1953 Championship Game

 

(Editor's Note: The following article appeared in NFL Top 40, a book from NFL Publishing)

Life in the fast Layne
Detroit Lions 17, Cleveland Browns 16
December 27, 1953

By Shelby Strother

As soon as Jim Doran stepped into the huddle, Bobby Layne asked gruffly,"Can you still beat that feller?"
For almost the entire 1953 NFL Championship Game between the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns -- specifically, just about the time Jim Doran was forced into duty as a Lions wide receiver -- Doran had been telling his quarterback he could get behind Browns cornerback Warren Lahr.

For just as long, Layne had nodded and said not just yet. But now, the Browns' 16-10 lead was not so much a concern as the clock. There was a little more than two minutes left to play and Layne was going to play his hold card at last.

"Just throw it," Doran said. "I'll beat him."

Lou Groza Kick

Lions' end Jim Doran hauled in this crucial 18-yard pass from Bobby Layne on third down in the fourth quarter. Three plays later, the two hooked up again on the game-winning touchdown.

"Okay, men," Layne barked, looking around the huddle. "Let's run a Nine Up…and block them sons of bitches for me."

Doran trotted over to his position on the left end. Lahr crouched two yards ahead.

"Lahr and I had been feuding a bit, you know, like you do in a tough game," Doran said. "He said he was gonna hit me in the mouth. When Bobby called the play, I had to keep from smiling as I lined up. I was right in front of him and when the ball was snapped, I extended my forearm like I was going to block him."

Lahr was a veteran player, in his sixth season. In the 1950 NFL Championship Game, he had preserved the Browns' victory over the Los Angeles Rams with the interception on the game's final play. The night before, Lahr and quarterback Otto Graham, his roommate on the road, had talked about the big game. They went over assignments, talking about the Lions and which players might be the most dangerous.

"I was the one who had to deal with Jim Doran," Graham said. "He was a defensive player. At least that's what we thought."

Early in the game, when Leon Hart, Detroit's regular tight end, limped off the field, dragging his wrenched knee, Doran became an offensive player. He and Lahr tangled almost from the beginning. Just as quickly, Doran was telling Layne and head coach Buddy Parker, "I can beat this guy on an up pattern."

Doran had caught a total of six passes in the 1953 season in just such emergency situations. He was never the speediest runner, and his aggressive nature made him more valuable on defense.

"But he had good hands," Layne said. "And he just wasn't the type to go off saying things if he wasn't pretty damn sure."

A man's word usually doesn't mean much in today's modern game plans. Computer tendency charts rarely include gut feelings from converted defensive players. And who would go for such spontaneity in the closing minutes of the biggest game of the year?

"That's how the game's different today," said Jim David, a Lions cornerback in 1950s. "What we had going for us back then was trust. We believed in each other. The team that year had a whole lot of adversity to overcome. Then, in the championship game, against the Browns, who were considered the best talent in the league, it was really a hell of a way to have it all end up.

"Bobby just had a way. He got you there. Say what you want about him and how he lived his life. But he got you there."

Layne looked over the Cleveland Browns' defense. The ball was on the Browns' 33-yard line. The Briggs Stadium crowd in Detroit was quiet. The Lions had started this drive moments ago, on their 20. It had begun with a 17-yard pass to Doran, and, after the tackle, Doran and Lahr had traded their usual insults and threats. In the huddle, Doran had told Layne once more, "Really Bobby, I can beat him deep."

Layne nodded. But let's set him up. We'll get him. Soon.

The Lions had made it this far because, on a third-and-10 play, Doran had slid into a gap between two Browns defenders and made a lunging catch for 18 more yards and another first down.

"If he don't get that one," Layne said later, "we ain't going nowhere no how."

But now Layne looked over the Browns' defense and he noticed Lahr pointing an angry, threatening finger at Doran. Layne saw things the Detroit coaching staff couldn't. He saw human nature exposed. And he knew how to respond.

A few seconds earlier, during a time out, Lions assistant coach Aldo Forte had made a suggestion. Because of the hard rush defensive end Len Ford was getting on Layne, a screen pass might work.

Parker had relayed the play to Layne.

"Know what I think?" Layne told his coach, already thinking about Doran. "I think a cigarette sure would taste good about now."

Lou Groza Kick

Bobby Layne

Layne turned and walked to the huddle and called the play that won the NFL championship.

Layne took the snap, and Doran took one giant step forward. Lahr made a similar move.

"Lahr came at me pretty hard," Doran said. "He really was going to knock my head off. But then I ran right by him."

Bobby Layne's pass wobbled rather than spiraled, which was nothing new. Doran was 10 yards behind Lahr when he caught the ball. He cruised into the end zone untouched. With 2:08 to play, the Lions had tied the game.

Doak Walker, who had played in the same backfield with Bobby Layne in high school, kicked the extra point and Detroit led 17-16.

Otto Graham pulled off his parka. If Bobby Layne was the embodiment of the Lions-a happy-go-lucky rogue, given to nocturnal escapades and bouts of excess and revelry, yet someone who knew how to rise up and lead and win-then Graham was the Browns' heroic counterpoint. Only the G-rated version-efficient, meticulous, straight arrow all the way. Otto Graham was the perfect extension for the great coaching dictator, Paul Brown.

But Graham was more than a machine. He had completed 64.7 percent of his passes in 1953, and the Browns were undefeated until the final week of the regular season. Now Graham had two minutes left to rescue the Browns.

Graham looked at his hands. He was having a terrible game-2 completions in 14 attempts. Blindsided on the game's second play from scrimmage, he had fumbled and the Lions had gone on to score a touchdown. He had thrown an interception that led to a Detroit field goal.
Now he had one more chance.

"My hands were chapped terrible," he said. "I had no feel on my passes. I don't know what it was-I tried spitting on them, everything I could think of to moisten them. But they were chapped, and, for some reason, I just could not pass well at all that day."

On the first play from scrimmage with 1:54 to go, Graham dropped back, ready to execute the play messenger guard Chuck Noll had just brought in from Brown, who called all the plays. Graham set and threw.

"It was a terrible pass," he said later.

Carl Karilivacz intercepted. The rookie defensive back, a twenty-third-round draft selection, simply slammed shut the door on the Cleveland Browns while Edwin Anderson stared up at the gray December sky in joyous wonder.

"You had to know those guys," defensive back Jim David said. "You had to know what all we went through. That team was special."

There were six rookies, eight second-year players, two returnees from Korea, and 13 players who came from other teams.

"But nobody was a stranger for long," David said. "That was Bobby's way. Once you were on the team, you were part of the gang. There would be a spirit party of sorts. There was rookie afternoon at some showbar in town. If you didn't show, we'd send a taxi for you. Bobby was the leader and we all followed. He knew the game and he know people and he knew how to have a good time. There were some nights he'd be throwing $100 bills into a saxophone till all hours and there were other nights when some of us would kinda commandeer a trolley for a while. But when it came time to play, we were ready. They'd tell jokes that when we'd form the huddle you could smell liquor and stuff like that. But that never happened.

"Not during regular season, anyway."

After it was over, the champions of pro football collected their thoughts and tried to say what it all meant.

"This team has it here," said assistant coach George Wilson, tapping his chest.

"Jimmy Doran don't tell lies," Layne drawled. "If he says he can get deep, you better get him the ball."

The celebration was on.

The Cleveland Browns showered and dressed quickly. There was a train to catch.

"Longest train ride I ever took," said Lou Groza, whose two fourth-quarter field goals had given the Browns the lead until the pass to Doran. "That one stuck in the gut longer."

On the train, Lahr showed little emotion. He talked matter-of-factly about the play. When they arrived, Lahr got in assistant coach Fritz Heisler's car and the two headed for the Cleveland suburb of Aurora. Warren Lahr cried all the way home.

"Now if we had lost that game," Layne said years later, "there wouldn't have been any tears. If I'd had overthrown Doran or if he'd dropped the ball or if I'd gotten my ass buried by Lenny Ford and a couple others, there wouldn't be nobody feeling sorry for themselves. We'd have gone out and had something cool to drink anyway."