The Cleveland Browns, now playing with the élan and confidence that marked them during the first half of the season, and the New York Giants, playing with the poise that allows them to accept adversity without panic, could be headed for a playoff for the Eastern Conference Championship of the National Football League.
Last week the Browns, behind an assured, calculating Frank Ryan, soundly whipped the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis, 24-10. The Giants, choked in the first half by a Dallas Cowboy team that is beginning to play up to its potential, nevertheless pulled out a 34-27 victory in the last quarter.
This leaves New York and Cleveland tied at the top, with 9-3 records. A step behind is St. Louis, 8-4; a half game further back are the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3-3), following Sunday's tie with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite their loss, the Cardinals are not out of the running; both New York and Cleveland face difficult opponents in the final two games of the season. The Browns meet the Detroit Lions in Detroit next Sunday, and the Lions, after a long siege of injuries, have begun to come back, as they proved in tying Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day. The Giants, whipped 31-0 by Pittsburgh earlier in the year, must meet the Steelers again in Yankee Stadium in the final game of the season. The Washington Redskins are the common opponent of the two teams. The Cardinals, on the other hand, play lower-ranking Philadelphia and Dallas, both in St. Louis.
During the week before this game, Mathematician Frank Ryan, asked by a Cleveland sportswriter to figure out how many possibilities existed in standings and finishing percentages for the four teams then in contention in the East, went to his slide rule and came up with 7,624. The events of the weekend did not, apparently, reduce his estimate much.
The Cleveland victory last Sunday was a carefully wrought one, based on a daring strategy beautifully executed by Quarterback Ryan. In the first Cleveland-St. Louis game on November 17, Ryan sat on the bench and watched the Cardinals put a strenuous rush on his replacement, Jim Ninowski. Sensing the rhythm of the Cleveland signal caller, the Cardinals would sometimes send a safety in on a blitz, giving him a running start and giving Ninowski a fit.
"In that first game, we would come out and the offensive line would stand up with their hands on their knees until the quarterback called the set," Ryan explained after the Sunday success. "Then Jim would start the countdown, and their defense could time it easily. Today we came out of the huddle fast and the line was down on three points at once, and we went often on a quick count. It messed up their blitzing and gave me more time to pass."
It also caught the Cardinals blitzing once when Cleveland was deep in trouble with a third down and long yardage on its own three-yard line. Ryan called a draw play to Jim Brown, who sped by the blitzing Cardinal linebackers and rumbled 61 yards before he was knocked out of bounds on the St. Louis 36-yard line.
"You can't throw long from down there," Ryan said. "You have two choices. You can throw short and hope the receiver will turn it into a long gain. Or you can give the ball to the best runner in football. I gave it to Brown."
Brown, incidentally, broke his own record for yardage gained in a season on this run. For the afternoon he gained a total of 179 yards on 29 carries, bringing his total for the year up to 1,677 yards, 150 yards more than his old record of 1,527.
As impressive as were Brown's statistics, Ryan's passing had more to do with the sting of the Cleveland attack. Ryan passed sparingly. He threw only 18 times, but completed 10 and gained 210 yards, throwing long most of the time and setting up almost all of Cleveland's touchdowns through the air.
The Cleveland attack was predicated on a careful analysis of the St. Louis defense, both in its technique and in its personnel. The first Cleveland touchdown, for instance, on a pass to Spread End Rich Kreitling, came as a direct result of Ryan's sure knowledge of the habits of the St. Louis weak-side safety, Larry Wilson.
"We had that one set up for a long time," the quarterback said later. "It was third and long yardage, and we knew that Wilson plays it very tight in a control situation. When he thinks you are going to be shooting for the first down with a short pass, he comes up hard. You remember, he picked one off on Tittle in New York playing that way. The Giants had something like third and eight, and Tittle had been picking it up with a hook to Shofner, and this time Wilson laid for the hook and intercepted. We figured he would try the same thing against us, since the situation was just about the same. So Kreitling faked the hook, and when Wilson came up hard Kreitling broke behind him, and was wide open when I threw to him." The pass was good for 23 yards and the first Cleveland touchdown.
The Browns also took advantage of young Pat Fischer, a 23-year-old corner back in his third pro season. "He's very fast and very quick, and no one has better reactions," Ryan said. "He's a fine football player. But he has a tendency to overplay sometimes, depending on his quickness and speed. If you can move counter to the flow on him, you can beat him. So we did that."
Fischer's weakness was used to set up the second Cleveland touchdown. Tom Hutchinson, a rookie offensive end with good speed, was in for the Browns. He ran a post pattern—cutting toward the sideline, then breaking back toward the goal post. When he broke, the overcommitted Fischer could not recover quickly enough to catch him. Ryan's long pass traveled some 50 yards in the air before it intersected Hutchinson's path on the St. Louis 15. Hutchinson went on for seven yards to the St. Louis eight-yard line before the frantically pursuing Fischer could haul him down.
From that point, Ryan used the rather simple but sound strategy of giving the ball to Jim Brown on three successive plays, and Brown scored from the one on the third try.
Fischer was replaced by Bill Stacy in the second half, but by that time the damage was done. Ryan had picked on Fischer again late in the second quarter, this time throwing for 33 yards to Gary Collins down to the St. Louis 34-yard line. Later in this drive, he hit Collins behind Fischer for 13 more yards and a first down on the Cardinal three, whence Brown went in again. It was a sad afternoon for young Fischer.
In the second half, Stacy had better luck containing the Cleveland long-passing attack, but then the Brown defense went to work. Coach Blanton Collier had made changes here, too, since the first St. Louis game. Some of them were small and technical. He altered the stance of one of his defensive tackles, Frank Parker, who had been victimized in the first game. Parker had had a bad habit of crouching at the line of scrimmage with both hands on the ground, limiting both his mobility and his field of vision. Collier persuaded him to crouch with only one hand on the ground, setting up in a more nearly erect position, freeing himself to move quickly in either direction and getting his head up so that he could follow the ball. Parker was a big factor in smothering the St. Louis ground game much of the afternoon. Bob Gain, the massive Brown tackle, had played with a hampering injury in the first St. Louis game, but last Sunday he was completely well and demonstrated that fact.
Although the Brown defensive linemen did not seem to be reaching Charley Johnson, the St. Louis quarterback, very quickly, they still managed to throw him for 39 yards in his pass attempts. Their pressure was sure and hard, but it was the close coverage of Cardinal receivers by the Brown secondary that forced Johnson to hold the ball long enough for the line to drop him.
The Browns do not play an aggressive defense. That is to say, they do not often send their linebackers in on blitzes. Collier's philosophy of defense is one of containment, and his linebackers normally have pass defense responsibilities. He demands a great deal of linebackers, and he got a great deal from them on this Sunday.
"I like the linebackers to drop back from the line of scrimmage and help the four deep men," Collier explained, "but when you do that, you leave yourself open for screens, flares and backs rolling off to one side or the other. So I want the linebackers to drop back, but always to be aware of the flare or the screen or the roll-off. In the first St. Louis game they dropped back, but we got hurt on the flares. They did both jobs today."
The return to form of Ryan—and he seemed even better in this game than he had early in the season, when he led the Browns to six straight victories—indicates that Cleveland will be able to move the ball strongly, even against so formidable a defense as that of the Detroit Lions.
"I had forgotten to do the things I know I should do," Ryan said after the game. "I was sloppy. I wasn't setting up properly. I was sloppy a couple of times out there today, but not nearly as much as I have been." He grinned happily, looking a little like a muscular Jimmy Stewart.
"Of course, I had had a chance to watch this St. Louis club from up close," he said. "I was spectator for the whole first game with them. I had the best seat in the house, right on the bench. I like the viewpoint I had for this game much better."
Ryan's recovery from the confidence-shattering experience he had against the Giants in Cleveland several weeks ago (the Browns lost 33-6) has been a slow one, but Sunday it appeared that his convalescence is over. His calls against the St. Louis defense were sound, with enough gambling mixed in to keep the Cardinal defenders off balance all afternoon. One symptom of shock after the Giant walloping was a super-conservative attitude which he had a hard time shaking. That is gone now.
If the Browns and the Giants meet in a playoff for the conference title at season's end, the Giants may be the ones to get the shock. This is not the same Frank Ryan they harried into complete uselessness at mid-season, and it is not the same Brown team, either.