Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Half a Game Out and One to Go

The St. Louis Cardinals ran their Eastern Division pennant halfway up the flagpole last Sunday by beating the Cleveland Browns. But the final effort on the hoist must come this week from the New York Giants

By Edwin Shrake 

The Cleveland Browns ordered four cases of champagne delivered to the Bel Air West Motel in St. Louis last Saturday night. The bottles were stacked in a refrigerator to await what the Browns hoped would be a barrage of popping corks, spewing wine and gay laughter on Sunday afternoon. A taxi was ready to rush the champagne out to the Cleveland locker room at Busch Stadium the moment the Browns were certain of defeating the St. Louis Cardinals. Fortunately, someone in the Cleveland organization had the discretion to order the champagne on consignment. By Sunday night the four cases were on their way back to the liquor store.

The celebration was to have marked Cleveland's capture of the Eastern Division championship of the National Football League. It will have to be delayed at least until this weekend, and possibly for much longer. By knocking off the Browns 28-19 Sunday before a frozen but delighted home crowd of 31,585, the St. Louis Cardinals have forced the Eastern Division decision into the final hours of the season. Everything now depends on two games: the Giants vs. Cleveland in New York this Saturday and the Cards vs. Philadelphia in St. Louis the next day. If both the Browns and the Cardinals win, the pennant will go to Cleveland by a few percentage points. But a Cardinal victory and a Cleveland loss would bring the city of St. Louis its first pro football championship and another flag to fly beside the one the Cardinal baseball team won last October.

The football Cards are the hottest team in the East and have been the most opportunistic in recent games. After an awful mid-season slump during which they lost three of four games—including two to second-division teams, Dallas and New York—the Cards have been unbeaten for the past five weeks. The only nonvictory in that period was a 10-10 tie that was played—or, rather, wallowed—with the Giants on a Busch Stadium field turned swampy by a steady, pounding rain. The Cards beat Pittsburgh twice in the last five weeks, and in one of the games little Corner Back Pat Fischer epitomized the recent St. Louis play and spirit. He ripped the ball from the arms of John Henry Johnson and ran 49 yards for the winning touchdown in the last two minutes.

Last Sunday the Cardinals needed no such desperate heroics. It was the finest day of the year for the young, scholarly St. Louis quarterback, Charley Johnson (see cover), who was presented a plaque as an outstanding alumnus of New Mexico State just before the game. A couple of hours later Johnson slumped on a bench in the Cardinal locker room, taking small puffs off a cigar and smiling at his plaque. He had a red scratch under his right eye, a long, ragged claw mark along the right side of his mouth, a bleeding cut on the back of his neck and a large, swollen purple bruise on his right biceps. Truthfully, Johnson looked as if he had spent the afternoon being wrestled and chewed by a bear. His pants were undone and wadded around his ankles, and he was too tired either to pull them up or to take them off. But he was not too tired to exult at the comeback of the Cardinals.

"After that first New York game [which the Cardinals lost, 34-17] we decided we had to double up and catch up," Johnson said. "I went back to studying hard. I started taking films home with me again. We changed our entire practice procedure and worked harder. What had happened was we had got away from our preparations during the week. We were still getting high for the games, but we weren't really prepared. You can't get ready in one day. Each game is a week-long job. We quit making that error."

For the Browns, the Cardinals had developed a game plan in which they had confidence. The earlier Cleveland game was a 33-33 tie, and the Cards knew they could move the ball on the Browns' defense. They intended to stay fairly close to the tactics that had proved effective in the first game. The running attack was to concentrate on off-tackle slants and traps. The big difference in the St. Louis offense was that Split End Sonny Randle, one of the NFL's most dangerous deep receivers, was out of this second Cleveland game because of a shoulder separation (it has finished him for the season). As a consequence, prime responsibility shifted to Flanker Bobby Joe Conrad, a drawling Texan who is a tricky receiver but does not have Randle's speed.

The Cardinals hoped to throw repeatedly to Conrad on short sideline patterns and on what, in St. Louis terminology, are called inside slips and comeback switches. On the inside slip Conrad goes 15 yards downfield and breaks across the middle. On the comeback switch Conrad goes down 15 to 18 yards, whirls and runs two or three steps back toward Johnson. The Cardinals also hoped to catch Cleveland in one of the defense patterns in which the weak-side safety crowds up almost over the St. Louis weak-side guard. In that situation Johnson would start play action toward the strong side, then stop and throw back across the field—either to Conrad or to Randle's replacement, Billy Gambrell, who would be man-for-man on the safety and was expected to be clear.

In the first Cleveland game the Browns' linebackers came up fast to cover the St. Louis backs on swing patterns. The idea this time was to swing the backs again, and if the linebackers committed themselves early Johnson would throw to Conrad on quick slant-in patterns.

The man with the primary duty of tagging along with Conrad was Cleveland Corner Back Bernie Parrish, who has his faults on man-for-man coverage but who has contributed mightily toward putting the Browns into their current lofty position and probably saved Quarterback Frank Ryan's job as well. Late in the second Dallas game the Cowboys were leading, 16-13, when Parrish intercepted a pass and raced it in for the winning touchdown. Cleveland's No. 2 quarterback, Jim Ninowski, who is capable of brilliant afternoons but is not as consistent as Ryan, was warming up on the sideline. After Parrish's touchdown, Ninowski sat down again. After that Ryan played five good games in a row, going into last Sunday.

The interception by Parrish was typical of the Cleveland defense this year. The Browns—hurt by the loss through injuries of Defensive Tackles Bob Gain and Frank Parker—play a conservative defense. They seldom blitz. They lay back and give up voluminous yardage—the most, in fact, of any team in the league—and wait for the other side to make a mistake. That style gets the Browns kicked around quite a bit, but until last Sunday they had usually managed to come up with the big defensive plays, and they ranked fourth in the league in fewest points allowed.

The thing that worried the Cardinals was stopping the Cleveland offense. It used to be that to stop Cleveland meant only to stop Jim Brown, which is a considerable chore but could occasionally be done. After Ray Renfro lost his speed several years ago and retired, the Browns did not have a really fast target for the long pass. But they found one this season in rookie Flanker Paul Warfield, who can run like a sprinter and jump like a basketball player and already has mastered moves that most receivers never learn.

To complicate the St. Louis defensive problems, Warfield—who flanks to the left side—had to be covered by Jim Bur-son, a taxi-squad graduate who moved ahead of veteran Corner Back Jimmy Hill after Hill injured a knee. The St. Louis safetymen, Jerry Stovall and Larry Wilson, would flip-flop, with Stovall moving to the strong side. One or the other thus would frequently be available to help on Warfield. But that meant the 5-foot-9, 168-pound Pat Fischer would have to go it pretty much alone on 6-foot-4, 208-pound Cleveland Flanker Gary Collins, who was Fischer's nemesis in the first Cleveland game. (Collins caught six passes for 105 yards and one touchdown off Fischer and set up the Browns' last touchdown with a long reception.)

On Saturday morning the streets of St. Louis were slick with ice after the city was sideswiped by a midwestern blizzard. The morning paper informed the Cardinals, who were due at Busch Stadium for a 10 a.m. practice, that 245 people had been treated at hospitals for injuries from falls during the freezing rain and light snow of Friday. But the Busch Stadium field, which under the best of conditions is not much softer than a parking lot, had been covered and was frozen only around the edges of the tarp. So the Cardinals stayed off the field and used the morning to watch movies of Cleveland kickoff returns. The headier preparations had already been made.

Before the 1:05 p.m. Sunday kickoff, the temperature at the St. Louis airport was 12°. Smoke from factory chimneys around Busch Stadium hung white and frozen against a gray sky. In the Christmas spirit, an airplane flew over the stadium trailing a sign that read, "Deck the halls with battered Brownies." When the tarp was rolled off the field and the snow was scraped up and banked against the walls, the ground was bare and hard. The maintenance crew spread sand on the field to improve the footing. The Browns, who had arrived Saturday night an hour late because of the storm and strong headwinds, had brought along three sets of shoes—the regular ones, tennis shoes and some German-made footwear with small rubber cleats. None were magic.

In the middle of the first quarter Conrad tried to run a down-and-out pattern against Parrish and was crowded out of it. Conrad broke back toward the center of the field, which was the correct procedure, and arrived in the same area as St. Louis Tight End Jackie Smith. Johnson threw toward Smith and then fell under a tackle, thinking the pass had been completed. But Parrish, who had come looking for Conrad, caught the ball and ran it to the St. Louis 32. The Browns had been striking at St. Louis right Defensive Tackle Luke Owens, who has a chronic bad knee, and they continued to do so as they drove to the Cardinal 15. From there, Lou Groza kicked a 22-yard field goal to put Cleveland ahead. 3-0. But holding the Browns to a field goal inspired the St. Louis defense, and for the rest of the afternoon, although Groza kicked three more field goals, Cleveland could manage only one touchdown. It came on a tremendous diving catch by Ernie Green late in the game.

With Conrad getting double coverage when he flanked to the strong side, Johnson turned to his running game. In the first quarter Running Back Prentice Gautt limped off the field and beckoned to John David Crow, who recently has been benched for the first time since he was in the seventh grade. Crow responded well, slamming for 72 yards in 21 carries, most of them in tough, battering tries in short yardage situations. But it was a pass on a broken play that shot the Cardinals ahead to stay, in the second quarter. Johnson called a pass to Gautt and Cleveland put on a blitz. Gautt stayed behind to upend a Cleveland linebacker, and Johnson threw perfectly to Joe Childress down the middle for a 46-yard touchdown.

Johnson sneaked for another touchdown in the second quarter, passed to Conrad on the inside slip for another, and the Cards led, 21-6, at the half. From then on the St. Louis team was never in danger. Johnson wound up the day completing 15 of 22 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns and running for two others himself.

Fischer, meanwhile, glued himself to Collins and did not allow the Cleveland flanker a single catch. Burson had more trouble with Warfield, who caught six for 91 yards but could not escape for a touchdown. The St. Louis defense, blitzing less than usual, kept Jim Brown down to a comparatively modest 68 yards in 14 carries. And the Cardinals hit Ryan very hard very early, causing him to hurry his passes. "I started off throwing short," Johnson said later as a doctor examined the lemon-sized lump that grew on the biceps of his passing arm after he was speared by a helmet in the first quarter. "Then they came up and I threw deep. Then they went back again, and I threw short. We stayed one jump ahead." Nearby, Guard Ken Gray, the St. Louis offensive captain, nodded. "Charley called all the right plays," Gray said. "He's never been sharper."

"We're going to prepare this week as if our Philadelphia game will be for the championship," said Johnson. "We have to think that way. We have to believe the Giants can beat Cleveland."

"We deserve to be the champions." Defensive End Joe Robb said. "We have a better team than Cleveland, especially if you take that big guy out of their back-field. If Y. A. Tittle can beat the Browns, we'll vote him a full share of the championship money."

Even if New York can beat the Browns, St. Louis is by no means home free. High and hot as they are, the Cardinals go into their game with Philadelphia suffering from what could be a critical loss: Fullback Joe Childress dislocated his shoulder in the Cleveland game, and is out until 1965. If St. Louis can overcome this disadvantage—and if old Y. A. has a great day—those four cases of champagne may still find a taker.

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