Nelsen assumed the leadership of the Brown offense with surprising aplomb. Ryan had been the quarterback for six years, and it might have been expected that the Brown veterans would resent his being set down for a quarterback who only joined the team this season. But Nelsen's easy confidence averted this danger.
"He takes charge in the huddle," Collier explained. "He's a psychologist who knows how to handle players." Collier cited Otto Graham, the former Cleveland quarterback, as a similar type. "Dub Jones, who was a fine receiver on those teams, once told me that the players always believed that Otto would come up with the big play when they needed it," Collier said. "This team has something of that feeling about Nelsen."
Nelsen is calm about his rise to relative glory. "I always felt that I could do it if I had the chance," he now says. "I don't mean to sound arrogant, but all quarterbacks have to believe in themselves,"
"Bill generates excitement," says Gene Hickerson, who has played guard for the club for 11 years. "You can't believe what's going on. He tells me to hold my man out a little longer and, you know, I will." Jim Houston, a nine-year linebacker, agrees with Hickerson. "Bill brings out the extra in a player," he says. "He's interested in trying to propel our inertia. His confident attitude—and it's not cockiness—carries over to the defense, too. We know he'll make the big play eventually. That's the kind of feeling we have now," he said. "The atmosphere is that much short of a championship." He held up his fingers, a couple of inches apart.
The Browns struggled against the 49ers in the first half of the game on the Coast two weeks ago, trailing by 14-3 at one time. "The defense knew Bill was having trouble in the first quarter," Houston said. "We just hung in there because we knew he would put some points on the scoreboard."
Both the Browns and the Cardinals can partly blame their slow starts on extensive reshuffling of personnel. In both cases, some of that came about because of internal difficulties. Racial dissension (SI, July 29), general ineptitude and advancing age caused the Cardinals to make several trades. Defensive Back Jimmy Burson went to Washington, Defensive End Joe Robb to Detroit, Defensive Tackle Sam Silas to New York. Prentice Gautt, an eight-year running back who played 14 games in 1967, retired, along with Bill Koman, an excellent linebacker who had played nine years for the Cardinals.
Winner, in effect, rebuilt his entire defense, with only three of 11 players remaining in the positions they had occupied in 1967. To complicate his problem, veteran Strong Safety Jerry Stovall missed the first six games of the year. Winner first tried Mike Barnes, a second-year defensive back, then Chuck Latourette, a punter-kick return specialist, in Stovall's position, but neither of them showed enough ability to cope with the wiles of a good tight end. Monty Stickles of New Orleans caught four passes for 80 yards against them, and Milt Morin had a delightful afternoon, catching eight passes for 151 yards.
A rookie middle linebacker, Jamie Rivers, has progressed so rapidly that he stands a reasonable chance of being named Rookie of the Year. He made mistakes early on, although he turned both New Orleans games in the Cardinals' favor with key plays. In the first game he blocked a Saints' field-goal attempt and in the second diagnosed a fake field-goal attempt and tackled the ballcarrier for a two-yard loss to give the Cards possession. Rivers was injured slightly last week but should be ready for the Cards' crucial game against Baltimore this Sunday.
Johnny Roland, the superb running back who generated most of the ground power for the team until he was injured late in 1967, started slowly this year, gingerly testing an operation on his knee. But he was strong against Philadelphia, scored the tying touchdown against the Steelers and seems back at full speed. He has been helped by the recent emergence of Willis Crenshaw, whose potent running has given opponents someone else to look out for.
With the defense gaining cohesion and confidence from week to week and with Hart, behind fine blocking, growing in stature as a quarterback, the Cardinals are poised for a good stretch run. If it were not for the comparable improvement of Cleveland, they might be clear-cut favorites to take the division and give the Dallas Cowboys a respectable tussle for the Eastern Conference championship.