It is the firm intention of the Baltimore Colts to clinch the Western Division championship of the National Football League sometime in the next month, and then the public will credit their success to the passing and field generalship of John Unitas. The fans will award smaller gold stars to Coach Don Shula; to football's best No. 2 quarterback, Gary Cuozzo; to Raymond Berry, Jimmy Orr and John Mackey, the fine Colt receivers; and to Running Backs Tony Lorick, Lennie Moore, Tom Matte and Jerry Hill.
The fans will be only half just, for an equal share of the praise should go to a group of highly capable players with only vaguely familiar names. These men play defense for the Colts, and they do not have a press agent. They have not, for example, enjoyed anything like the fame of the Sam Huff-led New York Giant defense of recent vintage—which had its own cheering sections in New York's Yankee Stadium. The Colt defenders deserve better.
The goal of all wise football men is a balanced team—one that combines a knockout punch with the strength and cunning to counter an opponent's Sunday swings. This is the kind of team that wins championships, and it is the kind in which defense is just as important as the flashier offensive maneuvering. It is so crucial that there is a maxim that says defense wins championships. At least once in the last 20-odd years that proved literally true—the 1963 Chicago Bears, with an offense that treated the ball like a live grenade, beat Y. A. Tittle's Giants.
The Colt defense this year is as good as that of the 1963 Bears, and it is complemented by the most versatile attack in the West. Excellent balance accounts for Baltimore's clear superiority over the other strong teams in the NFL's tougher division. The San Francisco 49ers, for instance, can score as easily as the Colts, and so can the Minnesota Vikings. The 49ers have a powerful pair of runners in John David Crow and Ken Willard, a passer only a shade less efficient than Unitas in John Brodie and receivers who can cut and catch on a par with Baltimore's. Minnesota has Fran Tarkenton at quarterback, two outstanding runners in Tommy Mason and Bill Brown, and a fine receiver in Paul Flatley. But it is not very difficult to score on either the 49ers or the Vikings.
On the other hand the Green Bay defense is as good, statistically, as Baltimore's, but the Packer attack has gotten lost somewhere in its recent games, and too big a burden is being placed on the defense. Almost the same thing is true of the Detroit Lions.
The Colts' powerful offense helps the defense in two important ways. First, the Colt attacking team is usually on the field for a considerable part of a game, controlling the ball. This gives the defensive players time in which to rest and regroup between hitches. Second, the Colt offense scores often and this means that the defenders feel free to gamble; they are not inhibited by the thought that a single mistake can cost them the ball game. (The Packer defense may become overcautious if the offense does not pick up.) So the Colt defenders are more effective because they can give more, physically and psychologically, while they are on the field.
Yet even without the puissant Colt offense this defense would rank high on its merits and despite the fact that it may be the lightest defensive unit in the league. "The key to most defenses is the linebackers," says Charlie Winner, a small man who coaches the Colt defensive backs although he has played neither major-college nor professional football. "We have good linebackers. They are big enough to meet the run and quick enough to react well against the pass. The linebackers are two-way insurance; they move up to help the linemen and back to help the backs."
Some of the Colts' premium insurance this year stands 6 feet 2, weighs 230 and answers to the name of Dennis Gaubatz (see cover). He is a young, thickset, fair-haired man who calls the defensive signals for Baltimore from his position as middle linebacker. "The middle linebacker is in the center of the defense," Winner says. "He is just behind the line and just in front of the secondary and equidistant from the sidelines. Everyone can hear him. I think the Bears and the Lions make a mistake letting corner linebackers call the signals on defense. I mean one side of the defense can't hear the call, so the middle linebacker has to relay it and sometimes he is so involved in figuring out his own assignment that he forgets the relay. Or he may not hear the signals and call it wrong on the relay. So all at once you got half your defense doing the wrong thing, and you have multiplied the odds against yourself."
Gaubatz is only 24—young for a man who must match wits with shrewd older quarterbacks every Sunday afternoon. But he is an extremely confident young man and a very bright one. He learned to be self-sufficient when he was a youngster living in a small town named Needville in East Texas.
Gaubatz was drafted by Detroit and played with the Lions before the Colts grabbed him in a trade last June. "They was worried about me calling defensive signals in Detroit," he says. "I wasn't worried. Look, when I was a kid, my high school coach was my scoutmaster. One time he took us on a camping trip—to Mexico, I think it was. Coming back, he says he needs a linebacker and I says, 'I can play linebacker.' He looked at me and laughed and said, 'You'd never be a linebacker, Dennis.' Well, anyway, I tried linebacker and finally he had to put me in. My senior year we went to the semifinals for the state championship in our division. 'Nother time he was the track coach, and I said, 'Coach, I'm going to run the quarter mile.' He laughed and he said, 'Dennis, you can't run the quarter.' That year I went to the state meet in the quarter. Next year they was lots of faster quarter-milers in our district, so I said, 'Coach, I'm going to high jump.' He looked at me and he said, 'Dennis, I don't think you can high jump, but so far you done ever thing else you said you'd do, so try it.' Well, I never got over six feet, but I went to state in the high jump too."