TITTLE TAKES DEAD AIM ON A TITLE
The New York Giants have operated most of the season plastered together by high hopes and adhesive tape. If the tape holds, they will be the next champions of the professional football world. Last Sunday they won their third straight Eastern Division championship in a subfreezing, gusty Yankee Stadium by whipping their most successful challengers, the Pittsburgh Steelers, 33-17 in a weird and—for the 63,240 Giant fans—wonderful game. On December 29 they meet the keyed-up Chicago Bears at high noon in the skimpy confines of Wrigley Field in Chicago, and even on the Bears' home ground the Giants appear strong enough to win. They demonstrated why in their conquest of the Steelers.
The Bears, meanwhile, walked the high wire all afternoon in their final game against the Detroit Lions. They needed to win to hold their half-game margin over Green Bay and, although they teetered and tottered, they finally staggered to a 24-14 victory.
During the week before meeting the Giants, the Steelers were an oddly relaxed, confident group. They had beaten the Giants 31-0 on September 22, and they did not seem at all disturbed that Y. A. Tittle, who had missed that game because of an injury, was healthy for the second meeting.
"He doesn't play defense," said Ernie Stautner, the elder statesman of the Steeler defensive line. "We got 31 points."
Buddy Dial, who was cut by the Giants in his rookie year only to become one of the best receivers in the league for Pittsburgh, found a long stick during practice one day and sneaked into a meeting of the defensive club with it.
"Here, fellows," he said. "You better take this. You may need it to knock down Tittle's passes Sunday."
He was a better prophet than he knew, although even a 10-foot pole would not have been long enough to reach Del Shofner on some of the passes Tittle threw him.
The Steelers were the victims of some horrible luck during the afternoon, but there was no doubt at all—when it was all over and the crowd was ripping down the goal posts—that the Giants were the best team in the East.
A measure of the value of Tittle to this Giant team is the fact that with him, using the same offense, and changing only a few blocking assignments in the line, the Giants scored 33 points; without him, they had scored none. The Giant ground offense was good enough to set up Tittle's passes and good enough in the closing quarter to control the ball. But it was the air attack—the Giants' forte—that finished Pittsburgh.
Throwing through a strong, erratic wind that varied from 15 to 25 miles an hour, Tittle completed 17 of 26 passes. Ed Brown, the Pittsburgh quarterback, completed only 13 of 33 and many of his throws were so far off target as to appear ludicrous. Brown has been known to lose his efficiency as a passer when the weather turns cold; last Sunday his passing was as cold as the air.
A Steeler fumble on the first play of the game set up a Giant field goal. Later in the first quarter, Gary Ballman, a second-year flanker back, carrying the ball in one hand and six points in the other, was about to cross the Giant goal line when he was hit so hard the ball popped into the end zone. There Erich Barnes retrieved it and ran it out to the Giant 34. A penalty already called against the Steelers would have nullified the play, but they would not have lost the ball. The Giants moved quickly.
The first touchdown came on a 41-yard pass play from Tittle to Shofner, who was yards beyond Willie Daniel, the Steeler corner back attempting to cover him. Daniel, a young back in his third season, found Shofner's experience and speed difficult to cope with. Earlier in the game Tittle had attempted a sideline pass to Shofner, luring Daniel up close. This time Shofner faked the sideline, then broke downfield, and Daniel, coming up too hard, could not reverse direction and could only watch helplessly from far behind as Shofner took the perfectly thrown pass.
Late in the second period Tittle did almost the same thing to set up the second Giant touchdown. Again it was a first-down play—a play on which Tittle does not often pass. Again Shofner beat Daniel and this time the pass carried down to the Steeler 14-yard line for a 44-yard gain.
Tittle, who called an intelligent, resourceful game, then went to another stratagem to get the touchdown. First he faked a pass and sent Joe Morrison on a draw play through the right side of the Steeler line to the eight-yard line. Next he gave the ball to Phil King on a cutback to the left of the Steeler defense, and King got a first down on the Steeler three. The Steelers braced for another run—counting on Tittle's habit of sticking with a successful play as long as it works. Instead, Tittle faked a handoff to King and then lofted a soft pass to Morrison in the end zone for the touchdown. No one was within reach of Morrison; not even Buddy Dial's stick would have helped.
The half ended with the Giants leading 16-3. The Steelers, whose main threat is the running of John Henry Johnson and Theron Sapp, had moved sporadically over the frozen ground during the first half. Their drives were aborted when Brown went to the air but could not connect with his receivers and the Giant defense, with linebackers playing up close, stopped Johnson and Sapp.
The Steeler field goal came with seven seconds left in the half, and the drive that produced it was frustratingly typical. From the Giant 20, first and 10, Brown threw three passes. On all three he had plenty of time, but none of the passes was within reach of a receiver, and twice receivers were in the clear. On fourth down Lou Michaels kicked a 27-yard field goal.
In the opening minutes of the third quarter, the Steelers made their one strong bid to win the game. They had kicked off to the Giants, had stopped New York cold and then had begun a drive from their own 33. With third and one for the Steelers on their own 42, the Giants moved into a gap defense—eight men on the line of scrimmage posted in the cracks between the offensive linemen. This is a normal defense against a short-yardage play, and it is an effective one. But if the back can clear the line, he has an unhampered route deep into the secondary. On this play Johnson, who hit hard and ran well all day, burst through the left side of the Giant defense and ran 48 yards to the New York 10-yard line before Dick Lynch caught him. Brown threw one of his few accurate passes to Ballman for the Steeler touchdown.
For a few moments after the Giants got the ball for their next series of downs, it appeared that the Steelers, encouraged by their quick score, might take control of the game. They rushed Tittle hard and forced him to hurry a pass so that it fell incomplete. They smothered Phil King on a running play. It was third and eight, Del Shofner was out of the game with bruised ribs, and the Giants were in trouble—or so it seemed.
But then Frank Gifford took over Shofner's role as first-down getter. Gifford had been playing flanker back all afternoon—just getting exercise. Tittle had thrown to him only once. Gifford's covering man was Glenn Glass, a second-year corner back. Glass, aware that Tittle's favorite pass to Gifford is to the outside, near the sideline, had been following Frank closely to the outside, almost conceding him the inside routes, where help might be expected from a safety or a linebacker. The Giants had discussed this during the half-time intermission, and now Tittle called a pass pattern that sent Gifford down and in. When he broke to his left, toward the center of the field, he left Glass cross-legged. Tittle's pass was low, and Gifford reached down with one hand, hoping to tip the ball up. The ball, amazingly, stuck in his hand for a completion on the Steeler 47, a 30-yard gain and a first down. This time Tittle did stay with a good thing, throwing again to Gifford, down to the Steeler 22. Then he used a variation of the play he had used to score before—the pass to Morrison off a fake run. This play forces a single linebacker to provide pass coverage on Morrison. The linebacker failed again, and Morrison took Tittle's short pass yards in the clear and cantered in for the touchdown.
"That Gifford catch was the end for us," Steeler Coach Buddy Parker said later. "It looked then like we were beginning to pick up and they were sliding. But you could see the whole club come alive after that play."
Although Coach Allie Sherman did not believe that the game had a single turning point, he agreed that Gifford's catch was the big play of the game for the Giants. "He has come up with a big play—a real key play like this one—in nearly every one of the last six or seven games," Sherman said. He stared accusingly at the ring of sportswriters around him and added, "Ever since some people started burying him about seven weeks ago."
When the Giants face the Bears on December 29, they will play a team whose overall game is similar to that of the Pittsburgh team they beat Sunday. But there are differences. The Bears' pass defense is superior to the Steelers' and the Chicago passing has to be better than Ed Brown's was: The Bear defensive line is bigger than the massive Steeler line and may be a bit more agile. But the Giant offensive linemen proved in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game that they can move big men; they pried gaping holes in the Steeler line when they had to. Jack Stroud, on the bench for three quarters, was replaced at offensive tackle by rookie Lane Howell, and Howell blocked superbly. More important, the line protected Tittle well all afternoon, giving him a secure base from which to throw. The Bears undoubtedly will send their linebackers in more often than did the Steelers, and their linebackers are quick and adept at the blitz. But Tittle moves well against that tactic.
The battle between the Giant offensive line and the Bear defenders should be about a standoff—and a standoff is a victory for the offensive line. The Giants won't be able to run for much yardage, but then they won't have to; they haven't had to all season. The Giant backs are good hammerers—they pound and pound at a defense for short gains to force it to respect the run. However, the runners don't break away and break up games. Tittle, his arm and his receivers do that.
In the reverse situation, the Giant defensive line and linebackers should have a narrow edge over the Bear offensive line. The Bear blocking has been good all year, although the Bear blockers probably haven't seen as strong a set of defenders as they will in the championship game. This Bear team has depended for its thrust on a sound running attack and the short passes of Bill Wade. If the Giants can bog down the running attack and force Wade into the air, their chances of victory are bettered. A harried and hurried Wade throwing into the alert Giant secondary could bring disaster to the Bears. The Bear running backs are only a shade better than those of the Giants and the shade may be Ronnie Bull, a more explosive long threat than any Giant back. Joe Marconi, the Bear fullback, is no better than—in fact may not be as good as—Alex Webster or Phil King.
The Bears have good receivers in Angelo Coia, John Farrington and Johnny Morris and they have the best tight end in the league in Mike Ditka. Yet these men do not outshine Gifford, Shofner, Joe Walton and Aaron Thomas, and no one of them is the deep threat that Shofner is.
Actually, there is little to choose between the two teams in offensive and defensive lines, secondaries, linebackers and running backs and receivers. There is, however, a wide difference in favor of the Giants in the most important single position on a football team—quarterback.
"Tittle has been the greatest quarterback I ever saw," Sherman said after last Sunday's game. "No one realizes the difficulties he had to overcome this season. He never knew from one week to the next who would be in the back-field with him because of all the injuries we had. A quarterback is like any other player—he's better if he can always work with the same unit because he learns their timing and moves. But Tittle never had that chance. But he went on and did what he had to do. He was just great today—not only in throwing but in the game he called. I have never seen a better one."
Although some of this praise may be considered the natural ebullience of a winning coach, it is, essentially, true. For three years Tittle, who is in his 14th year of professional football, has been the best quarterback in the league. He is an exceptionally accurate passer at any range and a sharp-eyed and resourceful diagnostician of defense. He is an imperturbable field general, with the rare knack of absolute leadership. He should be able to foil the Bear blitz because he reads defenses so quickly and, too, because he throws the ball in a split second, faster than any quarterback except Johnny Unitas.
While Wade has had a good year, he is no Tittle. He has a strong and accurate arm, but he does not pick up broken pass patterns (when his receivers are forced to change their routes) or read defenses as well as Tittle. He is also much more apt to be trapped for a loss on a pass attempt, since his delivery is not nearly as quick.
So the big difference between the teams in the championship game, as it was last Sunday, will be in quarterbacks. It won't be as big a difference as last week's, but even in little Wrigiey Field, where the belligerent Bear fans (next page) usually are considered worth a touchdown or two. it should be more than enough for the Giants to win.
JUST NUTS FOR THE BEARS
Chicago Bear fans were raised on victory. They cheered heroes like Osmanski and Nagurski, Luckman and McAfee. This was during the early '40s when the Bears were the most awesome, invincible name in sports. As the years passed, Bear fans learned about something else: mediocrity. The isolated successes—1946 and 1956—were surrounded by frustrating seasons. Now the Bears are winners again. The heroes are new—Ditka and Atkins, Fortunato and George—but the fans are the same, if a bit older. They are not acting older, though. Crashing the gate, fighting for footballs, they obviously appreciate victory more than ever before.
Left alone at home, the loyal wife of a Bear fan knits her man a team sweater, a fad again now that the team is a winner. Her husband? He's at the game, of course, right where he's been since 4:30 in the morning when he started waiting in line for a standing-room ticket.
Challenged by "sold out" signs, four Chicago fans try to get into the Green Bay game by sawing through an unguarded wooden gate. Others often wear sneakers so they can wedge their feet between slabs of concrete and scramble like insects up the sheer face of the park.
The game within the game in Chicago is steal the football, and until recently the rules were wide open. But when the Bears lost 26 footballs in one game, the management banned nets and tried to dampen the ardor of the more robust combatants gathered behind goal posts.
A more direct approach to stealing the football is to linger near the sidelines and snatch the ball from unwary runners when they are tackled out of bounds. But the hazards are many. Even if you elude stadium guards, you can still be flattened by a 260-pound linebacker.