This is the tough half of the league, and no matter what the statistics may show, it is always a dogfight between the Lions, the Bears, the Rams and the 49ers. Running into each other week after week with only occasional breathers against the two tailenders, no team can possibly win them all. The one with the reserves or, to put it another way, the team least depleted by injuries, winds up in front. For the past three years it has been Detroit. Before that it was the Rams. This year a lot of football astronomers see George Halas' Bears—the Monsters of the Midway—renewing the reign of terror they held over the league in the days of Bronko Nagurski and Sid Luckman. Whoever wins, the Western Conference should again provide not only the best football but the real payday crowds. Without any confidence whatsoever, SI picks this division to end in the following order for the following reasons:
Buddy Parker has proved himself the most resourceful coach in his division. He also has Bobby Layne, a pugnaciously determined quarterback who can raise a team out of apparent defeat; Doak Walker, the best all-round pro back in the business; an awesome defensive line flanked by 250-pound Leon Hart; an impressive roster of big rookie linemen to fill up holes caused by retirement and the inevitable migrations to Canada.
After 35 years in pro football—he coached and played end for the Bears before the NFL was formed in 1921—Coach George Halas has never learned to suffer defeat gladly. In recent years when his material was low and his attack somewhat dated, Halas kept the Bears a threat by his unquenchable desire to win, and no team played the Bears without taking home an impressive collection of scars and bruises. This year Halas has a fine young crop of novitiates plus Harlon Hill, a stringbean of an end who was such a whiz on the long pass last year that he had old fans talking in terms of Don Hutson. The Halas monsters will lose a few, but the kind of rough, tough football Halas teaches may be just what is needed to win this nip-and-tuck division.
San Francisco 49ers.
The greatest running backfield in football history—Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson—belongs to this club. They say you can't win by running in pro ball, but with Y. A. Tittle to throw passes the 49ers have had the most versatile and explosive attack in the game for the past several years when inspired. The trouble was they couldn't stay inspired for 60 minutes, and they had a way of dawdling over their big first-half leads and letting them expire towards the end of the game. This year they hope that Red Strader, their new coach, will cure the fault without losing the offense. If he does, the 49ers will lead the division for the first time.
Los Angeles Rams.
For years they have had the finest football talent in the league, but no coach could keep them happy and unified. For three of the last five years Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin has led the league in passing, which is the backbone of the Ram attack. Even without Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch, the Rams will again have at least three of the league's best receivers but the running attack and defense are still questionable. Coach Sid Gilman, a young newcomer from the college ranks (Cincinnati) will have to cure these defects before the Rams can regain the top.
Green Bay Packers.
These are the dog days for the once-great Packers. Coach Lisle Blackbourn took over last year and converted this last stronghold of the singlewing to the T, and Tobin Rote, his quarterback, showed great promise. But the Packers needed a thorough rebuilding, and Blackbourn is now giving it to them. Despite the retirement of Clayton Tonnemaker, an Olympian linebacker, the Packers will have the kind of defense that will hurt better clubs, but the scoring punch just isn't there yet.
Here is about the best defensive line in either league with five men averaging 258 pounds from end to end. There is also Coach Weeb Eubank, an able Paul Brown disciple now in his second year with the Colts. Then there is little (5 feet 4 inch, 170-pound) Buddy Young, a scatback who sometimes makes the big pros look like stone statues. After that, it is purely a question of whether Eubank's prize plums from the draft—especially Fullback Alan (The Horse) Ameche, and Quarterback George Shaw from Oregon—will provide the nucleus for the kind of wide-open attack the Colts need to hoist them from the cellar.