GREEN BAY PACKERS
When Vincent Lombardi, having achieved all that any professional football coach could hope to achieve, decided to leave the field for the front office after the Super Bowl, he said, seriously, "The greatness of this team lies ahead of it."
Since the Green Bay Packers had just finished winning their third straight NFL championship and their second straight Super Bowl game, Lombardi might reasonably be accused of hyperbole. Actually, he was speaking the truth.
On Thursday afternoons early in the training season this year, Lombardi played golf; when he came out to practice to watch Phil Bengtson drive the club as hard as he himself did, he sat on a special bench in the sun and acquired a tan, biting his tongue. He did not interfere with Bengtson, who spent nine years as his assistant and who has not varied the Lombardi routine. Lombardi appropriated a green park bench for his own and asked equipment man Bob Noel, "Where's my bench?" whenever he appeared. Once, when he had taken off his shirt only to see a cloud hide the sun, he demanded, "Where's my sun?" No one doubts that it reappeared at once.
The team Bengtson inherited may be the best of the long series of exemplary Packer clubs. It is essentially the same as the 1967 version and, given only a normal run of injuries, it should be much better. Last season Bart Starr, playing with a swollen thumb and rib injuries in the early games, threw nine interceptions in the first two, or three times as many as he did in all of 1966. Healed, he settled down to his usual pace and threw only eight more in the next 12 games. In midseason the Pack lost its two starting running backs within five minutes when Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski were both injured against the Baltimore Colts. Travis Williams, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Cleveland, got a late start because of tonsilitis, but he is recovered now and with a year's experience should have a strong season. Herb Adderley played defensive halfback for most of last season with a separated bicep in his right arm. Minus such injuries, the Packers figure to improve on their 1967 performance. And there are other significant pluses.
At quarterback, Starr is in a class reserved for him and for John Unitas. They are the best in the business and seem likely to remain so through 1968. Behind Starr, Zeke Bratkowski is the most efficient No. 2 extant. He and Starr are close friends and spend much of their free time watching Packer movies together so that in football philosophy (and, oddly enough, in physique and personality) they are almost carbon copies. For one not familiar with the club, it would be difficult to differentiate between Starr and Brat.
In the third slot probably will be rookie Bill Stevens. "We'll carry three quarterbacks," Bengtson says. "In this day I can't conceive of getting along with fewer." Stevens is the young man sitting in the wings in the Lombardi system, a system in which there is a young man waiting quietly behind almost every veteran.
The young men have stepped up at the running-back spot, where Green Bay has what must be the strongest set of backs in all of pro football. Donny Anderson moved ahead strongly during 1967 and is running with more confidence and with the same long, loping stride which gives him such speed and maneuverability. Grabowski has lost none of his quickness since his injury. He and Anderson probably will be the Packer starters, backed up by Pitts, Williams and Chuck Mercein. Ben Wilson, acquired from the Rams, is recuperating from a March knee operation but might be healthy enough to add depth to the offensive backfield.
The receivers have not changed. Boyd Dowler, Carroll Dale and Marv Fleming started in 1967, should again in 1968, although there is more pressure on them than on the runners. Bob Long, a promising young receiver, was traded to the Atlanta Falcons since the Packers already had Dave Dunaway and Claudis James backing up Dale and Dowler. Fleming will have to contend with the bid of Fred Carr, Green Bay's No. 1 draft choice. Carr could force Fleming into playing up to a potential he has never reached, or replace him late in the season. Max McGee has retired and he will be missed, but, if Bengtson feels he needs another deep receiver, he can always call on Anderson and relieve the congestion at running back. Blanton Collier, the Cleveland coach, says, "Anderson is not a good receiver. He's a great one."
An indication of the importance Lombardi and Bengtson have placed on the offensive line over the years is evidenced in the fact that a majority of the blocking linemen on the Packer team were first draft choices. Second-year man Bob Hyland, who is pressing Center Ken Bowman, was a first in 1967; Gale Gillingham, Francis Peay (obtained from the Giants in an off-season trade for Linebacker Tommy Crutcher and Tackle Steve Wright) and rookie Bill Lueck have all been firsts at one time or another.
Gillingham and All-NFL Jerry Kramer are set at guard, with Lueck available to back them. Veteran Offensive Tackles Bob Skoronski and Forrest Gregg will get welcome relief from Peay. Fuzzy Thurston has retired to a thriving restaurant business, but he spent most of last year behind Gillingham. As usual, the Packer offensive line is good.
The defensive line is no different. Henry Jordan and Willie Davis, the All-NFL defensive tackle and end, are growing older, but, as Davis says, they both seem to gain a step with age instead of losing one. Davis has a master's degree in marketing and a doctorate in dumping quarterbacks. Lionel Aldridge, the other end, is younger and bigger than Willie and is on his way to being as smart. Ron Kostelnik plays beside Henry Jordan at tackle and has for several years, long enough to add wisdom to his size and speed. If any of this formidable foursome should falter, Bengtson can call on 6'7" Jim Weatherwax at tackle or massive Bob Brown at defensive end, although Brown broke his arm in practice and will miss some of the early games.
The Packer backers, led by big, balding Ray Nitschke, still rank as the best trio in pro football. Nitschke is flanked by Dave Robinson and Lee Roy Caffey, mighty good company. Behind this trio there is Phil Vandersea, who well might be a starter if he were on any team except Green Bay, and Jim Flanigan, the Pack's second draft choice in 1967. Vandersea has returned after a year with the Saints.
In the defensive backfield, three of the starters have been on one or another All-NFL team in recent years. They are Cornerbacks Adderley and Jeter and Safety Willie Wood. The fourth regular is Tom Brown, only a cut below the others, and the fifth man is Doug Hart, who was a starter until Bob Jeter beat him out.
If there is any weakness on this club, it could be a lack of depth in the offensive line and among the receivers, but this is only a relative weakness. Most teams would be glad to trade offensive line or receiver strength with Green Bay.
Don Chandler, who gave the team good punting and placekicking, has retired. Last year Donny Anderson did most of the punting. He wasn't long, but his towering boots were seldom run back, and this year he has added length to height. To replace him, the Packers experimented with Fernando Souza, a Brazilian soccer player, but Souza, though he got length to his kicks, was unable to get the ball up fast enough to be a field-goal kicker. This means the Packers will probably fall back on Jerry Kramer, who once won a championship for Green Bay by kicking three field goals, a league record. The other possibility is Chuck Mercein.
The big question, of course, is how much difference the loss of Lombardi will make. "I haven't had as many ice breaks as this in years," Pitts said at one practice, sucking on a mouthful of chopped ice. "But we work just as hard."
They will miss Lombardi, no doubt. But not enough to make any difference on the field.
Jim Dooley has replaced George Halas as coach of the Chicago Bears and this could be the most exciting team in football to watch this season, if not the best. Not that the. Halas-coached Bears were dull; they were not. But Dooley is one of the brightest and most inventive of the new crop of coaches, and his plans for a total offense for the Chicago club should give the Bears the most varied attacking stances in the league.
Halas, of course, is still very much present. The venerable owner tooled around training camp in his golf cart, but it was Dooley, with an electric loudspeaker, who ran the toughest, most demanding Bear training camp of recent years. He was the boss, and the players became aware of it quickly.
Said Johnny Morris, the little flanker who retired after 10 years with the club: "There has been more hitting in this camp than in any 1 have ever been in." Dooley had the club butting heads at an accelerated pace, but, when the day's work was done, he proved a somewhat more permissive master than Halas.
"He said he didn't mind if we had a couple of beers after workout," one veteran said. "Just so he didn't catch us drinking too much. And he let us stay out until midnight on Saturday instead of 11:00. Those may seem like little things, but they mean something to us."
Dooley, who had been Halas' assistant for five years, has simplified the Bear offensive system by cutting down on the options on assignments. "Where a player may have had four ways to carry out his assignment, he now has two," Dooley says. "We think this will improve our execution. We'll do more things, but we'll do them easier."
Last year as defensive coach, Dooley invented the Dooley Shift, sending in an extra defensive back in place of a linebacker in obvious passing situations. It worked out so well that the Bears held their opponents to a league low of 42.7% passes completed and, during the second half of the season, cut that to an amazing 36.7%. In the last seven games the Bears won five, tied Minnesota and lost (by four points) to Green Bay.
One of Dooley's major problems is at quarterback, where Jack Concannon has taken over from Larry Rakestraw and Rudy Bukich. Concannon is a big, rawboned young man who runs very well for a quarterback but has not yet shown that he can pass well enough. If he were a tested quarterback, Dooley's imaginative sets and spreads could be effective enough to move the Bears up into Packer class.
Gale Sayers is, in effect, the Bear running attack. Dooley has plans to use him as a flanker, slot man, wide end or fullback in special situations—everything but center—so that he will be as strong a threat in every situation as he is on the few occasions when defenses can't gang up on him. But what Sayers really needs is another quality running back to diversify the Bear running attack. Ronnie Bull, Andy Livingston, Brian Piccolo, Ralph Kurek and Gary Lyle are the other backs.
Concannon has good enough receivers. Morris, who once set a league pass-catching record for one season may have gone, but Bob Jones, his replacement, has blazing speed, and so has Dick Gordon, the other wide receiver. A rookie, Cecil Turner, has shown enough to make Jones's job insecure, so the Bears are well-off for wide men. Last year the Bear tight ends caught only a total of 13 passes among them. This year Mike Hull, the team's first draft choice, will be moved from running back to tight end to bolster the position. Hull is a powerful blocker with speed enough to run deep patterns, and he will likely beat out Austin Denney, the 1967 incumbent.
Dooley's other big problem is the Bear offensive line. Bob Wetoska, a starting tackle, was operated on for shoulder trouble during the off season, and Mike Rabold, a dependable guard, retired. George Seals and Jim Cadile are fine first-string guards, but there is no depth behind them. Rookie Wayne Mass saw service in the offensive line during the preseason games, as did Randy Jackson, the left tackle. Mike Pyle, the old Yale man, is back again as center, but, even so, the offensive line looks thin.
Defense over the last few years has held the Bears up and 1968 should prove no exception, despite the improved prospects for the attack. The Chicago front line, clustered around 300-pound Frank Cornish at tackle, is powerful, with Ed O'Bradovich and rookie Willie Holman (who has taken over for the injured Marty Amsler) at ends. Light but active Dick Evey is the other tackle, while John Johnson backs them up.
The linebackers, with Dick Butkus in the middle, are excellent. Doug Buffone, in his second year, is a fine corner linebacker, and Jim Purnell, on the other side, is as good. Loyd Phillips, who also plays defensive end, backs up Butkus.
The Bears defensive backs rate with the best in football, including Green Bay. Bennie McRae and Joe Taylor are the cornerbacks, with Richie Petitbon and Rosey Taylor at safety. All of them are fast, experienced and tough, and they have worked as a unit long enough so that they make almost no mental errors. McRae moves to linebacker and Curt Gentry takes his place on the corner in the five-back Dooley defense.
Bobby Joe Green is an excellent punter, and last year the Bears benefited by acquiring an overflow placekicker from the Cowboy kicking caravan in the person of schoolteacher Mac Percival, who never played college football. Percival, who began to hit 40-yarders by the end of 1967, should be consistent this year.
An imaginative, exciting offense exploiting all the talents of Gale Sayers and the Bear receivers should put more points on the board for the Bears, and the defense is good, but Dooley, in his first season, has too many uncertainties at quarterback, in the offensive line and among his other running backs to beat out Green Bay or maybe even Detroit.
The Detroit Lions started the 1967 season by building a 17-0 lead on Green Bay in the first game of the year before settling for a 17-17 tie, then finished by thumping the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings. The aching need in 1967 was for a consistent, championship-quality quarterback. During the off season, Head Coach Joe Schmidt and General Manager Russ Thomas acquired Bill Munson from the Los Angeles Rams, and Munson could easily fill the need. The price was high—Receiver and Kicker Pat Studstill, Running Back Tom Watkins, veteran Quarterback Milt Plum and a first draft choice—but Munson may prove to be worth it. Before he was injured in 1965 he had been the Rams' No. 1. He has been in the league for four years, has size, poise and exceptionally keen football sense to go with a very strong and accurate arm.
In early sessions at the Lion training camp, Munson fitted the role of a savior neatly. His passes were sharp and crisp, he picked up the offense quickly and his very presence healed old wounds between Detroit's offensive and defensive units. In years past, the beleaguered and overworked defenders have barely spoken to an offensive unit, which was apt to appear only long enough to run three plays and punt, leaving the brunt of the game to the defense.
Then, shortly before the Lions' first preseason game, Munson was operated on for a calcium deposit on his shin and was unable to play in the Lions' first two exhibition games. Still, he should be well by the start of the season. And if Munson is well, Detroit should be well. Says Tackle Alex Karras, the dean of the defenders, "This is the best team I've been with on the Detroit Lions"—a big statement, since Karras has been around for 10 years.
Joe Schmidt, the young coach of the club who played on championship Lion teams, is less effervescent. "We've improved," Schmidt says. With the retirement of Lombardi and Chicago's George Halas, the 36-year-old Schmidt is the senior head coach in the Central Division, in only his second season. "We have a better attitude, we made some good trades and our young guys have a year more experience." He waved his black cigar and smiled. "I have a year's more experience, too," he said.
The best draft in pro football in 1967 and another which may prove almost as good this year has helped, too. The Lions boasted both the offensive and defensive Rookies of the Year last season in Running Back Mel Farr and Defensive Back Lem Barney, who tied for the league lead in interceptions with 10. This year they came up with Earl McCullouch, the hurdler from Southern California who caught two touchdown passes against the Green Bay Packers in the College All-Star Game. Greg Landry, the No. 1 draft choice from Massachusetts, has shown enough promise at quarterback so that the Lions traded Karl Sweetan, a veteran quarterback who never paid off, to the New Orleans Saints.
"This is the best quarterback situation since I've been here," says Karras. "I feel like I was traded."
At the start of the training season the Lions hoped that Nick Eddy had recovered completely from knee surgery. Eddy had shown speed and power before the injury had put him on the sidelines last year. A physically fit Eddy, combined with Farr, might have given the Lions a running attack to equal Green Bay's, but, midway through August, the knee required a second operation. Eddy's future is now uncertain, and so is the Lions' second running spot. Bobby Felts, ex-49er Dave Kopay and Bill Triplett, obtained from the Giants in a recent trade, probably will fight for the job, with Tom Nowatzke around for spot duty.
Powerful running would augment the threat of the Lion passing attack, but the loss of Pat Studstill could damage a receiving corps which does not appear impressive. Gail Cogdill, in his ninth year, has lost a step or two but is still competent on shorter patterns. Phil Odle, a rookie from Brigham Young, has shown potential, but he is not very large. The big hope, of course, is McCullouch, who replaces Studstill. If he is as good as he looked against the Pack in the All-Star Game, the Lions will have a passing attack to match their running. McCullouch appears to have ability to distort a defense, forcing the opposing team to devote extra coverage to him. If this is true, all of the Lion receivers will benefit and, with Munson to pick the targets, the Lions could move up dramatically from the dismal 13th place they occupied in passing offense in 1967. The Detroit offensive line, rebuilt and improved last year, has the advantage of a year together and should protect Munson well and open holes for the backs.
Three of the line starters were new last year: Right Tackle Charley Bradshaw, obtained from New Orleans, Left Tackle Roger Shoals and Guard Chuck Walton, an import from Canada. All of them have returned, as has Center Ed Flanagan, a four-year man. Veteran Guard and Negotiator John Gordy, who hurt his knee and required an operation, probably will miss half the season. Bill Cottrell, Frank Gallagher and Bob Kowalkowski give the club good depth.
Ron Kramer retired at tight end, costing the club one of football's best blockers. But Jim Gibbons is another strong blocker and good receiver, and the Lions' third draft choice was Charlie Sanders, a husky youngster who figures to take over the tight end position soon.
The defense was above average in 1967. Karras is the only man left from the original foursome of Roger Brown, Darris McCord, Sam Williams and Karras, but young replacements have proved better than adequate. John Baker (acquired from Pittsburgh) or Joe Robb (from St. Louis) can replace McCord, though Baker will be out much of the year with a broken arm. Larry Hand and Jerry Rush are strong, young and quick. The line is not deep, but as long as the first four can play it could be good.
The linebackers could be good, too, but that has to be proved. Paul Naumoff, on one side, took over as a regular late last season, but he is young. Mike Lucci is not a Butkus or a Nitschke, but then no one except Tommy Nobis is. He is, however, a perfectly competent middle linebacker. Wayne Walker on the other side lends the trio the wisdom of his years, while Bill Swain adds good depth.
The secondary does not rate with the best, but it is solid and capable. The star, of course, is Barney, who had a sensational rookie year as a cornerback but is unlikely to do so well this season. Most good defensive backs intercept more passes in the first year than they do later, when they learn the penalty for the chances they have taken gambling on interceptions. Mike Weger and Tom Vaughan are the safeties, while veteran Dick LeBeau will be the other cornerback.
The Lions lost one of the league's better punters when they traded away Stud-still, but rookie Jerry DePoyster, judging from his early form, may be a more than adequate replacement. DePoyster also placekicks, so that 1966's soccer-style discovery, Garo Yepremian, was lost in the shuffle.
All in all, this should be a far better Detroit team than those of recent years. The offense has striking power, potentially the equal of any; the defense, while it does not seem to be as overpowering as the Detroit defenses of the golden years, will benefit from the occasional breathing spell that results from improved offense. There are too many ifs to say that this club can beat out a team as sound and deep as Green Bay, but, in a couple of years, maybe so.
Last season the Minnesota Vikings did everything well except pass, which is like saying that a swimmer can do everything but float. A pro football team with a useless air attack is not about to do much, and the Vikings didn't, although they were surprisingly close in some of the games they lost while struggling through a 3-8-3 season to finish last in the Central Division.
Coach Bud Grant who was in his first season as head coach and who came to the club from Canada, reached back to the Canadian League for help, but Quarterback Joe Kapp, who replaced Ron VanderKelen after the fourth game, was not the answer. He came late and had no chance to acclimate himself properly to American football. So Grant traded for Gary Cuozzo, from Baltimore via New Orleans, during the off season. Cuozzo is a disciple of John Unitas and once passed for five touchdowns against the Vikings in a game when Unitas was injured.
The Viking completion average in 1967 (44.6) was the worst in the NFL, and it seems reasonable that Cuozzo can improve on this. He will be working behind a very good offensive line which should be made even better with the addition of No. 1 draft choice, Tackle Ron Yary from Southern California. Yary got his baptism against the pros in the All-Star Game in Chicago, when he blocked on Green Bay's All-NFL Willie Davis and did better than expected.
Cuozzo, supposedly, does not have the starting job tied up, but he throws quicker and straighter and sets up faster than the other quarterbacks, so it would seem likely that he will be calling Viking signals. Unfortunately for him, even with the time given him behind the good Viking line, he may still have trouble finding receivers. The Vikings simply do not have many.
Red Phillips, the best of the Viking receivers, has retired to coach the ends for the Atlanta Falcons, and Marlin McKeever, the tight end, has been traded. Paul Flatley, who has moved to flanker after five years as the starting split end, had an off year in 1967, although Kapp gallantly explained this by saying he had made Flatley look bad by not knowing his moves or feints. To bolster the receiving corps, the Vikings obtained Art Powell, once the AFL's top pass catcher, and Rich O'Hara, a rookie from the Colts. If at 31 Powell still has the moves he had five years ago, it will improve the offense considerably. Also sure to see some action are two holdovers from last year, Split End Gene Washington and Tight End John Beasley.
The loss of Dave Osborn, second best rusher in the league in 1967, through injury, was a severe blow. But Cuozzo or Kapp can still call on a dependable veteran in Bill Brown, the bowlegged, stumpy fullback who blocks violently and runs with abandon. Clint Jones adds a second excellent ballcarrier to a running game which is still better than average.
Grant has said that he would like to see surer tackling from his linebackers and more interceptions from the secondary in 1968, but his defense, overall, was very good last season. The defensive line, according to Detroit's Mel Farr, was as good as the Los Angeles Rams', which is good, indeed. Alan Page, who was a rookie last year, had an exceptional season at defensive tackle after changing from defensive end. He fits in well with Tackle Paul Dickson and Ends Jim Marshall and Carl Eller to give the Vikings a startling pass rush and a rugged wall against which the opponents must run. The Vikings could use additional depth here, but Gary Larsen provides experienced backup strength at tackle and Grant need only find another adequate defensive end to supplement the starters.
The depth problem becomes more acute at linebacker, where the Vikings still have the three starters from 1967—John Kirby, Lonnie Warwick and Roy Winston—but no one to give them relief. They should be better this year than last, when all of them were hampered by nagging training-camp injuries. Reserves Jim Hargrove (Army) and Don Hansen (retired) are gone, and there are no equivalent replacements in sight. Should any of the starters be injured, the Vikings could be in serious trouble. Rookie Mike McGill from Notre Dame could develop, although he was handicapped by time wasted in the College All-Star camp.
The Viking secondary of Ed Sharockman and Earsell Mackbee at the corners and Karl Kassulke and Dale Hackbart at the safeties came up short on interceptions last season but should be better with the addition of veteran Paul Krause from Washington and rookie Charlie West from UTEP. The two new players figure to add depth and flexibility to a unit whose interception record makes them seem worse than they are. The Minnesota secondary gave up little yardage on passes that were caught, a sure sign of an alert, quick set of defensive backs. The Vikings were fourth in the league in average yardage yielded to passes in 1967.
The Vikings are likely to better their performance of 1967, but not by much. They are improved but, unluckily for them, so are the other three clubs in the Central Division.