December 21, 2010

1952: Pat Harder Spurs Lions to Win Over Rams in Conference Playoff

The 1952 NFL season ended with both the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams tied atop the National Conference with 9-3 records, necessitating a playoff game. The clubs met at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium on December 21 to determine who would represent the conference against the Cleveland Browns for the league championship.

The Rams were the defending league champions and had made it to the title game three consecutive years as either the Western Division champ (1949) or champion of the renamed National Conference (1950 and ’51). There had nevertheless been organizational turmoil early in the season as Joe Stydahar, the head coach since 1950, resigned after a bad loss in the opening game and assistant Hamp Pool (with whom Stydahar had been feuding) was elevated to the top job. After getting off to a sluggish 1-3 start, LA won eight straight games. The Rams still boasted the league’s most explosive offense that included quarterbacks Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield, receivers Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, and the NFL’s leading rusher, FB Dan Towler.

Detroit, meanwhile, was a team on the rise under second-year Head Coach Buddy Parker. The offense was led by QB Bobby Layne, who had been obtained in 1950 and proved to be an excellent fit with his passing and leadership abilities. Star all-purpose HB Doak Walker missed time due to injury, but HB Bob “Hunchy” Hoernschemeyer (pictured at left) ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing (457 yards). 30-year-old veteran FB Pat Harder (pictured at top) had been obtained from the Cardinals, with respectable results, although more due to his blocking than running. End Cloyce Box led the league in touchdowns with 15. The defense was especially tough, with a backfield that was perhaps the best in the NFL.

There were 47,645 fans present on a cold, foggy day in Detroit. The Lions scored on their first possession, following an uncharacteristically poor punt by Van Brocklin. The Rams were double-teaming Box, as well as Walker out of the backfield, so Layne threw passes down the middle to big (262-pound) end Leon Hart that gained, first, 22 yards and then 13. Harder capped the 52-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown run and successfully kicked the extra point to make it 7-0.

There was no further scoring in the opening period, but, following a miss by Waterfield on a 34-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter, Detroit put together a six-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Harder running for a four-yard TD. The possession was highlighted by two passes to Walker, one from Layne for a 50-yard gain and the other an option pass by Hoernschemeyer that went for 24 yards and put the Lions in scoring position. The Rams finally got on the board near the end of the half when Van Brocklin tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Fears that capped a seven-play drive following an interception and made it 14-7.

Early in the third quarter, Van Brocklin threw a pass to end Bob Carey at the Detroit 40 that looked to be a big play in the making, but Carey fumbled and safety Yale Lary recovered for the Lions. Detroit made the most of the break as Walker threw a halfback option pass to Hart in the end zone for a 24-yard TD. Shortly thereafter, a 43-yard field goal by Harder (who had kicked all of the extra points as well) increased Detroit’s margin to 24-7.

The Rams fought back with an 80-yard drive deep into Lions territory, highlighted by a 47-yard run by HB Skeets Quinlan, but after getting a first down on the six yard line, four straight runs into the line by Towler were stopped and LA was forced to turn the ball over on downs at the Detroit one.

However, in the fourth quarter Los Angeles got a break when Layne went to the air deep in his own territory and was intercepted by middle guard Stan West, who returned it to the Detroit 20. Waterfield replaced Van Brocklin at quarterback and shortly thereafter Towler scored from five yards out to cut the Lions’ margin to 24-14. It was a three-point game when LA’s Verda “Vitamin T” Smith returned a punt 56 yards for another TD.

With the game coming down to the last minute, the Rams had the ball at their own 11 but a pass from Waterfield, intended for Hirsch, was instead intercepted by LB LaVern Torgeson at the LA 30. Hoernschemeyer scored a nine-yard clinching touchdown and the Lions won the game and division title by a score of 31-21.

Detroit outgained the Rams by 365 yards to 307 and had the edge in first downs with 18 to LA’s 15. While the Lions gave up more turnovers (four to three), the two fumbles and the last-minute interception were more costly to Los Angeles.

Pat Harder was the player of the game for Detroit as he ran for 72 yards on 8 carries, including two touchdowns, and caught a pass for six more yards. Adding up the two TDs, one field goal, and four extra points, he accounted for 19 points.

Doak Walker (pictured above right) ran for 29 yards on 7 attempts, caught two passes for 75 more yards, and threw a touchdown pass. Bob Hoernschemeyer gained 49 yards on 11 rushes, including a TD.

Bobby Layne (pictured below) completed 9 of 21 passes for 144 yards and was intercepted four times. The Lions made good use of their two halfback option passes that totaled 48 yards and directly scored one touchdown while setting up another. Leon Hart was the leading pass receiver for the Lions with 5 catches for 86 yards and a TD.

For the Rams, Norm Van Brocklin completed 15 of 19 passes for 166 yards with a touchdown and none intercepted while Bob Waterfield added 3 of 9 for 13 yards and was picked off once. Tom Fears led the receivers with 7 catches for 76 yards and a TD while Crazylegs Hirsch had 5 receptions for 45 yards. “Deacon Dan” Towler ran for 54 yards on 13 carries and had one touchdown.

The game truly marked a changing of the guard in the West (the conferences would be renamed Western and Eastern in 1953). The Lions went on to defeat the Browns for the NFL Championship in ’52 and won the Western Conference again in 1953 and ’54 (in all instances they faced Cleveland in the title game, winning again in ’53 but losing in 1954). The Rams did not return to the postseason until 1955.

Pat Harder played one more season in 1953. While a good fullback, his kicking made him significant to two championship teams (the 1947 Cardinals as well as ’52 Lions) and he was the NFL’s scoring leader in three consecutive seasons (1947 to ’49). Harder retired with 531 career points that included 38 touchdowns, 35 field goals, and 198 extra points.

The playoff game against the Lions was the last for Bob Waterfield (pictured below). The quarterback who led the Rams to their first championship in 1945 while the franchise was still in Cleveland, he had also been a good defensive back during the single-platoon era and was one of the league’s best kickers as well. Waterfield was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.