December 29, 2015

1957: Lions Overwhelm Browns for NFL Championship

The NFL Championship game on December 29, 1957 featured the Detroit Lions, top team in the Western Conference, hosting the Eastern Conference representative, the Cleveland Browns. The teams had faced off three times earlier in the decade for the league title, with the Browns routing the Lions the last time, in ’54.

The season got off to an awkward start for Detroit when Head Coach Buddy Parker abruptly quit on the eve of the preseason and George Wilson was elevated to the top job. The Lions had obtained QB Tobin Rote (pictured above) from Green Bay to back up star starting QB Bobby Layne, and the deal paid off when Layne went down with a broken leg in the ninth game. Another newcomer, FB John Henry Johnson, came from the 49ers and led the club in rushing. As usual, the defense was rugged, especially at linebacker with MLB Joe Schmidt and in the backfield, led by safety Jack Christiansen. Detroit went 8-4 to tie for first in the Western Conference and was coming off of a dramatic come-from-behind win over the 49ers in the resulting playoff.

The Browns, coached by the innovative Paul Brown for the twelfth year, had put together a 9-2-1 record to return to the NFL title game after a one-year absence. Rookie FB Jim Brown was the league’s top rusher and the key to the offense. QB Tom O’Connell led the NFL in passing efficiency, although he rarely threw the ball, and was already being pushed by rookie QB Milt Plum, who had been slated to start the title contest but suffered a hamstring injury during a recent practice that limited his mobility. The defense was stingy, averaging a league low of 14.3 points surrendered per game. Cleveland lost to the Lions during the regular season but came into the championship contest as a slight favorite.

There were 55,263 fans in attendance at Briggs Stadium, where the lights were on although unneeded on a pleasant 32-degree afternoon. They saw the home team score the first three times it had the ball. Jim Martin set the tone by booming the opening kickoff through the end zone. Tom O’Connell threw to end Pete Brewster for a Cleveland first down, but the series quickly bogged down and the Browns punted. Detroit moved methodically, both running with HB Gene Gedman and John Henry Johnson and with Rote passing effectively, and accumulated four first downs.  The 10-play, 66-yard drive finally faltered at the Cleveland 24 and Martin booted a 31-yard field goal for the game’s first points.

The Lions regained the ball quickly when an O’Connell pass was intercepted by LB Bob Long, who returned it to the Cleveland 19. Following a short running play, Rote faked a pass and instead carried for 17 yards down the middle. Rote ran again for a one-yard touchdown, Martin added the extra point, and Detroit was ahead by 10-0.

It got worse for the Browns when HB Milt Campbell fumbled after returning the ensuing kickoff 19 yards and DB Terry Barr recovered for the Lions at the Cleveland 15. Six plays later, Gedman dove into the end zone from a yard out for another TD. Martin’s point after gave the home team a 17-0 lead.

As the game moved into the second quarter, the Browns responded by advancing 78 yards in four plays. O’Connell passed to Brewster for 19 yards and flanker Ray Renfro gained 20 yards on a reverse. Jim Brown ran 29 yards for a touchdown and Lou Groza converted to narrow the Detroit margin to 17-7.

Following an exchange of punts, the Lions advanced into Cleveland territory. Facing fourth-and-11 at the Cleveland 26, they lined up for a field goal. But Rote, the holder on kicks, took the snap and spun to his right, passing to end Steve Junker, who gathered the ball in at the six and went the distance for a touchdown. Martin successfully converted.

Down 24-7 and with the Lions threatening once again, the Browns seemingly got a break when Junker fumbled the ball away at the Cleveland six. But facing third-and-10, O’Connell’s pass intended for Brewster was instead intercepted by Barr (pictured below), who returned it 19 yards for a touchdown. Martin added the extra point and the Lions held a commanding 31-7 lead.

The Lions got another chance thanks to a Cleveland turnover when HB Chet Hanulak fumbled and DT Gil Mains recovered with five seconds left in the half. But Martin missed a 44-yard field goal attempt and the score remained unchanged.

Milt Plum had taken over at quarterback for Cleveland late in the second quarter, and starting off the third quarter, the Browns finally scored again at the completion of a 10-play, 80-yard series. HB Lew Carpenter ran for the last five yards and a touchdown, and Groza added the point after. But any lingering hopes for a Cleveland comeback in the second half were snuffed out when, on the first play after the kickoff, Rote threw long to end Jim Doran for a 78-yard touchdown.

Tempers flared late in the period as both teams drew unnecessary roughness penalties. The rout was on as the Lions then padded their lead with Rote again connecting with Junker, this time for a 23-yard TD. Plum fumbled when being sacked by DE Gene Cronin on the last play of the period and the fourth quarter started with Rote firing another touchdown pass, to end Dave Middleton from 30 yards out.

Jerry Reichow relieved Rote at quarterback for the game’s last seven minutes and capped the scoring with a 17-yard touchdown pass to HB Howard “Hopalong” Cassady. Martin converted, as he had done successfully after all of the TDs, and that provided the final score of 59-14.

The Lions achieved a franchise high for points scored in a game and administered the worst defeat endured by the Browns up to that time. They led in total yards (438 to 313) and first downs (22 to 17). Cleveland ran effectively, gaining 218 yards on the ground, but also turned the ball over six times, to one suffered by Detroit.

Tobin Rote was outstanding as he completed 12 of 19 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns, with none intercepted, and also rushed for 27 yards on seven carries that included a TD. Steve Junker (pictured below) had 5 catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns and Jim Doran gained 101 yards on his three receptions that included the one long score. Hopalong Cassady led Detroit’s rushers with 48 yards on 8 attempts and also pulled in two passes for 22 yards and a TD. Jim Martin made good on all 8 of his extra point attempts and connected for one field goal in two tries.

For the Browns, Tom O’Connell was successful on four of eight throws for 61 yards and gave up two interceptions. Milt Plum was 5 of 12 for 51 yards and also had two picked off. Lew Carpenter ran for 82 yards on 14 carries that included a TD and Jim Brown contributed 69 yards on 20 attempts with one for a score and averaged 26.5 yards on four kickoff returns. End Preston Carpenter was the team’s leading receiver with four catches for 43 yards and Pete Brewster gained 52 yards on his three receptions.

“It wasn’t altogether us. They were hot,” summed up Cleveland’s Coach Brown regarding the defeat. “That was a great team we played today. Rote had a day, didn’t he?”

While it was anticipated that the Lions would contend again in 1958, they instead dropped to 4-7-1 and did not return to the postseason until 1970. To date, 1957 remains the last year that Detroit attained a NFL Championship. The Browns bounced back to go 9-3 in ’58 and tied for first in the Eastern Conference, losing to the Giants in the resulting playoff. They next reached the NFL Championship game in 1964.