When the Cleveland Browns ruined the Lions’ Christmas

Lions’ back Doak Walker runs with the football against the Cleveland Browns in a regular season game in December of 1954.

Everybody knew that Buddy Parker had Paul Brown’s number. By the time the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns lined up for the opening kickoff of the NFL title game on the afternoon of December 26, 1954, fans and the press had that one fact burned into their noggins. In eight previous meetings between the opposing coaches, Parker had yet to lose to his sidelines counterpart, winning seven games and tying an eighth.

Parker’s unfathomable success against the man widely regarded as the most cerebral and successful coach of his time included exhibition games, regular season contests, and – most important – the last two title games. In 1952, Parker’s Lions had beaten the Browns, 17-7, for Detroit’s first championship since 1935. The following December, the Lions squeaked past Cleveland, 17-16, as Jim Doran carried a throw from Bobby Layne into the Briggs Stadium end zone in the final minutes of the game.

The ’54 Lions were loaded with talent. Detroit’s superiority was reflected in sportswriters’ voting for the annual Associated Press All-Star team. Six Lions made the 22-man roster: linemen Lou Creekmur and Dick Stanfel, halfback Doak Walker, defensive back Jack Christiansen, and linebackers Les Bingaman and Joe Schmidt. (In comparison, only two other clubs, Cleveland and Philadelphia, had as many as three of its players selected.) Creekmur, Walker, Christiansen, and Schmidt, along with Layne and defensive back Yale Lary (who spent the season in the army), were all future Hall of Famers.

The week before the Lions and Browns were to meet for the third straight year in the championship game, the rivals bumped heads in a meaningless regular season finale. The game had originally been scheduled for October 3, but the Indians needed to reserve Municipal Stadium for a possible World Series game. The rescheduled match was played in a snowstorm on December 19, and once again the Lions pulled out a last-minute 14-10 victory, Layne finding Jug Girard in the swirling snow for the winning touchdown. The win allowed Detroit to edge the Browns for the league’s best record, 9-2-1 to Cleveland’s 9-3.

Girard’s catch worked wonders on bettors. It caused the odds to swing six points in favor of the Lions, changing them from three-and-a-half-point underdogs to two-and-a-half-point favorites. The Lions’ latest triumph over the Browns proved once again that when it came down to a match-up between Buddy Parker and Paul Brown, the Lions were simply always going to find a way to win. Brown, though, was conceding nothing. “Well,” he said sourly, “at least they’re going to let us play the game, aren’t they?”

On December 24, the Friday before the big game, Layne was presented with the President’s Cup by club president Edwin J. Anderson. The cup went to the club’s most valuable player as voted by his teammates. The Texas-born Layne was riding high in the saddle. A few weeks earlier, he had become the first NFL player ever to grace the cover of Time magazine. Few doubted that the Lions were a team of destiny. Just one more victory over the Browns would make them the first team ever to win three straight NFL championships.

On Christmas evening, Layne and his normally nocturnal teammates turned in at an early hour. The following morning, as the Lions assembled in the hotel lobby to board a bus for Municipal Stadium, general manager Nick Kerbawy asked Layne how he felt.

“Super,” Layne said. “I had just about 10 hours in the sack.”

Kerbawy walked away grumbling. “We’re in trouble,” he said. “Bobby had a good night’s sleep.”

The Lions started this cold, clear day after Christmas with the mad energy of kids on a candy-cane sugar buzz. Early on, fullback Bill Bowman took Layne’s hand-off and raced 50 yards through the Browns’ defense before finally being hauled down on the Cleveland 34. A few moments later, Layne rolled out to pass and hit Dorne Dibble in the clear…and Dibble dropped the ball. Lew Carpenter then lost a fumble, ending the Lions’ threat. “You could just kind of see from those plays what was going to happen,” Layne would later say.

It was widely thought that this would be Otto Graham’s last game. Counting time in the rival All-American Football Conference, which existed from 1946 through 1949, Graham was quarterbacking the Browns in their ninth title game in nine seasons.

Graham started off badly. His first pass was intercepted by Joe Schmidt, setting up a Doak Walker field goal and an early 3-0 Lions lead. Walker continued to play the hero, making a spectacular tackle of Billy Reynolds on the ensuing kickoff that saved a touchdown. Reynolds’ return allowed the Browns to set up shop on Detroit’s 41-yard line, but Detroit’s defense pushed Cleveland back. On fourth down, Horace Gillom went back to punt from midfield. He got the kick off, but a rushing Lion—Harley Sewell—ran into Gillom. The resultant penalty gave Cleveland a new set of downs on Detroit’s 35. After rookie fullback Mo Bassett lost two yards trying to crack Detroit’s defensive wall, Graham passed to Ray Renfro for a 37-yard touchdown. Lou Groza’s conversion gave Cleveland a 7-3 lead.

The lead grew a few minutes later when Don Paul picked off a Layne pass and ran it back deep into Detroit territory. Darrel Brewster then slipped past Schmidt and hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass from Graham to make it 14-3. Another long Reynolds return—this time a 42-yard runback of a Jug Girard punt—planted the Browns on Detroit’s 12-yardline near the end of the opening quarter. On the first play of the second quarter, Graham sneaked into the end zone to grow Cleveland’s advantage to 21-3. The frenzied crowd of 43,827 began to sense a rout. However, the Lions then pounded and passed their way eighty yards down the field, Bowman capping the drive with a short touchdown run.

The score was still only 21-10 when a spectacular play by middle guard Mike McCormack midway through the second quarter turned the game around. As Layne faded back to pass, the rushing McCormack made a desperate lunge for the ball—and wound up swiping it right out of the quarterback’s hand. McCormack’s steal put Cleveland’s offense in business on the Detroit 31. The Lions’ luck remained bad. Graham threw a wobbly pass that Carl Karilivacz should have intercepted; instead he deflected it into the hands of Ray Renfro at the 7. Moments later Graham eluded Creekmur’s shoestring tackle and ran five yards for a touchdown and a 28-10 cushion.

By halftime the score had climbed to 35-10 and all realistic dreams of a third straight NFL title had gone down the drain. Parker began the second half with Tom Dublinski at quarterback, a desperation move. After Dublinski couldn’t provide a spark, Layne was sent back out. Nothing helped. By game’s end the Lions had turned the ball over an astounding nine times, six on Layne interceptions, and the Browns had romped to a 56-10 victory for their first championship since 1950.

In Paul Brown’s view, the walloping was the result of an emotional outburst, a catharsis against a seemingly invincible arch-nemesis. He insisted that, for a single game at least, this squad was the greatest he had ever coached. “A more gratifying triumph never came to a football team,” observed the Chicago Tribune’s beat writer, George Strickler. “After four years of frustration…the Browns got even for all time, rolling roughshod over what many had come to regard as one of the greatest football machines in history.”

Of the Browns’ eight touchdowns, Graham accounted for six of them—three rushing and three passing. Graham was charitable. “Detroit has a helluva team,” he said afterwards, “but they got the breaks in those two other championship games. This time we got them.” Graham would push back his retirement one final season, steering the Browns to another lopsided title game victory in 1955, this time over Los Angeles. He left the pro ranks with an enviable and unprecedented accomplishment, having played in 10 championship games in 10 AAFC and NFL seasons.

For the Lions, it was a miserable, humiliating defeat. It was the second-worst shellacking ever in a pro title game and the most points ever hung on a Buddy Parker-coached team. “We just got knocked out of the ball game early—that was the trouble,” Parker said. “They just beat the hell out of us,” was Layne’s simple analysis. Both men would later blame a change in routine for the ruined bid for history. “Hell, we all went to bed at 10 p.m. the night before the game and got the devil beat out of us,” Layne said. “That’s not an excuse for losing but I think it shows it takes more than an early bedtime to win a ball game. I know I was awful. I never felt right.” Said Parker: “I guess when a kid’s been used to having a drink since he was 14, you don’t want to change his habits.”

Amnesia seemed to set in immediately inside the losers’ locker room, as players quietly showered and dressed and tried to shove any memory of the debacle out of their minds. Right tackle Charlie Ane claimed no recollection of what had started his fight with Cleveland defensive end Carlton Massey as the score mounted and frustration set in. Both players were tossed out of the game. “Nobody hit me and I don’t remember hitting anyone else,” said Ane. “It was just one of those things.”

To the end of their days, that was how most Lions of the Fabulous ‘50s chose to describe the one blemish on the otherwise perfect postseason record they compiled during the decade. The ‘54 championship game?

It was just one of those things.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.