively meager 5.16 YPA
There’s a lot more to glean from this list in the days ahead. Most notably, it's virtually impossible to produce a killer average as the featured guy over the long haul of an NFL season. Only Brown and Barry Sanders topped 250 carries and 5.67 YPA in a season, each of them doing it twice. But more on that finding and other facts and figures in the days ahead.
Towler was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1950. Towler moved to Los Angeles, and while starting his football career, he continued his education at the University of Southern California (USC) and pursued a master's degree in theology. Nicknamed "Deacon Dan" because he would lead the Rams in their pregame prayer, Towler, along with Paul "Tank" Younger and Dick Hoerner, would form the famed "Bull Elephant" backfield that featured three runners that weighed 225-pounds-plus. Combined with quarterbacks Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin and receivers Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch and Tom Fears, they were an electrifying running and passing team. That year, the Rams lost to the Cleveland Browns in the World Championship - the precursor to today's Super Bowls.
The next year, the Rams won the 1951 World Championship after Towler scored the game winning touchdown. In 1952, Towler led the NFL in touchdowns (10), yards (894) and was the Pro Bowl MVP. In 1953, Towler actually appeared in the movie "Crazylegs" about the life and career of teammate Elroy Hirsch. In 1954, Towler again led the NFL in touchdowns (11). Towler was All-Pro from 1951 to 1953. Regardless of how successful Towler was in football, he always considered himself to be a full-time student and part-time football player. After six seasons, 3,493 yards for a 5.2 average and scoring 43 touchdowns.
Towler abruptly ended his football career in 1955 to become a Methodist minister. Towler would continue his education (earning a PhD in education) and involvement in the Los Angeles community. Deacon Dan would go on to serve 26 years and was a six-term president of the Los Angeles County Board of Education. He also headed the Dan Towler Foundation, which helped needy students. At the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Deacon Dan is recognized on the Scroll of Achievement with two other players who made contributions beyond the playing field. Deacon Dan Towler died in 2001.
After numerous college offers, Towler enrolled at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania due to his early interest in the ministry and would continue to excel in football and track. In his junior year, he led the nation in scoring and became Little All-American. He also played linebacker on defense. In track, Towler ran a 9.9 second 100-yard dash and threw the shot put. Aside from sports, Towler also excelled in the classroom and graduated cum laude.
Dan L. Towler - class of 1946 - born in Donora in 1928, Daniel Lee Towler was a four sport athlete that helped propel the Donora powerhouse teams of the 1940's to legendary status, along with other notables such as: coach Jimmy Russell, and players: Arnold "Pope" Galiffa, Roscoe "The Rambler" Ross, and Lou "Bimbo" Cecconi. Towler was an all-state fullback who led Donora to Western Pennsylvania titles in 1944 and 1945. The 1944 team outscored their opponents 324 to 42 with 4 shutouts. The 1945 team outscored their opponents 297 to 13 with 8 shutouts. Those undefeated teams were also considered among the top teams in the country and are still considered to be the best to ever play in Pennsylvania. Towler scored 24 touchdowns his senior year.