A week ago the race for the Eastern Division championship of the National Football League seemed an almost indecipherable scramble among Cleveland, St. Louis and Dallas. It is still a scramble but, with an impressive victory over Washington's Redskins in D.C. Stadium on Sunday, the Cardinals have established themselves as the best of the scramblers. They demolished Washington 37-16 on the brilliant passing of Charley Johnson to receivers Bobby Joe Conrad and Sonny Randle and the powerful running of Backs Willis Crenshaw and Bill Triplett. The Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, scrambled desperately but not brilliantly in shading Pittsburgh 24-19 on a rain-soaked field at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. They were playing without five starters.
As for the Dallas Cowboys—well, they seem as scrambled as eggs in a pan. With Don Meredith far off form, Coach Tom Landry had him sit out Sunday's game with the Eagles and went back to the practice of shuttling quarterbacks, alternating rookies Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome. This operation was fairly successful—Morton completed 11 of 11 passes and Rhome 8 of 14—but the patient died. In other words, the Cowboys lost 35-24. If Landry must employ rookies at quarterback, Dallas appears to be out of the race for the division championship.
A team must be both good and lucky to win a division championship. The only team in the East that qualifies on both counts is St. Louis. The Cleveland Browns, now tied with the Cardinals for the lead, are unquestionably good, but they have been unlucky; in the first month of play the Browns have had six first-line players injured and have played their last two games with five starters on the bench. The Dallas Cowboys, after a fairly gaudy start, proved in the last two weeks that they are neither excellent nor fortunate.
The Cardinals have beaten the Browns (49-13), the Cowboys (20-13) and the Redskins. On the next two Sundays they play teams that have yet to win ( Pittsburgh and Washington), and they do not meet either Cleveland or Dallas again until the last two weeks of the season. Their Western Division opponents are the Los Angeles Rams and the Chicago Bears. The Cowboys meet Green Bay and San Francisco and the Browns play the Minnesota Vikings and the Rams. On the record of the teams to date, the Cardinals have the easier opponents in the West. Beyond that, while the Cardinals are playing second-division teams for the next seven weeks, the Browns and the Cowboys play each other twice, the Browns play the Vikings, and the Cowboys play Green Bay a week after their first meeting with Cleveland.
By the time the Cardinals get around to Dallas again on December 11, the Cowboys probably will be out of the race. If the Browns can restore enough first-line players to active duty and survive the rigors of their schedule, they may still be within striking distance of the Cards when the two teams meet in St. Louis in the final game of the season.
But the Cardinals' championship prospects are built on much more than the accident of a favorable schedule and the misfortunes of their chief adversaries. This is a sounder team than it was a year ago: the defense is more cohesive, Johnson is a more poised and resourceful quarterback, the running attack is far stronger and the offensive line is easily the best in the Eastern Division.
Of all these factors, possibly the most important is the development of Johnson. A year ago he had an unfortunate habit of trying to force his passes—throwing to his primary receiver no matter how tight the coverage on him. He also had a tendency to give up on his running game if it did not work immediately and to rely entirely on passes. Now he has almost rid himself of these vices. Some of the improvement is the natural result of an additional year's experience; more of it is due to the intensive coaching of Bobby Layne, who went to the Cardinals as quarterback tutor when he quit the Steelers with the impulsive Buddy Parker.
" Layne hasn't told me anything that Coach Wally Lemm didn't," says Johnson. " Coach Lemm said the same things to me last year, but I guess I didn't pay as much attention as I have to Layne—probably because I know he was a quarterback and a good one. For instance, Bobby told me not to quit on a running play because it doesn't work at first. He told me to run it again now and then just to make the defense aware of it and to set them up for something else, and then, when you get them set up, to wait until the right time to use a particular play. He reminded me not to waste it deep in your own territory. To save it until you need it."
Johnson gets back and sets up for his passes more quickly this year and is less vulnerable to a rush. "I still have to work on a sense of balance in our attack," he says frankly. "But Layne has given me a feeling of security in my calls, and I think I understand tactics better. I still get overanxious once in a while and press. When I do, I realize it. But I'm taking fewer chances than I did last year. I stay with the odds now."
The development of Crenshaw as a power runner and the return of Triplett have given the Cardinals an exceptionally strong running game, and Johnson is no longer afraid to use it. Behind the blocking of the fine Cardinal offensive line, it is particularly effective. "We like for Charley to call running plays," says Ken Gray, an offensive guard. "Pass blocking is a negative thing. You don't have a chance to prove yourself. But when you can root the other guy out on a running play, you have done something you can feel a positive pride in."