The New York Giants ended the National Football League race in the East Sunday when they edged the spirited Chicago Bears 26-24. They now look forward, doubtless with some apprehension, to the winner in the West. The Green Bay Packers, obviously fully recovered from the thumping they got in Detroit as a sort of hors d'oeuvre for Thanksgiving dinner, walloped the Los Angeles Rams in Milwaukee, 41-10, with Paul Hornung back in action for the second time in six weeks.
That victory, of course, kept the Packers a game ahead of the Detroit Lions with only two games to go. At first glance, this would seem an insurmountable advantage since the Packers face two of the least difficult opponents in the West in San Francisco and Los Angeles and the Lions must play the Minnesota Vikings and the Bears. The Vikings are a rambunctious, gambling team, quite capable of upsetting the best, and the Bears, now fierce and healthy, proved again in the Giant game that they have become one of the best clubs in either division.
But if history is any guide, the Packers will lose at least one of their last two games. Only twice since 1950, when the 49ers joined the NFL, have the Packers won both late-season games on the Coast. Last year, for instance, the world champions lost to San Francisco, 22-21.
Detroit does not have history on its side either, but Sunday, against Baltimore, it may have gotten its bad game out of its system even while it was winning, 21-14. The Lions blew three sure touchdowns. Once, Gail Cogdill broke wide open for a long touchdown pass that was called back for a holding penalty. Once, Ken Webb rammed through the Baltimore line from the one, finding a gaping hole but leaving the ball behind him to be recovered by Baltimore. And once Dick LeBeau, the very good corner back, timed a gambling rush to pick off a pass, got the ball cleanly and dropped it with no one in front of him. Should the Packers lose one game and Detroit lose none, the two teams will meet in a playoff for the division championship in Detroit on December 23.
The Detroit Lions may wind up as the best second-place club in the history of the National Football League. George Wilson, the easygoing man who coaches Detroit, considers the present Lions as better than the Detroit teams that won league championships in the early '50s. "This team is deeper in talent, more experienced and has played together longer," Wilson says.
The current Lions, who operate with a casual humor, were built on adroit trades. Both the trades and the good humor are products of Wilson's coaching philosophy, which follows a sort of golden rule of pro football. "I treat the players the way I wanted to be treated when I was with the Bears," Wilson says. Wilson played end for Chicago, and played it well. He is a big, dark-haired man with sleepy, friendly eyes. "These players are men," he says. "I try to treat them like men."
In practical terms, this means that the Lion curfew on the road is later than for most teams—midnight. It means, too, that Milt Plum calls almost all of the Lion offensive plays and Joe Schmidt calls all of the defense.
"We may send in six plays a game," Wilson says. "When we do, it's only to remind the quarterback of something we have picked up in films. He can call the play or not."
Schmidt, who has played middle linebacker for 10 years, has been named to the all-pro team six times. He uses his size and speed with a blend of daring, intelligence and intuition that makes him the most valuable single player on the Lion team. Some of the Lion defenses are as complex as those of the Chicago Bears, and others are as simple as Green Bay's. Schmidt has 50-odd variations he can use against offenses, and he picks them carefully.
"I study the films," he says. "I look at the overall picture, and then I look at the way the center blocks, since he's the guy who will be blocking on me most of the time. You find out little things. Like when a quarterback likes to go on a quick count—maybe on the first sound he makes after he gets set. Lots of quarterbacks like to go on a quick count on third down with a yard or two to go for a first down, so they'll get that little jump on you. Then in every game I have to experiment. We stunted a lot against the Packers on Thanksgiving Day. It worked the first time I called it, so I kept calling it."
Schmidt's job as a middle linebacker is made easier by a pair of first-rate defensive tackles, 300-pound Roger Brown and 250-pound Alex Karras. Off the field Karras looks like a bespectacled, overweight college professor, but he moves with such light-footed agility that his teammates call him Tippy-toes. Both Karras and Brown have benefited from the tutoring of 340-pound Les Bingaman, who played middle guard for the Lions some years ago.
"You have to teach them to use their hands and to use footwork when they come up," Bingaman said the other day. "Alex has great hands, mechanic's hands. Roger is tough, too, and he is learning. When these big ones come up, they are used to using pure power—which they could do in college. Here they have to learn finesse to go with the power—footwork and hands."
Unlike most teams in the NFL, the Lions socially are not divided into offensive and defensive units. They are a completely cohesive team. When they dine out together, for instance, offensive and defensive men eat together. There are no cliques. "I've tried to avoid that," Wilson says. "It doesn't help, and it can set up unhealthy rivalries. I want this club to be one club."
Under the sympathetic guidance of Wilson, several players who had not been outstanding elsewhere have blossomed with the Lions. Plum, stultified under the iron hand of Paul Brown, has become a fine quarterback under Wilson's looser rein.
"He does everything well," one of the Lion linemen said. "He helps the offensive line because he releases the ball so quickly that you don't have to hold a block forever. He calls a good game. He's got the arm, and he can run."
Both Plum and Earl Morrall, the other Lion quarterback, came to the club in trades—Plum, along with Halfback Tom Watkins from Cleveland, Morrall from the Steelers. In fact, 11 of the team's 22 starters were acquired in trades.
In almost any year but this one the Lions would have been leading the division with 10 wins and two losses. But with the Green Bay Packers winning all but one of their games Detroit can only hope for a chance to meet the Packers again in a playoff game December 23.
"We're a better team than they arc," Karras says.
"We got tired of hearing they were unbeatable," Wilson says. "No team is unbeatable. Not even us."