Along with a new shade of blue in their uniforms the Lions are reported to have a new attitude, the one-big-happy-family approach. This is supposed to cure all internal problems and, therefore, the Lions' sad-sack play. It is going to take more than togetherness, however, to lift the Lions above last year's sixth-place finish in the West.
Detroit had a decent team but too many cliques. The linemen blamed the backs, and the backs the linemen, for missed plays, and everyone criticized Quarterback Milt Plum, who had an "off" year by his standards, a bad year by most others. He finished 14th in passing, although not too many years back he was leading the league. Plum's timing was off, and his receivers were forced to make circus catches on what should have been routine passes. There was some question whether Plum would return ("Get rid of those guys or me," he has said in reference to his teammates' criticism of him), but Coach Harry Gilmer has decided to stick with him. He really had no other choice. The backup men, George Izo and Tom Meyers, are not ready for the job. It is not considered good form to ask Gilmer why he traded Earl Morrall to New York. Gilmer is quite right in saying that any old pro would have looked good in view of the Giants' desperate need, but he is a little touchy on that subject.
For a long time now the Lion offense has lacked a really dangerous running attack. Nick Pietrosante, the old Notre Dame fullback, is a reliable short-haul runner and a superb blocker, but no defensive coach in the league has ever developed an ulcer over his ability to break a ball game. Joe Don Looney, with the power of a Jim Brown, has the poise of a Brownie. That leaves Amos Marsh, acquired from the Dallas Cowboys, and Tom Nowatzke, a big Pietrosante-type fullback who is in his second season. It does not add up to enough to give the Lions control of the terribly important third-and-one situation. And that means that the Detroit defense, which began grumbling several years ago about the preponderance of time it spent in action, will be in action more than half the time again this year. Good as that defense is, it is growing older and under overwork conditions it will tire.
The inept running attack also hinders the efforts of a really good set of pass catchers. It is not surprising that Gail Cogdill, who might lead the league each year on another team, allowed his frustration to cost him $1,000 during the off season. Last winter his snappish remarks about the Detroit management resulted in a suspension and the fine. The suspension—with the season coming up—has been lifted, but the fine is still in effect. Another eminent target for Plum is Pat Studstill, a slight, quick and determined young man who caught more passes than any one on the club after he went in to replace Terry Barr last year. Barr has since retired, but Studstill can fill his shoes admirably. Ron Kramer, the tight end who moved over from Green Bay a year ago, has always been one of the best men at the position in the league and there is no reason to think he will be less. If he is, there is Jim Gibbons, who is very good.
There is as yet no glaring weakness in the defense, which has been brutally good for years. The pass rush of Darris McCord, Alex Karras, Roger Brown and Larry Hand (the last replacing Sam Williams, who has gone to Atlanta) is feared, as it should be. Depth is what is lacking. Joe Schmidt has retired at middle linebacker, leaving a grievous replacement problem. Turned coach, he has given Mike Lucci his old job and has also given him the responsibility of calling defensive signals. Wayne Walker, the right linebacker and place kicker, is quality, and the secondary of Bobby Thompson, Dick Le-Beau, Bruce Maher, and Wayne Rasmussen have had the benefit of a year's experience together and should improve. Studstill is a fine punter.
Relations between Gilmer and his players have taken a turn for the better. Karras. no great Gilmer fan last season, has been named team captain, and Gilmer even shortened practice one day in July to lead some of his charges on a picnic. The air of tender-loving-care-in-camp must be a welcome relief, but Gilmer's problems are much more physical than psychological.
With an unsure quarterback, a serious lack of running backs and only young and untried players for much-needed replacements in depth, it seems unlikely that the Lions will improve upon their finish of last season. Indeed, with the strong upsurge of the Los Angeles Rams, it would appear more likely that the sorely beset Lions will subside into last place.
This will not, of course, be Harry Gilmer's fault. Gilmer is a bright, resourceful young man who wrought wonders with the Vikings under the tutelage of Norman Van Brocklin before coming to Detroit. But at Minnesota he had some material to work with.
Unfortunately, in too many spots on the Detroit team, he will be trying to make Lions out of pussycats this year.