January 7, 2010

1961: Lions Defeat Browns in 1st Playoff Bowl

The Playoff Bowl is a nearly forgotten remnant of the 1960s. Officially named the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl, it was also occasionally referred to as the Runner-up Bowl or Pro Playoff Classic. Created in honor of Bert Bell, NFL Commissioner from 1946 until his death in 1959, the game matched the second place teams in the NFL’s Eastern and Western Conferences (when the conferences were broken up into two divisions apiece in 1967, the losers of each conference championship game became the participants).

The game had no real meaning – while it was initially promoted as the playoff game to determine third place in the league, it wasn’t possible for the winner to advance and was, in fact, played after the champion had been determined. In effect, it was a postseason exhibition game designed to give football fans across the country one more chance to watch the NFL on television (along with the Pro Bowl) before heading into the offseason. The “Benefit” part pertained to the league contributing its share of the proceeds to pay into group medical, life insurance, and retirement funds for the players.

There were ten games in the series, following the 1960 through ’69 seasons. Once the merger with the AFL went fully into effect in 1970, the game ceased to exist (although there had been some thought to finding a way to continue it). The NFL doesn’t count the games among team’s playoff appearances or the league’s postseason statistics, adding to the sense of irrelevance. All of the games were played at the Orange Bowl in Miami.

The first Playoff Bowl, following the 1960 season, occurred on January 7, 1961. Participating were the Cleveland Browns, second in the Eastern Conference with an 8-3-1 record, and the Western Conference’s Detroit Lions, who ended the season at 7-5. The Browns, under Head Coach Paul Brown, had the NFL’s rushing leader, FB Jim Brown, who gained 1257 yards during the season, and the league’s top-rated passer as well in QB Milt Plum (pictured above left). Detroit, coached by George Wilson, was best known for an outstanding defense that included LB Joe Schmidt, CB Dick “Night Train” Lane, safety Yale Lary, and defensive tackles Alex Karras and rookie Roger Brown.

A lower-than-anticipated crowd of 34,981 was at the Orange Bowl for the game, which was televised nationally. The defenses dominated the scoreless first quarter, with the Lions blitzing Plum effectively. Cleveland finally broke through in the second quarter with an 81-yard scoring drive fueled by Jim Brown’s 56 rushing yards. TE Rich Kreitling caught a 9-yard TD pass from Plum, although he paid a price when he was knocked unconscious by Detroit CB Bruce Maher.

The Browns drove down to the Lions nine yard line just before the half, but DE Bill Glass deflected a pass by Plum that Karras intercepted to end the threat. Detroit took the second half kickoff and drove 76 yards, with FB Nick Pietrosante (pictured at top) making several key runs including a five-yard touchdown that tied the score at 7-7.

Shortly thereafter, safety Gary Lowe intercepted his second pass of the game and ran it back 44 yards to the Cleveland 12 yard line. Jim Martin ended up kicking a 12-yard field goal that put the Lions ahead, 10-7. Cleveland came back to tie the game once more on the first play of the fourth quarter as Sam Baker booted a 27-yard field goal.

Detroit put together a 57-yard drive that led to what was ultimately the winning touchdown, a one-yard run by HB Ken Webb. With time running out, the Browns provided the most sensational play of the game as Plum threw a short pass to HB Bobby Mitchell that the speedy halfback turned into an 89-yard touchdown. However, a bobbled snap on the extra point attempt allowed “Night Train” Lane to block Baker’s kick and preserve the 17-16 win.

Notable performances included two long punt returns by Detroit CB Jim Steffen, with one of 48 yards in which he attempted to lateral to Jim Martin at the end and missed; Martin managed to recover the ball. Milt Plum threw five interceptions (matching his total for the entire regular season), with Lowe (pictured at right) picking off three of them. Pietrosante, who had been voted team MVP by his teammates following a year in which he ran for 872 yards, was the game’s leading rusher with 89 yards on 17 carries.

The Lions went on to finish second in the next two seasons as well and won the first three Playoff Bowls; by the third one, following the 1962 campaign, Plum was their quarterback (Earl Morrall started this game at QB). The Browns also appeared in the game on three occasions (in addition to 1960, also following the 1963 and ’67 seasons) but had less success than Detroit, losing each time.