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The score is tied at 35-35 with only 25 seconds left in the game. Lou Groza, the Cleveland Browns' tackle, is standing on the New York Giants' 21-yard line plunging his right toe into a football held by his teammate Tommy James. The ball travels only a couple of yards before it is deflected by the groping hand of Pat Knight, a charging Giant defender. Knight has found a clear lane to the kicker because Maurice Bassett, the Cleveland fullback, moves over to block the outside man. The Giants take possession, and with only one play left the cliffhanger ends in a draw.
Over and over again this year—19 times in 66 games to be exact—the 12 members of the National Football League have enacted one of these cliff-hangers, as they like to call them: games in which the score had been so close that the last play could (and sometimes did) change it. Actually, the blocking of Groza's kick was more the exception than the rule, since many of these Garrison finishes have been climaxed by successful place kicks, as in Philadelphia that same Sunday when Les Richter's gave the Los Angeles Rams a 23-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
The year of the cliffhanger might well be the title of a season in which the pros have never been more evenly matched, game for game. Poor Philadelphia, dismally mired in the ruck of the Eastern Division with a 4-6-1 record, has dropped three cliffhangers, the largest by a four-point margin to the Browns. Had these games gone the other way, the Eagles would now enter the final Sunday tied with the Browns for the lead. And had the Browns' three cliffhangers gone against them, the Eagles would be leading! But that's football—pro football, anyway—and the proof that class still tells is offered by those same old Browns, who have already won their sixth division title in six tries.
So you have to look to the Western Division for statistical proof of the undeniable fact that the entire league has never been better balanced. During the first 11 weeks the Rams, Chicago Bears, Baltimore Colts and Green Bay Packers have been tossing the lead around like a medicine ball, and with only one game left the Rams and Bears are still fighting it out.
The pros can thank their orderly and sensible player draft for this healthy state of affairs. Last year the Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers and Bears were the division terrors; this year the Lions and 49ers are the doormats while the Packers and Colts, last year's doormats, are real trouble. In all cases it's the new men—or lack of them—who have spelled the difference. Baltimore, at the bottom of the league, spent plenty of scouting money and had two of the first three choices last winter (one through the bonus choice). They took Shaw and Ameche, the mainsprings in this year's attack. They have 12 rookies on the 33-man squad, seven of them starters. On the other hand, the Lions and 49ers are short on fresh talent while their veterans are getting slower and more fragile.
A FEARSOME CADRE
But the real power of the draft is to be found in the current success of George Halas' Bears. After his miserable 1952 season, Halas (who is this year winding up his 35-year coaching career) started building up a fearsome cadre of football's offensive weapons—ends and backs; the ends for the sudden-death touchdown pass, the quarterbacks to throw and running backs to keep the defense honest. Among the Bears' younger generation these days, Fullback Rick Casares is one of the league's truly great fullbacks, Quarterback Ed Brown ranks second among the passers, and fine ends like Bill McColl, Gene Schroeder and Harlon Hill are sometimes used all at once to give opponents the heebie-jeebies.
This year the draft positions are somewhat reversed. As a sort of early wedge against Canadian raids, the pros drafted their first three rounds in late November with the rest of the draft to follow in January, as usual. The 49ers got All-Americas Earl Morrall and Bruce Bosley. Detroit chose Howard Cassady, who won the Heisman Award. The Eagles picked Bob Pellegrini and Frank D'Agostino, All-America linemen. Pittsburgh, which won this year's bonus choice, took Gary Glick, a little-known quarterback from Colorado A&M.
Top college stars are not always foolproof. One year as its first choice a team selected an All-Star back and sadly discovered he wasn't bright enough to learn the offensive plays—something some of the other teams knew in advance. But despite such risks the odds are that this year's draft will again serve to produce more and livelier cliffhangers for years to come.