Part III: The Year of the Lion
In 1935, the Detroit Lions were not as dominant a team overall as they had been in their first season in the Motor City. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, it was the year that they would exorcise their Bear demons and come away with their first World Championship. With the exception Father Lumpkin, who was now with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the nucleus of the '34 team remained intact. Things started out well for the Lions on opening day, September 20th. Before a home crowd of 19,000, they shut out the lowly Philadelphia Eagles 35-0. Their defense continued their '34 dominance, as they showed no brotherly love toward the Eagles, holding them without a first down for the entire game. Week two, however, proved less than satisfying as they were tied by the Chicago Cardinals 10-all. The Lions then hit the railways for what would prove to be a very tough three-game road trip.
On October 6th, at Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the Lions 12-10. It was the second time in three games the Lions defense had allowed double digit points. The Lions had only allowed that three times total the previous year. The Leo's rebounded the next week with a trip to Boston, and a 17-7 win over the Redskins at Fenway Park. Sixty-eight years later, the Lions still have yet to beat the Redskins again on the road (0-20).
Next, it was on to Milwaukee to take on the Green Bay Packers in a October 20th matchup. There, the Lions lost again, in another heartbreaker, 13-9. So after only five games, Potsy Clark and his players stood at 2-2-1. They knew they needed to rebound in a hurry if they were to have any hope of winning the tough Western Division, let alone the league championship.
They responded, thanks to the help of the Redskins once again. Back home at the U-of-D, on October 30th, the Lions shutout the 'Skins 14-0. Then, before only 5,000 fans at Chicago's Comiskey Park, they squeaked by the Cards 7-6.
Standing now at 4-2-1, Detroit went up the road to Green Bay, to face the Pack, and were pounded 31-7. It was the worst defeat for the franchise since 1930, when the Packers beat the Spartans in Green Bay 47-13. The Detroit Lions were now dead last in the powerful West, behind the Packers, Cardinals, and Bears. The hopes, dreams, hardwork, and suffering of seasons past now hung around the Lions' necks like an albatross. Would they once again have to deal with the familiar refrain of, "Wait 'till next year?"
The Lions quickly decided that there would be no next year, their time had come. With the return of their offense, and some help from an unlikely foe, the Leo's would turn in a stretch drive that would erase all doubters about 1935 being Detroit's year.
Returning home, on November 17th, to face the Packers for the second week in a row, the Lions got their turnaround started with a 20-10 victory. They then traveled to Wrigley Field, to once again face their arch-nemesis, the Chicago Bears. It was their second consecutive, home-and-home series versus a Western Division foe. While the losing streak against the Bears would finally end at five, the Lions still came away disappointed, as they could only manage a 20-all stalemate against Halas' Bruins.
Next, both teams returned to the Motor City for the second-annual Thanksgiving matinee. With both the Lions and Bears clinging to hopes of a division title, the game didn't have the buildup that the previous year did. Nevertheless, the 18,000 in attendance at the U-of-D saw the home team finally dispatch the Bears by a 14-2 count. It was the first franchise win over the Bears since the 1931 season, a span of eight games (0-5-3). The Lion triumph knocked the Bears out of title contention, and put the Lions record at 6-3-2. They were now a half game behind the Chicago Cardinals, who led the Western Division with a 6-3-1 record.
The Detroiters' hopes now rested on a victory against the Brooklyn Dodgers in their last home game, and a loss by the Cardinals in one of their final two games. Ironically, the Lions would find themselves in the strange position of having to root for their biggest enemy, as the Cardinals final two games were against their Windy City rivals from Wrigleyville, the Bears.
The Lions wasted no time in holding up their end of the bargain. They wrapped up their regular season December 1st, exacting revenge on the team that handed them their first defeat of the year back in week three. Before 15,000 home rooters, the Lion defense held the Brooklyn Dodgers to minus 72-yards on the ground, in a 28-0 thumping.
In the victory, the Lions' feared ground attack gave way to the air, as the victory was paced by a 45-yard Presnell-to-Gutowsky touchdown pass, and a 26-yard pass from reserve-tailback Pug Vaughn to end Butch Morse.
That same day, the Bears and Cardinals played to a 7-7 tie at Wrigley. Now the best the Cardinals could do was tie the Lions for the Western title, providing they beat the Bears the following week. Either way, the Lions were going to play at least one more game, be it a Western playoff versus the Cardinals, or in the NFL Championship against Steve Owen's New York Giants, the champions of the NFL's Eastern Division.
So while coach Potsy Clark spent December 8th in New York City, watching the Giants finish their regular season with a 13-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Bears were back in Chicago giving the Lions an early Yuletide treat. That treat being the Western Division championship, as the Bears shutout the Cards 13-0 at Comiskey Park.
The 1935 four-team battle, for the Western crown, proved to be the tightest race to date since the NFL had gone to the two-division set-up in 1933. Only one victory separated the first place Lions (7-3-2) from the last place Cardinals (6-4-2), who went from first-to-last in the span of one week because of their loss to the Bears (6-4-2). The Bears leap-frogged the Cards into third because they had tied them in their earlier meeting 7-7.
The final standings proved doubly tough for Curly Lambeau's Green Bay Packers. Though the Packers had beaten Detroit in two of their three meetings, and had eight wins to the Lions' seven, they would still have to settle for second behind the Leos. That was because the NFL at that time didn't count tie games when deciding a team's final winning percentage. So by virtue of Green Bay's extra defeat, the 7-3-2 Lions' finished ahead of the 8-4 Packers by only .033 percentage points (.700 to .677).
It was a big year again for Dutch Clark, as he led the league in scoring with 55 points. Two Lions finished among the league's top five in rushing. Dutch finished fourth with 427 yards on 120 carries. Ernie Caddel finished second overall with 450 yards, on only 87 carries, a 5.2 yard-per-carry average. Ernie also led all Lions' receivers in catches, with a whopping 10 receptions for 171 yards, which wasn't all too bad when you consider the league's leading receiver, Tod Goodwin of the Giants, caught only 26 passes total. In addition, Dutch Clark, Caddel, tackle George Christensen, guard Ox Emerson, and center Clare Randolph earned All-League honors.
However, all that individual and team success would mean little if the Lions were to lose their final game.
Detroit could now see the summit, and the defending NFL champion New York Giants were the last obstacle in their path. It was the Giants third straight trip to the championship final. They handed the Chicago Bears their only defeat of the 1934 season the last year's title game, and were looking to become the league's first repeat champion under the two division format. Coach Steve Owen's team had dominated the Eastern Division, finishing with a 9-3-0 mark. They were a full 3-and-1/2 games ahead of the second place Brooklyn Dodgers (5-6-1). They had finished fourth in the league in scoring behind the Bears (192), Detroit (191), and Green Bay (181), but had still scored 80 more points than anyone in their own division. However, the Giants under Owen were always tough defensively, finishing tied with the Packers for the league lead in fewest points allowed (96).
The championship game was set to take place in Detroit on December 15, 1935.
When the teams took the field at U-of-D stadium before 15,000 Motor City partisans, they were greeted by sleet and rain. It would be 32 years before the NFL's Super Bowl would make a neutral site title game the standard.
With the weather turning the Lions' home gridiron into mush, Glenn Presnell went to the air on the opening series. He threw the only two passes the Lions would complete all day. The first being a 26-yard strike to blocking-back Frank Christensen that put the Lions on the Giant 33-yard line. The second, another 26-yarder off a Giant defender's hands into the arms of Lion end Ed Klewicki. With the ball on the Giant seven, the Lions went to the ground with Presnell picking up two on first down, and Ace Gutowsky blasting over on the next play from four yards out. Presnell tacked on the extra point, and in an opening drive of only six plays, Detroit took a 7-0 lead.
The Giants responded with an opening drive of their own. However, it came to a halt on the Lion 26, when Giant tailback Ed Danowski's pass was snared by Frank Christensen, who carried the ball back to the Giants' 46-yard line. Two plays later, Dutch Clark, who had entered the game in place of Presnell, broke two tackles on a spectacular 40 yard touchdown dash. The kick failed, and the Lions ended the first quarter with a commanding 13-0 lead. The G-Men would respond though in the second stanza when Danowski hit Ken Strong on a 42 yard aerial. With Strong adding the PAT, Owen's New Yorkers cut Detroit's lead at halftime to 13-7.
In the second half, Detroit's special teams would make a big play to all but put the game on ice. In the final period, with the game still standing at 13-7, Butch Morse and Sam Knox broke through to block a Danowski quick kick. Tackle George Christensen recovered for the Lions at the Giant's 26-yard line, and they wasted no time capitalizing on the turnover. Five running plays later, the Lions lined up with the pigskin resting one-yard from paydirt, and a commanding 12-point advantage. It was then that the Lions went into their playbook to find a play for their wingback. Ernie Caddel, a 6-foot two, 199 pound speedster from Stanford, was the Lions' fastest player, and next to Dutch Clark, their biggest home-run threat.
The Giants nevertheless, were expecting a straight dive from Lion fullback, Ace Gutowsky as the two teams lined up to fight over the last yard. The Lions gave the New Yorkers what they were looking for, but it was only an illusion. As Gutowsky plunged into the teeth of the Giant defense, the ball was nestled in the hands of Caddel, who had taken the handoff from Dutch Clark on a weakside reverse. It was the perfect call. Ernie went over the goal untouched, and Clark added the PAT. The Lions were now in complete command at 20-7.
The Giants knew they had to score in a hurry, and went to the air in an attempt to do so. However, a talented Detroit rookie, who, some twenty years later, would become the greatest head coach in Lions' history, was set to ice the Giants' hopes once and for all. Raymond K. Parker, better known to his teammates as Buddy, intercepted a Giants pass and returned it 23-yards to the Giants' ten-yard stripe. A few plays later, Parker scored the final Lion TD on a run from four yards. Final score, Lions 26, Giants 7.
With the exception of the Giants' lone touchdown, the Lions had controlled the game for most of the day. From Glenn Presnell's opening passes, to Dutch Clark's 80 yards rushing, Parker's 70, and Caddell's 62, Detroit's famed single-wing attack pounded the Giants. The Lion defense was also stellar, as they garnered two interceptions, and two blocked punts. The four New York turnovers leading to 19 Detroit points.
When the final gun sounded, it was likely that the 15,000 Lion-backers on hand suddenly felt a rush of warmth on that cold December day. The gridders of Potsy Clark, many of whom had toiled with their coach since that controversial playoff loss to the Bears back in 1932, finally had their championship. There was no longer any doubt that these Lions had what it took. They had battled it out in the NFL's toughest division. They had finished first in, to-date, the closest divisional race in league history.
Finally, last but not least, they had beaten the defending NFL champions New York Giants in the title game. . . . The NFL year 1935 had indeed become, "The Year of the Lion."