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Age had its day, youth was denied and the Green Bay Packers proved to be vincible after all. Which meant that the National Football League was back in business once again, opening its 44th season before packed stands, as usual, and producing the usual quota of crunching noises, brilliant games—and an occasional surprise.
The biggest surprise of all, as well as a good share of the crunching brilliance, was supplied by the Chicago Bears. George Halas, at 68 the oldest active coach in the league, turned to simplicity to provide a most extraordinary reversal of form. Discarding the complicated defenses and the wide variety of offenses that have sometimes worked against the Bears in recent years, the old man of the Midway winnowed a small selection of plays from the Bear crop. He drilled his team in these plays until they executed both offense and defense to perfection, then loosed them on the Packers.
"We won't have many plays," he said grimly before the game. "But what we do, we're going to do well. We may get beat, but we won't beat ourselves this time with missed assignments."
It was the Packers who missed, on all cylinders. Bart Starr, the leading passer in the league last season, spent most of the afternoon horizontally, and rugged Jim Taylor, the leading rusher, could hardly get to the line of scrimmage. The vaunted Green Bay attack gained just 150 yards. In the meantime Chicago's lean stock of offensive plays worked well enough for a 10-3 victory.
There was no magic in the upset. The defense used by the Bears was the same most teams use in the NFL, basically a 4-3-4, flexible enough to shift into a zone or man-to-man. But seldom in recent years has a Bear team operated its defenses as violently.
"Joe," said Linebacker Bill George to Line Coach Joe Stydahar before the game, "I'm going to play a hell of a game for you tomorrow. I promise." He did.
Defensive signals were called by Corner Linebacker Joe Fortunato and, if he made a mistake all afternoon, it certainly didn't show. The Bears sometimes sent in all three linebackers on a fierce blitz, sometimes sent in only the four "rush men," as they call their defensive line. The defensive personnel of the Bears has, for several years, been considered among the best in the league, and Halas has made no changes in it. He simply cut down on the complexity of assignments so that the players could react instinctively instead of having to stop and think. This, in itself, speeded up the Bear defense.
Of course, the new Chicago defensive philosophy came as no surprise to Green Bay's Vince Lombardi, whose scouts had watched the Bears mastering it through the exhibition season. The Packers had beaten the old Bear shifting defenses completely; Lombardi was not so sure that the new solid one would be easy.
Before the game Lombardi expressed apprehension. "One of the regrets of my life is that Halas has changed his defense, and I'm sorry that he has cut down on his offensive plays, too."
In other big games, the young Dallas Cowboys, one of the favorites to win the Eastern Division championship, suffered a sad case of jitters in losing to the St. Louis Cardinals, 34-7. For a quarter and a half, the Cowboys played remarkably well, leading 7-3. Then the Cardinals struck for 17 points in the closing minutes of the first half—and the Cowboys collapsed.