Frank Ryan, a tall young man with prematurely gray hair, thoughtful eyes and a mordant wit, took a Ph.D. in mathematics at Rice University this spring. In the dying days of 1964 he had taken another—in the applied tactics of football—that will earn him more money and a great deal more renown than he will ever realize from his math.
Ryan earned his football degree in the NFL championship game last season as he led the Cleveland Browns to a shocking 27-0 victory over the Baltimore Colts. In previous seasons—and a few times during 1964—Ryan had seemed hesitant and confused as he dropped back to survey opposing defenses, but in this game he was master of himself and of the situation, and he calmly and shrewdly shot the Baltimore defense to bits.
It takes almost as long to earn a postgraduate degree as a quarterback as it does to earn one as a mathematician; for Ryan the two coincided. If he stays whole he could easily lead the Browns to their second straight division championship, although it seems doubtful that he can duplicate, against the sophisticated, strong and deep Green Bay Packers—the team most likely to win in the West—what he did against the Baltimore Colts last year.
Of course, Ryan can still call on Jim Brown to carry the ball and Ernie Green to block for Brown—and for himself on pass plays. The Cleveland pass attack was hampered but not destroyed by the loss of Paul Warfield; Ryan still has Gary Collins (three touchdown passes in the championship game), John Brewer and Warfield's very good replacements, Clifton McNeil and Walter Roberts, to throw to. And the Cleveland offensive line is excellent, both in clearing a path for Brown and in restraining opposing defensive linemen from disjointing Ryan. All in all, the Brown offense is probably as good as any in football.
The defense should be better than it was last year. In the championship game it was superb, but it played well over its head in that one. Key to the Brown defense last year was a stubby, broadly built castoff tackle from the New York Giants named Dick Modzelewski. Early in the season the Browns lost two defensive tackles, Jim Parker and Bob Gain. This put the load of stopping up the middle on the very young and pudgy Jim Kanicki and the elderly Modzelewski. Modzelewski responded by having the best season of his career. Kanicki looked terrible at first, notably against Pittsburgh in Cleveland, but he came around very quickly under Modzelewski's tutelage, and by the time the Browns met the Colts he had learned so much that he was able to handle the Colts' All-Pro guard, another big man, named Jim Parker. Kanicki is back, Mo is back and the Brown defensive line is deep and strong. The linebackers are growing old but not too old and the secondary is quick.
Last year the Brown defense sagged strategically; that is, in midfield it gave up yards rather easily but rarely gave up winning points. This year the Brown defense probably will be stiffer all over the field. With Jim Brown running, Ernie Green blocking, Ryan throwing and any one of several fine receivers catching, the Browns will be able to solve most defenses they will see: if the defense is as good as it looks, they could be first in the East again. If the defense slips, the Browns could slip with it to third place.
Of course, the Browns are vulnerable to disaster in that they place most of their eggs in two baskets—Ryan and Jim Brown. Brown, a canny and strong runner who runs with care if not caution, has never been seriously hurt in his pro career, but he is growing old for a running back. Behind him the Browns have only nondescript ball-carriers, and the psychological shock of losing Brown for any appreciable period could be deep. Behind Ryan is Jim Ninowski, who has all the technical skills required of a quarterback, but who has never been able to shoulder the load of carrying a team to a championship.
To summarize: Ryan and Brown have got to hold on, and the defense must hold up.