The most important and anxiously awaited game of the year in the National Football League should be the one that is played on the frozen December afternoon when the best team in the East meets the best team in the West for the championship. Supposedly, that game is what the five months of running and falling have been all about; theoretically, the season charges to a climax in the violent, proud and uncertain clash of two football teams of proved excellence who are fighting to establish which of them deserves to be called the finest in the world. But since 1958 the NFL championship game on television has seldom rated more in suspense than
or the Pinky Lee Show. The West has won six of the last seven championships and—as an afterthought—has won the only four Apathy Bowl games ever played between the runner-up teams of each division. This year it is yawningly conceded that the Eastern champion—probably Cleveland—will be playing merely for the dubious pleasure of being thrashed by Baltimore on December 27. There are at least three teams in the West that are superior to any in the East. To be realistic about it, the championship game of 1964 already has been played. Baltimore won it in October by beating Green Bay for the second time.
The growing imbalance between the two seven-team divisions of the NFL became obvious in 1957, when Detroit finished off the once-dominant Browns 59-14. The next two years belonged to the Baltimore Colts, who were just then emerging with the game's outstanding quarterback, Johnny Unitas. The East's only revival, and a brief one, came in 1960, when Philadelphia won the championship on the arm of Norm Van Brocklin, who got his training in the West with the Rams. In 1961 and 1962, Green Bay handled the Giants easily on cold, windy days that were more suited to the Packers' grinding ball-control style than to the deft passing of New York. Last year Chicago won after laming Y. A. Tittle, the man most responsible for putting the Giants into championship games in 1961, 1962 and 1963. Although he has had his biggest success in New York, Tittle, too, learned his trade in the West at San Francisco.
To find out why the West is better than the East it is necessary to go back to the late '40s and early '50s. During these years the contrast in methods of scouting the colleges for talent was as glaring as the contrast between the divisions is now. The representatives from Los Angeles would stagger into the annual draft meeting under a load of books, papers, charts, lists and assorted statistics. The man from the Washington Redskins would wander in with a football magazine in his coat pocket. When it was time for the Rams to make a draft choice, they would consult their assembled research like marketing analysts, place the telephone calls to prospects and recheck and restudy their figures. Then they would select people like Norm Van Brocklin, Bill Wade, Larry Morris, Roosevelt Grier, Big Daddy Lipscomb, Andy Robustelli, Elroy Hirsch, Tom Fears, Harland Svare, Dan Towler, Paul Younger, Bud McFadin, Night Train Lane, Don Paul, Stan West and others of comparable quality. The man from the Redskins would open his football magazine, poke his finger at somebody's name and announce that he had selected Billy Clyde Puckett, who not only was white but also had received nice mention in a story written in his home-town paper. What difference did it make? The Redskins had Sammy Baugh, and everybody in Washington knew Sammy Baugh would play forever. That sort of activity was the East's Great Leap Backward.
While the older Eastern teams picked players out of magazines, the more aggressive Westerners discovered and developed such quarterbacks as Waterfield, Albert, Layne, Lujack, Van Brocklin, Tittle, Unitas, Rote, Wade, Blanda. In the East there were Baugh and Otto Graham. The Browns, with Graham flawlessly operating Paul Brown's offense, won the Eastern Division six straight years, from 1950 through 1955, and beat the West three times for the championship. But the West was steadily building muscle. Ironically, the one thing the East was doing was inventing a defense that Tom Landry perfected as defensive coach of the Giants. Vince Lombard!, Harland Svare and other believers spread Landry's doctrines to the armies of better athletes in the West, and today Green Bay, Detroit, Los Angeles and Baltimore all play tougher defense than any team in the East. Last year, so did Chicago.
Complacency in the East had not been limited to the draft. The East was still trying to function out of baseball parks with few decent seats. At that time there was no television pool to give each club in the league $1 million per year. Gate receipts were vital to survival, let alone to the recruiting of talent. The old Chicago Cardinals, the Steelers, the Redskins and the Eagles were victims of stadium situations that made it difficult to draw enough customers to buy helmets. The only big stadiums were in New York and Cleveland. The Giants and the Browns were the rich teams of the East and therefore the best.
In the West, Baltimore had begun organizing in 1953. San Francisco then was fairly new to the league, having moved from the defunct All-America Conference, but was averaging about 60,000 paid attendance per game at Kezar Stadium. If the Rams had less than 80,000 on a Sunday the owners suspected a plot. Money was tumbling into the West, and with it came the players. The draft in theory should have kept the divisions equal. That it did not was a result of both the money and the ingenuity the West was spending on scouting.
The Rams, for example, had Waterfield and Van Brocklin at quarterback, but they drafted and signed Bill Wade. They had as many good quarterbacks on their roster at one time as there were in the entire Eastern Division. The only thing that prevented the Rams from utterly ruling, and maybe ruining, pro football during the '50s was constant squabbling between their owners. For that feuding—which since has been resolved—the rest of the NFL is grateful.
Buck Shaw, coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 1950 to 1954, was aware of the quarterback gap when he moved to Philadelphia. "I stipulated I would take the Eagle job if I could get what I wanted," Shaw says. "I wanted a top quarterback. I wanted our front office to deal generously with the man we got." The man he got was Van Brocklin, and in 1960 Van Brocklin got Shaw the championship. "The schedule broke our way," says Shaw. "We caught the Lions before they toughened up, and we caught New York with injuries. But I could see what was coming. Vince Lombardi had gone to Green Bay and had found some of the best players in the game waiting for him. He put a few keys together and had a great team. The Rams and 49ers had started to fall apart, which made it easier for the Packers. But the Rams were the ones who had put us on our toes in the West. They had made us imitate them if we hoped to keep up with them."
Football is a game of imitation. As every team in the league imitated Landry's defense, so the teams in the West began to imitate the ideas of Lombardi, another Giant alumnus. The West had been a throw-and-catch-it league until Lombardi began to win in 1960 with his solid defense and his big running backs who could hammer down the field half a dozen yards at a smash until the Packers had a touchdown and the other team had no time to do anything about it. The Western teams copied Lombardi and strained for the talent to compete with the Packers as they had once struggled to compete with Los Angeles. The NFL reversed itself. The West became the running division and the East the passing division. And the most adroit passer in the East was Y. A. Tittle, the refugee from San Francisco.
Without Tittle, the East would have been even more of what one Western assistant coach calls "a marshmallow league." Tittle, the best quarterback in the East since Van Brocklin retired to become coach of the Minnesota Vikings, has beaten the West five times in seven tries, not including the championship game he has never won. Most Western teams admit privately—though not for posting on Eastern locker-room bulletin boards—that they prepare to play the East in the same festive mood in which they would dress to go to a party.