October 20, 2011

1957: Lions Overcome 24-Point Halftime Deficit to Beat Colts

The undefeated Baltimore Colts (3-0) were a team on the rise as they took on the Detroit Lions (2-1) on October 20, 1957 at Briggs Stadium. The Colts had beaten the Lions at home by a comfortable 34-14 score in the season-opening game. Coached by Weeb Ewbank, they had been meticulously built into a winning club. The crowning touch had been the addition of unheralded QB Johnny Unitas, who took over for an injured George Shaw in 1956 and was excelling in his first full season starting behind center – already, he had thrown eight scoring passes.

The Lions had regularly contended throughout the decade and won back-to-back league titles in 1952 and ’53. However, the head coach who had built the club into a winner, Buddy Parker, abruptly quit on the eve of the ’57 preseason and was replaced by George Wilson. The team still had the quarterback who had led them to championships, Bobby Layne (pictured above), but they also had acquired QB Tobin Rote from the Packers as insurance (Layne had experienced injury problems in the previous two years) and Wilson had them sharing the starting job. They also were still a strong defensive club with an all-star backfield of safeties Jack Christiansen and Yale Lary and halfbacks Jim David and Terry Barr and a great middle linebacker in Joe Schmidt.

There were 55,764 fans at Briggs Stadium and they suffered through a difficult first half for the home team. The Colts dominated, with Detroit’s offense not advancing beyond the Baltimore 20 until the third quarter. Unitas put the Colts ahead with a 15-yard touchdown pass to end Jim Mutscheller in the opening period. In the second quarter, Jim Martin kicked a 47-yard field goal to get the Lions on the board. But two long Unitas pass plays, of 72 yards to HB Lenny Moore and 66 yards to Mutscheller, had Baltimore comfortably in front at halftime by a score of 21-3.

In the third quarter, the margin increased when Unitas threw a fourth scoring pass to Moore that covered four yards. While the extra point was missed, it hardly seemed to matter as the Colts were ahead by a 24-point margin at 27-3. The Lions finally got on the board again when Rote threw to end Steve Junker for a 14-yard touchdown. Still, with the tally at 27-10 entering the final period, some fans began making their way to the exits.

Layne directed the Lions on a 49-yard drive that started with a pass to HB Howard “Hopalong” Cassady (pictured at left) for nine yards and another, to end Steve Junker, for 14 more. Layne finished the possession off by connecting again with Cassady for a 26-yard touchdown that narrowed Baltimore’s margin to ten points.

The ball changed hands three more times before Baltimore FB Alan Ameche fumbled at midfield and Jim David recovered to give the Lions possession at the Colts’ 46. The Lions scored in six plays as, down to two minutes to play, Layne threw to Cassady for eight yards and FB John Henry Johnson ran for seven. Cassady made a leaping catch at the one yard line and Johnson followed up with a touchdown that cut the margin to 27-24.

Detroit decided not to try an onside kick and the gamble paid off when Moore fumbled the ball back to the Lions on an end run at his own 29. Layne again threw to Cassady, who leaped between two defenders and pulled the ball down in the end zone for 29 yards and the go-ahead touchdown with 45 seconds left, sending the home crowd into a frenzy. Detroit held on to win by a final score of 31-27.

The Lions outgained Baltimore (369 yards to 322) and had more first downs (20 to 15). They also sacked Unitas four times, while neither Detroit quarterback was thrown for a loss. Most damaging for the Colts, they suffered six turnovers, to four by the Lions.

Howard Cassady led both teams in rushing (71 yards) and pass receiving yards (113, on 6 catches). Bobby Layne completed 8 of 21 passes for 139 yards with two TDs and two interceptions, and as usual was at his best in the clutch.

Johnny Unitas was successful on 16 of 21 throws for 239 yards with four touchdown passes for the Colts, giving him 12 in four games. He was intercepted once. Lenny Moore caught 6 passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns and Jim Mutscheller (pictured below) gained 107 yards on his 5 catches that also included two for scores.

“It was the greatest finish I've seen in pro ball,” said Coach George Wilson. “We just didn't let down.”

“It was Hoppy’s game,” added Wilson, referring to Cassady. “I think he’s finally finding himself. Right now he’s the most improved receiver we have.”

Cassady, a Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State, hadn’t scored at all as a rookie, running for 413 yards and catching nine passes and returning kicks. He had been considered a bit of a disappointment and was a backup to less-heralded HB Gene Gedman.

The Lions and Colts dueled for the Western Conference title throughout the season. The Lions lost their next two games but won five of the last six to end up in a tie with the 49ers at 8-4. It was very nearly not enough, for Baltimore, after losing its next two games, won four straight and headed for the West Coast and last two contests with a 7-3 record. They suffered two tough losses to the 49ers and Rams (a win at Los Angeles could have created a three-way deadlock) and finished in third place at 7-5.

By the end, Bobby Layne was out with a broken leg, but Tobin Rote led the Lions to the come-from-behind playoff win over San Francisco and a 59-14 thrashing of the Cleveland Browns to win the NFL Championship. Between them (and in an arrangement that neither liked), Layne and Rote passed for 2239 yards with 17 touchdowns. Layne, no longer the running quarterback he had once been, contributed 99 yards on the ground while Rote, the league’s premier rushing QB, gained 366 yards on 70 carries.

Johnny Unitas served notice of coming greatness as he led the NFL in passing yards (2550), TD passes (24), and yards per attempt (8.5). His 301 pass attempts also ranked first, while his 172 completions placed second, as did his 57.1 completion percentage – and 17 interceptions.

“Hopalong” Cassady rushed for fewer yards than as a rookie, with 250 on 73 carries, but was much more productive as a receiver, catching 25 passes for 325 yards (13.0 avg.) and three touchdowns. It set the tone for the remainder of his eight-year career in which he was used less as a running halfback and more as a receiver.