With Jimmy Brown in high gear for Cleveland, and the Baltimore Colts apparently—if illogically—able to function as well with Johnny Unitas on the bench as with Johnny Unitas in the game, the two divisional leaders in the National Football League are close to home. The Cardinals, once the team to beat in the East, have lost their cool and along with it three games in the last four weeks. The Packers, in that same period, have lost something just as important: the ability to score touchdowns. In dropping two of their last four games they have moved the ball across the goal line only three times, and, although they are still only a game out of first place, the Packers are hanging by their fingernails. Last Sunday they needed two field goals to claw past the lowly Rams 6-3.
This doesn't mean that the NFL, a league long dedicated to fratricide, is not going to have a lot of fun in the next five weeks but simply that most of the fun will occur slightly below the upper level. Now the battle is among St. Louis, New York and Dallas, perhaps even Washington and Philadelphia, for second place in the East, and among Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago and San Francisco to see which, if any, can overtake the Packers in the West.
Two of the more interesting Western also-rans got together last Sunday in Detroit, where the Lions—who have come a lot further than almost anyone thought they would in the beginning—tried out what San Francisco is confidently calling its team of the future, the high-scoring, uninhibited 49ers. Only the errors of youth have kept the 49ers out of the top two or three. That thought is a comfort to their coach, Jack Christiansen, who needed all the comfort he could get after his team lost four games by a total of 17 points.
Last Sunday nearly provided another frustration. With their fine set of running backs and receivers and with John Brodie having his best year at quarterback, the 49ers led the league in offense but somehow had managed to lose games with basketball scores.
The Lions had no such problem. Their offense ranged from mediocre to pathetic. It was their defense that had won for them. In their three straight losses earlier in the season the Lions' defense collapsed, but in the next two games, against Los Angeles and Green Bay, the defense recovered, and Detroit won them both.
The trouble during the losing period was at left corner back. Bobby Thompson, the regular, was hurt, and his replacement, Jimmy Hill, joined him with a groin injury. The Lions tried a rookie, who was picked on, so they reactivated Night Train Lane. Passes still flew into that area with bewildering rapidity. Coach Harry Gilmer then pulled Veteran Bruce Maher out of his safety position and placed him at the corner. The problem seemed to be solved.
There was hardly anyplace else the Lions could be attacked. They have a tradition of solid defense. The current one is based largely on the play of Defensive Tackles Roger Brown and Alex Karras and Linebackers Joe Schmidt and Wayne Walker. To run against the Lions, most teams use traps and influence blocking, but Karras, Brown and Defensive Ends Sam Williams and Darris McCord have the experience to sniff out traps and not be fooled. So the opposition resorts to the pass, and into action rushes the Lions' front four, often with blitzing help from a linebacker or two, and that idea goes back to the drawing board. The most successful moves against the Lions are the play-action passes that start out looking like runs.
On offense, though, the Lions have not been a really consistent threat in years. They have not had a top quarterback since Tobin Rote. For a while they got along with Milt Plum and Earl Morrall, but Gilmer decided having two quarterbacks of equal ability was worse than having one, since each developed his own following on the team. Plum had had some good seasons with Cleveland, and the Lions hoped he could duplicate them in Detroit—so Morrall was traded to New York. When Terry Barr, Gail Cogdill, Pat Studstill, Ron Kramer and Jim Gibbons are healthy the Lions are as well off for pass receivers as almost anybody, but they have not had the outstanding running backs necessary to make a passing offense work.
Trying to find one, Gilmer traded for a man who had become a legend in Dallas. He got Amos Marsh. In 1962 Marsh rushed for 802 yards and seemed on the verge of a brilliant career. Instead, he became a symbol of the Cowboys' frustration. Whenever he fumbled or dropped a pass, there was a joke about it. One gag was that when Amos was traded to Detroit, he dropped his plane ticket. Upon arriving in Detroit Marsh promptly scored two touchdowns, including one on a long pass in the final seconds to beat Minnesota. Coming from the bench, he had called the pass play wrong to Plum and had one of his numbers sewed on wrong, but he caught the ball anyhow. On his road jersey Amos is No 1E rather than 31. "It would have been 13 if they had put the 3 on straight," he says. "But I don't care. I quit reading the papers when I was in Dallas. I was glad to get out of there and come to Detroit where I'm wanted."
Marsh started at fullback last Sunday ahead of veteran Nick Pietrosante, and later—with Joe Don Looney out because of headaches he began to have after being clotheslined against Green Bay—worked in the same backfield with Pietrosante. They were fairly effective in the second half but hardly the equals of the 49ers' Ken Willard and John David Crow. With those two breaking tackles as few backs ever do against Detroit and with one fumble run in for a touchdown, the 49ers led 20-0 at half time. Watching Brodie throwing to Dave Parks, Bernie Casey and Monty Stickles did not go down well with Detroit's sellout crowd of 54,534.
But in the third quarter Marsh scored on a cutback at right tackle, and the Detroit defense began to change the flow of the game. On the second play of the fourth quarter Plum passed 22 yards to Studstill for a touchdown. An interception and twisting return by Maher and a 17-yard run by Marsh helped take Detroit down to the San Francisco 10 with the Lions trailing 14-20. Plum rolled out, seemed confused, was hit, fumbled, and San Francisco Defensive End Clark Miller picked up the ball and ran 75 yards for a touchdown. Detroit returned to score on a plunge by Pietrosante, and then Dick Lebeau's interception helped the Lions down to the 49ers' 13 with a minute and 38 seconds left to play. Behind by six, Detroit was in position to pull it out, and Christiansen began remembering the four games he had lost so narrowly. Plum, however, threw two incompletions and the 49ers survived.
"With our young guys, we've lacked the really big plays," said 49er Linebacker Mike Dowdle. "But they made them today and they're learning. This is going to be a great team." Baltimore and Green Bay, please note.