Next year, all the way," said a sweaty, jubilant Detroit Lion. He fingered the six $100 bills he had just been given as a winning player's share of the game between the second-place teams of the NFL, played in Miami's Orange Bowl. "Next year, all the money," he said.
He may very well be right. It was a strong football team that beat the Cleveland Browns, 17-16, in the first playing of the Runner-up Bowl. It is possible, in fact, that the Browns and Lions were the strongest teams in their respective divisions at the end of the regular NFL season. The Lions administered a sound thrashing to the Western Division Champion Green Bay Packers in the last game the two teams played. After Saturday's performance against Cleveland, they appeared capable of doing it again.
Indeed, the game may prove to have been a preview of next year's NFL championship game. Both of these teams are young. In the Detroit secondary defense, two of the players are rookies and both of them played very well. Bruce Maher, a first-year man from the University of Detroit, is at times fast enough to match Cleveland's fleet Bobby Mitchell stride for stride, as he did on one long pass play before knocking the ball down. Dick LeBeau—in his second year in the league but still a rookie in actual playing time—is almost as good. With the veterans of the pass defense—Yale Lary, Dick Lane and Gary Lowe—to lend the necessary leavening of experience, the combination would seem to be potentially as good as the Detroit champions of the early '50s.
In a major rebuilding program this year, Coach Paul Brown of Cleveland reshuffled his team so thoroughly that 19 of the 38-man Brown squad were new to the team. Twelve of them were rookies and three of the rookies played on the first-string defensive unit. They played well against Detroit in Miami, especially on pass defense. And the Browns lost only by the small margin of a blocked extra point. The pass from center was bobbled momentarily and the Lions' Night Train Lane picked off the kick with his head.
The Lions had intended to attack the Cleveland defense with passes, but Cleveland red-dogged more in this game than it had all year and Detroit was forced to stick to its running game. It was just as well. Nick Pietrosante, the 225-pound sophomore fullback from Notre Dame, time and again burst through the middle of the Brown defense for long gains. He was voted the outstanding player in the game.
The Lion defense similarly denied Cleveland its very strong passing attack by rushing in to harass Quarterback Milt Plum. Plum had only five passes intercepted during the 12 games of the regular season, but he suffered four interceptions Saturday, three of them by the ubiquitous, energetic Lion halfback, Lowe.
So Cleveland, too, turned to rushing and probed the Lion defenses with the thunderous drives of Fullback Jim Brown and the elusive, water-bug runs of Bobby Mitchell, who made the game's longest gain—some 80 yards—on a quick, short pass from Plum.
"This is the most spirited team I've ever coached," said George Wilson, the head Lion, after the game. "We lost our first three games this year while the kids were getting to know each other. If we'd gotten another crack at the Packers in a division playoff, we could have beat them."