It is the firm intention of the Baltimore Colts to clinch the Western Division championship of the National Football League sometime in the next month, and then the public will credit their success to the passing and field generalship of John Unitas. The fans will award smaller gold stars to Coach Don Shula; to football's best No. 2 quarterback, Gary Cuozzo; to Raymond Berry, Jimmy Orr and John Mackey, the fine Colt receivers; and to Running Backs Tony Lorick, Lennie Moore, Tom Matte and Jerry Hill.
The fans will be only half just, for an equal share of the praise should go to a group of highly capable players with only vaguely familiar names. These men play defense for the Colts, and they do not have a press agent. They have not, for example, enjoyed anything like the fame of the Sam Huff-led New York Giant defense of recent vintage—which had its own cheering sections in New York's Yankee Stadium. The Colt defenders deserve better.
The goal of all wise football men is a balanced team—one that combines a knockout punch with the strength and cunning to counter an opponent's Sunday swings. This is the kind of team that wins championships, and it is the kind in which defense is just as important as the flashier offensive maneuvering. It is so crucial that there is a maxim that says defense wins championships. At least once in the last 20-odd years that proved literally true—the 1963 Chicago Bears, with an offense that treated the ball like a live grenade, beat Y. A. Tittle's Giants.
The Colt defense this year is as good as that of the 1963 Bears, and it is complemented by the most versatile attack in the West. Excellent balance accounts for Baltimore's clear superiority over the other strong teams in the NFL's tougher division. The San Francisco 49ers, for instance, can score as easily as the Colts, and so can the Minnesota Vikings. The 49ers have a powerful pair of runners in John David Crow and Ken Willard, a passer only a shade less efficient than Unitas in John Brodie and receivers who can cut and catch on a par with Baltimore's. Minnesota has Fran Tarkenton at quarterback, two outstanding runners in Tommy Mason and Bill Brown, and a fine receiver in Paul Flatley. But it is not very difficult to score on either the 49ers or the Vikings.
November 29, 1965
On the other hand the Green Bay defense is as good, statistically, as Baltimore's, but the Packer attack has gotten lost somewhere in its recent games, and too big a burden is being placed on the defense. Almost the same thing is true of the Detroit Lions.
The Colts' powerful offense helps the defense in two important ways. First, the Colt attacking team is usually on the field for a considerable part of a game, controlling the ball. This gives the defensive players time in which to rest and regroup between hitches. Second, the Colt offense scores often and this means that the defenders feel free to gamble; they are not inhibited by the thought that a single mistake can cost them the ball game. (The Packer defense may become overcautious if the offense does not pick up.) So the Colt defenders are more effective because they can give more, physically and psychologically, while they are on the field.
Yet even without the puissant Colt offense this defense would rank high on its merits and despite the fact that it may be the lightest defensive unit in the league. "The key to most defenses is the linebackers," says Charlie Winner, a small man who coaches the Colt defensive backs although he has played neither major-college nor professional football. "We have good linebackers. They are big enough to meet the run and quick enough to react well against the pass. The linebackers are two-way insurance; they move up to help the linemen and back to help the backs."
Some of the Colts' premium insurance this year stands 6 feet 2, weighs 230 and answers to the name of Dennis Gaubatz (see cover). He is a young, thickset, fair-haired man who calls the defensive signals for Baltimore from his position as middle linebacker. "The middle linebacker is in the center of the defense," Winner says. "He is just behind the line and just in front of the secondary and equidistant from the sidelines. Everyone can hear him. I think the Bears and the Lions make a mistake letting corner linebackers call the signals on defense. I mean one side of the defense can't hear the call, so the middle linebacker has to relay it and sometimes he is so involved in figuring out his own assignment that he forgets the relay. Or he may not hear the signals and call it wrong on the relay. So all at once you got half your defense doing the wrong thing, and you have multiplied the odds against yourself."
Gaubatz is only 24—young for a man who must match wits with shrewd older quarterbacks every Sunday afternoon. But he is an extremely confident young man and a very bright one. He learned to be self-sufficient when he was a youngster living in a small town named Needville in East Texas.
Gaubatz was drafted by Detroit and played with the Lions before the Colts grabbed him in a trade last June. "They was worried about me calling defensive signals in Detroit," he says. "I wasn't worried. Look, when I was a kid, my high school coach was my scoutmaster. One time he took us on a camping trip—to Mexico, I think it was. Coming back, he says he needs a linebacker and I says, 'I can play linebacker.' He looked at me and laughed and said, 'You'd never be a linebacker, Dennis.' Well, anyway, I tried linebacker and finally he had to put me in. My senior year we went to the semifinals for the state championship in our division. 'Nother time he was the track coach, and I said, 'Coach, I'm going to run the quarter mile.' He laughed and he said, 'Dennis, you can't run the quarter.' That year I went to the state meet in the quarter. Next year they was lots of faster quarter-milers in our district, so I said, 'Coach, I'm going to high jump.' He looked at me and he said, 'Dennis, I don't think you can high jump, but so far you done ever thing else you said you'd do, so try it.' Well, I never got over six feet, but I went to state in the high jump too."
The Colts started jumping in Gaubatz' direction soon after the end of the 1964 season because Bill Pellington, who had been their middle linebacker and defensive signal-caller for 12 years, retired.
"We liked Dennis because he had done a hell of a job against us as a substitute for Joe Schmidt when Joe was hurt," says Don Kellett, the Colts' general manager. "We called Harry Gilmer [the new Detroit coach] and Russ Thomas [Detroit's director of player personnel], and they wanted more than we wanted to give up. Finally, it came down to the last phone call and Thomas said, 'O.K., we'll give you Gaubatz for Joe Looney and a draft choice.' I'm not saying what the draft choice was. Anyway, I said, 'Russ, that's the same deal we offered you yesterday, and you said there was no way you could make it. You changed your thinking?' 'I guess that's it,' he said, and we made the deal and Shula nearly fell off his chair laughing. It was a real good deal."
Shula wasted no time indoctrinating Gaubatz in the Baltimore defensive system which—now that Clark Shaughnessy has left the Bears—may be the most complicated in the league. "I got a call from Pittsburgh," Gaubatz says. "I was working in the Ford plant in Detroit, and I knew the Lions didn't like me but I didn't know I was going to be traded. Then I got this call from the office to call Thomas or Gilmer in Pittsburgh. I thought, 'Oh, Lord, they done traded me to Pittsburgh.' I returned the call and Thomas said, 'I'm not going to beat around the bush. We traded you to Baltimore.' All I said was, 'Thanks,' and I hung up. Then the phone rang again, and it was Shula. I was upset right at first, then I started to feel real good about it. I was glad to leave Detroit."
Shula had called to start Gaubatz on a course of instruction as the defensive signal-caller of the Colts. The course was taught in brain-crushing detail until the season began, and the lessons are by no means ended.
"We got lots of defenses," is the way Gaubatz puts it. "I think it's a good idea. Way we figure, you got to give the opposing quarterback a lot to think about and not much time to think about it in. We don't show but two defensive sets when the quarterback come up to the line of scrimmage, but we change ever thing when he start to drop back to pass. So he ain't got more than three, maybe four, seconds to recognize the defense, decide what to do and do it. That shouldn't be enough time, we figure."
Gaubatz himself has about the same amount of time, before the snap, in which to analyze all the factors contributing to the defense he will call—and he has been well prepared for these highspeed hunches. "The defensive coaches analyze the movies and the scout reports on Monday," Dennis says. "Then they give us the defenses on Tuesday. Winner will give me a chart of what the quarterback is liable to call in any situation on any part of the field, and I study that. I know, for instance, that you've got to be careful when Green Bay has third and short yardage in its own end of the field. Third and two or three, you figure Bart Starr will send Jim Taylor into the line for the first down and you got to respect Taylor. Anybody says he ain't been run over by Taylor ain't played against him. I been in places where all he had to do was make a move and go and maybe he's gone for more yards, but he sees me and runs right at me. He can hurt you. But to go back to that third and two or three. I'm Taylor-conscious but I know that Starr, in the last couple years, has thrown maybe 10 or 15 long passes from there and a lot of them worked. He fakes Taylor in the line, you come up fast, and then he throws deep and it's six points. So when is he going to do that? I don't know yet. I just got to hope. I got to believe in me."
In the sure, swift movements with which he stalks his opponents, Gaubatz resembles a hunter. The resemblance is not accidental. "I wanted a gun since I can remember," he says. The first one he bought cost him 10 Saturdays of 10 hours' work at a grocery store. His pay was $2.50, and each week he trotted from the grocery to the hardware store to deposit the cash with the proprietor until he had his gun.
"I'd crawl a mile on my belly through the marsh to get a shot," he says. "I think hunting has helped with football. It gives you the eye. I ain't the best shot in the world, but I been shooting a long time."
A friend of Colt Owner Carroll Rosen-bloom took Gaubatz hunting the other day, and he does not agree with Dennis. "He hit geese we couldn't see," he announced. "He hit damn near everything that moved, for that matter. I never saw a better shot."
"I reached up pretty high for a couple of geese," Gaubatz says. "Just lucky, I guess."
Young Gaubatz earned money for clothes, books, more guns and the limited entertainment available in East Texas by raising rabbits and chickens. "I had maybe five, six hundred rabbits when I was 14 or 15," he says. "I was playing football in West Columbus, Texas, where we had moved from Needville. Me and my daddy, who was a night watchman for Texas Gulf Sulphur, raised the rabbits. I sold 'cm for a dollar apiece cleaned, until I got so busy at school I didn't have time and had to sell out. Only big trouble I had was with the young does. They used to eat their first litter until I found out what you do. You put a piece of bacon rind in the hutch a couple of days before they're due, and when the babies come the mama eats the bacon rind and not the babies."
His upbringing has made Dennis a hard football player. "He never tells you when he is hurt," says Winner. "The other day at practice he was having trouble covering the halfback on man-to-man patterns. He just couldn't move. I asked him if he was hurt and he said, 'No.' After practice I checked with the trainers and found out that they didn't want him to work because they thought he might have pleurisy."
Mentally as well as physically, Gaubatz seems to have acquired the pressure-resistant qualities that a middle linebacker must have. A couple of weeks ago the Colts beat the Minnesota Vikings 41-21 in Minneapolis, with Unitas on the sidelines with a bruised back. The hero of the game was young Cuozzo, starting at quarterback for the first time in his three years with the team. He threw five touchdown passes and performed so brilliantly that the Vikings' Norman Van Brocklin gave up coaching—for 24 hours. Before the game, knowing that Unitas was out and feeling that the defense was on trial as never before, Gaubatz was ashen.
"I feel like a vibrator," he told a friend.
Then he went out and called a cool and thoughtful game against the most difficult quarterback in the league to contain, Fran Tarkenton. Afterward, Gaubatz held out his left hand to accept a handshake from a well-wisher. The middle knuckle of the right hand was purple and swollen to the size of a golf ball.
"What happened?" his friend asked.
"I don't rightly know," Gaubatz answered. "I didn't know I had it but now I kind of recollect I hit Bill Brown on the helmet with it. Didn't hurt none to speak of. I'm just glad to get out of this one. I'm glad we held 'em. This has got to be the toughest offense in the league to call against."
In the complex Baltimore system Gaubatz has a choice of a wide variety of plays and he calls them in a huddle, just as the offensive quarterback does. And, like the quarterback, he can change the call at the line of scrimmage with an audible.
"He's still learning," says Winner, "but he is picking it up real fast. Hell, I'm still learning myself. He had a tough job against the Vikings, like everyone does, because the Vikes really have two plays from every down. The first one is the play they call in the huddle. If that breaks down and Tarkenton begins to scramble, they got another play that develops from the scramble. They like to throw to their backs—Brown and Mason, or Brown and Phil King in this case, since Mason was hurt—and that makes it doubly tough on the linebackers. Dennis did a good job on them. He always does. He doesn't have the experience that Bill Pellington had, but he's more of a gambler and he has more range. Bill was one of the best defensive signal callers because he had been in the league so long. Dennis can't match him there, but Dennis will call the blitz more often and he's quicker getting in on the blitz himself because he has more speed and he's strong enough to shed blocks."
The Colts rely on zone defenses more often than not. "We hide the zone," Gaubatz says. "Any defense has weaknesses and the various zones have them, too. You got to figure what the quarterback will call and set a defense that will match your strength with his point of attack. If he comes out in a set that is obviously going to hit our defense where it's weak, I change off at the line. Then he changes and I change, and we're in a guessing game. So far this year we have guessed right pretty good."
Gaubatz' guessing has been so effective that the Colts lead the league in defense against rushing, having given up only 893 yards in 10 games. Only Green Bay has limited the opposition to fewer points—133 to Baltimore's 188. In total yardage given up Baltimore is a solid fourth.
Winner, incidentally, does not believe in separating pass defense from running defense, statistically or any other way. "We play total defense," he says. "I hate to see a writer say our secondary was defeated by a pass attack or our line by a running attack. When a play develops as a pass, we have 11 men on pass defense. The line, sometimes with help from blitzing linebackers, must get to the passer so quickly that he cannot find a second receiver, and the backs and linebackers must cover so closely in the first three seconds that he cannot hit his first receiver. If he looks for the first receiver and has to pump and look for someone else, the rush gets him. And, against the run, the backs and the linebackers come up into the running defense with the line. It's a complete unit either way."
Gaubatz, of course, is not the whole defense, or even a major part of it, although his is a key role. Veterans like Bobby Boyd, perhaps the best corner back in the league, and Ordell Braase, one of the outstanding defensive ends, have contributed heavily. Boyd and Braase are the only two defensive starters with as much as six years' service with the Colts. "I didn't realize we had had such a big turnover," says Boyd, the defensive captain, a bald but agile man who makes up for his lack of height with brilliant play diagnosis. "But we got some real good studs in the last few years. Dennis is one of them. Fred Miller and Steve Stonebreaker and Lou Michaels and guys like that help, too."
Miller, in his third season, is small for a defensive tackle at 245, but he is agile and he is becoming tricky, in the style of Green Bay's Henry Jordan. Another young Colt, Ted Davis, has filled in capably for the injured veteran, Don Shin-nick, at corner linebacker.
"This is a young team," says Winner happily. "Boyd is our oldest defensive back, and he's only 28. They should keep improving for a long time."
Michaels is the left-footed field-goal kicker who came to the Colts from Pittsburgh and was given the unenviable job of replacing Gino Marchetti, the defensive end most experts regard as the best who ever played that position.
"He has done a fine job," Winner says. "He isn't Marchetti, but then no one else is either. But he's given us everything we asked for and more, and so has Gaubatz. We are probably as good or better than we have ever been on defense."
Paraphrasing Gaubatz, you got to believe in those Colts.
Gaubatz (dark jersey) begins a drive through the center of the offense designed to harass or bring down the passer. Diagram shows Gaubatz' four possible blitzing routes. Here he takes an inside path (solid line) as his tackle and end clear the way by spreading blockers.