The National Football League season ended on a dreary note Saturday as the Detroit Lions drubbed the Philadelphia Eagles 38-10 in Miami's Orange Bowl. But even before this one-sided game and Green Bay's equally easy rout of the New York Giants six days earlier, it was already clear that the Western Conference of the NFL is, from top to bottom, substantially stronger than the Eastern Conference. In 14 interconference games, teams from the West won eight, lost six. In both postseason games the West won decisively. Should the Western All-Stars beat the East in the Pro Bowl game, the West will complete an unprecedented sweep.
Counting exhibition games, the Packers won 17 games and lost but three during 1961. They seem certain to remain the best team in either conference for another two or three years, unless the Lions get consistent quarterbacking and develop another running back to go with Nick Pietrosante. Four eastern teams will be battling for the right to oppose the Packers in next year's championship game, with the St. Louis Cardinals an outside bet to be the eventual winner.
The Giants, of course, are a better team than their 37-0 loss to the Packers indicates. The Browns are good, too, and so are the Eagles. The latter had beaten Detroit only three weeks before the playoff game but were forced in their second meeting to play most of the second half without their fine quarterback, Sonny Jurgensen. Jurgensen left the game with a severe shoulder separation and torn ligaments in his throwing arm. He was operated on Tuesday and should be ready for action again by the beginning of the 1962 season.
All three of these teams, however, must concede one point to the Packers—youth. In all the key striking positions—quarterback, running backs and pass catchers—the Packers are young. They must be expected to improve with experience without losing strength to age over the next two or three years. They won the championship this season under difficulties that should not hamper them next year. First, Coach Vince Lombardi was forced to reshuffle his offense when he lost Jerry Kramer, one of the best blocking guards in football, who was injured early in the season. Lombardi still had the surest blocking line in the business. Next, at midseason, he had to learn to get along with the weekend services only of three stars—Ray Nitschke, the middle linebacker, Boyd Dowler, the flanker back, and Halfback Paul Hornung, the league's most valuable player. All three were called into the Army. Next year, with a healthy Kramer and the full-time services of the three players who commuted from the Army, the Packers may indeed become what Lombardi called them after the championship game this year—the best team in the history of the National Football League.
The Lions are not far removed from the Packers in excellence. Their all-round defense is almost as good as the Packers'. Given a stronger attacking force—and all they need for that is a big halfback and a good season from one of their two quarterbacks (Jim Ninowski and Earl Morrall)—Detroit could unseat Green Bay. The team split with the Packers this year.
Possibly because Red Hickey relied too heavily upon his shotgun offense, the San Francisco 49ers suffered an unfortunate lapse at midseason in 1961, but the team has players who are every bit as good as Green Bay's and Detroit's. The San Francisco pass defense broke down, too; this is a young, very quick secondary that should be more successful in 1962. Baltimore, handicapped by an injury to Johnny Unitas that disturbed his passing accuracy during the first half of the season, needs help in the defensive line, in linebackers and in the offensive backfield. This seems a great deal to ask from one draft, and it is doubtful that the Colts will be contenders for at least another year. The Bears, as has been usual in recent years, appeared on the brink of becoming a championship football team all through 1961. Possibly Bill Wade, in his second season under George Halas, will be able to nudge them into the Packer class.
The Los Angeles Rams had the best draft and signed more of their top draftees than any other club in the NFL. They will go into the 1962 season with four quarterbacks—competent veterans Zeke Bratkowski and Frank Ryan, plus the two best college quarterbacks of 1961, Ron Miller of Wisconsin and Roman Gabriel of North Carolina State.
Obviously, they cannot use four quarterbacks; just as obviously, their castoffs will be valuable trade bait. The Rams will be looking for offensive linemen who can block for the quarterbacks who stay with the Rams. Since this lack of offensive linemen has been the sorest of the several Ram sore spots, the club could begin to move up again in 1962.
The Giants, the Browns, the Eagles and the St. Louis Cardinals would seem, at the moment, to have approximately equal chances to win the Eastern Conference championship. Their race could be decided, as often happens, by which of the four teams has the fewest injuries or which, because of reserve depth, can absorb its injuries best.
The Giants are deeper than the other three teams, and they enjoy another advantage. They started slowly last season, adjusting to a new coach—Allie Sherman—and to new players in critical positions. Y.A. Tittle at quarterback and Del Shofner at offensive end learned the Giant system quickly but did not reach the effectiveness that they should attain in 1962. The same is true of Joe Walton at the tight end on offense and of Erich Barnes at defensive corner back, a difficult position to play under the best of circumstances but particularly so while breaking into a strange unit.
For their spirited play alone, Philadelphia's first two units match any in the East, but over all the Eagles do not have the depth of reserve strength that the Giants and the Browns have. Assuming that Jurgensen recovers completely, the Eagles have an edge at quarterback. Jurgensen did a remarkable job in his first full season as a starter and, if he follows the pattern of most quarterbacks, will improve steadily for the next two or three years.
The trouble in Cleveland
Quarterbacking, of course, is the principal problem facing Paul Brown, who seemed somewhat disenchanted with Milt Plum toward the close of the 1961 season, despite Plum's gaudy statistical achievements. The one statistic that eludes Plum is the all-important one of a winning average high enough to earn a championship. Brown, who traded Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Jackson to the Washington Redskins for rookie Ernie Davis, has joined Green Bay in the latest wrinkle in NFL attacks—the big-back backfield. With Jim Brown and Davis in the same backfield, Brown will have an even bigger duo than the Packers' Hornung and Jim Taylor. Whether the Cleveland pair can block and run as well remains to be seen.
St. Louis was the hard-luck team of 1961. The Cardinals lost a player comparable to Paul Hornung before the season began when John David Crow went out with a broken ankle. The loss of Crow seemed to dishearten the team, as indeed the loss of Hornung would surely dishearten Green Bay. But the Cardinal defense is equal to any in the East, and a healthy Crow and the steady improvement of Canadian import Sam Etcheverry at quarterback could give the Cardinals a potent offense. They could be the big surprise of 1962.