When the Baltimore Colts lost the playoff for the NFL's Western championship last year, they were without John Unitas and Gary Cuozzo and still it took Green Bay most of an overtime period to beat them. Understandably, the Colts have been anxious to prove that the story would be different with their famous quarterbacks in action. Last Saturday night, before a record crowd of 48,650 in Milwaukee's County Stadium, the story was indeed different. In the opening game of the NFL season the Packers gave the Colts an infinitely worse beating than they did last December, and in so doing established themselves solidly as favorites to repeat their 1965 championship.
"They played an almost perfect game," Baltimore's Don Shula said after it was over. He smiled a wry, sorrowful smile as he considered what the Packers had done to his club in their 24-3 victory.
The only flaw to be found in his statement is the "almost." If the jolly green giants of Green Bay made any mistakes, they were undetectable. This was probably the best defensive performance by the Packers in several years, and in the second half the defense was matched by a brilliant offense.
"This one is a gut-twister," Willie Davis said in the unusually subdued Green Bay dressing room before the game. The All-Pro defensive end grimaced. "I couldn't sleep all night. I kept trying to tell myself this was just another game, just one of 14, but you can't kid your stomach. It knew."
Guards Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston drew diagrams on a blackboard, working out blocking angles. Backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung lay on the floor, relaxing, their heads in their dressing stalls. "The Colts have been mouthing off a lot," one veteran said. "I heard that every time one of them gave a talk during the off season he had a picture showing we missed the field goal that put us into overtime in the playoff game. They say they've been waiting a year to get us again. Well, they've got us. But we got ourselves ready, too. Only we didn't start until last Wednesday. Sometimes you can get too high. I think maybe they are."
"It may be easier with Unitas," said one of the Packers. "When they went to Tom Matte in the playoff we had no idea what to expect. We know what they do with Johnny Unitas."
The speaker was not Vince Lombardi. What Lombardi said was, "It boils down to this. If Johnny Unitas is hot, no one can beat them. If he's just good, we have a chance. If he's only fair, then we'll take them."
Unitas was hot for all but the last two minutes of the first half, but that brief letdown was fatal to Baltimore. Pouncing on Unitas passes, the Packers won the game in those moments on two beautiful interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Until then the Packer defense had held off a strong Baltimore attack by fencing dexterously with Unitas, giving him short passes but denying him the deeper routes and, when necessary near the goal line, foreclosing the short passes, too.
At one point in the first quarter, on fourth down with a yard to go on the Green Bay 19-yard line, the Colts decided to try for the first down instead of an almost certain field goal. Unitas sent Fullback Jerry Hill into the middle of the line on a play that had gained three yards not long before. This time the big, agile Green Bay ends, Lionel Aldridge and Davis, read the play and pinched in hard, slamming Hill for a one-yard loss. "Looking back, that was a key play," Shula said. "That really hurt us."
Just as the second period began, the situation re-occurred. Confident no longer of penetrating the Packer defense, the Colts sent Lou Michaels in to kick a field goal on fourth and two from the Green Bay 19. It was the only score Baltimore was to get.
But the Colt field goal had an immediate effect on Green Bay. It aroused what had been a torpid attack. Quarterback Bart Starr deftly shepherded the Packers from their own 22 to the Baltimore eight. That drive was killed when Michaels broke through to block Don Chandler's field-goal attempt.
"I thought that might break their spirit," said Jimmy Orr, one of Baltimore's top receivers, who was injured and unable to play. "But they came right back. You can knock 'em down, but you can't stomp on 'em."
On the fourth play after the blocked kick Green Bay came bouncing back. Linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, a swift 250-pounder who once played in the Texas A&M backfield, intercepted a Unitas pass over the middle that was intended for Johnny U.'s most reliable receiver, Raymond Berry, and rumbled 52 yards for the first Packer touchdown. "It was a great play," Shula said. "He read Johnny's eyes." "I was just dropping back into the hooking area," Caffey said. "Berry was running a post pattern, and I think Johnny was rushed out of his rhythm. He's a rhythm passer, and he threw before he wanted to. The ball came right into my hands. Then I just remembered how it used to be when I was a fullback."
Caffey's memory was good. Helped by strong blocks from Henry Jordan and Ron Kostelnik, he dashed into the end zone without being touched. It was a shocking development for the Colts, but for the time being they did not lose their poise. That loss was to come later. After the kickoff Unitas began another short-passing attack and moved to a first down. But on third and four from his 39 he made the error of doing the obvious.
"He had been throwing a square-out to Raymond in that situation," said Bob Jeter, the Packer corner back who was covering Berry. "When it was third and four, five or six yards, he liked to go to Raymond, and he had stung me a few times. I figured the square-out, and I laid back a little and waited. And he did it."
"It was a lousy pass," Unitas maintained, but it wasn't really. Berry was reaching for the ball, thrown so that he could shield it from Jeter with his body, but Jeter nipped in front of him and took the pass with a clear field ahead. Jeter merely had to sprint 46 yards for the second Packer touchdown.
Jeter is a small, very fast man, who played flanker for Green Bay until Lombardi put him at corner back last year. "You know, I think my hands got better when I moved over to the defense," he says. "I just couldn't relax my hands as a flanker. Man, I could not catch that ball. But now I got confidence."
"He did the same thing a year ago in a game with the Colts," said the Green Bay defensive coach, Phil Bengtson. "But he got so excited about intercepting the ball that he fell down. He was right in front of our bench and everyone was yelling at him to stand up and run, and he just couldn't get his legs under him. Somebody finally fell on him after he had crawled six or eight yards. But he's different this year."
Although the Colts were down 14-3 at the half, they hardly seemed a beaten team. "I thought we could still win the game," Shula said. "We were moving the ball well, and we were running well, too. But then Starr's running destroyed our defense in the second half."
The Colts had outgained Green Bay 158 yards to 103 in the first half and, more important, had kept the ball for 34 plays to the Packers' 22, so Shula's optimism was not unjustified.
"You have to beat them at their own game," Orr said. "That's what we were doing." They were, that is, until Starr got the Green Bay offense moving. At the beginning of the third quarter he put together one of the drives that have become Green Bay's trademark—a steady, precise and overwhelming series of plays that swept aside the Baltimore defense time and again. It started mildly enough, with Jim Taylor gaining four yards and Hornung one, making it third and five on the Green Bay 26-yard line.
Knowing that the Colt defense would expect a short-pass pattern for the first down, Starr called a hitch-and-go to Boyd Dowler, and the towering end gained 25 yards on the play. Two plays later Starr hit Dowler again, this time sending him on a slant into the heart of the Colt defense.
Having created a Dowler complex in the Colt thinking, Starr used him as a decoy on his next call and threw to Hornung for a 12-yard gain and a first down on the Baltimore 27.
The first time Starr ran was on the next play. He ducked into a hole in the middle of the Baltimore pass rush and trundled sedately for 13 yards and another first down. This was not a planned maneuver but an improvisation.
Starr's run put the ball on the Baltimore 14. He tested the Colt defense with a quick pass to Hornung, who was open at the five, but this was one of the few passes Starr threw badly and it fell incomplete. On the next play he sent Taylor through a good hole in the Colt line pried open by Kramer and Tackle Forrest Gregg. Taylor, who looks quicker and stronger than ever this year, gained six yards.
Whatever small hope remained for Baltimore died with the next play. Starr flooded the right side of the field with receivers, looked briefly, found none of them open and ran again. He loped eight yards for a touchdown, diving awkwardly between defenders for the score. That made it 21-3, and the Colts were cooked. Don Chandler's field goal later in the quarter completed the scoring.
Lombardi had been a fidgety, nervous man during the long afternoon before the game as he watched the Clay-Mildenberger fight on television in his Milwaukee hotel suite. He admires Clay as an athlete. "Clay's great," he said. "He could play anywhere."
But after the game Clay had been forgotten, and even the impact of the tremendous victory over Baltimore was fading. Lombardi does not dwell on past triumphs, however recent.
"This could be the year of decision," he said. "If we can get through this season all right we'll be up there for a long time, I think."
Although the Packers won the championship, last season was, for Lombardi, a rebuilding time. The rebuilding has continued this year. The Packers have eight rookies, an unusually large number for a championship team. Vince spent much of the preseason schedule testing them.
"I had to look at them to see what I had," he explained. "You have to stay ahead, keep building. I won't be able to play them much in league games, but eventually they'll be there when I need them."
Just the stuff for a man who has everything.