In a forthright, notably unsubtle football game, the Chicago Bears battered the Green Bay Packers into complete submission last Sunday to take over first place in the Western Conference of the National Football League. A week ago the race in both conferences was close, but after the Bears' solidly wrought, violent conquest of Green Bay 26-7 and the upset of the Cleveland Browns by the St. Louis Cardinals, the reasonable probability now is that the championship game will match the New York Giants and the Bears in Chicago.
This cannot be a delightful prospect for the Giants. The Bears have just proved themselves as physically powerful a football team as ever played the game. Their victory over the Packers was not the result of a particularly brilliant strategy or unusual tactics. It came because, in the series of man-to-man physical encounters that make up a football game, the Bears whipped the Packers in almost every instance.
There were some changes in the plan that had brought the Bears a 10-3 victory against Green Bay in the first game of the season. At that time Bill Wade controlled the ball with short passes and with passes behind the line of scrimmage to Ronnie Bull. Bull, nursing a sore foot, played very little in this game. And Wade, surprisingly, passed very little. He did not need to. So clearly did the Bear offensive line dominate the Packers that the Bear runners, although they seldom broke free for long runs, slashed readily for four, five and six yards.
"We had a game plan for the offense, a game plan for the defense and, on Friday, I gave the team an overall battle plan," a perspiring George Halas said after the game. "I will give you the battle plan."
Chicago's owner-coach took a sheet of yellow, lined legal paper out of his pocket. Written on the paper in Halas' neat, careful hand was a series of paragraphs, lettered from A to H.
"This is paragraph F," Halas said.
He adjusted his spectacles and read, "Our war plan is simple and will do the job. We will control the ball with runs and with short passes. We will draw them in tight and then let them have a couple of long ones. Our defense will smother their championship offense."
Someone asked him about the rest of the paragraphs and Halas shook his head. "Those are some little facts I gave them that I don't want to reveal," he said. "I'm sure they will—Green Bay, I mean—pick them up from the movies, but I don't want to talk about them. I have to save them for another occasion."
Whatever the little facts were, in the game itself the Bears demonstrated basic tactics borrowed, in part, from one of the ideas of the Packers' coach, Vince Lombardi. Lombardi believes in beating a team at its strength, and this is precisely what the Bears did to the Packers.
"We wanted to take away their running," Halas said. "We wanted to force them to pass. Then they would be playing our game."
Without making any radical variations in their defense, the Bears "took away" the Packers' game. Gone were the complicated maneuvers taught by a previous genius, Clark Shaughnessy. The Bear defense was based on one of the best sets of blitzing linebackers in football—Larry Morris, Bill George and Joe Fortunate It was anchored on a massive defensive line led by Doug Atkins, a 6-foot 8-inch end who is listed in the Bear program as weighing 255 but who charges like a 300-pounder.
The Packer offensive line, although pound for pound one of the finest, is among the smallest in the league. In this game it simply could not control the more powerful Bear linemen. And Fortunato, who calls the Bear defenses, displayed uncanny anticipation. "He was always a play ahead of [Packer Quarterback John] Roach," said Bear Defensive Coach George Allen. "His judgment was perfect."
When the Packers discovered that their running game had been shut off, they went, in desperation, to the pass. Fortunato's answer to this was to call more blitzes, sending himself and the other linebackers in after Roach in varying patterns—all successful.
Oddly enough, this was no surprise to the Packers. Watching movies of a Bear game against the Baltimore Colts, they had seen Chicago harry Johnny Unitas with the same tactics. Lombardi had pointed out to his quarterbacks that the Bears telegraph this particular punch.
"When the corner linebackers line up on the scrimmage line, they are going to blitz," he had said. "And you better keep a back in to help out."
When Morris was going to come in, he crouched on the line, outside the Bear right end (Atkins), as if he were waiting for the starter's pistol in a sprint. At the snap of the ball he raced in behind the wide screen provided by the massive Atkins, and three times he hurtled into Roach from the blind side before the Packer quarterback could release his pass. Once, when the blockers picked up Morris, Atkins found a clear path to Roach and hit him so hard that the stunned Packer quarterback fumbled, the ball bouncing crazily out of his hand to be recovered by another blitzing Bear linebacker, Fortunate
The unrelenting, cat-quick rush from the Bear line and linebackers destroyed the Packer air game, just as the brute power of the front four and the speedy reactions of the linebackers had stopped the Packer running. Under this kind of pressure, the Green Bay passers—Roach and Zeke Bratkowski, who once played for the Bears—were able to complete only 11 of 31.
Five Packer passes were intercepted by the Bear secondary; it had been considered by some to be vulnerable in a couple of spots, but it proved just as effective as the rest of the Bear defense.
Although the Bear offense was not as spectacular as the defense, it was more than adequate. Of course, Halas' game plan almost precluded the possibility of spectacular long gains. Again it was predicated upon attacking the Green Bay strength and again it succeeded.
The Bears had discovered that Tackle Henry Jordan reacted fast to plays going away from him but was not so effective in halting plays driven straight at him. So they drove at Jordan with their fullbacks, Rick Casares and Joe Marconi. These plays, by their very nature, are not long gainers, but in this game they gained enough yardage to allow Chicago to control the ball. Wary of the quick, hard pass rush of Packer End Willie Davis, the Bears made him cautious early in the game. They ran the ball inside and outside of Davis so that he could not commit himself wholly to driving in on the passer. This gave Wade time to find his targets the few times he threw the ball.
The Bear ground attack was particularly effective on sweeps; Willie Galimore, replacing Bull for most of the game, scored the first Bear touchdown on a play that began as a drive over tackle, then changed to a sweep as Galimore went outside the right side of the Packer line. Here the Bears had used some of the deception that makes defense difficult in pro football. The Packers had been keying often on the Bear guards; this time the Bears, on the sweeps, more often than not pulled their tackles out to lead the play.
The Bear attack stalled frequently when it neared the Packer goal, as the Packer defense, with less territory to cover, tightened up. But with Roger Leclerc in rare form, the Bears four times scored on field goals and almost always gave the ball to the Packers deep in Green Bay territory, maintaining a commanding position all afternoon.
This is just about the same Bear team as the one that seemed only a shade better than mediocre a year ago. There have been few changes in personnel. But in execution and confidence, it is an entirely different club. The metamorphosis began before the 1962 season, when George Halas, at 67, turned over the business of running the Bears to his son and began to devote all of his time to coaching.
Halas junked the complicated defenses installed by Shaughnessy and went to almost exactly the same defensive patterns as those used by most of the other teams in the league, with small modifications designed to take advantage of the particular talents of his defenders. Shaughnessy quit when this happened and Halas hired Joe Stydahar, an ex-Bear tackle who had been head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and the Chicago Cardinals, to direct the defensive line.
The Bears responded happily to the relatively simple new defenses. Injuries hampered them early last season but, as the team grew healthy and the defenders became secure in their new assignments, the club began to pick up momentum, winning five of its last six games in 1962.
Halas, devoting all of his time to coaching, was the true reason for the rebirth of the Bears: he listened to his capable young coaches—Chuck Mather for the offense, George Allen for the defense—but the decisions were his own.
He was elated after the Bears beat the Packers in the first game of the season, but apprehensive. His attitude was the same as that of Bill George, the superb Bear middle linebacker. In the Bear dressing room after that first victory, George quietly surveyed the scene of jubilation.
"Don't get too excited," he said to a rookie, finally. "Wait until they get us in Chicago."
Mike Pyle, the Bear center, who comes from Yale, of all places, agreed with George. "We won," he said. "But that old man taught me lots of tricks today. He did things I never saw before. He's as smart as they come." The old man was Dave (Hawg) Hanner, the Packer tackle who played his 24th game against the Bears last Sunday. Pyle remembered his lessons this time; he blocked magnificently on the Bears' plays up the middle and pulled out to block well in pass protection, too.
But, finally, it was the Bears' defense that made the big difference. It was written before this game that the Bears live by their defense; last Sunday the Packers may have died by it.
"I was a calm and confident man after the first few times we had the ball," Halas said. "I could sense the victory. It was the biggest victory for us since the 1946 championship game. When I saw how our defense contained them, how quickly we reacted, I was certain."
Their last four games present the Bears with a more difficult closing schedule than that of the Packers. This week they meet the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team with physical equipment nearly equal to the Bears'. The Bears may suffer an emotional letdown; no team can play perfect football two weeks in a row, and it seems too much to expect them to be as psychologically supercharged as they were last Sunday.
"It's not the end of the world," Lombardi said at the end of the game. "They beat us in the line both ways. But the season isn't over yet."
Indeed it isn't.