November 22, 2011

1951: Christiansen’s 2 Punt Return TDs Cap Detroit Win Over Packers

The Detroit Lions had gotten off to a rocky start in the 1951 NFL season, winning their first two games but then losing two of their next three, with a tie in between. However, by the time they hosted the Green Bay Packers on November 22 the Lions had won three consecutive road games and, at 5-2-1, was in contention in the National Conference.

Detroit had a new head coach in Buddy Parker and plenty of rising talent on both sides of the ball. 25-year-old QB Bobby Layne, in his second season with the club, was thriving under Parker’s direction. Halfbacks Doak Walker and Bob “Hunchy” Hoernschemeyer were effective cogs in the backfield, big (6’5”, 262) end Leon Hart provided an excellent target for Layne’s passes, and the line had been revamped just before the winning streak commenced. The defensive line was anchored by middle guard Les Bingaman and the backfield, which over the course of the decade would become the unit’s special strength, was taking shape with the addition of rookie safety Jack Christiansen (pictured above), who also was an outstanding punt returner.

Meanwhile, the Packers, under Head Coach Gene Ronzani, were in trouble. They had lost three straight, including at home against the Lions, and were 3-5. Second-year QB Tobin Rote was a capable passer and outstanding runner – he was far more productive than any of the team’s running backs, which was at the root of Green Bay’s offensive problems.

There were 33,452 in attendance at Briggs Stadium for the Thanksgiving Day game. Detroit started off the scoring in an eventful first quarter with Walker kicking a 20-yard field goal. Green Bay responded by driving 75 yards, capped by a touchdown pass from Rote to end Carl Elliott that covered 15 yards.

The Lions came right back as Layne threw to Hoernschemeyer for a 17-yard TD, but the Packers scored again when Rote connected once more with Elliott for a 43-yard gain that set up a one-yard scoring run by the quarterback. Green Bay was ahead by 14-10 after one period of play.

In the second quarter, Rote tossed another scoring pass, this time covering 48 yards to HB Don Moselle, and Fred Cone’s extra point extended the Packers’ margin to 21-10. The rest of the half was all Detroit, however, as Layne completed two touchdown passes to Hart, of 33 and 19 yards, and in between connected with Walker for a 35-yard TD. At halftime, Layne had tossed four scoring passes and the Lions were ahead by ten points at 31-21.

The game turned into a rout in the third quarter. Three plays into the second half, Hoernschemeyer ran around left end and then cut back for an 82-yard touchdown. The Packers finally got on the board again when Rote threw to end Ray Pelfrey for a 42-yard TD.

However, with the score at 38-28, any hopes for a Green Bay comeback were extinguished by two big punt returns by Christiansen. First, the rookie fielded a kick at his 29 and returned it 71 yards for a TD. A few minutes later, and still in the third quarter, he returned another punt all the way, this time going 89 yards.

The Packers scored one more touchdown in the fourth quarter, on a 35-yard pass from QB Bobby Thomason to Elliott, but the result had been rendered a foregone conclusion by Christiansen’s punt returns. Detroit set a new franchise record for points in a game in winning by a score of 52-35.

The statistics were closer than the final score as the Lions outgained Green Bay by 478 yards to 458 and the Packers had the edge in first downs, 20 to 19. Green Bay actually had more rushing yards (179 to 172) and Detroit’s lead in passing yardage was not all that great (306 to 279). However, the two big punt returns for touchdowns, combined with four turnovers (to one by Detroit) and 10 penalties (the Lions were flagged four times) made the difference.

Bobby Layne completed 20 of 36 passes for 296 yards and the 4 touchdowns with one intercepted. Thanks to the long scoring run, Bob Hoernschemeyer gained 99 yards on just seven carries and also caught 5 passes for 48 yards and a TD. Jack Christiansen tied his own record for punts returned for touchdowns in a game with two and also set records with 175 yards on punt returns and a 43.8-yard average (both long since broken).

For the Packers, Tobin Rote (pictured above) was productive on the ground, rushing 15 times for 131 yards and a TD, and also threw for 201 yards and three touchdowns. Ray Pelfrey caught 4 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown.

The Lions just came up short of winning the National Conference as they lost two of their last three games, both to the 49ers. Their 7-4-1 record tied for second with San Francisco, a half game behind the Rams at 8-4. Green Bay kept on losing and finished fifth in the conference at 3-9.

Bobby Layne (pictured at left) had 24 TD passes after his four-touchdown performance and ended up with a league-leading 26, which put him just two short of the existing NFL record. He also led the league in pass attempts (332), completions (152), yards (2403), percentage of TD passes (7.8) and, reflecting his gambling style of play, interceptions (23, tied with Adrian Burk of the Eagles). He was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his Hall of Fame career.

Doak Walker, who scored 16 points in the game, had 82 after the win over the Packers to put him in the league lead. While he led the NFL in scoring as a rookie in 1950, in the end he finished third in ’51 with 97 points. His 1270 all-purpose yards ranked third as well.

Tobin Rote set a season rushing record for quarterbacks with 523 yards that lasted until 1971. He also passed for 1540 yards with 15 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.

With the two touchdowns on punt returns against the Packers, Jack Christiansen, who had already had a two-TD day returning punts against the Rams, became the first player in NFL history to return two punts for touchdowns in a game as well as do it twice in a season. He ranked second in the league with a 19.1 average (Buddy Young of the New York Yanks barely beat him out with a 19.3-yard average). Christiansen went on to average 12.8 yards over the course of his Hall of Fame career and scored eight touchdowns returning punts. He also intercepted the first two of an eventual 46 passes.