The Detroit Lions franchise began in 1930, but they were the Portsmouth Spartans for their first four seasons. From 1930 to 1951, the team had its fair share of success, posting twelve winning seasons compared to eight losing seasons, with two .500 seasons. 1935, the Lions won the NFL Championship, defeating the NY Giants 26–7.
But winning one Championship in 22 years isn’t much to brag about.
Setting Up A Dynasty
After finishing the 1951 season with a 7–4–1 record, Lions fans were ready for a big year in 1952. The Lions had some talented players. Jack Christiansen — free safety — second year. Lou Creekmur — offensive tackle— obtained from the Eagles in 1951.
Rookie Yale Lary — defensive back and punter. Rookie Dick Stanfel — guard. Bobby Lane was obtained from the Bears in 1948. Doak Walker — 2nd year — halfback.
The season didn’t get off to a good start. After three games, their record was one win and two losses, and they were outscored 59 to 20. The Lions rebounded to win 8 of their next nine games. In week five, they beat the Packers 52–17.
They beat the Steelers 31–6 in week seven. The following week, they trounced the Dallas Texans 43–13. In their last three games, the Lions high-powered offense scored 134 points. Bobby Layne, Lou Creekmur, and Jack Christiansen made All-Pro.
End Cloyce Box and defensive tackle Thurman McGraw also made All-Pro, while halfback Bob Hoernschemeyer, fullback Pat Harder, and safety Bob Smith made the Pro Bowl.
1952 NFL Playoffs
Their 9–3 record left them in a tie with the Rams for first place in the NFL National Conference. The two teams met in a playoff game to decide who would play the NFL American Conference Champion Browns. The Lions won 31–21.
In the Championship game, the Browns had more first downs, rushing yards, and passing yards than the Lions, but they also had seven penalties and two costly turnovers. The Lions won 17–7 for their first NFL title in 17 years.
Defending The Title
Rookie linebacker Joe Schmidt joined the team in 1953. Midway through the season, the defending champs looked unspectacular with a 4–2 record. But they won their next six games to finish the season 10–2. Halfback Doak Walker, guard Dick Stanfel, nose tackle Les Bingaman and safety Jack Christiansen made All-Pro, while quarterback Bobby Layne and safety Yale Lary made the Pro- Bowl.
The Lions met the Browns for the second year in a row in the NFL title game and won their third World Championship with a 17–16 victory.
A 3-Peat Champion Brewing?
The 1954 Lions got off to a fantastic start, winning their first three games and outscoring their opponents 104 to 26. The Lions won their next five games after losing to the 49ers in week four. They avenged that loss by walloping the 49ers 48–7 in week eight.
They finished the season with a 9–2–1 record and would face the Browns again in the NFL Championship. They had defeated the Browns in the final game of the regular season and fully expected to beat them again in the title game. But nine turnovers did them in, and they were never in the game, losing 56–10!
Halfback Doak Walker, tackle Lou Creekmur, guard Dick Stanfel, nose tackle Les Bingaman, linebacker Joe Schmidt, and safety Jack Christiansen made All-Pro, while linebacker LaVern Torgeson and cornerbacks Jim David and Bill Stits made the Pro- Bowl.
Working To Return To Glory
After appearing in three NFL Championships in a row and winning two, the Lions completely collapsed in 1955. Maybe their confidence was shaken after the 56–10 shellacking they took from the Browns in the championship game, or perhaps it was the injuries and poor off-season personal moves.
Likely, it was a combination of all three. Whatever the reason, they finished the season with a dismal record of three wins and nine losses. Jack Christiansen and Joe Schmidt made All-Pro. Doak Walker and Lou Creekmur made the Pro Bowl, as did defensive back Jim David.
Whatever the problem was in 1955, it didn’t carry over into 1956. Six weeks into the season, they had yet to lose a game. They lost two of their next three but won the next two by a combined score of 87–17. They needed to win their final game to win their division and move on to the NFL Championship. Their opponent would be the Chicago Bears, whom they had defeated two weeks prior by a score of 42–10.
But this time, the Bears emerged victorious, and the Lions had to settle for second place with a 9–3 record. Bobby Layne, Lou Creekmur, Joe Schmidt, Jack Christiansen, and Yale Larry made All-Pro. Jim David and center Charlie Ane made the Pro Bowl.
On The Road to the Last Lions' Championship
The 1957 season started with a new head coach, George Wilson. A week nine loss to the Bears dropped the team’s record to an unimpressive 5–4 record. But they won their next three, which put them in a first-place tie with the SF 49ers in the Western division.
The teams would meet in a playoff game to decide who would face the Browns in the NFL Championship Game. Midway into the third quarter, the 49ers led 27–7, but the Lions weren’t through yet. Running back Tom Tracy scored two touchdowns, one on a 58-yard run to tighten the gap 27–21. The Lions added ten more points in the fourth quarter to win 31–27.
Now it was on to the NFL Championship game, where their opponent would again be the Cleveland Browns. Detroit wanted revenge for the 56–10 beatdown Cleveland handed them three years earlier, and they got it, forcing seven turnovers and walking away with an impressive 59–14 victory.
George Wilson won the NFL Coach of the Year Award. Lou Creekmur, Joe Schmidt, and Jack Christiansen made All-Pro, while Yale Lary, Jim David, Harley Sewell, and defensive end Darris McCord made the Pro Bowl.
The Lions would not play in a Championship game again until 1991 when they lost to the Redskins 41–10, and they have not had much success since. But from 1952 to 1957, the Detroit Lions were a force to be reckoned with, playing in four NFL Title Games and winning three.
Seven Lions players from those teams were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Bobby Layne played for the Lions from 1950 to 1958 and was inducted in 1967.
Jack Christiansen played for the Lions from 1951 to 1958 and was inducted in 1970.
Joe Schmidt played for the Lions from 1953 to 1965 and was inducted in 1973.
Yale Lary played for the Lions in 1952 and 1953. After missing the next two seasons due to military service, he rejoined the Lions and played from 1956 to 1964. He was inducted in 1979.
Doak Walker played for the Lions from 1950 to 1955 and was inducted in 1986.
Lou Creekmur played for the Lions from 1950 to 1959 and was inducted in 1996.
Dick Stanfel played for the Lions from 1952 to 1955 and was inducted in 2016.
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Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond. He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area.
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