"No one gets off" this world alive."
I left the locker room knowing that it was hardly the place, especially after a Baltimore loss, to sit down with anyone and discuss aspects of the team's collapse. I knew that it was almost surely a complex matter. The mechanism that constitutes a great team is in fact a fragile balance of skills and pride and attitude, quite at variance with such easy descriptive words as "powerhouse" or "juggernaut"; the balance is sensitive enough that it does not take much jarring to throw it out of kilter.
One of the most accurate observers of a phenomenon such as the Baltimore decline would be their All-Pro center, Bill Curry. He is almost invariably referred to as the "articulate spokesman of the Colts," a description he is rueful about, wishing rather wistfully that a word more descriptive of his abilities on the field could occasionally be found: "awesome"; "superaggressive"; "animallike," etc.
I called Curry the next day, and after he had talked about the practical reasons behind the team's difficulties ("We lost our players—John Williams, Norm Bulaich, Tom Matte, Eddie Hinton, Bubba Smith"), he began to discuss the team in more general terms. "What made the Colts different," he said, "and perhaps it's the special mark of championship teams, is that we'd cultivated a genuine atmosphere of respect, even love, for our fellow players. It was a tangible thing, a force, and you could actually see it work in the game itself. You could spot it in the films. We'd fall behind in game after game. And yet invariably there'd be a tremendous surge: everybody'd look at each other in the huddle, and you knew that somebody was going to make a good play, and that somehow we'd do it in the end.
"It's a subtle quality, and I don't know how you hang onto it. But I know when it begins to slip away. It starts with doubting. You begin to doubt each other. You doubt the front office and the changes it makes in policy and procedure. You get to spending too much time discussing such things, wondering why you have a general manager and an owner who don't know your names. There are too many distractions; your concentration begins to slip away; you substitute it with complacency. You lose a game. You begin to blame others. You find that you're yelling at your teammates during a game, and they at you; and then, perhaps worst of all, you begin to realize that all the shouts of encouragement to get yourself and the others going again are phony and meaningless—'false chatter,' we call it—and that the reservoir that previously you could dip into for those qualities that had won for you...somehow it had dried up."
When the team began to slide, many of the veterans—Bill Curry excepted—were sanguine enough about the need for change but felt that it could have been done without players' prides being stepped on, that thoughtfulness and empathy should have been at a premium at that time. There was none of this. By all accounts, McCafferty had no warning whatsoever that if he did not conform to front-office wishes, he was going to be axed, and thus he had no opportunity to try to cope with a crisis situation. "That's just not the way you treat someone," a player said at the time. John Unitas heard about his demotion on the clubhouse phone. He picked it up and listened for 20 seconds. He hung up the receiver and gestured at the floor. "I'm benched," he said. "They hoped I wouldn't take it as a slap in the face."
The team did not accept this sort of front-office maneuvering complacently. When McCafferty was fired, Bill Curry was not only stunned, but so incensed about the blame for the team's poor showing being publicly set on the coach's shoulders that he called for a meeting of the players. Twenty-eight of them turned up in ex-Colt Ordell Braase's restaurant, the Flaming Pit, where Curry read a strong and emotional statement in which he absolved the coach of blame, criticized the team itself for its play, and the front office for its decision.
Immediately there was criticism. "Too poetic," Mike Curtis, the middle linebacker said. Others felt it was too strong. Curry was astonished. "So many of them were scared," Tom Nowatzke, the big running back, told me. "I kept comparing that meeting in my mind with the time that the Los Angeles Rams met and vowed to quit unless they got their coach, George Allen, back—and it worked. The stars stood up and were counted."