57 + 57 Football

57 + 57 Football – Detroit Lions Regular Season Week 9

Detroit Lions LogoTwo moments in time set the stage for the Lions-Falcons game last Sunday in London. The first moment is at halftime. When the teams go into the clubhouse at Wembley Stadium, Atlanta has 21 points and Detroit has zero. The second moment occurs with four seconds left in the game. Atlanta’s lead is now a slim 21-19. Lions kicker Matt Prater lines up a 43-yard field goal, misses, and then, incredibly, gets a do-over.

The headlines say it all: “Lions rally from 3-TD deficit as Falcons suffer historic collapse;” “Lions complete stunning comeback, beat Falcons 22-21.”

Yes, Prater’s first kick sailed wide right. At this point, the Lions hadn’t scored a field goal in the forty-yard range ALL SEASON. Then, a flag is thrown. Who will the penalty be against? Detroit. All over? Not yet. Delay of game. Prater lines up for a 48-yard attempt. And this time, the ball sails through the uprights. The clock has expired, but not the Lions. “Fitting, at one of the world’s most famous soccer stadiums,” wrote Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, “that this would come down to a kick.”

“That’s about as high and as low and as high again as I’ve been on a football field,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “It was fantastic.”

“If you miss one, ” added Prater, “you better not miss again. I think the team would have wanted to kill me on the plane ride back.”

Whatever hampered the Lions in the first half – jet lag, disorientation from driving on the left, kippers for breakfast? – both the defense and offense kicked into gear during the second half. Great performances again by Golden Tate and Matthew Stafford combined with solid-gold defense brought the Lions back to win. That’s two one-point squeaker wins in two weeks. Next week’s bye will allow the team to rest and get more players healthy for the Miami Dolphins on November 9th.

Matthew Stafford hit a milestone during the Falcons game. His 24 for 47 pass completions for 325 yards and two touchdowns set a new Detroit Lions club record for career touchdown passes. Who owned the old record? Our 1957 Lions quarterback, Bobby Layne. Sunday’s performance gave Stafford 120 passes in 69 games. Layne’s final numbers were 118 passes in 97 games.

Hall of Fame Quarterback Bobby Layne. Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Hall of Fame Quarterback Bobby Layne. Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bobby Layne holds the double distinction of appearing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and owning one of the Lions retired jerseys, number 22. Layne, a Texas All-American, played 15 years in the pros starting in 1948 with the Chicago Bears, 1949 with the New York Bulldogs, 1950 – 1958 at Detroit, and then 1958 – 1962 at Pittsburgh as a Steeler. Bobby played hard both on and off the field. He was described as free-spirited, but also as possessing great leadership, determination, and guts.

Layne’s star shone brightly during his time in Detroit in part due to his relationship with Coach Buddy Parker. They were possibly the fifties equivalent of the great eighties’ 49ers duo, Joe Montana and Bill Walsh. Parker spent the 1957 season in a new position coaching at Pittsburgh and Bobby joined him the following year.

For game number five of the 1957 season, the Lions prowled to Los Angeles to meet the Rams on their home field. The Lions had triumphed over QB Norm Van Brocklin’s team in Detroit during week three, but in sunny LA the Rams plowed through the Lions, 35-17.

Over 77,000 fans were in the stands of Los Angeles Memorial Stadium. The Rams went out early and never lost the lead. Detroit had more first downs and passing yardage, but the Rams’ ground game ground them down. If you have to lose, maybe sunny LA is the place to be. For the following Sunday’s game, the Lions needed only to travel up the coast to San Francisco. The Niners, quarterback Y.A. Tittle, and wide receiver R.C. Owens were up next.

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57 + 57 Football – Detroit Lions Regular Season Week 8

Detroit Lions LogoThe art of deception, and solid defensive play backed up by key performances by the offense, helped the Lions narrowly beat the Saints on Sunday, 24-23. The deception – by defensive secondary partners James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin – involved a sudden switch in roles, baffling Saints quarterback Drew Brees into a mis-judged pass intercepted by Quin. The turnover sparked a recovery. Two touchdowns were quickly on the scoreboard and the Lions roared into the locker room with the win. Golden Tate, with a career-high 10 catches for 154 yards, chalked up 73 of those yards for the first recovery touchdown. A Matthew Stafford to Corey Fuller pass deep in the end zone put the Lions over the top with only 1:54 left in the game. In the field goal department, newly-signed kicker Matt Prater put his sole attempt of 21 yards through the endposts. So far, so good.

“These games build character in your team,” Quin quipped. “When you’re in games like this, worrying about a No. 1 defense or stats or all that stuff, none of that matters, you’re just trying to win the game. Great offenses come through and make plays like they did, and great defenses come through and make big plays like we did and that’s how you get the win.”

We’re 5-2,  still tied with the pesky Packers for the NFC North, and headed on Sunday to Atlanta, home of the free, the Braves, and the 2-5 Falcons. The Falcons were thoroughly trashed by the Baltimore Colts Ravens last weekend. We’ll just sweep up after.

On October 20, 1957 another come-from-behind win played out in Detroit. The Baltimore Colts came to town, with their “Golden Arm” (quarterback Johnny Unitas), for a rematch following the Lions’ loss in Baltimore three weeks earlier. The Arm quickly went to work: 1st quarter 15 yard TD pass to Jim Mutscheller; 2nd quarter 72 yard TD pass to Lenny Moore, 66 yard pass to Jim Mutscheller; and 3rd quarter 4 yard pass to Lenny Moore. Then the Lions woke up. In the fourth quarter, Detroit quarterback Bobby Layne displayed his “arm and a foot”: a 26 yard TD pass to Howard Cassady, a hand-off to John Henry Johnson for a 1 yard TD run, and another 29 yard TD pass to Cassady (Layne also kicked all three points after). Final score: Detroit 31, Baltimore 27.

Fullback John Henry Johnson. Photo: Pro Football Hall of Fame

Fullback John Henry Johnson. Photo: Pro Football Hall of Fame

John Henry Johnson, a 6′ 2″ fullback out of Arizona State, was a new face on the Lions team in 1957. His two previous years in the NFL were with the San Francisco 49ers as part of their “Million Dollar Backfield,” which included future Pro Hall-of-Famers Johnson, Hugh McElhenny, Y.A. Tittle, and Joe Perry. During the 1957 season, John Henry was the Lions leading rusher with 621 yards. On retirement in 1966 he ranked fourth in rushing yards behind only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor, and Joe Perry. In addition to his career 6803 rushing yards, he had 186 pass receptions for 1478 yards, scoring 330 points on 55 career touchdowns.

Up next for the 1957 Lions – a trip to sunny Los Angeles and another opportunity to shut down Norm Van Brocklin and his Ram crew. Is there a trip to two-year-old Disneyland in the cards?

57 + 57 Football – Detroit Lions Regular Season Week 7

Detroit Lions LogoThe Detroit Lions defense – ranked No. 1 in the nation – delivered the goods on Sunday, holding the Minnesota Vikings scoreless until the very closing moments of the fourth quarter. How good were they? Eight sacks, three interceptions, one fumble recovery, and this tribute from Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, “They kicked butt.” “Give credit to Detroit,” Zimmer continued, “they did a good job.” Quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 19 of 33 passes for 185 yards. Golden Tate, Theo Riddick, and Joique Bell added their contributions to the offense which resulted in the 17-3 victory at Minneapolis’ TCF Bank Stadium. Lions kicking disappointments Nate Freese and Alex Henery were released earlier in the week.

Who answered Detroit’s Help Wanted ad? Matt Prater (current holder of the NFL longest-field-goal record at 64 yards) joined the squad from Denver and put in a less-than-stellar but hopefully-promising performance. Points-after kicks were no problem, but Prater missed two field goals of 44 and 50 yards. In the second quarter, he was able to finagle a 52-yard field goal in spite of swirling winds. “We have all the confidence in the world in him,” coach Jim Caldwell said after the game. “I mean the guy’s got a great track record. We feel good about him.” We can all feel good about another Lions win. Our team is now 4-2 and tied atop the NFC North with Green Bay. Next up: the New Orleans Saints, at home, Sunday, October 19th, 1:00 PM Eastern. The Saints may march in, but after the Lions are through with them, they might crawl out.

The Lions defense of 1957, in Week 3 of their regular season, also dominated their floundering opponents, the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams offense, one of the top-rated offenses of the 1957 season, was virtually shut down in Detroit as the Lions won 10-7. Pro Hall of Fame Ram quarterback Norm Van Brocklin was held to 5 completions in 18 pass attempts for 74 total passing yards, with six interceptions. “Chris’ Crew,” as the 1957 Lions defense came to be known, brought their best game on October 13th.

Detroit Lions Defensive Back Jack Christiansen. Photo: AP Photo/NFL Photos

Detroit Lions defensive back Jack Christiansen. Photo: AP Photo/NFL Photos

Why “Chris’ Crew”? Out of respect for his on-field leadership, the “Chris” recognized Jack Christiansen, a 6′ 1″ defensive back out of Odd Fellows Orphanage High School (he grew up in the Kentucky orphanage) and Colorado State. Signed in 1951, Christiansen played an integral part in the successful string of Lions seasons until he retired in 1958. Opponents grew to respect his abilities and purposely changed their strategies to avoid getting the ball anywhere in Christiansen’s near vicinity. Jack led the league in interceptions in 1953 and tied for the lead in 1957. Christiansen surely had a hand (or two) in the Ram interceptions this day. He returned 85 punts during his career for 1084 yards, an average of 12.8 yards per carry, which still stands as a Lions record. Eleven of those punt returns resulted in touchdowns, another Detroit record, and he returned two punts for touchdowns in the same game twice in his career. Christiansen was All-Pro from 1952 to 1957, played in five consecutive Pro Bowls from 1954 until his retirement, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970. He went on to coach multiple seasons for the San Francisco 49ers and the Stanford University Cardinal. The father of four girls, Jack died in 1986 at the age of . . . 57.

With the Rams neatly turned out to pasture, our banner year team looked forward to a grudge match. Three weeks after handing Detroit a defeat in Baltimore, the Colts were coming out west. Would the Lions stop Unitas this time? Stay tuned.

57 + 57 Football – Detroit Lions Regular Season Week 6

Green Bay's new City Stadium on opening day in 1957. Photo: Packershistory.net

Green Bay’s new City Stadium (the future Lambeau Field) on opening day in 1957. Photo: Packershistory.net

Wanted: Professional field goal kicker. Strength and accuracy a must. If you can get the ball through the goal posts from over 40 yards, WE NEED YOU.

The kicking game came front and center for Detroit on Sunday, as they lost at home to the Buffalo Bills, 17-14. With four seconds left in a tie game, the Bill’s Dan Carpenter put Buffalo in the lead with a 58-yard field goal. Contrast this with the performance of the Lions’ latest recruit to the starting kicking position, Alex Henery. On Sunday, Henery missed three long field goal attempts of 44 yards, 47 yards, and then 50 yards in the final minute of the game. As Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press sports writer points out, “He is 1-for-5 in two weeks with the Lions, and the Lions are 1-for-8 on field goals of longer than 40 yards.” Birkett adds (unnecessarily?), “Coach Jim Caldwell said that kicking position will be evaluated this week.”

The kicking game wasn’t the only problem on Sunday. Injuries continue to hamper the Lions and the offense, in spite of more excellent play by quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Golden Tate, can’t seem to solidify. Stafford was 18-for-31 for 221 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Tate contributed more key catches and plays. The Lions were leading in the fourth quarter when they just plain stalled.

Enough of that? Let’s look to next week, when the Lions will go Nordic in Minneapolis. The Vikings are about to be raided. Will the mystery kicker sign in please!

Meanwhile, on Sunday, October 6, 1957, our soon-to-be champs met the Packers in Green Bay at their new City Stadium, the first gridiron built for the specific, unshared use of an NFL franchise. Just the week before, the Packers had retired their old City Stadium and moved across the street to a larger, 32,500-seat venue. Vice President Richard Nixon, reigning Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur, and other dignitaries had presided over a half-time dedication ceremony mid-way to a Green Bay victory over the Chicago Bears, 21-17.

Prior to the construction of the new stadium, the Green Bay Packers came close to becoming the Milwaukee Packers. Fellow NFL team owners objected to the small, decrepit firetrap that the Packers had been playing in since 1925. They demanded that many season games be held down the road at Milwaukee’s attractive 43,000-seat County Stadium, which had been built in 1953 to tempt the Packers southward. Loyal Green Bay Packer fans responded with financial support and built the facility which would be renamed Lambeau Field in 1965, in honor and memory of Packers founder, player, and long-time head coach, Curly Lambeau.

Renovations in 1961 would expand seating capacity to almost 39,000, which quickly became insufficient for the burgeoning Cheesehead faithful. Further expansions in 1963, 1965, 1970, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2001-03, and 2013 ultimately increased spectator spots to 80, 735, all without interrupting season play.

In this second home game, the Packers suffered their first loss in their new digs. The Lions took an early lead and never relinquished it. Two touchdowns in the first quarter (one a runback from an interception) were followed by a field goal in the second and another touchdown in the fourth before the Packers even got on the scoreboard. Last ditch efforts included a touchdown run by quarterback Bart Starr from 1 yard out, and a curious combination play by Packer running back Fred Cone who both ran the ball in from 26 yards and then kicked the point after. How many times has that happened in NFL history? If you know, leave me a comment!

Next up for the 1957 Lions, their first home game of the season against the Los Angeles Rams, helmed by Oregon alumni quarterback Norm Van Brocklin (a Duck, boo hiss!).

57 + 57 Football – Detroit Lions Regular Season Week 5

Who owns first place in the NFC North? The Detroit Lions!

Quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Golden Tate were standouts for the offense in a game with the New York Jets that went back and forth until late in the fourth quarter. Stafford completed 24 of 34 passes for 293 yards, three touchdowns (two in the air), and no interceptions. Tate produced several crucial third-down conversions on his way to eight receptions for 116 yards. When the dust settled, the Lions had silenced MetLife Stadium fans with a 24-17 victory over the mis-firing Jets.

Detroit Lions Snack HelmetA former Seahawk and All-American out of Notre Dame, Tate was passed by the Jets in free agency before being snapped up by the Lions. “He’s a quick guy and he has great hands. He’s effective down the field,” Stafford said of Tate. “We’re happy to have him.” Tate’s take on the day? “That was a really good, hard-fought football game on our part, but not perfect. I think in order to be a championship team we need to go into the film room excited to see what we did wrong so we can grow from here.” I can see them now – the Lions in their man cave, watching game footage, munching their favorite snacks (from a Lions Snack Helmet, perhaps?).

Next week the Buffalo Bills come to Motor City. The Bills are 2-2, tied for first in the AFC East. Oddsmakers have Detroit on top by a touchdown. Set your gameday clocks for Sunday, October 5th, 1:00 PM Eastern time. Let’s remember that lions can take down buffalos like a run in the park.

The 1957 Detroit Lions played their first season game on September 29th against the Baltimore Colts and their young but rising star quarterback, Johnny “The Golden Arm” Unitas. The Lions couldn’t have known it at the time, but their matchup with the Colts would enter the record books as the fourth installment of Unitas’ 47-game streak in which he threw at least one completed touchdown pass. On this beautiful fall day, Unitas rocketed four bullets for touchdowns – two to L.G. Dupre, and one each to Jim Mutscheller and Raymond Berry. Two Colt field goals added to the final score: Colts 34, Lions 14. The Lions took the early lead with a touchdown by Hopalong Cassady in the first quarter, but in the second the Colts surged ahead and never looked back. Unitas’ stats for the day: 14 of 23 passes completed for 241 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions (it would have been great if the Lions could have capitalized).

Unitas’ phenomenal string of games with touchdown passes began in 1956, his rookie year with the Colts. A little over four years, 697 passes, 10,645 yards, and 102 touchdowns later, his streak ended but his record stood until surpassed by the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees in 2012. After 18 years, spent almost entirely at Baltimore, Unitas retired having held virtually every career passing record in the NFL. Immensely popular and recognized as one of the game’s greatest players, Johnny led his team to three championships (including the following year, in 1958), and entered the Hall of Fame in 1979.

The Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award was created in 1987 to recognize the nation’s outstanding college quarterback, for accomplishments both on and off the gridiron. The Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation and the Transamerica Corporation are in the process of narrowing the field of candidates in advance of the award announcement on December 12th in Baltimore. As of October 2nd, 15 quarterbacks were still in contention, including Sean Mannion from my alma mater, Oregon State University!

Back in 1957, the Lions would be close to home for regular season game #2. A visit to Wisconsin and archrival Green Bay was up next. Would the Lions send the Packers packing?

57 + 57 Football: Detroit Lions Regular Season Week 4

Detroit Lions LogoThe Detroit Lions roared back on Sunday, defeating the Green Bay Packers at home, 19 – 7. The Lions defense entered the field as one and dominated the game, holding Packer star quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a mere 162 passing yards and the entire Packer offense to 76 rushing yards. Detroit’s defense also scored the lion’s-share of the team’s points. Nine points from a returned fumble and a safety meant both the Lions’ and the Packer’s offensive teams were outscored for the afternoon. There were unfortunate moments: more injuries (one from too much celebrating), turnovers, missed field goals. Bottom line: the Lions are 2 – 1, tied for first in the NFC North Division with the Chicago Bears AND for the first time, we defeated Aaron Rodgers in a game he finished. Let’s Get Well and Carry On! Tune in Sunday at 1:00 PM Eastern when we ground the Jets at MetLife Stadium.

Before we delve into details about the championship 1957 Lions team, let’s look briefly at the 1950s seasons leading up to our banner year, and two individuals who weren’t part of the 1957 squad.

After “roaming the basement” in the forties, Detroit pulled together an amazing run in the fifties, led for the most part by coach Raymond “Buddy” Parker (1951-1956). The Lions took their division four times, in 1952, 1953, 1954, and 1957. They appeared in the NFL Championship game in all four of those years, winning the NFL title in 1952, 1953, and 1957 (no Superbowl yet). Many of the core players in 1952, 1953, and 1954 remained with the team for the 1957 season. Two exceptions are worth mentioning.

The first of those two roster changes occurred at the top. Head coach Buddy Parker left the Lions at the end of the 1956 to move to Pittsburgh and the Steeler franchise. Parker and QB Bobby Layne had a great relationship and seemed to be able to get inside each other’s heads. Together, they popularized the two-minute offense. Parker, while superstitious (no #13s!) was a good judge of talent and consistently recruited valuable players for the team. Parker had himself suited up in a Lions uniform in 1935 and 1936, playing fullback. His overall record with Detroit in the fifties was 47 – 23 – 2, for an impressive win-loss percentage of 0.671.

The second man no longer in Detroit pads was Pro Hall-of-Famer Doak Walker, a 1948 Heisman Trophy winner who, at 5-11 and 173 pounds, wasn’t supposed to be a hot prospect when he joined the Lions in 1950. Right out of the gate, Walker won Rookie of the Year honors, was named all-NFL, went to the Pro Bowl, and was the league-scoring champion. His pro career lasted six years, all with Detroit, and during that time he was named all-NFL five times and went to five Pro Bowls. There was nothing Doak couldn’t do. Listed as halfback, he set statistics in every possible category: rushing, passing, receiving, punt and kickoff returns, punting, place-kicking, and interceptions. He amassed 534 career scoring points and held two NFL scoring titles. He consistently made key plays and when he retired at the end of the 1955 season, his #37 jersey went with him. Handsome, much-loved Doak appeared on Wheaties boxes and in countless ads and magazine covers. Why did he retire at the ripe old age of 28? According to his 1997 biography, More Than a Hero, he “didn’t want to be one of those guys who stayed a year too long. I didn’t want to leave burned out or crippled.”

The 1957 Detroit Lions carried on without Walker and Parker. Next week: the season opener against the Baltimore Colts and their “Golden Arm.”

57 + 57 Football – Detroit Lions Regular Season Week 3

Detroit Lions LogoThere’ll be a lot of licking going on in the den this week.

Which follows the licking given the Detroit Lions by the Carolina Panthers last Sunday. I’m afraid it wasn’t pretty. Lost opportunities, injuries, unfortunate mistakes. Detroit Free Press Lions reporter Jeff Seidel succinctly summed up the scrimmage. “Everything went wrong for the Lions,” he wrote. “Time after time, the Lions had chances but came up empty.” Let’s not dwell on the past. Green Bay next Sunday, at home! We can do this!

In 1957, the Lions regular season opened on Sunday, September 29th and lasted 12 weeks. Before we look at their first game (and it’s one for the record books), let’s review the team roster and get familiar with our lineup.

Head Coach: George Wilson

Quarterbacks: Bobby Layne, Tobin Rote, Jerry Reichow

Running Backs: Gene Gedman (LH), Marv Brown, Howard Cassady (KR/RH), John Henry Johnson (FB), Tom Tracy (FB)

Wide Receivers: Jim Doran (LE), Dorne Dibble, Dave Middleton, Jerry Reichow, Howard Cassady (KR/RH)

Tight Ends: Leon Hart, Steve Junker (RE)

Offensive Linemen: Lou Creekmur (T), Harley Sewell (G), Frank Gatski (C), Stan Campbell (G), John Gordy (G), Charlie Ane (T), Ken Russell (T)

Defensive Linemen: Darris McCord (DE), Gerry Perry (DE), Gene Cronin (DE/G), Ray Krouse (DT), Bob Miller (DT), Gil Mains (DT)

Linebackers: Robert Long (OLB), Jim Martin (OLB), Joe Schmidt (MLB), Roger Zatkoff (OLB)

Defensive Backs: Jack Christiansen (RS), James David (CB), Terry Barr (RDH), Gary Lowe (CB), Yale Lary (LS/P/PR), Charles Edwards (FS/FB), Carl Karilivacz (SS)

Special Teams: Bobby Layne (K/PAT), Jim Martin (K), Yale Lary (LS/P/PR)

Here’s the kicker. An amazing number – seven – of these men have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And, of the six jerseys retired by the Lions franchise throughout its history, two of them were worn with pride by members of the 1957 team. We’ll get to know these gridiron greats in detail as the season continues.

Go Lions!