It's like old times in this division, where the question is not who will win but who will survive. To Abe Gibron, the coach of the Chicago Bears, this is one and the same. The winner of the Black and Blue, Abe predicts, will be the team that is least black and blue.
Only the Detroit Lions don't fit the bruising image. Not that new Head Coach Don McCafferty, who detests the nickname Easy Rider, is making life easy. Since 1968 the Lions have never been anything but No. 2, and McCafferty is insisting that they try harder. He conducted a more physical camp than the Lions have had in years. And if the atmosphere is a little more relaxed than that surrounding his predecessor, Joe Schmidt, he has not relaxed the rules that prohibit mustaches and hair that strays from helmets.
McCafferty even introduced competition to the quarterback position by putting Greg Landry and Bill Munson on an equal footing, although Landry's footing (1,054 yards rushing in the past two seasons) has once again given him the edge. Running should be the Lions' strong suit if Steve Owens, who missed four games last season, stays healthy. The blocking up front is excellent and the receiving, led by All-Pro Tight End Charlie Sanders, who sat out the first five games last year with a shoulder separation, is a bit above par.
The defense is atypical of the division—it has had trouble tackling—but McCafferty expects improvement. Last season Detroit surrendered more rushing yards than all but one other NFC team and tied for next to last in quarterback sacks. The emphasis here has been on youth—Detroit has not made a major trade in five years. The Lions' last three first draft choices—Bob Bell, Herb Orvis and Ernest Price—are battling for the defensive tackle spots.
In 1972 the nimble Lions won just two of six games against their more ponderous division rivals. They feel they can reverse that record if they stay healthy. Alas, Cornerback Rudy Redmond is out for the season and Safety Wayne Rasmussen could miss as many as four games, bad news with a schedule that starts Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Atlanta and Minnesota, and includes games with Miami and Washington.
In Green Bay the Packers packed them in before the preseason started. A sellout crowd of 56,267 gathered in July for the team's annual intrasquad scrimmage and three to four thousand more were turned away at the gate. Coach Dan Devine is making certain that success doesn't spoil his divisional champions. Recently he set a new record in the Lombardi grass drills, pushing his team through 158 up-downs, 60-odd better than the old record—after practice.
Last year the Packer defensive back-field was a presumed weakness with two newcomers, Jim Hill and Willie Buchanon, and two two-year men in new positions. But Hill, the oldest at 26, pulled the group together, Buchanon became Defensive Rookie of the Year and suddenly opponents had to butt their heads against the massive Green Bay line instead of going over it. By season's end the Green Bay defense ranked first in the NFC, yielding less than 110 yards rushing per game and a league-low seven TD passes. This year Devine has beefed up his pass rush with Kansas City's Aaron Brown and Oakland's Carleton Oats.
Green Bay also had the conference's Offensive Rookie of the Year in Place-kicker Chester Marcol, whose 33 field goals solved a long-standing Packer problem. Offensively, the Pack is backs. John Brockington, who last season became the first man in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards in each of his first two years, and MacArthur Lane were the best running twosome in the NFC. Brockington has set his sights on 1,500 yards in 1973, and with the Packers' offensive line depth, reinforced by the return to health of All-Pro Guard Gale Gillingham, this goal does not seem too unrealistic.
Lane and Brockington were also the two leading pass receivers, a statistic that pinpoints Green Bay's gravest shortcoming. Last year the Packers were the second-poorest passing team in the pros, so Scott Hunter and Jerry Tagge spent the off-season in Green Bay going to school; Hunter reported to the Packer offices for skull sessions three times a week, Tagge five times. Devine also brought his receivers in for a week at a time for target practice. The receiving, at any rate, should improve since Tight End Rich McGeorge has returned from knee surgery. First draft choice Barry Smith, who is supposed to complement 35-year-old Carroll Dale on the outside, is looking good after a slow start.
Hunter's and Tagge's throwing apparently didn't satisfy Devine, who knows that without passing his Packers will face more of the five-man fronts that the Redskins employed to shut them down in last year's playoffs. Midway through the exhibition schedule he added Jim Del Gaizo, an anxious Dolphin backup with a strong left arm.