Lions’ Thanksgiving victory in ’62 still a feast to remember


Gregg Krupa/ The Detroit News

Detroit — The Vince Lombardi who arrived in Detroit for the game against the Lions was a man and a coach, not yet the legend.

By November 1962, he had resurrected the Green Bay Packers, a team in decline for two decades. In a few years, Lombardi would embody America’s ideal of a football coach.

Before the legend, though, comes the playing of the games.

As he walked into Tiger Stadium early on that raw, slate-gray Thanksgiving Day with a few snow flurries flying, Lombardi and his powerful Packers were four wins shy of the first perfect season in NFL history. Other than the Lions, the Packers would play only the lowly 49ers and, twice, the hapless Rams.

But, in the Lions locker room, a great menace stirred.

“To this day, I don’t know if I have ever been in a locker room quite like that one,” said Dick LeBeau, a Lions defensive back and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who has coached in the NFL for 39 years, including in six Super Bowls.

“It was a group of men who came together with a singleness of purpose that they were going to win a game that day.”

The Lions have played more games on Thanksgiving than any franchise. Their most frequent opponent is the Packers.

They will face each other Thursday with the best records for both teams in the 20 Thanksgiving games they have played. The Packers are 10-0, and the Lions 7-3. On November 22, 1962, they were 10-0 and 8-2.

Loss primes rematch

Anticipation for that game burst the boundaries of the city.

It was the only game that day, and it drew 30 million viewers. At the time, it was the largest television audience ever for CBS.

“People today forget that big national, TV audiences were still a little bit new, then,” said Joe Schmidt, the eight-time all-Pro middle linebacker and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“It was an opportunity to show people across the United States the kind of football team you were.”

The concept of people in one part of the country showing interest in two teams from another had yet to be tested.

“That game is one of the prime movers in the NFL becoming a national spectator sport,” said LeBeau, defensive coordinator for the Steelers.

“That television audience was one of the first ones that made them think, ‘Hey, people want to watch this!'”

Outside Michigan, few believed the Lions would win.

But the Lions had deep determination, born in a loss to the Packers that season.

Detroit had a 7-6 lead in Green Bay when, inexplicably, with the clock nearly expired, quarterback Milt Plum dropped back to pass.

Plum tossed an interception.

A few plays later, the Packers kicked a field goal to win 9-7.

“A few guys raised Cain with Milt Plum for throwing the ball,” Schmidt said. “It wasn’t Milt Plum.

“The play was called in from the sideline, and the receiver, Terry Barr, slipped. It was a well-thrown ball. If Terry hadn’t slipped, he would have caught the ball.”

Jerry Kramer, the great Packers guard, recalls the scene he heard emerging from the Lions locker room.

“They were throwing garbage cans around the locker room and cursing mightily,” Kramer said.

The game still jabs at Schmidt’s gut, 49 years later.

“Of all the games I played in and all the games I coached, this Green Bay situation remains in my mind,” said Schmidt, who coached Detroit from 1967-72. “As great as the players were that we had that season, it just goes unnoticed, to this day, because we lost that first one to Green Bay.

“To this day, no one knows who we are.”

Lions held the aces

That regret glowed red hot for the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

“We had a vendetta,” said Roger Brown, the first 300-pound lineman in the NFL, who played defensive tackle in both games for the Lions as part of the first “Fearsome Foursome.”

“We gave them a gift up in Green Bay, and we wanted to set the record straight.”

It started unceremoniously for the Lions, who drove to the Packers 17 only to fumble.

The Packers moved the ball, a bit. But, on three consecutive plays, the Lions began what is considered one of the greatest defensive performances in history.

*On second down from the Packers 47, defensive tackle Alex Karras, the four-time all-Pro, broke through Kramer to dump a running back for a three-yard loss.

*On third down, Karras, Schmidt and defensive end Darris McCord broke through and sacked Bart Starr.

*After the play was negated by a delay of game against the Packers, Brown drove through Packers guard Fuzzy Thurston on third down to drop Starr for a 15-yard loss.

Then, the Lions offense went to work with uncharacteristic speed and precision.

“We had a thing all year, Milty and I, where I was doing a lot of simple curls and crossing patterns,” said Gail Cogdill, a Lions wide receiver.

“Well, on Thanksgiving Day, instead of running out a little and turning one way or the other, I just kept going straight. I think we caught them off guard.”

Plum and Cogdill combined for two touchdowns — 33 and 29 yards — in the first half.

“All I can say is that the whole game felt like we were playing cards and you knew we had the best hand,” Cogdill said.

With a 14-0 lead, the Lions kicked off. It hardly mattered.

A play later, Brown broke through Thurston again, forcing Starr to fumble. Defensive end Sam Williams picked up the ball and, as the scorer for the game typed on the score sheet, “waltzed” into the end zone.

The Lions kicked off — and the Packers may have wished they had not.

On the first play, Brown tackled Hall of Fame running back Jim Taylor for a loss.

A play later, Brown, a man both fast and huge, was free in the Packers backfield, chasing Starr.

Brown grabbed him in the end zone for a safety.

“As far as anything extracurricular that we did, I would say the whole darned thing was motivation,” Brown said.

“We had some stunts and some nutty sorts of things, but we were determined to get to Bart Starr.”

‘A little bit of a nightmare’

With a brilliant plan drawn up by the 32-year-old defensive coach Don Shula, who would leave Detroit at the end of the season to become defensive coordinator in Baltimore, the Lions repeatedly were stunting ends, tackles and linebackers.

Officially, the Lions sacked Starr 11 times for 110 yards. It left the Packers with 49 yards passing.

Karras often was called “Tippy Toes” because of his great deception and a habit of running on his toes with short choppy steps. But on one play, available on YouTube, Karras simply bull rushed Kramer, pushing him from about the Packers 10 into the end zone, where he shoved the guard aside with a slip of his left shoulder and flip of his left forearm.

Starr somehow avoided a second safety.

“Along with Merlin Olsen, Karras was the greatest defensive tackle I ever faced,” said Kramer, a five-time all-Pro.

“The Lions absolutely kicked our butts all day long. They played with extreme emotion.”

A photograph, which over the years became a symbol of defensive tenacity in the NFL and still hangs in the Lions offices at Allen Park, shows Starr beginning to fall as he nearly disappears in the arms of four Lions, Williams, strong safety Bruce Maher, Karras and Schmidt.

“Bart has nothing but respect for the Lions and the way they attacked that day,” said Keith Dunnavant, a biographer of Starr, whose book, “America’s Quarterback,” was published in September. “He talks about Alex Karras and Roger Brown and those guys, and it’s the most respect a guy can have.

“But it probably remains a little bit of a nightmare for him. How could it not?”

When Green Bay rushed, it did not go much better. Detroit had five tackles for loss.

“I recall looking down at my jersey in the fourth quarter,” LeBeau said. “Now, remember this was November at Tiger Stadium, and it could be a little mucky out there.

“But I looked down at my jersey and I recall there wasn’t a mark on it. Our front seven played so well that day, I was never on the ground.

“They really didn’t even have to launder the thing.”

The Packers scored twice in the fourth quarter, one on an interception return by Plum.

The Lions won 26-14.

After the game, Lombardi smiled wryly and said, simply, “Well, you didn’t think we were going to win them all, did you?”

Opposing forces

The most common opponent for Detroit on Thanksgiving Day is Green Bay. The teams play their 20th game Thursday (records before the game):

Sources: Elias Sports Bureau, NFL

gregg.krupa@detnews.com

Perception of ‘evil’ Lions doesn’t match reality


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park — For a 5-2 football team, there sure are a lot of critics trying to pick the Lions apart.

Even the league’s own website got into the fray. They have billed the Lions game Sunday against the Broncos as Good vs. Evil — the good being Tim Tebow and the bad being Ndamukong Suh.

“I don’t know if that’s appropriate,” coach Jim Schwartz said.

It’s not appropriate, or accurate. But don’t think it won’t be used as a motivator this week. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham posted the headline and artwork from the NFL.com piece in the defensive meeting room.

“Yeah, I guess evil’s coming to town,” middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “The media likes to portray us as a dirty team, but that’s not the way we play. We’re just physical, we play hard and we hold everybody accountable.”

The critics aren’t letting the facts get in their way. Case in point — the accusations made by two Falcons players last week. No matter how much evidence is compiled — video and audio — that Suh and Cliff Avril were several yards away from fallen Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and didn’t kick him or taunt him, the perception they did won’t go away.

Lions myths are mounting by the week. It might be a good time to debunk a few of them.

Myth : Suh is going through a sophomore slump and he isn’t having the kind of impact he had last season.

Sports Illustrated poured gas on this one, naming Suh to their midseason all-underachieving team. It doesn’t pay to get too upset with these types of lists. Their intent is to stir debate.

But there is a growing perception that Suh is somehow not impacting games like he did last season.

“He is playing some kind of football and if anybody wants to deny that, they don’t know what they’re talking about, and probably never will,” Cunningham said. “He’s playing outstanding football.”

Critics point to his three sacks and 22 tackles as evidence that his impact is less. Certainly they are off his 10-sack, 66-tackle pace last season. But for one, those numbers don’t begin to measure his impact; and two, to expect him to duplicate or surpass 10 sacks is unrealistic.

“You can’t measure everything on a statistic like a sack, because I can take each stat that you have and turn it upside down for you,” Cunningham said. “He’s been very productive, very explosive. He’s played more physical this year than he did last year.”

Here’s a mini-myth: The Lions sack numbers are down. Really? They have 17 as a team, four behind the league leaders.

Schwartz just shook his head at the SI jab at Suh.

“He’s an impact player,” he said. “Everybody has a plan for him. Everybody tries to take him out. We are very satisfied with his production. He plays hard and he affects the game. We will worry about what our expectations and evaluations are, not those from people outside this building.”

Myth : The Lions can’t stop the run.

This one is a little trickier to defend. The Lions do rank 29th against the run, allowing 129.4 per game.

They have also allowed three consecutive 100-plus games — Atlanta’s Michael Turner (122), San Francisco’s Frank Gore (141) and Chicago’s Matt Forte (116).

“According to a lot of people, we can’t stop the run,” Tulloch said. “That is false. We’ve had some lapses lately but we are back in tune to what we need to do.”

What would be a more accurate criticism is the Lions have given up too many big plays in the run game.

Turner broke a 50-yarder. Gore accumulated 102 of his 141 yards in two carries.

There have been some major breakdowns in the back end — either at outside linebacker or safety.

But to say their run defense is bad seems harsh.

“That’s everybody else’s opinion,” Suh said. “I personally don’t think you can line up and run the ball on us all day. That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on. We’ve let out some big runs, which makes it look a lot worse than it really is.

“But perception is reality some times.”

Here’s a reality: Nine times the Lions have stoned a third-and-1 or a fourth-and-1 play. Suh stopped a third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 back-to-back against the Bears.

They stopped a fourth-and-1 at the goal line in Dallas, a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter in Minnesota, a third-and-1 in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, and a huge fourth-and-1 from their 11 in the fourth quarter at Tampa.

They can stop the run.

Myth : Matthew Stafford struggles to throw accurately on underneath routes.

This one came out of the blue and from a surprising critic — former quarterback Kurt Warner. He told NFL Network the reason the Lions’ offense struggled the last two weeks was Stafford’s inability to connect on those short passes in front of the linebackers.

A quick review of the numbers shows that Stafford has completed 73.5 percent of his throws behind the line of scrimmage (36 for 49 for 204 yards) and 67.4 percent of his throws from 1 to 10 yards (91-for-135, 805 yards).

Combine those and he’s hitting 69 percent of his underneath routes with five of his 16 touchdowns and two of his four interceptions.

It’s not Tom Brady-like by any measure, but it’s hardly a red flag. If Warner or anybody else wants to nit-pick at the sixth-best quarterback in the NFL, he could have pointed out his struggles with passes in the 21- to 30-yard range.

He’s hit only 4 of 16 there.

Stafford has struggled the last two weeks, no question. But to single out his accuracy on underneath routes seems random — just like a lot of the attempts to deconstruct the Lions’ 5-2 start.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489

Lions’ DeAndre Levy has bevy of options


Chris McCosky / The Detroit News

Allen Park— In a perfect world, the Lions would lock in DeAndre Levy at middle linebacker and concentrate their offseason efforts toward filling the gaping holes at the two outside linebacker positions.

But, as Levy well knows, the world is anything but perfect. That’s why he is ready and willing to move back to outside linebacker.

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“Whatever happens, I am willing to play any position,” he said while cleaning out his locker back on Jan. 3. “I am always ready. I know both positions and I have no preference.”

Levy, in his second year last season, certainly gave the Lions no reason to move him out of the middle. Once he got healthy, he validated the coaching staff’s belief that he could lead the defense.

In the team’s last four games, all wins, Levy delivered a game-saving interception against Green Bay, a winning pick-six at Miami, and a pair of 11-tackle performances at Tampa Bay and against Minnesota.

So why would the Lions consider moving Levy? Because the Lions presently have no true starter at either outside linebacker position and it’s possible that a quality middle linebacker will be easier to acquire than two outside linebackers.

Certainly there’s no guarantee the Lions will be able to acquire a middle linebacker, especially one who would be an upgrade from Levy, but it is one of the scenarios the Lions would consider.

Presently, the only outside linebackers on the roster are Bobby Carpenter, Ashlee Palmer and Caleb Campbell, none of whom the Lions consider a full-time starter. General manager Martin Mayhew said that two-year starter Julian Peterson would not be back. Opening-day starter Zach Follett’s career is in jeopardy because of the neck injury he sustained in Week 6. His replacement, Landon Johnson, is an unrestricted free agent.

Although neither Mayhew nor Schwartz will discuss the team’s offseason priorities, they will certainly look hard at linebackers, both inside and outside, in the draft (April 28-30) and when the free-agency period begins, which will be whenever a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

The consensus among draft experts, thus far, is that Von Miller of Texas AM and Akeem Ayers of UCLA are the top prospects at outside linebacker, and both are expected to be taken before the Lions pick at No. 13.

“We are going to take the best player available and you have to understand that, at that point, we’re talking about a group of players with a similar grade,” Mayhew said.

Most of the mock drafts have the Lions taking an offensive lineman at 13, validating Mayhew’s point.

But here’s another scenario that could impact Levy. What if Mayhew thinks the Lions can land a quality inside linebacker through free agency, somebody such as Tennessee’s Stephen Tulloch or Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny?

Would they not move Levy to the outside in that scenario? It’s something they would have to at least consider.

Like Schwartz said, the Lions believe that Levy is their guy at middle linebacker and they aren’t actively looking to move him. But the goal is to upgrade the entire linebacker unit, and if the best way to do that is to bring in another middle linebacker and move Levy to the outside, that’s what they will do.

Personnel dept.

The Lions have signed safety Erik Coleman , who was recently released by Atlanta.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489