It Doesn't Matter If the Packers Lose to the Lions on Thanksgiving

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The undefeated Green Bay team can still go on to win the Super Bowl, even if it falls to Detroit tomorrow—as it learned a half-century ago

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Though fans who discovered pro football in the age of television don't know it, the marriage of the NFL and Thanksgiving Day dates all the way back to 1934, but in 1951, for reasons not interesting enough to relate here, the Detroit Lions were sanctioned by the league as the "official" Thanksgiving Day home team. (In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys lobbied for and were also granted an annual Turkey Day game.)

Detroit was and still is a curious place to play a holiday game. The Lions never had much of a football history to boast of, winning just four championships in the old NFL and, since the Super Bowl was inaugurated after the 1966 season, none at all. The yearly game was often the biggest turkey that Lions fans had to swallow—despite their presumed home field advantage, the Lions have won just 33, lost 39, and tied two. 

It comes as no surprise, then, that you have to be over 50 to remember the most remarkable game in Detroit football history. Fifty seasons ago, on November 22, 1962,  just as the NFL was bursting into the consciousness of the American sports fan, Vince Lombardi's defending champion Green Bay Packers came to Detroit with a perfect 10-0 record to face their archrivals, who were 8-2 and spoiling for a fight after being the only team to have come close to beating Green Bay earlier in the year, losing 9-7 on a last-minute field goal.

The 1962 Thanksgiving Day game was an upset that stunned a national audience: The Lions' sturdy defense sacked Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr 12 times, ran up a 26-0 lead, and won 26-14.  In no game before or after was Starr sacked more than twice during that season.

Tomorrow, another 10-0 Green Bay team, a defending champion like its 1962 ancestor, will play in Detroit against their still-archrival Lions, who are 7-3 and looking for their best season in nearly half a century.  As of Tuesday night, the Packers are 6 1/2-point favorites, just as they were in 1962.

So will history repeat itself?  As Yogi Berra might put it, even if it did, it wouldn't.

No matter what happens Thursday at Detroit's Ford Field, the differences between the Packers and Lions of then and now are so vast as to provide a virtual cutaway view of how the game has evolved. First, and most obvious, there are more players. Rosters in 1962 were just 40 men; now an NFL team is allowed to have 53 players at its disposal and suit up 45 at game time. Players today are specialists, not required to run, block, kick, and even throw like the most publicized star of he 1962 Packers, Paul "Golden Boy" Hornung. Now there are specialists for each different task. 

Players are nearly 60 pounds heavier per man today, with most of that weight concentrated in a few positions on the offensive and defensives lines. In 1962, the Packers had, by consensus, the best offensive line in football with three future Hall of Famers—center Jim Ringo, left guard Fuzzy Thurston, and offensive tackle Forrest Gregg—and a fourth, nine-time All-Pro guard Jerry Kramer, who should be enshrined in Canton.

But the Packers weighed around 245 pounds a man across that line, and on this day, at least, they could not control the larger and more powerful Detroit linemen, who included 300-pound tackle Roger Brown and future star of Monday Night Football and Blazing Saddles, Alex Karras.  Why was Green Bay outmanned up front?  For the simple reason that pro football in the early 1960s was primarily a game of ground attack, supplemented by occasional air support. The way Lombardi's Packers played offense, the point was to out-finesse opposing defenses and wear them down with a battering-ram running game.

Bart Starr was one of the best quarterbacks in the game, but he threw just 12 touchdown passes all season in 1962; Aaron Rodgers has already thrown 31 this year. Starr generally threw to formations that featured just two wide receivers, as did the '62 Lions; tomorrow Rodgers and his Detroit counterpart, Matthew Stafford, will throw out of sets that feature four and sometimes five receivers with no one at all in the backfield.

Green Bay's HOF running backs—Jim Taylor (the rushing leader for 1962 as well as the league's MVP) and Hornung (MVP in 1961)—combined for over 2,000 yards, and they did it in a 14-game schedule. This season, the Packers' two top rushers, James Starks and Ryan Grant, have combined for just over 800 yards and will probably finish the year with 1,300 yards over 16 games. The Packers and Lions of five decades ago ran most of their players with two running backs in the backfield, even in third-and-long passing situations (one back stayed near the quarterback to block, and one might go downfield as a pass receiver). Today's—or rather, tomorrow's—teams will probably run most plays with just one runner in the backfield and occasionally relieve him with their second best runner.

When I interviewed Bart Starr for the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, he summed up the differences then and now as "the difference between a Model-T and a Corvette. When I played, our philosophy was to move the ball, to control the ball, and eat up the clock. Today every offense is designed to score, score, score as fast as they can."

In the '62 game, for the first and only time that season, the Packers fell behind early and had to abandon their time-consuming running attack. The Lions' linemen ignored the run and went straight for Starr on nearly every play.  Such a scenario is unlikely tomorrow even if the Rogers-led Pack fall behind by a couple of TDs, if only because in today's game it's the offensive linemen who are bigger and stronger, often outweighing their defensive counterparts by 40 to 50 pounds apiece.  In the 21st-century game, the primary function of an offensive lineman is to guard his quarterback, and the primary function of a defensive lineman is to out-quick the sumo wrestlers in front of him and get to the passer.

Despite the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Lions, the Packers won their remaining games and went on to win the championship, beating the New York Giants 16-7 in the title game.

"That loss and the rest of the season taught us something," Starr says. "The only game you have to worry about winning is the big one. If you lose the championship, no one's going to care that you weren't beaten during the regular season"—which the New England Patriots found out a few years ago when the finished the 2007 season a perfect 16-0 and then lost the Super Bowl to the Giants.

The Lions, after their great moment 50 seasons ago, have never seriously contended for another NFL title—until this year, and the 2011 Packers will remain heavy favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions, even if the Lions pull off an upset tomorrow.

The names, the weights, and the strategies may change, but, for now at least, it appears that for fans of the Detroit Lions, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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