Y. A. Tittle, the Giant quarterback, stood outside the Sheraton Cleveland Hotel waiting for a bus. Tittle, who looks like a moderately prosperous insurance broker in his street clothes, answered a question from Cliff Livingston, a Giant linebacker, who looks like a linebacker in his street clothes.
"I figure we'll get you about 30 points," Y. A. said. "How many you going to give them?"
"Less than that," Livingston replied.
They boarded the bus, proceeded to Cleveland's Municipal Stadium and, with the rest of the New York Giants, whipped the Cleveland Browns 37-21, almost as casually as one might have expected from Tittle's and Livingston's discussion of the game.
The victory, coupled with Green Bay's 17-9 conquest of Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, went far toward deciding the championship teams in the Eastern and Western conferences. The Giants are a game ahead in the East, with three to play; the Packers are 2½ ahead in the West, with the same number remaining.
The two teams play Sunday in Milwaukee in what is probably a preview of the championship game December 31. The teams are precisely matched, although their talents differ in some ways. Green Bay has perhaps the soundest ground attack in football, with brutally powerful running from Fullback Jim Taylor and Halfback Paul Hornung. As the Packers demonstrated on the muddy field in Detroit, Thanksgiving Day, they use this bludgeon to set up their passing attack. Bart Starr, the Green Bay quarterback who has developed wondrously since the season began, is not yet' as good as Tittle, who has had 14 years in the league, but against Detroit, Starr passed effectively. The weapon that destroyed the Lions was, however, the ground game.
The Giants, on the other hand, used the pass so effectively against a bewildered Cleveland defense that their ground attack on occasion seemed only to be an afterthought. When Tittle did go to Bobby Gaiters or to Alex Webster on running plays, they worked very well. So, obviously, the Giants and the Packers base their offenses on different philosophies. The Packers establish their ground attack to set up their passing. The Giants establish their passing to open up the defense for their running. Both teams have strong offensive blocking, in the line and in the backfield. The difference between the two when they meet Sunday will narrow down to the difference between Starr and Tittle.
In tactical competition, there is little to choose between them. Tittle probably is the more daring and the better long passer; on the other hand, Starr has become a nearly faultless signal caller. He is not as apt as Y. A. to call a successfully unorthodox play, but he is not as likely, either, to have a play backfire. Tittle has the edge in a quality of insouciance that seems to keep the Giant offensive team perked up throughout a game. Against the Browns before 80,455 people, Tittle was as relaxed as if he were running the team in signal drills.
His arsenal of plays consisted merely of seven running signals and four pass patterns, and he mixed them beautifully. Protected by the sound Giant blocking, he flicked short sideline passes to Del Shofner and Kyle Rote, taking advantage of Cleveland's effort to cover these two exceptional receivers man-on-man up close. When the Browns showed a brief tendency to send their linebackers in after him, he threw a screen to Webster for a long gain. Once, from the Cleveland five-yard line, he faked a hand-off up the middle to Gaiters, then concealed the ball on his hip and skipped spryly around the Cleveland end to score the touchdown himself.
When he discovered, during the first half, that the Brown defense against running was keyed on Webster, he used Webster as a decoy and broke Gaiters loose for several comfortable gains. And always, when the Giants needed a gain badly, he went back to his favorite and most effective weapon—the pass.
Tittle called what might best be termed an audacious game and called it so well that almost every time the Giants got possession of the ball in the second half they scored. He picked precisely the moment to call an option pass play with Gaiters throwing; this was in the third quarter, with the Giants leading 20-14 and the outcome of the game still very much in doubt.
On the Giants' preceding series, Gaiters had fumbled the ball to Cleveland on the Giant 22; the Giant defense took the ball back four downs later on the Giant 31. Tittle tested Cleveland's defense by sending Webster up the middle for four yards, checking to make sure they were still keying on Alex. Then he hit Shofner on the sideline for 15 more, taking advantage of the Browns' man-on-man coverage.
With first and 10 on the 50, Tittle called the Gaiters pass. The rookie back had thrown twice this season, both times for touchdowns. Now he took the ball from Tittle, swung wide to his right behind a thin screen of blockers, then stopped and lobbed a wobbly pass back across the field to Webster, who stood alone on the Brown 30. Webster had to wait for the ball, giving the Cleveland defense time to recover, or the play might have gone for a touchdown. As it was, it set up the touchdown that put the Giants out of reach. Again Tittle made an unusual call on the touchdown play. He sent Gaiters wide again from the Brown 11-yard line. The Cleveland defenders, wary of another pass, dropped off too far, and Gaiters, cutting beautifully, went in for the touchdown.
The game Starr called for the Packers to beat Detroit 17-9 was not as daring. He was handicapped by the rain and the poor footing, and although he is a quarterback who appreciates very well his team's strong running, he is not as apt to gamble as is Tittle. Starr smashed away methodically at the Detroit Lion line with Taylor and with Hornung. When the Lions pulled in to stop the running, he threw capably, and once fooled the Lions with a long pass to Max McGee that set up the first Packer touchdown.
The first Packer touchdown came on an 80-yard march, the second on a 60-yard drive. In each case, the Packers kept moving principally on the running of Taylor and Hornung, with enough passing interspersed to take advantage of an overcommitted defense. Starr, as he has all year, used the play pass deftly. This is a maneuver that develops off what is ostensibly a run, and it is peculiarly well fitted to the Green Bay offense. To set up the second Packer touchdown, Starr faked to Taylor into the line on the Lion 26, then flipped a 22-yard pass to the Detroit four. Both Packer touchdowns, incidentally, were scored by Taylor from the one-yard line on pure power plays.
Offensively, then, if either team has an edge, it may be the Giants on Tittle's margin of experience. Should both of the front-line quarterbacks be injured, again the edge would go to the Giants with Charlie Conerly, who is a more experienced tactician than Green Bay's King Hill.
Defensively, the two teams are evenly matched. This makes sense since in pro football there is very little variation in the defenses of teams with sound personnel—and there are no sounder defensive squads than the Giants' or the Packers'. Neither New York nor Green Bay is much given to the bewildering complexity of defenses that mark a team like the Chicago Bears. Neither team has to rely on stunts.
The Giant defense, which has played together as a unit longer, probably adjusts better during a game to any surprises an opposing team springs on them. They had to do little adjusting against Cleveland; although Paul Brown has varied his offense more this year than in previous seasons, most of it was still as familiar as ever to the Giant defenders.
"They try to beat you on execution," Sam Huff said. "They didn't do anything we hadn't seen before."
The Browns tried, tentatively, to advance through the middle of the Giant line two or three times, but gave that up very soon when they discovered that the two Giant tackles—Dick Modzelewski and Roosevelt Grier—closed the middle very effectively. For a while during the first half, the Brown running attack was based almost entirely on trying to sweep the Giants' ends.
The Browns had some success with Jim Brown going wide, but the Giants made a small adjustment at the half, spreading Ends Jim Katcavage and Andy Robustelli a bit wider, and cut off this small avenue, too.
The only flaw in the Giant defense against the Browns was the one that the New Yorkers can best afford when they meet the Packers—deep passes. Starr is not an exceptionally good long thrower. Ray Renfro, the best Brown receiver, broke free twice against the left side of the Giant secondary defense, weakened recently by the loss of veteran Dick Nolan. Both of the newcomers to the Giant defense are on this side—Erich Barnes as the corner back and rookie Allan Webb as the safety. Once Renfro broke deep behind Webb to take a 43-yard pass for a touchdown. Again he beat the Giant defense for a 57-yard pass that set up the second Brown touchdown.
Both of these, however, came in the first half. In the second half the Giants were waiting for Renfro. He caught more passes, but no more long passes. In fact, so well did the Giants cut off this profitable Brown gambit that Barnes, obtained by the Giants in a trade with the Chicago Bears, intercepted one of Len Dawson's passes intended for Renfro in the fourth period and returned it for the final Giant touchdown.
Both the New York and Green Bay defensive teams are equipped with four very large, very strong front-line defenders; the Giants have bigger tackles, the Packers bigger ends, but the quality is almost exactly the same. The Giants, depending less on a ground game than the Packers, may not be hampered as much by the Packer line as Green Bay will be by the Giants'. Against Cleveland, the Giants allowed only 66 yards running, and Jim Brown, the league's leading rusher, and Bobby Mitchell, who makes something of a specialty of long, flashy runs, are at least as good as Taylor and Hornung. The parallel between the Cleveland runners and the Green Bay pair goes even further; Mitchell, who has been commuting from an Army camp to play with the Browns on Sunday, looked rather rusty and unsure of himself against the Giants. Hornung, who does the same thing for the Packers, seemed to have lost some of his keenness against the Lions.
The two teams probably have the two best sets of linebackers in football; the Packers have been hurt here by the loss of Middle Linebacker Ray Nitschke to service, but Tom Bettis, his replacement, is only a shade behind Nitschke. At this particular spot, of course, the Giants have the ubiquitous Sam Huff. The corner backs for Green Bay are Bill Forester and Dan Currie, both big, with good reactions and superior intelligence. The same can be said for the Giants' Cliff Livingston and Tom Scott.
It is in the secondary defense that the Packers appear to have a small plus. The loss of Nolan, while not a disaster on the scale of the broken leg suffered by the Philadelphia Eagles' Tom Brookshier (it apparently demoralized the whole defense), is still a sore loss, as the Browns showed last Sunday. Allan Webb, the rookie who is playing in Nolan's place, does very well. But there is an old pro axiom that a rookie in the secondary costs a touchdown a game, and in Webb's case it is true. Webb is improving, but certainly Starr will try to take advantage of him just as Milt Plum did. The other Giant deep defenders—Jim Patton, Jim Lynch and Erich Barnes—are superb. The four Green Bay deep backs have played together long enough to cohere into a unit as good as the Giants—and they have no replacement to break in.
Finally, there is the coaching. Lombardi, in three years at Green Bay, has produced a remarkably sound football team with no weak spots. The Packers never beat themselves and never—or almost never—make mistakes. His offense, for good reason, is not as spectacular as the Giants', but in its own tough way it is as good.
Allie Sherman, in his first year as head coach of the Giants, has refurbished what was a somewhat pedestrian offense and given it wonderful éclat. He seems to be more of a gambler than Lombardi. So far he has been a very successful one.
After the Brown game, in the bus on the way to the airport, Sam Huff said, "In the end, it comes down to one thing. Man against man. The best ones win."
The best ones on a given day, that is.