November 19, 2011

1961: Jim Brown Ties Rushing Record as Browns Crush Eagles

By the 1961 NFL season, Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns was well-established as the top runner in pro football. He had led the league in ground-gaining in each of his first four years and set both a single-game record of 237 yards in 1957 and season record of 1527 yards in ’58. On November 19 against the Philadelphia Eagles the 25-year-old fullback added to his list of accomplishments.

The Browns were 6-3 and trying to keep pace with the Eagles and New York Giants in the Eastern Conference. While players were becoming increasingly restive under autocratic Head Coach Paul Brown, the team was still a regular contender. QB Milt Plum was the most accurate passer in the NFL and Brown was complemented in the backfield by HB Bobby Mitchell, an outstanding outside runner. Plum had been suffering from a hand injury but appeared to now be completely healthy. Mitchell had been called up to active military duty a few weeks before, but was on a weekend pass and available against the Eagles.

The Eagles were the defending NFL Champions and defeated Cleveland in the season-opening game in Philadelphia. They were a team in transition as both Head Coach Buck Shaw and star QB Norm Van Brocklin retired after the title-winning campaign. Nick Skorich was now the coach and 27-year-old Sonny Jurgensen the quarterback. The largely-untested Jurgensen had been nothing short of spectacular as he stepped out of Van Brocklin’s shadow. Philadelphia got off to a 7-1 start, but the loss of CB Tom Brookshier to a season-ending broken leg hindered the pass defense and the Eagles were coming off of a loss to the Giants the previous week.

There was a crowd of 68,399 in attendance at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium and they saw the Eagles start off the scoring in the first quarter with a 34-yard field goal by Bobby Walston. Jim Brown put Cleveland ahead on the fourth play of the second quarter with a three-yard touchdown run that made it 7-3. The Eagles rebounded with a 68-yard drive, 46 of them on passes by Jurgensen, and HB Ted Dean scored from two yards out.

The Browns came right back with another three-yard TD by Brown that put them back in front at 14-10, which remained the score at halftime. They never trailed again.

Cleveland took the second half kickoff and went 73 yards in eight plays, with Plum throwing to Mitchell for a 28-yard touchdown. Lou Groza added a 17-yard field goal late in the third quarter that made it a 14-point game at 24-10.

The fourth quarter was eventful. Brown started things off with a one-yard TD on the period’s second play. The Eagles were forced to punt on their next possession and the Browns went 68 yards in eight plays for another TD, Brown’s fourth of the contest on an eight-yard sweep around left end.

Philadelphia responded with a five-play, 74-yard drive to finally get on the board again. Flanker Tommy McDonald caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Jurgensen, but at 38-17, the game was out of reach.

On the ensuing kickoff, Mitchell extinguished any remaining hopes for the Eagles by returning it 91 yards for a TD. The Eagles scored one last touchdown, on a Jurgensen pass to Timmy Brown that covered 39 yards, but it only made the score marginally closer. Cleveland came away with a convincing 45-24 win.

The only remaining drama pertained to Jim Brown’s pursuit of his own single-game rushing record. The Browns got the ball with less than two minutes remaining and Brown carried three times to tie the record (Brown was originally credited with a record-breaking 242 yards, but the official scorer admitted a mistake in addition the following day).

For the day, Brown’s total was 237 yards on 34 carries with four touchdowns. He also gained another 52 yards on three pass receptions and returned a kickoff 24 yards, giving him 313 total yards. He also threw a pass, but it fell incomplete.

“I've played some better all-around games this year,” Brown said afterward. “I missed a few blocks today, and a couple of times I went the wrong way when I got a good block. The blocking was tremendous. I don't think I ran any better than usual. You always go all out and sometimes you gain and sometimes you don’t.”

The Browns dominated statistically across the board, outgaining the Eagles by 505 yards to 327 and rolling up 30 first downs to Philadelphia’s 19. In addition, Cleveland didn’t turn the ball over at all, as opposed to two turnovers by the Eagles, and the Browns only punted once.

In addition to missing Tom Brookshier, Philadelphia’s defensive backfield suffered a further blow when FS Don Burroughs was lost with a slight concussion in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Browns CB Bernie Parrish had an exceptional game, holding star flanker Tommy McDonald to two catches for 25 yards (one of which was a short TD) and intercepting a pass in the third quarter.

Milt Plum completed 16 of 21 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown. Adding to Jim Brown’s output, Bobby Mitchell (pictured at left) ran for 43 yards on 8 carries, caught 4 passes for 54 more yards and a touchdown, and of course scored on a kickoff return. Flanker Ray Renfro gained 73 yards on his 4 pass receptions.

Sonny Jurgensen went to the air 32 times for the Eagles and completed 18 for 230 yards and two TDs with one intercepted. Timmy Brown led the club in rushing with 49 yards on just two attempts and also had the most pass receiving yards with 58 on his two catches that included a score. Ted Dean caught 6 passes for 51 yards to go along with his 31 yards on 9 rushing attempts with one TD. Only seven of Jurgensen’s completions went to an end or flanker.

“We had to win or else,” said Paul Brown afterward. “There was nothing left for us if we didn't win it.”

The Browns moved into a second place tie with Eagles at 7-3 as result of the win. But any hopes of finishing atop the Eastern Conference were dashed as they lost two of the next three games, including a showdown with the Giants the week after hosting Philadelphia. Cleveland’s final record was 8-5-1, which resulted in a third-place finish.

The Eagles ended up in second at 10-4, recovering from the loss to the Browns to win three of their last four. However, the loss was to the Giants, who came in a half-game ahead of Philadelphia at 10-3-1.

Jim Brown won his fifth consecutive rushing title with 1408 yards on 305 carries (a record at the time) for a 4.6-yard average and eight touchdowns. He also caught 46 passes for another 459 yards and two TDs, giving him a league-leading 1867 yards from scrimmage and, with a pair of kickoff returns added in, 1917 all-purpose yards.

The record-tying rushing performance was the second of an eventual four 200-yard games during his brilliant career (he came closest to topping his own mark again with 232 yards against Dallas in a 1963 contest). Buffalo’s Cookie Gilchrist ran for 243 yards in an AFL game in ’63 and Willie Ellison of the Rams topped Brown’s mark with 247 in a 1971 NFL contest.