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What in the world has happened to professional football? So far, 1955 must go down as the year in which this game has perversely refused to conform to reason. Those seemingly ageless Cleveland Browns, to be sure, continue to stomp through their schedule with almost monotonous success, but the rest of the league's elite names—the Detroit Lions, the Chicago Bears, the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles—are feeding on a diet of humble pie. Strange names like the Baltimore Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers and the long-quiescent Green Bay Packers appear at the head of the standings in the league's two six-team divisions, and with the season one-third gone this alignment begins to look as if it had some sense and reason behind it.
Last week, for instance, with all the teams playing their fourth game, it was assumed that preseason predictions would begin to materialize and the favorites would start to make up for their early lapses. Philadelphia, which was supposed to end Cleveland's uninterrupted domination of the Eastern Division, had Pittsburgh at hand, and this was the time to bring the Steelers down to earth. But Pittsburgh's fine quarterback, Jim Finks, continued to throw winning passes, and Lynn Chandnois, their halfback, continued to look like the All-America halfback he had been at Michigan State a few years back. Pittsburgh took that one 13-7 to remain in first place with a record of 3-1, while the Eagles sank to the cellar.
Detroit, looking for its first victory, was far from unhappy at the prospect of entertaining San Francisco at Briggs Stadium. The 49ers, despite their superlative backfield of Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson, were showing signs of total collapse, and the home town fans were sending the team to the showers with more boos than cheers. Detroit, on the other hand, was practically the same team that had won three straight Western Division championships. Yet the 49ers pulled that one out 27-24 with a last-minute touchdown, and the Lions remained a lonely last in their division.
Sloshing through lakes and mud at the Polo Grounds, New York finally won their first game but hardly looked like the team that a certain amount of wise money had picked as the 1955 sleeper. They were up against the Chicago Cardinals, another of the year's surprise underdogs, but the Cardinals' fast backs, Ollie Matson and Dave Mann, need firm footing and they did not have it in the stormy East. So the Giants bumped the Cardinals out of their first-place tie by a score of 10-0, but it was a game that looked more like water polo than football.
Up in Milwaukee, Green Bay had the unbeaten Los Angeles Rams as guests. This game would surely demonstrate whether the Packers' passing, which is already breaking records set in the palmy days of the fabulous Don Hutson, would continue to stand up against the wise old pros of the league. It did, although it took a 26-yard field goal in the closing seconds by Fullback Fred Cone to supply the two-point margin, 30-28, and hoist the Packers into a first-place tie with the Rams in the Western Division.
In Washington, D.C. the Cleveland Browns provided some comforting consistency in the midst of this bedlam as they ground out another of those apparently inevitable victories that leave you wondering whether anyone will ever relieve them of the Eastern Division title they have had since they first joined the league in 1950. The score of 24-14 was far from humiliating for this rejuvenated Washington team, and it seems fairly certain that the Redskins, with a 2-2 record, will continue to keep the league in the kind of turmoil it has enjoyed for the last month.
But of all these teams, the Baltimore Colts were providing the largest supply of amazement. Here were the undisputed orphans of pro football's stormy days, a team that had drifted vaguely from city to city looking for a home and finally found it in Baltimore in 1953 when the citizens promised to subscribe to 15,000 season tickets. With them came a kind of rag, tag and bobtail of aging athletes frequently wondering whether payday was just a mirage. By all the laws of football genetics it was bound to take the Colts' generous new owners a half dozen years to breed and raise a winner in the violent competition of the National Football League. Even the most promising college All-America requires a year or two of proper seasoning among wise veterans before he captures the ways of a pro, and there are only a couple of dozen of those to be shared by the league's 12 teams each year.
Starting the 1955 season the Colts had a thin front line of rookies who had been among the choicest prizes of the winter draft. There was Alan (The Horse) Ameche, a compact, 217-pound fullback who had been largely responsible for taking Wisconsin to the 1953 Rose Bowl. There was George Shaw, whose extraordinary passing had made an otherwise ordinary Oregon team into a national celebrity of sorts. There was Dick Szymanski, 230 pounds of Notre Dame beef and brawn who could take care of the inconspicuous but tremendously important job of offensive center.
These and nine other rookies, a disproportionately high number for any pro team, were the major assets with which the Colts hoped—but not too strongly—to climb a rung or two out of the Western Division cellar this year. With only four of the old orphan Colts still on the payroll, the team had youth and the ambition that goes with it, but only the fuzziest optimists expected any miracles. The championship was still several years away.