Since joining the NFL in 1950 the Cleveland Browns have never finished worse than first in the Eastern division (or Conference, as it is now called). Last year—the first in Coach Paul Brown's major rejuvenation program for his aging team—the Browns started slowly, losing two of their first three games, while the Giants and Eagles looked as if they might end the Brown regime. It was not to be, and the Browns, having assimilated their new talent, went on to win the next eight straight as well as their second NFL title in the December play-off with Detroit. Although the Eagles and Giants seem to have improved enough to give the Eastern Conference a genuine three-team race this year, the final standings in the division should end about as listed below—with Cleveland, of course, on top.
Otto Graham's celebrated retirement will probably have to be deferred now that a federal court has enjoined Rookie Bobby Freeman from ducking out on his Canadian contract. That leaves the team with no substitute for Quarterback George Ratterman, who was finally set to inherit Graham's job. With much-battered Graham back for his 10th year, the Browns would have an offensive field leader who is unsurpassed in pro ranks. Beyond that, Cleveland has the coaching of Paul Brown, undeniable master of his craft. With a carefully selected crop of rookies on hand to replace the inevitable depletion and pep up the veterans, who's to say the Browns won't repeat?
A heavy asset for this team is its pair of passing quarter backs: Adrian Burk and Bobby Thomason. But more important, Coach Jim Trimble finally feels he has an outside-inside running attack to take the pressure off the passing. The outside runners are Don Johnson and Skippy Giancanelli, both hobbled by injuries last year but now seemingly sound. Not since they won the title in 1949 have the Eagles been as well balanced, defensively and offensively—and as optimistic.
New York Giants.
Coach Jim Lee Howell, an old Giant end starting his second year as head coach, is still rebuilding the old-fashioned club he inherited from Steve Owen—a club tremendous on defense with a solid, jolting ground attack but lacking the sudden-death scoring threat that makes a modern pro team great. Howell wants offensive strength and hopes to get it from Rookies Joe Heap, a Notre Damer; Mel Triplett, a bashing fullback from Toledo, and Alex Webster, a 210-pound halfback who was voted Eastern Canada's MVP last year. The Giants still have their iron defense spearheaded by Tom Landry, their veteran halfback and great kicker, but the passing attack is erratic.
Once a perennial power in the league, they faded when Sammy Baugh retired, but this year they are the team most likely to surprise. In Eddie LeBaron, back from a year in Canada, they have a watch-fob quarterback who can be touched with genius on his happy days; and Ralph Guglielmi, the great Notre Dame All-America quarterback, showed what he can do against pros in the All-Star Game. The big factor, however, is new Coach Joe Kuharich, who has found a way to do his job without noisy backstage heckling from George Preston Marshall, the Redskins' petulant owner. Assuming that team harmony has been restored, the Redskins have the passing and defense to hurt anyone in the league on a given Sunday, but not the horses to keep it up week after week.
These in-and-outers beat Cleveland 55-27 one Sunday in 1954. Everything worked that day, but it seldom does for the Steelers, and the consistency won't be much better this year. They have a good but unpredictable passer in Quarterback Jim Finks, a fine runner in Lynn Chandnois and a good receiver in Ray Mathews. There is a smattering of fine men for other positions, but this is not a well-rounded team.
They frankly admit they have nowhere to look but up so their hopes ride with their bumper crop of rookies—Max Boydston, the celebrated end from Oklahoma; four Rose Bowlers from Ohio State and USC; but most of all an Oregon State halfback named Dave Mann, who has been burning up military gridirons for two years. Mixing these ingredients with Halfback Ollie Matson, a former Olympic sprinter who is already writing his name in the record books, the Cards may soon expect to move up, but probably not this year.