The rise and fall of the shotgun offense marked the first half of the pro football season in the National Football League; in the American League it was the rocketing rise of the San Diego Chargers, both in performance and in attendance.
There were, of course, surprises in both leagues. In the National, the Chicago Bears, building slowly around new Quarterback Bill Wade and some rookie receivers—John Farrington and Mike Ditka—hit their stride just in time to spike Red Hickey's shotgun. The Bears, picked for sixth by some observers before the start of the season, seem a good choice now for one of the first three places. This is not a fluke team; George Halas said before the season started, "We're being underestimated. We're a young club and we'll get better game by game. Wade is the quarterback I've been looking for. We talk football the same way."
In the West, the Green Bay Packers, the conference leaders, were everyone's choice for conference champion before the season began. If there is anything surprising about the Packers now, it is that they are stronger than they were expected to be. Bart Starr has attained his doctorate as a pro quarterback, and Jim Taylor, who ran over people by preference last year, has learned to run around them occasionally. Should Paul Hornung go into the Army, the Packer attack will suffer from lack of a truly competent place kicker and from the absence of Hornung's threat as a thrower-runner on the option pass, but Tom Moore, his replacement, runs as fast—and nearly as hard—as Hornung. A more serious loss could be that of Boyd Dowler, the giant Green Bay flanker back. Gary Knafelc, who probably will fill in for Dowler, is a good but not exceptional receiver. The departure of Ray Nitschke, again to the service, at middle backer cuts down on the Packer depth, but Tom Bettis, his experienced replacement, is just as good.
A surprise during the second half of the season in the West might very well be the Baltimore Colts, losers Sunday by a point to the Bears. Weeb Ewbank's club suffered from injuries and from a leaky line during the early games. Now Raymond Berry, probably the best short-yardage end in football, has returned, and Ewbank apparently has plugged the hole in the middle of the Colt line by moving Bill Pellington from a corner-linebacking spot into the middle. John Unitas, still the best quarterback in football despite hard times during the first half of the season, has recovered from a finger injury and is getting better protection on passes. The Colts continue to have the most dangerous passing attack in the game with Unitas throwing to Berry, Lenny Moore and Jimmy Orr.
The biggest question in the West is the 49ers. Hickey's club is young, ebullient and, when the shotgun was a surprise, explosive. Now, through the second half of the season, the 49ers will be playing teams that have looked at the shotgun once and which are, consequently, better prepared to defend against it. If the Bear game and Sunday's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers are indicators, it may be necessary for Hickey to go back to a mixed offense, using some slot-T plays to vary the shotgun and to give the defensive coaches in the league more to worry about in preparation for the 49ers.
In the East, the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles, both underrated at the start of the season, have been growing stronger by the week. Despite the Giants' one-point loss to Dallas this week, the Eastern championship should be decided by the two New York- Philadelphia clashes on November 12 and December 10. Some brilliant trades, which brought them a championship quarterback ( Y. A. Tittle), two fast pass catchers ( Del Shofner and Joe Walton) and a crackerjack defensive halfback (Erich Barnes), perked up the Giants. With the rapid development of Bob Gaiters, a rookie halfback, and the return of Alex Webster to form, the Giant attack has looked stronger this year than it has in the last five. The defense, after two egregious games, has jelled again into the most grudging in football; if the offense continues to improve, the Giants may very well emulate the New York Yankees.
The success of the Eagles is predicated upon a cheerful young man named Sonny Jurgensen who has replaced Norman Van Brocklin at quarterback. Jurgensen, under more pressure than any other quarterback in the league, has responded nobly. The Eagles have lost none of their pass attack and have a better running game with a healthy Billy Barnes and a wiser Ted Dean carrying the ball. They are deep in running backs and have the best long receiver in the game in Tommy McDonald and one of the best all-round pass catchers in Pete Retzlaff.
The Eagle defense, which is built on the wisdom of experience embodied in players like Don Burroughs and Tom Brookshier in the secondary and Chuck Bednarik at linebacker, sometimes seems to sag but never when a loss appears imminent.
Dark horse of the second half in the East could be the St. Louis Cardinals, a club which survived a horrendous series of injuries to key personnel during the first five weeks but still managed to come through the toughest first-half schedule in the league with a 3-4 record. With John David Crow back and healthy, and Sam Etcheverry, the ex-Canadian pro, restored to working order, the Cardinals might threaten the leaders in early December.
The Cleveland Browns, who beat the Cards Sunday, had been the popular choice to win the Eastern championship at the start of the season. However, they have had difficulty with a somewhat porous secondary defense. Too, Milt Plum, the fine Cleveland quarterback, has had a thumb injury. With their pass offense halted, and only a medium-strong offensive line, they cannot depend upon their running, even with Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell carrying the ball. The Browns will suffer a big loss when Mitchell goes into the service at the beginning of the second half of the season, and they must now play the tougher half of their schedule.