The National Football League schedule runs for 14 weeks, and a lot of things can happen before the middle of December. Yet we had a feeling that we had blown it all when we lost that season opener to the Vikings. Then the next Sunday we beat the Green Bay Packers and won the Western title. At least that is the way we look back on it now.
The Packers, in their opener, had beaten last year's champions, the Chicago Bears. I knew we had a better club than the one we had shown against Minnesota, but Green Bay was something else again. In our planning for the Packers we spent a good deal of time working on a flood play—a play with three receivers spread to one side and Raymond Berry to the other. I figured if the Packers rotated their defense to the strong side, it would leave Berry with single coverage on the weak side. There are no defensive backs who can consistently cover him man-to-man. If the Packers did not rotate their secondary, they would have to try to cover Lenny Moore—flanked between the tackle and the end on the flood side—with a linebacker. The Packer linebackers are among the best in pro football, but no linebacker can take Lenny all the way down the field.
Designing a defense for the Packers was even tougher. No team is more versatile on attack than Green Bay. Bart Starr is a wonderful field general and a fine passer. Some people have said that he cannot throw accurately long, but that is not true. He is a complete passer who throws quickly and accurately at short, middle and long range. He is hard to rush, because he releases the ball quickly, and he is not a bad runner if the occasion arises. The key to the Green Bay running game is a power sweep, with both guards pulling out of the line and leading either Jim Taylor or Paul Hornung around the end. When Hornung carries, you have to worry about him throwing, too. The safety or the corner back has to commit himself quickly on the sweep, but if he commits too quickly you are open to a long pass.
During the week we worked on coverage and on putting pressure on the ballcarrier on the sweep, to force him to throw too soon or commit himself to the run. We worked on the flood series, too. By the time we left for Green Bay, we seemed ready. I did not know how ready we were mentally. After losing that one to the Vikings it was hard to figure out.
The game turned on two plays: one by our offense and one by our defense. The offensive play was a pass to Lenny Moore that went 71 yards for a touchdown, and it was a pass thrown from the flood formation. The Packers did not rotate; they depended on Dan Currie, a fine linebacker, to cover Lenny. Unitas called the play. I very seldom send a play in to Johnny. He is the quickest and smartest quarterback playing today, and I firmly believe that the quarterback on the field is in a better position than the coach on the sideline to estimate and analyze defenses. We came out in the flood, and Unitas saw that the Green Bay coverage isolated Currie on Moore. Unitas dropped straight back, looked at Berry on the other side for a second, then threw to Moore, who had outrun Currie, and Lenny went on in for the touchdown. That was the big play on offense.
The play that won us the game came late in the fourth quarter—a little over a minute to go, third and nine—with the score 21-20 for us and the Packers driving for a touchdown. Starr had been throwing to Max McGee most of the day, hitting him on a square-out pattern, where Max started straight down-field from a spread position, then broke sharply toward the sideline. We were covering him short and deep, letting the corner linebacker, Don Shinnick, drop off in the short area and the corner back take him deep. We were gambling, because if another receiver came out of the backfield to the same side it meant we would have to take him man-to-man with our middle linebacker, Bill Pellington. This is a difficult assignment for a middle linebacker, since he has a long way to go to cover a man who is, by the nature of his job, much faster.
Anyway, at this time, late in the fourth quarter, the Packers had moved into our territory and they were driving. Starr called the pattern we were afraid of—a pass to Tom Moore against single coverage by Pellington. Starr dropped back, and Moore circled out of the back-field and was all alone. Then Starr threw—and he threw toward McGee. Shinnick went up and picked off the ball and closed the Packers out, and we ran out the clock. I don't know why Starr did not throw to Moore; maybe the defensive line had shut off the lane to Moore.
[ Max McGee, the Green Bay end, said that the call was a pass to Moore. "We knew they were dropping Shinnick off to cover me short," he said. "When they did that, it left an impossible job for Pellington if the back came down behind me. So we called the play as a pass to Moore. I ran the square out, and when I looked up and saw the ball coming toward me I was amazed. I never had a chance to sit down with Bart and talk about the play. I don't think he could see Moore."]
So we won the game, and we picked up tremendous momentum. We had proved something to ourselves. I think no one was really convinced before that we were a championship team. After the Packer game we knew we could do it. Shinnick's interception gave us the win and the confidence. If Starr had seen Moore, it might have been the Packers in the championship game, not the Colts.
After that victory over the Packers, it seemed to me as if every game we played was the game of the week. Every time we won it was a double win; we beat a contender, and then one contender beat another. We had thought that the race in the West would be a scramble, but as the season went along it turned out that the scramble was behind us—for second place.