Last week the Cleveland Browns grew-up. They quit playing Cowboys and Indians and started playing men. And they proved to be as tough against the men of the Pittsburgh Steelers as they had been against the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. The Browns' boom began against three of the weakest teams in the NFL: the Redskins, Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams. Most of the cynical football experts sneered at the running of Jim Brown and the passing of Frank Ryan. "Wait until they play the Steelers," was the usual parry.
The Steelers came into Cleveland last Saturday night virtually tied with the Browns. Some 84,000 fans—the largest Cleveland football crowd in history—stacked themselves into Municipal Stadium, 1,400 paying for the doubtful privilege of standing in the end zone. They saw the Browns win 35 to 23.
They saw Jim Brown slice through, over and around the supposedly impregnable Steeler defense for 175 yards. Using the new Cleveland option blocking, Brown slid along the line until he found a crack, widened the crack with his first bull-strong rush, then moved fluidly through the Steeler secondary for long gains. Frank Ryan, who calls most of the plays for Cleveland ( Coach Blanton Collier calls some), missed on his passes in the first half, but started hitting in the second. Three times, when he found his receivers covered and a path cleared through the middle of the Pittsburgh defense, he tucked the ball away and ran with it. He scored once on this unorthodox move and gained long yardage each time. None of these runs was planned, although Cleveland does have a play set up with Ryan running the ball.
This week the Browns face the second stringent test in their quest for the Eastern Conference title when they meet the New York Giants in New York. A sad portent for Cleveland was the success of the Pittsburgh passing attack on Saturday night. If the Steelers' Ed Brown can pass to gain 289 yards and complete 19 of 35 against the Brown defense, what can a Y.A. Tittle do?
If he does as well as he did against the ailing Redskin defense last week, the Browns could have trouble. But, with a three-pronged offense—Ryan's passing and running and Jim Brown's irresistible running—against the single-barreled offense of the Giants, the Browns can afford a few lapses on pass defense.
In contrast, another Eastern team, the Dallas Cowboys, a team which seemed destined to be good if not great this year, managed to lose their fourth straight game, this one to the Philadelphia Eagles. Two weeks ago young Tom Landry, the Cowboy coach, shook his head sorrowfully and said, "The only guy who feels as bad as I do right now is the magazine writer who picked us to win the Eastern championship." In case anyone missed our Sept. 9 issue, the writer Landry was talking about is me. Last week he only shook his head, but he could have repeated his statement. The Cowboy troubles are those of youth; they have given the ball away too often, too deep in their own territory. The loss of defensive end George Andrie in the last exhibition game deprived them of much of their pass rush and placed a cumbersome burden on the young secondary defenders, who are not sophisticated enough to continue to defend against veteran receivers.
In the West the showdown may come next month when the Packers meet the Chicago Bears. The Packers, playing with their usual intense dedication to knocking people down, are hungering to prove that their loss to the Bears in the opening game of the season was only a reflection of a too-strenuous reaction to their loss to the College All-Stars. Whipped into a frenzy by Coach Vince Lombardi, the Packers demolished five exhibition foes but seemed to flag against the Bears. Chicago, with its new simple defense and new supple offense is still in command in the West. The Bears did let down a bit last week when they just squeezed past the Colts 10-3.
In the American Football League, the young teams have engineered a climax of their own. The San Diego Chargers, who lapsed against the Broncos last week, are still first in the West. This Sunday they will play the leaders of the East—no one's choice for the championship—the New York Jets.
Weeb Ewbank, who came to the New York club from the Baltimore Colts, is a patient man. He contemplated the appalling paucity of manpower on the ex-Titans through a dismaying exhibition season, biding his time until he could refurbish a leaky defense and balky offense with late cuts of the NFL teams.
Understandably, Coach Ewbank made most of his selections from the ranks of his old club—the Baltimore Colts. He took nine of the players whom the Colts had either traded or cut, welded them carefully into place on the Jets and began winning games in the AFL.