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"To make matters worse," says Thomas, "I hit the fans with two preseason games as part of our ticket package. Our season tickets have dropped from 47,000 to 28,000, but I kept those preseason games right there. Those people will be back."
After hiring Miami assistant Howard Schnellenberger as Baltimore's new head coach, Thomas attacked the college draft. "There are two things I don't do," he boasts, "draft poor football players or trade good young football players. The kid I wanted in the 1973 draft was Bert Jones. He had a Koufax arm and a great football background. Well, Houston had the No. 1 pick and New Orleans the No. 2, and the way I saw it, they were both fixed with young quarterbacks. Houston wanted to draft a big defensive lineman, not a quarterback. So I went around the back door and gave the Saints Billy Newsome and a fourth-round draft choice for their No. 2 in the first round. Houston drafted John Matuszak, just as I figured, and I got Bert Jones."
Baltimore emerged from the 1973 draft with four other 1975 starters—Defensive Tackles Joe Ehrmann and Mike Barnes, Running Back Bill Olds and Offensive Tackle David Taylor. In 1974, the top selections were Defensive Ends John Dutton and Freddy Cook, the other half of Ehrmann's Looney Tunes front four, and Wide Receiver Roger Carr. Still, the Colts won only four games in 1973, and they were winless last season when an irate Irsay stormed onto the field during their third game in Philadelphia and fired Schnellenberger because the coach would not replace Domres at quarterback with Jones. Thomas reluctantly became head coach.
"None of us really knew the man," Ehrmann says of Thomas, "because there was a gap between the players and the front office. But he didn't come in and start preaching to us or making too many waves. Instead, he talked to us more about his philosophy of life, of winning, of togetherness, all those things—not the little Xs and Os—and he won us over." But, the Colts won just two games in 1974 and, for their ineptness, got the No. 1 pick in the draft.
"There was pressure on me around Baltimore to draft Randy White, the defensive end from Maryland," Thomas says. "The hell with pressure. Local kids don't mean anything to me. In Miami one year, remember, I got everyone in Florida mad at me by planning to pass over Steve Spurrier and taking Bob Griese in the draft. What I needed was an offensive lineman. Atlanta had the No. 3 pick and needed a quarterback, obviously Steve Bartkowski from California. So I told the Falcons I was going to draft Bartkowski and peddle him for a lineman unless they gave me George Kunz, an All-Pro offensive tackle, and their first-round pick. The Falcons eventually came around, and I ended up with two offensive linemen—Kunz and Ken Huff, the guard we drafted from North Carolina."
After the Thomas reconstruction program was completed, there were only four holdovers from the Rosenbloom regime on Baltimore's active roster. "Look at it this way," Thomas says. " Green Bay, Cleveland and Baltimore had all won together for a lot of years. Now the Colts are back on top. Only the Colts. I could have waited like the others. But I didn't."
Forced to hire another new head coach, Thomas selected Ted Marchibroda, who had coordinated George Allen's offense in Los Angeles and Washington for nine years. Marchibroda is light on the verbiage, preferring to lock himself in his dingy office under the stands at Memorial Stadium and get bleary-eyed from looking at films.
"The big thing about Marchibroda," says Lydell Mitchell, "is that he hasn't sold us out. We used to be very restricted. We couldn't talk or question things, we couldn't be ourselves. Now we've surfaced as individuals, and it's not a coincidence that we've surfaced as a winning team."
Ehrmann, the large bearded tackle from Syracuse, regards himself as the unofficial honcho of the togetherness department. "We've got three captains, really," he says. "Kunz is the boss of the straights, the Ail-American athletes. Raymond is the head of the blacks. Me? I'm captain of the heads, the guys who are loose. Like the Looney Tunes. I'm single, but I bought a big house just with team parties in mind. Everybody comes to the parties, even a lot of the old Colts like Artie Donovan and Ordell Braase. And every Wednesday night we have a poker game, too.
"All the guys are into their own thing, but the Looney Tunes are in another world. Our approach is carefree and loose. Being serious is not our bag. We're a bunch of weird guys. Hey, the psychological trait of defensive linemen is that they can't get uptight, can't follow all the rules, can't be inhibited and can't worry too much about conforming into what the coach wants."