The unsung people who work in the pit won the pro football playoffs. You can forget about John Brodie and John Unitas. Men named Randall Beisler and Forrest Blue were the heroes of the NFL quarterfinals. They cleared the way for the running backs, they protected the throwers and the victory was theirs.
The four games, for those who like their football flashy, were undistinguished. Dallas edged Detroit 5-0. Baltimore embarrassed Cincinnati 17-0. Oakland slipped past Miami in the muck 21-14. And, in the weekend's biggest surprise, San Francisco overcame Minnesota 17-14 in frigid Bloomington. The temperature was 9° above, the wind was blowing and you could get snow-blind crossing the stadium parking lot, but this didn't faze the red-hot 49ers. They won because they have the best offensive line in football. But then all of the games were won in the yard-wide strip that constitutes the neutral zone.
To take them chronologically, the Colts won the first game because the old, savvy Baltimore defense predicted every call that Paul Brown was sending in to young Virgil Carter, the Bengal quarterback. It read the Cincinnati offense perfectly, cutting off the passes that Brown ordered Carter to throw and shutting off the runs that Brown ordered Carter to call. On the other hand, Johnny Unitas picked apart the Bengal defense all by his resourceful self, throwing a 45-yard touchdown pass to Roy Jefferson and a 53-yarder to Eddie Hinton.
"This is the most imaginative team I've played on," says Bill Curry, the Baltimore center. "For the first time it's exciting to come to practice on Wednesday. That's when we get our game plan. There is always something new, a tricky play or just a new play that [Coach Don] McCafferty is trying. He's thinking, creating and that's stimulating. Heck, you usually don't beat anyone with trick plays, but even if they fail they serve a purpose. If makes you less predictable."
The Colts did not use that much tricky stuff against Cincinnati, and often when they did they were hurt. They ran reverses to Jefferson and Hinton, plays that had been productive during the season, and the Bengals shut them off for losses. "They were looking for the reverse," Curry said ruefully. "A brain like Paul Brown's will knock it out."
But Baltimore came up with a few twists that worked, even though Brown had seen most of them in game films. They used a full-house backfield, a formation in which three running backs line up in a row behind the quarterback, parallel to the line of scrimmage—in obsolete terminology, the T. The Colts employed it against the Jets two weeks ago, and Brown thought they had done so just to make him waste time practicing a defense for it. But the Colts used the same set against the Bengals, putting Jefferson, their flanker, at what used to be called halfback. This let them utilize his speed to the outside and it freed him from the bump-and-run. On pass plays, Jefferson went into motion and, since it's impossible to play bump-and-run on a man in motion, that negated part of Cincinnati's pass coverage.
Jefferson carried the ball twice from the full house for 12 yards, but the Colts' big rusher was Norm Bulaich, a rookie fullback from TCU. Before the game, Bulaich wasn't exactly a household word. Not even in Baltimore. Some called him Bullatch, others Bullick. No one knew if he was Polish or Hungarian. Norm Bulaich (it rhymes with goulash) is of Yugoslavian descent, and one way he got so tough was by working as a pipe fitter in the Texas oil fields. "I don't like heights," he says. "I surely don't, and that's what the job required. One time I froze with fear while on the job and they had to send somebody up to take me down." After that, Bulaich went below sea level to work—in the holds of ships. "I was a longshoreman, unloading rice and barrels," he says. "It's hot work, 200° is what it feels like, but the pay is $4 an hour, $6 if you work nights. I'll be back in the spring unless something better comes along."
It's apt to. The Colts may just make it their business to see that it does, although Bulaich doesn't see why they would. He was shocked to find a game ball in his locker last weekend. "Nobody ever said a thing," he said. "They just put it in my locker. Me, I'm no hero, just a rookie who still makes too many mistakes. I'm just another guy who carries the ball through the holes, and for a long time I wasn't doing that well."
One of Bulaich's problems was that after a few early-season fumbles he began carrying it with two hands, which meant he lost balance and speed, if not the ball. "Johnny Unitas finally told me to stop thinking about fumbling and just run," he says. "He told me if he worried about interceptions, they would have run him out of the league years ago." Bulaich gained 116 yards in 25 carries against Cincinnati, and he did it with one hand and the help of some first-rate trap blocking by the offensive line.
In the second game of pro football's big weekend, the Cowboys played the Lions in the Cotton Bowl. If ever a game should have been high scoring, this was the one. The Cowboys have good running backs in Duane Thomas, Walt Garrison and Calvin Hill and speedy receivers in Bob Hayes and Reggie Rucker. Detroit has the best running quarterback in the world in Greg Landry, excellent setbacks in Mel Farr and Al-tie Taylor and two wide receivers—Earl McCullouch and Larry Walton—who can match the Dallas pair. Moreover, the Lions' tight end, Charlie Sanders, is regarded by many as the best around.
So what happened? Neither team scored a touchdown. The Dallas defensive line put so much pressure on Landry that he was able to complete only five of 12 passes for a skimpy 48 yards. Farr was a negligible factor as a runner and the game turned, finally, on a well-executed 15-play Cowboy drive in the fourth period.
Craig Morton, the Dallas quarterback, had demonstrated early on that he couldn't throw accurately. "I was making two mistakes," he said after the game. "I was throwing too late and too quick. I should have been throwing when my receivers were making their breaks, but I waited until after the break and then I threw the ball too fast and off balance. If I had been throwing well, I think we might have won easily."
The Cowboys showed their stuff in the last period, long after it became clear that Morton could not hit his receivers; in the third quarter he seemed to be throwing to taxi-squad people on the sideline. When he came in to run the ball club in the early minutes of the final period, he didn't throw at all.
At that point the Cowboys had the ball on their own 23-yard line and were leading 3-0 by virtue of a 26-yard field goal by Mike Clark. Since Morton had been ineffective as a passer—he wound up completing four of 18 for 38 yards—all of the 73,167 people in the Cotton Bowl knew he wouldn't be putting the ball in the air. The Lion defense knew it, too. It lined up to stop the run and Morton ran the ball right at them. "We changed our blocking patterns a bit in the second half," Morton said. "We found out we could handle them and we blocked straight ahead."
On the Cowboys' long drive, Morton used an elementary pattern of plays. His guards were pulling and blocking very well and he ran Thomas three times in a row. The rookie from West Texas State, who gained 135 yards in 30 carries, went through the left side for five yards, over right guard for six, wide to the left for 13. Then Morton faked a quick toss and sent Garrison over right guard on a trap for six. He made the same fake on the next play, Garrison gaining three.
Morton repeated this pattern over and over until the Cowboys had run the ball down to the Detroit one, fourth and goal. With a 3-0 lead and less than a quarter to go, many coaches would have taken the field goal. "The fans were hollering 'Go for it,' " Dallas Coach Tom Landry said, "but I don't pay any attention to the fans. I listen to my ballplayers and all of them wanted to go for it. So we tried. We didn't make it, but that was because Duane Thomas is a rookie. He cut in a hole too soon."
Thomas swung to his right on the fourth-down play and cut in over guard, where there wasn't any hole. The hole was two steps farther out. If Thomas had kept moving to the outside, the Cowboys probably would have had a touchdown. As it was they still got two points, for three plays later Greg Landry was trapped for a safety, giving Dallas the 5-0 lead it kept.
"This was the biggest win we've ever had," Tom Landry said. "I think our problem with winning the big games is behind us now."
Another team with a similar problem was the 49ers. If any ball club ever faced total adversity in a big game, it was San Francisco playing Minnesota in Minnesota. The Vikings were supposed to be a team that didn't feel the cold. They may not have, but they played like they did, dropping a number of passes and losing two fumbles.
The Minnesota ball club is built on the idea that the defensive line will destroy any quarterback it meets; the 49ers are built on the idea that their offensive line can protect John Brodie, their quarterback. Their idea was best.
San Francisco came to town a bit wary of the playing conditions. Said Brodie: "There were hard patches—ice, I think they call it—around midfield along the sideline and inside the 10-yard line at both ends. I guess, secretly, we were a little scared of it, but we found out that it didn't bite."
The key to this game was the 49ers' offensive line. It it could protect Brodie from the Purple People Eaters as well as it has protected him from everyone else—an NFL record of only eight sacks in 14 games—San Francisco could win. And the line did protect him. Minnesota got to Brodie only once, on a blown assignment, Alan Page dumping him for an eight-yard loss.
Brodie called a good game. He sent Ken Willard rumbling into the middle and Bill Tucker around the flank when the Vikings closed the middle, and, for the first time this year, he snuck in from a yard out for the 49ers' second touchdown. Said Brodie: "All our running backs were hurting, so I had to do it myself. Yahoo!" He threw very well, too—16 of 32 for 193 yards—but he has been doing that all year. Minnesota, wisely, double-covered the 49ers' Gene Washington, so Brodie passed to Dick Witcher for a wide-open touchdown against a defense that had missed a call.
Brodie is a quiet, thoughtful, sardonic man. After the game he said, "You have to piece it all together. We were shaky at first but we got a grip on the pieces."
One of the better quarterbacks at reading defenses, Brodie read the Vikings well. "I used the usual running game," he said, "but I threw more to Witcher and Ted Kwalick than I have in the past, because of the double coverage on Washington."
It was an impressive 49er victory, more impressive than the Dallas win over Detroit. Brodie ran his club with extraordinary confidence. The team responded with confidence in itself, and this is the only thing that San Francisco has lacked.
It is possible that the 49ers will meet their cross-bay rivals in the Super Bowl, since the Raiders defeated the Dolphins in Oakland 21-14.
The Raiders weren't very impressive, but then they haven't been impressive all season long; George Blanda, the 43-year-old hero of the Silent Majority, would not have had so many opportunities to work miracles if Oakland had been winning big.
The Raiders beat a Miami team that was emotionally geared up and beat the Dolphins rather routinely. After falling behind 7-0 on a Bob Griese-to-Paul War-field pass, Lamonica threw to Fred Biletnikoff for one touchdown and to Rod Sherman for another, and Willie Brown returned an interception 50 yards for the third score. Marv Hubbard, the bowling-ball-type fullback who had a lot to do with making the Oakland running attack go, said it for the whole club. "There were eight teams and now there are four. The lower the number gets, the more emotional we get. This is an emotional team on the field. It's not an emotional team off the field. There's no rah, rah; no back slapping. You get that rah, rah on a younger team, like the Dolphins. Don Shula said they were sky high. And they probably were, but it doesn't matter how high you get before a game or how high you are after a game. When it gets to be one o'clock, that's when it counts and that's when we get emotional."
Oakland plays the Colts in Baltimore for the American Football Conference championship this Sunday and the Raiders will have to be up for that one. But looking at the game unemotionally, it seems reasonable that Baltimore will win. Lamonica is a good quarterback, but not a great one. Unitas is. The Baltimore defense is a sound, unemotional unit that does not gamble and does not give up long touchdown passes. Lamonica is fond of throwing bombs and Baltimore sets up to take away the deep pass, so it is likely that in this match-up Lamonica will be intercepted.
Unitas, on the other hand, is a patient man who takes what is offered. Oakland offers many opportunities, often playing bump-and-run. But bump-and-run with Hinton and Jefferson can turn into bump-and-bingo. So Baltimore should move into the Super Bowl, this time on the side of the AFC. And it will probably be playing San Francisco.
While the 49ers were in training camp last summer, their general manager, Lou Spadia, said, "I don't think we can make it this year. I think we're about a year away, but I think we have the best potential of any 49er team."
Well, the 49ers grew up fast. Their win over the Vikings proved that. An immature team, a team with too many rookies, would have quit when the Vikings got a quick lead on Paul Krause's 22-yard touchdown run on a fumble recovery, but the 49ers stayed with their game plan and moved against the best defense in the NFL. "When you get down to the end, you need to play mistake-free football," said Dick Nolan, the San Francisco coach. "We didn't do it. We made a few mistakes early, but then we settled down. We did it with what we had in the repertoire."
The 49ers should beat the Cowboys in San Francisco the same way they beat the Vikings. Once Minnesota's pass rush is cut off, the Vikings are vulnerable to the pass. Once the Cowboy pass rush is cut off, the Cowboys are vulnerable to the pass. The 49ers starved the Purple People Eaters; they should be able to defuse Dallas' Doomsday Defense. And in two games against Los Angeles the 49ers kept Brodie pretty upright; they should be able to do the same in one game against Dallas and in one more—the Super Bowl. But not without the help of men named Randall Beisler and Forrest Blue.