The most important and anxiously awaited game of the year in the National Football League should be the one that is played on the frozen December afternoon when the best team in the East meets the best team in the West for the championship. Supposedly, that game is what the five months of running and falling have been all about; theoretically, the season charges to a climax in the violent, proud and uncertain clash of two football teams of proved excellence who are fighting to establish which of them deserves to be called the finest in the world. But since 1958 the NFL championship game on television has seldom rated more in suspense than Jack Paar or the Pinky Lee Show. The West has won six of the last seven championships and—as an afterthought—has won the only four Apathy Bowl games ever played between the runner-up teams of each division. This year it is yawningly conceded that the Eastern champion—probably Cleveland—will be playing merely for the dubious pleasure of being thrashed by Baltimore on December 27. There are at least three teams in the West that are superior to any in the East. To be realistic about it, the championship game of 1964 already has been played. Baltimore won it in October by beating Green Bay for the second time.
The growing imbalance between the two seven-team divisions of the NFL became obvious in 1957, when Detroit finished off the once-dominant Browns 59-14. The next two years belonged to the Baltimore Colts, who were just then emerging with the game's outstanding quarterback, Johnny Unitas. The East's only revival, and a brief one, came in 1960, when Philadelphia won the championship on the arm of Norm Van Brocklin, who got his training in the West with the Rams. In 1961 and 1962, Green Bay handled the Giants easily on cold, windy days that were more suited to the Packers' grinding ball-control style than to the deft passing of New York. Last year Chicago won after laming Y. A. Tittle, the man most responsible for putting the Giants into championship games in 1961, 1962 and 1963. Although he has had his biggest success in New York, Tittle, too, learned his trade in the West at San Francisco.
To find out why the West is better than the East it is necessary to go back to the late '40s and early '50s. During these years the contrast in methods of scouting the colleges for talent was as glaring as the contrast between the divisions is now. The representatives from Los Angeles would stagger into the annual draft meeting under a load of books, papers, charts, lists and assorted statistics. The man from the Washington Redskins would wander in with a football magazine in his coat pocket. When it was time for the Rams to make a draft choice, they would consult their assembled research like marketing analysts, place the telephone calls to prospects and recheck and restudy their figures. Then they would select people like Norm Van Brocklin, Bill Wade, Larry Morris, Roosevelt Grier, Big Daddy Lipscomb, Andy Robustelli, Elroy Hirsch, Tom Fears, Harland Svare, Dan Towler, Paul Younger, Bud McFadin, Night Train Lane, Don Paul, Stan West and others of comparable quality. The man from the Redskins would open his football magazine, poke his finger at somebody's name and announce that he had selected Billy Clyde Puckett, who not only was white but also had received nice mention in a story written in his home-town paper. What difference did it make? The Redskins had Sammy Baugh, and everybody in Washington knew Sammy Baugh would play forever. That sort of activity was the East's Great Leap Backward.
While the older Eastern teams picked players out of magazines, the more aggressive Westerners discovered and developed such quarterbacks as Waterfield, Albert, Layne, Lujack, Van Brocklin, Tittle, Unitas, Rote, Wade, Blanda. In the East there were Baugh and Otto Graham. The Browns, with Graham flawlessly operating Paul Brown's offense, won the Eastern Division six straight years, from 1950 through 1955, and beat the West three times for the championship. But the West was steadily building muscle. Ironically, the one thing the East was doing was inventing a defense that Tom Landry perfected as defensive coach of the Giants. Vince Lombard!, Harland Svare and other believers spread Landry's doctrines to the armies of better athletes in the West, and today Green Bay, Detroit, Los Angeles and Baltimore all play tougher defense than any team in the East. Last year, so did Chicago.
Complacency in the East had not been limited to the draft. The East was still trying to function out of baseball parks with few decent seats. At that time there was no television pool to give each club in the league $1 million per year. Gate receipts were vital to survival, let alone to the recruiting of talent. The old Chicago Cardinals, the Steelers, the Redskins and the Eagles were victims of stadium situations that made it difficult to draw enough customers to buy helmets. The only big stadiums were in New York and Cleveland. The Giants and the Browns were the rich teams of the East and therefore the best.
In the West, Baltimore had begun organizing in 1953. San Francisco then was fairly new to the league, having moved from the defunct All-America Conference, but was averaging about 60,000 paid attendance per game at Kezar Stadium. If the Rams had less than 80,000 on a Sunday the owners suspected a plot. Money was tumbling into the West, and with it came the players. The draft in theory should have kept the divisions equal. That it did not was a result of both the money and the ingenuity the West was spending on scouting.
The Rams, for example, had Waterfield and Van Brocklin at quarterback, but they drafted and signed Bill Wade. They had as many good quarterbacks on their roster at one time as there were in the entire Eastern Division. The only thing that prevented the Rams from utterly ruling, and maybe ruining, pro football during the '50s was constant squabbling between their owners. For that feuding—which since has been resolved—the rest of the NFL is grateful.
Buck Shaw, coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 1950 to 1954, was aware of the quarterback gap when he moved to Philadelphia. "I stipulated I would take the Eagle job if I could get what I wanted," Shaw says. "I wanted a top quarterback. I wanted our front office to deal generously with the man we got." The man he got was Van Brocklin, and in 1960 Van Brocklin got Shaw the championship. "The schedule broke our way," says Shaw. "We caught the Lions before they toughened up, and we caught New York with injuries. But I could see what was coming. Vince Lombardi had gone to Green Bay and had found some of the best players in the game waiting for him. He put a few keys together and had a great team. The Rams and 49ers had started to fall apart, which made it easier for the Packers. But the Rams were the ones who had put us on our toes in the West. They had made us imitate them if we hoped to keep up with them."
Football is a game of imitation. As every team in the league imitated Landry's defense, so the teams in the West began to imitate the ideas of Lombardi, another Giant alumnus. The West had been a throw-and-catch-it league until Lombardi began to win in 1960 with his solid defense and his big running backs who could hammer down the field half a dozen yards at a smash until the Packers had a touchdown and the other team had no time to do anything about it. The Western teams copied Lombardi and strained for the talent to compete with the Packers as they had once struggled to compete with Los Angeles. The NFL reversed itself. The West became the running division and the East the passing division. And the most adroit passer in the East was Y. A. Tittle, the refugee from San Francisco.
Without Tittle, the East would have been even more of what one Western assistant coach calls "a marshmallow league." Tittle, the best quarterback in the East since Van Brocklin retired to become coach of the Minnesota Vikings, has beaten the West five times in seven tries, not including the championship game he has never won. Most Western teams admit privately—though not for posting on Eastern locker-room bulletin boards—that they prepare to play the East in the same festive mood in which they would dress to go to a party.
"The East just doesn't seem to play the same style of football," one Western coach says. "It doesn't seem to be as hard-nosed, for some reason, although guys like Sam Huff and Rosey Grier and Chuck Bednarik [now retired] would make me eat those words. The reason can't be geographical. You take New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore. They're all in a row. Why is it that only Baltimore plays the real rugged Western style? Can it be because Baltimore is in the Western Division? Maybe the rest of the Western teams make the Colts play their style of game."
Offensive Tackle J. D. Smith, who came to Detroit this season from Philadelphia, says, "In the East you'd run into a good, tough defensive end one Sunday and then maybe not see another like him for two or three weeks. In the West you see a good one every week." Henry Jordan, All-NFL defensive tackle, played two years at Cleveland before being traded to Green Bay. "It used to be that if a team had a good running attack or a good passing attack, that was enough to make it a good team. Now you have to have balance between running and passing," says Jordan, "and balance between offense and defense. We've proved that, I would think."
Western superiority is a product of superior players—like Jordan and Gino Marchetti of Baltimore, Alex Karras and Joe Schmidt of Detroit, the young defensive line of the Rams, and certainly Unitas, Moore, Tarkenton, Mason, Berry, Taylor, Ditka, Starr and dozens more. But the East is rapidly wiping out the West's scouting edge. Washington and Philadelphia installed extensive scouting systems about three years ago. Pittsburgh is now a scouting factor. All NFL teams except Chicago, Washington and Minnesota are cooperating in scouting pools. Why, then, has the East not overhauled the West? That takes time, to be sure, but time is not the only reason.
Part of the East's problem can be traced to an occurrence in Dallas in 1960. A young multimillionaire named Lamar Hunt, son of one of the world's wealthiest men, started a new football league from his oil-company office on Commerce Street in Dallas. Hunt had tried to get an NFL franchise and had been turned down. The NFL had promised its next franchise to Clint Murchison Jr., also a Dallas resident and the son of another of the world's wealthiest men, after Murchison tried to stop the old Dallas Texans from moving to Baltimore and becoming the Colts in 1952.
Barred by the NFL, Hunt decided to form the American Football League. When apprised of Hunt's intention—although the NFL later insisted it was a coincidence—the NFL abruptly voted to expand and let Murchison have a new franchise to compete with Hunt in Dallas. The NFL then took another potential American League city by voting an NFL franchise for Minneapolis-St. Paul, to begin operation in 1961, one year after the debut of the American League and the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL.
The effect of the two new NFL franchises and the eight new AFL clubs has been tremendous. Players' salaries have risen fantastically. Concurrent with the booming popularity of pro football, the television networks entered the action with millions of dollars to thrust at each league. Television insured the survival of the AFL. But the inescapable fact is that there are now 22 pro football teams chasing talent, whereas before 1960 there were just 12.
The AFL and the expansion of the NFL came at exactly the proper moment for Green Bay, Baltimore and Detroit, the three best teams in football. "The teams which were young and strong in 1960 have pretty well dominated things since," says Tom Landry. "Baltimore was coming out of championship years in 1958 and 1959 and still had its quality players. Green Bay was very young in 1960. Detroit was coming back with that great defense. Baltimore and Green Bay really haven't needed to help themselves much. It's the rest of us who have been handicapped by the spreading out of talent."
The double expansion in 1960 trapped Buddy Parker of the Steelers in the middle of a rebuilding job. "That year we drafted Abner Haynes and Jack Spikes, two backs we felt would strengthen us. But both of them signed with Dallas in the AFL," says Parker. "Since then we've drafted several players in key positions, but we've lost a couple, and a couple of others didn't come through. When you're not getting all the men you draft, you can't afford to make mistakes."
There are definite signs that the East is catching up with the West, if at a creeping pace. Last year the East outdrew the West for the first time. A new stadium is going up in St. Louis, Pittsburgh has a lease on Pitt Stadium and the Redskins moved into the new D.C. Stadium three years ago. The Eastern owners—the final holdouts against expansion in 1960—demanded as a bonus that the East get Dallas as a member. That gave the East the 75,504-seat Cotton Bowl, where baseball never is. With a winning team, which they are on the verge of having, the Cowboys will fill the Cotton Bowl as surely as the Texas-Oklahoma game does now.
New ownership also is helping the East. The revived Eagles are the property of Jerry Wolman, who laps the track in glee and waves to the fans when his team scores. Art Modell of Cleveland is the originator of the doubleheader, which may or may not be a good idea. Charles and Billy Bidwill have been aggressive owners since they got control of the Cardinals three years ago. The young Maras in New York are capable career people. The Redskins have broken their color line and have profited by the play of Bobby Mitchell and Charley Taylor. Art Rooney (page 90) is the last of the old palace guard in the East, but he has always been a popular owner. In Dallas, Murchison is energetic and imaginative—a young owner who had such faith in Landry that this year he gave his coach an 11-year contract. The Cowboys' Tex Schramm is the most autonomous general manager in the league and has put in a scouting system that is even more complex and, Schramm hopes, will be more productive than the one he used to operate with the Rams.
And the East finally has come up with some top young quarterbacks—Don Meredith, Norm Snead, Charley Johnson, Frank Ryan, Sonny Jurgensen, Bill Nelsen, Jack Concannon, Dick Shiner and Gary Wood, to name a few. The West is still stronger at this position, but there is not the obvious gap there was. And if, as some coaches believe, the total blitz is ending the era of the drop-back passer and bringing the scrambler into the most prominent position, then the two best quarterbacks for the next several years may well be Tarkenton of Minnesota and Meredith of Dallas—one from the West and one from the East.
As the cycles go in football, within two or three seasons the East should stride into the championship game and into interdivision games with vigor, confidence and maturity that do not at the moment exist. The element of uncertainty will return. The fans, who have waited patiently since the famous Baltimore-New York overtime championship game of 1958, will have something to argue about again. That is an event to anticipate with joy. These late-December reruns on television have become somewhat stale.
NEW YORK GIANTS
NEW YORK GIANTS
GREEN BAY PACKERS
GREEN BAY PACKERS
NEW YORK GIANTS
GREEN BAY PACKERS
NEW YORK GIANTS
NEW YORK GIANTS