The Baltimore Colts, relying on the toughest defense (see cover) this side of the Berlin Wall, looked very much like the Green Bay Packers last week. The old Green Bay Packers. This was unfortunate for the current edition of the Packers, who looked more like the Vassar Coquettes as the Colts stifled them 16-3 before more than 50,000 Green Bay fans last week.
The loss snuffed out what dim hope the Packers had to win their fourth straight championship. Now the Central Division title could well go to the Chicago Bears, who have come back from the dead after losing Gale Sayers and three quarterbacks at various stages of the campaign. They are tied with the Minnesota Vikings, but because they beat the Vikings twice during the season they can clinch the title with a victory this week over the Packers. If the Bears lose, they will almost certainly finish second to Minnesota, since the Vikings should have an easy game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Packers' defeat by Baltimore was, in a way, a microcosm of the whole unfortunate year for Green Bay. The team made five major mistakes—four lost fumbles and an interception—and a host of minor ones, including a booming four-yard punt from the toe of Donny Anderson. The defense was stubborn most of the game, but each of those four fumbles gave Baltimore the ball in Green Bay territory and led directly to two field goals and the lone touchdown. Meanwhile, the Packers did not get beyond the Colt 35 until the fourth quarter. Their three points came in the first period when Mike Mercer banked a field goal off the right upright from the Baltimore 45-yard line.
To be sure, much of the Packers' misfortune was caused by the Baltimore defense, a unit which has now gone four games without giving up a touchdown. In 13 games this season the Colts have yielded only 120 points, and a quarter of those came in their one bad show of the year, a 30-20 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
December 16, 1968
Countless words undoubtedly will be written describing the Green Bay debacle as the end of a dynasty, but this is a theory the Packers themselves do not endorse. To them, the disasters of 1968 were an interruption, not an end. All the bad luck Green Bay escaped in the nine years under Vince Lombardi seemed to descend upon the team in Phil Bengtson's first season as coach, and the avalanche of injuries, bad bounces, missed field goals and untimely penalties resulted in Green Bay's first losing season since 1959.
When the Baltimore game was over, the atmosphere in the Packer dressing room was more resigned than funereal. It was almost as if the players had expected the worst, although before the game Jerry Kramer, when asked if he thought Green Bay had a chance against the Colts, said, "You're damned right we have. We'll beat them."
After the game he shook his head. "I hope we got rid of all of it this year. Everything that can happen to a ball club happened. I keep thinking about what it says in the Bible. Three fat years and then three lean. Or is it seven and seven? We had enough bad luck for seven years all in one."
Aside from injuries, which wiped out most of the defensive line and sidelined Quarterback Bart Starr for key games, including last week's, the Packers suffered from lack of a field-goal kicker for most of the season.
"You figure we could have won four games we lost if we had had a long-range kicker," said Elijah Pitts, the running back who shares time with Anderson. "We win those four games, this one doesn't mean a thing. But it doesn't do any good crying about it. We learned some things this year. We had some adjustments to make. We found out you don't get ready for a game by starting to think about it on Friday. You got to think about it all the time all week. We'll be back next year."
Although Pitts did not go into detail on the adjustments the club had to make, it was clear that he was referring to the change from Lombardi to Bengtson, from the emotional, hypercharged approach that Lombardi used to whip his club into a frenzy week after week to the rather cool, intellectual administration of his former assistant.
"We have to get ourselves up," one veteran said. "We're pros. We should. But somehow we didn't."
However, the Packers were up for Baltimore. They opened play with what is an atypical defense for Green Bay, a club that makes almost a fetish of orthodoxy on defense. From the first offensive play by Baltimore until the end of the game, the Packers gambled. They do not blitz often, but on this chill, bright and windy afternoon, they did it well over half the time. In the first half, on one sequence covering two Colt offensive series and nine plays, the Packer linebackers, in various combinations, blitzed all nine times.
"We didn't expect them to come so much," Earl Morrall, the Colt quarterback, said after it was over. "Every time we went into a slot formation they blitzed. I had to audible a lot to take care of it."
The Colts picked up the Green Bay-blitz much of the time. Coach Don Shula varied the Baltimore blocking assignments so that the blitzing linebackers never knew who would take them. And although the Packer ploy worked well enough to spoil Baltimore drives several times deep in Green Bay territory, it cost the Packers a touchdown early in the game.
This happened the second time Baltimore got the ball, after Donny Anderson had fumbled and Colt Corner-back Bobby Boyd had recovered on the Green Bay 28, With second and eight, the Packers blitzed, and Morrall, with strong protection, had time to loft a high trajectory pass to End Willie Richardson in the corner of the end zone. A blitz usually forces the cornerbacks into single coverage on the flanker and spread end. In this case Richardson did not exactly beat Herb Adderley, but he timed his leap for the ball better and took it just behind and over the outstretched fingertips of the Packer defender for the only touchdown of the game.
On other occasions, throwing against the augmented rush, Morrall narrowly missed open receivers on deep patterns. Although he was dropped only twice, he was hurried several times.
"The blitzes were a calculated risk," said Packer Linebacker Lee Roy Caffey later. "If you don't make Baltimore respect the red dog, they'll check backs out of the backfield. We didn't want them putting that many receivers into the secondary. When you come at them, they have to keep backs in to block. That's what they had to do today and it worked out pretty well. It was just one of those days. We've had a hell of a lot of them this year. But I'll tell you one thing. We haven't played a team all season I thought was as good as we are. What was it General MacArthur said? We will return."
Willie Davis, the All-Pro Packer defensive end and captain, took the defeat and the end of the Packer championship string as bitterly as any of the players.
"This will be the first time since I started playing football I was on a team that finished worse than second," Willie said. "All year I've tried not to take the frustration and disappointment home with me or out on the streets with me. I smile and talk to people like nothing is wrong, but I don't know how I can stand the off season now with this to think about. I have to go home to Chicago and think it over for a long time. I've had a good career and maybe now is the time to call it quits. I don't want to just hang around and fill a uniform. The way I feel now I don't think I'll come back unless Coach Bengtson tells me he is in a bind and really needs me next year. I'd come back for him."
Ray Nitschke, who had his usual bristling afternoon at middle linebacker, said, "It's all in the game. We got to forget this year. We got to look ahead, not back."
The Packers obviously have much to look ahead to.
"We got only four games out of Bob Brown," said Dave Robinson, the big corner linebacker. "In one season he broke an arm and a leg. Weatherwax wrecked his knee and we didn't get one minute out of him and he's the biggest man on the squad. These were the guys we figured on to rest Henry Jordan and Ron Kostelnik and both of them played with injuries. We got a lot of good young ones and you can't figure us for all those injuries again. We'll be back."
If they should fail to recapture their Lombardi years, the problem will very likely be found at quarterback. Starr, when healthy, is still one of the most capable quarterbacks in football, but at 35 he has reached the age where injuries linger, and it would be foolhardy to expect him to grow sturdier in the seasons to come. Zeke Bratkowski, who has been a useful replacement for Starr, is 37 and ready to retire. The Packers will have to develop a good young quarterback and do it immediately if Bengtson is to duplicate the accomplishments of Lombardi.
Given the good young quarterback and health, the Packers may still have trouble dominating the league as they did from 1960 through 1967. The Colts, a nice blend of experience and youth, will be around for quite a while, and so will the Rams, 49ers, Vikings, Cowboys and Browns.
Baltimore, with the best defense since the 1963 Chicago Bears and the best No. 2 quarterback in the league, clinched the Coastal Division when the Bears upset the Rams on Sunday and now stands a very good chance of replacing Green Bay as both NFL and Super Bowl champion. Johnny Unitas did not get into the game against the Packers, but the week before, in the 44-0 rout of Atlanta, he played part of the second half, completed five of 10 passes and threw the ball with much of his old skill. Should Morrall falter, Unitas may be ready.
But it is that magnificent defense that has given the Colts impetus since their surprising loss to Cleveland on Oct. 20.
"We have played together so long now we react without thinking," said Jerry Logan, the Baltimore strong safety who limited the Green Bay tight ends to a total of one catch. Bengtson moved Boyd Dowler from spread end to tight end to beef up the Packer passing attack, but the move proved fruitless against the tenacious guarding of the Colt secondary.
"After you have been together as long as we have you know instinctively where your support is coming from and you know it is coming," Logan said. "We've got some good young ones, too. I know Mike Curtis has been a big help to me at linebacker. I think he's the best corner linebacker in the league right now and that makes my job a lot easier. And I know Bobby Boyd won't make any mistakes. That means I can take chances I wouldn't normally."
"There's no place for the other quarterback to go on third and eight," one Colt said with satisfaction. "Most clubs, you got someone you can pick on then, some guy you know you can beat. You save him for that third-and-eight call. But there isn't anyone to save on this club. They are all tough."
That's just the way it used to be with the old Packers.