As the season started, the Chicago Bears had the best offense in football with the exception, maybe, of the Los Angeles Rams. The San Francisco 49ers, always able to move the ball, had a defense, too, for a change. Baltimore's Colts had a tremendous running attack and a bright, new star to soup up their passing in John Unitas. The Green Bay Packers looked as tough as the Packers of old.
All this was true back in September. The Detroit Lions, strong contenders for the Western Division championship in 1956 until the Bears whomped them in the final game of the season, came into the 1957 season like lambs. They had lost a head coach, their famous pass defense leaked touchdowns, the running attack moved with the speed of a man walking through tar, and the prospect in general was sad.
Now, with three games left in the season, the Lions are a game out of first place, because of last Sunday's unexpected loss to the Bears, who had died an early death from a series of shots in the pass defense; the Colts and the 49ers had previously shared first place with the Lions, but for the 49ers the tenure was a brief one. The Rams, recovering slowly from a disastrous start, are out of contention, and the Packers, after their muscle-flexing of the exhibition season, have subsided slowly into last place.
But the big surprise is the Lions. Not to the 39,844 Detroiters who bought season tickets to see them play this year; the faithful have a deep belief in their rowdy, hell-for-leather football team. The eminence of the Lions is no surprise to one Bobby Layne, a confident, chunky, blond Texan who leads a full life on and off the field and who, more than any other one man, has set the mood for a team which may be called the Gashouse Gang of football. "Layne is not the best passer in the league by a pretty long margin," a Detroit observer remarked the other day. "He's certainly not the best runner, either. But he damn sure is the best winner." Layne had an off day Sunday, and as usual the Lions followed his lead, losing to the Chicago Bears 27-7.
As the season started, parlous times had come upon the Lions. Buddy Parker, the solemn-faced, moody Texan who had brought the club three championships during his tenure as head coach, resigned in a fit of anger and a cloud of indigestion at a "Meet the Lions" banquet. Introduced as the "best coach in the league," Parker arose to tell the fans on hand, "I've got a situation here I can't handle any more. These ballplayers have gotten too big for me, or something. I'm getting out of Detroit football. I'm getting out tonight. So long."
Part of Parker's pique stemmed from a cocktail party given by Lion Director D. Lyle Fife. The Lion football team was brought to the banquet from its training camp by bus, and the management, aware of the club's fondness for socializing, had scheduled the bus arrival for five minutes to 7, just time enough for the players to file into the banquet hall and take their seats at the head table. Unfortunately, traffic was light that night; the bus arrived at 6:30, some of the players filed up to Fife's cocktail party and Parker saw them there. While this certainly was not the moving reason in Parker's resignation, it helped. Parker was not a severe disciplinarian. "I'm not a policeman," he had remarked. "If I've got to ride herd on 35 grown men, I won't have time to coach."
Riding herd on the riotous Lions would, indeed, have been a full-time job. While most of the players, in common with nearly all pro football players, are serious young men using professional football as a stepping stone to coaching or careers in other fields, some of the Lions, before this season, exhibited a remarkable propensity for discovering off-the-field excitement. Back in 1953 a small group of Lions was preparing for the next day's game with the 49ers by training in a night spot called John's Rendezvous in San Francisco. A few inhabitants of the Bay area began to heckle the Detroit athletes, who promptly and efficiently cleaned out the bar, next day cleaned up the San Francisco 49ers 14-10 and left for Los Angeles, where they did battle with a few of the citizenry Saturday night in a parking lot, then battled furiously before 93,000 people in Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum Sunday before losing 24-37. The Rams beat the Lions twice that year; no one else beat them at all, and they beat the Cleveland Browns, 17-16, for the league championship.
The Lions seldom operate inconspicuously, at any level. In 1954 one Tulsa Bob Smith, a veteran defensive halfback, took issue with Assistant Coach Buster Ramsey, who is in charge of the Lion defense and who is one of the most astute defensive coaches in football. The argument started on the Lions' charter plane returning from San Francisco, went on briskly at 18,000 feet and erupted into fisticuffs after the plane landed in Detroit. Smith was fired on the spot by Parker; while no score was kept on the brief encounter, it seems likely that Smith lost that too, since Ramsey, besides being a great defensive coach, is tough as a cowboy's boot.
After Parker's precipitous departure in mid-August, his chief assistant, George Wilson, was made head coach. Wilson cracked down on the Lions; he instituted an 11 p.m. curfew for the athletes and made it stick by fines of $50 per hour for violators. He personally made bed checks at training camp to make sure the team was getting its sleep, and he ran the players unmercifully in practice. Wilson, who played end on the great Chicago Bear teams of the early '40s, is a pleasant, quiet man, but a very tough one. He laughs easily and his eyes are mild. "I joke around a lot," he said, not long after taking over the head coaching job for the Lions, "but there's only one way to play football and that is to beat down the other guy."
Wilson took over the Lions the day before the opening exhibition game against Cleveland. The club compiled a so-so 4-2 exhibition record; during the course of this not too inspired series, Wilson announced a stronger crackdown policy. A few hours later, at 4 a.m., he was routed out of bed to go to the assistance of Layne, who had been arrested on a drunk driving charge at 2:11 a.m. Layne offered to quit football to save the Lions embarrassment; Wilson, who would have been much more embarrassed without a quarterback, declined. He has never announced whether or not Layne was fined for this escapade; it seems very likely that the Texan was, however.
"I believe rules should apply to everybody," Wilson said after the incident. "You can figure out yourself what we did with Layne."
But Layne is responsible, as much as any one player can be, for the success of the Lions. He is a fierce, relentless competitor who has been the heart of the Lions since he joined the club in 1950. He was a first draft choice of the Chicago Bears in 1948 but was sold to the New York Bulldogs for $50,000, probably the highest price ever paid for a professional football player. He came to the Lions in a trade which included a player and $37,500 as Layne's price. His teammates have a tremendous respect for Layne, with good reason. The cocky, tough Texan is generally regarded as the finest clutch player in professional football. His ebullient behavior off the field has never affected his play; he works as hard after a long night of living it up as he does after a full night's sleep.
"Actually, Bobby doesn't live it up any more than most players," a veteran observer of the Detroit club said the other day. "He just doesn't bother sneaking around. He goes in the front door at nightclubs and he comes out the front door. He doesn't spare himself the next day, either. He runs as hard and works as hard as any player on the team."
Since the advent of Layne in 1950, the Lions have become the most spectacularly successful football team in the National Football League, attendancewise. This is not due entirely to Layne, of course. Astute management by W. Nicholas Kerbawy, an ex-Spanish teacher who is general manager of the Lions, brilliant coaching by Parker and strong, exciting personnel—all played a part in the success of the Lions.
The team plays in Briggs Stadium, with 45,555 reserved seats available. In 1950 the Lion season ticket sale was 8,685; in 1957 the club set a new league record with a tremendous season ticket sale of 39,844. The average Lion crowd is some 2,000 over capacity and includes between 2,000 and 3,000 standees, who pay $3 for the privilege of standing up and watching. The crowds include Detroit's industrialists, sociallites and automobile workers.
Kerbawy, a heavy-set flamboyant man who came to the Lions in 1948 from a job as publicity director of Michigan State University, has had much to do with the rapid growth of professional football interest in Detroit. He looks like an oversized George Raft with curly hair. In 1951, a few weeks after the club had replaced Bo McMillin as head coach with Parker, Kerbawy attended a meeting of the board of directors.
"The treasurer's report showed we had no money in the bank," Kerbawy said the other day. "One of my first official acts as business manager was to arrange a loan of $50,000 from a local bank so that we could operate. Then I started our season ticket sale on February 1 instead of March 1 so we could pay off the loan. I guess we had the bank's money for about eight weeks, and we haven't had to borrow since."
Kerbawy launched an aggressive season ticket campaign; on the field, Parker began trading to build up the Lion strength. The two programs dovetailed nicely; as the team became an artistic success it became a financial one, too. In 1948 and 1949 the Lions had lost a total of $206,741.41. In 1950 the club showed a profit of $15,814.02. That profit climbed steadily until it reached a high-water mark of $178,355.67 in 1954; since then, rising costs and the lack of a tax write-off on previous years' losses have trimmed the profit. In 1956 the club cleared $119,483.22. As an indication of the rising costs of fielding a professional football team, the Lions' operating expenses in 1948 were some $600,000; in 1956 the operating expenses were close to $1,400,000.
RUN FOR THE MONEY
The Lions are ready for this season's run for the money. "We were hurt during part of the season by injuries," Wilson said the other day. "I took a count not long ago; we had 25 of our 35 players hurt at one time or another this year. Now most of them are back. Personnel is so even in this league that the deciding factor in a team's standing has become injuries and the breaks of the game. I think the breaks will decide the champion in the West from here on."
The Lion pass defense, long the best in the league, faltered for a while but is strong again now.
"The guys just weren't reacting," said Buster Ramsey, the Lion defensive coach. "They stood around and watched. You have to have real split-second reactions in the defensive secondary. Good deep backs are tough to find. Ideally, they have to be big enough to come up and tackle with authority and still have the speed and agility to cover the fastest backs and ends in the league. It takes at least a year for a new player to work into a defensive unit, too. It takes that long for him to learn the habits of the players he works with and to learn to play position properly."
The Lion secondary is masterminded by Jack Christiansen, a rugged, tough veteran who is regarded as the best defensive back in the league. Recently, against the Los Angeles Rams, Christiansen and his mates intercepted six passes from the arm of Norman Van Brocklin, one of the league's better throwers.
"That was a good example of the teamwork you need for pass defense," Ramsey said. "Our defensive line was putting pressure on Van Brocklin. We were shooting a linebacker through to put more pressure on him, too. Long, one of the linebackers (Bob Long, 6 foot 4, 229-pounder), was getting in, and he is tall enough so that when Van Brocklin unloaded he had to put more loft on the ball than usual to get it over Long. That gave our deep secondary time to get to the ball and, finally, that meant the six interceptions. Van only completed five passes that day."
The Lions' drive last Sunday ran smack into the same roadblock which denied them a division championship in 1956. The Chicago Bears, who have discovered that the simplest way to beat the Lions is to contain Bobby Layne, did so last Sunday with a determined, steady pressure from a charging defensive line and linebackers who shot through time and again to harry the Lion quarterback even more. Layne completed only 10 of 25 passes for 112 yards and the Lion offense fell apart. Said Bear Owner George Halas after the game: "It was the best game the Bears have played all season." Tobin Rote, who replaced Layne finally, fared worse, with two completions in 10 pass attempts. A bewildered George Wilson had no explanation for the defeat. "I just don't know how it happened," he said. "I just don't know."
Fortunately for the Lions, Layne's off days are rare. Despite the 27-7 loss to the Bears, the Lions, with most of their cripples back in action, are in position for a strong bid through the last three games, against Green Bay (at home on Thanksgiving Day), Cleveland (at home 10 days later) and the Bears again, in Chicago. From here it appears to be a brief, rough journey that can be traveled successfully only if the Layne does not have too many soft shoulders.
PASSER Bobby Layne is still the Lions' major offensive threat at the ripe old age of 31.
RUNNER Layne is no Grange, but as an extailback he is dangerous when receivers fail.
LION TAMING came last Sunday as the Bears upset Detroit 27-7. Lion Joe Schmidt (right) missed Bobby Watkins (45) as Bear halfback scored behind Guard Herman Clark.