Professional football, as the clich� has it, is an emotional game. No less an authority than Vince Lombardi once said that the success of the Green Bay Packers was built on love. While much of that success could be realistically attributed to spirited blocking and tackling by a large group of very talented players, Vince could make a persuasive case for the value of team affection—and fear.
In the Coastal Division of the NFL, love, hate and talent abound, but mostly talent. Three of the teams—the Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers—would probably be favored to win in either the Century or Capitol divisions. The fourth—the Atlanta Falcons—may be ready to give the Big Three a game now and then.
The success of all four teams will depend upon how they handle a variety of psychological problems. The defending-champion Colts are recovering from the trauma of losing to the New York Jets in the Super Bowl. The Rams saw their coach melodramatically fired and rehired during the off season. The 49ers are still adjusting to the tough regime of Dick Nolan, in his second season as head coach, and the Falcons are now under the driving—and often caustic—direction of Norm Van Brocklin, in his first full season.
The Colts probably will make the easiest adjustment Don Shula, after six years as coach, has established a firm rapport with his players, based on mutual admiration and respect. He is a young man (39) and he seems to have an instinctive appreciation of the attitudes and hang-ups of his club. He may even turn the loss to the Jets to good account in the season to come.
For example, half a dozen Colt veterans came to training camp with the rookies—a week before they had to. "A winning team has to worry about what you call complacency," Shula said then. "Winning becomes a habit. You take it for granted. That's why it is gratifying to me to see veterans like John Mackey [an All-Pro tight end], Willie Richardson and Bubba Smith show up early. It means we have a goal that is spurring them."
The return to action of a healthy John Unitas also helps spur the Colts. Earl Morrall did a fine job of replacing Johnny U. in 1968, but it is doubtful that he will be able to supplant a fit Unitas, who exercises the charismatic authority that all great quarterbacks have, and whose arm, through the preseason games, seemed better than ever.
Says Jimmy Orr, the veteran wide receiver, "If he threw any better—and I have been catching him for eight seasons—they would have to outlaw him. He can still do something most passers fail at. That is, throw while you're coming open, with two steps to go, so the ball gets to you in the clear."
With either Unitas or Morrall at quarterback, the Colts will have a versatile, high-scoring attack. They have a strong, fast corps of receivers, headed by Richardson, Mackey and Orr, and a veteran offensive line to protect the quarterbacks. The running backs—Tom Matte, Jerry Hill and Terry Cole—are tough if not fleet and give the Colts a solid ground game
An Iffy Defense
If Baltimore falters it could be because of a drop-off in defense Although the Colts allowed the fewest points in the NFL last season, they have had two crucial retirements Bobby Boyd, a fixture at cornerback on All-Pro teams, has become a Colt coach, and Defensive Captain Ordell Braase has retired at end. Charlie Stukes, a third-year man, will replace Boyd, and veteran Roy Hilton is taking over for Braase, but the Colts will need a strong pass rush—which finally materialized in an exhibition against Buffalo—and fine play from their linebackers to help out the corners.