On a hot, muggy night in late July, a little early for football, 31,000 Baltimore Colt fans paid to watch a football scrimmage. Surprising? Not in Baltimore, where out-of-season Colts are as fascinating to the public as in-season baseball Orioles with a pennant in their beaks. The fans were there, first of all, to see if Johnny Unitas' injured knee had come around all right (it had) and, second, to throw some love at Tom Matte. Unitas has so much ability that love becomes a secondary emotion, but the fans won't soon forget that it was Matte who did an impossible thing last season and nearly put Baltimore into the championship game. Matte, once a quarterback at Ohio State but for five years a halfback in the pros, became a quarterback once again after Unitas hurt his knee and his substitute, Gary Cuozzo, suffered a shoulder separation. You just don't switch roles like that in the NFL but Matte did, carrying the team to within three disputed points of the Western Conference championship in that playoff game with Green Bay.
Sadly, however, all the love in Baltimore will not put Matte in the Colt starting lineup now that Unitas and Cuozzo are well. Everything is back to normal. Unitas is throwing perfect spirals to Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr—as is Cuozzo when he has the opportunity—and Matte is again the stand-in for Halfback Lenny Moore. Oh, he will play, all right, and you can expect to see him throw some halfback passes now that he has proved he has an arm. But it's back to business as usual, which means that Baltimore, the team with the best chance to beat Green Bay in the West, will go after the Packers with conventional weapons.
There are rumors that Unitas needs to rest the damaged knee periodically and have it drained, but in action he again seems to be the best in football at the most critical position. Again Cuozzo appears to be the best No. 2 quarterback. Receivers Berry, 33, and Orr, 31, are aging gracefully. Their disciplined patterns and deft hands would be the delight of any quarterback. Last year Berry caught 58 passes for 739 yards and seven touchdowns and Orr was chosen for the All-NFL team for the first time. Tight End John Mackey is young and strong and of the same high class as Chicago's Mike Ditka. Butch Wilson does a good job behind him and Rick Kestner, Al Snyder and Willie Richardson are being tuned up in case of injury to Berry or Orr.
Since passing rather than running is the primary offensive threat in Baltimore, all the backs are good receivers. Unitas will throw often to Moore and Matte on fly and swing patterns and to Fullback Jerry Hill on screens and look-ins. Of the Colt runners, only Hill had a rewarding 1965 season. Moore is 33 but despite last year's decline there are those who believe he can run back to the fancy figures of 1964. If he cannot, Matte is there and so is Tony Lorick, who has the power to be a dangerous runner.
Unitas once was able to depend absolutely on his line's pass-blocking. Now there is some doubt. Where Johnny could double-pump the ball and take a little time looking for receivers there is a feeling this year that he will have to release more quickly. The 10-year veteran Dick Szymanski returns at center and Bob Vogel at left tackle, but Right Guard Alex Sandusky, who had to be talked out of retiring, is a question because of his age (34), and Right Tackle George Preas has retired. The perennial All-NFL guard, Jim Parker, has been switched to Preas's tackle, with all that entails in adjusting to a new position. The jury is still out on Dan Sullivan, who moves to left guard.
The defense should be a little better than in 1965, when it ranked near the top against running and in the middle of the statistics against passing. Billy Ray Smith and Fred Miller are fast for defensive tackles but not outstanding on the pass rush. End Lou Michaels (who also place-kicks, left-footed and accurately) is sound but no better at the rush than Smith and Miller. The other end, Ordell Braase, is the one who gets to the quarterback. After he pulled a leg muscle midway through the season last year Colt opponents averaged nearly six points more per game than when he was at his best.
Linebackers Dennis Gaubatz, Steve Stonebreaker and Don Shinnick guess and gamble and occasionally get fooled. More often than not, however, they diagnose the play and stop it. Shinnick leads all NFL linebackers in career interceptions with 30, and it was his fumble recovery and subsequent score that accounted for the Colts' only touchdown in the playoff game. In the secondary Bob Boyd, Lenny Lyles, Alvin Haymond and Jerry Logan are an experienced pack of pass thieves. Punting is the Colts' one defensive failing, as it almost always has been.
Overall, Johnny Unitas & Co. will pass brilliantly, run respectably and defend extremely well. The team is not as deep as it could be, but it should give the Packers a grim enough fight for the conference title.