When Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, fired a legend last year, he was criticized bitterly by pro football experts—not because he had booted Paul Brown out of football, but for the manner in which he did it. "You don't fire a coach because the players don't like him," a long-established coach in the league said. "You fire him because you don't like what he has done. Hell, I can find eight players on any team who hate the coach at the end of the season. If I can't, he's a lousy coach."
But easygoing Blanton Collier, who is liked by everyone on the club from Modell down to the equipment manager, led the Browns to second place. Jim Brown (right) gave his all for the new regime and Frank Ryan and Jim Ninowski, the two Brown quarterbacks, played better than they ever had before. But even with all this euphoria, it is doubtful that Collier can move the Browns any higher than third in the Eastern Division this year.
Cleveland has, in Ryan and Ninowski, two good but erratic quarterbacks who too often are left open to the attacks of charging linebackers by a lack of blocking from the fullback spot. No club has ever had a better runner than Jim Brown, but one runner is no longer enough. Two are needed. The Brown defense—from the front line deep into the secondary—has flaws and the Brown offense is not powerful enough to make up for this deficiency. In a division where almost every club strikes through the air, the Brown air defense is not quite adequate, but some strength has been added to their air offense by the acquisition of Flanker Paul Warfield.
The Browns, with two sometimes brilliant quarterbacks, and help on the flanks in deep receivers, should score prolifically. But they faltered last year when some of their defensemen were injured. The defense will be the biggest problem again this year—a big enough problem to keep the Browns out of the top spot in a stronger Eastern Division.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
The Cardinals were a year and a few injuries away from an Eastern Division championship in 1963; the year is here and the injuries have passed, and it looks like St. Louis will lose to Green Bay or Baltimore in the championship game.
Only Green Bay has a deeper and better set of running backs. Last year the Cardinals lost brittle John Crow and Prentice Gautt as the season started, then came up with two almost as good runners in Joe Childress and Bill Triplett. Triplett, unfortunately, is out this year with a lung infection, but the Cardinals still have Crow, Gautt, Childress, rookie Wallis Crenshaw and Thunder Thornton—all big, quick, strong and intelligent, and also powerful blockers.
In front of them is a tough offensive line which is beginning its third year as a unit. It is young and quick, and it should do two chores well—protect Charley Johnson, the small but hardy quarterback, and open running holes. Johnson has some of the best targets in the league to throw to in Sonny Randle, Bobby Joe Conrad, Taz Anderson, Jackie Smith and rookie Bob Johnson. This is an offense that should be as good or better than the Giants' and much more versatile.
"We were the only club in the East that did not make a trade," says Wally Lemm, the Cardinal head coach. "We're set both ways, offense and defense. Of course, if you don't trade, you have to hope your players develop. Johnson, for instance, has grown in ability each year, and he hasn't reached a plateau yet. He gets better and better. There are four players we depend on to get better this year. If we win the championship, it will be because they improved."
The four players are Jerry Stovall, a defensive back who is potentially one of the best; Larry Stallings, a 230-pound linebacker; Don Brumm, a 245-pound defensive end and Sam Silas, a 250-pound defensive tackle with a knack for reaching the quarterback.
The Cardinals could use more depth at defensive tackle and in the secondary, where the retirements of Ed Henke and Billy Stacy cost them in experience, but defensive depth is a common lack throughout the league.
In one respect, the Cardinals are like the Giants: behind No. 1 Quarterback Charley Johnson is untested Buddy Humphrey. But Johnson is only 25 years old and less vulnerable to the erosion of blitzing linebackers than is Y. A. Tittle. Johnson hurts less easily and heals quicker and, if he learns to drill a pass into a quartering wind, he should take the Cardinals to the championship. Johnson is a good learner and the St. Louis team has all the rest of the ingredients.
The best offense in the league on the ground and one of the best in the air, plus a young and improving defense, should take the Cardinals to the championship.
Buddy Parker, the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, made what was probably the worst trade in NFL history at the end of last year when he sent Buddy Dial to the Dallas Cowboys for the right to negotiate with Texas Tackle Scott Appleton.
If he had managed to sign Appleton, Parker would have been in good shape, since Appleton, who can play in either the offensive or defensive line, would have helped the Steelers where they need help. But Appleton signed with the AFL's Houston team and it left the Steelers still suffering in depth in the defensive line and suffering even more for a deep receiver to match Gary Ballman. Now Parker must place all his faith in rookie Paul Martha at flanker to complement the pass-receiving ability of Ballman. No rookie can carry so heavy a burden.
The Steeler running backs, John Henry Johnson, Clarence Peaks, Theron Sapp, Dick Hoak and Phil King—the latter obtained in the dramatic late trade with the Giants—are all slashers, but none of them is fast enough to break up a game. The only possibility of a long-range touchdown from a running play lies in a rookie free agent named Dave Fleming. The Steeler offensive line is sound but not spectacular; Pittsburgh has survived on defense for a long time and, in a league where defense is beginning to give way to scoring, that won't be enough. The Steeler quarterbacks are journeymen; Ed Brown can have moments of brilliance but will not be able to string together enough games for a championship. Bill Nelsen is developing, but he is a scrambler and no scrambler has ever won an NFL championship. He is unlikely to be the first.
The once invulnerable Steeler defensive line is suffering the erosion of time, and Parker needs help where help is hard to come by. He has a strong nucleus headed by End Dan LaRose, but the line lacks depth. The Steeler linebackers, led by Myron Pottios, one of the best middle backers in football, are quick and strong, but Parker could use more depth in the secondary and he will have a difficult time trading for it.
The Steelers finished fourth in 1963 with a strange 7-4-3 season. They could drop a notch this year, finishing fifth. With just adequate quarterbacks, flaws in the defense and a lack of fast running backs and deep receivers, Parker faces a frustrating season. He is an ingenious and inventive coach and he will probably squeeze a few more victories out of this team than most coaches would, but not enough.
The young Dallas Cowboys may have blown the 1963 season in a minute and a half at the end of the first half of their first game against the St. Louis Cardinals. They were leading 7-3 at the time, but a series of mistakes cost them 17 points and they left the field behind 20-7, confused and disheartened. It took them most of the rest of the season to recover—one of the penalties of youth. They are not quite as young now, their offense is enormously strengthened by the addition of two top receivers, Tommy McDonald and Buddy Dial, and the defense is not so apt to collapse in a quivering heap at the onset of adversity.
Tom Landry, with a 10-year contract, the one truly secure coach in the league, has the most versatile and powerful offense in either division of the NFL, with the lone exception of the Green Bay Packers. Don Meredith has gone through a long and difficult maturing process, but he now appears to have completed it. Amos Marsh, Don Perkins, Amos Bullocks and Jim Stiger are all fast running backs who will give the Cowboys the third-best set of runners in football, behind Green Bay and St. Louis. To go with McDonald and Dial, Meredith has Pettis Norman, Lee Folkins and Frank Clarke, all better than run-of-the-mine receivers. The offensive line is young, with a leavening of experience in the person of Jim Ray Smith, but it has played together long enough to be cohesive. It will occasionally allow linebackers to reach Meredith, but the occasions should be rare enough for the Cowboys to mount an excellent attack.
"The defense is still a couple of years from its peak," Landry says. "But it's beginning to come on a little. We don't have to be as rigid now; we can give the players more options for reaction since they understand better what they are doing."
The Cowboys have the brightest defensive backfield prospect in many years in Mel Renfro. The combination of Renfro and Mike Gaechter could give Dallas the fastest safeties in the league. Cornell Green and Don Bishop are good corner backs, and Landry has a rare thing—depth in his defensive backfield.
His linebackers are small but agile, and Lee Roy Jordan, with a few years' more experience and the addition of 10 or 15 pounds, looks like a good bet to make All-League.
The Dallas team finished fifth in 1963, after a disastrous start. With augmented deep-passing threats and with good running backs behind an adequate offensive line, the Cowboys may be the strongest all-round offensive team in the East. Look for Meredith to be among the top passers in the league and for the Cowboy running backs, aided by the receiving threat of McDonald and Dial, to rank high, too. The defense should hold up well enough—with more interceptions than last year—to bring the Cowboys home second.
Bill McPeak, coach of the Redskins, may have made the two best trades of the off season when he acquired leaders for both his offensive and defensive units in Sonny Jurgensen of the Eagles and Sam Huff of the New York Giants.
Jurgensen, who replaces Norman Snead, brings the poise and confidence of experience to the club plus an arm as good as that of his younger predecessor. Huff, long the mainstay of the Giant defensive unit, has taken control of the Redskin defense and infused it with some of his arrogant self-confidence. There is more talent on this 1964 squad than ever before, and there is a brand-new feeling. Huff and Jurgensen are winners in attitude.
"It's a turn-about from last year," says Defensive Halfback John Sample. "We believe in ourselves. We believe we can win."
"They are going to find out real quick they can't drop the bomb on us," says McPeak, whose team was the Hiroshima of pro football last year. Opponents completed 55.2% of their passes against Washington, and the completions were good for a disastrous 14 yards a shot. The Washington pass defense could only get better. Two fine rookies—Tom Walters and Paul Krause—help the secondary, and the new experienced linebackers—Jim Carr, a converted defensive back, and Huff—lend mobility and wisdom to the defense. Huff closes the holes in the middle but—more important—his ability to lend help to either side cuts down on the territory that Bob Pellegrini must defend. Pellegrini is sure but slow; now he can cheat to the outside, covering more of the wide zone, depending on Huff to handle part of the territory to his inside. Carr, obtained from the Eagles in the Snead-Jurgensen trade, has the quickness of a defensive back and is alert at sniffing out screens and flat passes. The Redskin defensive line was good last year; with help from the rear, it should be much better.
One of Washington's troubles in 1963 was a lack of fast running backs. Now the Redskins have rookie Charley Taylor, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound sprinter, who was the most valuable collegian in the Bear-All-Star game, and Angelo Coia, obtained from the Bears, who complements the speed of Bobby Mitchell at spread end. Although Joe Hernandez, a transplant from Canada, is even faster and may beat out Coia. Jurgensen thus will have two of the fastest targets in the league to throw at. George Izo, a perennial second-string quarterback, had to take over for Jurgensen during the preseason schedule and did a commendable job; he has finally learned to control his desire to throw the bomb in favor of the surer short pass.
In Ozzie Clay, the Redskins have a superb punt and kickoff returner, and John Seedborg gives them a long-range kicker who can salvage three points.
Better, deeper quarterbacking, faster running backs, more good receivers help the Redskin offense, and Sam Huff has revitalized the defense. The Redskins will be spoilers, but they are not yet ready to move into contention. They will be sixth.
Joe Kuharich, who quit as head of league officials to lead the Philadelphia Eagles, must be rated as the bravest of the 14 NFL coaches; he has disposed of a great deal of the Philadelphia offense and some of the defense and is starting his first season with an almost completely rebuilt team.
He traded away Sonny Jurgensen and Tommy McDonald and got Norm Snead, two second-string linemen, a punter and a defensive back. He gave up Lee Roy Caffey to the Packers for untested Fullback Earl Gros (left). The newest of new brooms, Kuharich has swept the old Eagle squad clean.
He should have a better season than his predecessor, Nick Skorich, but, considering the time it takes to weld all the disparate elements of offense and defense into a cohesive whole, the improvement will not lift the Eagles off the bottom of the heap.
The Philadelphia offensive line will be improved with the addition of Jim Ringo (an ex-Packer) at center. Snead, who came from Washington for Sonny Jurgensen, does not have Jurgensen's poise or experience but will get better protection in the pocket than he had with the Redskins. Earl Gros, the ex-third-string Packer fullback, is better than anything the Eagles had last year but could remain third-string behind Tom Woodeschick and Israel Lang. On the credit side, the Eagles may have an exciting halfback in Timmy Brown. Red Mack, Ron Goodwin and Pete Retzlaff are all capable receivers. Sam Baker, who came from the Cowboys in the McDonald trade, should improve the Eagle kicking game.
The Eagle defense is stronger but not quite strong enough. The defensive line is barely adequate at tackle. The linebackers are good but not good enough to remedy that soft spot in front of them.
The top teams in the East are not as strong as they were a year ago but the second division teams are stronger, and the Eagles have to move up in the second division first. A good offense will not be enough to offset defensive difficulties. The Eagles will score a lot of points, but a lot more will be scored against them. Last again, but closer up.