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RUSHING TO STAKE A CLAIM
Tex Maule
January 04, 1971
Of the four teams that survived the scramble for Super Bowl gold, the fittest, fittingly, looks like the San Francisco 49ers
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January 04, 1971

Rushing To Stake A Claim

Of the four teams that survived the scramble for Super Bowl gold, the fittest, fittingly, looks like the San Francisco 49ers

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The unsung people who work in the pit won the pro football playoffs. You can forget about John Brodie and John Unitas. Men named Randall Beisler and Forrest Blue were the heroes of the NFL quarterfinals. They cleared the way for the running backs, they protected the throwers and the victory was theirs.

The four games, for those who like their football flashy, were undistinguished. Dallas edged Detroit 5-0. Baltimore embarrassed Cincinnati 17-0. Oakland slipped past Miami in the muck 21-14. And, in the weekend's biggest surprise, San Francisco overcame Minnesota 17-14 in frigid Bloomington. The temperature was 9° above, the wind was blowing and you could get snow-blind crossing the stadium parking lot, but this didn't faze the red-hot 49ers. They won because they have the best offensive line in football. But then all of the games were won in the yard-wide strip that constitutes the neutral zone.

To take them chronologically, the Colts won the first game because the old, savvy Baltimore defense predicted every call that Paul Brown was sending in to young Virgil Carter, the Bengal quarterback. It read the Cincinnati offense perfectly, cutting off the passes that Brown ordered Carter to throw and shutting off the runs that Brown ordered Carter to call. On the other hand, Johnny Unitas picked apart the Bengal defense all by his resourceful self, throwing a 45-yard touchdown pass to Roy Jefferson and a 53-yarder to Eddie Hinton.

"This is the most imaginative team I've played on," says Bill Curry, the Baltimore center. "For the first time it's exciting to come to practice on Wednesday. That's when we get our game plan. There is always something new, a tricky play or just a new play that [Coach Don] McCafferty is trying. He's thinking, creating and that's stimulating. Heck, you usually don't beat anyone with trick plays, but even if they fail they serve a purpose. If makes you less predictable."

The Colts did not use that much tricky stuff against Cincinnati, and often when they did they were hurt. They ran reverses to Jefferson and Hinton, plays that had been productive during the season, and the Bengals shut them off for losses. "They were looking for the reverse," Curry said ruefully. "A brain like Paul Brown's will knock it out."

But Baltimore came up with a few twists that worked, even though Brown had seen most of them in game films. They used a full-house backfield, a formation in which three running backs line up in a row behind the quarterback, parallel to the line of scrimmage—in obsolete terminology, the T. The Colts employed it against the Jets two weeks ago, and Brown thought they had done so just to make him waste time practicing a defense for it. But the Colts used the same set against the Bengals, putting Jefferson, their flanker, at what used to be called halfback. This let them utilize his speed to the outside and it freed him from the bump-and-run. On pass plays, Jefferson went into motion and, since it's impossible to play bump-and-run on a man in motion, that negated part of Cincinnati's pass coverage.

Jefferson carried the ball twice from the full house for 12 yards, but the Colts' big rusher was Norm Bulaich, a rookie fullback from TCU. Before the game, Bulaich wasn't exactly a household word. Not even in Baltimore. Some called him Bullatch, others Bullick. No one knew if he was Polish or Hungarian. Norm Bulaich (it rhymes with goulash) is of Yugoslavian descent, and one way he got so tough was by working as a pipe fitter in the Texas oil fields. "I don't like heights," he says. "I surely don't, and that's what the job required. One time I froze with fear while on the job and they had to send somebody up to take me down." After that, Bulaich went below sea level to work—in the holds of ships. "I was a longshoreman, unloading rice and barrels," he says. "It's hot work, 200° is what it feels like, but the pay is $4 an hour, $6 if you work nights. I'll be back in the spring unless something better comes along."

It's apt to. The Colts may just make it their business to see that it does, although Bulaich doesn't see why they would. He was shocked to find a game ball in his locker last weekend. "Nobody ever said a thing," he said. "They just put it in my locker. Me, I'm no hero, just a rookie who still makes too many mistakes. I'm just another guy who carries the ball through the holes, and for a long time I wasn't doing that well."

One of Bulaich's problems was that after a few early-season fumbles he began carrying it with two hands, which meant he lost balance and speed, if not the ball. "Johnny Unitas finally told me to stop thinking about fumbling and just run," he says. "He told me if he worried about interceptions, they would have run him out of the league years ago." Bulaich gained 116 yards in 25 carries against Cincinnati, and he did it with one hand and the help of some first-rate trap blocking by the offensive line.

In the second game of pro football's big weekend, the Cowboys played the Lions in the Cotton Bowl. If ever a game should have been high scoring, this was the one. The Cowboys have good running backs in Duane Thomas, Walt Garrison and Calvin Hill and speedy receivers in Bob Hayes and Reggie Rucker. Detroit has the best running quarterback in the world in Greg Landry, excellent setbacks in Mel Farr and Al-tie Taylor and two wide receivers—Earl McCullouch and Larry Walton—who can match the Dallas pair. Moreover, the Lions' tight end, Charlie Sanders, is regarded by many as the best around.

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