But the Browns, too, have begun to demonstrate impressive muscle in areas other than quarterback. They were dealt a severe blow before the season started when Ross Fichtner, a veteran defensive back, and John Wooten, one of the steadiest blockers in the league at guard, were put on waivers after an altercation that had racial overtones. The offense lost another key blocker when Fullback Ernie Green injured a knee against Los Angeles in the first exhibition game. Green, who has almost fully recovered, played a few minutes last week; meanwhile, neither of the men who have tried to replace him—Charley Harraway or Charlie Leigh, who never played college football—has been particularly effective. Harraway is a fair blocker but slow out of the starting blocks, and Leigh simply lacks experience. When Gary Collins, one of the best wide receivers in the league, went out for the season with a shoulder separation, the Brown offense was in shambles.
It took time to fit the new personnel into the scheme of things, and it was not until Nelsen took over that the offense began to function as a unit. Nelsen could accept a rush a bit better than Ryan, because he has a quicker release, and he did not miss Collins as much, since he uses all of his receivers about equally. Eppie Barney, Collins' replacement, lacks Collins' height and size but has more speed and has been a good receiver for Nelsen. Morin, who was slowed by injuries last season, came into his own with Nelsen calling his pattern both short and deep. Morin caught two touchdown passes against the 49ers and one last Sunday against New Orleans.
The Browns, then, are operating without eight starters from the 1967 season, in which they won the Century Division championship. They are Quarterback Ryan, replaced by Nelsen; Linebacker John Brewer (Bob Matheson); Safetyman Fichtner (Mike Howell, moved from cornerback and replaced by second-year man Ben Davis); Woo-ten (second-year man John Demarie); Defensive End Paul Wiggin (Ron Snidow, obtained from Washington); Green (Harraway or Leigh); Collins (Barney); and Defensive End Bill Glass, out for the season with broken ribs (second-year man Jack Gregory).
Leroy Kelly, who is a cinch to win the rushing title now that Gale Sayers is out for the season, has become more effective under Nelsen, whose short passing game opens up running space for him. Against San Francisco, Kelly was used judiciously and had his best day of the season, rushing for 174 yards; last week he gained 127 yards and scored three times.
In the battle for the title, the advantage lies with Cleveland. Last week's 28-28 tie with Pittsburgh puts the Cardinals, in effect, half a game behind the Browns with only five left to play. The Cardinals get another crack at the Browns in St. Louis in the last game of the season, but they also have a more difficult schedule—because it includes Sunday's game against Baltimore. The Cardinals' other three games are with the Falcons, Steelers and Giants, while the Browns have the Steelers, Eagles, Giants and Redskins. Should the Browns continue to play as they have in recent weeks, the Cardinals would have to win the rest of their games, including both the crucial one with highly favored Baltimore and the season-ender against the Browns. But no matter which team comes out on top, the Century Division has achieved a surprising recovery. The Cowboys may be shocked in the Eastern Conference playoff on Dec. 21, whether that takes place in St. Louis or Cleveland.