Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Cardinals Take Wing

In 1965 Coach Wally Lemm built a title contender in St. Louis on the impious philosophy that football need not be drudgery

By Edwin Shrake

In the summer of 1945, a wartime year in which beef, gasoline and genuine football players were scarce, the Chicago Cardinals went to training camp at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis. with only 21 men. One of the first things their equipment manager, Dutch Kriznecky, did was to write on the blackboard: "Scrimmage Wednesday against the Green Bay Packers." A great fellow for a joke, that Dutch. After reading the blackboard eight of the Cardinals quit.

That left 13, and when the bobtailed scrimmage came it was the left side of the Cardinal line against the right side of the Cardinal line. A tackle asked 14-year-old Bill Bidwill, one of the two sons of the Cardinal owner, please to listen in the huddle and then stand behind the back who was to carry the ball. That was the sort of key even an exhausted tackle with sweat and blood in his eyes could read, and the Cardinal linemen survived the afternoon. They got their revenge on Kriznecky later in the season by forcing him to suit up and threatening to make him play against the Giants in the Polo Grounds. Dutch weighed about 240 pounds and most of it hung over his belt, but in the year World War II ended the Cardinals could use anybody who knew enough not to put his helmet on backward and Dutch sat on the bench with his fingers in his ears.

In the past 20 years life has been a roller coaster for the Cardinals. They had what the late Charles W. Bidwill called "my dream backfield" of Paul Christman, Pat Harder, Marshall Goldberg and Charley Trippi and won the NFL championship in 1947. They won their division in 1948. In the 1950s they reverted to lowly ways, and the few people who turned up at Comiskey Park were there to boo and throw garbage at the Cardinals and to clap like seals for the opposition.Finally taking the hint, the Cardinals moved to St. Louis in March of 1960. Now they are approaching the crest again as one of the best teams in the East and may read of another scheduled scrimmage with Green Bay—this time a real one—for the NFL championship on January 2. But despite their return to prosperity, the Cardinals are still a loose, laughing, fairly uncomplicated group that Dutch Kriznecky would have admired. The man who keeps them that way is Wally Lemm, one of the most surprisingly successful and quietly unconventional coaches whoever lived.

To a majority of his brothers in the lodge of professional football coaches, Wally Lemm is an outlaw, a maverick, a renegade—practically an impious beatnik—and some of them openly pull for him to lose. Many coaches make radical changes in their offense from game to game. Not Wally Lemm. "With all these different defenses, the players have enough to think about," says Lemm. "The more you give them, the more mistakes they will make, and errors beat you quicker than anything else." Many coaches bring their players in for morning meetings during the week, break for lunch, then resume with meetings and practice in the afternoon. Not Lemm. "We just gather once a day and not very early. The players like that arrangement, and the most important thing is to keep them satisfied," says Lemm. Most coaches spend the off-season months from January until July studying films, reading and writing scouting reports,drawing circles and X's and poking around on college campuses during spring training. So what does Lemm do? In January he goes home to Lake Bluff, Ill. and stays there until camp opens in July, except for a monthly visit of two or three days to St. Louis to see what's happening at the office. Maybe the other coaches could forgive—and even envy—Lemm's attitude toward the off-season routine, but his lack of affection for a movie projector is appalling. Filmsare what have made professional coaching a laborious, year-round job, and you do not mess with a person's method of earning a living without making that person very angry.

Lemm was a freak,anyhow, when he first went to work for the Cardinals in 1942 as a dining-hall waiter at the Carroll College camp. He was an English major who wanted to be a sportswriter—reason enough to suspect him of erratic behavior in following years—and he was a senior halfback who broke his nose six times in eight games. Lemm went into the Navy as commander of PT 114, a boat that did not become quite as famous in the Pacific as PT 109. After the war Lemm won three championships as a college coach and served a couple of hitches as a Cardinal assistant coach. In 1961 he came out of temporary retirement and took over the Houston Oilers, who promptly won nine in a row and beat San Diego for the championship. He accepted the Cardinal head-coaching job in 1962, guided them to a 9-5 record in 1963 and raised them to 9-3-2 and a Playoff Bowl win over Green Bay last season. He has a chance to become the first coach to win championships in both the current professional leagues, and in his resonant, Midwestern voice he explains that he has had a lot of fun at it. "Football is supposed to be fun," Lemm says, "and if you treat the players like adults they will usually respond like adults. The game is not really simple anymore because the defenses change so much, but we try to keep it as clear,straightforward and pleasurable as we can."

Fun or no, the Cardinals missed the Eastern Division championship by half a game last season,and there was nothing pleasant about thinking how close they had come. In the locker room of the private school at which they train on a wooded hill in St.Louis, there is a sign reminding the players that the half-game cost them$7,500 each. For that money, the sign says, each player could have taken his family on a European vacation, put a down payment on a house, paid for a college education or done a couple of other interesting things, The sign winds up by saying: IF YOU WANT THESE, HIT HARD!

The Cards this year have that extra flow of confidence that eventually produces championships,and perhaps the biggest reason is the development of Quarterback Charley Johnson (see cover). With the slender Texan on the bench resting a bruised left shoulder last Sunday, the Cards were the victims of one of Washington Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen's hot days and lost, 24-20, to a team they beat 37-16 two weeks earlier. Last season Johnson was inclined to run his offense in a grab-bag fashion, leaping from one play to the next, more on hunch than from logic. This season Johnson's play-calling has continuity. The need for that has been impressed upon Johnson by Bobby Layne, who quit the Steelers in September when his pal Buddy Parker did, and signed with the Cardinals as quarterback coach. As a player Layne was a leader, a winner and a superior technician. At Cardinal practices, Layne may be relaxed, smoking and playing catch while the defense works, but when Johnson is operating the team Layne watches him like a school master. After a series of plays Layne will call Johnson over, talk to him earnestly and emphasize his points by pounding his fist into his palm. And Johnson listens. It is not that Charley did not listen to his coaches before,but there is something different about listening to a man who has been a championship quarterback. The words penetrate and Johnson, his ice-gray eyes looking directly at Layne, obviously believes what he is hearing.

"My contribution to Charley has been overrated," Layne says. "Charley was a finished quarterback before I came here. I wouldn't trade him for any quarterback in the league, and I mean that. I've helped him with a few little things, but the main thing I've done for him is to watch him all the time. WhenI was playing I didn't have anybody to watch me constantly and I tended to get sloppy, as anybody will occasionally. One of the most vital things for a quarterback to do is to get back into the pocket and set up quickly, especially with all the blitzes you see now. Charley knows I'm watching and he concentrates on setting up fast. If you keep doing that in practice, it becomes a habit."

Layne also offers suggestions for the Cardinals' game plan, and he has taught Johnson tricks of recognizing defenses and beating blitzes, although Layne says he was never much good at beating blitzes himself. "When I saw a blitz coming, I'd keep an end, both backs and the coach back to block for me." From his seat in the press box during games, Layne observes and talks to Johnson on the phone."I'm afraid I couldn't help him against the Steelers when they used that 5-1 defense against us, though," Layne said, laughing. "Charley asked me what to do against a 5-1, and I said how would I know, just throw the ball."

Johnson, who is working toward a Ph. D. in chemical engineering, is an intelligent and honest young man who likes to think before he acts. That is a handy trait for operating the Cardinal offense, which relies heavily on audibles. Although Lemm believes in making the game as simple as possible, Johnson may change plays at the line of scrimmage as many as 25 times in a game. Lemm's theory is that audibles are easier for the players to handle than complex blocking combinations. With some teams, for example, the quarterback may select an end run only to find the defense is not aligned as he expected. The offensive linemen then call code words to each other and thereby switch their blocking combinations to make the play go. But when Johnson steps over center and finds a defense that would stop his end run he calls an audible and changes the whole play. Nearly all the Cardinals' basic plays are set up to be used as audibles.

The players have faith in Johnson this year, whereas last year they were a bit dubious."Charley is a great quarterback, he makes this team move," says his sub, Buddy Humphrey, who has been in the NFL for seven seasons with three clubs and has hardly played enough to earn a letter but is a good backup man. Johnson also has more faith in himself than he did in 1964. "I'm steadier and more consistent," he says. "I take fewer chances. I don't force a play when the odds are against it anymore. Last year I began to doubt if my approach to the game was right. In defense of myself we had three sets of running backs last year and none was alike. I got confused and couldn't organize the running game. Last year I was hot and cold. I was throwing when I should have been running. The difference this year is a maturity of decision. I can exploit the defenses better. I presume I was immature. That doesn't mean I think I've arrived as a complete quarterback. I'm still inclined to be overly cautious. I think I need a better sense of balance in running the offense. When I get into a slump, timing is usually the problem and I tend to get overanxious."

Johnson has not been in a slump this season. Before last Sunday he had passed for 1,350 yards and 13 touchdowns with a 54.5 completion percentage and has thrown for more than 10,000 yards in five years. Johnson's fine start this season is due partly to his own improvement and partly to the club's. The Cardinals are wealthy in good, heavy running backs—with Willis Crenshaw, Prentice Gautt, Thunder Thornton and Bill Triplett—and have the most effective offensive line in the East. The line is young and has matured with Johnson, and the Cards use that strength to advantage. They like to run straight at the strongest of the opposing defenders, using a lot of wham plays in which one back goes through to clean house for the back following with the ball. They will pick out the opposition's toughest man—like say, the Cowboys' All-Pro tackle, Bob Lilly—and drive hard at him until they prove they can run through his area, and with that psychological edge Johnson will then step back and throw to one of his fine receivers. With Sonny Randle split to one side and Bobby Joe Conrad flanked tothe other, defenses are forced into double coverage on both, and Tight End Jackie Smith is open. Conrad, a rancher from central Texas, has already caught 23 passes, one for a 71-yard touchdown, this season. The long one was against the Steelers, and Conrad was cleared by Randle's down-field block. Randle,whose first name is Ulmo ("It's an old family name," he says, "but my son is not named Ulmo"), does not exactly specialize in blocking. When he cut down Brady Keys on Conrad's touchdown, Cardinal Publicist Joe Pollack was talking on the phone to Cardinal President Stormy Bidwill, who had stayed home because his wife was ill but wanted a long-distance commentary,nevertheless. Pollack described the play, and Bidwill's voice roared back over the phone: "Randle threw a block! Randle threw a block!" Randle really does not have to block. He has scored from 72 yards this year and has caught six touchdown passes. If the Cardinals cannot make it by running or throwing,they summon Jim Bakken, who kicked 25 field goals among the 115 points he scored in 1964 for a team record.

The offensive line—Team Captain and All-Pro Ken Gray at right guard, Ernie McMillan at right tackle, Bob DeMarco at center, Irv Goode at left guard and Bob Reynolds at left tackle—is a cohesive unit. Gray, who is from little Howard Payne College and has twice been introduced on the field as Howard Payne from Ken Gray College,says a big factor in the line's steadiness is McMillan. "Ernie is the best tackle in the East and, with Forrest Gregg now playing guard [for the Packers],probably the best tackle in the league," says Gray. "He never makes mistakes, and it's his consistency that keeps him from being noticed. He's nearly perfect. He does his job and then helps the rest of us. If there's a mix-up on our side of the line, it's me and not Ernie. There's no justice if Ernie isn't All-Pro."

The Cardinals are near the top of the league in defense as well as offense. Their defense is best known for the safety blitz by Larry Wilson. Defensive Coach Chuck Drulis, whose wife is the artist and sculptor who created the facade for the NFL Hall of Fame, began using the safety blitz several years ago with Jerry Norton. He is considering a double-safety blitz ("Drulis is a sadist," says Layne,and Drulis replies, "Quarterbacks make too much money"), which would shoot Jerry Stovall into the backfield with Wilson. But the Cardinal defense is solid enough not to have to depend on gimmicks. Left Corner Back Pat Fischer, 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds, is too small for his position, although he doesn't realize that and plays it superbly and with such intensity that he has ulcers.The other corner back, Jim Burson, came to the Cardinals in the 1963 draft as one of 13 from that crop who have made the club and now have the age and experience to form a nucleus for years ahead. The middle linebacker is Dale Meinert, a rancher from Lone Wolf, Okla. who arrived in camp this year wearing black Bermuda shorts and a cowboy hat and driving a red, air-conditioned pickup truck. Bill Koman, one of the league's more outspoken figures ("If I made as many mistakes in a whole season as Sam Huff makes in one game, I'd retire," he once said), is the weak-side backer behind End Joe Robb, the only Cardinal ever to play on a championship team.

Under Lemm's policy of fun with games, the Cardinals have flourished. They fly jets on most of their trips, their average workday is less than four hours, and they seem to believe that what they are doing is a great way to pass the time. Fischer is typical of their want-to spirit. Once last year he hit Cleveland's Jim Brownhead-on during a sweep and drove Brown back several yards. Another time Fischergrabbed a John Henry Johnson fumble and ran 49 yards to beat Pittsburgh in the last two minutes. That attitude is infectious.

There are some reminders of the Cardinal quirks of old. The Bidwill brothers appreciate a joke as thoroughly as Dutch Kriznecky ever did, but as devout Catholics they fired their cheerleaders for doing the twist while the band was playing The Notre Dame Victory March. "Sacrilege!" cried Billy Bidwill. Trainer Jack Rockwell leads the team in calisthenics, which is far from ordinary. Several of the players have formed a business syndicate to enrich their retirement years,and their first major investment was two shares of Falstaff beer. The Bidwills are very superstitious. Stormy Bidwill missed the last two Cardinal games in Pittsburgh and the Cards won both. "I guess Stormy will never go back to Pittsburgh now," says Billy.

Next season the Cardinals will move into a new 50,000-seat stadium on a rise above the Mississippi River. The stadium is not well suited to football—as no combination football-baseball stadium is—but compared to the old Busch Stadium where, from a number of seats, the fans cannot even see the field, the new park will seem lovely. And the Cards have prepared themselves mentally for nicer surroundings,particularly in the standings. "This is the second year in a row that we've been one of the top clubs," says Gray. "I think we've learned how to live with it."

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