At midpoint in the season two favorites and an outsider lead the mysterious Eastern Division of the National Football League and the other four teams are nowhere. The Cleveland Browns, who can beat anyone but the St. Louis Cardinals and the West, lead the division; the Cardinals, who seem to have all they need to beat everyone but a sense of daring, are second.
And the New York Giants, with all the faults and virtues of youthful enthusiasm, are a surprising third. The remaining four—Pittsburgh, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington—are clumped together in a melancholy heap on the bottom of the division, each having managed to win only two of the seven games played so far.
And no Eastern Division team, from the Browns on down, has managed to win a game from a Western team. The West now leads the East 7-0 in interconference games. The Minnesota Vikings, in a three-way tie for third in the West with a 4-3 record, underlined the superiority of the division last Sunday by stopping the Cleveland Browns and Jim Brown 27-17. The Vikings played a close and adventurous defense designed to reach Brown before he could gain momentum and Frank Ryan before he could find his receivers, and they succeeded in both aims.
Nevertheless, the Browns appear to be the best team in the East. They have won five of their seven games despite having lost five starting players at one time or another and despite the handicap imposed upon them by the injury to Paul Warfield in the preseason All-Star Game. Warfield has yet to play a down; his badly fractured collarbone has healed much more slowly than was anticipated. Without him, Ryan must depend upon Gary Collins as his primary receiver, and every defense the Browns face puts two men on Collins. Once Warfield returns—and he should be back in another fortnight—the Brown offense should flower and the burden on their good defense will be significantly lessened. The Browns lead the division without having realized their full potential; when they are fit, they could win in a canter.
The Cardinals, who have beaten the Browns, suffer from a curious split personality. On defense, they are devil-may-care gamblers, as daring as hell-divers. On offense, they operate with the recklessness of your maiden aunt playing whist for a penny a point. Too often they have indulged their cardinal sin of trying to sit on a small lead. On Sunday this cost them their third loss of the season, to the New York Giants.
Leading the Giants 10-0 at the half, the Cardinals went into a shell when on offense in the second half. Not until the Giants had moved into a 14-10 lead with four minutes to go did Charley Johnson open up the offense again, and by then it was too late. St. Louis moved powerfully on two long marches, but the Giants stopped both.
"We've lost to teams we expected to beat twice," said Safety Jerry Stovall after the game, referring to Philadelphia, Washington and New York. "You can't do that and hope to win a title. There's still half a season left but we have to win them all." Among the seven games left for the Cardinals to play are two with Western Division teams—Los Angeles and Chicago. It does not appear likely that the Cardinals will win seven straight.
The Giants, no matter how many of their remaining seven games they lose, have had a surprisingly successful season. "Morrall played as brilliant a game of quarterback as I have ever seen," said a cheerful Allie Sherman after Sunday's victory. "His calls against red dogs were extraordinary. He was chewing out gains under the most impossible pressure. It takes guts to go against the dog the way he did. The Cards dog unbelievably. Some of the spots they shot I've never even read about. It's a dangerous way to live, but they are good at it."
Morrall, obtained from the Detroit Lions in a late trade just before the season began, has been the key to the Giant success. He began slowly as he familiarized himself with the Giant offense, but now he passes with poise and accuracy and he gives the young Giant team the assurance of a veteran. In Tucker Frederickson, a big and quick rookie running back, New York has the most promising young runner in the league east of Chicago's Gale Sayers.
In fact, most of the Giants, on offense and defense, are young and apt to make mistakes. But look for the Giants to improve steadily; they may blow some games because of youthful folly, but will not blow many. However, they still have the meat of their schedule ahead. They play both St. Louis and Cleveland on the road and they must still meet their second Western Division team. That is Chicago in New York, and the Bears now rank as one of the strongest teams in the league.
If the acquisition of a seasoned and competent quarterback made a contender of New York, the lack of one has been the downfall of the Dallas Cowboys, a club ranked just a shade behind St. Louis and Cleveland when the season began. The Cowboys have one of the two or three best defensive units in football, as they proved recently in holding the Green Bay Packers to a skimpy 73 yards. But the Cowboys lost that game 13-3, because the offense could not move the ball. This was to be the year that Don Meredith came into his own; instead, for no discernible reason, Meredith has had the worst season of his career.
"I don't know what I'm doing wrong," he says. "I feel the same and I have confidence in my throwing and still the ball is short or long."
Whatever has happened to Meredith, Cowboy Coach Tom Landry has apparently decided to try to develop one or both of his rookie quarterbacks—Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome. He has used them one at a time and in relays on alternate plays. The Cowboys' quarterback shuffle will continue.
"Against a defense like the Cardinals use, with their blitzes and complications, I'll probably go with Meredith for his poise," he says. "Against more orthodox defenses, I'll probably shuttle Morton and Rhome."
While the development of a topflight quarterback would help solve Landry's problems, he still needs a good, big running back to complement Don Perkins. The Cowboys may be better than they have looked so far, but this is another year of frustration for them—and particularly for their defense, which plays so well and, unfortunately, so often. Landry will have to work wonders either with Meredith or with his shuttle if Dallas is to climb as high as third.
A more likely candidate for third place is Washington, a club whose ebullient championship hopes were quelled early when a leg injury kept Charlie Taylor, the Rookie of the Year in 1964, hobbled for five games. Taylor, one of the most productive running backs in football, was almost all of the Washington ground attack and a good deal of its passing attack. While he was limping, opponents concentrated on defending against the Washington passes. They succeeded. Taylor is healthy now, and he has gotten his legs under him again in the last two games.
One small warning signal makes Washington a bit doubtful. Not long ago Owner Edward Bennett Williams, who took over the direction of the club after the death of Leo DeOrsey, called a meeting with the players. He excluded the coaches. For some two hours he listened to complaints and suggestions. Ostensibly this was done with the full consent of Coach Bill McPeak, but in the past when players have felt free to go over the head of their coach to complain directly to an owner, morale has suffered. If the Redskins keep winning, morale should be no problem and McPeak will be in control. But they just as easily could go into a nose dive.
If that happens, the Philadelphia Eagles might move up. The Eagle defense is adequate, although it does not rank with that of Dallas, Cleveland or St. Louis. Like the Cowboys, the Eagles suffer from the lack of a consistent quarterback. Norman Snead played well until he was hurt; King Hill, his replacement, has been spotty, and Jack Concannon, the tall, gangling passer from Boston College who was the Eagles' second draft choice two years ago, is still learning his trade. He has shown signs of brilliance to come and he may be one of the best running quarterbacks around, but he is still green. He played briefly in four games in 1964 and Coach Joe Kuharich is understandably reluctant to saddle him with the responsibility of directing the club.
The Eagles are short of running backs behind Earl Gros, a massive fullback who is an exceptional blocker as well, and Timmy Brown, surely the most exciting runner in the Eastern Division. And Snead, Hill and Concannon have only limited targets for their passes. Pete Retzlaff is the best of the Eagle receivers and he is a good one, but there are not enough good receivers to insure a consistent air offense. The Eagles, on a good day, beat any of the bottom four teams. On a very good day they beat the St. Louis Cardinals. But there probably are not enough good days ahead.
Last, and least, are the Pittsburgh Steelers, a club hamstrung by two early and irreparable losses. Head Coach Buddy Parker, a brilliant but moody man, quit the team two weeks before the season began, and John Henry Johnson, the elderly but still immensely capable fullback, was injured, erasing the Pittsburgh running attack in one dire blow. Mike Nixon took over as head coach from Parker but there was no one around capable of replacing Johnson. The Steelers simply do not have the equipment to win many games. Nixon is looking to the future, using young Bill Nelsen at quarterback and breaking in promising rookies like Roy Jefferson at end. The traditionally strong Steeler defense is still effective, but it tires toward the end of games because the players are on the field so much. If there is one good bet in the mixed-up East it is for the Steelers to finish last.
Summing up, there are only two teams in the East without insurmountable problems—Cleveland and St, Louis. Of these two, Cleveland appears to be in better condition for the second half of the season. The Browns survived the heaviest siege of injuries of any club in the league during the first half, beginning with the loss of Paul Warfield. In replacing the injured, Coach Blanton Collier used young players who performed well and gained experience, so that now the Browns are deeper and better prepared than they were when they began the season. And Jim Ninowski is a better second quarterback than either of St. Louis' replacements for Charley Johnson.
Also, the Browns have only one more Western Division team left to play. If there is a team in the West that most Eastern Division teams should be able to beat it is the Los Angeles Rams. The Cardinals play the Rams, too. But they also have to play the Bears.
The Browns meet the Cardinals in the final game of the season in St. Louis. This game could, of course, decide the Eastern Division championship, but on the evidence of Sunday's derring-don't in New York, the Browns should have it won by then.