December 14, 2010
The battle for the NFL’s Eastern Conference had come down to the season finale on December 14, 1958 as the New York Giants hosted the Cleveland Browns at Yankee Stadium. The Giants were 8-3 and a game behind the 9-2 Browns. Thus, New York needed to win in order to force a playoff with Cleveland for the conference title. A loss or tie would propel the Browns into the championship game.
New York’s head coach was Jim Lee Howell, but he had two highly able assistants in Vince Lombardi to run the offense and Tom Landry to direct the defense. They were a solid, veteran club on both sides of the ball, featuring QB Charlie Conerly, halfbacks Frank Gifford and Alex Webster, OT Roosevelt Brown, and C Ray Wietecha on offense and DE Andy Robustelli, MLB Sam Huff, and safety Jim Patton on defense. However, they had played poorly in the preseason and got off to a 2-2 start in the regular season games before winning six of their last seven contests (one of their wins had been against the Browns in Cleveland).
As for Cleveland, Head Coach Paul Brown’s club featured second-year FB Jim Brown on offense, who had already broken the single-season rushing record. If teams concentrated too heavily on stopping him, rookie HB Bobby Mitchell made them pay with his outstanding outside running ability. Second-year QB Milt Plum was still something of a project, but the offensive line was a good one and the defense contained Pro Bowl-quality players in tackles Bob Gain and Don Colo, LB Walt Michaels, and HB Don Paul.
The Browns wasted no time in taking the lead as Jim Brown ran 65 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. There was no further scoring until the second quarter, when Giants DE Jim Katcavage recovered a fumble at the Cleveland 38 by HB Lew Carpenter and the Giants capitalized as Pat Summerall kicked a 46-yard field goal.
The Browns responded with a 22-yard Lou Groza field goal that was set up by a 51-yard pass play from Plum to flanker Ray Renfro. Cleveland held a 10-3 lead at the half.
In their first possession of the third quarter, the Browns drove to the New York 13 yard line. But in a call that was heavily second-guessed afterward, Paul Brown chose to try a fake field goal. Holder Bobby Freeman attempted to run around left end but was tackled for a loss by LB Harland Svare. Instead of potentially taking a 13-3 lead (Groza had missed two earlier attempts, but this would have been from just 20 yards with the ball well placed at the center of the field), the margin remained seven points.
The teams traded punts after the failure on the fake. Now in the fourth quarter, and following a fumble by Plum that the Giants recovered on the Cleveland 45, New York came back with trickery of its own. End Kyle Rote had noted that the Browns were vulnerable to the halfback option pass because HB Don Paul and safety Junior Wren were quick to run up and defend against the sweep coming in their direction. On the first play following the fumble recovery, Conerly pitched to Gifford, who ran to his right on an apparent power sweep. The Browns defense shifted to stop the run, and Gifford fired a pass to Rote, who was finally brought down after a 39-yard gain to the six yard line. After two running plays into the line lost yardage, the Giants again ran the option play and Gifford threw to end Bob Schnelker in the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown (pictured below). Following Summerall’s extra point, the score was tied at 10-10.
The Browns, playing conservatively to run the clock down since a tie was as good as a win for their purposes, punted the ball back to the Giants. New York proceeded to drive from its own 30 to the Cleveland 25, but Summerall missed a 33-yard field goal attempt with less than five minutes to play.
The New York defense again forced the Browns to punt, but punter Dick Deschaine, who encountered a heavy rush, got off a poor 22-yard kick that went out at the Cleveland 43. The Giants misfired on three passes, including a long throw to Webster at the goal line that the halfback dropped and one to Gifford that was ruled an incomplete pass (although the Browns insisted afterward that it was a fumble).
With just over two minutes left, Summerall, who had suffered a knee injury in the previous contest against Detroit and was listed as doubtful in the week leading up to the game, kicked a 49-yard field goal through the snow for the winning points (pictured at top). The final score was 13-10, setting up the rematch at the same venue the following week.
The game had been a tough defensive struggle, and the two Cleveland turnovers, against none by the Giants, played a key role. The Browns outgained New York, 257 yards to 226. Jim Brown (pictured at right) accounted for 148 yards on 26 carries (bringing his record total to 1527), but other than the game-opening 65-yard score, the great fullback had been well defensed. Cleveland passed for just 107 yards, to 162 for the Giants.
“Imagine having to beat the Browns three times in one season to even get into the championship game,” said Jim Lee Howell. “Once is tough enough. Twice, and now again.”
In the rematch of the two 9-3 teams for the conference title the following week, the Giants defense shut the Browns down even more effectively and won, 10-0. They lost the NFL Championship game to the Baltimore Colts in a 23-17 overtime classic.
Pat Summerall, in his first year with the Giants after a season in Detroit and five with the Chicago Cardinals, was successful on 12 of 23 field goals in 1958, none bigger than the kick to beat the Browns. As he returned to the sideline following the climactic field goal, Vince Lombardi said to him, “You know you can’t kick a football that far, don’t you?”