A week ago the race for the Eastern Division championship of the National Football League seemed an almost indecipherable scramble among Cleveland, St. Louis and Dallas. It is still a scramble but, with an impressive victory over Washington's Redskins in D.C. Stadium on Sunday, the Cardinals have established themselves as the best of the scramblers. They demolished Washington 37-16 on the brilliant passing of Charley Johnson to receivers Bobby Joe Conrad and Sonny Randle and the powerful running of Backs Willis Crenshaw and Bill Triplett. The Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, scrambled desperately but not brilliantly in shading Pittsburgh 24-19 on a rain-soaked field at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. They were playing without five starters.
As for the Dallas Cowboys—well, they seem as scrambled as eggs in a pan. With Don Meredith far off form, Coach Tom Landry had him sit out Sunday's game with the Eagles and went back to the practice of shuttling quarterbacks, alternating rookies Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome. This operation was fairly successful—Morton completed 11 of 11 passes and Rhome 8 of 14—but the patient died. In other words, the Cowboys lost 35-24. If Landry must employ rookies at quarterback, Dallas appears to be out of the race for the division championship.
A team must be both good and lucky to win a division championship. The only team in the East that qualifies on both counts is St. Louis. The Cleveland Browns, now tied with the Cardinals for the lead, are unquestionably good, but they have been unlucky; in the first month of play the Browns have had six first-line players injured and have played their last two games with five starters on the bench. The Dallas Cowboys, after a fairly gaudy start, proved in the last two weeks that they are neither excellent nor fortunate.
The Cardinals have beaten the Browns (49-13), the Cowboys (20-13) and the Redskins. On the next two Sundays they play teams that have yet to win (Pittsburgh and Washington), and they do not meet either Cleveland or Dallas again until the last two weeks of the season. Their Western Division opponents are the Los Angeles Rams and the Chicago Bears. The Cowboys meet Green Bay and San Francisco and the Browns play the Minnesota Vikings and the Rams. On the record of the teams to date, the Cardinals have the easier opponents in the West. Beyond that, while the Cardinals are playing second-division teams for the next seven weeks, the Browns and the Cowboys play each other twice, the Browns play the Vikings, and the Cowboys play Green Bay a week after their first meeting with Cleveland.
By the time the Cardinals get around to Dallas again on December 11, the Cowboys probably will be out of the race. If the Browns can restore enough first-line players to active duty and survive the rigors of their schedule, they may still be within striking distance of the Cards when the two teams meet in St. Louis in the final game of the season.
But the Cardinals' championship prospects are built on much more than the accident of a favorable schedule and the misfortunes of their chief adversaries. This is a sounder team than it was a year ago: the defense is more cohesive, Johnson is a more poised and resourceful quarterback, the running attack is far stronger and the offensive line is easily the best in the Eastern Division.
Of all these factors, possibly the most important is the development of Johnson. A year ago he had an unfortunate habit of trying to force his passes—throwing to his primary receiver no matter how tight the coverage on him. He also had a tendency to give up on his running game if it did not work immediately and to rely entirely on passes. Now he has almost rid himself of these vices. Some of the improvement is the natural result of an additional year's experience; more of it is due to the intensive coaching of Bobby Layne, who went to the Cardinals as quarterback tutor when he quit the Steelers with the impulsive Buddy Parker.
"Layne hasn't told me anything that Coach Wally Lemm didn't," says Johnson. "Coach Lemm said the same things to me last year, but I guess I didn't pay as much attention as I have to Layne—probably because I know he was a quarterback and a good one. For instance, Bobby told me not to quit on a running play because it doesn't work at first. He told me to run it again now and then just to make the defense aware of it and to set them up for something else, and then, when you get them set up, to wait until the right time to use a particular play. He reminded me not to waste it deep in your own territory. To save it until you need it."
Johnson gets back and sets up for his passes more quickly this year and is less vulnerable to a rush. "I still have to work on a sense of balance in our attack," he says frankly. "But Layne has given me a feeling of security in my calls, and I think I understand tactics better. I still get overanxious once in a while and press. When I do, I realize it. But I'm taking fewer chances than I did last year. I stay with the odds now."
The development of Crenshaw as a power runner and the return of Triplett have given the Cardinals an exceptionally strong running game, and Johnson is no longer afraid to use it. Behind the blocking of the fine Cardinal offensive line, it is particularly effective. "We like for Charley to call running plays," says Ken Gray, an offensive guard. "Pass blocking is a negative thing. You don't have a chance to prove yourself. But when you can root the other guy out on a running play, you have done something you can feel a positive pride in."
There are no rookies in the starting lineup. Although this is still a young team, it is not an immature one, and while Johnson and the offense make the splashiest headlines, the defense is equally well balanced and alert. Against their three most highly rated opponents—Cleveland, Dallas and Washington—the defense has allowed an average of only 14 points a game.
The Cowboys have failed to realize their high potential primarily because Don Meredith, unlike Johnson, has not grown as a quarterback. But there is another weakness. "The Cowboys have the best defense in the division," says the Cardinals' Gray. "They hit and hit, and in the second half, when you think they must be too tired to hit you again, they hit you again. The weak link in the Dallas club is the offensive line. They aren't coordinated yet."
It seems reasonable to think that the Cowboys could be spoilers for the rest of the year, but not serious contenders. The Browns, however, have enough power to make a run of it in the East through the final game—given a respite from injuries. Considering the troubles the team has had, it could easily be 1-3 rather than 3-1 and temporarily in a tie for first place.
"We figure that to beat Cleveland, you have to get off in front and force them to throw," says a Cardinal spokesman. "If you're ahead at the half and they are trying to play catch-up, you take away their big gun—Jim Brown. Then you put pressure on Ryan, and you win. That's what we did when we beat them 49-13."
Of course, it is not as easy as all that to get ahead of Cleveland at the half when all the Browns are in playing condition. The loss of End Paul Warfield for the first four games of the season with a broken collarbone seriously handicapped the Cleveland offense.
"With both Warfield and Collins receiving," says the Cards' Jerry Stovall, "you had a tough time doubling the coverage on one or the other. Now you can double Collins all the time, and everyone does."
Last week against Pittsburgh, Cleveland had four other regulars beside Warfield on the bench, all of them key players. Corner Linebacker Galen Fiss, one of the heroes of the championship victory over Baltimore last season, was out. Vince Costello, the heart of the Cleveland defense at middle linebacker, sat next to him on the bench. A rookie was playing defensive tackle in place of Jim Kanicki, another star of the championship game. Ernie Green, who is one of the two best blocking backs in the league (Paul Hornung is the other), missed the Pittsburgh game because of a bruised hip. The week before that the Browns managed to beat Philadelphia without the shrewed, experienced Ryan, who was suffering from a sore instep.
In spite of their killing schedule, the Browns have reason to be mildly hopeful. Ryan limped through the Pittsburgh game and directed the team on a last-minute drive to the game-winning touchdown. He should be completely recovered for the Dallas game this Sunday. Fiss and Costello will return, as will Kanicki, so the Brown defense ought to be substantially improved. And Green will be back clearing the way for the runs of Jim Brown.
"Warfield can play against Dallas if he has to," says Owner Art Modell. "But we would like to give him another week off and have him completely ready for the Vikings the week after."
The Browns have even fashioned one small gain out of all this adversity: Sid Williams, who replaced Fiss as corner linebacker, and Dale Lindsey, a rookie who filled in for Costello, both played well against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and gained invaluable experience. Leroy Kelly, who substituted for Green, is a quick and agile runner who complements Brown well. And Jim Ninowski proved, in his full-game performance in the victory over Philadelphia, that he is certainly an adequate replacement for Frank Ryan.
An important intangible must be noted in St. Louis' favor, though. The team finally has become sure of its own excellence, and it plays with confidence. "I had nightmares all during the offseason," says Ken Gray. "We came so close last year. We lost on a muddy day in New York, and one thing I can't forget is a blown play that left us in a fourth-and-20 situation. Just a few mistakes, and you live with them for a year. But this season is different. We don't make those mistakes now. They have to come get us. I think we crossed the summit of this damned thing when we beat Dallas. We have whipped the clubs we had to whip."
Aside from the help he has given Johnson, Bobby Layne has done one more thing for the Cardinals. He has added a healthy devil-may-care touch to a team given to much introspection and soul-searching, even in victory. While they mulled over the film of the Cowboy victory last week and worried about flaws in their attack, Layne relaxed.
"What you worrying about?" he said at last. "Hell, we won That's what counts."