With the NFL season a little more than half over, only one team has clearly established its claim to a division title. The Los Angeles Rams, rather surprisingly, have spread-eagled what had seemed to be a very strong Coastal Division and, after beating San Francisco 41-30 last Sunday, lead the Baltimore Colts by an almost insurmountable three games, with six left to play.
There are three clear-cut favorites in the other divisions, but none is out of reach of contenders. On their performances to date, however, the Dallas Cowboys in the Capitol, the Cleveland Browns in the Century and the Minnesota Vikings in the Central should go on to win division championships. All four division leaders are sound, deep and talented, but the Cowboys probably are most richly endowed with exceptional players.
The Browns, who thrashed Dallas in Cleveland two weeks ago, have improved steadily since the season began—except for last week's understandable letdown, a 51-3 whomping by the Vikings—and approach the excellence Coach Blanton Collier anticipated during preseason training. Cleveland was hampered early by major injuries to Defensive Tackle Jim Kanicki, Cornerback Ben Davis and Strong Safety Ernie Kellermann. Kanicki broke his leg in the final exhibition game, Kellermann suffered a broken thumb, which kept him out of three games, and Davis underwent knee surgery and has been lost for the season. Kanicki should be back soon. Meanwhile Marvin Upshaw, a second-year defensive end, whose brother Gene plays for Oakland, has done reasonably well filling in for him. "He has been up and down," Collier says of Upshaw. "I'd say he's been pretty good. A new man at a new position is bound to make mistakes, but I believe he'll come along well."
Two rookies have filled in for the injured defensive backs, Walt Sumner for Davis and Freddie Summers for Kellermann. Sumner suffered the rookie blues in a 21-21 tie with St. Louis, but bounced back against Dallas. Summers now has been replaced by Kellermann, but Freddie showed fine speed and a liking for contact in the three full games he played and he gives the Browns useful depth in their secondary.
Despite inexperienced hands, the Cleveland defense had been redoubtable until last Sunday. Tom Landry, the Cowboy coach, characterized it pretty well the other day, when he said, "It's like a rubber band. It gives but seldom breaks."
Offensively, the Browns have a fine line, which is probably a bit better at protecting Quarterback Bill Nelsen than at opening holes for as good a set of running backs as there are in the league—Leroy Kelly, Reece Morrison and No. 1 draft choice Ron Johnson. The latter has improved his blocking, but a recent ankle injury has been a handicap to him while carrying the ball.
With the almost impenetrable protection usually afforded Nelsen (he was sacked only eight times in the first seven games), he has blossomed as a passer, and the early return of Tight End Milt Morin, who was operated on for a herniated spinal disk in June, has pumped even more life into the passing attack, which also features Paul Warfield and the reliable Gary Collins. Morin was awarded the game ball after Cleveland beat Dallas, but he promptly handed it over to Dr. Malcolm Brahms, the orthopedic specialist who performed his operation.
Undoubtedly, the Browns' finest game was the 42-10 win over Dallas. (Curiously, the Cowboys have only won one of the nine games they have played in Cleveland.) "I guess the players just got filled up reading and hearing about Dallas," Collier said last week. "They got to the point where they wanted to go out and prove something. You just can't keep hearing those things without some reaction. We played well and met good fortune halfway." Alas, the Browns apparently hadn't heard of Minnesota.
Tex Schramm, the president of the Cowboys, had another theory about the Brown game. "You hear a lot about our being flat," he said. "I don't think that's true. I think we came up with a normal effort and hit a team keyed for a super effort. For some reason our players don't respect Cleveland enough. Then we got behind and had to play catch-up and never could regain our poise."
Whatever the explanation, and despite the Viking drubbing, the Browns are easily the class of the Century Division. With the St. Louis Cardinals inconsistent and New York and Pittsburgh out of their depth, Cleveland's future in its own division is about as bright as it could be; only the outlook for the Rams shines—theoretically—more strongly.
Los Angeles, undefeated in eight games, is a shoo-in. The Rams are rather a different team from the other three leaders, all of whom are workmanlike, efficient, tough machines. The Rams have defects that might be fatal to other clubs but, under the emotional—and inspirational—leadership of Coach George Allen, they overcome their shortcomings, often with spirit, and some of their strengths are potent enough to offset or conceal weaknesses.
The best example of this is the Ram defensive line of Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Roger Brown or Coy Bacon, and Diron Talbert. The original Fearsome Foursome was broken up with the loss of injured Lamar Lundy and with Bacon splitting time with Roger Brown, but the present combination is as good as or better than the original. Jones and Olsen are legitimate All-Pros, and a case could be made for either as the best at his position in pro football. Certainly they comprise the strongest side of a defensive line in the league.
Talbert and Bacon are young, strong and very quick and are almost as adept as Olsen and Jones at destroying an opposing passer. The bristling pass rush does much to relieve pressure on the Ram cornerbacks, who don't rate at the top of their profession. With a lesser line in front of them, Ron Smith and Clancy Williams would be victimized far more often than they are; indeed, on the rare occasions when the Ram front four is shut off, opposing passers pick on the corners.
The linebackers are good and react in a hurry, and the substitution of Doug Woodlief in the middle for the injured Myron Pottios adds speed to the unit and improves its performance against the pass. The Ram safeties—veterans Eddie Meador and Richie Petitbon—are both first-rate.
A revitalized running game animates the Ram offense, and here again a strength offsets a weakness. Although Billy Truax is a vastly underrated tight end, the wide receivers are only average, and the Ram passing game, despite Roman Gabriel's emergence as a topflight quarterback and passer, wouldn't strike fear in the hearts of many defensive backs if it was not coupled with a strong, versatile running attack.
For the first time in some years the Rams are blessed with several very good runners. Rookie Larry Smith, the 6'3", 220-pound sprinter who was a No. 1 draft choice from Florida, has been all the Rams hoped for. He gives them both power and a wide threat, and Les Josephson, who missed last year with an injury, has regained his 1967 form. Tommy Mason, who ran in 1968 with both legs swathed in bandages to protect his creaky knees, has taken off the wraps and is running with his old abandon and remarkable balance and agility.
As long as the pass rush and running hold up, the Rams will continue to win, and there is no reason to believe they will slack off in either department. Moreover, they are so far in front in their division that Allen can rest his veterans when need be and develop his rookies so that they will be of real help in the playoffs. It is likely that the Rams will play Minnesota for the Western Conference title, and Allen will need all he can muster to beat the Vikings on Dec. 27 in the frozen (most probably) setting of Metropolitan Stadium.
The Vikings are one of the very few teams who can match the Ram front four with four studs of their own. Their Four Norsemen are as big and as quick as the Ram line and have sacked the quarterback more often. Overall, the Vikings' secondary is probably better than the Rams', and the Minnesota linebackers may have an edge, too.
Indeed, the Vikes may be the most consistent of the four top teams, as they proved rather conclusively last Sunday, when they scored the first nine times they had the ball and didn't punt until 49 seconds were left in the game. However, the 51-3 loss was no more indicative of the true difference between the clubs than Cleveland's big win over Dallas was a guarantee that the Browns will beat the Cowboys if they meet for the Eastern Conference title in Dallas.
After a startling loss to the New York Giants in the first game of the season, the Vikings have come on with each game. Joe Kapp, their quarterback, gains in confidence and effect every week as he becomes more adept at reading defenses and more accustomed to the moves of his receivers, principally Gene Washington, who caught three touchdown passes against the Browns. It is only now—2½ years after his emigration from the Canadian Football League—that Kapp gives you the feeling that he's at home in the NFL.
The return to full speed of Fullback Bill Brown, who had a bad ankle, and the continuing improvement of Dave Os-born, his running mate, has hyped up the Minnesota ground game, and the experience Clinton Jones picked up substituting for Brown has made him a valuable replacement.
Too, the Viking offensive line has jelled and now offers Kapp better protection than heretofore. The Vikings should continue to mature and improve. When they reach their showdown with Los Angeles they will have much more than a wintry clime going for them.
Should Minnesota defeat the Rams on that occasion (a not unlikely occurrence, since the Rams have never been noted as a cold-weather club) the Vikings will have the same playing conditions in their favor on Jan. 4, when they would play cither Dallas or Cleveland for the NFL title. The Cowboys have played in sub-zero weather before and lost (to Green Bay) and, in January, Cleveland is only minimally warmer than Bloomington, Minn.
This Cowboy team is probably better than the one Green Bay defeated for the title in 1966 and 1967 and the club Cleveland beat in the conference playoff last year. Dallas was humiliated in the 42-10 debacle, but it reacted with angry determination in the face of unjustified criticism by some Dallas sports-writers, who took the single defeat—after six wins—as if Dallas had blown the season. One writer even suggested that Tex Schramm might consider replacing Landry, which is inconceivable. The writer's theory was that the Cowboys are no longer in the building process, and Landry should be able to arouse them for games like the one with Cleveland. On that theory Collier, after this week, and Minnesota Coach Bud Grant, after the season opener, would be in jeopardy, too, but most owners realize it simply isn't possible to be up every Sunday.
Against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday the Cowboys played fitfully, but picked themselves up in the fourth quarter after the Saints had tied the game 17-17, and demonstrated all of their very considerable skills in winning 33-17.
Their passing attack wasn't quite as polished as it should have been, but that was because Craig Morton, who has more than filled the low-cuts of the retired Don Meredith, was off on his timing. Morton, a big, rugged quarterback in the mold of a Roman Gabriel, is a powerful and accurate passer under normal circumstances, but for the last four weeks he has had a slight shoulder separation and has been unable to throw as much in practice as he should or put as much on the ball as usual.
On Wednesday and Thursday of last week he was throwing as hard as ever, but his lack of practice was evident, and in the early going against the Saints his shots strayed. Once he missed Lance Rentzel in an open field, and twice underthrown balls were intercepted. As the game wore on, Morton's accuracy improved and he threw to Mike Ditka for a big touchdown late in the game and hit Lance Rentzel on a long pass that set up another score.
But the major difference in this team from those of years past is the addition of Calvin Hill, the massive Yale running back, who is reminiscent of Jim Brown but may be faster. Hill got one touchdown on a 30-yard sweep on which he used great balance, splendid fakes and the power innate in his 6'3", 218-pound frame, breaking two tackles and teetering along the sideline to get the score. Later he broke three tackles on a 55-yard run to the Saints' 13-yard line, which set up the touchdown that put the Cowboys ahead to stay.
The addition of Hill provides Dallas with a solid running threat to the outside. After Hill's 55-yarder, Danny Reeves substituted for him and scored from the seven, an indication of the Cowboys' backfield depth. Reeves, of course, was the star runner (and option passer) of the 1967 team. He was injured in 1968 and, although he is healthy now, he can't dislodge Hill, who does everything Reeves did (Hill has completed all three of his passes, two for touchdowns) and is bigger and faster.
Bob Hayes has been slow regaining his timing and speed after missing four games with a shoulder separation, but he looked as good as ever against the Saints. His return makes Rentzel even more effective, since defenses can no longer double him on every play.
The Cowboy defense is built on the same cornerstone as that of the Rams and Vikings—an irresistible rush by a front four that forces incomplete passes and interceptions—and the Dallas linemen had courageous Billy Kilmer running for his life much of the afternoon.
With Morton and Hayes back at full speed and with their black Sunday behind them, Dallas seems a cinch to win the Capitol Division, Washington having dropped two full games back as a result of its 28-28 tie with Philadelphia. The Vikings can end the Central Division race early by beating Green Bay—which is sputtering with Bart Starr favoring an ailing passing arm—in Milwaukee this Sunday. Cleveland's rubber-band defense snapped last Sunday, but it will snap back—the Browns are the team of the Century. And, in the Coastal Division, the Rams are on the downslope and coasting.