IT WAS WIN OR DIE IN A TURBULENT RACE
It was win or die in the West last Sunday as the National Football League season reached midpoint with four teams in contention and another—the Chicago Bears—moving up. The leading Green Bay Packers, who would have perished of shame if they had lost to the league's weakest team, the Falcons, were comfortable winners; the Colts averted disaster with a tingling, desperate 20-17 victory over Minnesota to take second place: the 49ers. improving on a poor start, popped up to third; and the Bears, starting to move late in the campaign, as usual, nudged the Rams to their second straight defeat and down to fourth place, a position from which they might move directly to Forest Lawn if they not wake up a bit.
As they have so often in the past, the Colts won their tense game on the daring arm of John Unitas, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown. The Colt defense put heavy pressure on the Vikings' roving quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, and jarred him out of his normal patterns. Nevertheless, Tarkenton's passes kept Minnesota in the game until the last few seconds.
This bitterly played game reflected perfectly the heat of the race in the West. Before the Colts took the field Coach Don Shula told them to forget about Green Bay. "You've been thinking about the Packers and what the) are doing," Shula said. "We can't win that way. You have to take today's game, then the next game and the next. We can't do anything about Green Bay until we play them again."
Norm Van Brocklin's Vikings, picked as strong contenders before the season but losers of four games already, also considered this a game they had to win if they were to salvage anything from what they had thought would be a good year. "I've never seen Van Brocklin so intense before a game," one Viking official remarked. "Or the team, for that matter."
The Dutchman, a swashbuckling quarterback in his playing days, perhaps had been too careful early in the season. The previous week, before the Vikings thumped the Rams, he had said. "We've been too cautious. Tarkenton's a gambler and we have to play that type of game."
Tarkenton took Van Brocklin's words to heart. On one of his more spectacular plays, he handed the ball off to his fullback. Bill Brown, who promptly turned and lateraled the ball back to Tarkenton, While this dipsy-doodler was taking place behind the line of scrimmage. End Paul Flatley drifted past the bemused Baltimore secondary and finally caught a 41-yard pass. That adventurous maneuver set up one of the Viking touchdowns.
The high-voltage atmosphere on the field led to a riot in the second period when Jimmy Orr, the Baltimore Hanker, and Minnesota Defensive Mack Earsell Mackbee started fighting near the Viking bench. Orr might have been demolished except that big Jim Parker brought his 275 pounds to the defense, bowling over three Vikings en route. With the entire Viking bench swarming toward him. Parker retreated. On and Mackbee were then kicked out of the game. The loss left the Vikings with only one victory and a tie in six games—that is to say, among the dying.
The Rams, whose offense sputters more than it sparks behind the quarter-backing of Roman Gabriel and Bill Munson. could not cope with the tough Pear defense, the passing of Rudy Bukich or the running of Gale Sayers.
The big lesson of the day was that the race in the West will turn on the quarterbacks. The best in the West and. indeed, in all football, are Unitas and Bart Starr. As everyone knows. Unitas is one of the finest quarterbacks of all time; as everyone should know. Starr is one of them, too.
Starr is the perfect man for the meticulous, grinding Green Bay offense and he has just as much cool and just as much generalship as Unitas.
"We're different types," Unitas comments. "Bart's an excellent quarterback, but he calls plays to control the ball, and I gamble. I throw anytime. But he's a line passer. Look at his statistics."
On Sunday, Starr played only the first half in the Packers' 56-3 rout of the Falcons, and he did nothing but good for his statistics by completing eight of 11 passes for 217 yards. Remember the Packers' million-dollar rookies, Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski? They had not been playing a great deal on the veteran-oriented team, but against the Falcons they exploded Anderson for two touchdowns, including a 77-yard punt return, and Grabowski for 52 yards rushing. Fullback Jim Taylor caused a different kind of excitement by announcing that he was playing out his option.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Unitas was concerned only to prove that the Colts could win when it was essential, and he accomplished that aim.
Sunday's victory put Baltimore in position for a strong run down the home-stretch. The Colts have eight games to play, two against Eastern opponents—one of them hapless Atlanta, the other Washington, which is hardly a powerhouse. Green Bay, with seven games remaining, must play the dangerous Vikings twice during the next eight weeks.
The championship of the West might well be decided on December 10, when the Packers and the Colts meet in Baltimore on the next-to-last weekend of the season. Both teams have strong defenses, both have good receivers. The Packers have an edge in running, with five exceptional backs. But the outcome almost certainly will depend on which of the two golden arms is the better on that afternoon. Starr's was superior in that gaudy opening win in Milwaukee (SI, Sept. 19), when he was throwing to Boyd Dowler and Unitas was throwing interceptions to Packer defenders.
Until they meet again, their merits will be endlessly debated.
"It's like comparing cheese and chalk," says Baltimore's Orr. "Johnny has freer control of the club, I think. Bart follows a fairly strict game plan. But he is a brilliant play-caller. Johnny gambles more, we're more of a gambling team. I've seen John throw a ball into a spot you'd think no one would throw to and get away with it. But Starr calls a beautiful game. When we're in trouble. John usually throws. When Green Bay is in trouble, Starr can do anything—run or throw, call a draw, sweep, whatever."
"He's confident," a Bear player said after the Packers beat Chicago a week ago. "You can't ruffle him. You can't make him mad. He's got more confidence than almost anyone."
This is the new Starr, of course. It was not always so. Bryan Bartlett Starr (see cover) is a quiet, diffident man who has spent much of his professional life sitting on the bench in the shadow of smaller men. He is now, and for six years has been, the starting quarterback of the Packers. During those six years, if you go by statistics, he has been just about the best quarterback in the league, and the Packers have the championships to show it. Unitas is generally accepted as the nonpareil among quarterbacks, but the accompanying charts will show that he is not that much better than Starr, if at all. This year Starr is leading the league. In seven games he has completed 91 of 145 passes—an amazing 62.8 percentage—for 1,429 yards. This is better than Johnny U.'s 1966 performance by a significant amount. He has had only three passes intercepted, as compared to Unitas' eight—one of the real tests of the ability of a passer. Yet if you asked the average pro football fan which of the two is the better quarterback, the answer, except from inhabitants of Green Bay, would be Unitas.
When Starr came to the Packers in 1956—the same year Unitas joined the Colts—he was not imbued with the kind of cocky self-confidence that is part of the makeup of most pro quarterbacks. He had come to Green Bay from Alabama, where he had just finished a shattering senior year sitting on the bench. J. B. (Ears) Whitworth had taken over the Alabama team and decided that he would live or die with his sophomores. This meant that Starr, a starter in his sophomore and junior years, had to spend his senior year out of the action. The fact that he had an ailing back contributed to Whitworth's decision.
Starr has a serious face and, remembering his difficulties at Alabama, it was sad. "I guess if I hadn't got married my junior year, I wouldn't have been able to stand it. My wife was a wonderful help. For a young person, she had a lot of maturity."
Despite his relative obscurity, Starr was drafted 17th by Green Bay.
"Johnny Dee, the basketball coach at Alabama, was responsible for that," Starr said. "He was a good friend of the late Jack Vainisi, the Green Bay scout, and he talked him into taking a chance. It's a good thing he did. I was down as low as I have ever been. I have never had much confidence. That was the year I started doubting my own ability."
In early summer before he reported to the Green Bay camp in his rookie year, Starr worked hard and long to improve himself. He and Cherry, his wife, spent the summer at her parents' home.
"I built an A-frame in their front yard," Starr recalls. "Then I hung a tire on it and practiced throwing the ball through the tire from different angles for hours every day. Cherry fielded the ball for me."
There were five quarterbacks in the Green Bay camp when Starr reported. Tobin Rote was the veteran and the No. 1 man. It was not a situation to cheer a player suffering the self-doubt Starr felt.
"I didn't know I had it made until the last cut, just before the league season," Starr says. "When I stuck, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I'm not sure why I did, but I remember I had one good half in an exhibition game against the Giants."
Starr roomed with Rote, who is as unlike him as is possible.
"He taught me a lot," Bart says. "He was a real hard-nosed guy. He had his own style and he was set in it, but he treated me great and he gave me tips. He didn't have to do that. The first thing he told me was, 'Kid, you have to learn to zip the ball a little. You won't make it in this league throwing cream puffs.' He had tremendous courage, too. He took his lumps and never said a word. That's something else I learned from him."
Starr played little his first year, but in 1957, when the Packers traded for an old idol, Babe Parilli, he saw more action, under Head Coach Scooter McLean.
"It was a kind of musical-chairs year," he says. "Babe played most, though. I just wasn't doing the job. I loved the life and enjoyed football, but it was discouraging to go home at the end of the season and realize I had done so poorly. I wasn't emotionally mature, and I wasn't over the college letdown. I couldn't give leadership. Looking back, I realize that, but I tried not to be aware of it at the time. The only way to build confidence is to succeed, and for three or four years I had not succeeded at anything in football. I would go into a game confident on the surface, but I could not stand failure."
When Lombardi came to the Packers in 1959 Starr still had a lot to prove.
"I looked at the movies and decided the first thing I needed was help at quarterback," Lombardi says now. "So I traded for Lamar McHan."
"I was impressed with Lombardi the first time I met him," Starr says. "I wasn't overjoyed when he traded for a quarterback right away, but I didn't blame him. He brought the quarterbacks in for early schooling in his system in June, and I could feel his confidence and organization and self-discipline right away. He knew what he was talking about. He wanted the quarterbacks to have a head start when camp started, and we did. We had three weeks to assimilate his offense before training began."
McHan started at quarterback at the beginning of the 1959 season, but midway lost the job to Starr. (The following year confirmed Starr's No. 1 status, although he went through an uncertain time when McHan started three games but then faltered.)
"I began to gain some confidence in a game against Detroit on Thanksgiving Day in 1959," Starr says. "I had a good day and we won the game. But the real big game for me—the one that really did it—was the last game of the season, against the 49ers, I had studied coach's offense and the keys and how to read defenses and I knew, theoretically, how to take advantage of them, but it was still just theory and I had trouble seeing these things in a game. In San Francisco everything fell in place all at once. It was like taking a veil from in front of my eyes. It was a real revelation."
The revelation that came to Starr in San Francisco has never left him; he is regarded by defensive players in the league as probably the best of all quarterbacks at calling audibles at the line of scrimmage and at analyzing defense. Says Dick Voris, the defensive coach of the 49ers: "Bart Starr is one of the great quarterbacks. You can't take any kind of gamble against him. Any gamble produces a weakness and he always finds it. For instance, if you blitz him, he'll let you come within inches and then flick the ball out on a screen pass for big gains."
Although Starr has quarterbacked the Packers to three NFL championships in six years and has them well on their way to another, his task has not grown easier with experience.
"The big change in recent years has been in defense," he says. "I mean, that afternoon in San Francisco when I suddenly found that I could read their defenses could never happen again. That's one of the reasons it is tough on young quarterbacks. Everyone disguises their defense so well now. They don't let you see it until the ball has been snapped. Now you have to read it as you drop back to pass."
Like most pro clubs, the Packers use a nonrhythmic signal call, simply because of the ever-shifting defenses. Instead of the old "hut-one, hut-two!" in a rhythmic chant, the quarterback calls the signals at varying intervals, pausing between calls as long as he wants, trying to catch the defense in motion or in a formation vulnerable to the play he has called. With the nonrhythmic chant, he can also call audibles later.
"I get an awful lot of help from Zeke Bratkowski," Starr says. "You can't imagine how much it means to have a man of his stature on the phones." Bratkowski is the No. 2 Green Bay quarterback and a close friend of Starr's. The two spend hours in Starr's basement going over football film.
Needless to say, Starr suffers no longer from a feeling of inadequacy. "Losses bother me," he says, "but then I used to suffer agonies. I've learned a lot from Coach Lombardi. In 1963 I told him that I had learned so many lessons playing football for him that I felt I could be a success at anything in life. Failure used to fester in me, but not anymore."
In midseason 1966 Lombardi himself is ready to settle for another year of success in football. That's not just anything to Vince; it's everything.
Despite threatening bulk of Minnesota Tackle Gary Larsen, Unitas gets away another pass against the Vikings. At right, Berry crosses the goal with half a step on defender Ed Sharockman and begins to reach up for the touchdown pass that put the Colts ahead to stay in the fourth quarter
Evading desperate dive by an Atlanta tackler, Green Bay's high-priced rookie, Donny Anderson, takes off on 77-yard punt return for a touchdown.
A STARR RISES IN THE GAME'S DOMINANT WEST
In recent years the Western Conference has dominated the National Football League perhaps even more strongly than the National League has ruled baseball, but whereas that sport's pendulum of power seems to be swaying back toward the American League, there is no real evidence that football supremacy is about to shift to the East.
Within the Eastern Conference, the Giants have forsaken the old New York-Cleveland leadership axis and St. Louis and Dallas have come thrusting up. These two are having a lovely race with the Browns (who belted the Cowboys 30-21 on Sunday), but the most important one, as usual, is in the West, where the ultimate winner will be favored to take not only the NFL championship but also the supergame with the AFL.
The weight of history is with the West. Consider these facts:
•The West has won four of the last five NFL championship games, seven of the last 10 and 10 of the last 16.
•The West stands 79-53-5 in 10 years of interconference play, had a 13-1 season in 1965 and a 10-4 year in 1964.
•In 12 of the last 16 years the Western champion has been determined in the final game of the regular season or in a playoff. During the same period the Eastern race has become that heated only seven times. This reflects a better balance in the West, as does the fact that five Western teams have won at least two conference championships since 1950, while only the Browns and the Giants have dominated the East.
•The West leads the East 7-3 in the last 10 Pro Bowl all-star games and also leads 5-1 in the Playoff Bowl.
Just as National League baseball has two great individual and team rivalries, Sandy Koufax vs. Juan Marichal and the Dodgers vs. the Giants—the Western Conference has football's most exciting matchups in Bart Starr vs. Johnny Unitas and the Packers vs. the Colts.
Both Starr and Unitas came into the NFL in 1956, when their teams were among the also-rans, but, while Unitas took command in 1957, Starr did not become No. 1 for Green Bay until three years later. Behind Starr's quarterbacking the Packers have won four conference titles and three league championships in the past six years. With Unitas at quarterback the Colts have won three conference and two NFL titles. During the 10-year Starr-Unitas era, the Packers have an 11-10 record against the Colts.
The tables below show in detail how the two men compare—their lifetime performance through 1965 and the six-year confrontation (1960-1965) after Starr became a regular. They reflect the Colts' great dependence on Unitas' passing—he put the ball into the air 1,200 times more often than Starr. But they also show that Starr ranks ahead of Unitas in completion percentage and percent intercepted.
Despite the glowing statistics, Starr's virtues were obscured by Unitas' virtuosity. Part of the trouble—if, indeed, it was trouble—was that Starr had a powerful running game in support, and frequently gave the ball to Hornung or Taylor. He passed enough, however, to keep the Packers' opponents honest, and to improve his own skills. This year, for the first time, these skills are being recognized as of classic quality.