For a while early in the season it looked as if no one would win the Century Division title. The Cleveland Browns and the St. Louis Cardinals, picked to finish one-two, each lost two of their first three games to create a three-way tie for first with the New Orleans Saints, a second-year expansion team. The fourth Century team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, lost all three of its games. The division seemed easily the worst of the four in the NFL. Of seven interdivisional games Century teams lost six, only a New Orleans-victory over Washington saving them from a whitewash.
Since then the picture has changed dramatically. The Cardinals lost to Dallas, then won four in a row before tying Pittsburgh last week. The Browns beat Pittsburgh, lost to St. Louis and have since won four straight, including a rousing victory over the Baltimore Colts and an impressive rout of San Francisco. The Saints have been in contention in most of their games on the strength of the league's most aggressive pass defense, and might be considered a dark-horse candidate for the crown had they not lost Quarterback Billy Kilmer two weeks ago with a broken ankle.
The Browns and Cardinals were revived in the same way—by the replacement of a veteran quarterback with a younger man. The Cardinals started the season with young Jim Hart, who played all of the 1967 season and demonstrated the fallibility of youth by throwing 30 interceptions. After the Cardinals lost their first two games, to Los Angeles and San Francisco, Coach Charley Winner benched Hart for veteran Charley Johnson, who commuted to the games from his Army post. Johnson, however, came a cropper against the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth game of the season and was replaced by Hart in the second half. Hart could not salvage a victory, but his performance was steady enough so that he has started every game since then.
"He has matured," one club official said last week after Hart had thrown three touchdown passes to tie the Steelers. "He doesn't try to force his passes when he sees double coverage and he is finding his secondary receivers better than he did last season. And his protection has been good."
The Browns began their recovery when Coach Blanton Collier, after two sleepless nights of soul-searching, decided to replace Frank Ryan, the longtime Cleveland quarterback, with Bill Nelsen, a newcomer whom they obtained from the Steelers. Under Ryan, the Browns had looked unimpressive against the Saints in their opening victory, then had lost decisively to the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas and to the Los Angeles Rams in their home opener.
" Ryan wasn't moving the team," Collier said. After the Ram loss, Collier huddled with some of his assistants and with Brown Owner Art Modell for more than 30 minutes in a room off the dressing quarters. Two days later he announced that Nelsen would start against Pittsburgh. Nelsen, a 27-year-old, six-year veteran from the University of Southern California, has been the Browns' quarterback ever since.
Although Collier made no explicit criticism of Ryan, it was obvious that Frank was relying too heavily on long passes, often ignoring the short patterns that were part of the Cleveland battle strategy. Nelsen, on the other hand, is satisfied with short gains if they are conceded by the defense. He has used all of the good corps of Brown receivers, and his approach to the passing game has made receivers such as the big tight end, Milt Morin, much more effective.
Nelsen beat his old teammates, the Steelers, and produced Cleveland's biggest score to that point, a 31-24 victory. He had a weak first half against St. Louis in his next game but rallied in the second half as the Browns lost 27-21. Then he led the club to four victories in a row, over Baltimore, Atlanta, San Francisco and New Orleans.
After last week's victory over the Saints, Collier appeared delighted with his quarterback. Nelsen completed only 10 of 24 passes, but four of them went for touchdowns. He also called a precise and knowledgeable game.
"I like a quarterback who will keep making the short gains," Collier said. "Four yards here, five there, four more, then maybe 10 or 12. You keep the ball that way, and if the opportunity for the bomb presents itself you take it."