The Baltimore Colts, relying on the toughest defense (see cover) this side of the Berlin Wall, looked very much like the Green Bay Packers last week. The old Green Bay Packers. This was unfortunate for the current edition of the Packers, who looked more like the Vassar Coquettes as the Colts stifled them 16-3 before more than 50,000 Green Bay fans last week.
The loss snuffed out what dim hope the Packers had to win their fourth straight championship. Now the Central Division title could well go to the Chicago Bears, who have come back from the dead after losing Gale Sayers and three quarterbacks at various stages of the campaign. They are tied with the Minnesota Vikings, but because they beat the Vikings twice during the season they can clinch the title with a victory this week over the Packers. If the Bears lose, they will almost certainly finish second to Minnesota, since the Vikings should have an easy game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Packers' defeat by Baltimore was, in a way, a microcosm of the whole unfortunate year for Green Bay. The team made five major mistakes—four lost fumbles and an interception—and a host of minor ones, including a booming four-yard punt from the toe of Donny Anderson. The defense was stubborn most of the game, but each of those four fumbles gave Baltimore the ball in Green Bay territory and led directly to two field goals and the lone touchdown. Meanwhile, the Packers did not get beyond the Colt 35 until the fourth quarter. Their three points came in the first period when Mike Mercer banked a field goal off the right upright from the Baltimore 45-yard line.
To be sure, much of the Packers' misfortune was caused by the Baltimore defense, a unit which has now gone four games without giving up a touchdown. In 13 games this season the Colts have yielded only 120 points, and a quarter of those came in their one bad show of the year, a 30-20 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Countless words undoubtedly will be written describing the Green Bay debacle as the end of a dynasty, but this is a theory the Packers themselves do not endorse. To them, the disasters of 1968 were an interruption, not an end. All the bad luck Green Bay escaped in the nine years under Vince Lombardi seemed to descend upon the team in Phil Bengtson's first season as coach, and the avalanche of injuries, bad bounces, missed field goals and untimely penalties resulted in Green Bay's first losing season since 1959.
When the Baltimore game was over, the atmosphere in the Packer dressing room was more resigned than funereal. It was almost as if the players had expected the worst, although before the game Jerry Kramer, when asked if he thought Green Bay had a chance against the Colts, said, "You're damned right we have. We'll beat them."
After the game he shook his head. "I hope we got rid of all of it this year. Everything that can happen to a ball club happened. I keep thinking about what it says in the Bible. Three fat years and then three lean. Or is it seven and seven? We had enough bad luck for seven years all in one."
Aside from injuries, which wiped out most of the defensive line and sidelined Quarterback Bart Starr for key games, including last week's, the Packers suffered from lack of a field-goal kicker for most of the season.
"You figure we could have won four games we lost if we had had a long-range kicker," said Elijah Pitts, the running back who shares time with Anderson. "We win those four games, this one doesn't mean a thing. But it doesn't do any good crying about it. We learned some things this year. We had some adjustments to make. We found out you don't get ready for a game by starting to think about it on Friday. You got to think about it all the time all week. We'll be back next year."
Although Pitts did not go into detail on the adjustments the club had to make, it was clear that he was referring to the change from Lombardi to Bengtson, from the emotional, hypercharged approach that Lombardi used to whip his club into a frenzy week after week to the rather cool, intellectual administration of his former assistant.