Like a fine old wine, Johnny Unitas travels well. Not only has the 37-year-old Baltimore quarterback endured for 15 years without going flat, but last Sunday he concluded a season-long journey from the National Football League to the American with one of his finest games. Mixing up a heady concoction of equal parts of Norm Bulaich and Eddie Hinton, Unitas stoned the Oakland Raiders 27-17 and gave the Colts an American Conference championship to go along with three earlier NFL titles. But the basic ingredient was Johnny U. himself. "I've never seen No. 19 play better," said Raider Coach John Madden.
Nor, for the moment at least, had the 56,368 fans who bellowed their approval in Baltimore's red brick Memorial Stadium. The scene was as rugged as an old football player's profile. Not a blade of grass on the dun, dusty field—"the Dirt Bowl," Colt Coach Don McCafferty called it. Mounds of hard snow filled the end zones, gray from Baltimore's omnipresent smog even on a day of clear skies and no wind. Signs festooned the stands—KILL, BUBBA, KILL and LOVE OUR COLTS and LEAKY ROOF? CALL LIBERTY ROOFING. Oakland's porous secondary should have taken the advice. The original Raider himself, Managing General Partner Al Davis, had a premonition of what might be coming before the game. "So those are the Colts," he mused as they poured onto the field. "I hate the Colts. Just getting this far isn't enough. We've got to beat them."
For the past three years Oakland has won the Western Division championship of the AFL and gone no farther. Baltimore's last championship try was against the Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl, though nobody in town likes to recall that day. "God, that memory hurts," said Carroll Rosenbloom, the Colts' contentious owner. "But maybe it toughened us. I used to puke before every game and now I don't anymore." Indeed, in the moments before the opening kickoff, Rosenbloom was—well—blooming with good cheer. "Hey," he said to Al Davis, who was watching a redheaded teen-ager throwing back practice field-goal balls. "That kid throws better than any of our quarterbacks." Davis sniffed, "Oh, yeah?" The kid was Al's son, but you got the distinct impression he would prefer a Unitas.
Still, almost anyone would have been more effective than Daryle Lamonica during his brief first-half appearance. Daryle, the notorious bomb thrower, completed only one of four passes, and that for just six yards, before he pulled a groin muscle and retired for the afternoon. His successor, George Blanda, had a fine day passing—17 of 32 for 271 yards—but the old magician found the hat empty when it came to last-minute sorcery. Magic rarely works when the Colt defense is clicking, as it was on Sunday. Jerry Logan, Rick Volk and Ray May picked off three Blanda passes, all of them crucial turnovers. "Early in the game we were emphasizing coverage on Ray Chester, their tight end," said Middle Linebacker Mike Curtis. "Later they were throwing into the zone and we were able to pick off a few."
January 11, 1971
The first half was relatively lackluster. The Colts scored first on a 16-yard field goal by rookie Jim O'Brien, the lad who beat out Lou Michaels. A little back-and-forth ensued in which Colts were getting open but dropping passes—then a break. Raider George Atkinson dropped a towering David Lee punt, and Sam Havrilak, a reserve Baltimore back, recovered on the Oakland 45. Unitas promptly zipped one to Hinton on the two-yard line, and Bulaich, the rookie from TCU, punched in for the touchdown. Blanda struck back, aided by a roughing-the-kicker penalty, and kicked a 48-yard field goal.
Baltimore had controlled the ball throughout the first half—indeed, Oakland didn't get a first down until their third play of the second quarter—but when Blanda & Co. returned to the field a feeling of insecurity began to imbue the Colts. "We were just waiting for the Cinderella finish," admitted John Mackey, the tight end. "The Cinderella man was in there and his tricks were working." Pushing for the touchdown that tied the score at 10-10, Blanda used all the tricks up his voluminous sleeve. Hitting Warren Wells and Fred Biletnikoff, he flooded the Baltimore zones deep and short, eye-faked defenders out of their coverage and generally made ninnies of the Colts in a nine-play, 80-yard drive, which ended with a 38-yard pass to Biletnikoff.
This was when the old Baltimore folderoo could have set in, but the Colts sucked in their guts and hit back. "The team had been inordinately quiet," said Punter Lee. "It was almost spooky." Bill Curry, the center, noted it, too. "Intensity," he said. "Maybe even a tangible sense of unity. I could feel it in the locker room, on the sidelines, even in the hotel room last night."
It erupted first in a march that led to a go-ahead, 23-yard field goal, O'Brien's second. Next were the dazzling moves—little down-and-ins or crossing patterns—of Hinton, the burly second-year receiver from Oklahoma. All told, he snagged five passes for 115 yards, one a diving sideline catch that opened the 65-yard drive to the Colts' second touchdown. Bulaich capped it with a quasi-Statue of Liberty sweep of 11 yards. McCafferty, in his first season as a head coach, had been the butt of jokes around the league for his "high school" plays, one or two of which he would slip into the repertoire every week. He has the last laugh, however. They really work.
With the score 20-10 Colts, Blanda struck again at the start of the fourth quarter, this time working Chester and Wells, Wells catching—but barely—a 15-yard pass thrown into the seam for a touchdown. That triggered a barrage of snowballs from the stands, the fans being under the impression that Wells didn't have possession of the ball when he crossed the goal line. They were wrong, as usual.
Now it was time for a little Unitas magic. With both Mackey and his backup, Tom Mitchell, hampered by injuries, Unitas set Ray Perkins—usually a wide receiver—at tight end. This sowed confusion in the Raider secondary. To further complicate matters, Jimmy Orr, another wide receiver, was in for Bulaich. Hinton and Jefferson remained at their normal positions, giving Baltimore four—count 'em, four—wide receivers. With third and 11 from the Colt 32—a traditional situation for a Unitas bomb—Orr went deep, drawing off Strong Safety George Atkinson, who should have been watching Perkins. That worthy ran a pattern around Nemiah Wilson (in as a fifth defensive back)—a route that looks, on paper at least, like a giant question mark. "It was bump-and-run," recalled Perkins, "and Wilson expected me to make a sharp outside cut for the first down. Instead, I kept going." Wilson moved out, then in, like a man in a revolving door. Unitas laid the pass right into Perkins' hands and he galloped 68 yards for the clinching touchdown. It was another of McCafferty's weekly specials—this one having the descriptive title of Double Bow-Out pattern.
"It was an uneasy win," McCafferty admitted. "The only breath I took was with 29 seconds left." With a big grin on his old-shoe face, he added, "It was just great. Amen to that." Rosenbloom could only agree. "This game kicks the genius coach theory into a cocked hat," he said with a scarcely veiled reference to Don Shula, the Baltimore coach who was lured to Miami. "What did Mac do? He only took a team that looked like nothing last year, a team riddled with dissension and often hurt this season, and turned it into a champion. Here's a man who has no inner sanctum, no pretensions, no assistants—only associates. Everyone gets the credit but McCafferty. He is just a splendid man. What's more, he brought fun back into the game of football for me."
And not just for Rosenbloom. Bulaich, whose 71 yards in 22 carries and two touchdowns was the game's best running performance, was wearing a grin of his own when the gun sounded. "How do you like that?" he said dazedly. "A rookie, and I'm in the Super Bowl." Norm, of course, was not at Miami two years ago. Those Colts who were realize full well that the name of the season is three good games, back to back to back.