For a long while on a bright, balmy afternoon in Baltimore last weekend time stood still. Johnny Unitas, the 38-year-old quarterback who has only recently returned to the starting lineup after a crippling injury, must have thought it was 1958, when he led the Colts to a 23-17 victory over the New York Giants in an overtime period in which he meticulously called 13 perfect plays for a world championship.
Johnny U. had to win that afternoon, he had to win on this one, and he did by the score of 14-3. At the kickoff the Miami Dolphins, a sound, strong team, led the Colts by half a game for their division title and they had beaten Baltimore 17-14 in Miami earlier in the season. Johnny U. had done well in that game until he was dazed throwing a block. He didn't block anyone last Saturday and he was superb and preeminently clearheaded.
He engineered two long, thoughtful drives for touchdowns in the first half and was the very model of an aging, classic drop-back quarterback. He took advantage of all the cracks in the Dolphin zone defense and at the half he had the Colts in front 14-0. The drives lasted nine minutes and 53 seconds and nine minutes and 36 seconds respectively and comprised a total of 34 errorless plays. It is very likely that no quarterback in the long history of professional football has ever been as good for as long.
Before the game, sitting in the training room under the stands, Unitas was massaging his right shoulder with a vibrator. The shoulder was covered with a white cream and he moved the vibrator back and forth over it methodically. He looked calm and relaxed, as he always does.
December 20, 1971
"I feel good," he said. "I can play. It's another game. We've been in big games before. We'll be in big games again. You do what you can. You can't do any more than that."
Unitas is an unheroic figure stripped, shoulders bowed in, skin almost deadly white, no muscles showing anywhere, not even on the right arm that has accounted for more yards and touchdowns than that of any other quarterback.
"What do you think you can do against them today?" someone asked, and Unitas looked up and smiled.
"I don't know," he said. "I'll take what they give me. They got to give you something. All you got to do is find out what it is."
Johnny U. may be the best quarterback around at receiving small gifts. The Dolphins kicked off to Baltimore, and he opened his hands. Strangely, the Dolphins came out in a 3-4 defense, one that most teams save until the end of a game when they are trying to preserve a narrow margin of victory by cutting off the long pass. It is called a "prevent defense," which may be the worst misnomer in all of sports. For Johnny U. it is an invitation.
"We were a little surprised when they tried it right away," said Bill Curry, the Colts' center. "I guess they thought Johnny would come out bombing and they wanted to take that away from him. It didn't work very well."
Against the three-man line Unitas thumped away, with Norm Bulaich and Tom Matte running the ball and taking his passes. Unitas was getting time to throw, with only three men rushing, and Matte and Bulaich were finding running room.
"Unitas was fitting the ball in between the defensive backs when we were in the three-man rush," Dolphin Coach Don Shula said after the game. "He did everything right. We haven't played well enough to win for two weeks."
Unitas used the entire Colt repertoire on this drive. "He called everything we have," said Matte. "He knew what was going to happen and he took advantage of it. I don't think anyone else could have done as well."
And probably no one else but Matte could have done what he did so well from the Miami seven-yard line at the end of the drive. He had carried the ball twice before the touchdown, slamming over the middle for two yards and a first down at the Dolphin 10, then sweeping the left side for three.
With the ball on the seven, Matte headed off right guard, but the Dolphins were waiting for him so he planted his right foot, cut sharply back to his left and slanted away from a would-be tackier for the touchdown. If the play had been run to the left and Matte had had to make the cut off his left leg, he probably could not have done it.
"I can't trust my left knee," Matte said after the game. "I'm not sure of it. As a result of an old injury my left calf is two inches smaller than the right—it atrophied from being in a cast so long—and the left knee just doesn't feel solid. I don't think I've ever cut back better than I did on that play, but I was planting my right foot and cutting off it. If it had been the other way, I would probably still have tried to cut off my right foot and I would have lost time and the play wouldn't have worked."
The touchdown came with five minutes and seven seconds remaining in the first quarter, and the Dolphins had not had the ball. The drive covered 81 yards in 18 impeccable plays and it underlined the return of Johnny U. as the premier quarterback in football. Hey, Joe Willie, where are you?
Unitas began his second lesson in how to attack a modern zone defense from the Baltimore 13. By now he had chased the Dolphins out of the three-man rush and he was facing the conventional four-man line, with three linebackers and a zone much like the Colts' own. He sent Bulaich inside left tackle for eight, then faked the same play and sent him on a sweep to the left for a first down on the Baltimore 25. With the Dolphins anticipating that the Colts would run left again, Bulaich went right, behind Right Guard John Williams, and Boo rode his block for 11 yards and another first down.
At this point the Dolphins had become wary of the run and were playing up tight to stop it. Bulaich lost a yard on another sweep. Unitas came back with a screen against the short defense and Wide Receiver Eddie Hinton took a delicate pass for 12 yards and a first down after Johnny U. had faked a hand-off to Matte, swinging wide. On the next play the Dolphins ignored Don Nottingham, who was spelling Bulaich, and Unitas threw him a short pass that he carried 10 yards for another first down.
"The linebackers were dropping off 15 yards and the defensive backs were dropping off 15 behind them," Unitas said after the game, as calm and unemotional as he had been before. "You don't throw long into that kind of coverage unless you like to make a lot of tackles. So I threw under them, to the backs. They gave us that and I took it."
Unitas called a running play for Matte, which gained two yards, and then hit Matte under the deep drop and he carried to the Dolphin 33 for still another first down. Next Bill Stanfill, the Dolphins' strong defensive right end, made an exceptional play on a sweep, dropping Bulaich for a two-yard loss. Then Unitas, who had been ignoring his wide receivers, sent Hinton on an out-and-in pattern and hit him beautifully as he made the break to the inside. Hinton got to the Dolphin 18 with a 17-yard gain and a first down.
Johnny U. had been going outside with his running backs, luring the Dolphin defense into cheating in that direction to stop the wide plays, so he next sent Bulaich up the middle, behind Curry's crushing block on Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti, and Boo went for six yards. On second and four Unitas kept the ball—a complete surprise in itself since he is well past running age—and made three yards on a sneak.
From the nine, it was routine. Bulaich carried three times to the one and Matte slammed over for the touchdown and it was 14-0 and the game was over. The scoring play Unitas called was the fillip to the masterful first half. He had called three running plays in a row to Bulaich, then faked to Bulaich one way, handed off to Matte a hole away to the other side and Matte brushed past a prospective tackier and scored.
In the second half the game belonged to the Colt defense. Unitas, who had thrown 13 passes and completed 12 for 103 yards in the first half (the one incompletion was a screen to Matte, which he dropped), was content to depend on his strong running game in the last two quarters and use up the clock. The Dolphins, who had the ball more often, did better than they had but not nearly well enough.
"We stayed with our game plan," said Miami Quarterback "Bob Griese, "but we didn't have the ball long enough in the first half to use it." He played with a badly bruised left shoulder and he presented a strange sight in the dressing room. He is a hairy man; the right side of his torso was still hairy, but the left had been shaved so that the shoulder could be bandaged, and he was wearing an ice pack.
Paul Warfield, who caught three passes for 28 yards, well below his average, paid heartfelt tribute to the Colt defense. "They're the zoniest team in football," he said. "Rick Volk and Jerry Logan, the safeties, were taking me inside and Ray May, the linebacker, was covering me short. So we had to go outside."
Outside was covered, too, so Griese got his best results from Jim Kiick, who caught seven passes coming out of the backfield. The Colt line contained both Larry Csonka and Kiick on the ground and Linebackers Ted Hendricks and May came up with fourth-quarter interceptions. In a game so well played, the interceptions came as profound shocks. "I was trying to get the ball over the linebackers and I didn't make it," Griese said. "Hendricks made a great play. The receiver fell down, but he would have intercepted anyway. It was a badly thrown ball."
May's interception came in the closing moments. "We were in a three-man line with four linebackers," May said. "That made me the free linebacker. I heard Griese say something to Mercury Morris as they came out of the huddle, so I decided to go with Mercury."
Morris, who was in for Kiick, ran a deep look-in, and May went with him, then looked for the ball. It was thrown to loop over his head, but he leaped high in the air for the interception.
The win, which moved the Colts into the playoffs, must have been especially satisfying to Carroll Rosenbloom, the Colt owner. Over the last few years he has had championship teams with three different coaches—Weeb Ewbank, Don Shula and Don McCafferty. The constant on the Colts—and the Rams, the Cowboys and the Vikings—has been good organization. And organization begins at the top.
The Vikings, depending, as usual, upon defense, clinched the NFC Central Division title Saturday by beating Detroit 29-10. The Minnesota offense gained only 134 yards, but interceptions, a blocked punt and the recovery of a blocked field-goal attempt wiped out the Lions. It is probably not true that a Viking linebacker came off the field and told Gary Cuozzo, the quarterback of the moment, "See if you can hold them," but it may be.
On Sunday the Kansas City Chiefs, depending, as usual, upon circus catches by Otis Taylor and field goals by Jan Stenerud, just squeezed by Oakland 16-14, thereby winning the AFC Western title for themselves and also assuring Miami of a playoff berth. The Dallas Cowboys won the championship of New York City by defeating the Giants 42-14; the week before they had whipped the Jets 52-10. Dallas seems to have grown steadily stronger as Quarterback Roger Staubach matures with game experience and it could win the NFC title and the Super Bowl.
On the West Coast the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers are a hairbreadth apart with a week to go and there seems to be little to choose between them.
Super Bowl? A Dallas-Baltimore replay is not unlikely.