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.