The Forgotten Years of the Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions have not won a championship since 1957. Everybody knows that, right?

In fact, if you pay attention to the gripes and complaints of Lions fans, you know that the franchise has absolutely been in the dumps for the 53 years that have followed the 1957 triumph. Right?

Wrong. The debacle that is the modern Detroit Lions has unfairly robbed a set of stellar Lions squads of their historical place in local sports lore.

It’s a shame. Four teams that were good enough to be championship squads, four teams that were good enough — and colorful enough in the manner of the 1950s championship teams that influenced and preceded them — to go down as heroes in local memory, have been swamped, and lost, in the stain and stink that have overtaken the modern image of pro football in our town. And it just ain’t fair.

Detroit Lions receiver Gail Cogdill.

Take the 1962 Lions. Built around a monster defense and boasting enough offensive firepower during the tightly wound NFL of the early ‘60s, the 1962 squad just may have been the greatest Lions team of all-time. That year’s coach, George Wilson — an assistant on the Lions World Championship teams of 1952 and 1953, and head coach during the Lions last title conquest in 1957 — believed the ‘62 squad superior to all those legendary outfits. And this was a squad following-up on successive, and heroic, second-place finishes in 1960 and 1961.

The ‘62 bunch lacked a legendary Hall of Fame quarterback, longhand for the fact that they didn’t have Bobby Layne, whom the Lions had discarded by trade in 1958. (And no, Virginia, let me repeat it here — he never laid any kind of curse on his old team, never ever.) They did have Milt Plum, moving efficiently through the best of his six years with the club. He fired memorable touchdown passes to Gail Cogdill and Terry Barr, and directed a Lions running game that featured Nick Pietrosante and Danny Lewis.

What the team lacked in not having a Layne, or fellow Hall of Famers like Doak Walker or Lou Creekmur on offense was made up by that defense, surely the greatest in franchise history. It started with the original Fearsome Foursome (original here and around the league) of Williams, McCord, Brown and Karras … backed by the greatest middle linebacker of all time, Joe Schmidt (HoF)at the top of his game. He was joined by Wayne Walker and Brettschneider behind the line, and maybe the greatest defensive backfield in NFL history — the four Ls: Lane (HoF), LeBeau (HoF), Lary (HoF), and Lowe.

That team, at 3-0, lost an excruciating fourth game that year at Green Bay, when Plum astonishingly threw a third down pass as the Lions led 7-6 and were running out the clock with under two minutes to go. Lions receiver Terry Barr slipped in the mud and fell as the ball came his way. The defending champion Packers intercepted, ran down to the Lions 18, and kicked the winning field goal to forever tattoo that squad with the most painful loss in franchise history.

That the ‘62 Lions absolutely mauled Green Bay in the return bout at Tiger Stadium on Thanksgiving, the legendary 26-14 game, only made their second-place finish more painful. With the NFL then playing a 14-game schedule, the Lions finished 11-3, losing three games they could have, should have, won. The Packers — clearly not the equal of our hometown guys — pranced on to a postseason championship, one of many in those days, and the Lions had to settle for yet another Runner-Up Bowl victory.

The Runner-Up Bowl? Yup, believe it or not, the NFL featured a season-ending playoff, held the week before the Super Bowl, of the second-place finishers in each division. The 1960, ‘61, and ‘62 Lions won ALL of those stupid games, crunching Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh in the process, but going home each year a frustrated team.

Those great Lions teams of 1960 through ‘62 boasted a composite record of 29-13-1, with no titles to show for their efforts. The central force of those years, team captain Schmidt, brought his influence to bear later that decade when he became head coach in 1967. A holdover from the great teams of the ‘50s, Schmidt turned a woeful club around in short order, masterfully bringing the club into contention by 1969 (at 9-4-1) and into the playoffs (at 10-4) in 1970.

Boasting talent like QB Greg Landry, and runners Mel Farr, Altie Taylor, and Steve Owens, and Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders … the Lions were again anchored by their defense, and by Hall of Famers Lem Barney and LeBeau in the backfield, and Mike Lucci and Walker behind the Karras-led line.

Typical of the heartbreak inflicted on post-Glory Days Lions teams, that talented 1970 team lost a squeaker in the playoffs to an inferior Dallas club, 5-0. It figured. And it wasn’t long after that a beleagured Schmidt — tired of front office interference — quit the team that he had dramatically influenced for 20 years as a player and coach.

But atypical of what the Lions have become under the corrosive ownership of William Ford, those teams of 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1970 should not be tossed on the ash-heap of modern Lions history. Those guys won despite the effects of Ford and his spying manager Russ Thomas. They were not losers; in fact, they were among the greatest teams, and individuals, in Detroit Lions history.

And they deserve to be remembered as so. Next time you hear ALL the post-1950s Lions dissed in casual conversation, remember that some were heroic … and winners in classic Lions style.

Star-crossed yes, snakebit surely … but champions of their times.

2 replies on “The Forgotten Years of the Detroit Lions

  • Greg Hood

    The Detroit Lions of the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s have a Great History. They have had some of the best players to ever play football.
    You only mentioned a few of the greats however the few mentioned deserved better. There were some others who deserved mention as well such as the offensive line coached by chuck knox. Almost all members of the offensive line were all pro’s. I read in a magazine back then that the 1970 Lions had a higher rated power factor than the Pittsburg Steelers dynasty. That team was loaded with TOP NOTCH TALENT AT ALL POSITIONS.
    And mention has to be made of the team Wayne Fontes put together Barry Sanders greatest runner of all time, Herman Moore, Brett Perryman, Johnny Morton. Just plain bad luck reins in Detroit.

  • Brad Antone

    The ‘runner up bowl’ was played before the NFL Title Game. There was no Super Bowl Game until 1967, (the 1966 season). That 1962 Detroit Lions team had perhaps as good or better defense than the 1985 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears. I’m replaying the 1962 Lions season in honor of the late, great, Alex Karras, using Strat-O-Matic’s computer football sim. I’ve coaching them to a 9-0 record thus far, (computer coaches for the other teams) and in their 10th game of the ’62 season we are tied 7-7 in the first quarter against the Vikings. Detroit’s next game is a rematch of the great Thanksgiving Day game vs. the Packers. In their first meeting of the season we annihilated the Packers in Green Bay. The loss in the replay game was even more lopsided than it’s real life counterpart. 1962 Detroit Lions run and pass defense was absolutely amazing!

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