When Colts' hopes got Rammed

John Steadman

December 03, 1990|By John Steadman

Winning 11 games usually correlates with a pro football championship. But all it meant for the Baltimore Colts in one of the most frustrating seasons they ever knew was a long ride home. It was 1967, the first year the National Football League went to a four-division alignment.

The Colts finished with the same record as the Los Angeles Rams, 11 victories, one defeat, two ties. But a rule had been instituted that in case of a tie in the standings, the total number zTC points scored against each other would be the deciding factor.

"What happened was bush league. That was no way to decide something as important as who gets to go to the playoffs," says Jim Parker, who retired, along with Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore, after the game to await what was later installation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Events of 1967 found the Colts and Rams tying 24-24 in Baltimore but the Rams winning, 34-10, in the season finale at Los Angeles. The scenario was made possible by a lucky bounce of a field goal from the 47-yard line in Baltimore by Bruce Gossett. The kick hit the middle of the cross bar. It had the option of going either way. The ball, as if by some magic force, went over the post instead of bounding away.

That tie, instead of a defeat for the Rams in Baltimore, meant both clubs played the season-ending game for the right to enter the playoffs. The Rams dominated the Colts, sacking John Unitas seven times and otherwise interrupting his timing on most other occasions.

With identical records of 11-1-2, the Colts and Rams were the best in the NFL, better than the other three divisional winners: Green Bay (9-4-1), and Cleveland and Dallas (9-5). But the Colts had nothing to show for what had been an otherwise exceptional showing under coach Don Shula.

Unitas took a hard pounding from the Rams' David "Deacon" Jones, Lamar Lundy, Roger Brown and Merlin Olsen, plus substitute Dave Cahill. Their linebackers only blitzed on two occasions. Unitas, per usual, offered no alibis, but spoke out against the tie-breaker system. "There should be a playoff when two teams finish the season tied, even if it takes until doomsday to get a winner," he said in the aftermath of the painful conclusion.

The Colts, for the season, set then club records for total offense and first downs and allowed fewer points, 198, than any previous Baltimore team. But the second game with the Rams would have been strictly for exercise if Gossett's kick had fallen the other way.

In that same game a series of unbelievable plays unfolded. Unitas hit Ray Perkins all alone in the end zone. Even though he was as wide open as Old Juarez, the pass went off his hands. A substantial gainer, Unitas to John Mackey, was called back because of holding. And, likewise, a Bobby Boyd interception saw him run to the Rams' 9, but it was nullified by offsides.

Boyd and the Colts got still another cruel break. At the start of the second half, he lost his balance when the newly planted infield sod gave out from under his feet, enabling Jack Snow to catch a Roman Gabriel pass and go for a score. Then in the last 18 seconds, Unitas connected with Willie Richardson at the 23-yard line, but the Rams' Clancy Williams tore the ball away after the whistle, denying the Colts a shot at a game-winning field goal.

The Colts had been tied twice but never beaten in 13 straight weeks. The Rams' game plan was to exert pressure on Unitas, which they were able to do as their defensive line literally decimated the Colts' blockers as never before.

In fact, in 13 earlier games, Unitas had been sacked only 18 times; the Rams got to him on seven occasions, dealing hard pressure and a physical beating. Gabriel, to the contrary, never went down. Sportswriter Jimmy Henneman, then known as "Clocker" Henneman, put a stopwatch on the game. He found out Unitas had to pass with less than two seconds 13 times and Gabriel with less than two seconds only four times. Unitas got 3.0 seconds only 25 percent of the time in 39 attempts and Gabriel got 3.0 seconds more than 50 percent of the time in 24 chances.

Colts wide receiver Jimmy Orr said the outcome "didn't exactly improve my financial situation." And for the rest of the Colts it was the same. A lot of pain and no gain for what arguably was the best team in all of pro football.

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