What in the world has happened to professional football? So far, 1955 must go down as the year in which this game has perversely refused to conform to reason. Those seemingly ageless Cleveland Browns, to be sure, continue to stomp through their schedule with almost monotonous success, but the rest of the league's elite names—the Detroit Lions, the Chicago Bears, the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles—are feeding on a diet of humble pie. Strange names like the Baltimore Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers and the long-quiescent Green Bay Packers appear at the head of the standings in the league's two six-team divisions, and with the season one-third gone this alignment begins to look as if it had some sense and reason behind it.
Last week, for instance, with all the teams playing their fourth game, it was assumed that preseason predictions would begin to materialize and the favorites would start to make up for their early lapses. Philadelphia, which was supposed to end Cleveland's uninterrupted domination of the Eastern Division, had Pittsburgh at hand, and this was the time to bring the Steelers down to earth. But Pittsburgh's fine quarterback, Jim Finks, continued to throw winning passes, and Lynn Chandnois, their halfback, continued to look like the All-America halfback he had been at Michigan State a few years back. Pittsburgh took that one 13-7 to remain in first place with a record of 3-1, while the Eagles sank to the cellar.
Detroit, looking for its first victory, was far from unhappy at the prospect of entertaining San Francisco at Briggs Stadium. The 49ers, despite their superlative backfield of Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson, were showing signs of total collapse, and the home town fans were sending the team to the showers with more boos than cheers. Detroit, on the other hand, was practically the same team that had won three straight Western Division championships. Yet the 49ers pulled that one out 27-24 with a last-minute touchdown, and the Lions remained a lonely last in their division.
Sloshing through lakes and mud at the Polo Grounds, New York finally won their first game but hardly looked like the team that a certain amount of wise money had picked as the 1955 sleeper. They were up against the Chicago Cardinals, another of the year's surprise underdogs, but the Cardinals' fast backs, Ollie Matson and Dave Mann, need firm footing and they did not have it in the stormy East. So the Giants bumped the Cardinals out of their first-place tie by a score of 10-0, but it was a game that looked more like water polo than football.
Up in Milwaukee, Green Bay had the unbeaten Los Angeles Rams as guests. This game would surely demonstrate whether the Packers' passing, which is already breaking records set in the palmy days of the fabulous Don Hutson, would continue to stand up against the wise old pros of the league. It did, although it took a 26-yard field goal in the closing seconds by Fullback Fred Cone to supply the two-point margin, 30-28, and hoist the Packers into a first-place tie with the Rams in the Western Division.
In Washington, D.C. the Cleveland Browns provided some comforting consistency in the midst of this bedlam as they ground out another of those apparently inevitable victories that leave you wondering whether anyone will ever relieve them of the Eastern Division title they have had since they first joined the league in 1950. The score of 24-14 was far from humiliating for this rejuvenated Washington team, and it seems fairly certain that the Redskins, with a 2-2 record, will continue to keep the league in the kind of turmoil it has enjoyed for the last month.
But of all these teams, the Baltimore Colts were providing the largest supply of amazement. Here were the undisputed orphans of pro football's stormy days, a team that had drifted vaguely from city to city looking for a home and finally found it in Baltimore in 1953 when the citizens promised to subscribe to 15,000 season tickets. With them came a kind of rag, tag and bobtail of aging athletes frequently wondering whether payday was just a mirage. By all the laws of football genetics it was bound to take the Colts' generous new owners a half dozen years to breed and raise a winner in the violent competition of the National Football League. Even the most promising college All-America requires a year or two of proper seasoning among wise veterans before he captures the ways of a pro, and there are only a couple of dozen of those to be shared by the league's 12 teams each year.
Starting the 1955 season the Colts had a thin front line of rookies who had been among the choicest prizes of the winter draft. There was Alan (The Horse) Ameche, a compact, 217-pound fullback who had been largely responsible for taking Wisconsin to the 1953 Rose Bowl. There was George Shaw, whose extraordinary passing had made an otherwise ordinary Oregon team into a national celebrity of sorts. There was Dick Szymanski, 230 pounds of Notre Dame beef and brawn who could take care of the inconspicuous but tremendously important job of offensive center.
These and nine other rookies, a disproportionately high number for any pro team, were the major assets with which the Colts hoped—but not too strongly—to climb a rung or two out of the Western Division cellar this year. With only four of the old orphan Colts still on the payroll, the team had youth and the ambition that goes with it, but only the fuzziest optimists expected any miracles. The championship was still several years away.
But was it? On the first Sunday of the season George Halas' huge and rugged Bears from Chicago appeared at Memorial Stadium, and while 36,000 patient Baitimoreans sat in the stands waiting for the inevitable, the frisky young Colts ran up a lead of 17 points and held on to most of it throughout the game. The next Saturday they were visited by Detroit, and the Lions were sent tumbling 28-13. The third week they were off to Milwaukee, where they provided the same medicine for unbeaten Green Bay. Now it was 3 up and 3 down, and the scent of a league pennant began to drift through Baltimore.
Last weekend it was the Bears again but this time on their own home grounds at Wrigley Field. The 34 athletes who set off for Chicago in a chartered plane on Saturday morning were almost sure they had something of a miracle in the making. Almost. Weeb Ewbank, a short and jolly fellow off the football field who seems to grow big and angry when a game begins, had coached his boys—among other things—never to underestimate the power of the Bears. Besides, the players had only to look around the plane to see two sobering reminders. Gino Marchetti, the 245-pound defensive end, had his left arm in a sling, the result of a shoulder dislocation, and Middle Guard Joe Campanella was nursing a painfully bruised knee. Neither would play, thus depriving the Colts of 40% of what is probably the strongest defensive line in football today.
By Sunday morning the heady visions of league pennants had given way to the quieting prospects of the violent afternoon ahead. The gags and even the conversation were now scarce as the men stared thoughtfully out the bus windows at Lake Michigan on their way to Wrigley Field. In the dressing room it was quiet as these huge men sat on folding chairs in front of their lockers and slowly, almost reluctantly it seemed, took off one piece of clothing after another and painstakingly worked their way into the intricate armor demanded by modern football. Dick Chorovich, the 260-pound tackle, told the man at the next locker what the tension was doing to him. "As soon as I finished that steak this morning," he said, "I went right upstairs to my room and lost it all."
SOME EARLY DOUBTS
There was no pep talk by Coach Ewbank, no histrionics. Just a last-minute summary on the blackboard to refresh all minds on the afternoon's strategy. The first three plays to be used on offense were assigned, and then players and coaches knelt in a brief, silent prayer.
On his way to the field Weeb Ewbank wondered aloud. "The boys have been high for three weeks," he said to no one in particular. "I don't know how long it can last. Those Bears are always tough, but here in Chicago they're toughest."
Ewbank's early doubts were soon justified. By the end of the first quarter after an exchange of field goals had tied the score at 3-3, it was apparent that the Colts were not the team that had been pushing their elders around the field for three weeks. The supercharged Bear line, hungry for its first league victory, was giving George Shaw very little time for his passes, and only his feline speed and agility was saving him from serious trouble. The blocking for Ameche was seldom crisp, but his immense running power was able to hold up his average of nearly five yards a try against the swarming Bears.
On the other hand, the Bears, larger and far more poised than the men from Baltimore, were as uncompromising as the Colts were ragged. In the second quarter they opened a hole in the Colt line for Rookie Rick Casares, who squirted into the open and went 81 yards for a touchdown. A few minutes later, when a Colt defender slipped and fell, George Blanda's pass sailed easily into the arms of Gene Schroeder, who trotted a few unmolested yards to a second touchdown. From then on it seemed that nothing worked for the Colts, everything for the Bears. In one egregious mental lapse Colt safety man Bert Rechichar made a fair catch of a Bear punt on his own two-yard line instead of letting it go for a touchback—the kind of thing a high school boy would be ashamed of. It was that way for the rest of the afternoon, and the score was 31-3 before Baltimore crossed the Bear goal line for its only touchdown of the day. As the thoroughly beaten and depressed Colts dragged themselves into their dressing room, a Bear rooter taunted Tackle Chorovich. Big Dick said all there was to say: "That's the way it goes. Some days you can't make a nickel."
But the Colts are a young team, and they believe in themselves; and their new and enthusiastic friends in Baltimore believe in them. The gloom of their long three-hour plane ride home on Sunday night was suddenly broken at the Baltimore airport. There to welcome them home were 6,000 fans who didn't seem to care what had happened in Chicago. Their Colts were still tied for first in this most unpredictable season in NFL history.
AT DETROIT, Lion End Dorne Dibble is upended as he grabs for incomplete second-period pass from Harry Gilmer. Standing by to pounce on Dibble is 49er Linebacker Hardy Brown. Last-minute San Francisco touchdown brought champion Lions their fourth straight loss.
AT NEW YORK, Giant Fullback Bobby Epps navigates five-yard gain against the Chicago Cards, helping to bring his team its first league victory. The year's worst rainstorm filled the Polo Grounds with puddles a foot deep, bogging down the speedy Chicago backfield.
AT WASHINGTON, Halfback Bert Zagers of the Redskins fumbles when he is hit by Cleveland Brown tackler as Brown victory held team in first-place tie with Pittsburgh. Redskin Walt Houston (65) and Browns' Bob Gain (79) close in.