For a while early in the season it looked as if no one would win the Century Division title. The Cleveland Browns and the St. Louis Cardinals, picked to finish one-two, each lost two of their first three games to create a three-way tie for first with the New Orleans Saints, a second-year expansion team. The fourth Century team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, lost all three of its games. The division seemed easily the worst of the four in the NFL. Of seven interdivisional games Century teams lost six, only a New Orleans-victory over Washington saving them from a whitewash.
Since then the picture has changed dramatically. The Cardinals lost to Dallas, then won four in a row before tying Pittsburgh last week. The Browns beat Pittsburgh, lost to St. Louis and have since won four straight, including a rousing victory over the Baltimore Colts and an impressive rout of San Francisco. The Saints have been in contention in most of their games on the strength of the league's most aggressive pass defense, and might be considered a dark-horse candidate for the crown had they not lost Quarterback Billy Kilmer two weeks ago with a broken ankle.
The Browns and Cardinals were revived in the same way—by the replacement of a veteran quarterback with a younger man. The Cardinals started the season with young Jim Hart, who played all of the 1967 season and demonstrated the fallibility of youth by throwing 30 interceptions. After the Cardinals lost their first two games, to Los Angeles and San Francisco, Coach Charley Winner benched Hart for veteran Charley Johnson, who commuted to the games from his Army post. Johnson, however, came a cropper against the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth game of the season and was replaced by Hart in the second half. Hart could not salvage a victory, but his performance was steady enough so that he has started every game since then.
"He has matured," one club official said last week after Hart had thrown three touchdown passes to tie the Steelers. "He doesn't try to force his passes when he sees double coverage and he is finding his secondary receivers better than he did last season. And his protection has been good."
The Browns began their recovery when Coach Blanton Collier, after two sleepless nights of soul-searching, decided to replace Frank Ryan, the longtime Cleveland quarterback, with Bill Nelsen, a newcomer whom they obtained from the Steelers. Under Ryan, the Browns had looked unimpressive against the Saints in their opening victory, then had lost decisively to the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas and to the Los Angeles Rams in their home opener.
"Ryan wasn't moving the team," Collier said. After the Ram loss, Collier huddled with some of his assistants and with Brown Owner Art Modell for more than 30 minutes in a room off the dressing quarters. Two days later he announced that Nelsen would start against Pittsburgh. Nelsen, a 27-year-old, six-year veteran from the University of Southern California, has been the Browns' quarterback ever since.
Although Collier made no explicit criticism of Ryan, it was obvious that Frank was relying too heavily on long passes, often ignoring the short patterns that were part of the Cleveland battle strategy. Nelsen, on the other hand, is satisfied with short gains if they are conceded by the defense. He has used all of the good corps of Brown receivers, and his approach to the passing game has made receivers such as the big tight end, Milt Morin, much more effective.
Nelsen beat his old teammates, the Steelers, and produced Cleveland's biggest score to that point, a 31-24 victory. He had a weak first half against St. Louis in his next game but rallied in the second half as the Browns lost 27-21. Then he led the club to four victories in a row, over Baltimore, Atlanta, San Francisco and New Orleans.
After last week's victory over the Saints, Collier appeared delighted with his quarterback. Nelsen completed only 10 of 24 passes, but four of them went for touchdowns. He also called a precise and knowledgeable game.
"I like a quarterback who will keep making the short gains," Collier said. "Four yards here, five there, four more, then maybe 10 or 12. You keep the ball that way, and if the opportunity for the bomb presents itself you take it."
Nelsen assumed the leadership of the Brown offense with surprising aplomb. Ryan had been the quarterback for six years, and it might have been expected that the Brown veterans would resent his being set down for a quarterback who only joined the team this season. But Nelsen's easy confidence averted this danger.
"He takes charge in the huddle," Collier explained. "He's a psychologist who knows how to handle players." Collier cited Otto Graham, the former Cleveland quarterback, as a similar type. "Dub Jones, who was a fine receiver on those teams, once told me that the players always believed that Otto would come up with the big play when they needed it," Collier said. "This team has something of that feeling about Nelsen."
Nelsen is calm about his rise to relative glory. "I always felt that I could do it if I had the chance," he now says. "I don't mean to sound arrogant, but all quarterbacks have to believe in themselves,"
"Bill generates excitement," says Gene Hickerson, who has played guard for the club for 11 years. "You can't believe what's going on. He tells me to hold my man out a little longer and, you know, I will." Jim Houston, a nine-year linebacker, agrees with Hickerson. "Bill brings out the extra in a player," he says. "He's interested in trying to propel our inertia. His confident attitude—and it's not cockiness—carries over to the defense, too. We know he'll make the big play eventually. That's the kind of feeling we have now," he said. "The atmosphere is that much short of a championship." He held up his fingers, a couple of inches apart.
The Browns struggled against the 49ers in the first half of the game on the Coast two weeks ago, trailing by 14-3 at one time. "The defense knew Bill was having trouble in the first quarter," Houston said. "We just hung in there because we knew he would put some points on the scoreboard."
Both the Browns and the Cardinals can partly blame their slow starts on extensive reshuffling of personnel. In both cases, some of that came about because of internal difficulties. Racial dissension (SI, July 29), general ineptitude and advancing age caused the Cardinals to make several trades. Defensive Back Jimmy Burson went to Washington, Defensive End Joe Robb to Detroit, Defensive Tackle Sam Silas to New York. Prentice Gautt, an eight-year running back who played 14 games in 1967, retired, along with Bill Koman, an excellent linebacker who had played nine years for the Cardinals.
Winner, in effect, rebuilt his entire defense, with only three of 11 players remaining in the positions they had occupied in 1967. To complicate his problem, veteran Strong Safety Jerry Stovall missed the first six games of the year. Winner first tried Mike Barnes, a second-year defensive back, then Chuck Latourette, a punter-kick return specialist, in Stovall's position, but neither of them showed enough ability to cope with the wiles of a good tight end. Monty Stickles of New Orleans caught four passes for 80 yards against them, and Milt Morin had a delightful afternoon, catching eight passes for 151 yards.
A rookie middle linebacker, Jamie Rivers, has progressed so rapidly that he stands a reasonable chance of being named Rookie of the Year. He made mistakes early on, although he turned both New Orleans games in the Cardinals' favor with key plays. In the first game he blocked a Saints' field-goal attempt and in the second diagnosed a fake field-goal attempt and tackled the ballcarrier for a two-yard loss to give the Cards possession. Rivers was injured slightly last week but should be ready for the Cards' crucial game against Baltimore this Sunday.
Johnny Roland, the superb running back who generated most of the ground power for the team until he was injured late in 1967, started slowly this year, gingerly testing an operation on his knee. But he was strong against Philadelphia, scored the tying touchdown against the Steelers and seems back at full speed. He has been helped by the recent emergence of Willis Crenshaw, whose potent running has given opponents someone else to look out for.
With the defense gaining cohesion and confidence from week to week and with Hart, behind fine blocking, growing in stature as a quarterback, the Cardinals are poised for a good stretch run. If it were not for the comparable improvement of Cleveland, they might be clear-cut favorites to take the division and give the Dallas Cowboys a respectable tussle for the Eastern Conference championship.
But the Browns, too, have begun to demonstrate impressive muscle in areas other than quarterback. They were dealt a severe blow before the season started when Ross Fichtner, a veteran defensive back, and John Wooten, one of the steadiest blockers in the league at guard, were put on waivers after an altercation that had racial overtones. The offense lost another key blocker when Fullback Ernie Green injured a knee against Los Angeles in the first exhibition game. Green, who has almost fully recovered, played a few minutes last week; meanwhile, neither of the men who have tried to replace him—Charley Harraway or Charlie Leigh, who never played college football—has been particularly effective. Harraway is a fair blocker but slow out of the starting blocks, and Leigh simply lacks experience. When Gary Collins, one of the best wide receivers in the league, went out for the season with a shoulder separation, the Brown offense was in shambles.
It took time to fit the new personnel into the scheme of things, and it was not until Nelsen took over that the offense began to function as a unit. Nelsen could accept a rush a bit better than Ryan, because he has a quicker release, and he did not miss Collins as much, since he uses all of his receivers about equally. Eppie Barney, Collins' replacement, lacks Collins' height and size but has more speed and has been a good receiver for Nelsen. Morin, who was slowed by injuries last season, came into his own with Nelsen calling his pattern both short and deep. Morin caught two touchdown passes against the 49ers and one last Sunday against New Orleans.
The Browns, then, are operating without eight starters from the 1967 season, in which they won the Century Division championship. They are Quarterback Ryan, replaced by Nelsen; Linebacker John Brewer (Bob Matheson); Safetyman Fichtner (Mike Howell, moved from cornerback and replaced by second-year man Ben Davis); Woo-ten (second-year man John Demarie); Defensive End Paul Wiggin (Ron Snidow, obtained from Washington); Green (Harraway or Leigh); Collins (Barney); and Defensive End Bill Glass, out for the season with broken ribs (second-year man Jack Gregory).
Leroy Kelly, who is a cinch to win the rushing title now that Gale Sayers is out for the season, has become more effective under Nelsen, whose short passing game opens up running space for him. Against San Francisco, Kelly was used judiciously and had his best day of the season, rushing for 174 yards; last week he gained 127 yards and scored three times.
In the battle for the title, the advantage lies with Cleveland. Last week's 28-28 tie with Pittsburgh puts the Cardinals, in effect, half a game behind the Browns with only five left to play. The Cardinals get another crack at the Browns in St. Louis in the last game of the season, but they also have a more difficult schedule—because it includes Sunday's game against Baltimore. The Cardinals' other three games are with the Falcons, Steelers and Giants, while the Browns have the Steelers, Eagles, Giants and Redskins. Should the Browns continue to play as they have in recent weeks, the Cardinals would have to win the rest of their games, including both the crucial one with highly favored Baltimore and the season-ender against the Browns. But no matter which team comes out on top, the Century Division has achieved a surprising recovery. The Cowboys may be shocked in the Eastern Conference playoff on Dec. 21, whether that takes place in St. Louis or Cleveland.