For a long time last Sunday afternoon the Shake-'n-Bake Baltimore Colts played football like a lot of their old living legends. No, that was not Johnny Unitas, No. 19, completing 12 of 13 passes, including 11 in a row, for 145 yards and a bullet touchdown to Tight End John Mackey, No. 88. It was Bert Jones, No. 7, connecting with Raymond Chester, No. 87. No, that was not Lenny Moore, No. 24, high stepping for 178 yards and catching four passes for 42 more. It was Lydell Mitchell, No. 26, whose jaunts included a slashing 70-yard touchdown gallop. No, that was not Gino Marchetti, No. 89, the hamburger king, and Art Donovan, No. 70, the beer baron, sacking Lenny Dawson seven times for losses of 44 yards and harassing him into pitching two interceptions. It was John Dutton, No. 78, and Joe Ehrmann, No. 76, and Mike Barnes, No. 63, and Freddy Cook, No. 72—the Looney Tunes, they like to call themselves. And, no, that was not Bob Boyd, No. 40, scooting 40 yards for a touchdown with one of those interceptions. It was Jackie Wallace, No. 20, Minnesota reject.
The only thing missing at Memorial Stadium when the Colts thrashed the Kansas City Chiefs 28-14 was a big crowd. Only 42,122, some 18,000 short of the automatic capacity that the legends always attracted, watched the feisty Colts win their sixth straight game and remain tied with the Buffalo Bills at 7-4 for second place in the AFC's Eastern Division, behind the injury-wracked Miami Dolphins.
The Colts will probably have to win their division to make the playoffs; the AFC Central, with Pittsburgh 10-1 and Cincinnati 9-2, is almost certain to supply the conference's wild card. But a lot of people, not just in Baltimore, are beginning to believe that's exactly what will happen. The Colts were 1-4 and apparently headed for another miserable season—they had won only 11 games during three previous years—when the renaissance began. However, after two wins over the Jets and Browns, they were down 21-0 to Buffalo before beating the Bills 42-35. That made the comeback official, and since then they've taken the Jets again, Miami and now the Chiefs. "To put it short and sweet, what we do is Shake-'n-Bake, put ourselves in the oven and then whip up on the other guys," said Wide Receiver Glenn Doughty, the unofficial poet laureate of Baltimore who also found time to combine with Unitas, er Jones, on the 58-yard pass play that led to the Colts' second touchdown. "I told everyone before the game that we would have no pity on Kansas City, and we sure didn't. I'm like my man Muhammad Ali. That dude does what he says he's going to do. Me, too."
For General Manager Joe Thomas the rebirth of the Colts and the hoopla over the Shake-'n-Bake, the Looney Tunes, Young Mr. Jones, the scraggly bearded kid and Old Mr. Unspectacular, Lydell Mitchell, have served as vindication for what his harshest critics—or everyone in town—called the "tyrannical tactics" he brought to Baltimore in 1972. Thomas now says, "The guys who rapped me all the time dug themselves a hole so deep that even if we win the Super Bowl they'll have to write that we didn't win by a big enough score—or that we played dull football."
December 8, 1975
Although Thomas arrived in Baltimore with impeccable credentials, having weaned both the Vikings and the Dolphins from the expansion drafts, most people in crabcake country hardly regarded him as the savior of their football franchise. In the spring of 1972 Thomas was out of football, having left the Miami front office, and he put his plush Coral Gables house on the market and prepared to move his family into a small apartment. "I figured there had to be a couple of pro football teams in financial trouble," he says, "so I did a lot of investigating. What I wanted to do was put together an ownership syndicate and run the football operation for them."
In short order Thomas learned that the family of the late Dan Reeves wanted to sell the Los Angeles Rams and that Colt Owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who always thought Baltimore was too far a commute from his swimming pool in Bel Air, wanted to vacate Maryland. Rosen-bloom was actively campaigning for a new stadium in Baltimore and a season-ticket plan that would include all those meaningless exhibition games, and to emphasize his points he brusquely shifted the Colts' 1972 training camp from Westminster College, outside Baltimore, to Tampa, a subtle warning that it might someday be the team's permanent stomping grounds.
"The game was on," Thomas says. Some friends introduced him to Bob Irsay, a Chicagoan who had borrowed $800 from his wife's rainy-day fund and parlayed it into a multimillion-dollar ventilating, heating and air-conditioning conglomerate. Presto. Irsay, an admitted football nut, bought the Rams for $19 million. Irsay and Rosenbloom then traded franchises. Los Angeles for Baltimore; 92,000 seats for 60,000. The Polo Lounge for The Block. Raquel Welch for Blaze Starr. And Irsay did not even get any future cities or draft choices or celebrities to be named later.
"I took charge the day before we opened training camp in Tampa," Thomas says. "The Colts had won the Super Bowl in 1970 and had lost the conference championship to the Dolphins in 1971, but I saw right off that we were an old team on the down side. The real problem was that Johnny Unitas was 39." Thomas promptly acquired a young quarterback, Marty Domres, from San Diego. "We split the preseason games," he says. "Worst of all, we were shut out in one home game and scored only three points in another, as we lost four out of our first five. We were going nowhere slowly."
So, for the first shot in his Baltimore massacre, Thomas fired Coach Don McCafferty, replaced him with John Sandusky for the rest of the schedule and then hit the town with his shocker: Johnny Unitas, No. 19, the man with the golden arm, was benched. Permanently. "I told my wife to be ready for an explosion," Thomas says. "There were signs all over town, letters, editorials, phone calls, the whole bit. Listen, someone had to be the bad guy. I had a long-term contract, so I didn't have to worry about the flak."
Thomas continued his purge of Baltimore's household names as soon as the Colts concluded that 1972 schedule with a 5-9 record, their worst since Unitas, he and his crew cut and those funny high-topped shoes, appeared back in 1956. Tom Matte, Dan Sullivan, Fred Miller, Jerry Logan, Bill Curry, Bob Vogel and John Mackey all were swept out or led to the retirement pasture. Unitas was traded to San Diego.
"To make matters worse," says Thomas, "I hit the fans with two preseason games as part of our ticket package. Our season tickets have dropped from 47,000 to 28,000, but I kept those preseason games right there. Those people will be back."
After hiring Miami assistant Howard Schnellenberger as Baltimore's new head coach, Thomas attacked the college draft. "There are two things I don't do," he boasts, "draft poor football players or trade good young football players. The kid I wanted in the 1973 draft was Bert Jones. He had a Koufax arm and a great football background. Well, Houston had the No. 1 pick and New Orleans the No. 2, and the way I saw it, they were both fixed with young quarterbacks. Houston wanted to draft a big defensive lineman, not a quarterback. So I went around the back door and gave the Saints Billy Newsome and a fourth-round draft choice for their No. 2 in the first round. Houston drafted John Matuszak, just as I figured, and I got Bert Jones."
Baltimore emerged from the 1973 draft with four other 1975 starters—Defensive Tackles Joe Ehrmann and Mike Barnes, Running Back Bill Olds and Offensive Tackle David Taylor. In 1974, the top selections were Defensive Ends John Dutton and Freddy Cook, the other half of Ehrmann's Looney Tunes front four, and Wide Receiver Roger Carr. Still, the Colts won only four games in 1973, and they were winless last season when an irate Irsay stormed onto the field during their third game in Philadelphia and fired Schnellenberger because the coach would not replace Domres at quarterback with Jones. Thomas reluctantly became head coach.
"None of us really knew the man," Ehrmann says of Thomas, "because there was a gap between the players and the front office. But he didn't come in and start preaching to us or making too many waves. Instead, he talked to us more about his philosophy of life, of winning, of togetherness, all those things—not the little Xs and Os—and he won us over." But, the Colts won just two games in 1974 and, for their ineptness, got the No. 1 pick in the draft.
"There was pressure on me around Baltimore to draft Randy White, the defensive end from Maryland," Thomas says. "The hell with pressure. Local kids don't mean anything to me. In Miami one year, remember, I got everyone in Florida mad at me by planning to pass over Steve Spurrier and taking Bob Griese in the draft. What I needed was an offensive lineman. Atlanta had the No. 3 pick and needed a quarterback, obviously Steve Bartkowski from California. So I told the Falcons I was going to draft Bartkowski and peddle him for a lineman unless they gave me George Kunz, an All-Pro offensive tackle, and their first-round pick. The Falcons eventually came around, and I ended up with two offensive linemen—Kunz and Ken Huff, the guard we drafted from North Carolina."
After the Thomas reconstruction program was completed, there were only four holdovers from the Rosenbloom regime on Baltimore's active roster. "Look at it this way," Thomas says. "Green Bay, Cleveland and Baltimore had all won together for a lot of years. Now the Colts are back on top. Only the Colts. I could have waited like the others. But I didn't."
Forced to hire another new head coach, Thomas selected Ted Marchibroda, who had coordinated George Allen's offense in Los Angeles and Washington for nine years. Marchibroda is light on the verbiage, preferring to lock himself in his dingy office under the stands at Memorial Stadium and get bleary-eyed from looking at films.
"The big thing about Marchibroda," says Lydell Mitchell, "is that he hasn't sold us out. We used to be very restricted. We couldn't talk or question things, we couldn't be ourselves. Now we've surfaced as individuals, and it's not a coincidence that we've surfaced as a winning team."
Ehrmann, the large bearded tackle from Syracuse, regards himself as the unofficial honcho of the togetherness department. "We've got three captains, really," he says. "Kunz is the boss of the straights, the Ail-American athletes. Raymond is the head of the blacks. Me? I'm captain of the heads, the guys who are loose. Like the Looney Tunes. I'm single, but I bought a big house just with team parties in mind. Everybody comes to the parties, even a lot of the old Colts like Artie Donovan and Ordell Braase. And every Wednesday night we have a poker game, too.
"All the guys are into their own thing, but the Looney Tunes are in another world. Our approach is carefree and loose. Being serious is not our bag. We're a bunch of weird guys. Hey, the psychological trait of defensive linemen is that they can't get uptight, can't follow all the rules, can't be inhibited and can't worry too much about conforming into what the coach wants."
Weird or not, the Looney Tunes lead the NFL with 47 quarterback sacks. "We're the same four guys we were last season," Ehrmann says, "but you don't sack any quarterbacks when you're down 21-0 real quick, and the other club stays on the ground. We're cocky now. If the situation is right, we'll say, 'Hey, let's mess with their heads.' We run about 20 stunts a game, and the other club never knows how many of us are coming—or from where."
According to Ehrmann, John Dutton is the wildest member of the Looney Tunes. "John's different," Ehrmann says. "He was conditioned to winning at Nebraska. I went to Syracuse, Mike Barnes went to Miami of Florida and Freddy Cook went to Southern Mississippi, and we played for bad teams and got conditioned to losing. Dutton always complains to the referees a lot. Barnes is my roommate, a quiet guy. He's a gourmet cook, too, and can make pizza from scratch, which probably is why most of the guys come over on poker nights. Freddy Cook is a beautiful guy, mild, easy, with a lot of depth. He's someone you'd like to fix up with your sister."
While the Baltimore front four torments rival quarterbacks, Kunz and company rarely permit the opposition to make unannounced visits to Jones. "The old rap against me," Jones says, "was that I bailed out of the pocket too quickly and ran too much with the ball. Well, when you don't have any protection, you don't stay in there and get killed. Now I can stay in the pocket all day." Operating with that protection, Jones has completed 59.1% of his passes, thrown for 17 touchdowns, had only seven interceptions and become a big-play specialist.
"Our offensive philosophy has not been what I expected," Marchibroda says. "I thought we'd play more ball control, but Bert has that explosive quality, so we've designed our game plans around what he can do, not what we'd like him to do." Baltimore trails only the O.J. Bills in the NFL's scoring derby.
After practice last Saturday, Jones and his girl friend Danni Dupuis, who was up from Louisiana for the holidays, stopped off at Johnny Unitas' Golden Arm restaurant for lunch. "Never did it dawn on me that I wouldn't be a pro quarterback," Jones said. "I played center for the sixth grade team when I was in the fourth grade, but that was it. I was a pitcher in baseball, and the way the progression went, the pitcher always seemed to be the quarterback." During his high school summers, Jones lived at the training camps of the Cleveland Browns, for whom his father Dub was an offensive coach, and picked up quarterback tips from Frank Ryan and Jim Ninowski. "Back home my mother charted all my high school games play by play and mailed them off to Daddy in Cleveland," he said. "Then he'd call me, and we'd discuss what I did and why I did it."
Jones had an erratic career at LSU, mostly because Coach Charley McLendon had not discovered the forward pass, and when Jones didn't play like a boy Unitas in his first two seasons with the Colts, there was talk around Baltimore that he must be another dumb quarterback from Louisiana like that Terry Bradshaw.' 'Then Bradshaw won the Super Bowl," said Jones, "and he wasn't so dumb anymore. He's a beauty, though; you're with him at six o'clock and he says he'll pick you up at eight, then you won't see him again for two weeks."
Shortly after Marchibroda moved to Baltimore he summoned Jones from Louisiana for six weeks of skull sessions. "Ted did a mental job on me," Jones said. "We studied films, playbooks, theory, the whole thing. We even graded the other clubs we'd be playing and figured how we might attack them." Jones lives with his football flicks, studying them each night and, he insists, even over his morning coffee. "What it has all come down to is that now I know the reasons why we do things in a game. I never had that concept before. Things worked at times, but I didn't know why.
"Another thing, now there's an air of what I say goes. But there's a new rap against me. People claim I don't see my secondary receivers. Heck, when I throw 30 or so passes a game, I probably go to a secondary receiver 28 times. Ah, I guess you can't win."
Jones passed almost perfectly against the Kansas City Chiefs, missing only a little flare-out to Mitchell, and, of course, he did win. So what was Doughty's poetic prediction for this week's game against the New York Giants? "We're seven and four!" he shouted, "and going for more."