September 15, 2013

1963: Steelers Rally But Missed Extra Points Cause Tie with Eagles

The Pittsburgh Steelers started off their 1963 NFL season against the cross-state rival Eagles in Philadelphia on September 15. Coming off a promising 9-5 record in ’62, Steelers Head Coach Buddy Parker had agreed to stay on for another year. While Hall of Fame-bound QB Bobby Layne, who was showing a great deal of wear, had retired, the Steelers had ex-Bears QB Ed Brown available to direct the offense. FB John Henry Johnson was coming off his finest pro season, having rushed for 1141 yards, and there was an excellent deep receiver available in split end Buddy Dial. Tragically, the defense lost DT Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb to an offseason drug overdose, but overall the unit was a good one. DE Lou Michaels (pictured above) doubled at the team’s placekicker and was coming off a season in which he had set a NFL record with 26 field goals – his ups and downs would play a significant role in the opening contest.

For Head Coach Nick Skorich’s Eagles, 1962 had been an injury-plagued disaster. Just two years removed from a NFL title, Philadelphia went 3-10-1 to drop to the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Following a record-breaking season in 1961, QB Sonny Jurgensen still led the NFL in passing yards with 3261 but also in interceptions with 26. Nevertheless, the offense contained formidable weapons in flanker Tommy McDonald, TE Pete Retzlaff, and HB Timmy Brown, who had broken out in ’62 to set a league record for all-purpose yards with 2306.  

It was an overcast and raw day at Franklin Field with 58,205 fans in attendance. The Steelers gained a pair of first downs on their initial series of the game, both on runs by HB Dick Hoak, but eventually had to punt after reaching the Philadelphia 45.  

The Eagles responded with a 10-play, 87-yard drive that started with Sonny Jurgensen connecting with Tommy McDonald (pictured below) for a 43-yard gain and ended with another Jurgensen to McDonald throw for a 13-yard touchdown. In between, Jurgensen kept the drive going with a 27-yard completion to Pete Retzlaff in a third-and-10 situation and a quarterback sneak that converted a fourth down.

On their next possession, following a punt by the Steelers, the Eagles again moved into Pittsburgh territory but CB Dick Haley intercepted a Jurgensen pass at the 38. Still, the Steelers couldn’t move effectively on offense and punted. While Timmy Brown took off for a 21-yard gain to start the series, the Eagles punted early in the second quarter.

The Steelers came alive on offense as Ed Brown completed passes to TE Preston Carpenter, Buddy Dial, and HB Tom Tracy. The drive stalled and Lou Michaels kicked a 38-yard field goal to reduce Philadelphia’s margin to 7-3.

The teams traded turnovers. Pittsburgh CB Brady Keys mishandled a punt and rookie LB Lee Roy Caffey recovered for the Eagles at the Steelers’ 44. But on the next play, Timmy Brown fumbled a handoff and LB George Tarasovic got the ball back for Pittsburgh. The Steelers went eight yards in three plays and Michaels kicked a club-record 50-yard field goal to make it a one-point contest. Michaels had a chance to put the Steelers in front at the end of the half but his try, again from 50 yards, fell short. Philadelphia took the slender 7-6 lead into halftime.

Early in the third quarter, John Henry Johnson fumbled and LB Maxie Baughan recovered for the Eagles at the Pittsburgh 41. The home team made the most of the break, driving to a six-yard touchdown pass from Jurgensen to TE Ralph “Catfish” Smith.

Late in the period the Steelers tried another field goal but Michaels was wide to the left from 37 yards out. Pittsburgh got the ball back on a turnover and advanced to the Philadelphia 10 as the period ended and started off the fourth quarter with a 17-yard Michaels field goal. The margin for the Eagles was cut to 14-9.

Pinned deep in their own territory following the kickoff, the Eagles were forced to punt and King Hill booted the ball 62 yards, which Keys again muffed when he tried to pull it in over his shoulder. However, this time he picked up his own fumble and ran 71 yards down the right sideline before being dropped at the Philadelphia three yard line. Two plays later, Johnson dove for a one-yard TD but CB Irv Cross blocked the extra point attempt. Still, Pittsburgh was ahead by a score of 15-14.

Safety Clendon Thomas picked off a Jurgensen pass on the next series, but the Eagles came back to score again. On a third-and-five play at their own 25, Jurgensen tossed a bomb to McDonald for a 75-yard touchdown and, with rookie Mike Clark’s third successful extra point added, regained the lead at 21-15.

Thomas returned the ensuing kickoff 41 yards to give the Steelers good field position at the 50. Seven plays later, Ed Brown threw to Johnson for an 11-yard TD. However, once again the extra point attempt went awry as the kick by Michaels hit the right upright and bounced back.

Neither team was able to break the deadlock in the time remaining. The game ended with the Steelers at the Philadelphia 25 following a pass from Ed Brown to Dial. Time ran out with the score tied at 21-21.

The Eagles outgained the Steelers (353 yards to 315) although Pittsburgh accumulated more first downs (21 to 14). Philadelphia had difficulty running the ball, gaining just 58 yards on the ground to 109 for the Steelers, and the Eagles also turned the ball over four times, to two suffered by Pittsburgh.

Ed Brown completed 18 of 34 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Buddy Dial (pictured at right) caught 7 of those throws for 116 yards. Dick Hoak led the Steelers in rushing with 55 yards on 15 carries while John Henry Johnson contributed 40 yards on 13 attempts and caught three passes for 16 yards and a TD via each. Lou Michaels was successful on three of five field goal attempts, but his two failures in three tries for extra points doomed the Steelers to a tie rather than a win.

For the Eagles, Sonny Jurgensen was successful on 16 of 26 passes for 322 yards and three TDs with two intercepted. Tommy McDonald had a huge performance with 7 catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns. Timmy Brown paced the running attack with a modest 24 yards on 7 carries but, indicative of his all-around skills, gained 79 yards on four pass receptions.

“We got a bad game out of our system, and we got away with it,” said Buddy Parker.

There was additional drama – and nearly a tragedy – during the game that most were unaware of until it was reported afterward. Pittsburgh LB John Reger was knocked unconscious when making a tackle at the end of the first quarter and swallowed his tongue. Swift action by the team doctors saved him from choking.

The Steelers would go on to tie three games, and it would play a role in the race for the Eastern Conference title. Pittsburgh was 7-3-3 going into the last game of the season against the 10-3 Giants in New York and, with ties not affecting a team’s winning percentage at that time, the Steelers could have finished first in the Eastern Conference with a win. They lost to the Giants to end up fourth at 7-4-3.

Lou Michaels went on to kick 21 field goals on 41 attempts and missed only one more extra point in the remaining games. He was chosen for the Pro Bowl. Buddy Dial also had a Pro Bowl year, catching 60 passes for 1295 yards (21.6 avg.) and nine touchdowns.

The Eagles endured another disappointing and injury-marred season, with Sonny Jurgensen missing five games. They again ended up at the bottom of the conference with a 2-10-2 record.

Tommy McDonald caught 41 passes for 731 yards (17.8 avg.) and eight TDs. It was not one of his most productive years in Philadelphia, no doubt affected by Jurgensen missing significant time. Timmy Brown broke his record for all-purpose yards as he rolled up a total of 2428 (841 rushing, 487 pass receiving, 945 on kickoff returns, 152 returning punts).