The rise and growth of the American Football League, not to mention the expansion of the NFL itself, have almost doubled the number of football jobs open to talented college graduates. The trouble is, there are not that many talented graduates. As a consequence, no team in either league is truly deep at every position—no team, that is, except Green Bay. The Packers again have everything, and the odds are that when Super Bowl time comes next January 14 they will be the NFL representative in Miami's Orange Bowl. If they are, they will be the first team in NFL history to win three straight championships.
"I don't think I've ever worked harder," says Coach Vince Lombardi. "I can't remember when the Packers have had a larger player turnover."
Despite the turnover, the Packers should be as strong as ever and even more explosive than the grind-it-out, ball-control teams of the recent past. Jim Taylor and Elijah Pitts, excellent as always, were the principal runners in 1966, but neither posed a long threat from the line of scrimmage. This season Green Bay has runners who do. Although Taylor is now with the Saints, Pitts remains, along with Jim Grabowski and Donny Anderson, who have served their apprenticeships and appear to be ready to step in where Taylor and Paul Hornung used to step out. A rookie named Travis Williams and husky Ben Wilson, an arrival from the Los Angeles Rams, assure the Packers of their customary wealth in running backs and enhance the possibility that the attack will be a long-striking one.
Green Bay, of course, starts with an inestimable advantage—a quarterback who has been the most effective in football for several years, plus a perfect backup man. Bart Starr has demonstrated all the qualities that make for superstardom at quarterback: a fine arm, a quick delivery, poise and complete command of the tactical resources of his team. Behind him is Zeke Bratkowski, who has much experience, a good arm and the full confidence of the team when he is called upon to lead it. The Packers are one of the few teams that can accept an injury to the No. 1 quarterback.
Not that they have been faced with this possibility very often. Operating behind the best offensive line in pro football, Starr has been virtually indestructible. His value, it becomes clearer with each new season, cannot be overestimated. More than any other quarterback, he aims his passes with assurance, never releasing the ball until he is sure where it is going. Says Jack Christiansen, coach of the 49ers. "Starr's the best right now, and before he's done—which will be soon, I hope—he may be the best of all time."
Even Sid Gillman, the coach of the San Diego Chargers in the AFL, pays tribute to the quiet quarterback of the Packers. "Bart Starr is in a class by himself," Gillman says. "He has been ahead of John Unitas for a long time. Nobody can touch him. He's as good as there ever has been. The thing about him is that when he finds something, he wears it out. Show him a weakness and he'll hammer it to death. The Packers are sensible people. They pick out the things they can do and waste no time on frills."
With more speed in the backfield, Stan will have plenty of things he can do behind his almost perfect protection. Most of them involve exploiting an ideal set of receivers. Boyd Dowler, the tall ex-hurdler, is very fast and has the advantage of being able to reach over most defensive backs to catch the ball. Max McGee, seemingly ageless and infinitely wise after 11 years in the NFL, demonstrated the value of experience last year in the Super Bowl when he outfoxed the callow Kansas City corner backs for seven catches and two touchdowns in the Green Bay victory.
McGee is a spot player, but Carroll Dale is not, and he shares much of McGee's wisdom and has more speed. Tight End Marv Fleming, whom Lombardi considered the most improved player on the Packer roster last year, rates among the best in the league at his position. He was slowed by injury during the preseason games, but another youngster, Allen Brown, stands ready to fill in acceptably should Fleming fail to regain his full effectiveness.
Brown has himself been injured the last two years. Bob Long, a very fast outside receiver, also has been hurt. His loss will take away some of the speed that Green Bay needs, but, as usual, the Packers have adequate rookie help—this year in Dave Dunaway of Duke and Jeff White, who spent last year absorbing the Lombardi optional route system as a member of the taxi squad. Both can move.
The offensive line is approaching senior-citizen status. If the rest of the NFL teams take solace in that, they should not. The only man likely to break into that supremely competent group this season is Guard Gale Gillingham. Fuzzy Thurston is the one he would replace, but remember that Thurston's retirement has been predicted for three seasons now, and nobody yet has been able to usurp his position. One of the younger, quicker guards who was supposed to take his place is now playing for the Atlanta Falcons, and last season Thurston performed notably.
The rest of the offensive line is about the same—the best. Jerry Kramer, whole and hearty after a series of mishaps, remains one of the two or three finest guards in football, and Ken Bowman is a blooded, strong center who returns after a year missed because of injury. Forrest Gregg and Bob Skoronski still rank at the top as offensive tackles, and if these names are not sufficient, then Lombardi can drop more, such as Steve Wright's—he has been a backup man for three years at tackle—and Bob Hyland's—he was a lineman on the college All-Star team that lost to Green Bay in August.
The situation on defense is little less promising. In 1966 Green Bay held its opponents to fewer points than any other team in the NFL. Some have hinted that advancing years have slowed the men responsible for that showing, but Lombardi thinks not.
"My team has been called old by some people," he says. "But as long as the players win, they are not old. Our strongest point is experience, and I don't just mean years in the league but the experience of the type of games these people have been through. Championship game experience. Anyone who did not value that type of experience would be a fool."
Willie Davis, an All-Pro end, and Henry Jordan, an All-Pro defensive tackle, embody that experience in the Packer defensive line. Ron Kostelnik, coming into his seventh year, is a young—by Packer standards—addition to the front four. Behind this formidable array stand Jim Weatherwax, a 6'7", 260-pound second-year man, and a high draft choice, 6'5", 265-pound Dick Arndt. Only Lionel Aldridge, a fine end who was injured in preseason play, will be missing early on. Al-dridge probably will be replaced by Bob Brown, a broth of a young man who stands 6'5", weighs 260 and is immensely strong. Someone recently asked him how strong he was and he said, "I don't know. I'm not much for weight lifting. Give me a quarterback or a fullback instead." The Packers will not be devastated by Aldridge's loss.
The three top Green Bay linebackers are probably the best in football. Ray Nitschke, Lee Roy Caffey and Dave Robinson combine size and speed ideally. Robinson, in fact, is considered by some opposing coaches as the best one-on-one linebacker in the business. And Green Bay has an exemplary player sitting on the bench waiting for a chance in Tommy Crutcher.
The secondary is the same as it was in 1966—in players and excellence. Herb Adderley has underlined his claim to being the best corner back in football, and Bob Jeter, who is Green Bay's other corner, has almost the same credentials. Willie Wood is an All-Pro safety man, and Tom Brown improved from game to game last year. Competent replacements include Doug Hart and Dave Hathcock.
It is hard to fault the Packers anywhere. Helping them, too, will be the weakness of the Central Division. Detroit and Minnesota have new coaches and Minnesota has a new quarterback, as well. The Chicago Bears are in the throes of a massive rebuilding project, and at the moment appear to have no competent quarterback at all. If winning in the Central will be a walkover for the Packers, taking second place will be a scramble for the others. Minnesota could just luck out, although Detroit, with greater strengths, should be favored.
Fran Tarkenton has taken his exciting, if not always winning, style of play to New York, and his replacement will come from Ron VanderKelen, Bob Berry or John Hankinson, a trio distinguished by the fact that among them they have started a total of three NFL games. At that, they show more experience than the Vikings' coaches. Head Coach Bud Grant, Offensive Backfield Coach Bus Mertes and Defensive Coach Bob Hollway have never coached an NFL team, and Jimmy Carr, the defensive backfield coach, has had only a year's indoctrination. Grant, whose last contact with NFL play came in 1952 when he played end for Philadelphia before leaving for the Canadian Football League, summed up his club's principal problems succinctly.
"The biggest question marks about the Vikings in 1967 are the quarterback and me," he said.
The questions will not be answered until the season is well under way, but it is unlikely that they will both be answered in the affirmative. Grant contends there is no great difference between Canadian and NFL football, but he must still familiarize himself with teams totally strange to him.
On the plus side, the club helped itself by acquiring valuable players from the Giants in exchange for Tarkenton and from the Rams for Tommy Mason and Hal Bedsole. The Vikings also did well in the draft. For Tarkenton they got both the Giants' first and second draft choices and picked Halfback Clint Jones of Michigan State and Flanker Bob Grim of Oregon State, plus a bonus choice from the Giants in 1968, which, considering the desperate state of the New York team, could very well be the first draft pick.
The Vikings did even better in the Rams' deal. Marlin McKeever has taken over solidly as the tight end, and the Rams' first draft choice for 1967 turned out to be Alan Page of Notre Dame, who will wind up as a starting defensive end.
The strongest player acquired by the Vikings in their own draft was Gene Washington of Michigan State, who can play either split end or flanker. Washington, Jones, Grim and Bobby Bryant, another astute draft pick, give the Vikings better speed on the flanks and kick returns than they have had before.
The Vikings, who had become restive under the high-pressure, volatile Norm Van Brocklin, seem more at ease with Grant, whose coaching is low-key and persuasive. Their attack, without Tarkenton's scrambling antics, will certainly be more staid. A sound offensive line should give Grant the means to install a ball-control offense, similar to the one that moved Green Bay for years. His running backs are good if not spectacular. Bill Brown, a low-slung, bandy-legged strong man, is a good blocking fullback, and he will be helped by Dave Osborn, who replaces Mason at halfback. Osborn, too, is a strong, tough runner who makes few mistakes. Jones, the rookie, may add sparkle to the running. The receivers are improved over last year, with McKeever helping Paul Flatley and Jim Phillips.
The Minnesota defense, with outstanding linebackers and a seasoned defensive line, is set but the Vikings need a stronger rush from the front four. Page, replacing the injured Carl Eller, may help, and Jim Marshall continues to be of value with his strong, consistent rushes from the other end. The secondary is experienced and tough. Dale Hackbart may miss the early part of the season because of a leg injury, but Jeff Jordan, a promising third-year man, appears capable of replacing him without upsetting the defense.
The Detroit Lions, who achieved the unenviable distinction of being the first NFL team to lose to an AFL club—and to the Denver Broncos, yet!—face as many problems as the Vikings.
In Joe Schmidt, they have a brand-new head coach. In Karl Sweetan, they have what amounts to a brand-new starting quarterback. They may wind up with a practically brand-new team.
When Schmidt, a perennial All-Pro linebacker and the captain of the once-stout Detroit defense, took over as head coach this year he made a typically hard-bitten appraisal of the team he knows inside out. "We have only 16 or 17 good football players," he said frankly. "I mean players who are a cut above the average."
Under Harry Gilmer, many of the cut-above-average players had become dissatisfied and unwilling to work. Discipline had deteriorated, and the club was playing well below its potential. Schmidt cracked down on the malcontents as soon as he took over, and drew the limits of behavior for the club so sharply that it cost a player $100 for walking on the grass at camp, instead of on the sidewalk.
"I think discipline plays a big part in football," Schmidt said. "If there is discipline off the field, there will be discipline on it. Sometimes people can't discipline themselves, so there have to be rules for those people."
Under Gilmer, the laxity of mental discipline was evident in the many and costly penalties the team suffered. Under Schmidt, it appeared briefly that the same thing would hold this season. In that surprising loss to Denver, Alex Karras was thrown out of the game for kicking a Denver player and Wayne Walker drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty when he threw the football at the Denver quarterback.
Schmidt reacted by taking an even tighter hold on the reins. The club responded by beating Buffalo the next time out. Schmidt found a real bright spot in that game in the running of two rookie backs—Nick Eddy of Notre Dame and Mel Farr of UCLA, both of whom were in the College All-Star camp when Detroit played Denver. Eddy scored a touchdown on a long punt return the first time he touched the ball as a pro, and Farr, the fourth time he got his hands on the ball, scored on a 38-yard pass from Milt Plum. Unfortunately, Eddy was hurt later and will be out for six weeks.
Significantly for the future, Eddy and Farr were the first glamour rookies signed by the Lions since the NFL-AFL fight began. The attrition that had resulted from the Lions' refusal to contend for players is the principal reason for their present ineptitude.
It will take several years of signing top draft choices to remedy the lacks of recent seasons. The Lion offensive line is spotty, with John Gordy at guard the only player of All-Pro quality. Charley Bradshaw, who retired from the Pittsburgh Steelers and was lured back into action by Detroit, helps at one tackle, but overall, the Lions still need more help here. If Daryl Sanders can be brought back from retirement, too, he will give the team another good tackle and improve the blocking.
The running, with Eddy and Farr teaming with the experienced Amos Marsh, should emerge from the doldrums of the past few years. If Sweetan is as good a quarterback and thrower as Schmidt thinks he is, Detroit's passing should open the paths for the ground game as well.
Milt Plum, who has been a long time in the league and most of that time in the wings, gives the club experience, but it is Sweetan who must come through.
"I will decide on my quarterback just before the season," says Schmidt, who, during his playing days, was no fan of the quiet, unassuming Plum. But Plum had an excellent training camp and Schmidt may eventually go to him as No. 1 despite the fact he is not a fiery type. Sweetan is a strong leader, without Plum's technical capabilities.
"I don't understand the word leadership," Plum says. "Are you not a leader because you don't yell and scream and hoot and holler? I'm an individual. I've got my own ways. This team still thinks back too much to the days of Bobby Layne."
The Lion defense has shown cracks in recent years, but that may be a result of the poor morale on the club. Certainly the players, although approaching pro football middle age, are still formidable. Karras and Roger Brown are two of the best tackles in the NFL, and Darris McCord and Larry Hand are respected ends. The linebackers—Ernie Clark, Mike Lucci and Wayne Walker—have missed Schmidt since his retirement, but they remain strong.
The secondary, once the best in football, has sagged. Dick LeBeau, the right corner back, is All-Pro, but the other three fall short of his ability, and Schmidt, correctly, has said he needs help here.
Fortunately, Schmidt will have time to plug up the holes in the Lion offense and defense. Bill Ford, owner of the club, has given him a five-year contract. "It might take five years to get us back in contention," Ford says. He is probably right.
It might take George Halas longer than five years to make the Chicago Bears the Monsters of the Midway again. Seldom has a team crumbled so thoroughly so fast as the Bears have since they won the NFL title in 1963. Now the Monsters are midgets and the Bears are in a state of disarray. They are trying rookies at tight end and defensive end. Fullback Andy Livingston is recovering from a leg injury that kept him out during 1966 and has not yet attained playing speed or weight. Ron Bull, who has hurt his leg and will not be back in action until early in the season, Ralph Kurek and the incomparable Gale Sayers are the other running backs. Sayers suffered an ankle injury during the off season and has been slow attaining top form. Johnny Morris, the flanker who caught 93 passes for a league record in 1964, is coming off a leg injury which sidelined him last season, and he must be considered doubtful.
The defensive platoon does not shape up any better. At right corner back, Curtis Gentry, with a few minutes' NFL experience, is the leading contender, and at left corner back, two rookies are the candidates. Finally, the place-kickers cannot reach the end zone on kickoffs, despite coaching from old pro Ben Agajanian.
Last year the Bears won five games. They controlled the ball for fewer offensive plays than any other club in the league and gained fewer yards passing. Since then they have lost, one way or another, Mike Ditka, Doug Atkins, Jon Arnett, Bob Kilcullen, Joe Marconi, Herman Lee and Dave Whitsell, all first-string players. Halas is trying out rookies to replace almost all of these.
There are a few bright spots. The defensive line is strong in the middle, with Tackles Dick Evey and Frank Cornish, a 285-pound giant. Dick Butkus is an All-Pro middle linebacker, Ed O'Bradovich has decided to return after all at defensive end, and the tandem of Richie Petitbon and Roosevelt Taylor at safety is quick and experienced. But the corner backs and corner linebackers leave something to be desired. No amount of strength up the middle can compensate for these deficiencies.
Halas, however, is not desperate. After watching films of the Washington Redskins walloping his team 37-14, he could see a silver lining. "We have concluded that with some tightening up at spots, we can become one of the nicest defensive units in the league this year," Halas said optimistically. "One encouraging factor was that we were able to improve considerably on our third-down defense, an area in which we had trouble last year. We stopped the Redskins 11 of 13 times on third-down passes, and on a third-and-one situation we stopped them on the ground."
Halas is experimenting with using Bennie McRae, a corner back, as a corner linebacker on third downs when a pass seems possible. This may help. The Bear offensive line is much the same as last year except that it does not have Ditka, and that does not aid the blocking at all. It was inadequate with Ditka in 1966; it should be worse this year.
And last, the Bears still do not have a top-quality quarterback. Halas got Jack Concannon from Philadelphia for Ditka, but he is not calculated to improve the situation much for a few years, since he lacks experience. As one Chicago columnist put it, "The Bears got the third-string quarterback from a team where the first-and second-string quarterbacks ranked 16th and 21st in the league."
But, more charitably, Concannon can only help. He can roll out and create some confusion in defenses and he may have more time to find receivers than either of the other two quarterbacks, Rudy Bukich or Larry Rakestraw, who must remain in the very flimsy blocking pocket to throw.
It is a long, long way between the Packers and the Bears, or, for that matter, the Packers and the Vikings and Lions in this least competitive of the NFL's four divisions.
RATING THE CENTRAL