"There's a feeling on the team that we have a chance to win the Western title," says Fullback Nick Pietrosante. "The new coach [Harry Gilmer] alone should make us 20% better. Nobody is sure of a job; everyone has to fight to prove that he should be in there. And for once we signed our good draft choices. Lord knows we've been close before, but never has the feeling been this strong."
A strong defense is essential for a contender; the Lion defense is aging but still one of the best. Nobody puts a better rush on passers than Darris McCord, Alex Karras, Roger Brown and Sam Williams, the Lions' massive defensive line. Tackle Karras proved last season, after his year of exile, that he had lost none of the quickness that made him the lineman hardest to contain, and when Brown launches his 300 pounds things crack. There is no anxiety about the linebacking. Joe Schmidt, in his 13th year, is still, despite trouble with an injured shoulder, among the finest at his trade. Wayne Walker, on the right side, is an All-Pro. Mike Lucci, obtained in a trade with Cleveland, is young and has a good future. And to add reserve strength there are Ernie Clark and Monte Lee. The secondary faltered in 1964 and allowed 226 passes to be caught, and the reconstruction job begun by Coach George Wilson must be completed satisfactorily by Gilmer.
For many years Night Train Lane, who is still a Lion but no longer a starter, and Yale Lary meshed perfectly as a corner-backing team. The new men, Wayne Rasmussen and Bobby Thompson, can still be duped by offensive fakes, but they have the speed to recover in time to break up the play. All-Pro Dick LeBeau, in his seventh season, and Bruce Maher, in his sixth, are the veterans of the defensive backfield.
The Lions' big problem, as it has been for three years, is the offense, specifically, the running game. "We've got to run more and better if we hope to be in contention," Gilmer says. To accomplish this the Lions have put together one of the brawniest backfields ever seen in the NFL. Happiest of the runners is Pietrosante, who has groused in the past at how seldom his number was called and is cheered by Gilmer's emphasis on running. Pietrosante and his 235-pound competitor, rookie Tom Nowatzke, will concentrate on moving the ball through the line. Both are punishing blockers. The wide runs will be left to Joe Don Looney who, despite his antisocial tendencies, is looked upon by the Lions as a real find. The 230-pound Looney is the fastest man on the squad and has shown polish and power as a runner and a blocker. Curiously, Looney is too heavily muscled to make a good receiver. Alternating with Looney will be Dan Lewis, a quick, clever runner, and rookie Earl Hawkins. Gilmer has brought the platooning of Quarterbacks Milt Plum and Earl Morrall to a sudden end by trading Morrall to New York. For the first time in his career Plum is No. 1, which should increase his confidence. Gilmer says, "When you divide the job, you divide the team. I'll have one and only one first-string quarterback."
Plum, who ranks second in the league standings with a career 55.7% completion record and has thrown for 13,872 yards and 101 touchdowns, will be throwing to a talented and successful corps of receivers. Gail Cogdill, the rangy, mobile split end, has extraordinary moves. Last year he caught 45 passes though often double-teamed. Tight End Jim Gibbons also caught 45, eight of them for touchdowns. Flanker Terry Barr may be the best of all. He averaged 18.1 yards on 57 receptions and scored nine touchdowns. Gilmer thinned his stock of receivers the other day by trading John Hilton to Pittsburgh for a draft choice. Still, Tom Watkins and Pat Studstill are adequate reserves at flanker. Watkins, a leading punt-return specialist, will be a swing man, filling in at either flanker or running back. Studstill also does the punting. He is not quite up to the standard of Yale Lary, who has retired, but he is good enough.
Gilmer will tell you that no other offensive line beats his. Tackle Daryl Sanders, in only his third year, has become an outstanding drive blocker and an All-Pro selection. The veteran J. D. Smith, acquired from the Eagles last year, performs capably at the other tackle. Guards John Gordy and Jim Simon and Center Bob Whitlow provide dependable, strong protection for the passers. Darrell Dess, obtained from New York in the Morrall trade, adds depth.
The Lions have a solid defense, a sound passing game, an excellent offensive line and better running. But Plum has not yet shown that he is of championship quality, and Joe Don Looney, despite his promise, remains an uncertain quantity. The statistics notwithstanding, the Lions could finish last.