A pro football team runs, on offense and defense, between 2,000 and 2,500 plays in a season. A whole season—or a championship game—can turn on just one or two plays. Two plays turned our season into a success, until we reached the championship game against Cleveland. Then a few key plays went the other way and we ended the year the way we began it—with a shocking defeat.
We will go into the plays that set up the Western title for us later. First let us consider the championship game.
After the division championships were decided, Blanton Collier of the Browns and I got together to trade movies. You are entitled to five game movies from your opponent for a championship game, but we agreed to trade six.
We got movies of the Brown games against Detroit, Green Bay, their first game against Pittsburgh, their second game against the Washington Redskins, the game they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals and their final game against the New York Giants. We especially wanted the Detroit and Green Bay films since we are, of course, very familiar with the teams in our own division. The second Washington game was the one in which Sonny Jurgensen had a strong second half against the Browns, and we wanted to study the patterns and the calls. The first game the Browns played against Pittsburgh was the game in which John Henry Johnson ran for 200 yards in 30 carries against the Browns and we wanted to chart Pittsburgh's running offense. St. Louis had done a good job of defensing the Browns, so we wanted to see that. And we wanted to see the latest Cleveland game—the one against the Giants—to find out if the Browns had made any significant changes in either offense or defense.
The six games we gave to Cleveland were our last game, against Washington, the Detroit game we lost, the second Ram game, in which we clinched the championship, the second Green Bay game, the second game against Minnesota and our second game against the Chicago Bears. Blanton did not explain to me why he wanted those games, but it is not hard to figure out. In the Detroit game the Lions did everything well against us. Although we won the second Ram game, Johnny Unitas had probably his worst day of the season, completing only six of 18 passes, and the Rams put a great deal of pressure on him. In our second game against Minnesota, the Vikings ran for 221 yards on us and Blanton wanted to study Van Brocklin's offense. The Browns had played Green Bay, so they wanted to study us against a common opponent. Then, in the second Bear game, Chicago used a flood formation similar to one Blanton uses and he wanted to see how we defensed it. I must say he got a lot out of what he saw in those movies.
After the last game of the regular season we gave the players two days off. The coaches studied and charted the Brown game movies all day and most of the night Monday and Tuesday. We had a short workout Wednesday morning, concentrating on screens and draws so the players could get in a lot of running to loosen them up. Then we went back to the movies again.
The more we looked the more we began to respect the Cleveland offense. You could see Paul Warfield grow from game to game as a receiver. And we never ceased to be amazed at Jim Brown. One night when we had finished Gino Marchetti said to me, "He's even better than I thought he was and I thought he was the best." Gino was right.
The Brown passing game improved all year. Collier's problem when the season began was just the opposite of mine. I had to bring up the Colt running attack to balance the passing; he had to bring the Brown passing up to the running. He succeeded very well. Frank Ryan improved as the season wore on, too. He mixed up his calls, hitting War-field a lot, but going to Gary Collins almost as much, and in a couple of games frequently throwing to Johnny Brewer, their tight end.
After our analysis of the movies we decided that we would have to establish a running game so that we could control the ball. That is the best defense against Jim Brown. He can't run when he is on the bench.
We felt we could gain by running straight at the Cleveland line. Sucker plays do not work against the Cleveland tackles, since both Jim Kanicki and Dick Modzelewski sit in the hole and wait. Power sweeps are tough because the Cleveland ends stay on the line and fight. We thought we could drive straight ahead at the tackles and run traps on the ends through the four and five holes, the holes between tackle and end on each side. Our traps have always been effective because we have big Jim Parker pulling for the trap block, and he is one of the best in the business.
The Browns had used a lot of zone pass defense, so we thought we could key our passing game to how they played their linebackers. If they shifted a linebacker to the strong side of the zone we would throw back to the weak side. If the linebacker stayed on the weak side we could go to the strong side. The Browns had not used much man-to-man coverage, but if they did we felt that Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr would be able to get loose on Walter Beach or Bernie Parrish.
Planning a defense against the Cleveland ground game is essentially trying to figure out how to stop Jim Brown. We keyed our middle linebacker, Bill Pellington, on Brown, as most clubs do. But the only effectual defense against Brown is gang-tackling, and we emphasized the need for our defensive players to keep their feet and get into the pursuit. If one man gets knocked down and opens a lane, Brown will break a single tackle to get into the lane, and once he is in it he has so much speed he can score from anywhere on the field.
We set up to mix zone and man-to-man coverage on pass defense. We were perfectly familiar with their passing sets—the double wing and the flood. We wanted Lenny Lyles to play Warfield close and tough; you always put pressure on a rookie.
I have tried to figure out where I made a mistake or how I would change my preparations for this game, but I honestly can't. The team was spirited in workouts, so spirited that at the Thursday workout before the championship game Joe Don Looney and John Diehl had a fight. Nothing serious, but it showed that we were up.
Then came the game day, and we got beat 27-0. We had not been shut out for 31 games in a row and we had never lost a championship game.
There were three key plays and all of them came in the second half. The first, of course, was Jim Brown's 46-yard run from the Cleveland 36-yard line down to our 18. The Browns were leading 3-0, but we were still very much in the game.
The play started from their double-wing set; the Browns were on the hash mark to our right, which left the wide side of the field to our left. We were zoned to the wide side, since that is where they had the most running room and the widest area for passes. Frank Ryan made an excellent call; he sent Brown on a sweep into the short side of the field, and our safety could not come up fast enough to reach him and he was gone. Aside from this long run, most of Brown's gains all day were only normal for him.
The second key play came immediately afterward. The Browns came out on our 18-yard line in a conventional set with Gary Collins on the strong side. We were zoned to the strong side again. Collins broke down and in and he was pretty well covered, but the pass rush did not put pressure on Ryan. When Collins saw Frank had time he made another move in the end zone and broke free and Ryan hit him for a score.
The third key play was the second Cleveland touchdown. This time Collins was spread to the weak side and we were in a safety zone to the strong side. Collins ran an inside-turn pattern, where he turns back to the inside of the field for a short pass. As he turned, Ryan pumped his arm as if he were going to pass, and our safety on that side came up fast. When he did, Collins turned and went. The safety, Bobby Boyd, realized his mistake and tried to bump Collins out of his pattern, but he slipped and fell down and Collins was all alone. The pass went 42 yards for a touchdown and put Cleveland ahead 17-0 and it was all over, although I did not believe so at the time.
Collins' third touchdown was icing on the cake for Cleveland. On this one Boyd had him covered as closely as possible, but Collins made the catch on great individual effort.
Of their three touchdowns, the first two were the direct results of poor defense by us and the third was on a fine performance by Collins.
We never made a big play and they made three. Their whole defensive line—Paul Wiggin, Jim Kanicki, Dick Modzelewski and Bill Glass—dominated us, and their offensive line was just as good as we expected it to be. You know Frank Ryan was thrown for losses attempting to pass fewer times than any other quarterback in the league during the season. Galen Fiss, their right linebacker, did a tremendous job. Once, when we were still in the game, we called a screen to Lenny Moore and I thought Lenny might go all the way, but Fiss came right by a block and dropped Lenny for a loss with a superb tackle. He gambled and won; if he had lost, Lenny had blockers ahead and a lane down the sideline.
Whenever we had a drive started, we blew it on an interception or a fumble. We never went in, we never made the one big play that might have ignited the club. The Browns did and won. Blanton did a fine job all year and he and the Browns deserved to win.
Sadly enough, the season started for us the same way it ended, except that it was the Minnesota Vikings who beat us in the opening game, nearly as badly as the Browns did in this one. And we felt we were ready for Minnesota, just as we felt ready for Cleveland.
We had been getting ready for that Viking game for a year, actually; Carroll Rosenbloom hired me as head coach of the Baltimore Colts in January of 1963. I was the defensive coach for the Detroit Lions at that time. I heard—through the grapevine in the National Football League, where you hear everything—that Carroll was looking for a new head coach. I had played for the Colts for several years. I was a defensive halfback. A writer once called me a calculated risk as a defensive halfback; I may not have been among the best in the league at that position, but if I was a risk it was pretty well calculated, since I played corner back for seven years and you can't risk too much there. Anyway, while I was playing for Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington I spent a good deal of time studying my position. I always wanted to be a coach. Carroll once told me that he knew that. I guess he still knew it when he decided to change coaches at Baltimore. He called me when the Lions played the Colts late in the season to see if I thought I was ready for a head coaching job. He said he was considering a change and I told him I was interested and the only way I could prove whether I was ready was for him to give me the opportunity.
["He was a student all the time he played with us," says Rosenbloom. "When we cut him I was against it but I give our coaches free rein. I admired him then, and when I decided to change coaches I thought of him. I thought of some others, too, but all the recommendations I got favored Don."]
Carroll called me in January—late—and told me I had the job. It was a dream come true.
I did not worry much about taking over. The big thing that helped me was that I had had the responsibility for half the Detroit club for a couple of years. I coached the defense, and George Wilson, whom I admire very much now and learned a great deal from then, let me run it. So I knew I could handle half the job. And if you coach defense, you have to learn offense. I thought I knew enough offense and I had carte blanche to hire assistants. What I didn't know I could employ.
I guess I had some special problems. I had played with some of the Colt players—Gino Marchetti, for instance, who had been recognized as the best defensive end in pro football. Now I was going to coach Gino. I had played under the defensive coach of the Colts, Charlie Winner. Carroll told me I could replace anyone I wanted to, and I think a lot of people expected me to let Charlie go because I had been a player for him, but I never even thought of doing that. He coached the same kind of defense I had. and for a good reason: both of us had learned it from Blanton Collier. I had worked as an assistant under Blanton at the University of Kentucky. I did not expect any personality clashes with Charlie or Gino and I didn't get any.
I was hired in January, but I did not move to Baltimore until April. That spring I spent a lot of time looking at game movies. I found out that one of the things that had hurt the Colts was a lack of blocking from tight end. This was before the 1963 season, and we had drafted a big rookie named John Mackey to play tight end. I got Jim Mutscheller to help him with his blocking assignments in spring training. He turned into a fine blocker. We were lacking in other departments, too—running, for instance. But we had the big thing, we had a great gunner and an excellent field general in Johnny Unitas.
The most desperate lacks were at fullback, offensive tackle and defensive tackle. By the time I came to the Colts, the club had already drafted, and they had done a good job of plugging those holes. We had Bob Vogel at offensive tackle, Fred Miller at defensive tackle and then we picked up J. W. Lockett and a New York rookie named Nat Craddock at fullback. Vogel and Miller developed; the other two did not. Craddock did not play at all for us; Lockett was not the answer either and finally I settled on Jerry Hill, a tough, good runner and strong blocker from Wyoming. By the middle of the season he took over at fullback, and he got better as the year went on. I had tried to shuffle him around at several positions early in the season, but he is the kind of player who has to be given one assignment to live with. Once he settled down at fullback and felt comfortable in the blocking and running assignments he made the rest of the running go.
We started to move in the second half of the 1963 season, and we might have moved earlier but Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore were hurt and that took something out of the offensive. Vogel, Mackey, Hill and Miller started to learn their lessons. Miller led the club in tackles. Mackey was blocking well, and he gave us a deep threat on passes. Hill gave Johnny more protection on passes and he cleared the way for Tom Matte on runs. Vogel was what we needed on the offensive line to give Johnny protection. The rest of the line—Alex Sandusky, George Preas, Jim Parker, Dick Szymanski—were good veterans.
So, coming into the 1964 season, all I was very much worried about was defense. We put in a defense that was, essentially, a combination of the Baltimore and Detroit defenses. We used fewer blitzes than I had used at Detroit because the Detroit secondary had had more experience at playing single coverage, which is a must if you blitz. In Baltimore we decided to mix spot blitzing with regular coverage. I was lucky in having Bill Pellington at middle linebacker; he had played in the league for 11 years and was a great leader, with a tremendous understanding of the game. I think he has been one of the most underrated linebackers in the league. But after we had finished analyzing the defensive potential of the Colts at the beginning of this year, we were forced to recognize the fact that this was not a championship defense. When you analyze most championship teams, you have to conclude that defenses win championships and we needed some shoring up.
Maybe one of the keys to our successful 1964 season was having Bill Arnsparger to work under Winner and coach the defensive line. That happened when Gino said he wanted to retire. I had to hire someone to replace him, and I got Bill from Tulane; he had been an assistant with me at Kentucky. He rounded out what I consider an excellent staff of assistants: Winner, Don McCafferty, John Sandusky and Dick Bielski. Then, as the exhibition season went along, it became pretty clear that we could not survive without the leadership and the pass rush that Gino once gave us from defensive end, and finally Carroll persuaded him to come back as a player for one more year. He came back just before our third exhibition against the Cardinals in St. Louis, and he played a good deal of the game with his tongue hanging out to his knee pads—and he still played better that day than any other defensive end.
For the first three games of the exhibition season I experimented. I made Alex Hawkins captain of the special teams—the teams for punting, kicking off and punt and kickoff returns—and we began to grade them as carefully as we grade our offensive and defensive units. Usually you try to get big men at the point of the wedge on a kickoff-return team to clear the way for the runner, but I decided to go with my best blockers and we wound up with three little guys. But they were three little guys who could block—Hawkins, Jerry Logan and Wendell Harris. One kickoff return I remember Harris knocked down three tacklers. Hitting is contagious, you know. When the little guys blocked, so did everyone else.
I knew we would be able to move the ball in 1964 but I didn't know much about our rookie backs, since Tony Lorick was at the All-Star camp and I did not get a good look at him. I did know Jerry Hill and Tom Matte had matured during the 1963 season, when our offense had raised its rushing average gain from 3.6 to 4.1 yards per play. So we would have more running than any Colt team of recent years. But work still had to be done on the defense.
When the exhibition season ended I called another team meeting and explained to the club what I hoped we could do. We had been knocked out of the race in 1963 before it started. In 1964 I wanted to get off to a fast start. We had worked hard to get in shape and we felt that we were ready.
The offense was all set. Lenny Moore, who had played out on the Hank when he was not injured in 1963, had moved back into a running spot. We had had some doubts about Lenny. There were times when we thought he might prefer to be traded, but I talked to him and he said that he would like to return and play where he was most needed. To get a starting assignment, Lenny knew he would have to run better than Tom Matte, who had taken over the year before and had a fine year.
Jerry Hill was established as our fullback. Although Tony Lorick had looked good against Pittsburgh in the exhibition game he was still a rookie and I thought he needed more experience. Behind them we had Joe Don Looney, who we did not know too much about since we had only recently acquired him from the Giants. We only knew he was big and strong and fast and liked to play. We never had any troubles with Joe Don then. When he came to us from the Giants we treated him like any other player—no special attention, no heart-to-heart talks—and he came to practice on time and worked hard. I put him on the special teams, where he would be exposed to their gung-ho attitude, and he was the first guy downfield on kickoffs most of the time. He did not always get the tackle, but he used up a couple of blockers when he didn't so that the ballcarrier was undressed and someone else got the tackle.
When I took over as head coach for the Colts I found out that most defensive lines disregarded the Colt running game and went after Unitas. They could not do that in the second half of the 1963 season, and in the 1964 preseason games I made sure that they understood they could not do it in 1964 either. With strong running, Johnny was getting more time to throw. In the week before the opening game against the Vikings, my feeling was even stronger that the Colt offense was good enough to win a championship.
But I was still not sure that the defense had improved enough. We had made two trades that I thought would help, and Gino had come back to play defensive end but he was only just getting into condition. And Gino was 37 years old. We made a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers for Lou Michaels and it turned out to be a fortunate one. Lou could relieve either Gino or Ordell Braase at defensive end and he gave us a field-goal kicker and a kickoff man, both enormously important for any team looking for a title. Then we got Steve Stone-breaker from the Minnesota Vikings, and Stonebreaker changed our linebackers from good to excellent. Steve did much the same thing for this unit that the three little blockers did for the kickoff-return unit. He created an enthusiasm for hitting. He made mistakes but he made up for them with extraordinary pursuit and hard tackling.
In the defensive line Fred Miller became a top tackle. We used him steadily in 1963 and he got more seasoning in his first year than most young defensive tackles get in two or three. And John Diehl, the man he replaced, came to camp 20 pounds lighter than he had been the year before and much quicker. We traded for Guy Reese, from the Dallas Cowboys, and he played up to the standards we hoped he would.
The defense had not had to adjust much. With a year behind them playing a system not too different from the defense they had used before, the young players—Miller, Logan and Stonebreaker—had gained confidence. I thought we had a good chance.
Then it happened. We were a healthy, enthusiastic football team coming off two good exhibition wins over the Washington Redskins and the Pittsburgh Steelers. We had as much offense as any club in the league and a defense which had been improving steadily. The week before the Viking game the workouts were good and the spirit was good. Everyone was anxious to prove how good we really were.
And we got the hell kicked out of us. The score was 34-24 for the Vikings, but it was much worse than that. We had planned to play a ball-control game, using our strong running to keep possession and throwing sparingly, and the Vikings stopped us cold. Norman Van Brocklin is one of the great young coaches in the business and he picked us apart. When you lose the way we lost that game, everything breaks down. Nothing is good—not the coaching, the execution of plays or the hustle. We were outhustled, outthought and completely outplayed.
The score was 31-24 with seven minutes and 40 seconds to play. We kicked off to them, and you would expect to get the ball back in that much time. They moved from their own 15 to our 36—mostly on the ground and mostly through broken tackles—and kicked a field goal, and they used up six minutes and 17 seconds doing it.
Something was wrong, but it was hard to tell what. This was the worst tackling I had ever seen on a Colt team, and this was a team that had tackled viciously in the two games before. Whenever we had a receiver in the open, a Viking defensive lineman would knock the ball down. Then our line blocking in protection of Unitas also broke down. The blocking in front of the runners similarly collapsed, and we could not establish our running game.
A day or so later I was on a radio program and someone asked me why I stayed with a game plan that obviously was not going to work. They wanted to know why Johnny was not throwing more to Raymond Berry, among other things. Unitas did not have the time, often. There was double coverage on Berry at other times. And they wondered why I did not use Tony Lorick more as a runner, since Lorick had been sensational against Pittsburgh in the final preseason game. Well, you don't take a chance on rookie backs under the gun in a game like this one. They make mistakes under the best of circumstances and Lorick had not had enough time to learn our offense.
Our defense was as bad as the offense. The Vikings ran for 313 yards against us. When I got back to Baltimore—and it was a long, long trip that night from Minneapolis—I thought, I wonder what Green Bay will do to us? The Packers are the best running club in the league and they had just beaten Chicago. If the Vikings can gain 313 on the ground, what will Green Bay, with a wonderful offensive line and great runners like Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Tom Moore and Elijah Pitts, do? I did not know what to expect, but I knew whatever happened would be bad.
You can't panic, though. Our routine the week before the Green Bay game was the same as it is every week during the season. Monday we graded the movies of the Viking game, and the grades were pretty bad. We met at the Colt offices and the defensive coaches went over their half of the movie and the offensive coaches watched theirs, and no one was very happy. It took us about four hours to get through with that, and then the trainer came in to give us a report on injuries. We were lucky. Usually after a game where you do not play well you have a lot of injuries, because ballplayers get hurt when they are daydreaming or loafing and get hit from the blind side. But we didn't have anything serious.
Dick Bielski, who scouts for us, gave us a quick rundown on the Packers. He did not cheer us up much. According to Bielski, this was the same old Green Bay team: great execution, violent blocking and tough tackling. Nothing fancy, but how do you scout blocking and tackling by experts?
He did not give us a detailed report because we would take all their plays and their defenses off film. We looked at movies of the Packers in action against the Browns in a doubleheader at Cleveland. We split up into offensive and defensive staffs and took every play off that film, analyzing everything the Packers had done. When we got through with that we looked at films of the two games we had played against the Packers in 1963.
Monday is a long day for the coaches, and a day off for the players. When I went home that Monday night I thought for hours about what had happened to us against the Vikings. I have been in football for 17 years now, as a player and a coach, and at one time I thought I could tell when a team was mentally prepared for a game. But the week before the Viking game I had thought that we were as prepared as any team could be, mentally and physically. The players were up and excited and confident.
Then we got slaughtered. I knew that in the week ahead we would have to overcome a tremendous letdown. I thought about the game plan for the Packers, but that didn't help me sleep. When any coach goes over the Packer personnel, it gives him insomnia. I was no exception.
LOOSE IN COLTS' SECONDARY, TOMMY MASON HELPS VIKINGS ROLL UP 313 YARDS
Baltimore's march to the Western title was to hinge on the Packer game—one the Calls had lo win. Don Shula tells how they did it, how this victory came on two plays—one by the Colt offense and one (a blunder) by the usually alert Packer offense.