Each week during the 2009 NFL season, Sports Then and Now will pick one NFL matchup and look through the history books to find an intriguing past meeting between the two teams. We will recap the game and hopefully help reintroduce (or introduce for you younger readers) you to some of the greats (and in some cases not so greats) from the history of professional football.
Thanks to the decision in 1995 by Art Modell to move the beloved Cleveland Browns to Baltimore a decade after the Colts left in the middle of the night for Indianapolis, Cleveland and Baltimore are forever linked and more than a decade later there is still resentment and anger among some long-time Cleveland fans.
This week as the Baltimore Ravens and current Cleveland Browns are preparing to do battle, we look at a game between the two predecessor franchises in those two cities. The Baltimore Colts and original Cleveland Browns had some classic confrontations during the 1950s and 1960s. But their regular season meeting during the 1968 season is one of the most noteworthy.
The Matchup: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Colts
Series Record: Between 1956 and 1983 the Browns and Colts met 15 times with Cleveland holding a 10-5 series advantage, including wins in their final five meetings. The two teams met in the playoffs three times, with Baltimore holding a 2-1 edge. However, Cleveland defeated the Colts 27-0 to win the 1964 NFL Championship. There were some other memorable moments in the series including a 38-31 Cleveland victory in 1959 in which Jim Brown rushed for five touchdowns and Johnny Unitas passed for four scores. In 1978, veteran running back Calvin Hill caught three touchdown passes to lift the Browns to a 45-24 victory. Two years later, Bert Jones led the Colts on a furious fourth quarter comeback that fell just short in a 28-27 Cleveland victory.
However, of all the meetings, the 1968 matchup is the most interesting and worthy of a Classic Rewind.
The Game: October 20, 1968, Memorial Stadium, Baltimore Maryland
Team Records: Cleveland Browns 2-3, Baltimore Colts 5-0
Overview: The Cleveland Browns came to Memorial Stadium in need of a spark after a surprising loss to the St. Louis Cardinals dropped their record to 2-3. On the other hand, a year after going 11-1-2 and missing the playoffs, the Colts were a team on a mission. They entered this contest with a 5-0 record and had outscored their first five opponents by more than 21 points per game. With veteran quarterback Johnny Unitas sidelined by an injury, journeyman Earl Morrall had seized the reigns and was having an MVP-type season. Running back Leroy Kelly was the offensive star for the Browns while quarterback Bill Nelsen was under center.
Coaches: Cleveland Browns – Blanton Collier (6th year); Baltimore Colts – Don Shula (6th year)
Notable Browns: Bill Nelsen (qb), Paul Warfield (wr), Leroy Kelly (rb), Eppie Barney (fl), Milt Morin (te), Gene Hickerson (ol), Bill Glass (de), Don Cockroft (k), Ben Davis (db), Bob Matheson (lb)
Notable Colts: Earl Morrall (qb), Johnny Unitas (qb), Tom Matte (rb), John Mackey (te), Jerry Hill (rb), Jimmy Orr (wr), Willie Richardson (wr), Rick Volk (db), Bubba Smith (dl), Mike Curtis (lb)
Interesting Notes: Colts head coach Don Shula had been a player for both teams having spent two years as a player under legendary head coach Paul Brown with the Cleveland Browns and then spending four seasons (1953-1956) with the Baltimore Colts. Two key performers for the Browns would go on to become key players for Shula during his tenure with the Miami Dolphins. Wide receiver Paul Warfield was traded to Miami in 1970 and became the deep threat that complimented the dominant running game. The famous Miami 53 defense was named after Matheson, who wore number 53. Matheson played with the Browns from 1967-1970 and then with the Dolphins from 1971-1979. One of Shula’s assistant coaches with the Baltimore Colts in 1968 was Chuck Noll, who would become the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers the following season and lead them to four Super Bowl victories.
The Game: The Browns landed the first blow in this struggle between two marquee squads when Bill Nelsen tossed the first of his three touchdown passes to Leroy Kelly in the first period.
Baltimore soon answered with a 23-yard dash by running back Tom Matte. For the game, Matte finished with 64 yards rushing on 13 carries and also caught two passes for 37 yards.
The Browns quickly responded as Nelson’s second touchdown toss, this one to Paul Warfield, gave Cleveland a 14-7 halftime edge.
Nelsen’s third touchdown pass came early in the third quarter and was a two-yard toss to Eppie Barney. None of Nelsen’s three touchdowns passes went for more than six yards. He finished the day completing 15 of 23 passes for 137 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
While Earl Morrall started for the Colts, with the offense sputtering Shula turned to Johnny Unitas and gave him his second action of the season. Unfortunately, an elbow injury that would hamper him throughout the season made him only a shell of his Hall of Fame self.
In one of the worst performances of his career, Unitas completed only one of 12 passes with three interceptions. When in the game, Morrall was only marginally better as he connected on 10 of 18 passes for 130 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
The Colts boasted one of the best receiving corps in the league, but they were held in check by the Cleveland secondary. John Mackey had three catches for 41 yards and Jimmie Orr added three receptions for 38 yards. Willie Richardson did not catch a pass until late in the contest and finished with only one reception for eight yards.
In the third period, the Colts were able to keep the game close as pair of Lou Michaels field goals made the score 21-13.
As the game entered the final quarter, Kelly increased the lead for Cleveland with a four-yard touchdown run. On his way to his second straight NFL rushing title, Kelly rushed for a season-high 130 yards on 30 carries.
The extra point attempt by Don Cockroft failed to keep the game within two scores at 27-13. However, after another failed Baltimore possession, Cockroft connected on an 11-yard field goal to make the score 30-13.
The Colts completed the scoring with a touchdown toss from Morrall to Richardson to make the final margin 30-20.
For the game, the Browns out-gained Baltimore 305 yards to 212. The Colts finished the season with the third best rushing defense in the NFL, but surrendered 179 yards on the ground to Kelly and company.
Turnovers also proved to be a key in the game as Baltimore threw four interceptions and lost a fumble. The Browns had only one lost fumble in the contest.
Post Script: The victory proved to be just the spark that Cleveland needed. They went on to win eight straight games before dropping their regular season finale. They won the NFL Century Division and then defeated the Dallas Cowboys in the opening round of the playoffs.
Baltimore recovered from their disappointing performance to go the rest of the regular season without losing. They won the NFL Coastal Division with a 13-1 record and defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the opening round of the playoffs to set up a rematch with the Browns.
This time the Colts were prepared for Kelly and company. They held Kelly to 28 yards rushing and Cleveland gained only 173 total yards. Conversely, Baltimore and NFL MVP Earl Morrall gained 353 yards of offense in a 34-0 domination to claim the NFL Championship.
Of course, the dominating performance led just about everyone to expect that Baltimore would steamroll past the New York Jets and win Super Bowl III.
Much like in the loss to the Browns, the Colts were unable to stop the running game of the Jets, turned the ball over at key moments and were unable to turn opportunities into touchdowns as the Jets pulled the greatest upset in Super Bowl history with a 16-7 victory.
Shula left the Colts following the 1969 season to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. After coming close to posting an undefeated season with the Colts in both 1967 and 1968, Shula led the Dolphins to a perfect 17-0 mark and a Super Bowl title in 1972.
Blanton Collier retired as coach of the Browns following the 1970 season due to continuing struggles with hearing loss. In eight seasons leading the Browns, Collier led them to double-digit victory seasons five times and posted a 76-34-2 overall record.
The Colts played in Baltimore through the 1983 season before owner Bob Irsay snaked them off to Indianapolis in the middle of the night.
Baltimore was without NFL football until Art Modell, owner of the Browns, announced late in the 1995 season that he would be moving the Browns to Baltimore in 1996.
After an outcry from loyal Cleveland fans, the NFL agreed to the move, but kept the Browns records, logo and colors in Cleveland. A new Cleveland Browns entered the NFL in 1999.
During the first 10 seasons of the new Browns, Cleveland has registered only two winning seasons and one playoff appearance.
Since beginning play in 1996, the Baltimore Ravens have a wining record and are annually a playoff contender. Since 1999, they have had winning records in six of 10 seasons and made five playoff appearances. The Ravens defeated the New York Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV to give the city of Baltimore their first football championship since Super Bowl V.