Age had its day, youth was denied and the Green Bay Packers proved to be vincible after all. Which meant that the National Football League was back in business once again, opening its 44th season before packed stands, as usual, and producing the usual quota of crunching noises, brilliant games—and an occasional surprise.
The biggest surprise of all, as well as a good share of the crunching brilliance, was supplied by the Chicago Bears. George Halas, at 68 the oldest active coach in the league, turned to simplicity to provide a most extraordinary reversal of form. Discarding the complicated defenses and the wide variety of offenses that have sometimes worked against the Bears in recent years, the old man of the Midway winnowed a small selection of plays from the Bear crop. He drilled his team in these plays until they executed both offense and defense to perfection, then loosed them on the Packers.
"We won't have many plays," he said grimly before the game. "But what we do, we're going to do well. We may get beat, but we won't beat ourselves this time with missed assignments."
It was the Packers who missed, on all cylinders. Bart Starr, the leading passer in the league last season, spent most of the afternoon horizontally, and rugged Jim Taylor, the leading rusher, could hardly get to the line of scrimmage. The vaunted Green Bay attack gained just 150 yards. In the meantime Chicago's lean stock of offensive plays worked well enough for a 10-3 victory.
There was no magic in the upset. The defense used by the Bears was the same most teams use in the NFL, basically a 4-3-4, flexible enough to shift into a zone or man-to-man. But seldom in recent years has a Bear team operated its defenses as violently.
"Joe," said Linebacker Bill George to Line Coach Joe Stydahar before the game, "I'm going to play a hell of a game for you tomorrow. I promise." He did.
Defensive signals were called by Corner Linebacker Joe Fortunato and, if he made a mistake all afternoon, it certainly didn't show. The Bears sometimes sent in all three linebackers on a fierce blitz, sometimes sent in only the four "rush men," as they call their defensive line. The defensive personnel of the Bears has, for several years, been considered among the best in the league, and Halas has made no changes in it. He simply cut down on the complexity of assignments so that the players could react instinctively instead of having to stop and think. This, in itself, speeded up the Bear defense.
Of course, the new Chicago defensive philosophy came as no surprise to Green Bay's Vince Lombardi, whose scouts had watched the Bears mastering it through the exhibition season. The Packers had beaten the old Bear shifting defenses completely; Lombardi was not so sure that the new solid one would be easy.
Before the game Lombardi expressed apprehension. "One of the regrets of my life is that Halas has changed his defense, and I'm sorry that he has cut down on his offensive plays, too."
In other big games, the young Dallas Cowboys, one of the favorites to win the Eastern Division championship, suffered a sad case of jitters in losing to the St. Louis Cardinals, 34-7. For a quarter and a half, the Cowboys played remarkably well, leading 7-3. Then the Cardinals struck for 17 points in the closing minutes of the first half—and the Cowboys collapsed.
The key to the Cardinal success was pass-protection blocking. "I was never caught back there once," Quarterback Charley Johnson said. On the other hand, Don Meredith, the Cowboy quarterback, in his last 13 pass attempts was trapped for losses of six, six and nine yards and was hurried into five incomplete throws.
Faced with even more bad luck than the Cowboys, the elderly New York Giants refused to get terribly upset. A series of fumbles early in the game presented the Baltimore Colts with a quick 21-3 lead, at which point the Colts, not the Giants, lost their poise. Old Y.A. Tittle began to pick them apart. Well aware that the Baltimore linebackers are not the fleetest pass defenders in the world, Tittle exploited a pass pattern that isolates a corner linebacker on Halfback Phil King, pitched to the wide-open King for a 46-yard touchdown, then hit him a few moments later on the same pattern for a 29-yard gain to set up another Giant touchdown. Between times Tittle punched imperturbably at the weak defensive right tackle of the Colts for small but important gains. And finally, just before the end of the half, he used a pass pattern similar to the one that had so successfully freed King and lofted a wonderfully thrown soft pass to Halfback Hugh McElhenny, who caught it in the end zone behind a frantically scurrying Colt linebacker. This brought the score at half time to 28-24, still favor of the Colts, but it is doubtful that even the rabidly loyal Baltimore fans, sitting in a dreary rain, really thought that the Colts would win. They were shut out in the second half as Tittle scored a touchdown himself and Alex Webster got another to beat the Colts 37-28.
Elsewhere, things went pretty much as expected, except that the Cleveland Browns demonstrated unexpected explosive power in demolishing the Washington Redskins. The most significant contribution to the Browns' victory was the quarterbacking and passing of Frank Ryan; if he has blossomed, the Browns will be a far better team than most experts thought. Ryan completed 21 of 32 passes for 334 yards and his passing opened up the Redskin defenses for Jim Brown, who ran for 162 yards in 15 tries.
Figuring the form of the NFL teams from the Opening weekend, it looks like a tight race in both divisions.