NFC North: Alex Karras


The video offers three minutes worth of excerpts from a 2004 interview with former Detroit Lions defensive lineman Alex Karras, who died Wednesday at 77. What's amazing to me is how stark and clear he was on a concussion issue that only recently has become a major source of public debate.

"I've seen a lot of us, us characters, in the last five years, and a lot of them are not in good shape," Karras said, speaking of the period between 1999-04. "A lot of them have very bad problems with their heads, the concussions they've had. Some of them have lost their sight. Some of them have lost their memories. It's not a good thing to finally find out what's going on with the older professional football players that played for a long time."

Sadly, Karras experienced his own set of mental issues late in life. He had been suffering from dementia, among other health ailments, in recent years.

Alex Karras retired from the NFL before I was born. So for me and many others who grew up in places other than Detroit, he was a goofball actor who -- we found out later -- just so happened to be a pretty darn good football player a few decades earlier.

Karras had lived a full life when he died Wednesday morning at the age of 77, and we don't devote a post to every former NFC North player who passes away. But Karras transcended football in a way that didn't often happen for players of his era (1958-71), and in many ways he paved the way for the celebrity status that current NFL players enjoy as a matter of course.

[+] EnlargeAlex Karras
Getty ImagesAlex Karras starred as the lovable dad in the 1980s sitcom "Webster."
Karras' break came in 1963, when he was a central character in the non-fiction "Paper Lion: Confessions of a Second-string Quarterback," written by sports journalist George Plimpton, who had spent training camp trying out to be a Lions backup quarterback. Karras played himself in the 1968 movie adaptation, and his wit and talents for physical humor helped him move full-time into acting after his retirement in 1970.

His role as Mongo in "Blazing Saddles" made him a household name for many. I mean, who wouldn't remember the guy who punched a horse? In the 1980s, Karras' role in developing and playing a sentimental father on television's "Webster" introduced him to another generation.

This is not to downplay Karras' dominance as a football player in the 1960's, when he made the NFL's All-Decade team as a defensive lineman. The point is that Karras' life was only beginning when he retired from the game at age 35.

The next time you see a former athlete branching out into another form of entertainment unrelated to the game, you can know that Karras played a role in paving that path. And when you see a former athlete fail at it, you'll realize how talented Karras really was.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Week 5 brought a number of significant injuries to the NFC North. As we noted late Monday night, the Green Bay Packers have lost tailback Cedric Benson for at least eight weeks and perhaps the season because of a Lisfranc foot injury. The Minnesota Vikings believe receiver Jerome Simpson has a back injury that is causing leg numbness, and I also want to point out another ailment that might have been lost in the shuffle Monday.

Chicago Bears rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery has a fractured right hand, according to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com, and will miss a couple of games even though the Bears have their bye this week. The injury occurred in Sunday's 41-3 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jeffery is the Bears' second-leading receiver behind Brandon Marshall. He's caught 14 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns amid limited playing time for Devin Hester and a hand injury that has cost veteran Earl Bennett two games.

Continuing around the NFC North:

BBAO: Rounding out the week

April, 13, 2012
4/13/12
7:35
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

Let's breeze through some NFC North headlines on a quiet Friday morning (jinx):

Best Lions Team Ever: 1970

July, 1, 2010
7/01/10
11:00
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Notable players: Running back Mel Farr, center Ed Flanagan, tight end Charlie Sanders, linebacker Paul Naumoff, defensive tackle Alex Karras, cornerback Lem Barney, cornerback Dick LeBeau.

[+] EnlargeDick LeBeau and Lem Barney
AP Photo/Jim PalmerCornerbacks Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau combined to snag 16 interceptions during the 1970 season.
Analysis: I’m fully aware that this franchise played for four NFL Championships during the 1950s, winning in 1952, 1953 and 1957. It was without question the golden age of Lions football, but you can make a decent argument that the best team came two decades later.

The 1970 Lions ranked second in the NFL in points scored and points allowed, won their first two games by a combined score of 78-3 and finished the season with the league’s second-highest average point differential (10.4), according to pro football-reference.com. They had the best turnover ratio in the league, were the victims of Tom Dempsey’s then-record 63-yard field goal and produced an impressive five-game winning streak to end the regular season.

This team fielded two Hall of Fame cornerbacks, and both Barney and LeBeau had the best seasons of their careers. LeBeau intercepted nine passes, while Barney had seven -- returning two for touchdowns. The Barney/LeBeau team helped the Lions limit the powerful Dallas Cowboys to five points in the playoffs, and that total should have been enough for an offense that put up at least 28 points in six of its regular-season games.

But the offense inexplicably fell flat that day in a 5-0 defeat, leaving Lions fans their first in a series of torturous “what-ifs.” At the time, there was a feeling the Lions were bound for a Super Bowl victory had they gotten past the Cowboys.

I realize there is some room for discussion here. But the 1970s were a newly competitive era for the NFL, and that’s where I landed when comparing this team with the 1950s teams.

Most impressive victory: I’ll go with a tie for the Lions’ collective performances in shutting out Green Bay twice -- 40-0 in the season opener and 20-0 in the season finale. The Packers weren’t a good team that year but they did win six of their other 12 games.

Did you know? The 1970 Lions were the first wild-card playoff team in NFL history. When the league merged with the AFL, the postseason was expanded to eight teams -- three division winners and one wild-card team.

Did you know, Part II? Soul musician Marvin Gaye had a failed tryout for the 1970 team.

Honorable mention

1952: A high-powered offense scored 40-plus points five times on the way to a 9-3 record and an NFL Championship.

1953: A similar team scored a touchdown in the final minutes of the championship game to become the third team in NFL history at that point to win back-to-back titles.

1957: The Lions overcame the training camp resignation of coach Buddy Parker and the broken leg of quarterback Bobby Layne to win its last NFL title.
MIAMI -- Greetings from Gate H15 at the Miami International Airport, where I’m continuing what will be a long travel day back to NFC North headquarters. I should probably have my head examined for leaving a cloudless day in South Florida to return in a snowstorm, but I suppose 10 days down here is about as much as I can ask for.

Already today we’ve noted Darren Sharper’s Super Bowl championship and asked for some feedback on Dick LeBeau’s pending enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Depending on travel conditions, this might be Monday’s last post. If it is, I’ll be back with you Tuesday and throughout this week as the NFL offseason begins in earnest.

Until then, let’s catch up on some NFC North news and analysis:

  • Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times takes an in-depth look at the Bears’ “litany of disappointments” since making the Super Bowl three years ago.
  • Bears receiver/returner Devin Hester had a chance to “party with my boys” during Super Bowl week in Miami, according to the Chicago Tribune.
  • Alex Karras is another former Detroit player who belongs in the Hall of Fame, writes Jerry Green of the Detroit News.
  • The grandson of Hall of Fame Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi was part of New Orleans’ championship team. Here’s an Associated Press profile of saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, via the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • You can view this Facebook page to see outtakes from Brett Favre’s Super Bowl commercial, the one where he discusses his “role” in the Super Bowl 10 years from now.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

One more thought on the Jared Allen-Matt Schaub storyline that ultimately led to some hard feelings and a $50,000 fine for Allen.

Intent is not a part of most NFL rules. So it makes no difference that Allen steadfastly maintained he wasn't trying to hurt Schaub by hitting him below the knees last Sunday. (And given the state of the Texans' quarterback situation, the Vikings might have been better off with Schaub in the game rather than backup Sage Rosenfels, anyway.)

But Allen's intent doesn't matter. The reason the league put that rule into place is that a quarterback's eyes are never supposed to be on the pass rush. He's not always going to see a defensive lineman lurking near his feet, and certainly not if the lineman comes from behind. A shot below the knee is the easiest way to get the quarterback to the ground, but it puts him in a high-risk injury situation -- especially if his feet are planted to throw -- that the league isn't willing to perpetuate.

Allen seemed pretty upset earlier this week when he thought Houston coach Gary Kubiak accused him of intentionally trying to hurt Schaub. Kubiak clarified those comments Friday and said: "By no means do we think this young man was trying to hurt anybody."

We'll leave conspiracy theories for another day. But even if you give Allen the benefit of the doubt, and that he was merely playing out his instinct to bring down the quarterback, it should now be clear the NFL isn't interested in explanations.

Continuing around the NFC North on a wintry Saturday morning in the Upper Midwest:

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