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Of course, it's too early to tell. The coaches know it and they're scared if you mention it, because it means the jinx is on, and they kick at the grass, and they trot out the standbys, "No, no, you've got to play them one at a time" or "Any team in the NFL can beat you on any given Sunday" and so forth. Yet there is a glint to the eye and a certain smugness in the voice, and you can tell by listening to the players in the locker room that something more is stirring than early-season optimism. The Detroit Lions are on the move, their presence felt both on the field (3-0) and in a community that has not had a championship football team in 13 years and at the end of a season has been known to pack its snowballs ice-hard to lend physical weight to its displeasure. At a recent banquet Lem Barney, the brilliant cornerback, was asked what he thought the chances were of the Lions getting to the Super Bowl, and before he could begin an answer the crowd was on its feet, yelling and stomping, banging glasses with forks and carrying on—an ovation that lasted for five minutes and was a tribute not only to Barney and the Lions but to the question, which in previous years would have been greeted with skeptical murmurs, if not raucous laughter.
The Lions' chances looked even more favorable Monday night when, surprisingly trailing 0-7 at halftime, they rallied to overwhelm their archrivals, the Chicago Bears, 28-14 in Detroit, and gain the undisputed lead in the National Central Division.
The Monday night game was in many ways typical of the donnybrooks between Detroit and Chicago. Players often speak of the "personalities" of teams, which differ so markedly that a guard, say, suffering an odd amnesia could tell, if he remembered the feel of a game, just who the opponents were. The great New York Giant teams were surgical and neat. So was Green Bay. Its opponents never felt overpowered or brutalized and at the end of a game were just as vigorous as at the beginning, all set to continue whomping the Packers except that the scoreboard clock had stopped and the score was the wrong way around. Some teams have schizoid personalities. Kansas City has a deft brush-block offense that leaves the opposition still on its feet after a play, standing around and wondering what's happened; yet its defense is massive and corrupting. Minnesota and Atlanta, on the other hand, possess all-encompassing, simple, brutal philosophies—very likely the result of the stern attitudes of Norman Van Brocklin who put together both clubs—in which offense and defense tend equally to run straight at and over people. Chicago has traditionally had very rough defenses, invariably big and quick-tempered, perpetuated by the "Monsters of the Midway" sobriquet that has patterned the Bears' personal habits and probably won games for them, too.
Indeed, all the National Central teams have had storied defenses—Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit and, more recently, Minnesota with its Purple People Eater front four. These clubs could be beaten, but it was a painful, difficult process, and the victors were likely to moan for a week and look at their welts and wonder how they ever got out of those cold frontier towns alive.
Lion fans have always cherished their defense. When Detroit won its 1957 championship the celebrating crowd swept up Joe Schmidt, the middle linebacker, on its shoulders and left the offensive team to straggle off the field on its own. Two Sundays ago a Tiger Stadium crowd roundly booed Cincinnati for ruining a Detroit shutout with a meaningless field goal late in the game rather than manfully testing the defense with a touchdown try. Lion defensive units have won nicknames. There were "Chris' Crew" (a secondary composed of Jack Christiansen, Jim David and Carl Karilivacz) and the original "Fearsome Foursome" (Darris McCord, Alex Karras, Roger Brown and Sam Williams). But the Detroit offensive in those days was such a sputtery, damp-powder thing that the Los Angeles Rams, with an excellent record and championship propensities, appropriated the name for their defensive line and it stuck.
The 1970 version of the Lion defense is worthy of its tradition: in the first two games it allowed only 254 yards and the measly three points. Yet the line is comparatively small, relying not on an overpowering rush like Minnesota, but on guile and teamwork. Defensive Coach Jim David has built his defense to suit his personnel, and he has the blitz-ingest unit in football, rushing linebackers and safeties through the lanes prepared by the deceptive coordination of the front four.
The most venerable Lion up front is Alex Karras, 35 (see cover). Everyone calls him "Big Al" but, in truth, he is a relatively stubby, hydrantlike figure of 245 pounds. He wears horn-rimmed glasses off the field, which give him a benign, owllike bearing, but his enormous gift on the field is a mad-duck agility—"Mr. Twinkletoes" the coaches call him. At this stage in the season Karras is still working up to his potential. Last year, in the second Green Bay game, he received the only serious injury of his career—cartilage damage to a knee that required postseason surgery, and he was on a cane until March. Seeing him down, the Green Bay crowd let loose with a strange sustained cry of triumph that lasted until Karras hobbled off the field—a reaction that he considers the greatest accolade of his career. "I'd done enough damage to Green Bay to make them hate me that much," he says. "Well, that's a tribute, and I wish I'd done enough up there to make them yell three times as loud."
A defense that depends, as Detroit's does, on communication and teamwork, requires an able play-caller, and it has one in Middle Linebacker Mike Lucci, whom Joe Schmidt, now the Lion head coach, rates above Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus. "If you wanted to kill Detroit," Jim Martin, the defensive line coach, says, "you'd kidnap Lucci."
Lucci is rueful about his relative obscurity, but he accepts the fact that recognition for a player who comes into the league unheralded (as opposed to the fanfare greeting a Tommy Nobis or a Butkus) and plays for an also-ran ball club (Nitschke has been on five championship teams) is not usually forthcoming. "But now it's my turn," he says with confidence. "Jim David has given us a system; we have the personnel; nobody has any business scoring on us."
The most notable figure in an excellent defensive secondary is All-Pro Lem Barney, who is perhaps the best natural athlete in the league—graceful, quick and versatile (he runs back punts and last year was the team's punter). He is joyous, easygoing and likes himself in flat, dusterlike Big Apple hats (he has eight) that he wears around the locker room. The hat is the last item off before he gets into his football suit and the first thing on when he comes in from the field. Quarterbacks avoid throwing in his direction, which depresses him because he likes action, but then he has his punt returns for compensation. Against Cincinnati he scooped up a punt that was rolling dead, the ball slowly rocking back and forth beneath the feet of a near circle of Bengals, one of them bending to touch it down, the field judge inhaling to blow his whistle—and Barney reached in, snatched it and circled the startled group for a 61-yard touchdown run.