MIXTURE OF MIND, MUSCLE, MATURITY
Frank Ryan (see cover) is a tall, slender man with the ascetic face of a Catholic priest, prematurely graying hair and, at last, the cool, quick mind of a great quarterback. Last Sunday afternoon in Cleveland he engineered one of the biggest of all football upsets, and in that improbable destruction of the Baltimore Colts, by the implausible score of 27-0, his choice of plays was both flawless and daring. He used the incomparable running talents of Jimmy Brown with maximum effectiveness. With his quick right arm he sailed three long and lovely touchdown passes to Flanker Gary Collins, the third of Cleveland's triumvirate of particular stars.
But these were not the only heroes in Cleveland's vault to the National Football League championship. This was an afternoon in which young people like Jim Kanicki matured and old folks like Lou Groza had all their ancient skills, a day when Dick Modzelewski saw the winning spirit he had tried to instill busting out all over and the Browns' good, gray coach, Blanton Collier, eliminated the last traces of any lingering yearning for Cleveland's good, volcanic ex-coach, Paul Brown.
"I think that today I grew up," said Kanicki, the Cleveland tackle who looks very much like an enormous baby with soft pink cheeks and what looks like baby fat still left on his 270-pound body. "I found out how to play this game."
January 4, 1965
Kanicki did grow up on this cold, blustery afternoon, but so did Ryan. For Kanicki maturity came early in his career. For Ryan it was slow and late, as it almost always is for quarterbacks.
It was a bizarre game. Baltimore came to Cleveland as one of the finest offensive teams ever to win a divisional championship and left without having scored a point on the worst defense in the league. Baltimore's own defense had given up fewer points than any other club in the league over the season, and one of its real strengths was its ability to put crippling pressure on the opponent's passer. Yet on Sunday afternoon the Baltimore defense made three mental errors, each of which proved expensive, and never did it put enough pressure on Ryan to disturb him.
The Cleveland defense, on the other hand, had been barely adequate all year long. But for this game, Cleveland became one of the great defensive teams of championship game history.
"Were we tall enough out there today?" asked Bernie Parrish, the left corner back, after the game. "We won five in a row early in the season, and no one thought we were short. Then we lost some games, and I began to feel like a midget because people started to write that the Brown secondary was too short. We grew a few inches this afternoon."
Parrish directed the coverage in the Brown secondary against the Baltimore passing attack; the basic defense was called from the sideline by the defensive coaches. It was a daring defense.
"We crowded them," said Nick Skorich, who, with Howard Brinker and Eddie Ulinski, coaches the Cleveland defensive team. "Especially when they were throwing into the wind and we knew that they could not throw long. We knew that the Colt pass patterns are built on precision and timing. We knew that if you take away the first receiver and force Johnny Unitas to go to a second or third you are forcing them out of a pattern, and, too, if you cover Jimmy Orr and Raymond Berry tight up close you force them to change their cuts and patterns and you take away the timing and the precision. So we did this. We took away Unitas' first target. Then he had to hesitate and look again for another target, and that gave the rush time to reach him. And we got a strong rush inside, so he couldn't duck away from the rush from the ends and still find freedom to throw the ball."
The strong inside rush came from young Kanicki and a veteran who may be the true key to the Browns' championship. Dick Modzelewski was traded to the Browns from the Giants. He is a squat, barrel-necked defensive tackle who has been in the league 12 years and, as much as any one player, he changed Cleveland from a group of individuals into a unit.
Dick Schafrath, the big offensive tackle, said, "Maybe it was Mo who did the whole thing. I remember when he was traded to us he said, 'You have all the talent you need to win a championship, but you don't really believe you can do it.' He said he thought we could win it. And he made us believe it."
Modzelewski contributed more.
"He taught me an awful lot," said Kanicki. "I came into this league as green as you can get. I was too aggressive all the time, but too aggressive especially at the wrong time. Maybe it would be first and 10 and I would fire out as hard as I could go to rush the passer. Well, most clubs don't throw on first and 10, and I was getting trapped. Like in the first Pittsburgh game when John Henry Johnson gained 200 yards on us and maybe most of them right over me. But Mo and Blanton Collier worked with me and taught me to read blocks, and I finally learned not to be suckered. All the time out there today Mo talked to me, like he has all season. He'd say, this time put on the big rush. Or look for the run. Little things. I was scared to death before the game, me playing head on Jim Parker, maybe the best blocking lineman in the league. But we crowded him and pushed him, and we figured that if I would hand fight instead of firing out I could do better. It worked pretty well."
It worked so well that Unitas, who likes to duck inside the rush from ends and throw from deep in a pocket, never had a pocket all afternoon. When he stepped in, away from the outside rush from Bill Glass and Paul Wiggin, the pocket was so shallow because of the pressure from Modzelewski and Kanicki that Unitas was either forced to throw quickly or was tackled.
For a half, it was a spectacularly dull game. Neither team seemed willing to gamble for a long gain; Unitas and Ryan played with all the flair of a pair of elderly clubwomen in a Sunday afternoon croquet match.
"That was not the way I wanted it to go," Unitas said later. "I wanted to go out and gun them down, but their defense didn't allow that. So I had to play it conservative. They shut off the bombs."
This, of course, was the Cleveland strategy. When Unitas had the 20-mile-an-hour wind at his back, the deep safeties played cautiously; when he was throwing into the wind—in the second and third quarters—they moved dangerously close to the line and took away his short targets. And the Browns, a team that seldom blitzes, blitzed more often in this game. The Colts are a right-handed team, as are most teams in the league, but they came out strong left more often than not in the first quarter, upsetting the Cleveland defense.
"It was kind of tough on me for a while," said Bill Glass, who is the defensive right end for the Browns. "I was getting double-teamed a lot—the tackle and the end both blocking on me. But they went away from that at last, and I got a chance to rush against one-on-one blocking. I was getting in because they went to a flood and couldn't keep any backs in to help stop me on the pass rush."
The Brown defense made almost no mistakes, certainly none that cost points; the Colt defense made three that cost them 14. After the rather feckless first half in which neither team distinguished itself or established any trend, the Colts, who had lost the toss at the beginning of the game, now elected to receive. The Browns, in turn, chose to take the strong wind at their backs.
"The wind was a decisive factor in this game," said Blanton Collier. "We thought for a long time about whether we wanted it behind us in the fourth quarter. Most of the time you want the wind with you at the end of the game so you can rally if you have to. But I decided maybe we better take the wind while it was still blowing. If we gave it to the Colts—and neither team had scored by the half, remember—and they got hot, we might be out of the game by the time we got it in the fourth. So we decided to take the wind and it worked."
The Colts received the second half kickoff and could not move the ball against either the wind or the Brown defense. They were forced to punt from their own 23-yard line, and Tom Gilburg, a large offensive tackle, managed to kick the ball only 25 yards.
Now Cleveland had the ball on the Baltimore 48-yard line. The Colt defense held reasonably well, and Lou Groza, the oldest man in the league, kicked a 43-yard field goal with that blustery wind at his back.
His kickoff, again with the strong wind helping, sailed over the Baltimore end zone. The Colts started from their 20-yard line with the wind in their faces, and the Cleveland defense, playing the wind, pulled up tight to cut off short passes.
Unitas missed on one pass and was rushed too hard to throw a second. He got away a short screen to Tony Lorick, but Galen Fiss, the aging Cleveland linebacker, played the screen brilliantly and tackled Lorick after a short gain. Now the Colts, held deep in their own territory, had to punt into a small gale again.
It was not a bad punt. It died on the Cleveland 32-yard line. Then Ryan took advantage of a peculiar defect in the Baltimore defense. The Browns ran one play to the right from a conventional formation. Then they came out in a double wing, with Ernie Green set as a flanker to the left. The only man behind Ryan in the backfield was Jim Brown. The Colt linebacker on the left was cheated in a little toward the middle: the defensive halfback opposite Green was playing six or seven yards behind the line.
The play was a quick pitchout to Brown, swinging to his left, and he swept around the pinched-in linebacker with three blockers in front of him. The halfback was too far back to come up and stop him before he gained momentum. He ran for 46 yards, down to the Baltimore 18-yard line.
"We didn't use that sweep much in the first half," Collier said after the game. "Maybe we were thinking too much. It had gained a lot of yards for us during the season, and we knew the Colts knew it. So we didn't go to it in the first half. It was very effective in the second half."
"They were playing the corner back way off the line," Ryan said. "Most clubs play the corner back up close when we come out in the double wing, figuring he can cross the line fast and force Jim Brown back and wide on the sweep until help gets there. But they were playing him deep, and when Jim turned the corner he was home free."
From the Baltimore 18-yard line Ryan made another brilliant call. On the previous play—Brown's long run—the Colts had been confused in their coverage; the corner back dropped off because he missed an audible signal called by the Colt defense, which would have stationed him up close. Now the Colts missed another audible defensive call. "This was probably the most important decision I had to make all afternoon," Ryan said later. "We had established tremendous momentum. The running was going; we had just gained 46 yards on a running play, and I was tempted to call another sweep. But maybe I would call a sweep into an outside blitz and they would drop Jim for a long loss. Then I thought maybe we can go inside, but if they pinched in and cut off the inside we wouldn't gain, and the momentum could go from us to them. I knew they had been playing Gary Collins for a hook pass all afternoon. I decided to call a hook-and-go to Collins, and when he went he was open."
Collins caught Ryan's hard pass crossing the Baltimore end zone from his left to his right, and no one was near him.
"We couldn't hear our calls," said Bob Boyd, Baltimore's defensive left halfback. "We blew one on that play and we blew another one later. The guy who was supposed to take the middle deep took the outside."
The one they blew later was a very long pass to Collins, and it was successful because Jerry Logan of the Colts misread the Cleveland formation. He thought it was a strong right—a formation in which his zone coverage was short and outside—when it was actually strong left. In a Cleveland strong-left formation Logan's coverage was deep and in the middle. When he left that area bereft of coverage, Collins broke into it. Ryan released one of the many beautifully accurate passes he threw that afternoon, with and against the wind, and it was a touchdown.
Cleveland scored on still another Ryan-to-Collins pass, but it did not really make much difference. The Browns had proven, conclusively, that they were a better team than Baltimore. They had taken away the Baltimore weapons and reduced football's best quarterback to a hesitant, vulnerable passer who lost yardage making up his mind.
Ryan was tired and bloody after the game. On a late play, after the issue had been decided, he was buried under a horde of Baltimore tacklers led by Gino Marchetti, who, at 37, is still the best defensive end in professional football. He climbed wearily to his feet and walked slowly to the sideline, feeling his face, which had been damaged.
He had welts on his nose and cheek from that brutal tackle. "They didn't hurt me much," he said. "They came after me, but during the game I didn't see them coming. I knew what I wanted to do and I tried to do it. I think it worked pretty well."
It worked remarkably well. And the two men who made it work were very disparate personalities. One was an old tackle, traded away from a championship team with most of his championship spirit intact; the other was an intellectual, quiet quarterback who had never been a winner until this day.
"I don't know how we got Modzelewski," Collier said after the game. "I don't know how they could give him up. But we were lucky we got him."
In the steamy, noisy dressing room after the game Collier was surrounded by writers shouting at him for an explanation of how the Browns had won. He patiently explained the defense and the offense, his glasses steamed over and his face intent and serious. Then Modzelewski came out of the showers and said, quietly, "Let me by, I'm wet and I'll get you wet," and the writers separated and let him go through.
He did not get by Collier. Blanton embraced him, wet as he was.
"Thanks," he said to Mo. "Thanks."
"It was a good trade," Mo said. "I never had a better season."
No one ever did.
A season of triumph and disaster. That is how Coach Don Shula of the Baltimore Colts describes the wildly memorable campaign of 1964. The first of a series.