Distant Replay

How the greatest game in football history looks 50 years later, through the eyes of a modern NFL head coach

Not everything has changed as much. Reid recognized one Colts offensive formation as “the one we run the most—two receivers, two backs, and a tight end.” And he even noticed some of his own plays in the mix. “Look, this is a rattler route,” he said, watching Raymond Berry twist his way into the backfield, turning the Giants cornerback completely around and gaining a step. “This is the one we ran in the Super Bowl that got picked by stinkin’ Rodney Harrison.” (Harrison’s interception in the closing minutes of Super Bowl XXXIX clinched the New England Patriots’ 24–21 win over the Eagles.)

After the Colts’ opening boondoggle, the Giants settled into a 4–3 defense, which remains the pro standard. What we were watching on film was the original 4–3, contrived by New York defensive coach Tom Landry, years before he helped create a dynasty as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. It features four players on the line of scrimmage backed by three linebackers; four pass defenders back up this formation: two cornerbacks split wide on either side, and two deep defenders, or safeties. The 4–3 was designed to counter the growing sophistication of passing offenses. Before the 1950s, football had primarily been a ground game, but after the invention of the wide receiver in 1949, defenses struggled to cover pass catchers without becoming too vulnerable to the run.

But while the 4–3 has survived to the present day, the simplicity of the old game often amazed Reid to the point of disbelief. The offensive formations were so basic that many of them are no longer even used in the pro game. The Giants frequently lined up in the T-formation—the quarterback behind the center, and the three running backs lined up horizontally about three yards behind him—and both teams employed the antiquated “single wing,” where one halfback and the fullback line up beside each other, behind the quarterback, while the other halfback splits wide, sometimes all the way out to the flanker position.

The game as it was played in 1958 “is still an entertaining sport to watch, but it’s just not near as complicated,” Reid said. “If I’m calling the plays” on offense, he went on, “I get paid to get into a rhythm with the guy calling the defense” on the other side. When a coach achieves the right “rhythm,” he can sense what his opponent is thinking—and for Reid, grasping the “rhythm” of the classic game was fairly easy. “I can see what the offense is doing,” he said. “You can almost call it offensively and defensively.”

For instance, he was struck, early in the game, by how close behind the line of scrimmage the Giants safeties, Emlen Tunnell and Jimmy Patton, were setting up. Safeties ordinarily play five to 10 yards back. Tunnell and Patton were just three or four yards back. “First time I saw those safeties that tight,” said Reid, “I’d take the tight end up the seam,” referring to the hash marks that line the field to the right and left of the center.

As if hearing Reid’s advice, that’s what Unitas did two plays later. First, he felt out the defense: facing second down and long, the quarterback handed the ball to Dupre, who plunged into the left side of the Giants’ defense, where he was hit by Tunnell.

“‘Okay,’ the Colts are saying, ‘this guy, number 45 [Tunnell], is getting tight, and he was very aggressive on the last play, so we’ll sell a hard fake,’” Reid speculated. The Colts would set up as if they were going with another running play, he predicted, with the tight end, Jim Mutscheller, “coming up and out like he is going to crack” Tunnell with a block, but instead going past him up the field. “Then they should try and get [a pass] over the top to Mutscheller.”

On third down, Mutscheller moved just as Reid had suggested, faking a block on Tunnell and racing up the hash marks. Unitas faked the handoff and dropped back, looking downfield toward his tight end.

“But this guy [Tunnell] sniffs it out!” Reid said, impressed, watching as the safety turned and matched the tight end stride for stride. Unitas, harried suddenly by the Giants’ blitzing right cornerback, instead hurried a throw to Moore—“his safety valve,” said Reid—that was almost intercepted.

Because the ploy failed, most spectators, myself included, would not have recognized Baltimore’s intent, or understood why it failed. Reid saw the reason. He froze the play and noted the fullback, Ameche, missing his block on the Giants cornerback, forcing the quarterback to hurry his throw. Players are forever screwing up the coach’s perfect plans.

The Eagles coach saw another opportunity later in the game, when the Giants safeties opted to line up farther downfield in a “cover four” defense, with the four players in the backfield—Patton, Tunnell, Carl Karilivacz, and Lindon Crow—divvying up the defensive secondary into four lanes, each covering one.

“The thing you’d tell Johnny [Unitas] right here,” Reid said, “is to take your best mismatch. You put T.O. [former Eagle, now Cowboys receiver, Terrell Owens, a noted deep threat] here and just picture him running a post over the top of that guy [Crow].” Sure enough, several plays later, the Colts exploited the formation, zeroing in on the most obvious mismatch by sending the speedy Moore racing down the right side of the field one-on-one with Crow. Unitas heaved the ball for a 60-yard gain.

Reid was impressed with Moore’s speed and hands; less so with his blocking. On a later play, when Moore lined up in the backfield, Reid laughed and rolled the film back. “Watch this,” he said. The ball is snapped and Unitas is eventually brought down by the Giants’ defense, while Moore simply stays put in the same stance he was in before the snap of the ball. In slow motion, his statue-like pose is comical.

On a later play where Unitas was sacked, Reid again laughed and pointed to Moore missing an assignment. “Lenny didn’t help, picking his nose right there, man. That’s pissing me off.” Then, on another play, “Lenny needs his ass whipped a little bit right here.”

(In the Hall of Famer’s defense, his back was injured early in the game when Huff picked him up and slammed him into the ground. Moore nearly came out after that, but Ewbank urged him to continue playing, if only as a decoy, because the Giants’ defense was keying on him.)

Time after time, watching the vaunted Giants defense in action, Reid remarked how much he wished he could play against it. Landry’s squad lined up in the same formation, with the same personnel, on almost every down.

“Very seldom do you see the same formation in a game anymore,” he said. “That’s just the way it is today. But this was just a part-time job for these guys. They didn’t have the time to be in the building [for classroom study] all day.”

Again, Reid was right. Most pro players in the 1950s held down full-time jobs off the field. Huff was a salesman for the textile company J. P. Stevens. Unitas and many of his teammates worked at Bethlehem Steel. Art Donovan, the Colts’ hilarious defensive tackle known as Fatso, was a liquor salesman. Most of the men earned less than $10,000 a year playing football. The highest-paid stars made between $15,000 and $20,000—enough to support a middle-class lifestyle in 1958, but nothing like today’s hefty paychecks. Players who took off from their full-time jobs to play were often expected to make up the time by working long hours in the off-season. This made them better prepared for life after football than many of their modern counterparts are, but it also meant that they were less prepared for Sunday’s action.

Still, even if players had been able to devote time to perfecting more-complex schemes, Reid noted, there simply wouldn’t have been enough time to implement them, because of the quicker, pretelevision speed of the game. In today’s NFL, coaches will often alter both the personnel and the formation of their teams between downs.

The biggest difference between the two eras—literally—is the size and speed of modern athletes. The average player on the 1958 Colts starting team weighed 222 pounds. The average weight of a 2007 Indianapolis Colts starter was 243 pounds. And there is ample reason to believe that today’s pros are not just bigger, but faster. For one thing, the league draws on a talent pool far broader and deeper than in the past. It was widely believed (and the evidence on the field suggested) that in the 1950s the league limited the number of African American players, with an unwritten agreement restricting each team to seven. Today, merit is the only criterion, and in some parts of the country, prospects for the pro game are selected and groomed when they are still in grade school. Training methods, dietary habits, coaching, and the quality of competition at all levels have vastly improved. In most cases, the modern pro football player has been preparing to play the game for most of his young life.

Even the kickers have evolved. Few modern teams lack field-goal kickers who can readily boot the ball through the uprights from 40 yards out, while the old toe-kickers, like Steve Myhra for the Colts and even Pat Summerall for the Giants, were shaky beyond 20. The consistency of modern kickers has transformed offensive strategy. In the overtime period of the classic game, for instance, the Colts elected to run five plays from inside the Giants’ 20-yard line, because Ewbank did not trust Myhra enough to wager the game on his leg.

I asked Reid whether any of the legends on the field in 1958 might be able to keep up in today’s game.

“I was looking to try to see players that I thought could play today,” he said. “I think Moore probably could, and Raymond Berry would probably find a way to play. Gifford. Andy Nelson, he looked pretty good on that one run. I don’t know what kind of all-out speed he had, but it looked like he moved around pretty good. And Unitas. Unitas could play.”

Reid noticed a similarity between the old Colts superstar and the future Hall of Fame quarterback he had coached in Green Bay.

“There are only two quarterbacks that finish their throw,” he said. “You always teach chin-to-shoulder follow-through. Your head follows through to your chin when you throw … The ball is going to go where your head goes, and if you are consistent with your head placement … normally good things will happen. There are only two quarterbacks who do it. Unitas and Brett Favre. Watch: every time, they follow through. It’s chin to shoulder. You won’t find any other quarterbacks that do it, but both those guys do it naturally.”

We were watching Unitas at his finest. With less than two minutes on the clock, down by three points and 86 yards from the goal line, he orchestrated a brilliant seven-play passing drive. Three completions in the middle of this march, all of them to Berry, set up a game-tying field goal. (Sam Huff says that he is still haunted, a half century later, by the Yankee Stadium loudspeaker barking “Unitas to Berry, Unitas to Berry.”) With just seven seconds on the clock, Ewbank had no choice but to send in Myhra, who booted the game-tying 19-yard field goal to set up the first overtime in pro history. It remains the only overtime ever in an NFL championship game.

At this point, Reid had become a rapt spectator.

“This is just simple football right now, man,” he said.

The Giants won the toss and got the ball first in overtime, but they failed to make a first down. They punted, and Unitas did it again, this time without pressure from the clock, mixing runs and passes to move his team 80 yards in 13 plays. Berry caught two more passes for 21 and 12 yards, and then Unitas, spotting Huff cheating to his right in an effort to stop Berry, sent Ameche up the center on a perfectly executed trap play. The Colts’ right tackle, George Preas, raced across the defensive backfield to flatten the middle linebacker and clear a path for the fullback, who sprinted 22 yards up the middle of the field to the Giants’ 20-yard line.

It ended five plays later, when Ameche plunged over the goal line for the winning touchdown—with Moore, still playing hurt, throwing a perfect block to clear the way. Reid said, simply, “Awesome.”

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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