There are three things a great runner can give you. Ground power is No. 1, naturally. He also can help open up the passing attack. And he can keep your defense off the field. DETROIT is asking only one thing of its top pick, wealthy Billy Sims. Be great. Please be great. None of this messing around, Billy, trying to earn a position. Sims was installed as the starting halfback the day he reported to camp. The second time he handled the ball in the opening scrimmage, he broke a 60-yarder. In his first exhibition game he caught three passes, matching the total for his whole college career. There had been some question about his pass-catching ability, mainly because they never pass at Oklahoma. The question has been answered.
Sims will try mightily to transform the NFC's worst rushing attack into something respectable, but he must operate behind its youngest offensive line. That was part of the reason for Detroit's 2-14 record in 1979. Quarterback Gary Danielson had lit a fire in '78, but then he went down for the year with a knee injury in preseason, and so did his backup, Joe Reed. The Lions were left with the shorts offensively, and the defense was no world-beater, either. Now Danielson is back and Sims is in town, but the defense still poses problems.
Bubba Baker, the sack artist, walked out of camp, hoping to renegotiate a contract that had already been extended. A more serious loss was Tackle Doug English, the Lions' most valuable defensive player, who went into the oil business. Coach Monte Clark is trying to talk English into returning, but if he fails Lion fans can expect a flashy team that will score a lot of points and give up same.
In the best of times, the MINNESOTA formula for success was simple: a great pass rush that could cover any failings behind it, an all-purpose back who could run and catch, an action quarterback who could move, and a deep receiving threat. But as the Vikings' pass rush eroded over the years, the whole equation broke down. Oh, Bud Grant tried to keep it alive; four of the Vikings' last six No. I draft picks have been defensive linemen. Somehow, though, the sacks have dwindled, and a weakness that was always pretty well hidden—vulnerability to the run—became exposed. And the offense, which in the old days was carried by the defense, suddenly found itself in a role reversal that just didn't work.
This year Minnesota drafted Doug Martin of Washington, the best pass-rushing tackle in college, on the first round, figuring to play him in Alan Page's old spot at right tackle, the sacking tackle. Bring back the pass rush and you can get by with an undistinguished secondary; the linebackers don't have to take such deep drops and can cheat up a little and help out with the run. The offense will get better field position, too. And there's nothing wrong with the Viking pass-catch game, anyway. Tommy Kramer, Ahmad Rashad, Sammy White. Rickey Young—they can all make it go. Sure, the Vikes still can't run the ball, but maybe Ted Brown will stay in one piece and add some firepower.
Enter finances. Howard Slusher, Martin's agent, emerged as the b�te noire in a little drama in which Martin is still unsigned and apparently ready to sit out the year. You don't turn a program around by failing to sign your No. 1.
In GREEN BAY, the Pack Is Back—to the wall. The blindfolds have been handed out and the guy with the baton is saying, "Ready, aim—." This could be the worst team in football. I ask you, is this so bad? The worst team will get first crack in the draft at Purdue Quarterback Mark Herrmann, or any of the other blue-chippers in what promises to be a bumper year. Bart Starr then can talk about a great rebuilding program in 1981. If Starr is around, that is. Don Shula might be ready to switch jobs this winter.
Let's be fair. Eight knee operations and a broken arm wrecked the Packers in 1979, which was supposed to be their comeback year. The 1980 draft looked terrific, but Defensive Lineman Bruce Clark, the No. 1 pick, went to Canada and Linebacker George Cumby, the No. 2, injured a knee in camp. He won't play until October. Then Quarterback David Whitehurst hurt his knee, a two-month injury, and Center Larry McCarren, the Pack's best offensive lineman, had a hernia operation. Running Back Eddie Lee Ivery has a banged-up shoulder.
The defense hasn't stopped the run since the days of Lombardi. Switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 isn't the answer. The switch was a necessity—"We've got better linebackers than linemen," that type of thing. Teams must be philosophically committed to the 3-4 concept or it won't work.
Offensively and defensively, the Pack is weak through the middle. McCarren and Whitehurst are out, and Whitehurst's backup, Lynn Dickey, limped through the preseason on a pulled groin muscle and a strained arch. Starr still doesn't know who his middle linebacker will be; Rich Wingo was placed on injured reserve and Mike Hunt has had persistent headaches.