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NFL Classic Rewind: Punt Return for TD Gives Packers Win in Thanksgiving Shootout

Posted on November 23, 2011 by A.J. Foss

Since they began their tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day in 1934, the team that the Detroit Lions has faced the most on that day has been the Green Bay Packers, as they have played each other 19 times on Thanksgiving with the Detroit coming out on top with an 11-7-1 record.

While the Lions’ upset of the undefeated Packers in 1962 is regarded as the most memorable Thanksgiving moment between the two teams, the two teams combined for 84 points in a wild shoot-out in 1986 that had the game-winning score come on a punt return in the final minute.

Detroit entered the game with a 5-7 record, and needed to win their remaining four games of the season to have any chance of landing a playoff spot under second-year head coach Darryl Rogers.

The Lions would have to go with 14-year veteran quarterback Joe Ferguson, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, at the helm for the annual Thanksgiving game as regular starter Eric Hipple was out with an elbow injury.

While the Lions were trying to hang on in the playoff chase, the Packers were eliminated from playoff contention as they limped in in with a 2-10 record.

The Packers were trying to make a successful transition from Lynn Dickey, who retired after the 1985 season, to third-year quarterback Randy Wright who was in his first full season as the Packers’ starting quarterback.

As they traveled to Detroit, the Packers were trying to shake off the embarrassment of the previous week when defensive tackle Charles Martin body slammed Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, which led to a two-game suspension for Martin and knocking McMahon out for the rest of the year.

Green Bay was also looking for someone to fill in for injured wide receiver Phillip Epps, who broke his ankle in the Bears game.

Enter Walter Stanley, whose primary role was to return kickoffs and punts for Green Bay, to take Epps’ place in the game against the Lions.

Stanley would fill in more than amicably as he played the game of his life on this Thanksgiving Day.

The Lions got off to a good start as Ferguson hit Jeff Chadwick for 25 yards on the first play from scrimmage, then got 21 more yards on a pass to Gerry Jones which included a 15-yard penalty on Packers safety Ken Stills that put Detroit at the Green Bay 31-yard-line.

However, the Lions would only gain four more yards and had to settle for a Eddie Murray field goal, which he made from 44 yards out to put Detroit ahead 3-0 just 2:03 into the game.

Then on the ensuing kickoff, Kenneth Davis fumbled the ball and the Lions recovered it at the Green Bay 18-yard-line, which led to a one-yard touchdown run by James Jones to give Detroit a 10-0 lead before the Packers had seen the ball on offense.

The Packers were able to stop the bleeding on their ensuing possession as they drove 78 yards in 11 plays and get on the scoreboard with a 34-yard field goal by Al Del Greco to cut the deficit to seven points.

Following Del Greco’s field goal, the Green Bay defense did not allow a 1st down and were set to get the ball back on offense when their special teams made their presence felt.

Timothy Harris blocked the Lions punt and the ball went into the end zone where John Simmons recovered it for a Green Bay touchdown that tied the game at 10 with over two minutes left in the first quarter.

The Packers special teams struck again on the next Lions punt as Walter Stanley had a 30-yard return to give Green Bay great field position at the Lions’ 38-yard-line.

But the Packers could not get a 1st down and were forced to try a long field goal from 48 yards out, which Del Greco made to give Green Bay its first lead of the game at 13-10 as the first quarter came to an end.

In the second quarter, the Packers drove to the Lions’ seven-yard-line where they had a 3rd-and-1, only to have Gerry Ellis be stopped for no gain, leading to another Del Greco field goal, this one from 24 yards out to increase the Green Bay lead to 16-10.

That is when the Lions offense finally got back on track as Ferguson led them down to the Green Bay 12-yard-line before three straight incomplete passes forced Murray to come on and kick a 30-yard field goal to cut the Packers lead to 16-13 with 3:10 left in the first half.

Green Bay answered the Lions field goal with a seven-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Wright to Stanley to increase their lead to 23-13 with 1:15 to go before halftime.

The Packers seemed poised to go into the half with a 10-point lead but Ferguson went into a no-huddle offense and was able to lead the Lions to a touchdown, a 23-yard pass from Ferguson to Jeff Chadwick in the final seconds to make it a 23-20 game as the first half came to a close.

Packers quarterback Randy Wright threw three touchdowns passes on 18-of-26 passing for 286 yards.

The Lions carried the momentum of their last-second touchdown into the second half as they were able to score 17 points on their next three possessions.

After forcing the Packers to punt on their first drive of the second half, the Lions drove 45 yards in eight plays to set up a 32-yard field goal that tied the game at 23.

Following another Packers punt, Ferguson found Jimmie Giles for a 20-yard touchdown that put Detroit back on top at 30-23 with 5:24 left in the third quarter.

Then on the Packers’ ensuing offensive possession, center Karl Swanke muffed forgot that Wright was lined up in the shotgun formation and snapped the ball like the quarterback was under center, leading to a fumble which Detroit recovered at the Green Bay 17-yard-line.

The fumble led to a 10-yard touchdown pass from Ferguson to Carl Bland to give the Lions their largest lead of the game at 14 points, as they took a 37-23 lead with 1:48 remaining in the third quarter.

After giving up 24 unanswered points, the Packers finally had an answer in the final minutes of the third quarter as Wright found Stanley wide open, who beat Lions cornerback Bruce McNorton, for a 30-yard touchdown that Green Bay to back within a touchdown at 37-30 as the third quarter came to an end.

The defenses took over in the fourth quarter as neither team could get on the scoreboard for much of the final 15 minutes.

It was a defensive play that set up the next big scoring opportunity for the Lions as Duane Calloway stepped in front of Stanley on a route, to pick off Wright and return it 36 yards to the Packers’ four-yard-line where the Lions had a chance to break the game open midway in the fourth quarter.

However, the Lions could not punch into the end zone and were faced with a 4th-and-goal from the one-yard-line where Rogers decided to go for the field goal, which Murray made from 19 yards out to give Detroit a 40-30 lead with 5:06 left in regulation.

But on the second play of the Packers’ ensuing possession, Wright found Stanley open over the middle and he fired a deep pass for Stanley, who made the catch for a 62-yard gain until he was stopped at the Detroit six-yard-line.

An illegal motion penalty pushed the Packers back five yards, but they scored on the next play as Wright completed a swing pass to fullback Paul Ott Carruth, who took it in from 11 yards out to cut the Lions’ lead to 40-37 with 3:31 remaining in regulation.

Following the Carruth touchdown, the Lions took over at their own 21-yard-line hoping to get a few 1st downs and run out the remaining time on the clock.

Detroit got one 1st down and milk most of the remaining 3 ½ minutes left on the clock before they had to punt from their own 37-yard-line with under a minute to play.

Walter Stanley touched the ball nine times to account 287 all-purpose yards and scored three touchdowns, including the game-winning touchdown on a punt return.

Gregg felt his best chance for the Packers to have any chance of winning was to block the punt as he sent 10 players to rush in an attempt for the block while Stanley would be all alone as the returner.

Despite the oncoming onslaught, Jim Arnold got the punt off with no problems and Stanley retreated back to his 17-yard-line where he received the punt.

Stanley started to run toward his left, but had to stop and make a spin move when he was about to be met by two Lions defenders.

Stanley turned up field to the right sideline where he got a few blocks and ran past the outside contain man.

Then when Mossy Cade took out Arnold around the Detroit 30-yard-line, Stanley was home free as he put his finger in the air for the last 20 yards of his remarkable 83-yard punt return for the go-ahead touchdown to put Green Bay back in the lead 41 seconds left.

The Lions got one last chance to salvage the victory but Ferguson was intercepted by Elbert Watts on the first play of the drive with 25 seconds to go, which effectively ended the game and gave the Packers a 44-40 victory in the highest scoring NFL game that has been played on Thanksgiving Day.

Detroit never recovered from the loss as they dropped their remaining three games of the season to finish with a 5-11 record.

It would not get much better for Rogers as he went 4-11 in the 1987 season, and was 2-9 when he was fired in the middle of the 1988 season to finish his tenure in Detroit with an 18-40 record.

As for the Packers, they would win one more game in the 1986 season to finish with a 4-12 record.

They would go 5-9-1 the following season which was followed by Gregg’s departure in the offseason to become the head coach at Southern Methodist University.

Stanley would play for the Packers until he was released after the 1988 season, and then proceeded to play for five different teams over the next five seasons until his retirement in 1993.

While his career was not all it was cracked up to be, he is still remembered for his performance against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day in 1986.


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