Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Pillars of the NFL: The Baltimore Colts' 1958 Season and the Greatest Game

In Patrick McCaskey's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships  he covers the ten greatest NFL coaches of all-time.  Among the pillars is Weeb Ewbank  who coaches the Baltimore Colts and New York Jets.  He built up the Colts in the 1950s and brought Johnny Unitas and team to two NFL Championships in 1958 and 1959.  He took on the fledgling Jets in 1968 with Joe Namath and company and won another NFL Championship Brown in January 1969.  Ewbank was a team builder and greatly underestimated because he took poor teams and built them up.  This post comes from Pillars and tells the story of one of Ewbank's seasons. 

1958 Season
The Baltimore Colts whipped the Lions, Packers, and Bears twice in 1958.  Their 56–0 slaughter of the Green Bay Packers likely had something to do with the Packers’ Board seeking out a new coach after the season.  They “settled on” Vincent Lombardi.  

Ewbank’s team would often reflect his calm, steadfast confidence.  The Colts won Western Conference with two games remaining.  After losing the last two games of the season to the Rams and the 49ers, the Colts ended the regular season with a 9–3 mark.  They scored 381 points and allowed 203.  

1958 NFL Championship Game Background
The Baltimore Colts played the New York Giants for the NFL Championship on December 28, 1958 in Yankee Stadium in front of 70,000 fans with 40 million TV viewers.  The Colts did not seem anxious.  Nor were they affected by the millions that would view the game on television.    

For many growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Unitas would come to be the archetype for the quarterback.  With his clean cut looks and brush cut hairstyle, he would also be the face of football.  After his father died when Unitas was a boy, Johnny U. helped support his family by working before and after school.  He went to church regularly.  He toughed-out injuries.  He practiced harder than most players.  He commanded attention in the huddle.   He gave the game everything he had.  He wanted to win them all.  Personal honor and glory took a back seat to his team’s accomplishments.  Even his Lithuanian family name, “Janaitis,” had been hammered out in translation to “Unitas” many years before as if to fit the destiny of an “All-American” quarterback of the era.  

The Giants had won the championship in 1956 and had a cadre of excellent players who would challenge Unitas and the Colts.  New York included the superb Hall of Famers Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Rosey Brown, Andy Robustelli, and Emlen Tunnell.  Gifford was a versatile receiver, rusher, and defensive back.  Middle linebacker Sam Huff was a force in the Giants’ defense.  He loved to play tough and stuff the best running backs in the NFL.  Tackle Rosey Brown was a big man whose quickness gave opposing teams fits.  Tunnell was in the later part of his career in 1958, but he was a talented defensive back and punt returner who was known as an “offense on defense.”
The Giants were directed by Jim Lee Howell who took over as head coach in 1954.  Howell was a good head coach with two great assistants: offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator Tom Landry.  

At quarterback, the Giants had one of the best, Charlie Conerly from Ole Miss.  Conerly started out at Ole Miss in 1941; he went into the Marines and fought in the Pacific in World War II; and returned to Ole Miss afterward and graduated in 1948.   He was a 27-year old rookie when he began his pro career in the days before facemasks and he would play into the modern era of television.  Conerly took a beating on some Giants’ teams that offered him little protection.  Enough was enough and after the 1953 season, he went back to his home in Clarksville, Mississippi, to farm.  When Howell was made head coach, he went down to Clarksville and talked Conerly into returning.  Howell and his assistants got to work and created a team that could protect their quarterback.  Conerly would lead the Giants to the NFL Championship in 1956 and to the Championship game again in 1958 and 1959.  He played sparingly in the Giants’ 1961 season, his last.  

Although Conerly was clearly the number-one quarterback for the Giants, Howell always started Don Heinrich for the first offensive series of each game.  Ostensibly, this was done so that Conerly would have the opportunity to view the defense before going into the game. 
When Conerly and the Giants had beaten the Colts in the regular season, Conerly wrote that his team “outgutted” the opposition.    It was a sentiment that a hundred newspaper writers may have had after such a game, but because it came from Conerly, Ewbank used it to rile his players in the days leading up to the championship.  Unitas had not played in the Giants’ 24–21 victory that inspired Conerly’s words.

The Giants knew something about guts; they had to defeat an excellent Cleveland Browns team in the last game of the season and then beat them again in a divisional playoff game.  The Giants featured a well-balanced offense and a tough defense that could grind out wins on other team’s mistakes.  They shut out the Browns, 10–0, in the divisional playoff game to get to the championship game against the Colts.  

The Colts won the West Conference outright just ahead of the Bears and the Rams.  Ewbank’s team had a high octane offense that averaged over 30 points a game. 

The Greatest Game
The 1958 NFL Championship Game would come to be known as “the Greatest Game.”  It was a seminal contest of two of the best NFL teams ever assembled and it delivered incredible drama to an expectant, bourgeoning TV audience.  

After several miscues on the first series, Unitas drove the Colts down to the 25-yard line on the strength of a long pass to Moore.  The Giants’ defense stalled the drive.  Kicker Steve Myhra attempted a modest field goal, but the Giants’ defensive standout, Sam Huff, charged in and blocked the kick.  When the Giants got the ball, quarterback Conerly immediately connected with Triplett.  Frank Gifford moved the ball down into Colts’ territory on a long run.  When the Giants’ drive stalled, Pat Summerall kicked a 36-yard field goal.  

In the second quarter, Gifford fumbled and the Colts’ jumbo-sized tackle, Big Daddy Lipscomb, recovered the ball on the Giants’ 20-yard line.  After a series of hard-fought short gains, Alan Ameche was able to score from the 2-yard line and the Colts took the lead, 7–3.  Unitas led another scoring drive that featured mostly running plays, but he hit pay dirt with a toss to his top receiver and fellow-perfectionist, Raymond Berry.  As the half wound down with the Colts leading 14–3, Huff tackled Berry out of bounds right near Ewbank.  The Colts’ coach did not like it.  Words were exchanged and the short stout coach was said to take a swing at Huff who was one of the toughest men in the league.  In Ewbank’s Goal to Go book, he writes that he pushed Huff rather than hit him.  Regardless of what exactly happened between the two, there were plenty of players and coaches to keep the David and Goliath apart, and the half ended with all parties still in one piece.  Commissioner Bert Bell did not levy any fines over the play.  

The second half began with a Colts’ drive that brought them to the 3-yard line. Four attempts to score failed.  The goal-line stand invigorated the Giants.  On a Giants’ drive, Conerly threw a bomb to Kyle Rote who lost possession of the ball when he was tackled at the Colts’ 25-yard line, but his teammate Alex Webster picked it up and carried it all the way to the 1-yard line.  After Triplett scored on a 1-yard plunge, it was Colts 14–Giants 10.  

The Giants came at the Colts again in the fourth quarter.  A strike from Conerly to Bob Schnelker took the ball down to the Colts’ 15-yard line.  A toss to Gifford gave the Giants another score and after the extra point, the Giants led, 17–14.  

The Colts did not give up, but they did not have much success either—at least for a while.  They missed a field goal.  They took over on a fumble only to have another drive stall on the Giants’ 27-yard line.  New York had the ball and a 3-point lead with less than three minutes to go.  Gifford was stopped a yard shy on a third-and-three play that could have iced the game if it had resulted in a first down.  The Colts were back in business after a Giants’ punt from their marksman Chandler brought the ball down to the Colts 14-yard line with a few ticks more than two minutes to go.  Unitas managed the clock perfectly by throwing high-percentage passes to Berry that brought the ball down to the 13-yard line with seconds left on the clock.  It was just enough time for Myhra to kick a field goal to push the game into sudden death overtime.  

The Giants got the ball first in overtime and went three and out; they missed a first down by only inches.  Chandler pushed the Colts back to their 20-yard line with a perfect punt.  Unitas orchestrated a drive that was perfect football drama.  On almost every down, Unitas called a play that ran counter to what was expected.  Instead of a pass, the Giants’ defense faced a run around end or a draw play.  When possession would seem to call for the conservative play, Unitas threw it across the middle.  When the Colts were in short field goal range at the 9-yard line, Unitas surprised everyone including Ewbank when he threw another pass that brought the ball down to the 1-yard line.  Unitas gave the ball to his fullback Alan Ameche who ran in for the winning touchdown. The Colts won the “Greatest Game, 23–17.  

On some plays Unitas had gone against his coach’s wishes based on adjustments that the Giants made on the field that gave the Colts an opportunity.  That was OK with Ewbank.  Ewbank was honored as UPI NFL Coach of the Year for 1958.

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