In 1962, the only “sack” was something filled with potatoes. The word certainly wasn’t used in the same sentence with “quarterback,” unless you were directing your signal caller to go to the market.
The term “sacking the quarterback” was coined by Hall of Fame defensive lineman Deacon Jones, sometime in the mid-1960s. Prior to Deacon’s creativity, on the quarterback’s stats line, what we know as a sack today was called “times tackled for loss.”
There were no sacks, per se, on that Thanksgiving Day in 1962. But Bart Starr’s body didn’t know the difference.
The Detroit Lions, on one of their most glorious days since their 1957 championship, brutalized and punished Green Bay’s Starr on national television while the nation feasted on turkey. Eleven times Starr faded back to pass and was “tackled for a loss.”
The effort was payback for the Lions letting the Packers off the hook in Green Bay a month earlier.
The Lions’ defensive line in those days were the “original” Fearsome Foursome—several years before Jones and company got tagged with that moniker with the Los Angeles Rams.
Darris McCord and Sam Williams at the ends. Alex Karras and Roger Brown in the interior. Those four collapsed the vaunted Packers offensive line—filled with future Hall of Famers—all afternoon on that Thanksgiving Day of ’62. Sometimes the linebackers, like Joe Schmidt, would get into the act.
The Lions won, 26-14, and it was Green Bay’s only loss of the season. The Packers would go on to repeat as NFL Champions a month later.
But the Lions, on their way to an 11-3 season in ’62, had their day against the Pack.
The Lions defense in the early-1960s was a force. All eleven men worked in unison to be among the league leaders in fewest yards and points allowed from 1960-62.
The architect of the defense was a young former NFL defensive back for the Cleveland Browns who soaked up the teachings of the legendary Paul Brown.
Don Shula was hired by the Lions after a couple of seasons of coaching in college ball. George Wilson made Shula his defensive coordinator, though that wasn’t the term used in 1960.
Under Shula, the Lions terrorized opposing offenses. There was that great line, Schmidt and Wayne Walker led the linebackers, and the secondary had Night Train Lane, Dick LeBeau, Yale Lary and Gary Lowe, all ball-hawking defenders and in Lane’s case, head-hunting. Schmidt, Lane and LeBeau are enshrined in Canton.
In Shula’s three years running Detroit’s defense, the Lions were 26-13-1. But there was no wild card back then so there were no playoffs, thanks to the Packers winning the West Division all three years.
Shula was 33 when Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom tabbed the Lions assistant to be the Colts’ new head coach.
Shula thus became the youngest head coach in NFL history at the time.
Wilson stayed head coach of the Lions through 1964 before resigning in protest. The person he was protesting was new Lions owner William Clay Ford.
Had Shula not been pilfered by the forward-thinking Rosenbloom, he probably would have remained on Wilson’s staff, and maybe Don Shula would have been the next Lions head coach instead of the unsavory Harry Gilmer.
Speaking of unsavory, during this Ndamukong Suh free agency mess, my thoughts turned to Shula’s time with the Lions.
I thought of Shula because right now the Lions have a young, up-and-coming defensive coordinator who has been getting some play as a possible future head coach.
Teryl Austin put together a defense in 2014 that was among the league’s best. He interviewed for some head coaching positions in January. The Lions, though happy for him, heaved a sigh of relief when Austin was bypassed by those teams.
But Austin’s defense was anchored by Suh, the destructive defensive tackle who signed with Miami last week—Shula’s old team, if you like your irony cruel.
Austin will have to answer the question going forward: Was he, not Suh, the real reason the Lions had a superior defense, by the numbers, last season?
We’re about to find out.
It’s a defense not without holes.
Even with the trade for DT Haloti Ngata, the line is a shell of its former self. Suh is gone and so is the inconsistent but potentially dominant Nick Fairley.
The secondary could use another top-flight cornerback. Or two.
Austin’s coaching chops will be put to the test in 2015.
Is he another Don Shula?
That’s a loaded question but this is the NFL, which one former sage coach once said stands for Not For Long, if you don’t get the job done.
Last year, Teryl Austin was a darling among defensive coordinators. He looked like head coaching material after just one year of running a defense.
But Austin had Suh last year.
The NFL is a league of adjustments and no D-coordinator in the league will have to adjust as much as Austin in 2015, and not just because of losing Suh.
In fairness, in Shula’s days with the Lions, there was no free agency to speak of. Shula didn’t have to fear losing Karras or McCord or Schmidt or Lane to another team.
But while he had those players, Shula drew every ounce of performance from them in three years.
It’s no coincidence that after Shula left for Baltimore, the Lions defense wasn’t quite the same even though most of the players were.