The Giant defense is tough as Japanese arithmetic," said the Dutchman. "They came after me like I was a piece of chocolate cake in the first half."
Norman Van Brocklin, relaxing after a hard afternoon, smiled and lit a cigarette. "Hell," he said, "one time I got the ball, took two steps and Grier had me by one leg and Modzelewski by the other."
He was talking about last Sunday's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants, which may have decided the Eastern Division championship of the NFL. This weekend the two teams play again with a title almost surely riding on the outcome. It is no surprise that the Giants should find themselves in such a position. It is, however, a surprise that the Eagles do. Almost helpless two years ago, they are suddenly one of the best teams in football, and the reason, simply stated, is Van Brocklin, a pro quarterback since 1949, and one of the few signal callers left in this complex, demanding business who still calls his own signals. Buck Shaw, the confident Eagle coach, believes that the most logical man to decide on the moment-to-moment tactical warfare in pro football is the man on the field. Since this philosophy coincides exactly with Van Brocklin's, the two men are a perfect marriage of strategist and technician.
Shaw has coached the pros since 1946. He is a quiet man who withstands coaching pressures with rare equanimity. He evaluates the coach's place in football honestly. "You can't, finally, run the game from the bench," Shaw says. "This is true for several reasons. One, the defenses change late. A club may line up in one defense, change just before the snap. You can't know what the defense will be, so if you send in a play, you're as likely to be wrong as right. That's especially true against the Giant defense. They're the smartest defensive club in the league; you never beat them on their mistakes because they make fewer than anyone else."
Van Brocklin agrees. "The quarterback knows more about what's going on," he says. "The receivers come back to the huddle and tell you what kind of pattern they can beat a halfback on. The blockers know what kind of play they can handle a tackle on. You got information coming in to you all the time—information you can't get from the sideline. Besides that, after you've played quarterback in this league long enough, you know what kind of plays will work against any club and you get a feeling."
In Sunday's game, Van Brocklin's feeling and his superb ability to direct his team in the ever-changing climate of a pro football game paid off handsomely—after a while. The Eagles had analyzed the Giants, put in one special play and revised others to take advantage of the minuscule weaknesses in the strong, wise and veteran Giant defense. The offense prepared for this game was not the handiwork of any one man. "We all hack away at it," Van Brocklin says. "Anybody has an idea, we may try it." The Eagles knew that the Giant front line of Andy Robustelli, Rosey Grier, Dick Modzelewski and Jim Katcavage was physically stronger than the Eagle offensive line. They knew, too, that the Giant linebackers were quick and smart and adept at the "blitz"—popping through the offensive line to rush the passer.
What the Eagles did not expect, however, was that the Giants would blitz as much as they did in the first half of the game. They were prepared to take advantage of rushing Giant linebackers, but the Giants, nonetheless, at first seemed to go beyond Eagle calculations. One or another Giant linebacker left his post to barrel through and put the pressure on Van Brocklin. The danger in this maneuver is that the linebacker must ignore a flanked halfback or a spread end breaking to take a quick pass in the area just vacated. The Giants compensated for the weakness by rotating the defense, swinging the deep defenders around the circumference of a clock so that a wingback moved up to take the linebacker's place and the safety man closed in to the wing-back post. But this rotation also meant covering a man on the other side of the field, one man on one—and the man on the far side the Giants had to cover was Tommy McDonald, one of the most feared receivers in the game.
In the first quarter the Giants took the gamble against the short, quick pass time and again and won, and Van Brocklin spent a good deal of this part of the game staring up into the blue November sky over the stadium, with one or another of the Giant defensive corps perched heavily on his chest. When he did get a pass away, it was dropped. It was a painful and frustrating first half for Van Brocklin. Even his long counts, which he often employed in order to change the play at the line of scrimmage, seemed to favor the Giants' blitzing defense. His calls at the line of scrimmage were reasoned and resourceful, but they just didn't work.
In the second half they did, however, and the complexion of the game changed dramatically. Behind 10-0, Coach Buck Shaw made two significant switches in his offensive lineup. He replaced two young offensive linemen with two old, strong ones. He put Chuck Bednarik, the elderly linebacker, in at offensive center, and John Wittenborn, a knowledgeable veteran who has only been with the team for a month, in at offensive guard. He changed the blocking pattern against the Giant blitz, too. Where in the first half the Eagles had tried to trap-block Modzelewski and Grier—with Modzelewski, Grier and two of the three linebackers all pouring through—they now let only Modzelewski and Grier penetrate and then trapped the first linebacker coming in. Thus the two Giant tackles became the victims of their enthusiasm and overran their targets, while the first linebacker following them—Sam Huff or Harland Svare—was taken out by a blind side block. This gave Van Brocklin time to stand up, look and throw, and the Eagles began to move the ball on short, quick passes to the end slanting in and on short, quick thrusts through the overeager Giant line.
When, inevitably, the Giant secondary squeezed in to try to stop the short passes, Van Brocklin suddenly re-established contact with McDonald running deep. Halfway through the third period, McDonald stepped behind a desperate Lindon Crow and grabbed a 35-yard Van Brocklin pass for a touchdown. Quietly, coolly and inexorably Van Brocklin thus whip-sawed the Giants' fine defense into ineffectiveness.
"He's a terrific passer," Jim Lee Howell, the Giant coach, said after the game. "He put us in a tough spot."
Van Brocklin and the Eagles also had Bednarik. Bednarik played both offense and defense and in the closing moments he may have saved the game for the Eagles—and incidentally dealt a lasting blow to Giant title hopes—when he hit Frank Gifford with a crushing tackle. The Giant halfback fumbled the ball and the Eagles recovered. But when the play was over, Gifford lay unconscious on the field. He was taken to the hospital with a severe concussion and he is through for the season. This is an irreparable blow to the Giants, who next week must face the destructive Eagles again.
The special play put in by the Eagles for Sunday's game was designed to take advantage of Sam Huff's deep and abiding desire to make tackles in the middle of the line. It sent an Eagle halfback faking into the middle, so that Huff would come up and leave the 10- to 12-yard area over the center unprotected against a pass. Van Brocklin called the play five times in the huddle in the first half, only to change it at the line of scrimmage against an unpropitious Giant defense. On the last play of the third quarter Van Brocklin called the play a sixth time.
He faked the ball to his halfback, and Huff moved up to close the middle. Ted Dean, a young and very good rookie fullback, slipped through the Giant line into the area behind Huff, and Van Brocklin speared him neatly with a pass over the middle. It was a good call and, of course, it was made from the field.
It will be remembered that all the Eagle plays were called from the field, and by a field commander of certain genius. But another fact will also survive: this was the day on which pro fans sensed that the Giants were over the hill, that a great team was finally bowing to the combined assaults of injury and age.