December 12, 2010

1965: Eagles Intercept 9 Passes in Rout of Steelers

The December 12, 1965 game at Pitt Stadium was hardly a battle of powerhouse teams. The Steelers were 2-10 and had lost five straight games, although one of their wins had been at Philadelphia, which was only slightly better at 4-8. But on a day of significant achievements that included Bears HB Gale Sayers running for six touchdowns and Green Bay HB Paul Hornung scoring five TDs in a key win over the Colts, the Eagles defense managed to do its part to grab a place in the record book.

The Eagles, under second-year Head Coach Joe Kuharich, were more noted for their offense, which included fleet all-purpose HB Timmy Brown, TE Pete Retzlaff, and a line anchored by ex-Packer C Jim Ringo and second-year OT Bob Brown. QB Norm Snead, in his second year following a controversial trade that brought him to Philadelphia from Washington for QB Sonny Jurgensen, continued to show promise but could me maddeningly inconsistent. The defensive line, on the other hand, was mediocre and the Eagles tended to blitz heavily, making them prone to aerial assaults.

Pittsburgh was coached by Mike Nixon, who had been forced to take over when Buddy Parker quit the team two weeks prior to the opening game (similar to his abrupt departure from the Detroit Lions eight years before). Things didn’t get better when the 12th-year veteran FB John Henry Johnson was lost for the season in the first game. Promising third-year QB Bill Nelsen was inserted into the starting lineup, but was inexperienced and had a bad knee that hindered his mobility.

There were 22,002 fans at Pitt Stadium, the smallest turnout of the year for the final home game. It didn’t take long for the Eagles to take advantage of a Steeler turnover when SS Nate Ramsey (pictured above) grabbed a fumble by HB Dick Hoak. Philadelphia drove 54 yards to a two-yard touchdown by FB Earl Gros.

Ramsey struck again, intercepting a Nelsen pass, and once more the Eagles capitalized. This time they drove 58 yards with Snead passing to Retzlaff for a 13-yard touchdown. While the extra point attempt by Sam Baker was missed, Philadelphia was up by 13-0 (two of the seven PAT attempts failed).

Ramsey went down with an injury, but his replacement, rookie Jim Nettles, made the next big defensive play as he also intercepted a pass by Nelsen and returned it 28 yards to the Pittsburgh eight yard line. Two plays later, HB Ollie Matson, in for the injured Timmy Brown, ran eight yards for another Eagles TD.

Coach Nixon replaced the shell-shocked Nelsen with Tommy Wade, but the move didn’t slow down the pickoff parade. Of Wade’s first four passes, two were intercepted, the first by Pro Bowl LB Maxie Baughan (pictured at left), who ran 33 yards for a touchdown. The Eagles had a 27-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, thanks to the fumble recovery and three interceptions.

The second quarter proceeded much as the first as Nettles intercepted his second pass of the day and returned it 56 yards for yet another Eagles touchdown. However, the Steelers finally got on the board when Wade connected with flanker Gary Ballman for a 20-yard TD. They even scored on an interception return of their own as CB Marv Woodson picked off a Snead pass in the closing seconds of the first half and ran 61 yards for a touchdown. But they were still down by 34-13 at the intermission (the second PAT attempt was no good).

In the third quarter, DE George Tarasovic, a 35-year-old ex-Steeler, scored on a 40-yard interception return. It was the fourth pickoff of the game to be brought back for a TD (three by the Eagles, one by Pittsburgh), thus setting a NFL record for combined touchdowns on interception returns (tied by the Seahawks against the Chiefs in 1984).

There was one more record to add before the sloppy contest was concluded. In the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, CB Irv Cross intercepted a pass at his two yard line. It was the ninth by the Eagles, tying the record set by the Green Bay Packers against Detroit in 1943.

The Eagles drove 98 yards, highlighted by a 60-yard gain on a pass from Snead to FB Tom Woodeshick, to score their final TD on an eight-yard run by FB Israel “Izzy” Lang with two minutes left in the game. The final tally was 47-13.

The Steelers gave up 12 turnovers in all, with three lost fumbles in addition to the nine interceptions (Philadelphia turned the ball over twice, both on pickoffs). Intercepting passes for the Eagles were Jim Nettles, with three; FS Joe Scarpati, who had two; and Nate Ramsey, Maxie Baughan, George Tarasovic, and Irv Cross with one apiece. Nettles (pictured below right) also led by returning his for a total of 84 yards.

Offensively, Pittsburgh outgained the Eagles (324 yards to 302) and had more first downs (19 to 17), but of course the Steelers dug themselves into a deep hole with the turnovers and were throwing often as they sought to catch up.

Philadelphia gained 191 yards on the ground, with the 13th-year veteran Ollie Matson leading the way, gaining 80 yards on 11 carries with a TD. Norm Snead completed just 7 of 21 passes for 118 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Pete Retzlaff caught 5 passes for 52 yards and the touchdown, and in the process broke existing single-season franchise records for pass receptions and receiving yards (he ended up with 66 catches for 1190 yards).

The two Pittsburgh quarterbacks combined for 305 passing yards, although the club ran for only 58 yards on 25 attempts. Bill Nelsen was successful on two of five passes for 27 yards and the first two interceptions. Tommy Wade completed 22 of 38 throws for 278 yards with one TD but 7 interceptions (a team record). Lost in the deluge was Gary Ballman’s 9 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown. HB Jim “Cannonball” Butler was the team’s top runner with 26 yards on 10 carries.

The Eagles lost their finale to finish at 5-9 and tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference with the Cardinals. Pittsburgh also lost the following week to conclude its worst year since 1944 with a 2-12 record to finish at the bottom of the conference.

A Philadelphia sportswriter described Bill Nelsen and Tommy Wade after the game as “seated despondently next to each other like two old ladies whose purses had just been snatched.” Things would get better for Nelsen, especially after he was traded to Cleveland in 1968, and he had a solid ten-year NFL career. Wade, however, was finished after the ’65 season. For his two-season career, he threw 13 interceptions and fumbled six times while tossing two touchdown passes.

Nate Ramsey ended up leading the Eagles with six interceptions in 1965. The three for backup Jim Nettles were his only pickoffs of the year. An undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin, Nettles ended up playing eight years in the NFL – like Nelsen, his best years came after he was traded away which, in his case, was to the Rams in 1969.