Upset of the Mighty
The underdog Browns stunned Baltimore to win the NFL title. Key men in the coup were a cerebral quarterback, a big flanker, the great Jimmy Brown and some remarkable defenders
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:25PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:57PM
This story was originally published in the Jan. 4, 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Frank Ryan (see cover) is a tall, slender man with the ascetic face of a Catholic priest, prematurely graying hair and, at last, the cool, quick mind of a great quarterback. Last Sunday afternoon in Cleveland he engineered one of the biggest of all football upsets, and in that improbable destruction of the Baltimore Colts, by the implausible score of 27-0, his choice of plays was both flawless and daring. He used the incomparable running talents of Jimmy Brown with maximum effectiveness. With his quick right arm he sailed three long and lovely touchdown passes to Flanker Gary Collins, the third of Cleveland's triumvirate of particular stars.
But these were not the only heroes in Cleveland's vault to the National Football League championship. This was an afternoon in which young people like Jim Kanicki matured and old folks like Lou Groza had all their ancient skills, a day when Dick Modzelewski saw the winning spirit he had tried to instill busting out all over and the Browns' good, gray coach, Blanton Collier, eliminated the last traces of any lingering yearning for Cleveland's good, volcanic ex- coach, Paul Brown.
"I think that today I grew up," said Kanicki, the Cleveland tackle who looks very much like an enormous baby with soft pink cheeks and what looks like baby fat still left on his 270-pound body. "I found out how to play this game."
Kanicki did grow up on this cold, blustery afternoon, but so did Ryan. For Kanicki maturity came early in his career. For Ryan it was slow and late, as it almost always is for quarterbacks.
It was a bizarre game. Baltimore came to Cleveland as one of the finest offensive teams ever to win a divisional championship and left without having scored a point on the worst defense in the league. Baltimore's own defense had given up fewer points than any other club in the league over the season, and one of its real strengths was its ability to put crippling pressure on the opponent's passer. Yet on Sunday afternoon the Baltimore defense made three mental errors, each of which proved expensive, and never did it put enough pressure on Ryan to disturb him.
The Cleveland defense, on the other hand, had been barely adequate all year long. But for this game, Cleveland became one of the great defensive teams of championship game history.
"Were we tall enough out there today?" asked Bernie Parrish, the left corner back, after the game. "We won five in a row early in the season, and no one thought we were short. Then we lost some games, and I began to feel like a midget because people started to write that the Brown secondary was too short. We grew a few inches this afternoon."
Parrish directed the coverage in the Brown secondary against the Baltimore passing attack; the basic defense was called from the sideline by the defensive coaches. It was a daring defense.
"We crowded them," said Nick Skorich, who, with Howard Brinker and Eddie Ulinski, coaches the Cleveland defensive team. "Especially when they were throwing into the wind and we knew that they could not throw long. We knew that the Colt pass patterns are built on precision and timing. We knew that if you take away the first receiver and force Johnny Unitas to go to a second or third you are forcing them out of a pattern, and, too, if you cover Jimmy Orr and Raymond Berry tight up close you force them to change their cuts and patterns and you take away the timing and the precision. So we did this. We took away Unitas' first target. Then he had to hesitate and look again for another target, and that gave the rush time to reach him. And we got a strong rush inside, so he couldn't duck away from the rush from the ends and still find freedom to throw the ball."
The strong inside rush came from young Kanicki and a veteran who may be the true key to the Browns' championship. Dick Modzelewski was traded to the Browns from the Giants. He is a squat, barrel-necked defensive tackle who has been in the league 12 years and, as much as any one player, he changed Cleveland from a group of individuals into a unit.
Dick Schafrath, the big offensive tackle, said, "Maybe it was Mo who did the whole thing. I remember when he was traded to us he said, 'You have all the talent you need to win a championship, but you don't really believe you can do it.' He said he thought we could win it. And he made us believe it."
Modzelewski contributed more.