During the seven
years Fichtner has played in the NFL, defenders have become increasingly adroit
at foreclosing receiving territory to the quarterbacks. Never have the defenses
been better disguised, more varied or less predictable. Norb Hecker, coach of
the Atlanta Falcons and a whilom defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams and
the Redskins from 1951 through 1957, has been a student of the trend toward
greater guile and complexity.
"When I came
up to the Rams," he says, "almost every team in the league used a
simple zone defense. You put your best athletes on offense. But now we play a
lot of man-to-man because the defensive players coming up are bigger and faster
and can handle it."
the Packer defensive backs for seven years before going to Atlanta, and it is a
measure of the importance attached to defense that the owners of the Atlanta
franchise hired a specialist as head coach.
"You'll see a
dozen varieties of pass defense during a game now," Hecker says.
"Blitzes come from any angle. We have a lot more blitzes here than the Rams
had when I came up. We study offenses much more closely than we did
team understandably has a leaky defense. "I've got three rookies and a
sophomore in there," he says, "and I know it takes at least three or
four years for a unit to fit together. The defensive secondary has to do a lot
of talking back and forth, and one of those men has to take over and become the
deep quarterback. You prefer it to be one of the safeties, like Ed Meador on
the Rams or Fichtner on the Browns."
came to Cleveland he was just as puzzled and hesitant as any of Hecker's
youngsters are now. He had quarterbacked the McKeesport, Pa. high school team
and won the Most Valuable Player award in the western Pennsylvania high school
all-star game in 1956. He was the starting quarterback for Purdue for three
years, Purdue's most valuable player as a senior and the most valuable player
in the 1959 Blue-Gray game as well as a member of the 1960 college All-Star
team. In that single-platoon era he played safety on defense as well as
quarterback, and he was drafted fourth by Cleveland in 1960 for his potential
as a defensive player.
"I knew I
didn't have a good enough arm to be a pro quarterback," he said recently,
"but I thought I had a good shot on defense. Then for the first two years I
was beside myself. I was thoroughly confused."
Fichtner—and probably for the Browns, too—he did not play much at first. The
Browns' secondary was set and the coaches had difficulty finding a spot for
different positions," Fichtner says now, shaking his head sadly at the
memory, "and I didn't learn any of them well. It takes all your
concentration to learn to play just one position on defense."
"We may have
underestimated Ross a bit the first two years," says Howard Brinker, the
Cleveland defensive coach. "He played in the college All-Star Game in 1960
and got a late start. When he came to camp he was so eager to make the team he
looked a bit awkward. His feet would get tangled, and he even fell down a
couple of times."