December 4, 2012

1960: Lions Stun Colts with 65-Yard TD on Last Play

The Baltimore Colts had won back-to-back NFL Championships in 1958 and ’59 and seemed well on their way to a third as they broke out to a 6-2 start in 1960. Head Coach Weeb Ewbank’s team still had the solid core on offense of QB Johnny Unitas, HB Lenny Moore, and end Raymond Berry and a fine defense anchored by the line that included DE Gino Marchetti and tackles Art Donovan and Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb. If there were major concerns, they pertained to injuries in general and, more particularly, the running game as FB Alan Ameche was showing signs of wear. They had lost to the 49ers to fall to 6-3 and on December 4 hosted the Detroit Lions, who had beaten them earlier in the year.

The Lions, coached by George Wilson, got off to a slow start at 1-4 but had then won three of their last four contests prior to the rematch with Baltimore. Traditionally a tough defensive club, the Lions were benefiting from the additions of veteran DHB Dick “Night Train” Lane and rookie DT Roger Brown. The offense also had a talented rookie in split end Gail Cogdill to add to an attack that featured the running of FB Nick Pietrosante and HB Dan Lewis.

There were 57,808 fans at Memorial Stadium for the important Western Conference matchup. The defenses dominated the first three quarters of play. In the first quarter, the Colts got on the board when rookie DE Lebron Shields blocked a punt by Yale Lary that rolled back through the end zone for a safety.

The Lions responded with a 20-yard Jim Martin field goal to go ahead by 3-2. In the second quarter, Unitas threw to Lenny Moore (pictured below) for a 60-yard touchdown, but Steve Myhra’s extra point attempt went wide and the score remained 8-3 in favor of Baltimore.

It stayed that way through the scoreless third quarter. Detroit QB Jim Ninowski had been ineffective, completing just 8 of 22 passes for 82 yards, two of which were intercepted. Unitas was having his share of difficulties as well thanks to the aggressive Lion defense. In addition to three interceptions, he had five passes deflected and lost a fumble. The pickoffs and fumble were costly, all coming in Detroit territory.

Detroit’s backup QB Earl Morrall (pictured at top) replaced Ninowski in the fourth quarter. Morrall threw a touchdown pass to HB Howard “Hopalong” Cassady that covered 40 yards and put the Lions in front by 10-8. Jim Martin added a 47-yard field goal that increased Detroit’s margin to 13-8 with 1:15 left on the clock.

Unitas and the Colts came back, however, and scored with 14 seconds to play as Moore made a sensational diving catch for a 31-yard touchdown. It seemed as though Baltimore had pulled out a tough 15-13 win. Fans stormed the field following the TD and again after DB Bruce Maher returned the kickoff 34 yards and nearly broke free. Some of the players also got into altercations on the field, causing further delay in the resumption of play.

With just seconds remaining and no timeouts, Morrall threw a short pass to end Jim Gibbons who went all the way to the end zone, a distance of 65 yards. Expecting a sideline pass, the Colt defensive backs had all dropped back accordingly and Gibbons, not the fastest of Detroit’s receivers, had clear sailing down the middle of the field. In stunning fashion, the Lions were winners by a score of 20-15.

Baltimore had the edge in total yards (387 to 302) and first downs (19 to 18). However, the Colts also turned the ball over five times, to three by the Lions, and were only able to gain 54 yards on the ground, as opposed to Detroit’s 133.

In relief of Jim Ninowski, Earl Morrall completed 5 of 6 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns with none intercepted. Nick Pietrosante rushed for 69 yards on 12 carries. Three Detroit receivers caught three passes apiece, with the long score for the winning TD giving Jim Gibbons (pictured below) a team-leading 83 yards on his three receptions while Howard Cassady gained 69, including a touchdown, and Gail Cogdill had 24 yards.

For the Colts, Johnny Unitas was successful on 22 of 40 throws for 357 yards and two touchdowns, but also gave up three interceptions. It marked the 47th straight game in which Unitas threw a TD pass, a record streak that would be snapped the following week and remain the NFL’s longest until 2012. Raymond Berry caught 10 of those passes for 117 yards while Lenny Moore, who led the team in rushing with just 18 yards in 8 attempts, gained 139 yards and scored twice with his four pass receptions. Alan Ameche rushed for 15 yards in three attempts before suffering a career-ending Achilles tendon injury, further weakening the running game for the last two contests.

“I told Gibbons if he went down the middle, he’d probably be open,” explained Earl Morrall regarding the game-winning play. “We had no timeouts left. The Colts knew it, so I knew the middle would be open.”

“It looked like the ball was thrown near (Bob) Boyd and (Andy) Nelson, but what I can’t understand is why the other backs didn’t start converging when the ball was still in the air,” said a frustrated Weeb Ewbank, who initially had been glad that Morrall had thrown short down the middle.

It was the first time a team had swept the season series against the Colts since 1956 and the first time they lost two straight at home since ’57. The loss dropped the Colts into a tie for first in the Western Conference with Green Bay and San Francisco. The Bears were right behind at 5-4-1 and Detroit, having evened its record at 5-5, also now found itself in the race.

It continued to get worse for the Colts, who lost their remaining contests to finish up in fourth place at 6-6. The Packers topped the conference with an 8-4 record and the Lions, winners of their last four games, tied the 49ers for second with a 7-5 tally. They went on to win the first installment of the Playoff Bowl, a postseason exhibition game between the second place teams in each conference.

Earl Morrall, in his fifth of what would be an eventual 21 NFL seasons, completed 32 of 49 passes for 423 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. He would continue to vie with Ninowski and, later, Milt Plum for the starting job with the Lions for another four years.

The third-year pro Jim Gibbons caught a career-high 51 passes for 604 yards (11.8 avg.) with one other TD in 1960. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the first of three times in his eleven-season career, all spent with Detroit.