The New York Giants, who age as gracefully as good wine, probably assured themselves another Eastern Division championship in the National Football League last Sunday as they defeated the Dallas Cowboys 41-10. They now lead their division by a full game over the Washington Redskins and are proof enough, with only five games left to play, that a good old team is better than a good young one. More important, the vintage players on the Giant team seem to be growing stronger as the season progresses; they also seem to be growing wiser.
The Cowboys, who had led the NFL in scoring until their unfortunate experience with the Giants, might have fared better had not Eddie LeBaron, the older and surer of the team's two quarterbacks, pulled a muscle in the calf of his right leg early in the game. That left the entire offensive burden on the shoulders of Don Meredith. Meredith tried hard, but the savage charge of the Giant defensive line, combined with the loss of confidence that disheartened the Texans when LeBaron left, made his task impossible. Still, the Cowboys almost certainly would have lost anyway.
In the next five weeks the Giants play three teams that they have beaten once—Dallas, Washington and Philadelphia. They also have to play Cleveland and Chicago, neither of which has been exactly overpowering during the important middle weeks of this season. Against this opposition, it seems reasonable to suppose that New York will repeat as division champions and meet the Green Bay Packers in New York in a rematch of last year's championship game. The Giants now are certainly the best team in the East.
The Cowboys' Tom Landry is a shrewd coach and a particularly able defensive tactician. But Allie Sherman, the inventive coach of the Giants, contrived to use the very strength of the young Dallas defenders, and their penchant for pursuit, to defeat the Texans. Three of the front four men on the Cowboy defensive line are rookies and the fourth is in his second year. The two corner linebackers are not rookies, but they are playing their first full year at their positions. And, finally, one of the Dallas corner defensive backs is a rookie. An old saying in pro football has it that a rookie in the secondary costs a touchdown a game. This has certainly been true in Dallas this season, and it was particularly true Sunday against the Giants.
The New York attack was keyed to exploit rookie quickness. The first Giant touchdown, in the second quarter, was planned to start the flow of Cowboy harriers in one direction; suddenly the play struck at the other flank and it was a ridiculously easy touchdown from the Cowboy six-yard line by Frank Gifford. Gifford, the Giant flanker back, was on the end of a double reverse; Y. A. Tittle handed the ball first to Alex Webster, who started what looked like a run outside the Cowboys' left end. As the young Dallas line and linebackers set out after Webster, he handed the ball to Gifford, going the other way. There was no Cowboy within shouting distance of Frank as he scored.
Despite having to take pills after the game, Gifford, who has had a severe cold for the last two weeks, managed a weak grin when he recalled the play. "There wasn't anyone out there with me but the guard who pulled out to lead the play," he said. "I thought for one quick second about handing him the ball and letting him score. Can you just see his eyes bug out? But it was early in the game and I didn't feel I could take the chance then. If it had been later I think I might just have done it."
"We put in some counters, too," Allie Sherman said. "They were keying on Webster and we would start him one way, then come back under him, against the flow of the defense, with Phil King carrying. It made good yardage for us."
In the man-to-man duels that make up the essence of pro football competition, the Giant edge in experience told time after time. The blooded Giant offensive line kept the eager young Cowboys away from Y. A. Tittle, who never seemed too hurried to get his passes off where and when he wanted. Del Shofner had enough time to break away from either Bill Bishop or one of the Cowboy safeties. So did Gifford, who feinted rookie Halfback Mike Gaechter out of position for key catches.
Shofner scored twice on 19-and 23-yard passes from Tittle and once on a 41-yarder from Ralph Guglielmi; Gifford, having scored once on the end-around, crossed the goal line again on a 24-yard pass from Tittle. Shofner caught six passes for 158 yards, Gifford five for 88 yards and one touchdown.
It was an imaginative and clever offense that the Giants unveiled. They have been restive under the criticism that they were a stodgy and elderly team.
"They got mad about it," Sherman said after the game. "We saved that end-around for today. I think no one can call our offense stodgy now. We had read so much about how tricky this Dallas offense was. I think our defense made up its mind to handle it and you saw what happened. No one has gone after this team man to man before, but we did and we made it stick."
Sherman spoke in the flush of victory. As always, he had praise for his defeated opponents. "You don't know what to expect playing a team like Dallas. It can come up with something different each week, so you go out there wondering what they'll show and you have to keep your confidence and your poise no matter what happens. The wind was a big factor today; Dallas had it in its favor in the first quarter, and I thought that if we could get out of that first quarter even with them we would be all right. Well, it was 0-0, and we got 24 points in the second quarter when we had the wind with us."
The wind was a gusty 20 miles an hour. It did not seem to bother Tittle, who spent quite a few of his many years in pro football throwing through the offshore breezes that sweep Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. Meredith, not as accustomed to such conditions, had more trouble.
The loss of LeBaron, naturally, disrupted Landry's radical innovation of shuttling his quarterbacks in and out on alternate plays. LeBaron was taken out of the game after his second appearance at quarterback.
"That destroyed our system," Landry said later. "I still sent in plays by shuttling the fullbacks for a while, but that did not work as well as our alternating quarterback system had in earlier games. In the second half I let Don call his own plays because the messenger system was not working."
No matter who called the plays, the Giant defense was overpowering. The game ball was given to Andy Robustelli; his vicious, continuing charge from defensive end hurried Meredith's throws all afternoon. But the rest of the ripe Giant defensive unit played with the verve of coltish youth, too.
Safety Jim Patton said, "You play this team cautiously, afraid of what they'll do, and they'll get to you. You have to go after them. They use lots of tricky blocking and their plays may sometimes be unorthodox, but if you hold your ground and don't panic, you can take them. They had some new plays in the first quarter that might have gone for long gainers on us, but our guys were hustling so hard they stopped them. After the first quarter we had them and we knew it."
"We controlled this game," Sherman said. "Last week against the Cardinals we didn't. We made the big play when we needed it, but we weren't in control the way we were today. We knew we had to deny the Cowboys their own big play today; you look at their statistics and see all the points they have scored and then see how few first downs they have made and you have to know that they score on the one sensational play, not the long drives. We took away their big ones."
It seems unlikely that anyone will take away the Giants' big ones in the remaining five games on their schedule.
It may even prove difficult for the Packers in the championship game come December 30.