Philadelphia, responding to a wave of good fortune, is closing in on its first championship in 11 years. For the story of how the breaks were made, turn the page
DECISION IN THE EAST
Championships were as available as a fumble in the East and in the West last week, the sure-handed, resourceful Philadelphia Eagles picked off the title in the National Football League's Eastern Division, but a bumbling Baltimore team may have blown its chance for a third straight championship in the West.
The two big games—Philadelphia versus New York (31-23) before 60,000-odd hysterical fans in Franklin Field and Baltimore versus San Francisco (22-30) at Baltimore—were curiously similar. The old champs—Giants and Colts—fell victim to the same misfortune: interceptions and a new quirk in the adversary's offense.
Baltimore's quarterbacking nonpareil, John Unitas, had five passes intercepted by the young, quick and fired-up San Francisco secondary; New York's not-quite-nonpareil George Shaw had four of his passes intercepted by the somewhat middle-aged, quick and, also, fired-up Eagle secondary. When it was all over, Baltimore held precariously to a half-game lead in the West, with four teams within close tackling distance of the division title. The Eagles had only the Giants and the Browns left to worry about—and they could erase that anxiety with a victory in any one of their next three games.
The Eagles are a team built rather simply upon the extraordinary ability of one man—their pudgy, stubborn, imperturbable quarterback, Norman Van Brocklin. They started quite inauspiciously against the Giants last Sunday as, indeed, they had the Sunday before. On the first play of the game George Shaw hit Kyle Rote for a 71-yard touchdown pass; the swelling, continuing roar of the big home crowd may have helped that play. Tom Brookshier, the Eagle wingback assigned to cover Rote short, told Bobby Freeman to pick up Rote deep. But Freeman did not hear him in the uproar. Rote, with no one covering him, took Shaw's pass all alone and maintained that happy state until he had scored.
The Giants scored twice more in the first quarter before the Eagle defenders had gathered their addled resources. By then, almost the only calm man in Franklin Field was Van Brocklin, who can be calm indeed.
He fiddled around irritably with the Giant defenses for a while, encountering an effective variation designed to cut off the quick passes he had thrown so successfully to Bobby Walston and Tommy McDonald in the game a week before. Then the Eagle defenders intercepted two of Shaw's passes. Van Brocklin converted one of the interceptions into a field goal and the other into a touchdown. The touchdown came on a pass to rookie Fullback Ted Dean. It was called off a fake trap play up the middle, and it was the same play, put in especially for the Giants, the Dutchman had used the week before for a 19-yard gain (SI, Nov. 28).
On the first play of the fourth period last Sunday, he used the play again, and it went for 49 yards and the touchdown which put the Eagles ahead to stay. Designed by Charley Gauer, one of the Eagle assistant coaches, the play is a variant of another used often several years ago. It is called a play number pass—a pass which develops from what is ostensibly a run, with aggressive line blocking such as is generally used on runs. ("That's the best play any one threw at us all year," the fine Giant linebacker, Sam Huff, said after the game. "I never saw Dean. Hell, one time I tackled Barnes.") To the defense it looks like a trap play with Barnes carrying the ball. Actually it is a pass to Dean, who seeps through the defensive line into the gap left in the secondary by the middle linebacker and the wingbacks hurrying up to stop the trap run.
Twice it accounted for Philadelphia touchdowns. A third was scored on a similar play, with Van Brocklin throwing to Halfback Billy Barnes. The fourth, actually, pointed up the difference in these two teams. It was scored after a Barnes fumble on the Giant three, the ball popping crazily out of his arms when he was hit hard by Huff, then bouncing oddly in the end zone with three Giants and one Eagle in pursuit. The Eagle was J. D Smith, a large, somewhat ungainly tackle who overcame his few shortcomings and recovered the ball for the score.
It may be that this unlikely touchdown typifies this Eagle team, which, if it can win one more ball game, will play for the professional championship. It is not as sound a team as most of the other champions of the past. It reflects very strongly the personality of Van Brocklin—stubborn, ingenious, opportunistic, unruffled. The team does not have a truly strong running attack, and it is a tribute to Van Brocklin's audacity that his minuscule running threat suffices for the fakes which set up the passing game.
The passing is superb. McDonald and Pete Retzlaff and Walston are accomplished, determined and talented receivers, and Van Brocklin gets excellent protection for his throwing from the Eagle offensive line. This same line, however, does not distinguish itself blocking for the runners. The defense, flawed here and there by rookies, acquits itself nobly when it remembers the words of wisdom proffered by Jerry Williams, a very good defensive coach. That is most of the time, but it can fail grievously now and then. All in all, the Eagles are an exciting team, stabilized by Van Brocklin on offense and by old, bold and cold Chuck Bednarik on defense.
A titillating sidelight to this game was the possibility that Bednarik, the Eagle linebacker and offensive center, might be left for dead by one or another of the Giant team in revenge for Bednarik's chilling tackle of Frank Gifford two weeks ago. Bednarik, hitting Gifford with a blind side tackle late in the game, left the Giant halfback cold as snow. The Philadelphian danced a happy, heathen victory jig after Gifford's fumble had been recovered by the Eagles, thus insuring their victory. His histrionics were misconstrued in some quarters as unseemly joy over the mayhem he had committed on the prostrate Gifford.
"I got lots of letters," Bednarik said before last Sunday's game. "All good except for one from a lady in Texas. Then I got lots of telephone calls including one at 2:30 in the morning from some woman hollering at me. I disconnected the phone. I sent Gifford some fruit in the hospital, and I wrote him a three-page letter. It was a good tackle."
The Giants did not try to avenge their fallen teammate. "They were rough and mean," Bednarik said after the game. "Like always. But not dirty." Once, on a punt, Sam Huff unjointed Bednarik with a whistling blind side block.
"It musta hurt," Huff said. "But he didn't holler. He got up and said, 'Careful, Sam. You keep blocking me like that, and they'll think you're picking on me.' "
Bednarik is a very youthful 35-year-old who is to the Eagle defense what Van Brocklin is to the offense. He has a nose which strays haphazardly over a face handsome in spite of that, and he is the very model of a modern major general when defending. In this game, as in the previous one, he played on offense as well as defense—an almost impossible task even for a young man—and thus pointed up the thin resources of the Eagle team. He left the game at last in the fourth period, walking slowly and with fatigue showing in every line of his slumped, strong body. The big, noisy crowd gave him its noisiest accolade of the day.
The Eagles can, very likely, beat any one of the teams in the West which still have a chance to win the Western Division title. First of these, of course, is Baltimore. The Colts found a double-wing offense installed for last week's occasion by the San Francisco 49ers a problem that could not be solved readily. The double wing stationed John Brodie, the San Francisco quarterback, in a tailback spot where he took a direct snap from center, thus gaining 1) some two or three seconds' additional time against the fearsome charge of the Colt line and 2) reasonable peace of mind in which to pass.
The formation is not that new: "That's not what beat us," Colt Coach Weeb Ewbank said later. "We have it in our play book. It was our own errors. You can't give the ball away six times in the National Football League. And win." Brodie left the game late, under the persuasion of a rattling tackle by Big Daddy Lipscomb, but a third-string quarterback named Bobby Waters, passing from the double wing, got the winning touchdown for the 49ers.
Now the Western Division is an unholy mess. The Colts lead by half a game over the Chicago Bears with the Green Bay Packers and the 49ers a full game behind. Theoretically at least, even the Detroit Lions could win the title, although at the moment they have won four and lost five. The Packers and the Bears play Sunday, the Colts play the 49ers and the Lions in the next three weeks and the Packers play the 49ers, too. It is unlikely that the San Francisco team, refurbished with the double-wing offense, will win the championship in the West, but it would appear now that the 49ers do hold the key to the division title. Red Hickey, the 49er coach, is ingenious and resourceful, as he proved last Sunday. But he doesn't have the manpower. The Colts, like the Giants, may finally be feeling the twinges of age. The Green Bay Packers, under Vince Lombardi, have made a wonderful comeback in the last couple of years, but they lack the balance and the quarterback to win the division title.
That leaves the Chicago Bears. George Halas' team is sound and strong, and, most important, healthy. The Bears have good quarterbacking in Ed Brown and Zeke Bratkowski, a quick, intelligent defense ably informed by Defensive Coach Clark Shaughnessy, and strong running from Rick Casares, Willie Galimore and Johnny Morris. But they have a tough closing schedule—Green Bay, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit. If they can get by the Packers in Chicago, they might very well play Philadelphia for the championship.
As for the championship itself—well, against the Dutchman no team in the league is a good bet.
EAGLE TACKLE J. D. SMITH (76) BEATS JIM PATTON (20) TO FUMBLE BEHIND GIANT GOAL, GIVES PHILADELPHIA ANOTHER TOUCHDOWN OVER NEW YORK
ALERT EAGLE Defender Don Burroughs picks off a New York pass stops a drive.
HAPPY EAGLES AFTER GAME ARE (LEFT TO RIGHT) BILL BARNES, CHUCK BEDNARIK, COACH BUCK SHAW, VAN BROCKLIN, TED DEAN