When the Colts rallied in the last seconds to beat the Giants for the National Football League championship two years ago, one excited Baltimorean jumped up from his television set, threw his hands high over his head, slashed his wrist against a ceiling light and was led off to the hospital still cheering. Another, listening on his car radio, let go of the wheel in exultation and smashed his car into a tree.
Now Baltimore has its collective hands in the air again, this time in dismay. Its still-champion Colts are an undistinguished second in the Western Division. More upsetting to a Baltimorean than a stringy crab cake is the increasing fear that the Colts actually are ill, and the rest of the NFL is daring to hope that it is so.
Before the season began, some fans guessed that if the Colts were going to fall this year the logical place for the collapse to begin would be on defense, especially the defensive line. The line has been scaring opponents so long that it includes two of the oldest hobgoblins in the business—Art Donovan, 35, who wanted to retire five years ago and further his ambition of becoming a New York policeman, and the most feared end in the NFL, Gino Marchetti, who is 33.
"But my so-called old men are playing good football," said Weeb Ewbank, the Colt head coach, as he and his team were flying out to Dallas last Friday. In a recent Colt scrimmage Marchetti and company boasted they would stop every play over a 10-minute span. They did, and they thought it a great joke when Marchetti looked down at a fallen comrade and blithely walked up his back like a man crossing a brook on a log. The defense has been the life of the party and the heart of the team.
The Colts' real trouble is with the offense. This is a strange circumstance when you consider that the attack is led by the incomparable John Unitas and is statistically the best in the NFL right now. But a combination of attitude, injuries and mistakes, all suffered by the offensive team, have combined to cost the Colts two games, one to a much improved Green Bay, which may very well develop into the Colts' chief Western Division rival, the other to a Detroit team that has won only two games in the last two seasons and, until the Colts came along, was nobody's rival.
Kept as secret as a U-2 flight, the Colt injuries were serious and hampered the offense. The one that caused the most worry was a cracked vertebra suffered by Unitas before the season started. It bothered Unitas less than it did the coaches. They instructed Unitas to limit his running. In the first half of the Green Bay game he rolled out to his right on the five-yard line, passed up a hole he might have run through for a touchdown and threw a crucial pass which was intercepted. After that Unitas ran when he felt like it.
Injuries to pass receivers—Jim Mutscheller, Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry, the league's most artful dodger—actually were more important than Unitas' cracked vertebra. Berry sprained an ankle in the Rams game. He could not run deep against Detroit, though he did catch 11 short passes. Moore was shaken up early in the Detroit game and was ineffective thereafter, and Mutscheller has been having serious knee trouble most of the season. One result has been that Unitas has had nine passes intercepted this season, compared with only 14 all last year. Several of these, as well as numerous incompletions, have been caused by the running of bad pass patterns.
"The rushing by the opposition hasn't bothered us much," said Ewbank, in assessing the Colts' difficulties. "We're disappointed when they don't rush. It's the running on the passes that is off, and that's because injuries have cut down our practice." This frees Unitas of the blame for most of the interceptions (the four by Green Bay lost that game), but he is showing disconcerting signs of two other bad habits. One is throwing the ball too hard, the other is throwing when he shouldn't. Against Detroit, Unitas sidearmed with a Drysdale pitching motion while he was being tackled. Detroit intercepted and won the game just when it seemed a Colt victory was certain.
Almost as responsible for the Colts' bad showing as injuries and errors is the team's curious attitude. The Colts, particularly the offensive team, cannot get excited unless they are dead up against it. This was so last season when their approach began to remind some observers of The Perils of Pauline. The Colts gave the stage to the villains until the last possible minute, then dashed in for a rescue. They suffered two drab mid-season losses after a defeat in their second game, then won six straight when any lesser performance would have cost them the championship.
This year the Paulinemanship continues. The Colts crushed the Chicago Bears, the team with the best chance to take their title, 42-7. They never came close to equaling that performance in their other four games. They dawdled with Green Bay and Detroit as if they could lick them any time they got ready, but by the time they were ready the games were over and Pauline was ravished. "They know any team can beat them if they don't start fast. I don't really understand it," said Ewbank. "Two or three of the experienced men aren't playing up to last year. I won't name names. But they know. Maybe they aren't hungry enough any more. It's hard to tell when players are really ready. A fellow sometimes gets to the shouting stage in practice, but no further. It's like a kid staring at a book in school but not reading it. You can't tell if he is studying or not. But those fellows I was talking about look ready to go now.