When he sets to pass, Gabriel will have no lack of targets. Studstill has been a topflight pass catcher at Detroit for the past few years and should continue to be so for the Rams. Bernie Casey, who has pulled in more than 50 passes in almost every one of his eight seasons in pro football, caught eight touchdown passes last season, as did Jack Snow at end. Massive Bill Truax is a better than adequate tight end and has good support from Dave Pivec, a third-year graduate of Notre Dame. One of the best looking of the sparse crop of Ram rookies is a speedster named Harold Jackson, who has run the 100 in 9.5 and has hands and heart to go with his speed.
When you consider the defense—and the Rams' defense is considerable—you begin with All-NFL End Deacon Jones, the key man in the celebrated Fearsome Foursome. "He makes the whole defensive line better," a rival coach points out. "You are so much aware of him. You have to double on him a lot of the time." The other three members of the line—Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy and Roger Brown—are back, although Brown was battling an overweight problem in camp. In the event of injuries, the Rams have three very good young hopefuls. They are Diron Talbert, a second-year man from Texas, Dave Cahill in his third season and Gregg Schumacher, an ex-Bear who has been a taxi-squad and special-team man for the Rams. Elsewhere, the Ram defense is solid, with strong linebacking and a secondary which was better than average last year and may be improved by the addition of Ron Smith, a fast, tough defensive back acquired from Atlanta.
Jones, who was signed to a five-year pact beginning at $35,000 in 1966, during the NFL-AFL hot-and-cold war, held out this summer to renegotiate the remainder of the contract. The Ram management did not budge, and Jones—who makes around $40,000 now and gets bonuses for dumping the opposing quarterback, finally capitulated. With 29 long-term contracts on file, the Rams were not about to set a precedent.
"If Jones wants more money, it's there for the taking," one veteran said. "You can get an extra $25,000 if you win the Super Bowl. And we can win it."
The Colts set several records during the 1967 season, the most notable being a team record for frustration. Never before in the modern history of pro football has a team won 11 games, lost only one and tied two and not finished the year sprinkling champagne on the coach and various other celebrants in the champion's dressing room. Not only did the Colts miss a championship, they didn't even win their division title. All their heroics gained them was the bitter knowledge that they were probably the best losers in NFL history. It was small consolation for the Colts, as they watched the championship game between Dallas and Green Bay, to know that they had beaten the Packers 13-10 and the Cowboys 23-17 during the regular season.
Their chances for a happier ending this year are good, but much depends on the 35-year-old arm and body of John Unitas. Unitas, who may own every passing record in pro football by the time he retires, has said that he will play until he is 40, and in training camp he looked sharper than ever. But injury is a constant menace, although the Colts do have an experienced backup man in Earl Morrall. Because the Baltimore running game is weak, Unitas may be subjected to more punishment by enemy defenders than the good Colt offensive line might normally allow. One of the most overworked phrases in pro football is the one most coaches use for justifying their lack of an aerial offense. "I was trying to establish a running game," the loser says. And, oddly enough, that was just what he was trying to do. As a secondary effect of establishing the running game, he was trying to save his quarterback's life.
Upton Bell, the son of Bert Bell, is the chief talent scout for the Colts, and he has done well. The rookies who came up in Baltimore last year have covered the loss of three great veterans—End Raymond Berry, Tackle Jim Parker and Halfback Lenny Moore. The veterans were sliding last season and Bell had replacements waiting. Willie Richardson, after four years on the bench, performed almost miraculously as a wide receiver and, combined with John Mackey, the rampaging tight end, and Jimmy Orr, the flanker, gives Unitas three top-notch pass catchers. Sam Ball was no vintage Jim Parker at offensive tackle, but he was close enough. Only at halfback, where Lenny Moore once performed his magic, did Bell come up short. Tom Matte, a hard-bitten, driving back who does everything a back should do, is the focal point of the Colt ground game, but Matte, though solid and dependable, is not a game breaker. He can run hard, pass on the option play, block like a demon and catch passes, but he will not make a defense twist out of shape to defend against him. Don Shula, the bright, imaginative and determined coach of the Colts, dealt a defensive back to Philadelphia for Timmy Brown. If Brown, at 31, can still fly, the Colts will be helped tremendously. If not, Baltimore will be short of running. Jerry Hill and Tony Lorick are competent, but none of the Colt runners can make a defensive line take a second thought before teeing off in pursuit of the passer. And that split-second second thought is often the difference between an upright quarterback with the ball in the air and a supine one with a loss. Thus, Johnny U., despite his superlative skills, will be throwing under stress.
On defense the Colts are superb. Rick Volk moved into the secondary at free safety last season and did well. Bubba Smith, the man-mountain rookie at defensive end last year, will take over full-time in 1968 and, teamed with 36-year-old Ordell Braase, they give the Colts a pair of defensive ends bigger than Defensive Tackles Fred Miller and Billy Ray Smith. Veterans back up the front four with knowledge and ability.
The linebackers could be very, very good or something less than that. Dennis Gaubatz, in the middle, is better than a journeyman, less than a Butkus, Nobis or Nitschke. Don Shinnick has intercepted more passes as a corner linebacker than any linebacker who ever played in the NFL, and that tells you how long he has been around. Mike Curtis is young, excellent and frangible; Ron Porter has enormous potential, and a black-belt karate man, Bob Grant, a No. 2 draft choice from Wake Forest, is promising.