Up in rowdy old Foxboro last Sunday afternoon, the most glamorous quarterback in professional football, Bert Jones, got himself knocked out of the running for Mr. Universe, bumped off assorted magazine covers, jarred away from any number of deodorant commercials and just shabbily treated all around by a New England team that finally may have found itself. In fact, the Patriots plain mistreated the previously undefeated Baltimore Colts 17-3 and turned the AFC East into a three-team race that probably won't be decided until Santa Claus suits up. Miami and Baltimore share the lead with 5-1 records, but the Patriots are only one game back at 4-2.
Jones had the worst day of his career, or at least since he emerged a couple of years back as a combination of Johnny Unitas, Sammy Baugh and Jesus of Nazareth. The inflamed defense of the Patriots hounded Jones, confused him and put him flat on his No. 7 so often that he began to resemble a white bouquet mysteriously sprouting up through Schaefer Stadium's artificial turf.
Jones' negative statistics were more important than the positive numbers of New England's Steve Grogan, who was transformed into one of the great throwers by a couple of receivers named Russ Francis and Darryl Stingley. High, low, one-handed, falling, diving, Francis and Stingley somehow caught the balls Grogan fired. Meanwhile, Jones was looking like anything but himself.
Jones was sacked five times—he had been sacked only six times in the Colts' first five games—as Baltimore failed to score a touchdown for the first time in Coach Ted Marchibroda's 36-game regime. Five is not a sack record, but they did add up to a loss of 53 yards, or about as many as Jones gained with his six completions in 18 throws. Considering that two of Jones' completions occurred at the very end of the game when the Patriots were mostly interested in leading their home crowd in cheers, he actually lost more yardage while getting trapped behind the line than he gained through the air when it meant something.
Jones also spent a good deal of time running around trying not to get sacked, as the Patriots' 3-4 defense, with its many scheming variations, applied relentless pressure. Five times Jones had to scramble when he wanted to pass. Unbelievably, he did not complete his third pass until there was just 3:40 left to play in the game.
The Patriots' sackers were a combination of knowns and unknowns—Sugar Bear Hamilton, Mel Lunsford and Pete Barnes from the starting unit, and Tony McGee and Richard Bishop from the reserves. As McGee so aptly put it, "We was comin' from everywhere."
Bishop phrased it another way. "Their line couldn't pick up our schemes."
But at least Jones was nice about it. According to Steve Nelson, one of the New England linebackers, Jones frequently would say "Good play" or "You're doing a good job" after being molested by the Patriots.
And then there was the New England offense. It may well be that the only thing wrong with the Patriots earlier in the season when they lost back-to-back three-point games to Cleveland and the New York Jets was that agent fellow, Howard Slusher, who convinced New England's two best offensive linemen, Guard John Hannah and Tackle Leon Gray, to walk out on the Patriots before the last exhibition game, not to return until after New England had lost those two games. Patriot Coach Chuck Fairbanks admits, "Having John and Leon out put us in a situation where we were not only without a couple of All-Pros, we were also without two guys who have a lot of very close friends on this team. It had an unsettling effect. We had the best training camp we've had since I've been here [five wins, one loss], but after Hannah and Gray walked out we weren't getting the kind of concentration we needed in practice. We were making mental errors, and it upset our preparation."
An echo came from Grogan, who with his thin blond mustache looks a bit like the host on Fernwood 2 Night and until lately was thought to have nothing in common with Jones except the fact that he also enjoys putting a little Copenhagen or Skoal under his lower lip.
Grogan said, "Having John and Leon gone hurt us a lot. The guys who filled in for them did all right, but we're a very close-knit team and when two of our own are unhappy, we're all unhappy."
With all of that behind them, however, and with the rest of their schedule being much easier than Baltimore's or Miami's, the Patriots have a right to be a jolly group now. Especially after the way Grogan's offense complemented the defense against the Colts, outgaining Baltimore an astonishing 370 yards to 86.
The Patriots scored the second time they owned the football in the first quarter, marching 73 yards in 14 plays that consumed a whopping seven minutes. In the long run, this interminable trip let the Colts know that the line of scrimmage was going to be New England's throughout the day. Grogan got his running attack established with Sam Cunningham and Don Calhoun, who rushed for 63 and 74 yards respectively. And then when he had Baltimore run-conscious, Grogan drew back and hit Francis, his tight end. First for 21 yards, then again for seven yards. Calhoun scored the touchdown from two yards away. The half ended 7-0 because a first-down fumble by Cunningham at Baltimore's 36 ruined what had every appearance of being another scoring drive. Stingley had made two fine catches of Grogan passes, the yardage was going by monotonously, and everything was clicking.
Cunningham's fumble was only a temporary setback. When New England came out for the second half, it simply took the ball and went 80 yards for its second touchdown, using up almost six minutes of the clock. For a while the Patriots crept along on the ground, but then up popped Francis to prove again that he is more than a professional wrestler. He squirmed loose out in the left flat, took a pass from Grogan and went into his broken-field-running routine. Francis displayed so many cute moves as he avoided one, then two, and finally a third Colt tackier while turning a four-yard pass into a 31-yard touchdown play, it made you wonder if Fairbanks is using him in the right position.
The Colts finally managed to get on the board in the third quarter, Toni Linhart kicking a 36-yard field goal to make the score 14-3. But later in that quarter—in fact, the very next time they got the ball—the Patriots marched 74 yards to the Baltimore one. On fourth down they settled for the field goal by John Smith that made the score 17-3 and removed any doubt about the outcome.
In contrast to the day Bert Jones did not enjoy, Steve Grogan could look back on 11 completions in 16 attempts for 214 yards and his 10th touchdown pass of the season. Grogan also outran Jones, if you care to be cruel about it, gaining 32 yards to Bert's desperate 26.
But quite obviously, the most important runs of the day were those made by the chaps who forced Jones to sprint backwards. Barnes gained 10 yards for New England on his sack. Bishop gained 14 yards on his. Sugar Bear Hamilton gained 13 yards on his. Lunsford was credited for six yards on his. And McGee got 10 yards on his.
So if New England is now the team it expected to be all along, and if the Patriots get to the playoffs, those 53 yards may wind up being the most cherished numbers of the whole season.
After the game, Jones said, "It was a heavy loss for us, but we're still in the driver's seat."
The Patriots would say he got the seat part right.