Sean McCabe

Distant Replay

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

Watching game film with Andy Reid, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, can make you woozy. He lounges behind the wide desk in his office, feet up, using a wireless control to freeze the image of a play on a screen at the opposite end of the room, and then starts rolling it forward and backward, forward and back, first the whole play and then only portions of it, forward and back, forward and back, until he has pieced all the moving parts together.

Reid is a very big man, a former collegiate offensive lineman, and when I met him last spring, he was in full off-season mode: tan, relaxed, and draped in a colorful Hawaiian silk shirt large enough to display the entire Amazon rain forest. Reid was coming off another winning year—the Eagles had made it to the second round of the postseason playoffs just months earlier—and he was already well into his preparations for the next season. Pro football is a year-round occupation these days, so he was doing me a favor by agreeing to help me with research for my book, The Best Game Ever, an account of the celebrated 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants.

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I’ve written about football in the past, but I am by no means an expert, so I had gone looking for a pro coach to help me break down film of the famous game. I live just outside Philadelphia and once covered the Eagles for the local newspaper, so I phoned Derek Boyko, the team’s affable public-relations director. Boyko warned me that the club’s assistant coaches were probably too busy, but he nevertheless agreed to ask around. He called back to say that all of the coaches, curious about the way the game was played before most of them were born, had expressed an interest. “But they need permission from Andy,” he said. “I’ll ask him when he comes back from leave in a few weeks.”

Boyko called me weeks later to say, “Andy wants to do it.”

It seemed odd at first for a pro coach to have never seen film of this historic game—a little like finding a doctor of English literature who had never read Macbeth. But success in pro football, as in any intensely competitive, constantly evolving arena, depends primarily on current intelligence: What did my opponent last do against me? What did he do last week? A pro coach is not inclined to search for what he needs in old black-and-white film. History is … well, history.

But no craftsman or professional can be completely uninterested in seeing how he measures up against past standards of excellence. How good was the game then? How capable were the players? How clever were the coaches and schemes?

The game in question defined excellence for an era. It pitted the best defense in the NFL, the Giants, against the best offense, the Colts, playing for all the marbles. It featured 17 future NFL Hall of Fame players, coaches, and owners. On the field were great athletes like Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti, Frank Gifford, Andy Robustelli, Emlen Tunnell, Rosey Grier, and Sam Huff. Coaching on the sidelines were Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry for the Giants, and for the Colts, Weeb Ewbank, the only pro coach who ever took teams from two different leagues (the NFL and the AFL) to national championships.

Reid was born in the year this game was played, and one reason he had never seen it is that the TV broadcast has been lost. But for serious study, I had wrested something even better from the archives of NFL Films: the grainy, monochrome “coaches’ film” of the game, soundless footage shot from the sidelines high over midfield, with all the time-outs, huddles, and game breaks edited out.

Instant analysis envelops pro football like a cloud, but with most plays there is no way to tell what really happened and why without a careful, slow-motion dissection of the film. Reid is one of this craft’s most successful practitioners. Even among pro coaches, he is notable for toting thick binders filled with notes and plans, and for fielding highly complex systems on both sides of the ball. Earlier in his career, he was quarterbacks coach for the Green Bay Packers, grooming Brett Favre and helping that team to a Super Bowl championship in 1997. His tenure in Philadelphia has been the most successful of any coach’s in the team’s long history: starting in 2001, he led the Eagles to four consecutive National Football Conference championship games and a Super Bowl—although, much to the consternation of long-suffering Eagles fans, he has yet to bring the Lombardi Trophy home to Philadelphia.

We watched the game in his office in the Eagles’ training complex, just a few blocks from Lincoln Financial Field, where they play. When I covered the team in the early 1990s, the Eagles’ offices, locker room, and workout facilities were housed in a few cramped, dark, damp rooms in the basement of the now-demolished Veterans Stadium. Today the team, whose worth is estimated at more than $1 billion, is housed at a state-of-the-art facility that sprawls over an area as large as a college campus.

“Okay,” he’d say, when he had examined a play from snap to tackle, “here’s what happened.” Then out would pour a detailed explication: what the offense was trying to do, how the defense was trying to stop it, the techniques (good and bad) of the various key players, the historical roots of the formations and the play’s design, and ultimately why it worked or failed, and who was responsible, either way. The wealth of information Reid gleaned from a single play reminded me of the way Patrick O’Brian’s 19th-century naval hero, Jack Aubrey, eyeballing an enemy ship during a sea chase, could read from the play of its sails and the disposition of its crew the experience, intentions, strengths, and weaknesses of his opponent.

Reid’s insight told on the first offensive play of the game. Colts coach Weeb Ewbank had designed a trick play, so secret that in his pregame meeting with his team in the visiting locker room at Yankee Stadium, he had mouthed the play call to them, fearful that the room was bugged. Observing the opening formation, Reid noted with surprise that all but one of the Colts linemen were positioned to the left of center Buzz Nutter. “This is a completely unbalanced formation,” he told me. “You can’t even do that today.” The rules would no longer permit it: “You have to have some guys on the line of scrimmage.” In the backfield, fullback Alan “The Horse” Ameche, a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Wisconsin, was lined up behind quarterback Johnny Unitas; right halfback Lenny Moore was three steps to Ameche’s right; and left halfback L. G. Dupre was split far out to the left side of the backfield.

Unitas didn’t give the Giants a chance to set up in a recognizable defensive formation, even if they had one for such a bizarre look. He bent over, and Nutter immediately snapped the ball. Moore took the handoff—and was tackled for a loss.

“So they came out with a trick play in mind, and it really wasn’t all that good,” Reid said, chuckling. The main reason the play failed, he pointed out, was a missed block by Dupre, a speedy back whose initials, which stood for Louis George, had earned him the nickname “Long Gone.” While Moore took the handoff from Unitas and followed Ameche around the left side of the Colts line, Dupre’s job was to race forward and hit Harland Svare, the Giants’ right-side linebacker, taking him out of the play. But the film tells the tale: “He didn’t get the crack [block] right here,” said Reid, using a red laser to point at Svare dodging Dupre, “and he kind of screws the play up.” Svare races into the backfield, forcing Moore to step in front of Ameche, his blocker; the two briefly collide, and then as Moore tries to recover and race to the outside, he is pulled down for the loss.

“And then, the fullback forgot the snap count,” Reid said, rolling the play back to the beginning again. Sure enough, on the snap of the ball, Ameche remains in a set position until Moore actually takes the ball from Unitas. “He forgot that it was a quick count … That’s that Wisconsin education right there.”

I told Reid that I had listened to the NBC radio broadcast, and had been struck by how much more quickly the game moved then than it does today. Breaks between plays and possessions are longer and more frequent now, to allow for more commercials, and the use of video replay to reexamine contested calls by the referees causes still more delays. Modern coaches use these gaps in the action for analysis, for sideline conferences and hand signals, or, in the case of the quarterback, for giving instructions over a direct radio link to his helmet. In 1958, the game, once started, was primarily in the hands of the players. Unitas called his own plays. Defensive field captains like the Giants’ Sam Huff were on-field tacticians. The game was faster and simpler.

It also lacked many of the refined mechanical and tactical innovations that are commonplace in modern football. For instance, Reid was surprised to note that wide receivers assumed a three-point stance before the snap of the ball—today they stand upright, which allows them a broader view of the defensive backfield. The pass defenders, meanwhile, stood upright on the old film, with one foot forward, one back, and then just backpedaled to stay with the receivers. In the modern NFL, backfield defenders poise in a forward crouch with their weight evenly balanced on both legs, and retreat by taking short stutter-steps backward, ready to bolt in either direction and avoiding the crossover step, a potentially costly mistake that can offer a receiver the split-second advantage he needs to break away.

Basic positioning along the line of scrimmage has changed as well. A few plays in, Reid noted that the Giants defensive tackles, Dick Modzelewski and Rosey Grier, were “flexed back off the ball”—that is, set up more than a yard away from the Colts linemen. “That’s probably for the run game,” Reid said, explaining that by hanging back from the line of scrimmage, the defenders could get a better look at the direction of the play before attacking.

I asked, “Why wouldn’t you do that today?”

“Well, you give those big guys a head start on you,” Reid said. “At that time I would imagine that the linemen were fairly equal athletically, and now the offensive linemen are so big and the defensive linemen are relatively smaller.” If you’re a defender today, he went on, and you spot a 300-plus-pound blocker a two-step running start, he’ll knock you “right on your ass.”

Reid surmised correctly. I checked the average weight of the starting offensive and defensive linemen in the ’58 game: the Colts’ offensive front five weighed an average of 243 pounds, and the Giants’ defensive front five weighed an average of 244 pounds. Today, offensive lines on average weigh nearly 25 pounds more than defensive fronts.

Sean McCabe

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.”