When the Washington Redskins stopped Cleveland's Jim Brown last Sunday, they proved rather clearly why the Browns will win the Eastern Conference championship in the National Football League. While the Redskins were gang-tackling Brown on nearly every play, Cleveland's fine halfback, Bobby Mitchell, skittered like a frightened water bug through the weakened Washington defense. He gained 232 yards in 14 carries, scored three touchdowns and showed that Cleveland's is a many-splendored attack, no longer pegged exclusively on the running of Jim Brown. Cleveland defeated Washington 31-17 and moved into a tie for first place in the East with the New York Giants, who lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 14-9.
The Giant-Pittsburgh game pointed up the other reason why Cleveland will be Eastern Conference champions. Each club in the National Football League is made up essentially of two football teams—an offensive unit and a defensive one. The Giant defensive team is probably a shade better than Cleveland's. But the Brown offensive team is far superior to the Giants. In their last two games the Giants have not managed a touchdown; this is no disgrace against the very strong, intelligent defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but a week ago Sunday the Giants could not cross the goal line of the Chicago Cardinals, who are resting comfortably in last place in_ the East, having given up 183 points in eight games.
"Your defense can't carry you forever," Coach Jim Lee Howell said after the Pittsburgh loss. "You have to put 7 on the scoreboard once in a while to win."
Jim Brown, of course, is still a big part of the admirably balanced Cleveland offense, but he is only a part. Early in the year he comprised the Brown attack. He is still the best running back in football—big, very-fast and incredibly well balanced when he runs. No longer, though, can a team delegate most of its defense to stopping Brown; Washington did and found itself winning a battle but losing a war.
The pattern of what was about to happen for the rest of the afternoon was set in Cleveland's first series of downs from scrimmage. Milt Plum pitched out to Brown, and the entire Redskin defense fell on him for a three-yard loss. On the next play Plum faked to Brown, pitched out to Mitchell, and the halfback went 90 yards to a touchdown.
But the added threat of Mitchell outside would not in itself make the Cleveland offense the deadly weapon it has become. A great deal of the credit goes to Milt Plum, and even more to the man who has been the Cleveland Browns since the team's inception in 1946—small, balding, intense Paul Brown, the head coach and general manager of the team. Brown is a brilliant football strategist but, more important, he is a patient man. It took all of his patience to wait while Plum learned the intricacies of the pro quarterback's trade.
"He is a young man," Brown said recently. "He had a good deal to learn. But he is learning it." One of the lessons which Plum has mastered is the art of waiting. This is not as easy as it sounds, since it is natural for a quarterback, in imminent danger of being demolished, to throw too quickly.
"The other day Plum showed how well he has assimilated this lesson," Brown said. "He dropped back to pass, and his primary receiver was covered. He looked for the next receiver, and he was covered. Finally, he threw to Billy Howton, the third man, and connected. Our patterns are designed so that the successive receivers will break open at two, four and six seconds. Plum a year ago might have seen the second receiver, but he would never have waited for the third."
Plum, too, has corrected some of the very small faults which can mean the difference between good and great quarterbacks. The nearly imperceptible head and eye fakes which help the league's best quarterbacks come naturally to him now. Plum used to drop back to pass with the ball held at waist level and then lose a precious fraction of a second in cocking his arm. Now he carries the ball at shoulder level, in position to pass instantly.
"I feel a lot more confident this year," Plum says. "For one thing, I've got three good receivers in Renfro, Howton and Preston Carpenter. Last year I had only Renfro and Carpenter. And by now I can anticipate their moves and throw to where they will be. Last year I had to wait until they actually made the move. I'm getting better protection, too. Last year the blocking was set up to open holes for Brown, and it seemed that whenever I called a pass there was no blocking at all."
Since Paul Brown calls all of the Cleveland offensive plays by way of messenger guards who shuttle in and out of the game, tactical brilliance is not required of Plum. Brown has all that's necessary.
In 1955, when Cleveland beat the Los Angeles Rams for the world championship, Brown used a double-wing attack for one of the few times that year. He had noticed that a Ram opponent during the regular season had used the double wing unsuccessfully and reasoned that the Ram coaching staff would not revise the defense which had worked so well for them that day, especially since the Ram coaches would not expect the Browns to use it often. He analyzed the Ram defense, used the double wing often, and Cleveland won 38-14.
Brown, who is one of the best analysts in football, is resourceful enough to change his offense to suit the occasion as it develops during the game, too. Equipped now with all the tools which make up an attack—good running inside from Jim Brown, outside from Mitchell, accurate passing from Plum to three good receivers—Brown can mount the offense that is the most difficult in the league to stop. It should get better as the season wears on.
"I think this team is only beginning to approach its potential," Brown said the other day. "It is a young team, which will mature. We won't be drafting any quarterbacks this year. Plum has done well. We could have scurried around looking for another quarterback before this season, but I decided to take a leaf from a book called Acres of Diamonds by Russell H. Conwell. You remember. It's a story about some brothers. One of them goes off to Africa looking for his fortune, and another wanders all over the world, and the third one stays home, looks over what he's got and succeeds. That's what we did. We looked over what we had, and it paid off."
Just before the game with Washington someone asked Brown if he weren't afraid that he was catching the Redskins in a hot streak.
"We never catch a team that isn't hot," he said. "They're all souped up for us. It's reached the point where they call a time-out on the first play after the kickoff to wipe away the tears. And then away we go."
Brown did a notable job in rebuilding the Cleveland defense this year. He took Sid Youngelman, a castoff tackle from Philadelphia, and Willie McClung, who is in his second year with the Browns after being cut by the Steelers, and gave them the responsibility for manning the middle of the line. This freed Bob Gain, an erstwhile tackle who because of his size would be more effective as a defensive end. Gain this year is one of the best defensive ends in the league. The only unit which Brown has retained intact from the 1958 team is the linebackers—Walt Michaels, Vince Costello and Galen Fiss—a trio which is the equal of the more widely heralded New York Giant linebackers. He has a rookie—Bernie Parrish—in the secondary with a pro sophomore (Jim Shofner) and two old heads, Warren Lahr and Junior Wren. The Cleveland defense gives up short yardage fairly readily, but it does not give up points. Discussing defense last week, Brown stopped a friend sharply when he heard him say the Giants were leading the league in defense.
"On what basis?" he asked. "How are you figuring it?"
"Total yardage allowed."
"That doesn't count," Brown said. "It's what goes up on the scoreboard against you. That's what counts."
After Sunday's games, the Browns had allowed 103 points to eight opponents. Only San Francisco, with 102 points scored against it, leads the Browns in this most important statistic.
The Giants had given up 119 points, but theirs is a special case since they have scored only 137, as compared with Cleveland's 195. The Giants' offense, even when their best quarterback, Charlie Conerly, is healthy, is a far less diversified weapon than is the Browns'. The Giant running backs—Frank Gifford, Alex Webster and Mel Triplett—are all power runners, with only Gifford having any potential for a long scoring burst. The Giant pass receivers—Kyle Rote, Bob Schnelker and Gifford—are all sure-handed and good at getting clear but, again, they lack the speed of the Brown trio of Ray Renfro, Billy Howton and Preston Carpenter. The Cleveland offense has the power to match New York's, plus speed and explosiveness that the Giants cannot equal.
The Browns, should they win the Eastern Conference title, will face a team much like themselves in the championship game. The San Francisco 49ers lost to the Chicago Bears on Sunday 14-3, when veteran Quarterback Y. A. Tittle had an off day and his substitute, John Brodie, proved unable to carry the 49er attack. The Bears played a fine game but, at 4-4, they are two games behind the 49ers, one behind Baltimore, and time has just about run out on them. The 49ers have the same ingredients as the Browns—the same multiple running threat and three-pronged passing attack and the same strong defense. They play the Baltimore Colts this Sunday. The Colts, threatened with an across-the-board $100-per-man fine by Owner Carroll Rosenbloom should they play another "insipid" game, beat the Green Bay Packers 28-24. The championship of the West may be decided in Baltimore's stadium this Sunday and, surprisingly, the 49ers must be favored on the basis of a better defense.
Jim Lee Howell, the gracious, friendly man who coaches the Giants, summed up his team's loss to Pittsburgh: "Our defensive team was better than their offensive team," he said. "But their defensive team was far better than our offensive team, and we lost."
What he said applies even more accurately to Cleveland than to Pittsburgh. The 49ers can match the Colts on offense and, surprisingly, surpass them on defense.
X-RAY OF LAST WEEK'S GAMES