It began as a routine sweep of left end by Chicago's Gale Sayers, the best runner in pro football. With a blocker in front of him, Sayers tried to cut inside but San Francisco's Kermit Alexander, moving up from his cornerback position, submarined, catching Sayers' right knee with his shoulder and bending it back. Down went Sayers, his face contorted in agony, down for the rest of the season. Without him the Bears, who were leading the Central Division, are surely dead.
Several months earlier the Baltimore Colts were confronted with an equally grave problem. Johnny Unitas felt something pop in his elbow during an exhibition game and suddenly the future of the Colts depended on Earl Morrall (see cover), who had spent 12 indifferent seasons with four NFL clubs. Morrall, who had just been obtained from the Giants as insurance, took over the Baltimore attack and has led the team to a 9-1 record and the favorite's role in the Coastal Division. Unlike the Bears, the Colts are very much alive.
Over the years injuries have decided more pro football championships than coaches, stars or the oblique bounce of the ball. Victory often goes to the team with the smallest casualty list or the strongest reserves and this year, as the cases of the Bears and Colts illustrate, is no exception. As week after week the bodies are dragged from the field, the question seems to be not who is good enough to win but who is deep enough? Not that pro football is getting more brutal. There are more injuries today than ever before, true, but that is because players are so much bigger and faster, and because so many more of them are in action every Sunday afternoon. Only 12 teams played pro football in 1958, each carrying 35 men instead of 40. With 26 teams playing now, it is natural to expect more injuries.
The dilution of talent that goes with expansion also has made casualties far more important. When only 12 teams shared the college seniors each year, the quality of every squad was high. In the early '50s, for example, the Los Angeles Rams had two outstanding quarterbacks—Bob Waterfield and Norman Van Brocklin—plus Bobby Thomason, who subsequently was a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Rams also had three quality fullbacks—Dick Hoerner, Dan Towler and Tank Younger—and near-comparable depth at other positions. While not every team was so well stocked, most had quality in depth. Today, with the talent spread among 26 teams, the contrast between the starter and his replacement is often drastic. The Earl Morralls of modern pro football are rare.
The Dallas Cowboys lost Halfback Dan Reeves early in the season. He has been replaced by Craig Baynham, a second-year back, and by Les Shy, in his third season. Says Coach Tom Landry, "Experience is the key to success when you are at championship level. The absence of a key player such as Reeves can make the difference in whether your team can win the championship. Reeves was a major playmaker around the goal line. He seemed to get in there more than anyone else when we really needed to. The option pass was a big weapon for us last year. As a former quarterback, Reeves could handle it well. I can recall six or seven for touchdowns."
Even without Reeves, the Cowboys have had a strong offense, but the Rams, also minus a first-line halfback, have suffered a marked drop-off in their attack. Les Josephson, the offensive co-captain and the leading ballcarrier in the Coastal Division in 1967, has been out all season with a torn Achilles' tendon. His replacements—Willie Ellison and hobbling veteran Tommy Mason—are pale carbon copies.
Dick Bass, the rest of the Ram ground attack, has also had injuries, and Henry Dyer, his replacement, is painfully shy of experience. Thus hampered, the Rams have found their air game damaged as well, since opponents now ignore the run and send their defensive line after Quarterback Roman Gabriel. The Rams have had injuries in other positions, but those filling in have been better than adequate. Lamar Lundy, the oldest member of the front four, is out for the year, but young Gregg Schumacher has done nobly at defensive end. Chuck Lamson, a safety, was wiped out by a knee injury, but from Atlanta the Rams obtained veteran Ron Smith, who has filled the gap.
The Colts, having survived the Unitas problem, were faced with another when Fullback Jerry Hill was lost for the season. Baltimore has a good runner in rookie Terry Cole, a sensation during the exhibition season, but Cole lacks Hill's ability as a blocker. Hill's absence both in pass protection and ahead of the ballcarrier may diminish the Baltimore offense.
San Francisco might have been a contender had not much of a good offensive line been erased by a combination of injury and trades. The key injury came in October of 1967 when John Thomas, a 250-pound guard who was regarded as one of the best in the league, broke both knees on the same play. Thomas has not been able to come back from the injury and his replacements are only C-plus. John David Crow was converted from running back to replace veteran Monty Stickles, gone in the expansion draft, at tight end. Although he has made the changeover commendably, Crow does not block with the authority that made Stickles a valuable element in the 49er running game.
In the Century Division the Cleveland Browns have endured adversity better than most. They lost two good players early. Fullback Ernie Green sprained his left knee before the season began, and did not show full speed when he returned in late October. Gary Collins, a key receiver in Cleveland's potent passing game, went out for the season in the fourth game, suffering a shoulder separation. Then, two weeks ago, veteran End Bill Glass suffered fractured ribs.