The National Football League season is four weeks old and already you can throw away the form charts. A few teams still own unsmudged records, but they don't hail from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles. Instead, Detroit and Buffalo, a couple of rehab projects, have risen from the ashes to join San Diego in the 4-0 department.
The Lions' resurgence couldn't come at a better time for a city trying to spruce up its image. Detroit focused attention on its gleaming Renaissance Center during the Republican National Convention and now finds the city's automotive industry pushing hard to compete with the imports.
What Detroit has lacked is a winning team to rally around. The Lions, off to their best start since jumping out to six straight wins in 1956, appear to be it.
The man making things happen is running back Billy Sims of Oklahoma, the first player selected in last spring's college draft. No one doubted he would sparkle, but there were questions about whether one player could make the team shine. After all, Ottis Anderson gained 1,605 yards last year, his first in the league, yet the St. Louis Cardinals went 5-11.
Sims, however, is on a team that disguished its potential a year ago, when quarterback Gary Danielson missed the season with an injury and the Lions stumbled to 2-14.Billy has rushed for 153, 134, 95, and 157 yards against the Rams, Packers, Cardinals, and Vikings. Even if he can't keep it up, the team just might, since the rest of the season includes just one game against a club which currently has a winning record -- and that's San Francisco, also 2-14 last year.
Buffalo, a team that plays in Rich Stadium but has been poor in victories, has gotten an offensive spark from rookie runner Joe Cribbs. Beacuse his alma mater, Auburn, was barred from TV and post-season appearances, Cribbs entered the NFL as something of an unknown. He's anything but that now to rivals, saddled with the task of stopping an improved ground game along with a respected passing attack, led by Joe Ferguson.
Perhaps most surprising to league watchers has been the play of the Bills' young defense, thought to be the club's Achilles heel. Buffalo has given up fewer points (50) than any other American Conference team.
The refurbished San Francisco 49ers (3-1) rank as another of the season's early surprises. No one expected much out of a club with so little "name" talent, yet Coach Bill Walsh has done wonders in piecing together a pass-oriented offense.
Walsh, a noted teacher of quarterbacks, has made Steve DeBerg, a former 10 th-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys, his latest "project.c The league's worst-rated passer in 1978, DeBerg blossomed a year ago, when he broke Fran Tarkenton's single-season records for pass attempts (578) and completions (347).
Like Tarkenton, the San Jose State product throws a lot of short, high-percentage passes to his backs, Paul Hofer and rookie Earl Cooper, a versatile runner/ receiver from Rice.
Because of rule changes made in recent years to liberalize legal blocking techniques and lessen defensive harassment of receivers, passing has assumed heightened importance.
A team like San Diego, therefore, can be devastating offensively with no better than an average ground game. Still, the club would feel better with more running strength, which explains why it jumped at the chance to pick up Chuck Muncie for a future draft choice in a trade with winless New Orleans this week. Muncie was in the Saints' doghouse, having been beched for missing practice and his generally lackadaisical play.
As crucial as passing successfully has become, the ability to defend against the thrown ball is probably more important. The Chargers have been able to complement their aerial fireworks with a stingy defense, bu the New York Jets have not.
Considered a serious contender for division honors in the AFC East, the Jets (0-4) have been the league's biggest disappointment. Quarterback Richard Todd hasn't done badly at the controls of New York's pass-happy offense, but the defense is still minus a pass rush. This Sunday the Jets face New England (3-1) , a team whose defense should only get better now that holdouts Mike Haynes, an all-pro cornerback, and lineman Richard Bishop have returned to the fold.
The Patriots are coming off Monday night's nationally televised victory over Denver, which finds off-season acquisition Matt Robinson struggling at quarterback. The Broncos, it should be pointed out, have had to face the NFL's iron in the early weeks, losing to Philadelphia and San Diego in addition to New England, while beating only Dallas.
The Cowboys, by the way, haven't collapsed since Danny White took over for the retired Roger Staubach. They are 3-1 and tied for first in the NFC East with Philadelphia.
For three weeks, the Eagles were the terrors of the league, running up 106 points while giving up 16 in successive wins. But then, in typical "on any given Sunday" fashion, St. Louis knocked off the high-flying Philadelphians to reward new Cardinal coach jim Hanifan with his first NFL victory. The week before, Pittsburgh had proved vulnerable, committing six turnovers in losing to Cincinnati, an upset reminiscent of last year's shocking Bengal triumph over the Super Bowl champs.
As expected, Houston (3-1) is running neck and neck with the Steelers in the AFC Central, although based on a 31-17 victory in their opener, Pittsburgh may still have Houston's number. That the Oilers have been able to win with a hobbled Earl Campbell, though, is a testament to the team's depth and staunch defense.
Los Angeles and Tampa Bay, two NFC playoff representatives from last season, have run hot and cold in producing 2-2 records and falling behind San Francisco and Detroit in their respective divisions.