By the time the game had reached its dying moments in Baltimore's crowded and hysterical Memorial Stadium, Los Angeles Rams Coach George Allen was playing for a tie and doing so happily. No one will censure him for this; the Rams had twice come back from what appeared to be certain defeat to achieve this much. The score was 24-24, and it reflects rather accurately the parity of talent between two fine football teams last Sunday afternoon.
"We weren't really playing for a tie," said Allen candidly after the game. "We were playing to avoid a loss. This doesn't hurt us. The next time we get the Colts we'll be in our own backyard and, if the division championship rides on that game, we'll win it."
Maybe. What Allen seems to have overlooked is that the Baltimore team he will see in Los Angeles in December may not be the same one at all that he was a bit fortunate to hold to a tie in October. No fewer than seven, of the Colt preseason starters were out of this game and, while their replacements performed creditably, it is reasonable to suppose that the regulars will be better.
For the record, Baltimore played without Alvin Haymond, a defensive back; Ordell Braase, defensive captain and end; Mike Curtis, corner linebacker; Raymond Berry, offensive end and an All-Pro; Jimmy Orr, one of the league's better flanker backs; Bill Curry, another linebacker; and Jim Parker, many times an all-league offensive tackle or guard.
It is a significant measure of the depth in quality of the Colts that the long injury list neither diminished their desire nor seriously lowered their level of performance. The offensive line did a remarkable job of denying the Rams' big front four defensive linemen access to the battered and tender body of Quarterback John Unitas.
A subtle difference in the technique of offensive line play contributed to the success the Colts had both in running against the Rams and giving Unitas time to throw the ball. The primary concern of the Rams, of course, was to put pressure on Unitas; but given time, the superb Baltimore quarterback can solve the riddle of any defense, as he did over and over again on this warm and faintly humid day. The Ram line, surprisingly, stunts a good deal where most sound lines with similar size and agility usually dispense with such frills.
"We have increased our line splits a good deal this year," said Dan Sullivan, a Baltimore guard who had the unenviable task of contending with 275-pound Merlin Olsen. "It is especially effective against a team that switches and stunts as much as the Rams do because it gives you time to pick up the moves. And, if the spacing between the offensive linemen is wide, they have to go farther on their routes."
The Colt spacing was helpful even when the Rams abandoned stunts, as they did in the second half of the game. When Olsen and Roger Brown, the two massive Ram tackles, stationed themselves en the outside shoulder of Sullivan and Glenn Ressler, the other Colt guard, they found themselves with a long road to Unitas. When they moved inside, as they often did, Ressler and Sullivan could pinch them together and tie them up in the traffic in the center of the line. Thus, given time, Unitas performed with his usual sure efficiency.
The Rams moved into the lead early in the first period when Roman Gabriel, their king-size quarterback, threw a perfect pass to Jack Snow, the ball sailing some 50 yards in the air before Snow, with half a step on defender Lenny Lyles, made a leaping, fingertip catch at the goal. The Colts, who are not a blitzing team, had tried a dangerous safety blitz on this play, and when the Rams picked it up and blocked out Rich Volk, the safety, Gabriel had ample time to find Snow, who had barely beaten Lyles. It was a play executed as nicely as if it were being traced on a giant green chalkboard, but it did little to discourage Unitas or the rest of the Colts, whose Lou Michaels kicked a left-footed 45-yard field goal later in the quarter.
In the first quarter there were portents of the offense that the Colts were to demonstrate later. The second time Baltimore got the ball, Unitas began exploiting a facet of the Ram defense that was to remain vulnerable for almost the whole afternoon.
In an effort to get pressure on Unitas from the inside, Lamar Lundy, the big Ram right end, would often loop to the inside. The Colts sent their backs—Tony Lorick, Lenny Moore or Tom Matte, for the most part—wide outside Lundy, and in that second offensive series Matte, behind a good block by the tackle on Lundy and another good block by Fullback Jerry Hill, went for seven yards on the sweep. Hill smashed to the right side of the Ram defense for 10 more yards and Unitas hit Matte with a quick swing pass, again around the right side, for nine more. Eventually the drive died on the Ram 14, although the Colts might well have had a touchdown. With fourth down and one, Unitas sent Hill into the Ram line on a fake and threw to Ray Perkins, playing for the injured Berry. Perkins was yards free of any defender on the Ram goal line, but he dropped the ball. It was a frustrating culmination to a good drive, but it confirmed the Colt strategy, and when Unitas left the field he was reasonably sure of what he would be able to do in ensuing offensive thrusts.
Bald Bobby Boyd, who is one of the league's premier corner backs, put matters in train again for Unitas halfway through the second period when he made a leaping interception of a Gabriel pass on the Baltimore 28 and returned the ball to the Colt 41.
Unitas threw few long passes during the game, since the Colts were aware that the Ram defensive line seldom gives a receiver enough time to clear on a long pass. But after the interception he switched his strategy. With the Baltimore offensive line performing nobly, he had time to throw and found Alex Hawkins on the first play from scrimmage with a 22-yard pass. Unitas tried twice at the left side of the Ram line, and the element of surprise was good enough to get 14 yards. He then went back to the sure gain outside the Ram right end, with Lenny Moore going nine yards to the Ram 14.
"That's our 34 or 35 special," a Colt offensive lineman said later. "The tackle [Bob Vogel] hooks Lundy in, and the fullback blocks the linebacker. We had real good luck with it most of the time."
They had real good luck with it once more in this drive when Moore, from the Ram three, wheeled wide to his left, skipped away from an attempted tackle and went into the end zone to put the Colts ahead 10-7.
The Colt touchdowns came hard. The Rams either scored easily or they did not move the ball at all. As the third quarter opened, Gabriel hoisted another long, towering pass to Jack Snow. Well covered by Boyd, Snow tipped the ball into the air, juggled it momentarily, then secured it and outran everybody for an 80-yard touchdown.
Johnny U. lost little time in putting the Colts back ahead. He had had good success throwing to his halfbacks on patterns that allowed him to release the ball quickly, ahead of the Ram rush, and now he sent Matte on a deeper pattern. Matte broke free, caught the ball at the Ram 28 and shook himself loose from the Ram linebacker who was covering him. He reached the Ram 15 before he was brought down. Unitas got the touchdown with a 14-yard pass to Hawkins, who played a truly remarkable game.
Hawkins had only been back with the Colts for a week. He went to Atlanta in 1966 in the expansion draft and was put on waivers this year after what was essentially a personality conflict with Atlanta Coach Norb Hecker. Before he had gone to Atlanta, Hawkins had been the captain of the Baltimore special teams, for which he had created exceptional esprit de corps. Sunday he played on all the Baltimore special teams and doubled in brass as a spread end after Perkins pulled a muscle. He caught three passes for 50 yards and the Colts' second touchdown, and on one punt he made a beautiful, swooping tackle, denying the Rams what could have been a long return.
Through the first three quarters, then, this had been a taut, well played and exciting game. When the fourth quarter started, the Colts were leading by 17-14 and certainly the sellout crowd of 60,238 (the 25th straight sellout for the Colts in Memorial Stadium) was justified in believing that Baltimore would win. The Colts had demonstrated a remarkable ability to blunt the Ram pass rush, had managed (with the exception of Snow's two long scoring plays) to contain the enemy and had played with a certain flair that made one believe they were the better team.
But Los Angeles, too, is a good football team. In the old days the Rams might have quietly folded. But, in the words of Bernie Casey, a receiver Los Angeles obtained from San Francisco, this is a team with "something to prove."
"The personality of this team is determination and character," said Casey after the game. "If you want proof, we've been a hell of a second-half team all season long."
In a weird and often wonderful fourth period, the Rams had to draw on all of their determination and character to salvage the 24-24 tie. As the quarter began, the Ram defense, now enjoying considerable success with straight-ahead bull power and speed, seemed at last to have begun to harness Unitas. But a rush of penalties—one for pass interference, two for grabbing face masks—negated their efforts. Instead of losing running yardage twice and suffering an incomplete pass, the Colts picked up some 35 yards before Unitas found Richardson with a 31-yard pass in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown, and the Colts led 24-14.
Then the breaks started going the Rams' way. Bruce Gossett hit the crossbar with a 47-yard field-goal attempt and the ball bounced through to give them the score. Trying to pass from the Colt 31, Unitas made a curiously feeble toss toward Matte. Maxie Baughan, the Ram linebacker, stepped in front of Matte, intercepted the ball and returned it to the Colt eight.
Three plays later Gabriel, dancing nimbly away from a gaggle of would-be Colt tacklers, waited until Casey, who was covered, came free in the end zone and hit him with a 16-yard touchdown pass. "Often the primary receivers were covered," Gabriel said. "Then I just went to the open man. This was supposed to be a quick pass, but it didn't work that way."
Someone said to him, "Good game, Gabe," and he looked up ruefully. "Good enough to tie," he said. "Right now, that's plenty good."
It may not be in December.