November 3, 2009

1934: Detroit’s Consecutive Game Shutout Streak Comes to an End After 7 Games

The November 3, 1934 game between the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Pirates at University of Detroit Stadium wasn’t a close contest; the Lions won convincingly, 40-7. However, when Pittsburgh tailback Harp Vaughan completed a 62-yard TD pass to end Muggsy Skladany on a fake punt (the only pass completion of the day for the Pirates), it was the first time the Lions had been scored upon all season after a total of seven consecutive shutouts.

The Lions were in their first season in Detroit after a group headed by a radio executive, George Richards, bought the Portsmouth Spartans (of Portsmouth, Ohio) and relocated the four-year-old franchise. Coached by the no-nonsense George “Potsy” Clark, the team featured a group of single-platoon players who were equally adept at playing defense as well as offense such as Dutch Clark (pictured; the biggest star and a charter Pro Football Hall of Famer) and Glenn Presnell at tailback; wingback Ernie Caddell; Ace Gutowsky, solid at fullback on offense and linebacker on defense; and Roy “Father” Lumpkin, an offensive blocking back and defensive linebacker. Linemen included George “Tarzan” Christensen, a tackle and, at 240 pounds, the biggest player on the team; guard Ox Emerson; tackle “Cowboy Jack” Jackson; center and linebacker Chuck Bernard; and ends “Wild Bill” McKalip and “Big John” Schneller. Harry Ebding was both a two-way end and wingback.

There was nothing unique about the Detroit defense – they played the standard 6-2-2-1 alignment of that era and the linemen were no bigger than average. They simply outplayed their opponents from week to week, starting with the New York Giants in the 9-0 season-opening win. From there, they won 6-0 over the Chicago Cardinals, 3-0 on the road over the Green Bay Packers (thanks to a then-league record 54-yard field goal by Presnell), 10-0 over the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-0 over the Boston Redskins (intercepting 4 passes and holding the Redskins to 112 total yards), 28-0 over the Brooklyn Dodgers (the first team to penetrate as close as the Detroit 20 yard line, thanks to a fumble recovery), and 38-0 over the hapless Cincinnati Reds (who never got beyond midfield; the franchise folded before the end of the season).

During the streak, the Lions allowed their opponents a total of 835 yards (119.3 per game) and intercepted at least 19 passes (statistics for interceptions in the 1930s are a bit inexact).

While the 1920-21 Akron Pros had recorded 13 straight shutouts and the 1926 Pottsville Maroons had also put together a seven-game streak, these came before the football had been slimmed down and passing rules relaxed. Detroit’s streak remains unique, and no team since has come close to duplicating the feat (or is likely to).

The Lions won two more games after the streak ended before losing the last three games of the season – including a 19-16 defeat in a Thanksgiving showdown with the Chicago Bears – to end up 10-3 and in second place behind the Bears in the Western Division. They outscored their opponents 238-59, allowing just seven touchdowns all season (two of them by rushing, another still-standing league record).