With some 45 seconds to play in the first half at Yankee Stadium last Saturday, the Cleveland Browns convinced themselves, the New York Giants, 63,000 damp spectators and the rest of the National Football League that they are, indeed, the best football team in the Eastern Division.
At the critical moment the Browns were leading the New York Giants 17-7, but they had not yet established a clear superiority over the last-place team. They had only partially demonstrated all the qualities which brought them the championship: a sturdy, sometimes spectacular running attack predicated upon the genius of Jim Brown, a strategic air command based on accurate, probing short passes combined with the threat of one of the league's best long-passing attacks and a spongy defense that absorbed rather than stopped enemy offenses—a tactic which all season has resulted in impressive statistics and unimpressive scores for Cleveland opponents. Up to this point the Browns had seemed tense, even apprehensive, and one remembered that this was a club which had in another year blown the championship to the Giants in the season's closing moments.
But then Frank Ryan, the tall Cleveland quarterback who has gotten prematurely gray in the service of the Browns, wrapped up the title for his team and dashed the hopes of the second-place St. Louis Cardinals with one brilliant play. The Browns had taken possession of the ball at the Giant 48-yard line on an interception by Vince Costello. The pass may have been the last Y. A. Tittle will ever throw in pro football. Ryan called for a time-out and went over to the sideline to discuss the situation with Coach Blanton Collier.
"Warfield thinks he can beat Webb on a double Z out," he said. "I'd like to call it."
"Fine," Collier said. "I think it will work."
A double Z out is a pattern in which Paul Warfield, the superb rookie end, fakes in and breaks out, and then heads up-field and fakes in and breaks out again.
"Webb had been playing me pretty tight," he said later. "I knew if I got by him I could outrun him. On this play I broke to the outside and started up-field. He just stood there, so I broke the pattern and kept going instead of faking again. I didn't know if Frank would pick up the broken pattern or not, but I had a good lead on Webb and I didn't want to lose it."
Ryan picked up the broken pattern easily and lofted a high, featherlight pass which Warfield caught on the Giant 10-yard line and carried to the one before he was stopped. Ryan passed to Ernie Green for the touchdown seconds later, and the Browns had, for all practical purposes, won the title. They scored another 28 points in the second half, but the game-breaker was the long pass to Warfield.
The Cleveland offense was uncomplicated, and designedly so.
"We cut the offense down to the barest minimum," said Collier, the scholarly coach of the Browns. "Frank has a tendency to be distracted by too many plays. If he spends too much time pondering strategy, he tends to lose his concentration on passing. I didn't want that to happen."
The limited offense allowed Ryan to concentrate so well on his passing that he completed 12 of 13—five of them for touchdowns.
"We were dedicated in this game," Ryan said. "Against St. Louis a week ago we weren't. I guess we all felt we had another shot this week if we lost. We won't feel that way against the Colts." He paused to glance at a congratulatory telegram someone handed him, and grinned.
"Do me a favor," he said to one of his listeners. "Don't pick us."
"I won't," the listener said, with good reason.
Although the Browns are a sound, intelligent and even explosive football team, they stand small chance of upsetting the Baltimore Colts in the championship game on December 27 in Cleveland. The game will not be, as some seem to think, a rout but, given the equipment of the two teams, it should result in a decisive victory for Baltimore.
The most significant difference between the two clubs is in quarterbacks. Ryan is a good one, but Johnny Unitas is the best—perhaps the best ever.
"He'll cut the Browns to pieces," one Giant said after last Saturday's game. "He eats up a zone."
The Browns rely heavily on zone coverage against passing. Most of the time they stay in what is known as a three-deep zone, designed to shut off the long pass and grudgingly yield yardage on short passes. Invariably there are cracks in such a defense. They occur in the areas between zones. For instance, if the zone is short and long, a receiver may be open for a fleeting second as he leaves the zone of the short man before he can be picked up by the deep man.
A passer needs good anticipation, cool daring and unerring accuracy to throw into these cracks, since the ball must be thrown ahead of the receiver on a flight that will split the crack in the zone just as the receiver arrives in it. No quarterback does this as well as Unitas. Too, the receivers must run faultless patterns, since any deviation from the pattern opens up a strong possibility of an interception. Raymond Berry is a meticulous receiver; Jimmy Orr and John Mackey are nearly as good, and Lenny Moore, going out for a pass from his halfback post, poses an additional threat.
Coach Don Shula last year installed what has come to be known as the Baltimore flood, an offensive formation that puts three receivers on or close to the line of scrimmage on one side, and a fourth on the other side. The Baltimore flood forces the defense out of zone coverage and often sets up man-to-man coverage on Berry. Since the Cleveland defensive backs are not notably strong on man-to-man coverage, the Colt passing attack should work very well from the flood, as well as from conventional sets which will permit Unitas to probe the Cleveland zone.
The Baltimore running game, which seemed to slow down a little during the second half of the season, should nevertheless be effective enough against the Cleveland defense to insure ball control for the Colts. One of Baltimore's favorite short-yardage plays sends Moore or Tony Lorick or Jerry Hill driving into the line behind the blocking of massive Jim Parker, a 275-pound guard with tremendous strength. Opposing him across the line will be young, relatively inexperienced Jim Kanicki, a 270-pound defensive tackle in his second season. Kanicki has improved enormously during this season, but it is unreasonable to assume that he will be able to defeat an All-League guard like Parker. It is likely that most of the Baltimore ground attack will be aimed straight at the Cleveland defensive line, with a minimum of trickery. Cleveland plays a reading defense and is seldom fooled by influence blocking or sucker plays, in which a guard pulls in a direction opposite to the actual flow of the play, hoping that the tackle in front of him will move with him, leaving a hole for the ballcarrier. Pittsburgh, in one of the three games Cleveland lost this season, kept driving straight into the Cleveland line, and that night John Henry Johnson gained 200 yards on 30 carries.
But the success of the Colt running game may well depend on how well the blockers handle Vince Costello, the middle linebacker who calls the Cleveland defenses. Costello has wide range on pass coverage, and he has quick reaction to running plays, although he is not as punishing a tackler as the Colts' Bill Pellington. Since Costello is not exceptionally big he can sometimes be handled by a one-on-one block, and Dick Szymanski, the Colt center, is accomplished at the art of cutting down a middle linebacker.
The Colt pass-protection blocking has been good this year. Against the Browns, a team which seldom resorts to the blitz, this blocking should hold up as well as usual. The Cleveland defensive ends, Paul Wiggin and Bill Glass, will give the Colts a good deal of pressure. Both are strong, overpowering men—as big as the Colt tackles who will be blocking them—with long experience. Bob Vogel, who will face Glass, weighs five pounds less than his opponent, and George Preas, who must block Wiggin, weighs five pounds more. Vogel is only in his second season and may have difficulty containing the sophisticated Glass.
When the Browns go on offense their problems increase rather than diminish. By the end of the season Baltimore had one of the best defenses in the league, and it is more daring than Cleveland's. While the Browns blitz only about 10% of the time, the Colts send their linebackers in a third of the time, and occasionally go all out and send the safety man in, too. Even without the blitz, Baltimore puts damaging pressure on a passer; Gino Marchetti, despite his 38 years and 13 seasons of professional football, is still the best pass rusher in the game. He is as quick and as strong as a predatory cat, reads plays instantly and reacts instantly to both runs and passes. The man blocking on him will be the youngest of the Cleveland offensive linemen, John Brown. Brown is quick and strong, but he will not be able to protect Ryan from Marchetti all afternoon.
When the Colts use Billy Ray Smith and Fred Miller at tackle and Ordell Braase at the other end, they have four exceptionally capable pass rushers going in. Guy Reese, who plays the same tackle as Smith, is strong against the run but not quick enough for a big pass rush.
The Colts are more vulnerable to the run than they are to the pass, and Ryan should have more success sending Ernie Green and Jimmy Brown into the Colt line than he will have in passing. All but one of the Baltimore defensive backs are strong on man-to-man coverage; the club uses man-to-man and zone, about 50-50. The brutal pressure the Colts put on passers is an important factor. They have thrown opposing quarterbacks for losses more often than any other club in the league. The Browns, on the other hand, because of their conservative defense, have reached and thrown enemy passers less often than anyone else.
The success of the Cleveland attack, then, will depend first on how well the offensive line can hold off the Baltimore defense, giving Ryan time to throw. If Ryan can establish the sound running attack he did against the Giants, it will inhibit the charge of the Colt line, since the defense must then read run and exercise caution in making the pass rush.
If this happens and Ryan has adequate time to throw, the Colts will be in trouble. Ryan will then be hitting Warfield and Gary Collins—two excellent receivers—for good gains. Warfield is the best rookie receiver to come up in the last decade. He is not big—6 feet even and 188 pounds—but he has extraordinary moves for a rookie, plus speed. He is almost impossible to cover man for man—witness the Giants' difficulties with him—and he has sure hands. Beyond all this, he has the rare knack of never letting his eyes leave the ball and catching well in a crowd. Finally, he compensates for his lack of height by tremendous spring, which lifts him higher than taller defensive backs.
Collins is a perfect complement to Warfield. He is big—6 feet 4, 208—and gives Ryan a wide target breaking across the middle, especially close to the goal line. He caught a touchdown pass against the Giants on this pattern. He is not as fast or as quick as Warfield, but he has enough speed to go deep and has just as good hands.
Unfortunately, all of the sting could be drawn from Cleveland's passing attack if the weather should be bitterly cold in Municipal Stadium. Two of the three games the Browns lost during 1964 were on subfreezing days—which raises a reasonable suspicion that Ryan, who played college football in warm weather at Rice University and began his pro career with the Los Angeles Rams in southern California, is not as effective a passer in cold weather as he is when the temperature is above freezing. Unitas, on the other hand, has never been much affected by cold.
It is to be hoped that the weather is warm enough and the field soft enough to give these exciting teams a maximum of running and passing advantage. Both have truly spectacular offenses; Tony Lorick and Lenny Moore give Baltimore just as strong a running game as Cleveland has with Jimmy Brown and Ernie Green. Any one of the four backs is capable of a long run. While Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr do not have quite the speed of Cleveland's Warfield and Collins, they more than make up for that with experience.
There is no great difference between the teams, but in the two most important areas of the game Baltimore has a clear edge: quarterback and overall defense. Cleveland probably will score at least a couple of times on long plays, but Baltimore should control the ball, run more plays—and win.