Bert (De Benneville) Bell, a round man with the voice of a cement mixer, sat happily in the gelid press box at Franklin Field in Philadelphia last Sunday and saw his latest production build to another supercolossal climax. Mr. Bell, not from Hollywood, is the commissioner of the National Football League, and one of his more onerous chores is devising the schedule for the 12 member teams each year. He has done this so adroitly that the conference champions are seldom decided before the last Sunday of the season; last year, the Detroit Lions and the San Francisco 49ers had a playoff for the Western Conference title. This year, as Bell huddled in a vast camel's hair overcoat against the razor-edge wind, the Cleveland Browns beat the Philadelphia Eagles before his very eyes, and off in Detroit the New York Giants beat the Detroit Lions, seting up the Browns-Giants game next Sunday in New York (the last of the scheduled season) which could bring about another conference playoff.
The Giants are a game behind Cleveland. A Cleveland win on Sunday would leave the Browns the undisputed if dubious pleasure of meeting Baltimore for the national title, but a Giant win would create a tie and the necessity of a second and decisive meeting between the Eastern contenders—on the 21st, again in New York.
Understandably, Bell's craggy face bore a very smug, happy look as he left Franklin Field last Sunday, and although he cannot, of course, take sides it is reasonable to suppose that he harbors a deep-down hankering for a New York victory next Sunday.
The Giants provided most of the melodrama last Sunday as they scrambled for their victory in Detroit. They were playing a badly crippled Detroit team, and for a while—during the first half—it looked as if they would win handily. The tough, veteran Giant defense let the Lions out of their own territory only once in the first two quarters; twice the Giants' Jim Patton intercepted Tobin Rote passes and once he pounced on a Lion fumble. With Alex Webster back in action, the fine Giant backs thumped into the Detroit line for steady, unspectacular gains, although a portent of things to come was the fact that the Giants could not punch the ball over in four tries from the Detroit eight-yard line. The Lions took over on downs there and tried a wide pitchout which cost them the two-point margin of the Giant victory when Jim Katcavage broke through to drop Gene Gedman in the Lion end zone for a safety.
WEIRD AND WONDERFUL
The second half was a weird and wonderful one. It started with the Lions moving surely for 68 yards and a touchdown immediately after the kickoff. A little less than two minutes later, Giant Quarterback Charley Conerly fumbled, and Wayne Walker, a rookie lineman for Detroit, picked up the ball and went 34 yards for another touchdown, and the Lions were, suddenly, ahead.
They might have stayed ahead had not Detroit's Head Coach George Wilson elected to make an incredible gamble early in the fourth period. With fourth down and 21 yards to go on the Detroit 44, he called for a fake punt and run by Yale Lary. Lary gained only one yard, and the Giants, taking possession of the ball on the Detroit 45, scored the winning touchdown five plays later.
"I called the play," Wilson said later. "You've got to gamble. That play has worked three times in three attempts in the last four years. If our right end had pulled out and blocked where he was supposed to, it would have worked this time."
At that, the Lions had another chance to win. Terry Barr intercepted an inexplicable Giant pass on the Detroit 19, raced it out to the Detroit 43. A few plays later, the Lions attempted a field goal from the New York 25. There were 73 seconds left in the game when Jim Martin, the Lion place-kicker, tried from the almost point-blank range.
The attempt was blocked by Harland Svare, a Giant linebacker, as a result of a stratagem planned by him and Giant End Andy Robustelli.
"Svare was playing just outsideme," said Robustelli. "We work out a plan on every extra-point and field-goal attempt, and this time it worked perfectly. I pulled the Lion defensive end inside with my block and left an alley clear for Svare. Their corner man tried to block him when he shot in there, but the angle was too tough and he didn't have a chance."
At the time Svare blocked the field-goal attempt, the Brown-Eagle game in Philadelphia had ended and the Giants knew that the kick had to be blocked to keep them in the running for the Eastern Conference title.
The Cleveland victory was a more workmanlike job, but it was not easy. This Brown team carries a thunderous punch on the ground but its air attack is just barely strong enough to prevent the opposition from massing its defenses on the line. For a long half last Sunday, Philadelphia's Norman Van Brocklin, who ranks with the best passers ever produced in professional football, matched the Cleveland ground strength with it's bewildering assortment of passes, throwing short or long, hard or soft with effortless accuracy. The half ended 14-14; ironically, it was the Cleveland air attack which won the game on the last play of the third quarter.
Milt Plum, the big Cleveland quarterback, who adds a good deal himself to the Brown running attack, completed only five passes during the wintry afternoon. The one which made the difference went to Halfback Ray Renfro and was good for 48 yards and a touchdown. On the play before this, Paul Brown, who shuttles his guards back and forth carrying instructions to Plum, had called for the same pass pattern, with Plum throwing to End Darrell Brewster. The pass was on target, but Brewster dropped it and Brown called for the same play again. Renfro, who had broken in toward the middle of the field on the unsuccessful pass, ran nearly the same pattern this time. Tom Brookshier, the Eagle defensive halfback covering him, played him to the inside once more, but Renfro broke to the sideline and was 10 yards in the clear when Plum's flat, hard shot reached him. Renfro is one of the fastest men in pro football; no one touched him.
Jim Brown, Cleveland's record-breaking fullback, gained 138 yards rushing in this game after having been held to 12 yards in 11 carries the week before. The Eagle defense was not keyed specifically to Brown, nor could it have been, since Cleveland has two other strong runners in its backfield in Lew Carpenter and in Plum. Carpenter and Brown divided the ball-carrying evenly, each making 21 attempts. Carpenter gained an even 100 yards.
When the Giants defeated Cleveland earlier this year, Coach Jim Lee Howell virtually ignored the Cleveland passing game, concentrated his defenses on the Cleveland running. Sam Huff, one of the league's better linebackers, dogged Jim Brown's tracks all afternoon and did a good job of haltering the big fullback, who got away on only one long run. Carpenter, however, was injured and did not play in that game. The Giant pass defenders, as a unit, must be ranked ahead of Philadelphia's so that Howell can again, with reasonable assurance, concentrate his defense against the Cleveland running. However, his problem is complicated by Carpenter this time; it is not feasible to assign Huff to Jim Brown and another linebacker to Carpenter without giving even so journeyman a passer as Plum too much leeway.
Nevertheless, George Wilson, whose Lions beat the Browns and lost to the Giants, probably best summed up the wide-open prospects next Sunday. Said Wilson, when asked to compare the teams: "I can't. You never can tell what a ball club will do on a different afternoon."
The Pittsburgh Steelers, a team which had retained a faint chance for a conference championship, tied the Washington Redskins 14-14 in a game which, by the time it ended, meant nothing. Oddly, while the Steelers still had a hope, they lagged behind 14-0. It was only in the second half, after the Browns had won and ended the Steeler hopes, that Bobby Layne rallied his team for the two tying touchdowns, But Layne sounded an ominous note after the game.
"We're as good as any team in the league right now," he said. "As good or better. We'll be up there next year." And Buddy Parker, the Steeler coach, agreed. "We don't need much now," he said. "Maybe an offensive fullback and a linebacker. Wait until next year."
But first comes that unfinished business next Sunday.
X-RAY OF LAST WEEK'S GAMES