Suddenly last Sunday the pro football season started all over—at least in the Eastern Conference of the National Football League. A quiet, supremely self-confident young chemical engineering student named Charley Johnson survived a horrendous first half to come back in the last two quarters and whip New York 24-17, hoisting his St. Louis Cardinals into a first-place tie with the Giants.
And in Cleveland, Frank Ryan, who is working for a doctor's degree in mathematics at Rice University, regained his self-confidence and threw two touchdown passes against the Dallas Cowboys for a 27-17 Cleveland Brown victory that put the Browns side by side in first place with the Giants and the Cardinals.
It will not be a three-way tie for long. Next Sunday a battle of brains will take place in St. Louis when Chemical Engineer Johnson faces Mathematician Ryan. Even with the redoubtable Jimmy Brown on his side, Ryan will need all his newly regained confidence against the Johnson-led Cardinals.
It was the Giants who broke Ryan's confidence in the first place, plastering him unmercifully in the seventh game of the season in Cleveland. Before that, he had averaged 200 yards per game passing; for the next three, he averaged 52 and was ignominiously benched last week when the Cardinals beat the Browns. Against the Dallas Cowboys, he came back.
The Giants had plastered young Johnson, too—the first time around. Johnson spent a great deal of that afternoon rising wearily from beneath most of the Giant line, plus a stray linebacker or two.
And Charley had another problem in that first game. "It felt like the ball was slick," he said. "You know, like the pebbling wasn't rough enough. I knew I didn't have it, but I didn't know what to do about it."
Being accustomed to research methods, Johnson wasted no time in going to the best available source for help in his dilemma. This source was Y. A. Tittle, who was starting his pro football career when Johnson was a junior high school quarterback in Big Spring, Texas. Johnson flabbergasted Tittle by approaching him in the Giant dressing room after the game and asking what to do when you seem to have lost control of your passes.
Tittle was speechless.
"Maybe it was my phraseology," Johnson says. "1 rephrased the question and he said, 'Just don't get down on yourself, kid. That's all I can tell you. We play you again, you know.' "
Although Johnson did not really need this particular advice, he followed it to the letter in the game last Sunday. Bedeviled by the same persistent pass rush that had harried him in St. Louis, Johnson completed only three of 15 passes in the first half against the Giants. The ball did not feel right to him this time, either. When he did have time to throw, he demonstrated an uncharacteristic scatter arm, missing receivers by wide margins. Sometimes, with the tall Giant linemen closing in on him, he could not see receivers in the open near the sidelines and he chose not to believe the frantic messages sent in from the bench advising him that the receivers were there.
"Nothing felt right," he said. "I had almost begun to believe that I just wasn't ready for this game."
The Cardinals were lucky to be no worse than behind 10-3 at half time. In the interval between halves, Cardinal Coach Wally Lemm spent a few minutes convincing Johnson that the game plan was feasible. Then he tried to make adjustments to compensate for a new defense the Giants had shown several times in the first half.
"Our game plan was the same as it was the first game," said Sonny Randle, the fine Cardinal end who caught four of Johnson's passes, one for a touchdown. "We were going to run inside and throw to the outside. But in the first half every time I ran my pattern and looked back for the ball, Charley was on his back."
Randle glanced at Johnson in the dressing booth next to him, surrounded by a knot of reporters.
"He never lost his poise," Sonny said. "'Right now in just his second year as a starting quarterback, Charley is at least three years more mature than any other young quarterback I have ever seen. He has the confidence and the knowledge that most quarterbacks don't get until they have been in the league for five years."
Johnson demonstrated this amply in the second period. One of the reasons his passes had strayed so sadly in the first half was a tricky crosswind that did not seem to bother the old master, Tittle, but did hamper Johnson.
"It wasn't bad throwing straight down-field," Lemm explained, "but our strategy was to throw toward the sidelines, and the wind carried the ball."
Johnson got his wind gauge set right in the second half. He did not throw often, because he was still being battered by the big Giant line and linebackers, but he threw the ball six times and four times completed passes, twice for touchdowns.
The Cardinal defense, quickened by the addition of rookie Don Brumm, a large and agile defensive end, began reaching Tittle, too. And Tittle's favorite shot for picking up a first down on third and substantial yardage to go backfired. Larry Wilson, St. Louis' free safety, had almost intercepted two of Tittle's passes in the first half. He was playing with stitches in the palm of his left hand from an injury received in the game against Cleveland the week before; twice he had the ball in his hands and could not manage to hold it.
But in the third quarter, when Tittle came out of the Giant huddle on the New York 22 with third down and six yards to go, Wilson waited confidently for the hook pass to Del Shofner that Tittle had used effectively earlier. It came on schedule, and Wilson ducked in front of Shofner, caught the ball in his stomach on the Giant 30 and hustled down to the Giant 19.
Johnson, sticking tenaciously to the game plan, ran inside, using another lesson he had picked up from Tittle. "If a play works for me, I like to save it," he had said before the game. "I mean, I don't go right back with the same call. I've always figured that the defense would be ready for the same play again and I'd be better off going to something else. But Tittle is different; if a play works for him, he's as likely as not to come right back with it and keep coming until the defense makes a definite change to contain it. I should do more of that."
The score was 10-10 when Johnson came out to take over on the Giant 19. The first play he called was one that had been reasonably successful for the Cardinals all afternoon, a play faking a hand-off to Halfback Joe Childress to the right side of the Giant line, then striking off the left side with Triplett. This is called a counter in the trade, since the final attacking angle of the ballcarrier is counter to the flow of the defense set up by the fake. Triplett gained five yards on the play, and Johnson, remembering Tittle's pattern, repeated the play, doubtless surprising his coaches almost as much as he surprised the Giant defense. Triplett went 14 yards for the touchdown that put St. Louis ahead 17-10.
Then Tittle gave Johnson more food for thought by marshaling the Giants on a carefully considered, beautifully executed drive that carried 80 yards for a tying touchdown. Johnson may have been impressed, but he was not overawed.
A calm roll-out
A few moments later, when Ed Dove fumbled an attempted fair catch on the Giant 20 and the Cardinals recovered, Johnson peppered away inside for four plays with Triplett and Childress, until it was third and goal on the Giant three-yard line. The ball was to the right of the goal posts; the logical call would have been a run to the left. Even if a touchdown was not made, it would position the ball directly in front of the goal posts for an automatic field goal. The Giants, knowing this just as well as Johnson, overloaded the right side of their defense, and Johnson very calmly rolled out to his right, hesitated a moment, then tossed a soft pass to Bobby Joe Conrad in the end zone for the touchdown that finished the Giants. It was a daring and unorthodox call.
"One of my troubles is that I am not quite reckless enough," Johnson had said earlier. "When I was in high school, I used to watch Johnny Unitas and try to think the same way he did. But I was never able to make myself be as daring in my calls. I wish I could."
The 24-year-old Johnson went to high school in Big Spring, Texas. In his senior year, in a district of eight teams, seven quarterbacks were on one or another all-district team or received honorable mention. Johnson was the eighth. With this sparkling record, he received no scholarship offers, finally went to Schreiner Institute, a junior college, which promptly gave up football. Johnson wound up at New Mexico State, where he played well enough to be drafted 10th by the Cardinals as a future. He arrived at the Cardinal training camp the fifth of five quarterbacks.
Working on the play book
"By the time I got there, two of them had been traded," Johnson said. "So I figured they'd keep three. I had a good day in one scrimmage, and I began to think this wasn't so hard. Then I started working on the play book a little more and on defenses, and I figured I'd never be able to master them. Now I think I may, but it will take time."
Johnson, striving for a doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis, carries a full schedule of classes. He gets up at 5:15 a.m., writes a radio sports show, announces it at 8 a.m., goes to class until noon, practices, then goes back to school. He has already had offers of jobs as a chemical engineer; when he finishes school, he hopes to combine pro football and chemical engineering.
"Sometimes it's hard to concentrate on football with finals coming up, or on finals with a game like this coming up, but I manage to keep them separate," he says.
His thesis for his doctorate is on the flow characteristics of polymer plastics. Ryan seems a bit ahead of him here, at least. Ryan's master's thesis was entitled "Regularly Branched Coverings and an Application to Blaschke Products with Certain Boundary Characteristics"—which sounds vaguely like a plan for covering sideline passes.
This Sunday when the Cardinals and Browns meet in St. Louis, math and chemistry will be temporarily forgotten. But the game's outcome will still depend mostly on which quarterback has done his football homework.