The Century Division could well be the most interesting in the NFL by virtue of manifold misfortune. The St. Louis Cardinals probably would have been clear favorites had not Quarterback Charley Johnson been called into the Army. Johnson may get off weekends to ply his trade with St. Louis, but, deprived of the necessary hours to practice with his team, his timing is bound to be off. This is hardly a satisfactory arrangement for a team in contention for the title.
This is an article from the Sept. 18, 1967 issue
The Cleveland Browns, had they kept Jim Ninowski to back up Frank Ryan at quarterback and had not five players tried to negotiate as a bloc with Owner Art Modell, would have been the next logical choice to win the division title. But these things happened, and suddenly the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team most damaged by injury last year, are in excellent position to win the first championship of any kind for Owner Art Rooney. The only team that appears to be out of the running is the hapless New York Giants, where injuries have compounded the woes of an already weak club.
The Steelers exhibited promise of better things to come at the end of last season, when first-string Quarterback Bill Nelsen returned from knee surgery. In three games against the Giants, Eagles and Falcons, Nelsen led the team to 127 points and twice passed for more than 300 yards. He has a strong arm and good accuracy, and Bill Austin, who was a rookie head coach in 1966, foresees a bright future for him.
"Nelsen can be a star in this league," Austin says. "He showed great improvement when he returned to the lineup. He was more poised and he seemed to pick up the whole team. He was doing a lot better finding his secondary receivers."
Nelsen himself credits his improvement to the 10 weeks he spent watching from the press box.
"You can see overall play and patterns up there," he said. "The scouts' comments are very helpful, too. The worst place in the stadium to watch a game is on the bench."
To augment the Eagle attack, Austin has acquired Earl Gros, a fine fullback, from the Philadelphia Eagles and help in the offensive line from Cleveland and Philadelphia. The club's principal weakness in 1966 was its running. This should be much stronger in 1967.
"All the players involved in the trades are important," Austin says, "but Gros is the key. We needed a big running back and I know what Gros can do. I coached him at Green Bay. If he gets beyond the line of scrimmage, he has the speed to score. He is also a fine blocker and already he has made Bill Asbury a better player." Gros, however, because of an injury, won't be available until the third game of the season.
Asbury was one of the more successful fullbacks last year. When Gros gets back into the lineup, Asbury should be better, which can only benefit Jim (Cannonball) Butler, a small but elusive halfback who has exceptional speed and good power. And Gros's blocking should keep Nelsen on his feet. In 1966 Steeler passers were dropped 66 times. That is hardly a way to win games.
If it turns out that Nelsen can remain upright long enough to get the ball away, he has competent receivers to catch it. Austin gave up Flanker Gary Ballman in the deal that brought him Gros, but he has a good replacement in J. R. Wilburn, a very fast second-year receiver from South Carolina. Roy Jefferson, a split end in his third year, developed rapidly during 1966, and John Hilton is a strong tight end.
Austin's main problem on offense is his line, which was poor in 1966. To strengthen it, he is counting on trades and rookies. Better is the Steelers' defensive front four of John Baker, Lloyd Voss, Chuck Hinton and Ken Kortas. In its second year as a unit it is quick and should mount a better pass rush than it did in 1966.
Rookie Ray May has put pressure on Bill Saul at linebacker, and Austin considers that the club is better in this department, too. The Steeler linebackers as a unit are not too fast, but they have been effective.
If the front four does put more pressure on the passer, the very good Steeler secondary should come into its own. Clendon Thomas and Jim Bradshaw are excellent safeties, and at the corner spots Brady Keys and Marv Woodson have speed. All of the players in the secondary are experienced, an advantage for any team.
The kicking, with Mike Clark, is excellent. Clark hit on 21 of 32 field-goal attempts last year and had the best percentage in the league from beyond 40 yards, with six of nine.
Lou Groza of Cleveland, who holds all sorts of alltime records, hit only three of seven from that far out last year. Entering his 21st season as a pro, he is still better than anybody else the Browns have been able to come up with. This may be an indication of the team's bad luck, which has been rather spectacular so far in 1967. The repercussions from the five-player holdout—Leroy Kelly, John Wooten, John Brown, Mike Howell and Sid Williams were the men—could be damaging. Owner Art Modell sent Williams and Brown away in trades. Kelly, who was second to Gale Sayers in rushing in 1966 when he replaced Jim Brown, is playing out his option. Howell, a fine defensive back, missed much of the valuable training camp time holding out, then had to report to the National Guard for training. Thus, during most of the preseason schedule, the Browns had to use three rookies and Erich Barnes in the secondary defense, instead of being able to let the veterans repolish their timing and coordination.
Another blow to the Browns was the knee injury to massive Milt Morin, the second-year tight end who was expected to take over some of the pass-catching duties from Paul Warfield and Gary Collins and to provide strong blocking for the sweeps by Kelly and Ernie Green. He is expected to be out until midseason. His replacement last year was Ralph Smith, who is a good deal smaller than Morin and does not offer as inviting a target.
Ryan, who played quarterback most of last year in pain from a damaged elbow, has recovered well from an off-season operation and appears to be throwing short and long better than ever. He is also releasing the ball more quickly than in the past.
"Frank always set up fast," explains Coach Blanton Collier. "His problem was more mental than physical. He was not prepared to throw immediately. He has changed that and he gets the ball away faster."
Ryan is by a good margin the best quarterback in the division, but his backup man, Dick Shiner, is no replacement for the departed Ninowski. Shiner has been in the NFL for four years, but has played very little. Should Ryan be injured, the team offense would lose much of its impact.
Cleveland's running should be as good this year as it was last, when it was very good indeed. Surprisingly, although many observers think of Cleveland as an old team, it is not. The turnover since 1964, when the Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts for the championship, has been extraordinary. At most, only 19 of the players who performed during 1964 remain with Cleveland now. There may be fewer still by midseason.
Behind Kelly, in his fourth season, and Ernie Green, in his sixth, the Browns have one experienced back, Nick Pietrosante. Two sophomores—Randy Schultz and Charley Harraway—and Cleveland's second draft choice, Notre Dame Fullback Larry Conjar, round out the strong backfield bench.
The ranks of Cleveland receivers, already minus Morin, were thinned further when Clifton McNeil, a lanky and very fast flanker, broke his arm in preseason play. Walter Roberts, another wide receiver, went to New Orleans in the expansion draft, and now the Browns must depend upon untested rookies should Warfield or Collins be hurt. If they can hold out until Morin returns later in the season, the Browns should be in good position for a late drive.
The Cleveland offensive line is back intact, and it is a good one. Fred Hoaglin, who took over at center when John Morrow was injured in 1966, has settled in and meshes well with the veterans on either side of him. John Wooten and Gene Hickerson comprise one of the better brace of guards in the division, and Dick Schafrath and Monte Clark are experienced and adept tackles.
Last season, as usual, the Browns gave up yardage in midfield but clamped down when their opponents neared scoring territory. The defense is as it was last year, but there may be some changes if a few rookies come through.
In 1966 the Browns lacked a strong pass rush. Collier may solve this problem by using more blitzes than he has in the past. He has the regular linebackers of 1966 back, with Jim Houston and Johnny Brewer on the outside and Vince Costello or Dale Lindsey over the middle. Lindsey provides a little more speed in the center than does Costello and conceivably could be more useful in a blitzing defense.
The Cleveland secondary, when it is all assembled, is a very effective one. The Browns led the league in interceptions in 1966, with Ross Fichtner and Mike Howell picking off eight passes apiece and the rest of the team accounting for 14 more. Howell will again team with Barnes at corner back and Fichtner with Ernie Kellermann at safety. Fichtner was hurt in training camp, Howell and Kellermann reported to the National Guard for two weeks' training and Bobby Franklin and Walter Beach, two reserve defensive backs in 1966, have retired. What had seemed a strong position for the Browns may turn out not to be.
It is this iffy business that makes it dangerous to predict that the Browns will be as good as they have been in the past. If Ryan is not hurt, if the receivers are well and happy, if the secondary remains, etc. But those are a lot of ifs.
Snake-bitten St. Louis is so many more ifs. This was the season when the Cardinals, sound in every phase of the game, were ready to win their division and maybe beat the Dallas Cowboys for the Eastern Conference championship. They made a good bid early last season, until Quarterback Johnson had a knee injury and went out for the rest of the year. They made a good bid in 1965, too, until Johnson went out with a shoulder separation. During the two seasons the Cards won 10, lost two and tied one with Johnson well. When he was injured or recuperating, they won three and lost 12.
This year the Cardinals probably will have to do without Johnson and instead play Jim Hart, a youngster two years out of Southern Illinois who has thrown only 11 passes in NFL competition. He should be considered a rookie, and only once in the long history of the NFL has a rookie quarterback taken a team to the championship. The Cardinals claim that Hart might be the man to do it again. They say he is a better passer than Johnson. The season will prove whether they are right or wrong.
The rest of the Cardinal offense is superb. The running backs are numerous and talented, with Prentice Gautt and Willis Crenshaw at fullback and Johnny Roland, the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1966, and Roy Shivers at halfback. Hart will have fast and experienced receivers to throw to in Sonny Randle, Bobby Joe Conrad, Billy Gambrell and Jackie Smith. What is probably the best offensive line in the East will give him plenty of time to find them.
On defense the Cardinals lost starting Linebacker Larry Stallings to the service, but they have an adequate replacement in five-year backup man Dave Meggyesy. Jerry Hillebrand, from the New York Giants, joins a linebacking corps that is beginning to show its age.
Abe Woodson has retired from a corner-back post, but the club should still field the best set of defensive backs in the division, with either Jim Burson or Bobby Williams replacing him. In Larry Wilson and Jerry Stovall, both Pro Bowl selections, the Cardinals have the best set of safeties in the league.
The deep men get good help from a defensive line that was second only to Dallas in pass defense last year. Joe Robb, injured but expected back, Don Brumm, Sam Silas and Chuck Walker give St. Louis not not only a quick pass rush but a solid bastion against runs.
All in all, this was the most effective defensive unit in the NFL in 1966, and it may be again in 1967. Last season the Cards were handicapped by poor punting, which often left their opponents in good field position from which to diversify their attacks. Charley Winner, the young St. Louis coach who has done a good job with the club, may relieve Place-kicker Jim Bakken of punting duties if Chuck Latourette, a free agent from Rice, continues to kick as well during the season as he did in preseason games.
If Hart can accomplish a miracle and become a full-fledged quarterback in his rookie season, or if Johnson can maintain full efficiency as a commuting quarterback, the Cardinals could win. But the odds are against them.
The odds against the New York Giants are astronomically higher. Allie Sherman, in another winter of discontent for the Giant fans, will hear the dirge "Goodby, Allie" often, but the collapse of the Giants is not his fault.
It is difficult to decide where to start in listing the deficiencies of the team. A defensive line that was weak to begin with and then all but destroyed by injury is probably the worst in the league. Defensive Tackle Don Davis, who was counted on to occupy one spot, has been operated on for a knee injury and will be out half the year. Sherman, in desperation, assigned one of his thin squad of linebackers to defensive tackle, and Jeff Smith promptly wrecked his knee in a scrimmage. That leaves the Giants about where they were last year, when their defensive line managed to reach the passer only 26 times. That was a depth of ineptitude exceeded only by Minnesota with 25. The failure to mount a good pass rush was one of the big reasons why New York gave up a total of 501 points, a league record.
The linebackers are due for long and hard service. Mike Ciccolella is in his second season as middle backer, and Bill Swain, one of the outside men, is in his third year after missing all of 1966 because of injury. Larry Vargo, counted on at linebacker, is out for the season. But forget these troubles. There is too much slack in the defensive line for the best linebackers in the world to make up.
The secondary, given reasonable support from the men in front of them, could be good. Given no rush and no linebackers of quality, it is not.
Clarence Childs and Henry Carr, the corner backs, have the speed and the intuition to handle most flankers and split ends, and Freeman White and Spider Lockhart, in a more salubrious climate, might match the St. Louis safeties at interceptions. But they operate under intolerable pressure and give up touchdowns because the receivers have too much time to fake them.
The big change in the New York offense is Fran Tarkenton, the skittery quarterback from Minnesota, for whom the Giants traded lifeblood. With an offensive line as leaky as New York's, it has to be a help to have a quarterback who can run for his life. Tarkenton can do that, but he has a penchant for creating a need for a third-and-40 offense. It is doubtful that Sherman has even a third-and-15 offense. This is unfortunate, because New York has exceptional long receivers in Homer Jones, who is truly fast, and Del Shofner. While Tarkenton wanders about, eluding the charge of defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers, Jones may outrun his range as a passer. Often Tarkenton's alternate receiver will be Aaron Thomas, who is tall enough to outreach most defensive backs and big enough to run over them. His speed will help a lot, too.
When he wants to hand the ball off, Tarkenton will be luckier than Earl Morrall, now Tarkenton's backup quarterback, was last year. Tucker Frederickson, who had a marvelous freshman year, then damaged his knee in his second season, has come back. Running with him will be Bill Triplett and Allen Jacobs. Other backs are Joe Morrison, who must win an award for versatility if for nothing else; Les Murdock, who will kick placements; and Ernie Koy, who will run and handle the punting.
Whichever team wins the division will be demolished by the winner of the Capitol Division. The Steelers, for whatever it is worth, should earn that honor.
RATING THE CENTURY