March 29, 2012

1962: Browns Send Plum to Lions in Three-for-Three Trade

On March 29, 1962 the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions completed a major trade that centered on their starting quarterbacks. Cleveland dealt QB Milt Plum, HB Tom Watkins, and LB Dave Lloyd to Detroit for QB Jim Ninowski, DE Bill Glass, and HB Howard “Hopalong” Cassady.

From Cleveland’s perspective, it was part of the retooling of a team that had last topped the Eastern Conference in 1957 (they tied with the Giants in ’58 but lost the resulting playoff). Head Coach Paul Brown, the architect of Cleveland’s success since 1946 when it was in the All-America Football Conference, had been criticized for inflexibility and was now making moves that would give the offense a different style.

Plum (pictured above) was a five-year veteran and statistically-outstanding passer who led the NFL in that category in both 1960 and ’61. However, he had become openly critical of Brown’s play-calling (and his insistence on calling all the plays from the sideline, not a standard practice at that time) and, together with some dissatisfaction on the head coach’s part with his quarterback’s performance in some big games, a trade seemed in order.

The key to the offense since 1957 had been star FB Jim Brown, and an earlier deal with Washington for their first-round draft choice, the Heisman Trophy-winning HB Ernie Davis from Syracuse, signaled a move by the Browns to becoming even more of a ground-oriented team. Cleveland had given up swift HB Bobby Mitchell to obtain Davis, but Davis was a bigger back (6’2”, 215 pounds to Mitchell’s 6’0”, 192) and, paired with Brown, would create a formidable tandem comparable to Green Bay’s HB Paul Hornung and FB Jim Taylor.

Meanwhile Detroit, also most recently in the postseason in ’57 and coming off back-to-back second place finishes, was looking to upgrade its offense. The defense was already outstanding, but the attack had not been of the same caliber. Ninowski was part of the problem – competing with backup QB Earl Morrall for playing time, he was successful on only 47.4 % of his passes for 1921 yards and tossed 18 interceptions with just 7 for touchdowns. While Plum was leading the league, Ninowski ranked 16th overall in passing.

Ninowski, who turned 26 just before the trade, was originally drafted by the Browns in 1958 and had seen little action as a backup in two years before moving on to Detroit. While his numbers were far inferior to Plum’s, he was also more mobile and, with Brown and Davis in the backfield, it was anticipated that Cleveland would mount an option attack.

“Hopalong” Cassady, winner of the 1955 Heisman Trophy, had never achieved the level of success that he had as an All-American at Ohio State. He appeared to be on the downside and had not done much in 1961, running the ball just 31 times for 131 yards and catching five passes. But he had been more productive in previous years and it was anticipated that he would be a versatile backup to Davis at halfback or veteran flanker Ray Renfro, as he was an able pass receiver as well as outside running threat and could also return punts. Bill Glass, a highly-regarded defensive end, had been with the Lions for four years and was slated to move into Cleveland’s starting lineup.

For Detroit, in addition to Plum, Tom Watkins was another key to the deal. A speedy runner at halfback, he had been stuck behind Mitchell in Cleveland and saw scant action for the Browns as a rookie in 1961 following an outstanding college career at Iowa State. In combination with veteran HB Dan Lewis, it was hoped that he would bolster the outside running game, which had been lacking for the Lions, and thus increase the effectiveness of star FB Nick Pietrosante. Dave Lloyd, 25 years old and having put in three seasons with the Browns, was obtained to add depth to Detroit’s veteran corps of linebackers.

Ninowski initially insisted he would not play for the Browns, nearly voiding the deal, but assurances that he would be the starting quarterback resolved the problem.

“I’ve always regretted trading Ninowski,” said Paul Brown (pictured with Ninowski below). “But at the time he wanted assurance that he’d be the No. 1 quarterback. We couldn’t give it to him then, but we’ve been so impressed with his progress we can give it to him now.”

“We’re getting what we’ve most needed – offensive help,” said a satisfied Head Coach George Wilson of the Lions in summing up the trade.

Cleveland’s plans first began to go awry due to a tragic circumstance. During the summer, Ernie Davis was diagnosed with leukemia and, as a result, never took the field for the Browns. He died the following year. Jim Ninowski had a solid preseason at quarterback, but the consistency problems he had in Detroit resurfaced during the regular season. The team got off to a 3-3 start and Ninowski went down for the year with a broken collar bone in the seventh game. Frank Ryan, a fifth-year quarterback who had been acquired after a lackluster stint with the Rams, took over and played well the rest of the way. While Cassady contributed little and was traded midseason to the injury-depleted Philadelphia Eagles, Bill Glass met expectations and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

The Browns, with even the durable Jim Brown struggling with an injury and having a relatively subpar year, finished up with a disappointing 7-6-1 record, and in a stunning development, owner Art Modell fired Paul Brown after the season.

While Detroit finished with an improved 11-3 tally, it was ultimately a frustrating year for the Lions as well. Plum set franchise records with 179 pass completions and 2378 yards, but also tossed 20 interceptions (as opposed to 15 touchdowns) and dropped to 11th in the league’s passing standings (still three ahead of Ninowski). His leadership qualities came into question and he became caught up in dissension between the offensive and defensive platoons, particularly after a loss to the Packers in a key Week 4 matchup – nursing a one-point lead late in the game, Plum went to the air rather than keeping the ball on the ground, it was intercepted, and Green Bay was able to kick a game-winning field goal. In several instances as the season progressed, Morrall relieved Plum in game-saving situations.

Tom Watkins ran the ball effectively, gaining 485 yards while averaging 4.3 yards-per-carry, and also averaged 26.6 yards on 17 kickoff returns. Dave Lloyd was a capable reserve. But in the end, the Lions still finished second to the Packers in the Western Conference.

Under Paul Brown’s successor, Blanton Collier, the Browns bounced back to a strong 10-4 finish in 1963 and were NFL Champions in ’64. It was Frank Ryan at quarterback, however, not Jim Ninowski, who remained with the team through 1966 but was strictly a backup. Of the players obtained in the Milt Plum deal, Bill Glass (pictured at left) proved to be the best acquisition. His Pro Bowl selection in 1962 was the first of three straight and four overall. He was a mainstay of the 1964 title-winning defense and remained with Cleveland until the end of his career in 1968.

Meanwhile, the Lions failed to contend during the remainder of Plum’s tenure with the club. They dropped off to 5-8-1 in an injury-filled 1963 season and Plum played poorly, losing his starting job to Morrall. While he eventually regained it and remained with the Lions until 1967, Plum proved to be an inconsistent performer and Detroit had only one winning season (7-5-2 in ’64) during that time. As much as he had bridled under Paul Brown’s offensive system in Cleveland, it appeared that his success there had been a product of it, and the weaknesses that he displayed with the Browns became more glaring with the Lions.

Tom Watkins (pictured at right) also remained with Detroit through ’67 (he missed the 1966 season due to injury). He never ran for more than 485 yards and was also never the unchallenged starting halfback, but was more prominent as a kick returner, leading the NFL in punt return average (14.9) in 1964 and kickoff returning (34.4) in ’65. Overall, he averaged 10.3 yards on 94 punt returns with three touchdowns for the Lions and 24.9 yards on 91 kickoff returns.

Dave Lloyd played only a year with the Lions before being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he moved into the starting lineup at middle linebacker and played well until 1970, garnering a Pro Bowl selection along the way.