The All-America Football Conference (AAFC) was a professional American football league that
challenged the established National Football League (NFL) from 1946 to 1949. One of the
NFL's most formidable challengers, the AAFC attracted many of the nation's best players,
and introduced many lasting innovations to the game. However, the AAFC was ultimately
unable to sustain itself in competition with the NFL. Three of its teams were admitted to
the NFL: San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts (not related to the
later NFL team that would play in Baltimore from 1953 through 1983, now the Indianapolis
The AAFC was the second American professional sports league (the first being the third
American Football League) to have its teams play in a double round robin format in the
regular season: each team had a home game and an away game with each of its AAFC
The Cleveland Browns were the AAFC's most successful club, having won every annual
championship in the league's four years of operation.
The AAFC was founded by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward on June 4, 1944. Ward was
also the originator of baseball’s All-Star Game and football’s College All-Star Game.
Ward brought together a number of wealthy pro football enthusiasts, some of whom had
previously attempted to purchase NFL franchises. Ward had previously encouraged the NFL to
expand, but now he hoped to bring about a permanent second league and a championship game
with the NFL, similar to baseball’s World Series.
On November 21, 1944, the AAFC chose Jim Crowley, one of the "Four Horsemen of Notre Dame",
as its commissioner. Not coincidentally, the NFL commissioner at this time was Elmer
Layden, another of Knute Rockne's legendary 1924 backfield.
During the next months, the AAFC’s plans solidified. The league initially issued franchises
for Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Brooklyn and
Miami were later added. A group representing Baltimore was considered for admission, but
could not secure a stadium. The league planned to begin play in 1945, but postponed its
opening for a year as World War II still raged.
As the eight franchises built their teams, no move was more far-reaching than Cleveland's
choice of Paul Brown as its head coach. Brown had won six Ohio state championships in nine
years at Massillon High School and the 1942 national championship at Ohio State, and had
also coached successfully at the military’s Great Lakes Naval Station. In Cleveland, Brown
would emerge as one of the game's greatest innovators.
For 1946, the AAFC began play with 8 teams playing a record 14 games.
Eastern DivisionWestern Division New York Yankees (Yankee Stadium) Cleveland Browns (Municipal Stadium)
Brooklyn Dodgers (Ebbets Field) Chicago Rockets (Soldier Field)
Buffalo Bisons (Civic Stadium) Los Angeles Dons (Los Angeles Coliseum)
Miami Seahawks (Burdine Stadium) San Francisco 49ers (Kezar Stadium)
In the AAFC's first game, on September 6, 1946, the Cleveland Browns hosted the Miami
Seahawks, winning 44-0 before a pro record crowd of more than 60,000 fans. This historic
game would prove a microcosm of much about the league:
* Largely thanks to Paul Brown's innovations in organization and coaching, the
Browns were on their way to setting a new standard of pro football excellence.
* Other teams would have significant problems, but the Seahawks would become the AAFC’s
biggest fiasco. The Seahawks saw two games postponed by hurricanes, never drew more than
10,000, finished last, ran up $80,000 in unpaid debts, and were ejected from the league
after the season.
* The crowd was the first of many large gates that the AAFC’s most popular teams
(Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York) would attract, surpassing the NFL.
* The score, however, was the first sign of the AAFC’s greatest problem. The league
would have a wide gap between its best and worst teams, and its standings would be
remarkably consistent from year to year.
* Finally, this game marked the end of pro football’s color line. The Browns' Marion
Motley and Bill Willis, both future Hall of Famers, became the first black players to play
pro football since 1933. (The NFL Rams, who had also signed two black players, UCLA great
Kenny Washington and future actor Woody Strode, opened several weeks later.) Notably, this
was before Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as Robinson was then playing
for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' top farm team. In coming years, the AAFC would tap
this talent pool more than the NFL, with 20 black players compared with the NFL’s 7 in
Other than New York, all of the quality teams were in the Western Division. In the West,
Cleveland led with a 12-2 record, three games ahead of San Francisco, followed by Los
Angeles and Chicago. In the East, New York was the only team to win more than three games,
finishing 10-3-1. Brooklyn and Buffalo were seven games behind, followed by Miami. Despite
Brooklyn's record, its tailback Glenn Dobbs led the league in passing and was named the
The title game was a tight affair, with the Browns coming from behind late in the fourth
quarter to defeat the Yankees 14-9.
The Chicago Rockets had experienced some disorganization in 1946. In a remarkable move,
Commissioner Crowley (a successful former college coach) gave up a five-year contract to
become their part-owner and coach. Admiral Jonas H. Ingram was named to replace him as
To replace the Seahawks, the Baltimore group turned down in 1945 was issued a franchise.
The new Baltimore Colts would play in Municipal Stadium. Meanwhile, the Bisons were renamed
the Bills and the NFL added a 12th game to its schedule.
The AAFC enjoyed its most successful season in 1947. Some notable guests watched the
Browns' opening game: the entire coaching staff of the 1946 NFL champion Chicago Bears. In
other highlights, a Yankees-Dons game in the Los Angeles Coliseum drew a pro record of more
than 82,000, and division leaders New York and Cleveland locked horns on November 23 in the
most famous game in AAFC history. Before more than 70,000 fans at Yankee Stadium, the
Browns rallied from a 28-0 deficit to tie 28-28.
New York won the East with an 11-2-1 record, 2 1/2 games ahead of Buffalo, with Brooklyn
and Baltimore far back. Cleveland, led by MVP quarterback Otto Graham, won the West with a
12-1-1 record, 3 1/2 games ahead of San Francisco. Los Angeles followed, and Chicago was
last at 1-13. Former Commissioner Crowley would not return either as coach or owner.
The title game was a defensive struggle, with the Browns again defeating the Yankees, 14-3.
Although 1947 had been a successful season for the AAFC in many respects, the league still
lost money. In 1948, attendance in both leagues declined, and negotiations to end the war
One factor affecting AAFC attendance was the gap between the league’s best and worst teams.
To counter this, Commissioner Ingram attempted to get the strongest teams to distribute
some players to the weakest. He was modestly successful: the Browns sent rookie quarterback
Y. A. Tittle to the Colts, who enjoyed their first good season, and the Yankees were
generous enough to fall into mediocrity. However, 1948 featured extremes despite Ingram’s
For the first time, the division races were close. One featured excellence, the other
In the West, San Francisco and Cleveland both remained undefeated far into the season. On
November 14, nearly 83,000 (a record) in Cleveland Municipal Stadium watched the 9-0 Browns
win a 14-7 defensive struggle over the 10-0 49ers. They met again two weeks later in San
Francisco, with the Browns now 12-0 and the 49ers 11-1. The Browns again won narrowly, this
time 31-28, clinching first place.
Cleveland won the title in a predictable rout, 49-7. With pro football's second perfect
season (after the 1937 Los Angeles Bulldogs of the second American Football League) and an
18-game winning streak and a 29-game unbeaten streak in progress, the Browns were making
history. Since then, only the 1972 Miami Dolphins team managed to win its league
championship with an unblemished record. The Pro Football Hall of Fame recognizes the
Browns' latter streak as the longest in the history of professional football.
The war was getting increasingly costly thanks to rising salaries and dropping attendance.
Nearly every team in both leagues lost money - enough that in December, the NFL officially
acknowledged the AAFC as peace talks almost succeeded in ending the war. However, the AAFC
wanted the NFL to admit four of its teams, while the NFL was willing to admit only the
Browns and 49ers. Although the survival of its Brooklyn and Chicago teams was now in doubt,
the AAFC decided to continue the fight.
As the war entered its fourth season, financial problems forced reorganization in both
leagues. Meanwhile, the Dodgers, the AAFC's least-drawing team, merged with the Yankees.
The Rockets (renamed the Hornets) and Colts continued their streaks of annual ownership
With the AAFC now down to 7 teams, it realigned into one division, reduced its schedule to
12 games. Also, for the first time in pro football, playoff home-field advantage would be
based on win-loss record rather than rotating between divisions.
New Alignment Brooklyn-New York Yankees (Yankee Stadium)
Buffalo Bills (Civic Stadium)
Baltimore Colts (Municipal Stadium)
Cleveland Browns (Municipal Stadium)
Chicago Hornets (Soldier Field)
Los Angeles Dons (Los Angeles Coliseum)
San Francisco 49ers (Kezar Stadium)
Red ink on both sides continued to flow. Los Angeles Dons owner Ben Lindheimer was
subsidizing the Colts and Hornets. Now facing two cross-town rivals, the Bulldogs
predictably had even lower attendance in New York than in Boston. The Pittsburgh Steelers
and Detroit Lions were also having serious financial problems.
On the field, Cleveland finally showed some vulnerability. An opening day tie with the
Bills ended their winning streak, and on October 9 the 49ers ended their unbeaten streak in
a 56-28 upset to move into first place.
Things soon reverted to the AAFC norm, however. The Browns won the rematch with the 49ers,
30-28, and Cleveland (9-1-2) and San Francisco (9-3) finished one-two for the fourth
consecutive year. Brooklyn-New York and Buffalo were the other playoff qualifiers, followed
by Chicago and Los Angeles. Baltimore finished far behind at 1-11.
In playoff action, Cleveland defeated Buffalo 31-21 and San Francisco defeated Brooklyn-New
York 17-7. The two best teams in AAFC history met at last with the title at stake, with the
Browns winning the final title, 21-7. No MVP was named for this season.
The Browns now owned a 52-4-3 record and all four AAFC titles.
On December 9, 1949, two days before the AAFC title game, the two leagues made peace. Three
AAFC teams were admitted to the NFL: the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and
Baltimore Colts. The Buffalo Bills, Brooklyn-New York Yankees, Chicago Hornets, and Los
Angeles Dons folded. The enlarged league was renamed the National-American Football League.
The Browns and 49ers, as the AAFC's two strongest teams, were obvious choices. The third
choice was the subject of some debate.
There was some sentiment to admit the Bills rather than the Colts, as the Bills had better
attendance and the better team. However, Buffalo's size (only Green Bay was smaller) and
climate were seen as problems. George Preston Marshall had long objected to the Colts'
proximity to his Redskins. However, the choice was Baltimore after Marshall, deciding that
Redskins-Colts could be an excellent rivalry, agreed to accept a $150,000 fee to waive his
The Yankees' players were divided between the Giants (who chose six players) and Bulldogs
(who received the rest). Three Bills players were awarded to the Browns. The Dons and Rams
had already consolidated operations shortly after the 1949 season. The remaining Bills,
Dons, and Hornets entered a dispersal draft.
With the AAFC Yankees gone, Bulldogs owner Ted Collins was free to rename his team "Yanks"
and move into Yankee Stadium. He continued to lose money, however, and sold the team to
Dallas interests after two seasons.
The word "American" did not remain in the enlarged league's name for long. "National
Football League" was restored in March 1950. Although "National" and "American" became the
names of the league's new conferences, within three years the conferences were renamed
Eastern and Western. It was not until the AFL-NFL merger twenty years later that the
"American" and "National" conference names were restored.