Cleveland at undefeated Baltimore Colts, 1968
The Green Bay Packers were the “team of the century” while winning three-straight NFL championships. Now in 1968, it was Baltimore’s turn to be the team of the century. That sounds silly, but the sportswriters really did get excited about the Colts when they started out 5-0 and outscored their opponents by 166-58. The Browns, on the other hand, had stumbled to a 2-3 record. The expectation was this game was going to be a slaughter.
Frank Ryan was no longer Frank Ryan by this time, as shoulder injuries were limiting his effectiveness. Hence Bill Nelson was getting the start. Nelson was a great leader and field general, but had several knee operations. Every time he dropped back to pass, fans had to hold their breath. But the Browns still had Paul Warfield and Gary Collins as wideouts, and Milt Morin as the tight end. Ernie Green and Leroy Kelly were the running backs, though Green was nearing the end of his career at this point.
The offensive line consisted of Dick Schafrath, John Demarie, Fred Hoglin, Gene Hickerson and Monte Clark. They were outstanding, and they had to be because no one wanted to see Nelsen get tackled.
The Browns were outstanding at defensive line with Ron Snidow, Walter Johnson, Jim Kanicki and Bill Glass.
At linebacker, the Browns had JIm Houston, Dale Lindsay and Bob Matheson, who would later have the Dolphins defense named after him, as Shula hoodwinked Art Modell into trading him for a second-round draft pick.
Amazingly, the Colts were doing all their scoring with Earl Morrall in for Johnny Unitas. In training camp, the Colts knew that Unitas was not right physically, so they went out and traded for Morrall at the end of August. Nevertheless, when they fell behind the Browns, Shula did not hesitate to pull Morrall and give Unitas a shot, despite his bum arm. Readers are invited to comment whether this was a good idea or not.
Actually, Unitas and Morrall would alternate for the next four years. In today’s game, changing quarterbacks is a traumatic experience. But in the late 1960’s, that was just a tactical decision if the coach felt it was appropriate. Both quarterbacks played in Super Bowl III and V and picked up Super Bowl rings (Morrall also picked up two more with the Dolphins).
Tight end John Mackey and wideout Willie Richardson were still their Pro Bowl selves.
Halfback Tom Matte (from Shaw High in East Cleveland) was called the “Garbage Man,” though nobody seemed to understand why. This fan’s theory is that it was because Matte was a converted quarterback, handsome, always well-dressed, a fan favorite (especially among the ladies) with a big, fat first-round draft pick contract. Defensive guys love to tease quarterbacks, and a converted quarterback would get the same treatment, even from his own team. The jabbing was that he did not get “tough yards,” only “garbage yards” when the game was decided. Of course it was not true, but defensive guys like to tease quarterbacks, and Matte was probably an easier target than Johnny U.
The real meat and potatoes for the Colts were on defense, with huge Bubba Smith and Bill Ray Smith on the left side, and Fred Miller and Ordell Braase on the right side. Mike Curtis was a load at linebacker and Bobby Boyd was All-Pro at cornerback, flanked by veterans Lenny Lyles, Jerry Logan and Rich Volk.
In the video, you can see that Don Shula was one of the few coaches that took the new American Football League seriously, and he was already implementing zone coverage, bump and run, and all sorts of blitzes developed in the new league. The Colts were tactically superior to most of the other teams in the NFL.
Despite the setback to the Browns, the Colts righted the ship and finished 13-1, throwing four shutouts along the way. They would meet the Browns in the playoffs.