Detroit — It was the gut of a bygone pro football season and the quarterback had guided his team downfield in a dramatic drive against the merciless ticking of the clock. Precious second after second dripped away. The young quarterback’s team was, after years of frustration, in the competition for the Super Bowl playoffs.
And with 19 seconds to play, he called for the timeout. His team was behind, 16-14.
The kicker trotted onto the field. It was a simple, short kick — and the lead changed.
A kickoff, a couple of plays more, and a 17-16 victory would be sealed. There was a pass caught and taken out of bounds, and the clock stopped again with two seconds to play. The other guys had reached their 37. So far away.
“OK, Stubby, go in and kick it,” said an assistant coach, using a quite mean nickname.
The kicker for the other guys went onto the field.
He aimed 63 yards away for the goalposts, then located on the goal line. Nobody had ever kicked a 63-yard field goal in an NFL game. It was considered impossible. The record for the longest field goal was 55 yards
There was lots of laughter. And the kicker with his heavy-leathered stub of a boot smashed the ball. It sailed end over end. It wobbled and fluttered, a low kick. And the football kept on going. It traveled the distance and more.
Dead, solid, perfect.
And the victory, so vitally needed by the quarterback’s team, was transformed into defeat, 19-17. Game over. Game lost.
I sat a bit dazed at Ford Field after Justin Tucker nailed a 61-yard field goal to defeat the Lions and win, 18-16, on Monday night. The ghostly feeling of déjà vu.
The Ravens and Lions had swapped the lead three times in the final two minutes, 14 seconds.
It went from 15-10 in favor of Baltimore to 16-15 in favor of Detroit — and back to the crushing final of 18-16, Ravens, on Tucker’s 61-yarder with 38 seconds left.
“I’ve seen this game before,” I said to a guy in the pressbox.
And indeed I had.
The Tom Dempsey game. The game he won it at the final tick from 63 yards distant.
It was Nov. 8, 1970 — the Lions against the fledgling Saints, in New Orleans in Tulane Stadium.
And Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal has been etched as a vital event in the history of the NFL. Dempsey had no toes on his right foot and wore the special boot. His teammates called him “Stubby”
“I never kicked one harder,” he told me in a New Orleans bar one night before a Super Bowl down there.
Dempsey’s record would not be broken until Dec. 8 of this season, when Matt Prater of the Broncos kicked a 64-yarder in Denver.
An unforgettable mistake
The Lions of 1970 were quite similar to the Lions now.
They had failed to qualify for the playoffs for 13 seasons since the 1957 NFL championship, the third title of their 1950s dynasty.
And of course, they had another of their quarterback controversies.
Joe Schmidt, the coach and Hall of Fame middle linebacker of the 1950s, had confided that his quarterback situations drove him crazy. Milt Plum and Karl Sweetan were gone. The Lions had traded with the Rams for Bill Munson, and designated him No. 1 And they drafted Greg Landry in the first round of the 1968 draft.
On this Sunday in November against the Saints, Schmidt started Munson. Midway through the game Schmidt benched Munson and replaced him with Landry.
It was Greg Landry, who drove the Lions in their attempt to score in the final two minutes. It was a smooth drive. And with the Lions in range for an 18-yard field goal by Errol Mann, Landry made the timeout signal. With 0:19 showing on the clock.
That was an unforgettable mistake. Landry was young and inexperienced. Bobby Layne, Johnny Unitas, Tobin Rote and Sonny Jurgensen, notable quarterbacks of the era, would never leave their opponents time to score. They would have allowed the clock to tick away, standing next to the referees until it reached 0:04 — then called timeout.
It was then that the kickers were summoned.
Landry honestly admitted the mistake after I wrote a rather cruel analysis in the next day’s Detroit News.
Disappointed but not destroyed
Mann’s kick took the Lions from the 16-14 deficit into the 17-16 lead.
But time was left for the Saints to complete two passes by Billy Kilmer and stop the clock on an out-of-bounds catch with two seconds left — at the 37.
The Lions, so certain of victory, did not apply much pressure on the field goal attempt.
“I didn’t even rush,” the late Alex Karras said. Karras actually did move in, then then turned and watched in disbelief as victory vanished into 19-17 defeat.
In the locker room, the blackboard used to diagram plays was knocked flat on the floor — with a huge hole kicked through it. A vivid memory.
The assailant was unidentified — believed to be assistant coach Chuck Knox — until about five years ago. Then Charley Knox was found innocent.
“I was the guy, I did it,” Schmidt said.
It was a strange season. The Lions left New Orleans in disarray with a 5-3 record after a fine start. They lost the ball on six turnovers against the Saints. And they lost again the following week at Minnesota with Landry as the starting quarterback.
Rather than collapse, they won their final five games: over San Francisco, Oakland in another historic Thanksgiving Day game, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Los Angeles Rams on a memorable Monday night, then Green Bay at Tiger Stadium. Four of the victims had been in first place in their respective divisions.
The message is the Lions finished 10-4 and made it into the playoffs as a wild card. Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal was classical but not critical.
The playoff game was something else to remember. It was a historic 5-0 defeat in Dallas — a game started by Landry and finished and nearly won by Munson.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News columnist. Read his web-exclusive columns on Saturdays at detroitnews.com.