There are no rookies in the starting lineup. Although this is still a young team, it is not an immature one, and while Johnson and the offense make the splashiest headlines, the defense is equally well balanced and alert. Against their three most highly rated opponents—Cleveland, Dallas and Washington—the defense has allowed an average of only 14 points a game.
The Cowboys have failed to realize their high potential primarily because Don Meredith, unlike Johnson, has not grown as a quarterback. But there is another weakness. "The Cowboys have the best defense in the division," says the Cardinals' Gray. "They hit and hit, and in the second half, when you think they must be too tired to hit you again, they hit you again. The weak link in the Dallas club is the offensive line. They aren't coordinated yet."
It seems reasonable to think that the Cowboys could be spoilers for the rest of the year, but not serious contenders. The Browns, however, have enough power to make a run of it in the East through the final game—given a respite from injuries. Considering the troubles the team has had, it could easily be 1-3 rather than 3-1 and temporarily in a tie for first place.
"We figure that to beat Cleveland, you have to get off in front and force them to throw," says a Cardinal spokesman. "If you're ahead at the half and they are trying to play catch-up, you take away their big gun—Jim Brown. Then you put pressure on Ryan, and you win. That's what we did when we beat them 49-13."
Of course, it is not as easy as all that to get ahead of Cleveland at the half when all the Browns are in playing condition. The loss of End Paul Warfield for the first four games of the season with a broken collarbone seriously handicapped the Cleveland offense.
"With both Warfield and Collins receiving," says the Cards' Jerry Stovall, "you had a tough time doubling the coverage on one or the other. Now you can double Collins all the time, and everyone does."
Last week against Pittsburgh, Cleveland had four other regulars beside Warfield on the bench, all of them key players. Corner Linebacker Galen Fiss, one of the heroes of the championship victory over Baltimore last season, was out. Vince Costello, the heart of the Cleveland defense at middle linebacker, sat next to him on the bench. A rookie was playing defensive tackle in place of Jim Kanicki, another star of the championship game. Ernie Green, who is one of the two best blocking backs in the league ( Paul Hornung is the other), missed the Pittsburgh game because of a bruised hip. The week before that the Browns managed to beat Philadelphia without the shrewed, experienced Ryan, who was suffering from a sore instep.
In spite of their killing schedule, the Browns have reason to be mildly hopeful. Ryan limped through the Pittsburgh game and directed the team on a last-minute drive to the game-winning touchdown. He should be completely recovered for the Dallas game this Sunday. Fiss and Costello will return, as will Kanicki, so the Brown defense ought to be substantially improved. And Green will be back clearing the way for the runs of Jim Brown.
" Warfield can play against Dallas if he has to," says Owner Art Modell. "But we would like to give him another week off and have him completely ready for the Vikings the week after."
The Browns have even fashioned one small gain out of all this adversity: Sid Williams, who replaced Fiss as corner linebacker, and Dale Lindsey, a rookie who filled in for Costello, both played well against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and gained invaluable experience. Leroy Kelly, who substituted for Green, is a quick and agile runner who complements Brown well. And Jim Ninowski proved, in his full-game performance in the victory over Philadelphia, that he is certainly an adequate replacement for Frank Ryan.