Unbeknownst to the Detroit Lions the 1957 season would be the teams farewell tour with regards to appearing in the NFL title game. Following the 1957 season the Lions would not participate in another championship game till…well, Lions fans are still waiting for the team to make it back to the title game. The journey to their third NFL title in the 1950’s made for a great season and was a prelude to a team on the rise.
Rules changes for the 1957 season included a dress code adjustment, home teams were now required to wear dark jearsey and away teams to wear white. Up to that point in the NFL, teams could wear whatever color they liked and were not required to have white jerseys. ( Considering televised football games were on the rise, I’m sure the networks had a lot to do with this rule change. You can’t have two teams in dark jerseys running around on a black and white TV.) It was also announced time out in sudden death would be the same as in regulation.
The Eastern Conference was dominated by the Cleveland Browns who lead from start to finish, ending the season with a 9-2-1 mark. It would be the last conference title for the Browns in the 1950’s, capping an outstand first eight years in the league. Seven NFL title game appearances and three Championships in an eight years time span. Without question, one of the greatest runs by any team in the history of football. As the AAFC Browns era came to a close a new era was beginning in Cleveland. 1957 was Jim Browns first year with the Cleveland franchise.
Statistically James Nathaniel Brown had the greatest nine year stretch of any professional football player in the history of the game. In his first season Brown won both the MVP and Rookie of the year award, in all he earned four MVP awards 1957, 1958, 1963 and 1965. Brown was named to nine straight Pro-Bowls and was a part of eight All-NFL teams, 1957 thru 1961 and 1963-65.
Though Brown is remembered more as running back, his athletic abilities made him a threat in all aspects of the offensive attack. Jim Brown averaged 29 catches a year for 9.5 yards per touch and had 20 total touchdowns through the air. He had 29 kickoff returns for 648 yards and threw for 117 yards/ 3 touchdowns.
Jim Brown once told John Mackey, “Make sure when anyone tackles you, he remembers how much it hurts.”
Jim Brown was an All-American at Syracuse University, and is also a member of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame. His number 32 has been retired by the Browns organization and James Nathaniel Brown is a member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Western Conference was a three team race from beginning to end, with the 49ers and Lions meeting in a one game playoff to determine the conference winner.
The playoff game between the Lions and 49ers took place on December 22, 1957 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco and turned out to be the battle in the bay. The 49ers jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead and went into halftime leading 24-7, then things got interesting.
The 49ers scored first in the third quarter on a 10 yard Gordy Soltau field goal and then it was all Detroit. Lions running back Tom Tracy scored twice on runs of 1 and 58 yards to finish out the scoring in the third quarter and narrowing the 49er lead to 27-21. In the fourth quarter Lions running back Gene Gedman scored from 2 yards out giving Detroit a 28-27 lead. Later in the quarter the Lions added a field goal that gave them a 31-27 win and a trip to the NFL title game.
Though it was the 49ers and Lions that met in the one game playoff, it was the other team in the Western Conference regular season triangle that was starting to rise to the top of the football world.
The Baltimore Colts had been making some noise for the last couple of years in the Western Conference, finishing 5-6-1 in 1955, 5-7 in 1956 and 7-5 in 1957. No longer the defunct Dallas Texans, entering the league in 1953 as the new Baltimore Colts, the team was starting to develop a personality and swagger of their own. The left side of their defensive line was a thing of beauty and exemplified how the defensive line should be played in the NFL
At 6’4” and 244 lbs, Gino Marchetti was named the best defensive lineman of the NFL’s first 50 years, as selected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Gino was drafted in the second round (14 overall) in 1952 by the defunct New York Yanks, that eventually became the one year wonder Dallas Texans, that eventually became the new Baltimore Colts.
In 13 seasons with the Colts, Gino made the Pro Bowl a then record 11 straight years from 1954-1964. He was a first team All-Pro selection for nine consecutive years from 1956-1964. LA Rams head coach Sid Gillman once said about Gino, “He’s the greatest player in football. It’s a waste of time to run around this guys end. It’s a lost play.”
Gino Marchetti was an army machine gunner in WWII and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He is a member of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, a member of the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, his number 89 has been retired by the Colts and yes, Gino Marchetti is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Art “The Bulldog” Donovan wasn’t that good in high school and could only muster a second team All-New England while at Boston College. If that wasn’t bad enough, in each of his first three NFL seasons the teams Donovan played for went out of business. Even with all that negative baggage Art Donovan turned out to be one of the greatest defensive lineman in NFL history and the first Colts player elected into the Hall of Fame.
Donovan was drafted in the 22 round (204 overall) by the AAFC Baltimore Colts in 1947. Fulfilling his military obligation before attending Boston College made Art a 26 year old rookie in the NFL and a 1950 graduate of the university. Donovan started out with the former AAFC and freshly minted NFL Baltimore Colts, who folded after his rookie season in 1950. That was followed by the New York Yanks in 1951, and their successor the Dallas Texans in 1952. After the Texans folded Art joined the reincarnated Colts in 1953 and that’s when his career began to take off. He was selected to five straight Pro Bowls from 1954 to 1958, and was a four time All-Pro selection from 1954 to 1957.
Art Donovan is considered by many to be the greatest story tellers of life in the NFL during the 1950’s. He has made numerous late night television appearences from Johnny Carson to David Letterman. In Letterman’s Super Bowl commericial with Oprah Winfrey, he honored Donovan by wearing his number 70 Colts jersey.
The 1957 NFL Championship was played on December 29, at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, Michigan. It was the 25 anniversary of the NFL championship game and the fourth time the two teams had met in the title game during the 1950’s.
The game was a route as the Lions scored early and often, averaging 14.75 points per quarter, while the Browns could only muster two touchdown, one in the second quarter and one in the third. The Lions walked away with easy 59-14 win and the NFL Championship.
The game did mark the end of Bobby Layne’s career with the Lions. Layne had broken his leg late in the 1957 season and was replaced by Tobin Rote. In the Championship game Rote completed 12 of 19 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns, adding another on the ground. Layne was traded to the Steelers early in the 1958 season, his replacement Rote was let go by the Lions in 1959. The Lions have had only one All -Pro quarterback since Bobby Layne and that was Greg Landry in 1971.
It is rumored, a dejected Layne told reporters, “It will be 50 years before Detroit wins another Championship.” It’s now been 53 years and counting since the Lions won the 1957 NFL title.
The curse of Bobby Layne lives on.