The Chicago Bears had the best defense in pro football in 1963. They did not have much else, but, as things turned out, the best defense brought them the NFL championship. There were a few innovations in that defense—at least in execution—which puzzled the other teams long enough to enable the Bears, with perhaps the most pedestrian offense in championship history, to go all the way.
The 1964 Bear offense will not shake the football world. Billy Wade still directs it with the gambling instinct of your maiden aunt Sophronia at the Wednesday Afternoon Bridge Club. Unless Coach George Halas revamps the plan of attack to include at least the threat of an occasional long pass, the rest of the West will tighten up its pass coverage and cut off the short passes.
The Bears lost one of their few game-breaking threats when Willie Galimore (along with teammate John Farrington) was killed in a tragic automobile accident during the off season. Jon Arnett came from the Rams as a replacement for Galimore, but it is doubtful that Arnett will fill the void.
The Bear defense is unchanged. Doug Atkins, a slumbering giant at defensive end, is still the best in the business. The rest of the Bear defensive line is also formidable. And the Bear linebackers complement this front four perfectly. There is one weakness in the secondary, at corner back, but the two safeties are so quick that they compensate for it.
Mike Ditka (right), the human fireplug who plays tight end for the Bears, is a rarity. He has the speed and the hands to catch passes, plus the sheer strength to bury a linebacker when he has to block. But with an offense geared to the short gain, the good deep receivers—Gary Barnes, Johnny Morris and Rich Kreitling—rarely get an opportunity.
Chicago's big weakness is in running. Rick Casares and Joe Marconi block well, but they are four-step fullbacks who never break loose; Ronnie Bull, at halfback, can get a first down on third and six or seven, but he is no game-breaker.
The Bear defense, more familiar now to the rest of the league, cannot hope to do as well as it did last year. The weak offense is no stronger. Other western teams have improved, and what was good enough for first in 1963 should suffice for fourth in 1964.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Green Bay Packers lost two games and the championship to the same club last year—the Chicago Bears. But the Packers played without Paul Hornung in both games and without starting quarterback Bart Starr in one. Both Hornung and Starr are healthy as the season starts; indeed, Hornung looks better than he has ever looked—which is something like saying that the Venus de Milo has sprouted arms.
This Packer team may be the best that Coach Vince Lombardi has had. The offensive line is stronger with a versatile coterie of running backs behind it. The Bears have Mike Ditka at tight end, but the Packers have two Mike Ditkas—Ron Kramer and Marv Fleming. Most clubs are looking for a massive, quick-running back who can block. In Jim Taylor, Tom Moore, Paul Hornung, Dennis Claridge, Frank Mestnik and Elijah Pitts, the Packers have six. Claridge, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound rookie quarterback from Nebraska, can also play halfback and fullback. His arm is strong enough and accurate enough so that he will be a sound third quarterback behind Zeke Bratkowski. He should be even better than Hornung on the pass-run option.
Max McGee, Boyd Dowler, Kramer, Fleming and rookie Bob Long are tall, fast receivers for the accurate throws of Starr and Zeke Bratkowski.
The defensive line has two quick, deadly rushers in Henry Jordan and Willie Davis, one of the smartest tackles in the league in Dave Hanner, and a sound young end in Lionel Aldridge. Behind Hanner is promising Ron Kostelnick. Dave Robinson, 6 feet 3 and 245, is taking over one of the linebacker spots in place of retiring All-League Bill Forester. That would be a sticky assignment on most teams in the league, but Robinson has coaches on the field with him in old hands Ray Nitschke, on his left, and Jesse Whittenton behind him.
With this wealth of physical talent, only injuries could cost the Packers another championship. But injuries should be no bugaboo, since at every position they have depth.
Success has brought wealth to the Packers, and the individual players have a lot of money. Last year Emlen Tunnell, the Giant coach who once played with Green Bay, said, "They may not be hungry anymore." He was kidding, but he could still be right. Lombardi does not think so. If the Packers want it badly enough, the championship is theirs, for this is an almost flawless team, with all the weapons of attack any pro club ever had and a seasoned, smart defense.
John Unitas, in his ninth year with Baltimore, is still—with Bart Starr and Y. A. Tittle—one of the three best quarterbacks around. Behind Unitas stands the best No. 2 quarterback, Gary Cuozzo. If the Colts were as well equipped elsewhere, they would come close to winning the Western Division championship, but they fall a little shy.
The running backs are better than they have been. Tom Matte runs ingeniously, blocks enthusiastically and throws an acceptable option pass. He shares halfback with Lenny Moore, a talented runner and a fine receiver. Jerry Hill is a small Jim Taylor, with the same explosive charge and a fine balance; Marv Woodson and Tony Lorick—two rookies—promise to be wonderful runners. Another rookie—newly acquired Joe Don Looney—is a big question mark. Unitas and Cuozzo have good pass catchers in Raymond Berry, Jimmy Orr, John Mackey, Butch Wilson and rookie Neal Petties. The offensive line is elderly in some spots and young in others, but it is adequate.
Unfortunately, Coach Don Shula's defense is not quite strong enough. The principal weakness is also the most damaging—the Colt corner backs are not quite up to fulfilling their function of covering fast receivers. Gino Marchetti combines with Ordell Braase to give the Colts a fine pair of defensive ends, but there is a soft spot at one tackle, and the Colt linebackers are not among the best.
Baltimore should have good ball control. But control never offsets a defensive weakness against the thrown ball.
The Colts will score high for victory over many of their opponents. But the really sound teams will hold them and then outscore them by both running and throwing against a just average defense. The odds are that the Colts will finish second to the Packers.
With the return of Alex Karras, Coach George Wilson and his Detroit Lions once again have the best defensive line in the league. Karras and his 300-pound running mate, Roger Brown, are certainly the best pair of tackles, and Ends Darris McCord and Sam Williams, backed up by Bill Quinlan, provide strength and agility outside. Then, of course, there is Joe Schmidt, an automatic All-League each year at middle linebacker, flanked by Wayne Walker and either Carl Brettschneider or young Ernie Clark.
Until Night Train Lane limped off to the hospital for a knee operation midway through the training season, the Lion defensive secondary was tops, too. Lane's replacement—either rookie Bobby Thompson or five-year man Bruce Maher—cannot hope to perform as well as the old pro. So closely matched are the likely runners-up to the Packers in the Western Division that this one drop-out may slide Detroit into fourth or fifth.
Plagued for several seasons by the lack of real quality running backs, the Lions go into the 1964 season with the same serious flaw. Nick Pietrosante is a strong runner and a good blocker, but he does not have the speed to break away, and the other backs—Tom Watkins, Larry Ferguson, Nick Ryder—are small as running backs go in the NFL.
In Earl Morrall and Milt Plum, George Wilson has two very good quarterbacks; Morrall carried the Lions during the second half of last season. Plum, slowed by a knee injury, had a disappointing year, but he has been even sharper than Morrall in preseason games and may take over the No. 1 spot.
The two Lion quarterbacks have good receivers who have been underrated. Gail Cogdill and Terry Barr are fast, movable and sure-fingered. At tight end, Jim Gibbons, not quite as big as the Ditkas and Kramers, is a solid blocker and an adept receiver.
The awesome rush which destroyed Bart Starr on Thanksgiving Day a couple of years ago should be evident again with the return of Alex Karras. A strong passing attack is limited by journeymen running backs. If the Lions get Lane back quickly and if they find a breakaway runner, they might surprise. Otherwise, they will fight it out with the Bears for fourth.
When the Vikings were born in 1961, their first draft choice was Tommy Mason, who has turned out to be one of the game's best running backs. Unfortunately, he came to camp with a jammed neck suffered in the College All-Star training camp and was not at full strength until midseason. Since that first year, the Vikings have lost their first draft choice, for one reason or another, until now. This year the first draft choice was Carl Eller, a massive, fast defensive end, who was also a member of the College All-Stars. Luckily, he reported to the Vikings in good health and has been jamming the necks of offensive tackles in a way that delights Coach Norm Van Brocklin. Eller and Jim Marshall, the other defensive end, give the Vikings a determined pass-rush. A strong pass-rush is a bedrock of a strong pass defense.
Van Brocklin has had a surprisingly adept offensive team since the Vikings sprang full grown but anemic from the forehead of the NFL expansion committee. His defense has been nonexistent, or tenuous. Now it is almost adequate.
Van Brocklin's defensive tackles are reasonably good. His middle linebacker—Rip Hawkins—is only a year or two away; the corner linebackers are young and learning fast. Help could be well used in the secondary, where the addition of one good rookie like George Rose is not enough.
But with powerful running from Mason, Ted Dean, Tom Wilson, Bill Brown, Bill McWatters and Tom Michel, plus a pair of quarterbacks almost the match of any two in the West—Fran Tarkenton and Ron VanderKelen—the Vikings should move into the first division.
Two fine quarterbacks, good receivers, strong runners and a not-so-porous defense could lift the Vikings to the heady heights of third place.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
The Rams are an anomaly. In Bill Munson, they have the best rookie quarterback since their own Norm Van Brocklin; in Terry Baker, the best combination quarterback-halfback; and in Roman Gabriel, a starting quarterback with as good an arm as Y. A. Tittle. The Ram defensive line has the respect of all the offensive guards and tackles in the Western Division. But the Rams probably will finish last in the West this year.
They will give up too much to any team that can throw well, and all the teams in the West can throw well.
Coach Harland Svare has a curious team in the Rams. The offensive line is good but not great. The receivers are great—Red Phillips, Carroll Dale, rookie Willie Brown and converted linebacker Marlin McKeever. The Ram runners, with the return of dental student Ben Wilson at fullback, are pretty good. But behind them, the Rams are thin.
The defensive line is almost the model of a modern defense. Dave Jones and Lamar Lundy are skyscraping ends whose very size limits the field for an opposing quarterback. Merlin Olsen is probably the best defensive tackle in the league, save Detroit's Alex Karras. Rosey Grier weighs 290 and moves smartly. Olsen and Jones are slashers, Lundy and Grier wait and read, and this is what all coaches look for. The Rams will dump many quarterbacks for long losses.
But the Rams secondary will give up many long gains when the opposing quarterbacks stay erect long enough to throw the ball. Any team without a bomb shelter is in serious trouble.
The Rams' fine quarterbacks—with protection—would pass and score heavily. But the running backs are not big enough to consistently protect the quarterbacks or to crack opposing lines. The defense depends entirely on the front four, but the front four cannot drop back for pass coverage. The Rams will finish last, but last in the West will be very close to first.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
"Nobody seems to realize that only one club in our division starts the season with the equivalent of eight veteran first draft choices," a coach in the West said about the San Francisco 49ers early this year. "They finished last a year ago. They could finish first."
They won't, but still they cannot be judged by their abysmal 1963 record. The squad was hit hard by injuries—nine first-line players were out for most of the season. But even if the 49ers had not been splinted and bandaged, they were not a first-division team.
This year the 49ers are healthy and happy. Most of them disliked their rugged and demanding coach, Red Hickey, at the beginning of 1963. He quit in mid-season, and his replacement—Jack Christiansen—was the players' choice.
"You can feel the difference," said John Brodie, whose passing arm seems entirely recovered after being broken twice in the same place last season. "We want to go. I think we have a chance."
Certainly the 49ers look like a better team. Behind Brodie is George Mira, who should certainly be the most exciting quarterback in the league. Brodie and Mira will throw to a group of receivers that includes Monty Stickles, Bernie Casey, Kay McFarland, rookie Dave Parks and Vern Burke. All can catch the ball well, but there are groups in the West who catch it better and run with it faster. The 49er running backs stand about halfway between the best and the worst. The offensive line will provide the runners with good holes and good protection.
The defensive secondary is fast and capable. Jim Johnson is a young Night Train Lane at corner back, and Kermit Alexander, Jerry Mertens and Elbert Kimbrough match the speed and quickness of the Bear safeties. Abe Woodson, at the other corner, is one of the rare players who has waterbug reflexes, greyhound speed and an appetite for tackling. Matt Hazeltine, a grossly underrated player, anchors a good set of linebackers.
The 49ers are in better shape than they were a year ago. They should, given an even break, finish sixth this year; with luck, they could go higher. San Francisco is the dark horse of 1964.