THE FLAMBOYANT GIANTS
If, as most people suppose, pro football teams reflect rather accurately the personality of the coach, then Allie Sherman has a split personality. He is a quiet, soft-spoken man who has never criticized a player to the press and probably never will. He seems an introspective, conservative man.
His football team, on the other hand, is a robust, helter-skelter club with one of the most imaginative and audacious offenses in football. They are as flamboyant as carny barkers and as daring as buccaneers.
This is a team predicated on unexpected ploys—perhaps a quick, long scoring pass, perhaps a double reverse. Part of the team's personality derives from Y. A. Tittle, who has grown bald but not cautious in 12 years as a pro quarterback. He is the living refutation of the theory that there are old quarterbacks and bold quarterbacks, but no old, bold quarterbacks.
The Giant defenders, run by the equivalent of Tittle in Andy Robustelli, have the same flair for the spectacular as the offense. They are willing, upon occasion, to gamble and they place their bets with a flair and a flourish. Their daring has put them near the top of the league in pass interceptions.
Sherman exploits this natural bent with an ingenious and exciting offense. He used an end around play against Dallas, with Frank Gifford carrying, and the play scored because it was totally unexpected. He will certainly have surprises in the championship game, too. Spectacular ones.
THE HAPPY, RELAXED LIONS
A few weeks ago, as the Detroit Lions prepared for their crucial game against the Baltimore Colts, some 14 or 15 Lion progeny, ranging in age from 2 to 10, wandered happily in the confines of Tiger Stadium while their fathers enjoyed themselves. The Detroit players worked hard, but there was none of the grimness about them that characterizes some of the practices at other NFL parks. This is a relaxed though coldly efficient team that seems to get more fun out of the game than most. It also plays football better than most.
It took Milt Plum, fresh from the austere atmosphere of the Cleveland practices, some time to adjust to the casual efficiency of the Lions. "He is only just now getting into the spirit of it," one of the Detroit backs said. "He was too tense for a long time. He's relaxing more now and he plays better for it."
This low-pressure atmosphere is not an accident—George Wilson, the Detroit coach, wants it that way. He is a big, dark, slow-moving man with a sly sense of humor flickering behind sleepy eyes. He is a permissive coach; he considers his players mature enough to discipline themselves, to call signals, to play football—and he lets them do it at their own pace, more or less.
Plum calls the Lion offense and Joe Schmidt the defense, with little or no interference from Wilson. Schmidt uses blitzes lavishly and plays with the quality of insouciance that imbues this whole team. They take a fierce pleasure in playing football.
THE METHODICAL PACKERS
Bart Starr, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, was a careful, meticulous student at Alabama, ranking in the top 10% of his graduating class. He has retained these characteristics and is now the perfect quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, a football machine built on Coach Vince Lombardi's theory that the team that errs the least wins the most.
Green Bay disdains, for the most part, any use of trickery or deception on both offense and defense. That is not to say that this team is a dull one; the perfection of performance that opens a hole for Jim Taylor creates excitement in that Taylor, the best fullback in the league, then has the opportunity to run, which is thrilling enough for anybody. The Packers, in fact, are more apt than the Giants to break loose for the long gain on the ground.
But the team operates on methodical, machinelike power and precision, both on offense and defense. They almost never gamble, simply because they have not, for the last two years, found it necessary. The risks the Packers take are coldly calculated; this is a percentage club.
The team has, of course, much of the personality of Lombardi, who grew to football maturity under the discipline of Earl Blaik at Army. Lombardi assembled this machine carefully, selecting the best available parts, then tuning and tuning until it now runs as smoothly and powerfully as a jet engine. The Packers are not likely to have any surprises for the Giants. They won't need them.
HOW THEY STACK UP FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
The Packers' passing game is not just a weak adjunct designed to open things up for their thunderous running. Bart Starr leads the league in passing; he has big and very talented receivers in Boyd Dowler, Max Magee and Ron Kramer.
Blessed with an offensive line that has failed only once this season (against the Lions) to give him adequate protection, Starr has time (and takes it) to coolly locate late-opening receivers down field and he has the sharp eye to hit them. A good deal of the Packer passing is built around play-number passes, developing off what appears at first to be a run. This makes it doubly effective.
This was the basis of the Packer strength last year in the 37-0 rout of the Giants. The Packer pass defenders—who may themselves gamble by coming up but also are geared to drop back and cut off an opponent's long gamble—lead the league in interceptions. They get a fierce rush from the four men in the line and exceptional close-up pass coverage from tall Middle Linebacker Ray Nitschke. The four deep men are fast, smart and eager. A small plus for this unit against the Giants is the spell Jess Whittenton holds over the ace Giant receiver, Del Shofner. Shofner, a former roomie of Jess's with the Rams, has rarely had a good day against him.
The Packer running attack is not fancy; it doesn't have to be. It is built solidly on the blocking of the most thoroughly machined offensive line in the league and the running of the best tandem of backs: Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. The Packer offensive linemen are not overpoweringly big, but they go through their blocks with drill precision. They moved the good Giant line almost at will a year ago; it may not be so easy this year in New York, but they should be able to open some of those holes wide enough to spring Taylor and Hornung for some big gains. And Hornung, when healthy, is the best blocking back in football.
The Green Bay defense is built on a combination of guile, speed and size—and is as formidable as any in the league. The meticulous defensive patterns are called from the sideline by Defensive Coach Phil Bengston. Bill Forester, Ray Nitschke and Dan Currie, the linebackers, seal any holes with hard, sure tackling; they are as good and probably better than the Giants, principally because they have played together so long. The Giants have a fine rookie linebacker, but he is a rookie. The veteran Green Bay defensive unit is hard to surprise; every club they've played has come up with new gimmicks against them, with little success.
Should, as seems likely, the Packers meet the Giants again for the championship, they probably will win again—not by as big a score as the 37-0 walloping they handed New York in Green Bay, but comfortably.
There are several reasons for this. First, the Giant team depends almost entirely on the forward pass for its big gains and for its key first downs, with Tittle throwing most of the time to Shofner, Gifford or Walton. This definite strength of the Giants is more than matched by Green Bay's strength in pass defense. If Whittenton, as he did last year, can again handle Shofner man to man, Defensive Coach Phil Bengston's problem will be simplified; he will not have to spread his forces thin to assign two men to the shifty, fast-running Giant end.
The Giant defense against Green Bay rushing flagged last year, even though Taylor, in the championship game, could manage only a token performance because of a bad back. The two lines are essentially the same and Taylor's back is not aching.
The Giants may run more and better this year; when the Packers give up yardage consistently it is most often to the run. Phil King, improved this year, helps the Giant running attack, Webster is still the best cutback runner in the business and the Giant blockers are fine.
Here is the offensive key to the Giant success this season. With Y.A. Tittle well protected, receivers Del Shofner, Frank Gifford and Joe Walton have had plenty of time to work themselves free in Allie Sherman's ingenious pass patterns. The pass attack has grown better week by week as Gifford (see cover) has grown more accustomed to the subtleties of playing flanker back; now he is almost as good as Kyle Rote was at making his moves, and Gifford is a stronger runner. If the Packer or Lion defenders concentrate on Shofner too much, Gifford may be the day's star. Shofner probably would do much better against Detroit than against the Packers.
This has not been the strongest segment of the defense for the Giants. During the season opposing teams have gained nearly twice as many yards against them through the air as on the ground. Both the Packers and the Lions are well equipped to take advantage of any lapses by the Giant antiaircraft group. The Packers, with a superb quarterback in Starr and very big receivers, seem better equipped, since the Giant secondary backs are not big men themselves and may have difficulty coping with the tall Green Bay ends. Should the Giant defenders overload against the Green Bay running, they may suffer to an even greater extent from Starr's passing.
Although the Giants have, upon occasion, pounded methodically at an opposing defense with a tough ground game to protect a lead, this is not the general style of their attack. Their big ballcarriers—Phil King, Alex Webster—have strength but seldom seem to break away for those game-turning long runs. These two runners will undoubtedly move for short yardage against the Green Bay defense, which will certainly be pass conscious, but unless Sherman and his schemers come up with a play like the end around which Gifford ran recently to surprise the Dallas Cowboys, the Giant ground game will only supplement and set up the air attack.
Here, the Giant strength runs headlong into the power of the Packers. If the Giant defenders could set up to contain the Packer running offense, they might do well enough, but the Packers can move as well in the air as on the ground and their habit of throwing from what looks like a running play complicates matters even more. The Lions, on the other hand, are not nearly as explosive on the ground. Nick Pietrosante, Ken Webb, Dan Lewis and Tom Watkins are good runners, but not of the caliber of Taylor and Hornung. The Giants may contain the four Lions; they may too, contain Taylor and Hornung, but at serious cost in pass defense.
Whether the Giants play the Packers or the Lions, they do not seem strong enough to win the championship. Although this is a more versatile and more explosive Giant team than last year's, it still cannot match Green Bay's consistent ground attack, and the Giant defense, overall, is not quite as good as the Lions'. The Giants have a better passing attack than either Detroit or Green Bay, but this is negated, in large measure, by the fine pass defenses that they must face, either of which is better than their own.
The Giant defense against the run is slightly better than Green Bay's, not quite as good as Detroit's. The quality of New York's running game is far below that of Green Bay's, probably about the same or not quite as good as that of the Lions.
Allie Sherman's team does carry the small advantage of playing at home, but it is too slight to make up the difference in this case. The Giants undoubtedly will score against either of these teams; if they follow their bent, they'll score spectacularly once or twice.
But the Packers will score more, either on the ground or in the air. And the Detroit defense will blanket most of the Giant passing offense with ferocious, gambling rushes and the same tremendous line will stop the running attack.
The Lion air arm is not as strong as that of New York or Green Bay. Milt Plum, the refugee from Cleveland, has improved considerably under Wilson's laissez faire policy, but he is not the match, in field generalship, of either Tittle or Starr and ranks well below both of them in passing efficiency. This is his first year in full charge of a team and he improved as the season grew old. In Gail Cogdill, Plum has one of the best receivers in the league; he is matched, however, by Del Shofner. A small plus here is Earl Morrall, the Detroit No. 2 quarterback, who specializes in coming in late to salvage games. He may need to against the Giants.
The vigorous rush of the four big men gives Detroit a pass defense about the equal of New York's, second only to Green Bay. Joe Schmidt, the defensive signal caller, juggles the more-than-usually complex Detroit defenses well and he gets good pass coverage from two quick corner linebackers, Carl Brettschneider and Wayne Walker. The four Ls in the secondary—Lane, LeBeau, Lowe and Lary—all have good speed and, with a total of 35 years' experience among them, they are seldom fooled. They do not often gamble for interceptions, but they do not get beaten for touchdowns either. The wide variety of blitzes called by Schmidt helps out, too.
Along the ground, the Lions are capable of moving steadily but seldom in long bursts. Very sound blocking by the offensive line clears routes for the running backs, but none of them has yet shown unusual ability to turn the short runs into game breakers. Nick Pietrosante is an extremely good blocker and a bulldozing runner; Tom Watkins and Dan Lewis, the halfbacks, have slashing strength. Watkins, another Cleveland tradee, has run very well and may be the big gainer the Lions need. Ken Webb, the fullback who replaces Pietrosante, runs with almost as much power, but does not block quite as well. Few fullbacks in the league do.
The Lions have the best defense against a ground attack in football. Their four linemen—Darris McCord, Alex Karras, Roger Brown and Sam Williams—add up to more than half a ton of mobile muscle. Linebacker Joe Schmidt is one of the NFL's surest tacklers and fiercely fills whatever cracks are opened in the middle of the line. It is hard to sweep outside this formidable middle; Brettschneider and Walker both tackle well, contain well and the two corner backs, Lane and LeBeau, are difficult to bypass. The Lions have allowed opponents a little less than 75 yards per game rushing and only about four first downs per game on the ground.
The Detroit margin over the Giants is small but definite. Their strong running offense is similar to that of the Giants, and roughly its equal, but they should gain with greater ease on the ground, since they are not, like the Giants, facing the most immovable rushing defense in the league. The Lions lost a close one to New York in New York during the season, falling with a loud thud to one of the fancy plays that mark this Giant team. "I knew Y. A. liked to bootleg," Schmidt said the other day. "I kept warning the guys to look for the bootleg. Then he ran one and scored on us." If this recurs it seems unlikely that the Lions will lapse so woefully again. Their veteran pass defense and fast, fearsome pass rush should suffice to contain New York's most effective striking power.
Although the Detroit pass attack is not as good as New York's, Plum and Morrall will be throwing into a sievelike defense that has allowed some 200 yards per game through the air. Thus, the passing attacks should just about cancel out and the Detroit ground game appears to have a better chance of success than does the New York running attack. A Giant-Lion championship game could be a close, low-scoring affair, but the Lions should win it as they have so many this season—on superior defense.