The Detroit Lions began life in the early days of the NFL as the Portsmouth Spartans before the franchise was moved to Detroit a year after the Steelers entered the league.
In the thirties, the Steelers lost the first four contests they played against the Lions before the following decade brought them success. Overall, the Steelers edge the series 18-17 with one tie in 1959. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers dominate 12-3-1 and have won the last nine.
The Runner-Up Bowl
At the beginning of the sixties, the NFL produced the idea of staging a “pro runner-up bowl game” between the second placed teams in the Western and Eastern divisions.
The game raised mixed feelings among football fans. Whoever remembers the team that finishes second, let alone third? Maybe Vince Lombardi had the right idea when he labelled it the “loser’s bowl for losers.”
As always, the incentive for both sets of players would be the money. The winners would get $600 per man and the losers $400. Throw in a few days in the Miami sun at the end of the season and maybe it wasn’t such an ordeal.
The team owners received nothing as the proceeds went to the Players Pension Fund.
In 1961, the name was changed to the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl to honor the NFL Commissioner who had passed away while still in office. Detroit won the first two Bowls before facing the Steelers in the third.
After enjoying eight successful seasons in Detroit with the Lions, where he won three championships, quarterback Bobby Layne was traded to the Steelers in 1958. He would have relished the thought of facing his former team.
The Steelers registered their highest ever total of wins during the ’62 regular season, but one of their five losses was a 45-7 drumming in the season opener to the Lions. After winning their final three games, Steelers’ Coach Buddy Parker was confident his team could beat the Lions this time around.
The (9-5) Steelers vs the (11-3) Lions, Miami Orange Bowl January 6, 1962
The Lions brought the top ranked defense to the game while the Steelers left Bobby Layne on the bench. The Steelers running backs were suffering with injuries before the game started and their problems increased when losing John Henry Johnson to a concussion and Bill Daniel with a broken jaw during the game.
The first quarter remained scoreless when Detroit missed a 27-yard field goal. After the defenses had controlled the first fifteen minutes, it was the turn of the offenses to appear in the second quarter.
Detroit’s kicker Wayne Walker made amends for his earlier miss when he successfully kicked a field goal from the same distance to begin the scoring.
The Steelers replied after quarterback Ed Brown led the team on a drive of 80 yards that finished with a Dick Hoak 6-yard touchdown run. The Steelers were leading 7-3 with two minutes remaining in the half when Brown threw an interception which Lions’ Carl Brettschneider returned to Pittsburgh’s 34. Four plays later, Detroit’s Milt Plum found Ken Webb alone in the end zone with a 20-yard touchdown pass and the Steelers were behind again.
Midway through the third quarter, Lou Michaels kicked a 40-yard field goal to tie the game but on the Steelers’ next possession he missed one from 36 yards.
When the Lions began their next series, Plum threw the pass of the game. He launched one of 73 yards that left the Steelers’ defense in tatters and gave the Lions a first down on Pittsburgh’s 5. Webb plunged over from 2 yards for the touchdown and a 17-10 lead the Lions took into the final period.
The defenses controlled the final fifteen minutes during which Bobby Layne finally made an appearance. His entrance midway through the final quarter brought the record crowd to its feet. But there was no fairy tale ending for the star.
He engineered a drive that went 59 yards. When faced with a fourth down that most fans thought they should have gone for, the coach elected to have Michaels attempt the 28-yard field goal. When the kick was blocked, the Steelers’ dream of a victory in the sun were sunk as the Lions triumphed 17-10.
Coach Parker gave credit to the Lions’ defense. “The Detroit Lions proved to me once again why they were the best in the NFL defensively,” the coach acknowledged. “They were tremendous all day. My quarterback was on his back all afternoon. They certainly put the pressure on your offense.”
Parker certainly wasn’t upset with his team’s performance. “I thought we played one of the finest games of the season. Our defense certainly didn’t get pushed around either. We just missed a couple of good chances to stop their drives.”
The Steelers never again appeared in the Bowl game. Having reached a peak in 1962, the team slumped until the arrival of Chuck Noll as their coach at the end of the decade.
The game was the swansong for Bobby Layne. Coach Parker admitted he went with Brown because he expected to go with him the following season. “Brown has faster reflexes. He’s got that little bit extra.”
Layne retired after the Bowl game and stated the biggest disappointment in his football career was not winning a championship for the Steelers and Art Rooney.
The final Bowl game was played in 1970 and following the merger of the AFL and the NFL, the idea was scrapped.