NEW YORK: TRIM, TIDY AND TELEPATHIC
The wise old New York Giants last week demonstrated that four coaches on the field are worth more than one on the sideline, and in the course of their demonstration they won their sixth straight victory over the Cleveland Browns 17-13.
They won this game calmly, meticulously and, above all, with professional efficiency. The Giants are thoroughly accustomed to the Cleveland offense. They seem as familiar as Paul Brown's messenger guards with each play the Cleveland coach sends in. By contrast, Charlie Conerly, the elderly Giant quarterback, used a simple but effective armament of some six plays to peck away at the inflexible and confused Cleveland defense. Had he been able to pass with his accustomed accuracy, the score might more clearly have reflected the difference in the quality of these two teams on this snowy, cold afternoon.
Twice early in the game Conerly missed Giant receivers open for touchdown passes. Thereafter, he probed steadily at the Cleveland ground defense, throwing rarely. He has been crippled by the football equivalent of a tennis elbow for several weeks and is only now at the stage he would normally reach after the second week of practice.
"He did a wonderful job," said Al Sherman, the Giants' bright young offensive coach. "He was changing the signal at the line of scrimmage at least 50% of the time and he was hitting their weak spot every time."
The principal Cleveland weakness is a curious inflexibility, both on offense and defense. The Giants, on running plays, have used their halfbacks most of this season; for this game Conerly time and again called on Mel Triplett, the big fullback, who responded by gaining 137 yards on 24 carries into a Cleveland defense bemused by the halfback fakes. Then, late in the game, when Cleveland somewhat tardily adjusted to the off-center bolts of Triplett, Conerly sent Frank Gifford sliding outside the flanks. Sometimes, for the sake of variety, Conerly sent Triplett wide; this play, designed to take advantage of the quick, invariable reactions of the well-schooled Brown linebackers, saw Triplett feint at the center, then veer outside the tackle. The play succeeded almost every time it was used.
The Cleveland touchdown came in the third quarter, following a Giant fumble on the Giant 13-yard line, and it put the Browns ahead 13-10. Then Conerly, on a calm, beautifully sustained drive, took the Giants 80 yards in 14 plays for the touchdown that won the game. The sequence of his play selection on this march exploited every Cleveland weakness and shows clearly how well the Giants were prepared for this particular game and how befuddled the Cleveland defense had grown.
First, Conerly sent Triplett thumping straight ahead to remind the Browns of their vulnerability in the center of the line. Then he faked to Triplett, whirled and threw a short pass wide to Frank Gifford, good for a first down. ("There are pockets in the Cleveland pass defense," Sherman had said before the game. "There are zones in which it is hard for them to cover. If Charlie could throw the way he usually does, we could exploit all of them. We'll probably have to stick with the short ones.")
Conerly went back to Triplett again, sending him over guard on a trap play for six yards. The Cleveland defense squeezed in again, and the gray, calm Giant quarterback shifted his attack outside the tackles, first with Gifford, then with Triplett on the play that feints at the center of the line.
Early in the game Conerly had been successful with a draw play—a fake pass and late handoff to the fullback—using Triplett; now he used the same call but handed the ball to Gifford, and the unsuspecting Cleveland defense was victimized for 12 yards. He passed to Kyle Rote, incomplete, to remind the Browns that he could still throw short; then, audaciously, he used the draw play again and Triplett whipped through a wide avenue in the middle of the Cleveland line for 16 yards.
This put the Giants on the Cleveland 24, and Conerly punched away three times inside the Brown tackles; then Triplett, on the feint, veered to the outside of the left tackle and went to the Cleveland six.
Not once had Conerly gone outside the Cleveland ends; with the Brown defense pulled in and tight, he sent Gifford on a wide sweep around right end for the touchdown.
The entire march was impressive, but it is the more remarkable when one considers with what a limited attacking force Conerly engineered this touchdown. The Giant backs are sound, hard runners but none of them is likely to break away for a long run and none did on this drive. Conerly's rusty passing precluded anything more than the two passes he threw. He used what he had—and that included one of the strongest blocking lines in football—superbly well.
With the best pair of running backs in football—Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell—and the league's leading passer in Milton Plum, plus receivers with speed and agility, the Brown offense could not move consistently at any time. The 11 players who toiled without relief all day for the Giants held the awesome Brown running attack to a pitiful six yards. Plum completed 13 of 25 passes, but nearly all of them were short; indeed, his total gain was only 89 yards.
So thoroughly did the Giant defense smother the Brown ground attack that Paul Brown, who sends in each play to his quarterback via a guard, forsook running almost completely in the second half. With football's best fullback and the game's most dangerous halfback available, he called only three running plays in the last two quarters. Plum passed, ineffectually, the rest of the time.
There are various reasons why the Giant defense achieved such mastery over the Browns. The defensive unit has played together so long that it operates almost as a single organism. Three of the key players—Harland Svare, Andy Robustelli and Jimmy Patton—are so thoroughly versed in their art that they are coaches as well as players. And Sunday the tough, well-trained team was edgy and mean after an early-week upbraiding by Head Coach Jim Lee Howell following a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Frequently, the four men in the first line of defense—Robustelli, Dick Modzelewski, Roosevelt Grier and Jim Katcavage—simply overpowered the Brown line to smother Plum or dump Brown and Mitchell.
But as important as any of these reasons is the Giants' remarkable anticipation of Brown plays. Gained by an exhaustive study of the Paul Brown pattern of play-calling, it was nearly perfect Sunday. Neither Jim Brown, on his drives up the middle, nor Bobby Mitchell, on his lightning sweeps outside the end, ever found his path unimpeded.
"We knew we had to execute," said Sam Huff, the middle linebacker, whose principal responsibility was dogging Brown. "They never show you anything new. But they do the old things so well that the only way you can beat them is by executing your defense better than they operate their offense."
Svare, who is the Giant defensive coach, calls the Giant defenses, then Patton and Robustelli make minor adjustments in their own provinces (the secondary for Patton, the line for Robustelli). Huff may, if the situation warrants, make more adjustments from his middle-linebacker post. All the adjustments are based on a sure knowledge of the unvarying habits of the Brown offense; the Giants closed the middle to Jim Brown on short-yardage plays, went wide to meet Mitchell on the third and long yardage plays and, in general, interposed roadblocks in every avenue the Browns explored. The result was frustrating for the 82,872 spectators in Cleveland, and for the Cleveland players, who seemed convinced that they were up against a foe blessed with telepathic powers.
The 11-man Giant defensive unit played the entire game without substitution. After it was over, bullnecked, thick-bodied Dick Modzelewski lay furiously chewing gum on the training table in the dressing room while the team physician, Dr. Francis Sweeney, stitched shut a gaping cleat wound between his fingers.
"I got stepped on," he said when the stitching job was finished. "I did not notice it until I saw all the blood. Then I showed it to Sam and said, 'Look. My hand's cut open.' He said, 'Shove it together and keep pushing on in there.' So I did."
Jim Lee Howell, the Giant head coach, studied the game statistics and his face broke suddenly into a wide, happy grin.
"Hey," Huff called to him. "That makes the Arkansas gentleman laugh, hey? You hear the heads poppin' out there today?"
Howell, a big, easygoing man who seldom berates his team, nodded. "I didn't hear any last week," he said. "You played your game today." He turned away from Huff. "That's what won, brute force and head popping. But we always play best against the Browns. I don't have to talk this team into playing against the Browns. They like to beat the best."