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Not long ago, when the Cleveland Browns reasserted their claim to eminence in the East by trouncing the undefeated Dallas Cowboys 30-21, the Cowboys outgained the Browns 257 yards to 159. Then, when the St. Louis Cardinals turned back the Chicago Bears on prime nighttime television to stay in front in the East, the Bears did nearly everything better than the Cards except score.
These were key games in the Eastern championship race, and they had one significant thing in common. In each case the game was won not by the stronger offense but by daredevil defenders. Ross Fichtner, a small, intense and voluble man who plays free safety for the Browns, intercepted three of Don Meredith's Dallas passes. The Cards' Larry Wilson, who is the same size and age (27) as Fichtner and plays the same position, intercepted three of Bear Quarterback Rudy Bukich's passes and returned one of them for a touchdown.
Although clearly stronger than their opponents, the Cowboys and Bears nevertheless were beaten, and that's what seems to be happening this year in pro football more than ever before. Dramatically in the work of the pass thieves, and more subtly in camouflaged defensive formations, the defenders are catching up with the attackers and giving them hell.
Why is Green Bay up there in the West? Defense. Despite the brilliance of backs like Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung and Elijah Pitts and the superb passing of Quarterback Bart Starr, they have been leading the NFL in only two minor offensive statistics—kickoffs returned for a touchdown and most touchdowns rushing. But they have been rolling along at the top in nine different categories on defense—and are so brutal to run and pass against that they disdain the fancy stuff other teams are using more and more. The Browns have been ahead in interceptions and the Cowboys in seven categories, including smallest percentage of completions against them. The Cardinals, high in all defensive statistics, and the Browns have the league's leading interceptors in Wilson and Fichtner.
In more than a dozen games so far this season interceptions have either won games outright or provided the impetus for victory. Starting right off in their opener, the Packers scored their first two touchdowns on interceptions by Lee Roy Caffey and Bob Jeter to put their chief rivals, the Colts, in fatal trouble. The next day the Washington Redskins led Cleveland 14-7 at the half, but the Browns intercepted Sonny Jurgensen five times in the second half and Cleveland won the game 38-14. That is the way things have been going all season long. When the Cardinals defeated the Browns in their first game it was a Wilson interception that pulled the Cards up to a 28-28 tie and provided the winning boost. The Cardinals, in turn, were victimized by the Redskins late last month as John Reger intercepted a Charley Johnson pass to set up the winning touchdown in a 26-20 upset.
Over in the AFL the ball is falling into a lot of enemy hands, too. The five Joe Namath interceptions in the Jets' loss to Buffalo give you the idea. Even the linebackers are slipping into the spotlight. These large individuals normally are not at their best shadowing swift receivers. In the NFL this year, they are making interceptions at a record rate.
But no one has enjoyed the spotlight's glow more than Cleveland's Fichtner, a 6-foot, 185-pound former Purdue quarterback who spent his first six years in the pros in obscurity. Settled at free safety this season with carte blanche to wheel and steal, he suddenly has become a defensive star. The only reason his name does not appear among the top deep defenders picked by the coaches and listed in the chart on page 40 is that his rivals in the East are supersafeties—Wilson and Washington's Paul Krause. Pronounce his name Feektner, and remember it if the Browns struggle through to another title. He will deserve much of the credit.
Like most defensive backs, Fichtner disparages his own head and hands and attributes interceptions largely to chance. "They're nice," he says, "but you have to figure they're 80% to 90% luck. The ball was thrown short or long or wide. If everyone on both the offensive and defensive teams do their jobs perfectly, the odds are the ball will be caught."
Back in 1962 Fichtner tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, and his explanation of that brief prominence is interesting.
"That was my first full year on defense as a starter," he says. "I was really a rookie. I had a lot of gut shots. A rookie, if he is any good, gets interceptions because people pick on him. After a while a defensive back earns respect from the quarterbacks, and they stay away from him. My best year on defense was probably last year, and I only had four interceptions. What you try to establish is a favorable position, so that the quarterback is given no chance to complete his throw."