The National Football League schedule runs for 14 weeks, and a lot of things can happen before the middle of December. Yet we had a feeling that we had blown it all when we lost that season opener to the Vikings. Then the next Sunday we beat the Green Bay Packers and won the Western title. At least that is the way we look back on it now.
The Packers, in their opener, had beaten last year's champions, the Chicago Bears. I knew we had a better club than the one we had shown against Minnesota, but Green Bay was something else again. In our planning for the Packers we spent a good deal of time working on a flood play—a play with three receivers spread to one side and Raymond Berry to the other. I figured if the Packers rotated their defense to the strong side, it would leave Berry with single coverage on the weak side. There are no defensive backs who can consistently cover him man-to-man. If the Packers did not rotate their secondary, they would have to try to cover Lenny Moore—flanked between the tackle and the end on the flood side—with a linebacker. The Packer linebackers are among the best in pro football, but no linebacker can take Lenny all the way down the field.
Designing a defense for the Packers was even tougher. No team is more versatile on attack than Green Bay. Bart Starr is a wonderful field general and a fine passer. Some people have said that he cannot throw accurately long, but that is not true. He is a complete passer who throws quickly and accurately at short, middle and long range. He is hard to rush, because he releases the ball quickly, and he is not a bad runner if the occasion arises. The key to the Green Bay running game is a power sweep, with both guards pulling out of the line and leading either Jim Taylor or Paul Hornung around the end. When Hornung carries, you have to worry about him throwing, too. The safety or the corner back has to commit himself quickly on the sweep, but if he commits too quickly you are open to a long pass.
During the week we worked on coverage and on putting pressure on the ballcarrier on the sweep, to force him to throw too soon or commit himself to the run. We worked on the flood series, too. By the time we left for Green Bay, we seemed ready. I did not know how ready we were mentally. After losing that one to the Vikings it was hard to figure out.
January 18, 1965
The game turned on two plays: one by our offense and one by our defense. The offensive play was a pass to Lenny Moore that went 71 yards for a touchdown, and it was a pass thrown from the flood formation. The Packers did not rotate; they depended on Dan Currie, a fine linebacker, to cover Lenny. Unitas called the play. I very seldom send a play in to Johnny. He is the quickest and smartest quarterback playing today, and I firmly believe that the quarterback on the field is in a better position than the coach on the sideline to estimate and analyze defenses. We came out in the flood, and Unitas saw that the Green Bay coverage isolated Currie on Moore. Unitas dropped straight back, looked at Berry on the other side for a second, then threw to Moore, who had outrun Currie, and Lenny went on in for the touchdown. That was the big play on offense.
The play that won us the game came late in the fourth quarter—a little over a minute to go, third and nine—with the score 21-20 for us and the Packers driving for a touchdown. Starr had been throwing to Max McGee most of the day, hitting him on a square-out pattern, where Max started straight down-field from a spread position, then broke sharply toward the sideline. We were covering him short and deep, letting the corner linebacker, Don Shinnick, drop off in the short area and the corner back take him deep. We were gambling, because if another receiver came out of the backfield to the same side it meant we would have to take him man-to-man with our middle linebacker, Bill Pellington. This is a difficult assignment for a middle linebacker, since he has a long way to go to cover a man who is, by the nature of his job, much faster.
Anyway, at this time, late in the fourth quarter, the Packers had moved into our territory and they were driving. Starr called the pattern we were afraid of—a pass to Tom Moore against single coverage by Pellington. Starr dropped back, and Moore circled out of the back-field and was all alone. Then Starr threw—and he threw toward McGee. Shinnick went up and picked off the ball and closed the Packers out, and we ran out the clock. I don't know why Starr did not throw to Moore; maybe the defensive line had shut off the lane to Moore.
[Max McGee, the Green Bay end, said that the call was a pass to Moore. "We knew they were dropping Shinnick off to cover me short," he said. "When they did that, it left an impossible job for Pellington if the back came down behind me. So we called the play as a pass to Moore. I ran the square out, and when I looked up and saw the ball coming toward me I was amazed. I never had a chance to sit down with Bart and talk about the play. I don't think he could see Moore."]
So we won the game, and we picked up tremendous momentum. We had proved something to ourselves. I think no one was really convinced before that we were a championship team. After the Packer game we knew we could do it. Shinnick's interception gave us the win and the confidence. If Starr had seen Moore, it might have been the Packers in the championship game, not the Colts.
After that victory over the Packers, it seemed to me as if every game we played was the game of the week. Every time we won it was a double win; we beat a contender, and then one contender beat another. We had thought that the race in the West would be a scramble, but as the season went along it turned out that the scramble was behind us—for second place.
After the Green Bay game, we beat the Chicago Bears, the defending champions, in Baltimore 52-0, in as perfectly played a game as I have ever seen.
Our offense had been good before this game, but it was against the Bears that the defense matured. Bill Pellington's calls on defense were precise and right, and the line put tremendous pressure on the Bear passer without depending on a blitz.
Then the Rams came to town, and at that time, if you remember, the Rams were in second place. We beat them, too. We were supposed to go to St. Louis to play the Cardinals—tied for the Eastern Division lead with Cleveland—but because the St. Louis Cardinals' baseball team was in the World Series the game was shifted to Baltimore. That was a break, too. The home-town advantage is not much in pro football, but it helps, and we beat the Cardinals, too.
In setting up a game plan for our next game—with the Packers, who were now a game and a half behind us—I knew there would be no way for us to get the same kind of coverage we had in the first game with the flood formation. We would not be able to isolate Currie on Lenny Moore again. You play blind chess the second time around. You know what the other team has done and what you have done, and you have to try to put yourself in the position of the other coach. You know he won't make the same mistakes, and he knows you won't. You have to try to magine what mistakes he will make compensating and what mistakes he thinks you will make.
Since I knew the Packers would certainly rotate to the flood side in order to give Currie help on Moore, I thought we might be successful coming back to the weak side on passes to Berry and maybe on runs. It worked out pretty much the way I thought it would; we moved the ball well but, then, so did they.
They departed from type on their offense. They used a quick toss to Jim Taylor, coming back to our weak side. We weren't looking for that, although Cleveland had used the same play against the Packers in an exhibition game and had some success with Jim Brown, so I might have known they would remember it. Then they ran the draw more than usual, and they passed off a fake draw. All of these plays gave us trouble until we could adjust at half time.
The big play in this game was again made by the defense, by Lennie Lyles. Starr threw a quick look-in pass to Ron Kramer over the middle of our defense, and Kramer lateraled to Max McGee. McGee, from where I stood, looked like he was free for a touchdown, but Lyles, who has wonderful speed, caught him on our three-yard line. Then we held for three downs, Paul Hornung missed a field goal, and the game was saved. The goal-line stand gave us an edge. There is no single thing in a football game that turns the fortunes of the two teams more suddenly than a goal-line stand. If you have the ball with first and goal on the other team's five and you don't get a point, it disheartens your teams—offense and defense—and it inspires the opposition.
I was glad it was Lyles who made the play. He and I had had some conflict at first. I yelled at him a lot—I have a hot temper and once in a while I lose it—because he is a tough, aggressive player, and he had a tendency to draw penalties for using his hands too much. I think he resented the criticism at first, but he got over it. He is a fine defensive back, and he proved it on that play. In fact, he proved it all season. Against the 49ers, he did a remarkable job on their top receiver, Dave Parks.
The big offensive play against the Packers was an 18-yard run by Lenny Moore. Lenny has had many fine runs in his career, but I think this one may have been the most important.
He slanted off the left side of our line, and Henry Jordan, the Green Bay tackle, hit him as he reached the line of scrimmage. Lenny does not look like a power runner, but he runs with strong, high knee action, and he broke Jordan's tackle and slanted a little wider. Then Henry Gremminger came up and hit him hard. Lenny bounced sideways, kept his feet and broke that tackle, too, and headed for the corner of the end zone. Jess Whittenton hit him on about the five and wrapped both arms around Lenny and I could have sworn he was down, but he kept his legs moving, twisted free of Whittenton and went on in for the TD. Even after watching the movies of the run over and over, I'm not quite sure how he did it. Funny thing. We talked of trading Moore for a linebacker before the season. He had been hurt most of the year before, and we had running backs and needed defense. But first we asked Lenny if he would like to play somewhere else, and when he said he didn't want to play anywhere but in Baltimore we kept him. As I said earlier, you have to be lucky.
We won three more games in a row before we met the Vikings for the second time, in Baltimore on November 15. They were only a game and a half behind us—still within reach. And even if we lost to them but still took the Western Division, most of the shine would be rubbed off. How can you really be the best if you lose twice to the same club?
I knew the Vikings would try to ram the ball down our throats; they had gained 313 yards on the ground against us in the first game and controlled the ball all the way, so I knew Van Brocklin would stick with at least that much of a winning game plan. So we set up our defense to contain the running as much as possible. We knew that Tarkenton would roll out of the pocket to get away from our rush, looking for time to hit the cracks in our zone pass defense. The cracks usually open up 12 to 15 yards downfield, and in the first game he hit them real well. Usually against a roll-out quarterback my theory is to let him roll. Once you make the quarterback run he's playing your game; most quarterbacks can't throw well from a run, and quarterbacks kill you throwing, not running. But with Tarkenton you can't do that. Because he throws well running, you have one of two choices: you either use your linebackers to lay back and seal up the cracks, or you use them to force, to come after the quarterback and make him unload. We used them to force, and it worked. The Vikings had scored 34 points on us in the first game; in the second we held them to 14. Their running game still worked; they ran better against us in both games than any other team we played.
There were three key plays in this game, all by our offense. And one substitution helped. The first key came late in the game, when we were behind 14-10. It was fourth down and seven yards to go, and we were in field-goal range. The decision I had to make was whether to go for the first down and maybe a touch, or kick the field goal, which would make it 14-13 and put us in field-goal range of a victory. Lou Michaels was a little off that day, so I decided to go for the first down. I did not send in a play; I had faith in Unitas' call. He called a screen pass off a fake into the line by the halfback and threw out to Moore. Lenny caught the ball, got two blocks and picked up the first down.
Two plays later, we got the touchdown that won the game. Berry was hurt for this game, and I had put Willie Richardson in his place. Richardson broke a pass pattern earlier in the game and Unitas seemed upset, so I took Richardson out and put in Alex Hawkins. I don't like to use Hawkins on the offensive unit; he is so valuable as captain of our special units that I like to keep him in that capacity. But he is a good, steady receiver, and this was a big game. So I put him in.
Unitas felt that Hawk could get loose with an outside move on the back covering him, so he first ran an out, then an in pattern, and he was open both times. Two plays after we picked up the first down, Unitas called the out again, and Hawkins made an unbelievable catch for the touchdown that won us the game. If we had kicked the field goal we probably would have lost, since the Viking ground game was going real well against us and all they would have had to do was control the ball for a 14-13 victory.
The third key play was not as dramatic as the first two, but it may have been just as important. We took the ball away from them again after the touchdown, since they had to throw and go for a big gain to set up a score.
When we got the ball it was up to us to grind it out. We had third and four, and if we missed on this first down the Vikings would have one last shot at a touchdown or a field goal. The Vikings looked for a short pass, and they went to double coverage on our prime receivers. And Johnny, in a typical Unitas move that combined intelligent, quick analysis of a defense with the daring to call an unorthodox play, called a quarterback draw.
He dropped back in the pocket and cocked his arm, and the pass defenders flew out of there. Then he tucked the ball under his arm and ran up the hole in the middle for the first down. Then we ran the clock out, and I told Johnny just to take the ball and fall down. But even on the quarterback sneaks he was looking for a hole to run through. He likes to make yards even running out the clock.
We finally wrapped up the Western Division championship against the Los Angeles Rams. I don't think there was any single important play in this game. If there was a trademark on this Colt win, it was our defense. We got to the Ram quarterbacks 11 times on their pass attempts and threw them for nearly 100 yards in losses. And it's a good thing we did, because their front four—Lamar Lundy, Merle Olsen, Rosey Grier and David Jones—reached Johnny five times, which is a lot. We had no luck throwing against the Rams, mainly because of that pressure. The Ram front line is going to be one of the best in the business. We hit two good long passes, though, when Johnny reached Berry behind Aaron Martin, the rookie corner back, and John Mackey beat the Rams' strong-side safety for a long gain.
For some reason, Rosey Grier always has a good day against Jim Parker, our All-Pro guard, but we got a big touchdown in the game when Lenny Moore followed Parker on an inside trap for a touchdown. The Ram game was not one of our best, but it did clinch the Western Division championship for us.
The last three games of the season were naturally anticlimactic. We played poorly against San Francisco and won, because the defense rose to the occasion. We played poorly against Detroit and lost. In our last game we played Washington and beat them 45-17.
I thought at the time that it was a good thing to win the Western title early so that we could use the last three games to blood some of the players who had not been given much opportunity to play during the season. But maybe we lost our momentum. There was certainly something missing that Sunday in Cleveland.
TWO BIG PLAYS
Interception by Linebacker Don Shinnick (above) in play diagramed below was the key to the Colts' first victory over Green Bay. Packer Quarterback Bart Starr overlooked an open receiver (Tom Moore, 25) and tried to reach Max McGee (85), who was covered by Shinnick (66) and Lyles (43).
Baltimore flood play (above) isolated Lenny Moore (24) on Packer Linebacker Dan Currie (58). The flood is designed to force this kind of coverage and give linebacker an extremely difficult chore. Moore took pass behind Currie and went 71 yards to touchdown.