The domination of the NFL's Western Division by the Green Bay Packers, interrupted last year by the loss of Paul Hornung and injury to Bart Starr, now is being threatened by four young running backs—three of them virtually unknown and one prematurely famous (some might say notorious). All are employed by the Baltimore Colts and. thanks in part to them, the Colts are in first place after beating Green Bay and Los Angeles and demolishing the defending champion Chicago Bears 52-0.
The four runners are Tom Matte, 25, who is in his fourth year with the Colts; Jerry Hill, 24, in his third; Tony Lorick, 23, a rookie; and another rookie, Joe Don Looney, 21. In themselves these young backs are nothing much as yet; what they provide is the balance the Colts have long and badly needed to release the marvelous throwing arm of Johnny Unitas (left) and to spring the slashing halfback, Lenny Moore (right). Both of these results have been accomplished, and something more, most notably in the case of Looney, the New York Giants' first draft choice.
Looney is the young man who failed his indoctrination test with the Giants. The New York staff considered him moody and intractable, because he refused to cooperate with press agents and rebelled against the hazing most pro clubs inflict on rookies. To cite one example of the latter, the Giants expect rookies to help the trainers tape the ankles of veteran players before practice. Looney not only refused to do this chore but also refused to be taped himself. A resulting argument with Coach Allie Sherman brought a $500 fine for Looney and, subsequently, a decision to trade him to the Colts. Obviously, Looney did not fit the Giant image. But he may be the perfect prototype of the new Colt image—he ran 58 yards for a touchdown against the Bears.
No one ever looked more like a pro back than Joe Don, who stands 6 feet 1, weighs 230 and is an exceptional runner, punter, blocker and receiver. When he arrived in Baltimore, Looney was given the usual silent treatment, but he was not subjected to the humiliating types of hazing. Moreover, when Looney spoke someone listened. One day, practicing punting, he was squibbing most of his kicks. Coach Don Shula asked him what was wrong. Looney complained that his pants were too tight. This might have seemed capricious in another player—or been so considered by another coach—but Shula took it seriously, noting that Looney's thighs bulge fantastically with muscle.
"Have special pants made for him," said Owner Carroll Rosenbloom, and soon Looney, in his new, baggier pants, was booming punts 70 yards and more. Shula put him on the kickoff team, and he worked off some of his aggressions barreling downfield and beheading would-be kickoff returners. By the time the Colts played the Chicago Bears in the third game of the season Looney was an accepted member of the team, and the personality problem he had in the Giant camp apparently was solved. He got into the game in the fourth period as a running back and promptly burst through the big Bear line, ran over a linebacker, shrugged off an arm tackle by the safety man and went on for a touchdown. He was mobbed by Colt players when he came to the bench; later in the game, slamming violently into the line again near the Bear goal line, he popped out of both his shoes and received another tumultuous greeting as he padded back to the sidelines, shoes in hand.
Tony Lorick, the other rookie in the backfield and the Colts' No. 2 draft choice, was never a problem for the coaches. Although arriving late from the All-Star camp, he showed brilliance during the exhibition games and really began to roll against the Bears. Lorick is not as big as Looney, but he hits with almost the same power and with as much speed.
While Looney's contribution to the Chicago debacle—the worst defeat any Bear team has ever suffered—was a small one, it dramatically signified the rebirth of the Colts and perhaps the beginning of a new Baltimore dynasty. Despite an opening loss to the Vikings, fans—and experts—are now comparing the new Colts with the championship teams of 1958-59. This Colt team actually might be better, primarily because of its ground game. The players certainly think so.
After the rout of the Bears, Alex Hawkins, who plays on the Baltimore punt-and kickoff-return teams, sat happily in front of his locker.
"I wasn't surprised," he said. "We're that good. Maybe the Bears aren't that bad, but we're that good. It's been coming a long time. We just put it all together this afternoon, and we'll do it again."
John Unitas, who completed 11 of the 13 passes he threw, grinned. "We got the weapons now," he said. "They don't tee off anymore. They've got to look for the run, and they can't put on the pressure the way they used to. I think they only got to me twice all day."
In a game that is a matter of split seconds, the powerful Baltimore running attack actually gives Unitas about .4 second more in which to throw the ball, and that is all that he needs.
"We got a guy who times our pass patterns and our throws with a stopwatch," says Gary Cuozzo, who is only in his second year as a quarterback with the Colts but could one day approach the stature of Unitas.
"It takes 1.6 seconds to get back and set up," Cuozzo said. "After that, you got about another second and a half to get rid of the ball. Any time you go over four seconds from the snapback to the pass, you're in trouble. Last year we had less time to throw, because the defensive lines were firing out. They didn't have to wait or hesitate trying to read a run—they just came after the quarterback. Now they have to hesitate, and that hesitation gives us the extra time."
The new potency of the Baltimore running game is pointed up in the comparison between offensive statistics last year and this. In 1963 Unitas, with no running attack to speak of, had to depend almost entirely on his passing. The air offense led the ground by a ratio of two to one; this season, through the first four games, the Colts had gained 787 yards through the air to 549 on the ground. The Colts are scoring more, too; after four games in 1963 they had nine fewer touchdowns than this year and only 71 points compared to 132. The time-eating ground offense has another helpful aspect: the Baltimore defense spends more time on the bench and, in consequence, is rested and ready when called upon.
Another important factor in the Colts' move into contention for the Western Division championship is Cuozzo, the young quarterback from Virginia who came to the club almost by accident. Because he was unable to move an inferior college team, Cuozzo was virtually unknown. He was overlooked in the draft and was signed by Baltimore as a free agent. Weeb Ewbank, coaching an All-Star postseason game, needed an extra quarterback. He had a choice of Cuozzo or another quarterback, who had been drafted by an American Football League team. Ewbank decided on Cuozzo because he did not want to give the AFL any unnecessary publicity, and Cuozzo impressed him so much that he signed the youngster as a free agent. Cuozzo is still with Baltimore, but Ewbank has gone into the AFL himself as coach of the New York Jets. No one gave Cuozzo much chance to stick with the club when he reported as a rookie last year, but he had a strong, accurate arm and he was quick to learn.
"The best thing about him is that he is so smart," says Raymond Berry, the longtime Colt end. "When he came up, he was a little slow releasing the ball. I don't mean that his release was slow. He's got a quick arm. But like most college quarterbacks he waited too long for a receiver to break clear. I told him about it and we worked on it in practice, and now he throws the way Johnny does, anticipating the pattern and throwing ahead of where you are."
The Colt running attack has given receivers like Berry and Jimmy Orr a little more time for fakes, too.
"Last year I didn't bother with any deep fakes," Berry said. "We didn't have time. So you faked off the line and there was the ball. Now we have time for a little more."
Although Unitas throws less this year, he throws for longer gains, averaging better than three yards more per pass attempt than any other quarterback in the league. Cuozzo has played in only one game—against the Bears—but he was two for two, including a touchdown pass.
"The touchdown pass was on a pick play," he recalled after the game. "When I came out of the huddle I was surprised that the Bears weren't in a goal-line defense, but I figured the pick would work anyway, and it did." A pick play in football is almost exactly the same as a pick-off in basketball. The pass routes are designed so that one receiver picks off the defender assigned to another, not by blocking him, which would be illegal, but by getting in his way, which is or is not illegal, depending upon the judgment of the officials.
The Baltimore defense—after leaking 54 points against Minnesota and Green Bay—proved as strong as the offense in the Bear game. "We got stung in Minnesota trying to use a safety blitz," Shula says. "Tarkenton called a quick trap into it, and Mason was through and gone, with no one back there to stop him. We don't need gimmicky defenses. Usually when a club goes to offbeat defenses it is to try to hide a weakness, and I think now that we are pretty sound. We have more depth than we had; getting Lou Michaels from Pittsburgh gives us good relief for either Gino Marchetti or Ordell Braase at defensive end and gives us a good place-kicker. Fred Miller is in his second year at tackle, and he is doing a real job for us. Then John Diehl has taken off about 20 pounds, and at 270 he's much better than he was at 290."
"Of course, the big thing, though, is the running," Shula says. "We went along all last year without enough, and now all at once that's our strongest point. We've got five good ones. We're in great shape for the long haul, because we can take an injury anywhere and it won't be fatal to us. We could even lose Johnny for a game or so and be confident in Cuozzo." Cuozzo's only problem as quarterback now is to contain himself as he sits on the bench and watches the best quarterback in the game in action. He has little hope of taking over from Unitas for years to come, but he has rationalized this.
"I'm learning a lot," Cuozzo said the other day as the club worked out in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. "It's hard keeping your enthusiasm up sitting on the bench and I wish I could play more, but the thing we have to do is win, and Johnny stays in there. But in practice, like today, Coach is very fair to me. He lets me run the club just as much as Johnny does; we usually run alternate plays, so I don't spend much time standing around. So when I get in a game I'm just as ready as Johnny is. I'm used to throwing to the good receivers because I've thrown to them all week long, and I'm used to the timing of the first-string backs because I've been handing off to them."
It was Cuozzo who handed off to Looney on his spectacular 58-yard run, and it was Cuozzo who called the play, since Shula seldom sends a play in.
"They were in a gap defense," Cuozzo said. "I didn't have to call an audible. Then Joe Don did a real job of running."
Alex Sandusky, the chunky offensive guard, said: "The runners are making our job real easy this year. Especially on pass-protection blocking. Last year, when every line we saw fired out after Johnny and conceded us the run, the blocks were tough, because you never had time to set up. For effective pass-protection blocking against the big tackles in this league you have to be set and balanced and stay on your feet, but they were coming across the line so fast that sometimes we were off balance and they would go right through us to the quarterback. Now they have to wait that split second to read run, and that gives us time to get set. It makes the blocking easier for the run, too."
Shula's offense is no different from most in the league, since pro football coaching is a cannibalistic profession in which each coach lifts whatever he needs from films of other coaches' teams. But Shula is strong on detail, and this pays off in the performance of the Colt special teams—the kickoff and punt and kickoff-return and punt-return squads.
"We take pride in our work," says Alex Hawkins, who is on most of the special teams. "We want to get down there and keep the kickoff return inside their 20. Or get our own kickoff return outside the 40. We get graded on the special teams just as carefully as Coach grades the players on the offensive and defensive teams. We do a lot of work on returns, for instance."
Against the Bears, Tony Lorick brought one kickoff back 71 yards, setting up a Colt touchdown.
"It seemed to me like we were getting the ball on the Bear 40-yard line every time I went in," Unitas said. "That makes a big difference. You got them in the hole all the time, and you are in a field position where you can use any play you like."
In the dressing room after the Bear slaughter, the Colts were not particularly exuberant.
"They were hurt pretty bad," Shula pointed out. "They had Larry Morris out and a defensive end, then Fortunato and George got hurt during the game. So they won't be that easy next time around, and we know it. But we put everything together today. It has been coming a long time, since the second half of last year. I think we may be on the way now. I sure hope so."
Gino Marchetti, who came out of retirement to strengthen the Colt defensive line, looked very tired. He is a massive man, and he did not report until the exhibition season was nearly over, and in consequence has not had as much conditioning as the rest of the club. Like Andy Robustelli of the Giants, Marchetti is a playing coach. He had spent most of the afternoon in close pursuit of Bill Wade.
"What we are doing this year is beating the clubs that beat us last year," Marchetti said. "That is our plan. Coach Shula has us pointing that way, and we're going for it."
The Bears and the Packers each defeated the Colts twice last season.
"What did you think?" Carroll Rosenbloom asked a dressing-room visitor. "Are we as good as we looked?"
The Colts may be even better than they looked. With so many young football players, the club should improve steadily.
"That was the best game we've played in five years," Lenny Moore said, taking the spatslike white adhesive tape off his shoes. "It won't be the best game for the next five, though."