50 years ago, Detroit Lions had their best team since last NFL championship
It was late on a pro soccer afternoon on Sunday and the media mob was anxiously standing by the elevator in the press box at the top of Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, waiting for the ride below.
That game was over. There were two seconds left, and the Lions had rallied and survived – 17-16.
At least it seemed so!
After 13 meager seasons, they were deeply competing for the playoffs.
Greg Landry, who came off the bench in place of starter Bill Munson, had taken the Lions downfield in a 60-minute drive to Bobby Layne’s playbook to get the correct field goal position in the 60th minute. Landry called timeout with 17 seconds left. Eric Mann kicked the sure 18-yard field goal for Detroit.
We pushed forward, pushed, elbows sharpened and ready to board. Work to do!
Mann started with a 14 second lead. Al Dodd kicked off the 28th. New Orleans would try a few desperate games and it would be over. I was certain that on that gray Sunday of 1970, half a century ago, Lions could not possibly lose.
That could never happen!
The Saints tried a pass, Billy Kilmer to Dodd for 17 yards to the Saints 45. The music box had dropped to 2 seconds.
We leaned towards the elevator door.
Below, the Saints’ field gate unit stormed into the field.
A voice spoke upstairs.
“Wait a minute, I want to see this,” said the authoritative spokesman. It was John Mecom Jr., owner of the Saints. He was the boss.
I took a step back to watch the alleged comedy in the field below.
Tom Dempsey stood on the Saints 37-yard line – 63 yards from the goal posts on the goal line – swinging his flat boot and mutilating his right foot. The Lions’ line of defense was there and not faced with an impossible placekick. Alex Karras giggled and waved his arms briefly.
Dempsey’s shoe thundered into the football. It went end over end.
“That game still sounds in my head,” Joe Schmidt, the then 38-year-old Lions coach, told me the other day. “I was happy to be standing there.
“Then he kicked, I’ll never forget the sound.
“It has to be a certain height. I’ve been waiting for it to fall. But it stayed on the same level and went on and on.
“And it cleared by three or four inches.”
The soccer ball flew over the bar 63 meters from Dempsey’s shoe. the impossible field goal
Saints 19, lions 17.
Then we got into the elevator and stopped several decks. Perplexed!
There was a painful silence in the Lions locker room. The board of the car was thrown on its side. There was a gaping, ragged hole near the top that was kicked by an angry Schmidt. The playoff fantasy seemed doomed.
Not 6-2 like I imagined, but 5-3 – and fade away.
This was a team that had just died.
The next week, after losing 24:20 in Minnesota, the Lions dropped to 5-4. Their chance to finish first in NFC Central was over.
But no, the Lions didn’t die in New Orleans.
They had been reborn and gradually revived themselves after Schmidt.
There was no evidence at the time. But the best and bravest Lions team since the 1957 championship had emerged.
Fifty years later, in my deep reflection, the 63-yard field goal was the trigger for a near-championship season. One shot to reach Super Bowl V. From an inspired, resourceful, angry, talented, and well-trained football team. In my opinion, this season – and still in 2020 – the best team in the NFL.
And the best Detroit Lions team since the 1957 NFL Championship. In the underworld in front of Super Bowls.
Staggering, dazed but upright at 5-4 to New Orleans and then the division leaders Vikings, the Lions faced a daunting schedule. The next four opponents would be first-placed from other divisions in the newly merged NFL with their first crossover schedule.
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Ahead of them were the 49ers, first at NFC West, at Tiger Stadium. Quarterback with Landry, Lions 28, San Francisco 7.
Four days later, on Thanksgiving, the Lions played the Oakland Raiders, first at AFC West, due to George Blanda’s coupling performance. Lions 28, Raiders 14.
Next, the Lions met the St. Louis Cardinals, the leaders of the NFC East. Lions 16, Cardinals 3.
The following week, the Lions were in Los Angeles to play against the Rams, new leaders of NFC West, on Monday night for their inaugural season. In a historical game Lions 28, Rams 23.
The final took place at home at Tiger Stadium against old rivals Green Bay. Lions 20, Packers 0.
The Lions had – bravely – with conviction – ended their schedule at 10: 4. They were in the playoffs, the first wildcard team in NFL history.
‘Not too much’
Somewhere between gloom in New Orleans and magic in Los Angeles, Schmidt had calmed his soccer team down and urged them to become the best team in professional soccer – my longstanding view.
When the mirror flashed back half a century – through so much history – I asked Schmidt what he had done to rally his team. It was a conversation between two Codgers – an old Hall of Fame midfielder and coach who was about to turn 89, and an old, impatient passenger / journalist in the elevator who is now 92 years old.
“Oh, not too much,” said Schmidt, still an understatement. “We had good soccer players – (Mike) Lucci, (Lem) Barney, (Dick) LeBeau, (Wayne) Walker.”
There was a lot more – Mel Farr, Charlie Sanders, Steve Owens. And more.
“They were good, spirited team players,” said Joe. “And we had good coaches; Chuck Knox, Bill McPeak, Jimmy David and John North.
“The players were stimulated and did it themselves.”
I said, Joe, you must have given an encouraging talk after New Orleans.
“Peppy talks?” said Schmidt. “I was like a gamer. I had only stopped playing a few years earlier. “
Whatever. He had brought his players from Dempsey’s field goal. And he had stimulated his Lions with a quick 14-0 deficit on Thanksgiving against the Raiders and a standard bearer of the extinct AFL.
It was the season in October and November when the battered Blanda fell off the bench to loot the Raiders for four wins and one draw in five consecutive games. Blanda was 43 then and his 21st season – Tom Brady’s age and experience today – in twos. He thrived as a desperate quarterback and later a place kicker.
On this Thanksgiving Day, the Raiders were 14-0 in the duel between the later Hall of Famers. The Raiders ‘Fred Biletnikoff and the Lions’ Barney. The leadership made the Raiders giggle at their bench next to the Lions in the outfield of the Tiger Stadium.
This was the game in which Landry-to-Charlie Sanders established itself as one of the most formidable passing combinations in the NFL.
In the end, the Lions two TDs ahead, Blanda valiantly tried to create another win for the Raiders.
It ended up with the Lions moving on.
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“Not oldtimers today,” Wayne Walker, the late, wondrous outline player, told me the words he said to Blanda that day.
“At the beginning they laughed at us when they scored those two touchdowns. We could hear and see them. “
Another turning point in 1970, my pick as the Lions’ best season of the last 63. And it matters.
Oh, the playoff game?
The Lions – plus eyeglass-eyed media – flew to Dallas on Christmas Day to play the cowboys. Eastern NFC winner in the first round of the Super Bowl playoffs.
The next day the Lions lost the infamous 5-0 game – on a field goal and a security.
The Cowboys kept playing and would hit Super Bowl V, losing to the Baltimore Colts, 16-13. The two participants somehow managed to generate 11 sales.
The Lions could have beaten them both 50 years ago when Joe Schmidt was a minor NFL coach and John Mecom Jr. stopped the elevator in New Orleans to watch Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal.
“Never kicked one harder,” Dempsey told me a few months later in the middle of the Super Bowl festival at Jean Lafitte’s 1807 New Absinthe House in New Orleans, the favorite pro-football district on Bourbon Street.
Tom is on my short list of all real sports heroes because of his half-foot and his friendliness. He lived another 50 years until last August and then died.
Jerry Green is a retired sports reporter for Detroit News.