The first afternoon in camp the New Orleans Saints' rookies scrimmaged. That night two of them packed up and went home. They did not even wait for the 10 bucks due them for their day's work.
"We haven't got time for the guys who don't want to hit," said Tom Fears, bred a pro with the Los Angeles Rams and hardened as a coach under the iron discipline of Vincent Lombardi at Green Bay. "We want to know now. The guys who went home would have left in a little while anyway. If we win games this year it will be because we're in better shape earlier than the other clubs. So we're going to be in shape when we leave California."
In the bull sessions around the National Football League, players until now have generally agreed that the toughest training camp in living memory was the one Norman Van Brocklin ran getting ready for the Minnesota Vikings' second season. Saddled in the first year with, as Van Brocklin put it, "a dog or two from every club in the league," he had operated what pro players call a country club. No one worked too hard, the practices were short and Van Brocklin, exercising what was for him unusual restraint, spoke softly and sweetly to the oldtimers. He felt their pride had been hurt when they had been placed on the available list by their parent teams, and he was trying to rebuild it. After a year he cared less about their pride than he did about their condition. The country club turned into a concentration camp. Fears is starting out with more useful talent than Van Brocklin had at Minnesota, and before his first training camp breaks up the rigors of that Viking second year may be recalled with nostalgia.
Going into the season, the New Orleans Saints must be rated the best of all the expansion clubs. The Dallas Cowboys, hastily assembled after a January league meeting in Miami in 1960, did not participate in the draft of college seniors in their first year and were offered the dregs from the other teams in the league. The Vikings began in time to take first choice in the draft, and the Atlanta Falcons were even better off. They were given two choices in each of the first five rounds of the college draft. The Saints got still more. They were awarded two choices in each of 17 rounds plus three bonus picks and two windfalls no new team could possibly expect: Gary Cuozzo and Jim Taylor (see cover).
August 13, 1967
Cuozzo is the four-year veteran who has understudied Baltimore's John Unitas with growing impatience since his graduation from the University of Virginia. He asked Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Colts, to trade him, and Rosenbloom, a very fair man, agreed. Taylor, the best fullback in football since the retirement of Jim Brown, played out his option with the Green Bay Packers when Lombardi would not raise his salary to match the pay of bonus babies Jim Grabowski and Donny Anderson. The Saints traded high, valuable draft choices for both men but as a result begin their football life with top men at two key positions—quarterback and fullback.
Cuozzo is a real plum. At 26, he has been so thoroughly schooled by Unitas that he actually resembles him in execution and manner. He had few chances to play at Baltimore but did exceedingly well when, because of injuries to Unitas, he got into games. In 1965, for instance, Cuozzo took over against Minnesota on a cold, sleety and windswept afternoon. He led the Colts to a 41-21 victory, throwing five touchdown passes. The game prompted Van Brocklin to resign for 24 hours.
"Maybe on another team a day like that would move you up to No. 1," Cuozzo said the other afternoon in the dormitory at California Western University, the campus in San Diego where the Saints train to avoid the sticky heat of the Louisiana summer. "But with Johnny Unitas at quarterback, you just go back to the bench as soon as he gets well. I'm not complaining about that. Johnny U. is the best, and I'm thankful that I got to watch him for four years. I learned a lot. But there wasn't any future at Baltimore, and I knew it."
Cuozzo is quiet and intense and reminds you more of Bart Starr in his personality than of Unitas. He is a devout Catholic, does not smoke or drink and devotes the off seasons to studying dentistry in Memphis. He is a careful, thoughtful man with a flair for planning ahead, on and off the field.
"After last year, I decided that I would have to do something if I didn't want to spend the rest of my pro life on the bench," he said. "First I went to Johnny to find out what his plans were. If he had said he was going to retire in a year or so I probably would have stayed with the Colts, but Johnny said he wanted to play as long as he could, maybe another four or five years or more. So then I told Mr. Rosenbloom and Don Kellett [then general manager] that I wanted to be traded because I felt that I was wasting the best years of my career. Mr. Rosenbloom is a fine and generous man, and he agreed to trade me."
Cuozzo is lucky. Not many owners in football would be willing to trade so promising a prospect, no matter how unhappy he might be. Although the Saints have two other experienced quarterbacks in Bill Kilmer of San Francisco and ex-Cornellian Gary Wood of the New York Giants, it seems assured that Cuozzo will be No. 1. During one of Fears's long, punishing scrimmages recently Cuozzo was observed by Clark Shaughnessy, the one man who probably had more to do with the development of the modern T formation and the T-formation quarterback than any other person. Shaughnessy at 75 is still active, and his quick, sharp blue eyes miss none of the nuances of football.
He watched Cuozzo drop back quickly, set up and throw, the ball arching deep downfield into the arms of a rookie flanker—who dropped it.
"He has the moves," Shaughnessy said. "I watch the footwork when I look at a quarterback. How fast he goes back, how he sets up, if he's balanced when he throws. This boy has all of it."
Cuozzo got most of it from watching Unitas.
"I patterned my drop-back on him," he said. "I wasn't getting back quick enough and I wasn't cocked to throw when I set up, so I watched movies of him. He takes choppy steps toward the end of the drop-back so that he can step up into the cup at the end and get his body as well as his arm into the throw. I tried it and it worked."
In the long scrimmages Cuozzo spends a good deal of his time handing off to the thickly built, rock-hard Taylor. Had his career not paralleled that of Jim Brown, Taylor probably would have been regarded during the last 10 years as the best back in pro football. He does not have Brown's breakaway speed, but he is the surest short-yardage ballcarrier in the business, a fact he demonstrated time and again in scrimmage as he banged away at the Saint line with all the ferocious impact and continuing drive that has marked his play in regular games. The young backs on the Saint roster, including Don McCall of USC and Les Kelley of Alabama, who show exceptional promise, watched him in awe.
"He shows you something," one of the youngsters said after Taylor had slanted off a block and plowed through tacklers for seven or eight yards, his legs churning in short, jolting steps. "See the way he moves off to the side? I mean, bim, bim, bim, three little skips and he's two yards over, and he's still got his legs under him ready to move out." He shook his head sadly. "A man's got a lot to learn up here," he said.
After the workout, Taylor lay on the bed in the second-floor dormitory room that he shared with Paul Hornung before Hornung, who came to the Saints from Green Bay in the veteran draft, announced his retirement. A chronic neck condition aggravated last season has resulted in damage to Hornung's spinal cord. On this afternoon he had just returned from a meticulous examination at the Mayo Clinic, and the report was not good. A similar neck injury could result in paralysis.
"That's it, baby," Hornung said, making a chopping motion with his right hand. "Cut it again and nothing from the chin down." (He was later examined by two other clinics, but the results were not positive enough to justify the risk of his playing for the Saints.)
"If we were to play the Packers," Hornung added, "maybe I'd come back for that game, no matter what the doctors say." He grinned, not unduly disturbed by the approaching end of his career. "It was good for a long time. It can't go on forever."
Taylor, lying flat on the bed with his eyes closed, grunted. "Season gets longer and longer," someone said, and he opened his eyes.
"You got to say that?" he asked, moving painfully. "You couldn't just sit here and not say a thing like that? Don't tell me about how long the season gonna be and it's only early July. Every game could be a season long if you talk like that."
Taylor's decision to play out his option with the Packers was not a sudden one. It began to percolate in his mind when Green Bay signed Grabowski and Anderson to contracts that totaled nearly a million dollars, although he had nothing against the youngsters for the money they made.
"More power to them," he said. "Got to get it ahead if you're gonna get it. It's easier to get it in front than after you been playing. I know the old man didn't break his back to gimme what I wanted." Taylor asked Lombardi for a healthy increase in salary after the 1965 season, but Lombardi made little effort to meet his demands.
"He come up a little," Taylor said. "Not much. He didn't seem to be much interested in keeping me. It didn't make any difference to me, because I knew how much I was worth, and I figured I'd get it somewhere."
But Taylor misses the Packer ambience. The atmosphere in the Saint camp is remarkably different from that of a veteran team. For Taylor, whose whole career was spent as a Packer, it has taken some getting used to.
"Everything was set on the Packers," he said. "You knew who was going to play where, and it was comfortable. Here no one has a job, and you don't know who will be around when the season starts. This is a lot younger team."
The fact that few players are sure of their jobs lends a special urgency to Saint practices. Fears has underlined this in his approach to the development of a cohesive unit. And Fears himself sought the head coaching job with a special urgency.
"I didn't wait for them to come to me," he said frankly. He is an earnest man who was an all-pro end in his playing days with the Rams. Van Brocklin, one of the two Ram quarterbacks with Bob Waterfield when Fears played, has said of him, "He was a game-breaker, a guy who always came up with his best play when you needed it most. He was a winner."
Fears felt, with reason, that he was peculiarly well qualified for the Saints' coaching job. "I spent five years with Lombardi," he said. "You can't help but learn a lot from him. Then last season I was with Norb Hecker of the Falcons, so I had a year's experience coaching an expansion club. I pointed all this out, but it was still a long sweat before they made up their minds."
When John Mecom Jr. and the other Saint owners finally called Fears down to Houston—where Mecom has offices—Tom shocked them.
"When I told them what terms I wanted, it set them back," he said, smiling. "Here was a guy who had been after the job as hard as he could go, and now he asks for a long contract and a lot of money. I didn't get all I asked for. We sort of compromised, but I've got time to develop the team."
Once he was hired, Fears began studying the rosters of the other clubs in the NFL, trying to guess which players they would make available to him.
"We spent three weeks, day and night, studying rosters," he said. "Mardi Gras week came along, and I still have to see my first Mardi Gras. First, of course, we wanted a quarterback and we thought we might get Fran Tarkenton, but we were real lucky. No matter what you pay for a quarterback the quality of Cuozzo, it's cheap, and we paid less than the Giants did for Tarkenton."
Fears finally decided to take the best athletes and, to a certain extent, disregard what position they played. "We kept in mind a little balance, but first we wanted good, young athletes," he said.
Although league rules did not permit Fears to contact individual ballplayers he wanted ahead of the veteran draft, he did have other sources of information about players he was interested in.
"Being with Atlanta the year before was a big help," Fears said. "Atlanta was made up of players from all over the league, so I always had someone to call to give me information."
Before he took Hornung, Fears called Lombardi. "The old man told me that Hornung would never play for me, but I thought it was a good calculated risk," Fears said. "No one knew the extent of his injury then. He was worth drafting though, because of the spirit he brought to camp. He's a lifter—he brings a club up just being around."
Fears's policy of drafting for athletic ability first and position second resulted in his getting a trio of good linebackers from Baltimore. After he had taken a linebacker on his first choice from the Colts, Baltimore felt he would not need another and left two more linebackers unguarded. Fears took them, too. Now, in Jack Burkett, Ted Davis and Steve Stonebreaker, he has a seasoned trio who should be more effective because they have played together.
The veterans from other teams have reacted well to the tough camp. Most of them are in the first two or three years of their careers, and most played behind good men on the clubs they came from.
"It's a new lease on life," says Kilmer. "You have a chance to be a starter here, so you work a lot harder. I'm throwing better now than I ever did in San Francisco because I'm getting a chance to throw. You see these guys hit in scrimmage? We have a fight nearly every day because everyone's battling for a job that's open. The veterans try like rooks."
Fears, in late trades, has added a leavening of experience to the team. He obtained Doug Atkins and Herman Lee from the Bears, both in their 30s and with years of experience.
"You need some old heads around to settle the youngsters," Fears said. "And Atkins is still one of the best defensive ends in football. Lee'll help where we need help most—in the offensive line. We want a young club, but we want to win some games, too."
An interested observer at every practice is Mecom. A big man, the 28-year-old Mecom might be mistaken for a tight end if he suited up. Preparing for his first year as a pro football owner, he trimmed off 40 pounds to a svelte 200, and he expects to lose even more before the year is out.
"How do they look?" he asked a visitor, anxiously, the other day.
"Good," he was told. "They look now like the best of the expansion teams. They won't win a division championship, but they could surprise some clubs early in the year."
"How many games you figure we can win?"
"Three or four. Five if you're lucky."
Mecom's face fell a bit, but he rallied quickly, watching Taylor churn away.
"Maybe we'll do better than that," he said. "You can never tell."
He won't need a diet to lose weight if he worries about winning more than five games.