Nothing is less indicative of the Atlanta Falcons' 34-20 win over the Baltimore Colts last week than the score. In reality it was primarily a defensive affair in Atlanta Stadium which Baltimore could have won 13-10 had not its quarterback, Marty Domres, stepped in to save the night for the Falcons. In the fourth quarter Domres twice fumbled away center snaps inside his 20-yard line and threw two passes to Falcon defenders to lead Atlanta to 24 points and victory. In the fullness of time, however, the exhibition game may best be remembered as the pro debut of Bert Jones. The Baltimore rookie from LSU threw just three times, completing two for six yards, and was sacked twice, but the Colts, who are extremely high on him, preserved his first pass on film. "For historical purposes," was the explanation, "in case he makes it to the Hall of Fame."
For Atlanta Coach and General Manager Norm Van Brocklin and Baltimore Vice-President and General Manager Joe Thomas the game had a more immediate meaning. If nothing else, Van Brocklin and Thomas are positive they know the way to make a better football team. They are so positive that each has dedicated himself to achieving total autonomy over the operations of his franchise. Both now admit they have acquired all the power they want, and have staked their reputations on the teams that blundered up and down the field Saturday night.
Van Brocklin and Thomas joined the Minnesota Vikings at the team's inception in 1961. Thomas, who had won a reputation as a superb judge of talent while an assistant coach at Baltimore and Los Angeles, was hired as personnel director, while Van Brocklin, who had just completed his playing career by leading a mediocre Philadelphia Eagle team to a world championship, was signed on as head coach. Neither was happy with the hierarchy that placed them under General Manager Bert Rose and then Jim Finks. Thomas moved to Miami after the '64 season in which the young Vikings tied for second in the Western Conference; Van Brocklin stayed on until 1966 before resigning.
For Van Brocklin the road to power was relatively simple. A newer expansion team, the Atlanta Falcons, begged him to come out of retirement three games into the 1968 season, eventually conceding him all the control he desired. Thomas, meanwhile, labored on in Miami, turning over to Don Shula 33 of the 40 players who became last year's Super Bowl champions. Thomas was unhappy at having to share the glory, but not until he engineered a complicated deal that secured the Baltimore Colts for millionaire Robert Irsay in July of 1972 was he able to gain control of a franchise.
This is a critical year for Van Brocklin. He has done a fine job of making a young club competitive, but as Defensive End John Zook says, "We can't use that expansion excuse anymore." Thomas, on the other hand, may have a couple of years' grace, but a few repeats of the preseason losses to Pittsburgh (34-7) and Atlanta could undo him. A banner at Atlanta Stadium read, JOE THOMAS, DESTROYER OF CHAMPIONS. The ruthlessness with which Thomas has unloaded players recalls one of Van Brocklin's less charitable acts. Flying home from his fourth game as Falcon coach, a 30-7 loss to Cleveland, the Dutchman cut six players, five of them starters, by writing their names on an airsickness bag. Still, Van Brocklin says he would have been more considerate had he been at Baltimore. "The players I cut," he points out, "were only alleged players."
Thomas spent the off-season reshaping the Colts into an image with which he is more familiar, that of an expansion team. Twelve of last year's starters are no longer with the club, and for the first time in Baltimore history players wear identifying numbers in practice.
Roy Hilton, a defensive end who has inherited the job of keeping the team loose from a bunch of people who are no longer around, believes the Colts have accepted their general manager's thinking. "Joe Thomas hurt individual feelings but he strengthened the ball club," says Hilton. "The team we had last year had gotten old. No matter how good Mother Nature is to you, Father Time will catch you."
Hilton hasn't had an easy time spreading joy in Baltimore. New Coach Howard Schellenberger canceled the team's annual rookie show, perhaps because there weren't enough veteran Colts to comprise an audience. Hilton thought he'd substitute some singing at the dinner table, so rookie Quarterback Tom Pierantozzi became the first Colt to stand on a chair, hand over heart, and sing his school alma mater. That seemed an amusing diversion, so Hilton asked Defensive Tackle Joe Ehrmann, who has won a starting job and a reputation for meanness in workouts, to sing his song. Ehrmann said no. Hilton remembered something he had once read about the better part of valor. Let it be noted that Tom Pierantozzi was the last Baltimore Colt to sing his alma mater. Alas, the Colts did not think it worthy to record his performance on film in case Pierantozzi makes it to the Hall of Fame.
After years of noisy, loose workouts, Colt practices are almost eerily silent. For the first time since the late '50s players are staging legitimate fights for jobs. Falcon practices now resemble the old days in Baltimore. Confidence is brimming over, although some might ask what else you could expect when the coach has threatened his players with a $1,000 fine for "negative publicity" about football. Last week Claude Humphrey, Atlanta's All-Pro defensive end, reclined on a couch in the players' dorm wearing a T shirt with a big yellow smiling face on it that stated as well as anything the Falcons' outlook. "Right now," said Humphrey, "our team is on the verge of a championship. Our only hurdle is the quarterback situation."
In June Van Brocklin traded Bob Berry, Atlanta's starting quarterback for the past three seasons, and a first draft choice to Minnesota for Quarterback-Punter Bob Lee and Middle Linebacker Lonnie Warwick. The Dutchman then announced that the quarterback job was up for grabs, which did not seem a propitious thing for a coach to be doing on the verge of his most critical season.
Some say, however, that the Berry trade may have had its genesis the day Van Brocklin met Pat Sullivan, the 1971 Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 2 draft pick last year. "From then on," says one observer, "it seemed ordained that Pat would be quarterback. Everyone expected a ceremony, a coronation."
Two nights before the Colt game Van Brocklin rested in his room chewing gum. He chews a lot of gum, so much in fact that the Clark's chewing gum people have guaranteed him a lifetime supply. Asked why he had dealt away Berry, Van Brocklin said, "It's none of your business. We just felt we had to make a trade." He went on to say that he wanted to win the Colt game "for Patty." Patty is his nickname for Sullivan. For other team members he has come up with Skunky, Bunny, Muley, Meat, Leroy and Big Timber. Van Brocklin said he thought a win would "keep Patty's confidence up." Sullivan played his college ball at nearby Auburn. Van Brocklin said his quarterback could take Atlanta "without even striking a match."
Sullivan freely conceded he had "all the confidence in the world," which seemed brave talk from somebody who to date had thrown just 19 pro passes and completed as many to the opposition (three) as to his teammates. For a while on Saturday night it looked as if he might have more than self-confidence. Atlanta would have scored a touchdown on its first possession, but Art Malone dropped a Sullivan pass in the end zone. Still, the Falcons got a field goal, and on their second possession Sullivan took them 70 yards in 11 plays for a 10-0 lead.
Then Sullivan began to show his inexperience. Three interceptions, two by Colt Linebacker Stan White, gave Baltimore the ball inside the Falcon 35. The Colts converted two into field goals, the other into a touchdown for their 13-10 fourth-quarter lead. After the third bad throw Atlanta fans began to boo Pat Sullivan. And on that low note the evening would have ended, save for the fact that Domres took it to previously un-plumbed depths. His first fumble, at the Colt eight, led to a short scoring pass by Sullivan that put Atlanta ahead for good.
Afterwards Thomas said he was happy. The Colts' errors were correctable and there were four exhibitions left.
Van Brocklin also seemed pleased. "I'm sure Patty learned a lot about linebacker play tonight," he noted, smiling.
Moments later, when the locker room had almost emptied, Sullivan was asked how he would grade himself. "I would say I got an education," he replied. "I have all the confidence in the world in my ability." Just then Van Brocklin opened the door to the coaches' room and, spotting his quarterback, called out, "Patty, see me before you go."
"Yes, sir," said Sullivan.
Neither sounded as though he was brimming with confidence.