Green Bay at Detroit
Aaron Rodgers and the defending champion Packers are 10-0 and appear to be favorites to win the NFC and defend their Super Bowl title. The surprising 49ers could get in their way as could the resurgent Detroit Lions whom the Packers meet today in Detroit.
The tradition of the Lions taking the field on Thanksgiving Day dates back to 1934. Recently those games haven’t meant much but this year with the Packers being 10-0 and the Lions led by All-World WR Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford, at 7-3 this shapes up to be a great matchup.
For me the best part of the NFL is its rich history – history that can and does repeat itself. And today the Holiday Table is ripe for that to happen again.
You see, back in 1962 the defending NFL champion Packers were at 10-0 and came to meet the 8-2 Lions on Thanksgiving. The team records are nearly identical to their contemporary counterparts and the visitors just so happen to be the defending champions.
Could today’s outcome be an NFL Back to the Future of sorts?
If you are a Packers fan you are hoping that’s not the case…
The Packers won their 7th NFL title behind third year coach Vince Lombardi in 1961. He had built the best team in football. His 1962 team would feature 10 Hall of Famers. When Lombardi retired after winning Super Bowl II, his Packers had won 5 NFL championships and are considered the greatest dynasty in NFL history. His 1962 team is considered the pinnacle of that dynasty, the single best team in NFL history Finishing 13-1, and beating a dominating team in their own right, the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium in the 1962 championship game to win their second of 5 titles.
They started 1962 by winning their first 10 games by an average score of 31-7. Include in that trail of beaten teams was John Unitas and the Baltimore Colts and George Halas’ Bears twice each during that stretch.
Up to the Thanksgiving date with the Lions, the Packers had just one tough game, played at home against the Detroit Lions. Lombardi’s crew pulled that one out 9-7 on a last second field goal, 9-7. On a muddy field Lions QB Milt Plum (who was supposed to be running the clock out) chose to be selfless (some say clueless) and tossed an errant pass the Packers way for an interception to set up the game winner.
Plum’s decision to throw infuriated his teammates so much that it triggered a Detroit clubhouse brawl as DT Alex Karras threw a punch at Plum after the game. Now there’s the Holiday spirit!
The drama aside, the Lions were a tough veteran team with a great defense headed by an innovative, 32 year old defensive coordinator and a veteran Hall of Fame linebacker in the middle, Joe Schmidt, who was like a coach on the field in 1962. He would later become the Lions head coach.
The (8-2) Lions took the field on Thanksgiving having lost only to the Packers and to the defending Eastern Division champion Giants 17-14. They wanted revenge for the 9-7 loss at Green Bay, a game they let slip away.
If only Plum had just taken a knee.
Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 1962
The temperature at Tiger Stadium was 37 degrees at game time with a wind chill of 28 – good football weather if you can get it during a Michigan November.
The Lions defensive game plan had a new twist. They would blitz their talented safeties on almost every play. Gary Lomar and future Hall of Famer Yale Lary would not only disrupt Packers QB Bart Starr, but they also targeted the famous Packers sweep with Hall of Famer Jim Taylor. Their plan was to thwart it in the Packers’ backfield before it got started.
The tactic worked, but it would leave the Lions cornerbacks in single coverage on the Packer talented wide receivers, Max McGee and Boyd Dowler.
The plan was spot on. Starr was harassed all day and he was sacked 10 times (5 by 300 pound DT Roger Brown). Defensive ends Darris McCord and Sam Williams were in the Packers backfield all day and Brown along with fellow tackle Karras made a turkey out of Taylor, stuffing him for just 47 yards.
The Lions struck first and never looked back. Plum made up for the first Packer game by throwing for scores to his Pro Bowl split end Gail Cogdill in the first and second quarters. He beat All Pro and Hall of Fame defensive back Herb Adderly for those touchdowns.
Later in the quarter, Brown hit Starr’s blindside and he fumbled. Williams scooped up the fumble and he lumbered in for another touchdown. The Packers had just one first down to the Lions’ three touchdowns and trailed 21-0.
The next time Green Bay had the ball, Starr was sacked again by Brown but this time he held on. However he was taken down in his own end zone as the half ended with the Lions holding a commanding 23-0 lead.
The second half started with a Lions drive that ended with a Plum 47 yard field goal, 26-0, Lions.
The Packers did score two late touchdowns. DE Willie Davis fell on a fumble in the end zone and a late Lions fumble set up Taylor’s 4 yard TD run to make the score a more respectable 26-14 as the final gun sounded.
The Packers were not undefeated anymore and Lions had their revenge. The key was the pressure that no one had seen before, blitzing two safeties on almost every play. It was a defense that would be named the 46 defense more than twenty years later by Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, but its true origins date back to this historic Thanksgiving game – a defense designed in 1962 by the Lions 32 year old defensive coordinator.
His name was Don Shula.
Shula would go on the next year to be hired by the Colts as their head coach and the rest as they say is history. Shula would go on to win more games than any other head coach in NFL history as the skipper of the Colts and Dolphins.
And who were those Lions CB’s who were in man coverage all day that made the blitzing of the safeties possible? Try Hall of Famers Dick Night Train Lane and Dick LeBeau, arguably the best CB pair in NFL history.
To this day, LeBeau still employs these defensive tactics as the Steelers defensive coordinator.
What a day that was in NFL history. Legends were born and Lombardi was handed a beating of a lifetime.
What new history will the Packers and Lions create this Thanksgiving?
We’ll find out in a couple of hours.