It began as a routine sweep of left end by Chicago's Gale Sayers, the best runner in pro football. With a blocker in front of him, Sayers tried to cut inside but San Francisco's Kermit Alexander, moving up from his cornerback position, submarined, catching Sayers' right knee with his shoulder and bending it back. Down went Sayers, his face contorted in agony, down for the rest of the season. Without him the Bears, who were leading the Central Division, are surely dead.
Several months earlier the Baltimore Colts were confronted with an equally grave problem. Johnny Unitas felt something pop in his elbow during an exhibition game and suddenly the future of the Colts depended on Earl Morrall (see cover), who had spent 12 indifferent seasons with four NFL clubs. Morrall, who had just been obtained from the Giants as insurance, took over the Baltimore attack and has led the team to a 9-1 record and the favorite's role in the Coastal Division. Unlike the Bears, the Colts are very much alive.
Over the years injuries have decided more pro football championships than coaches, stars or the oblique bounce of the ball. Victory often goes to the team with the smallest casualty list or the strongest reserves and this year, as the cases of the Bears and Colts illustrate, is no exception. As week after week the bodies are dragged from the field, the question seems to be not who is good enough to win but who is deep enough? Not that pro football is getting more brutal. There are more injuries today than ever before, true, but that is because players are so much bigger and faster, and because so many more of them are in action every Sunday afternoon. Only 12 teams played pro football in 1958, each carrying 35 men instead of 40. With 26 teams playing now, it is natural to expect more injuries.
The dilution of talent that goes with expansion also has made casualties far more important. When only 12 teams shared the college seniors each year, the quality of every squad was high. In the early '50s, for example, the Los Angeles Rams had two outstanding quarterbacks—Bob Waterfield and Norman Van Brocklin—plus Bobby Thomason, who subsequently was a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Rams also had three quality fullbacks—Dick Hoerner, Dan Towler and Tank Younger—and near-comparable depth at other positions. While not every team was so well stocked, most had quality in depth. Today, with the talent spread among 26 teams, the contrast between the starter and his replacement is often drastic. The Earl Morralls of modern pro football are rare.
The Dallas Cowboys lost Halfback Dan Reeves early in the season. He has been replaced by Craig Baynham, a second-year back, and by Les Shy, in his third season. Says Coach Tom Landry, "Experience is the key to success when you are at championship level. The absence of a key player such as Reeves can make the difference in whether your team can win the championship. Reeves was a major playmaker around the goal line. He seemed to get in there more than anyone else when we really needed to. The option pass was a big weapon for us last year. As a former quarterback, Reeves could handle it well. I can recall six or seven for touchdowns."
Even without Reeves, the Cowboys have had a strong offense, but the Rams, also minus a first-line halfback, have suffered a marked drop-off in their attack. Les Josephson, the offensive co-captain and the leading ballcarrier in the Coastal Division in 1967, has been out all season with a torn Achilles' tendon. His replacements—Willie Ellison and hobbling veteran Tommy Mason—are pale carbon copies.
Dick Bass, the rest of the Ram ground attack, has also had injuries, and Henry Dyer, his replacement, is painfully shy of experience. Thus hampered, the Rams have found their air game damaged as well, since opponents now ignore the run and send their defensive line after Quarterback Roman Gabriel. The Rams have had injuries in other positions, but those filling in have been better than adequate. Lamar Lundy, the oldest member of the front four, is out for the year, but young Gregg Schumacher has done nobly at defensive end. Chuck Lamson, a safety, was wiped out by a knee injury, but from Atlanta the Rams obtained veteran Ron Smith, who has filled the gap.
The Colts, having survived the Unitas problem, were faced with another when Fullback Jerry Hill was lost for the season. Baltimore has a good runner in rookie Terry Cole, a sensation during the exhibition season, but Cole lacks Hill's ability as a blocker. Hill's absence both in pass protection and ahead of the ballcarrier may diminish the Baltimore offense.
San Francisco might have been a contender had not much of a good offensive line been erased by a combination of injury and trades. The key injury came in October of 1967 when John Thomas, a 250-pound guard who was regarded as one of the best in the league, broke both knees on the same play. Thomas has not been able to come back from the injury and his replacements are only C-plus. John David Crow was converted from running back to replace veteran Monty Stickles, gone in the expansion draft, at tight end. Although he has made the changeover commendably, Crow does not block with the authority that made Stickles a valuable element in the 49er running game.
In the Century Division the Cleveland Browns have endured adversity better than most. They lost two good players early. Fullback Ernie Green sprained his left knee before the season began, and did not show full speed when he returned in late October. Gary Collins, a key receiver in Cleveland's potent passing game, went out for the season in the fourth game, suffering a shoulder separation. Then, two weeks ago, veteran End Bill Glass suffered fractured ribs.
The Browns, after stumbling through their early games, were picked up when Bill Nelsen replaced Frank Ryan at quarterback. The replacements for Green—Charley Harraway, a third-year man, and Charlie Leigh, a rookie who did not play college football—lack Green's running and blocking ability, but they have shown enough to provide variety and an opportunity for Leroy Kelly, second best runner in the league after Sayers, to break loose. Eppie Barney, filling in for Collins, has speed, but lacks Collins' flair for opening up on deep passes. As a consequence, Paul Warfield, the other Brown deep receiver, is often double-teamed. The replacement for Glass, Jack Gregory, a second-year player from Chattanooga, has been adequate.
Of all the contending teams in the NFL, the Browns' rival for the division championship, the St. Louis Cardinals, have perhaps been the most fortunate. Jerry Stovall, their veteran strong safety, missed the first six games of the season, and Coach Charley Winner never discovered a really adequate replacement. Thus the Cards were, during that time, vulnerable to passes to the tight end. Now Stovall is back. Johnny Roland, the Cardinals' outstanding young runner, has never completely regained his 1966-67 form following a knee operation, but he seems to be improving. The only other injury of consequence suffered by the Cards happened two weeks ago when Middle Linebacker Jamie Rivers, a strong Rookie of the Year candidate, strained a knee ligament that will kayo him for three games. The Cardinals, fortunately, have a reasonably good replacement for Rivers in Mike Strofolino.
Of all the divisions, the most battle-scarred is the Central. The Minnesota Vikings, with only three major disasters, are the healthiest. The Vikings lost their players early; if a club must experience injuries, it is better to have them early so that the replacements have time to settle in and adjust. The worst Viking casualty was Dave Osborn, top runner in the division last year, who needed a knee operation after the second exhibition game. Clinton Jones, a No. 1 draft choice in 1967, replaced Osborn and has done well, having been given time to fit in to the offense. Starting Flanker Bobby Grim went out with a bad knee on the first day of training camp, but veteran Tom Hall, although not as fast, has a better knack for getting free on medium-range passes.
Finally the Vikings lost Gary Cuozzo, who was battling Joe Kapp for the quarterback spot. He jammed his shoulder before the start of the season, then broke a collarbone in the Vikings' fourth game. Kapp has played capably, and now that Cuozzo has been taken off the injury list he gives Minnesota excellent backup strength.
Green Bay, one of the deepest teams in football, has been stripped of almost all its defensive linemen. Not even the Packers could adjust to the series of injuries that crippled Tackles Jim Weatherwax, Henry Jordan and Ron Kostelnik and hampered Defensive Ends Lionel Aldridge, Willie Davis and Bob Brown.
Add to that list Bart Starr, who missed two games with a pulled bicep muscle, and All-Pro Guard Jerry Kramer, who injured a knee and missed two games. The Packers are a versatile club; they compensated for the Kramer injury by moving Forrest Gregg over from tackle and putting in Francis Peay, a young lineman they obtained from New York, to replace Gregg. Peay has done an exceptional job for Green Bay, but he cannot help the defensive line, where the damage has been done.
Detroit, whose offense depends heavily upon the running of Mel Farr and the passing of Bill Munson, had no quality replacements available when both missed games with injuries. Greg Landry, a rookie quarterback from Massachusetts, stood in for Munson in the opener against Dallas and threw four interceptions, not unusual for a rookie. No other Lion running back was remotely in Farr's class. Now, with Munson and Farr healthy, they have had to find a replacement for Defensive End Joe Robb, who was injured two weeks ago.
The poor Bears had already lost two quarterbacks—starter Jack Concannon (broken collarbone) and Rudy Bukich (shoulder separation)—before the Sayers calamity. The team was forced to call upon a graduate of the taxi squad, Virgil Carter. An uncertain passer in his first few games, he depended heavily on the magical running of Sayers. That was good enough to lead the team to four straight victories and a tie for the division lead. With Sayers out for the season, his duties fall to Brian Piccolo, not even a pseudo-Sayers. To compound the problem, Carter himself was carried off on a stretcher last week, out for the season with a broken ankle.
AFL contenders have suffered almost as much as the strong teams in the NFL. Kansas City, bereft of wide receivers, went back to the old tight T for one game to beat Oakland. The Raiders lost Daryle Lamonica for a game and had to rely on 41-year-old George Blanda. San Diego, the third contender in the West, has had five players operated on for knee injuries: Fullback Brad Hubbert, Linebacker Rick Redman, Safety Jim Hill, Back Keith Lincoln and Defensive Tackle George Gross. The Buffalo Bills, of course, have gone through four quarterbacks. The New York Jets have been lucky, but their best runner, Emerson Boozer, took most of the first half of the season to get his legs under him after a knee operation and still is not right.
With four weeks of the season remaining, there will surely be other injuries that will have an effect on the division races. Of the contending teams in the four NFL divisions, the Dallas Cowboys are probably best prepared for such an event. Don Meredith, who has a battered knee, is backed by husky Craig Morton, an excellent No. 2. But the New York Giants, trailing Dallas by a game, would be in deep trouble if their quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, were hurt. In fact, one reason the Giants are technically in contention is that they have been comparatively free from injuries.
In the Coastal Division only Baltimore appears capable of sustaining its drive despite more injuries. Unitas is behind Morrall, but it is doubtful he could play even if Morrall were hurt. Jim Ward is healthy, though, and might be adequate at quarterback. Elsewhere, the Colts are stocked with good second-stringers. The Rams, already decimated, would be hard put if a player like Deacon Jones or Merlin Olsen went out or if one of their thin line of receivers were injured.
Only Minnesota, in the Central Division, appears deep enough to shake off injury. With Cuozzo back, they have two good quarterbacks, and Osborn may return before the season ends. In the Century Division the Cardinals are healthier than the Browns but are not as well equipped to take an injury at quarterback, where Jim Hart is backed by a rusty Charley Johnson. Behind Nelsen, of course, stands Frank Ryan.
No club can match Baltimore's super sub. Says Unitas: "Morrall has been fantastic. He's picked up the system and he throws pretty good."
"The good thing about Morrall," says Coach Don Shula, "is that we always have a homecoming for him. He gets himself up for his old teams."
And he has beaten all of them. Maybe as No. 2 he tries harder.