January 14, 2004
NFL Is What It Is Thanks Largely To The Colts
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Super Bowl XXXVI may have been the most exciting championship game ever.
But one team has played in the two most important games in NFL history, and that team wasn't the Patriots.
When you think Super Bowls, you don't immediately think Colts. You are most likely to equate the Colts with mediocrity, moronic ownership and moving vans. The Colts still feel as wrong in Indianapolis as the "real" Browns do in Baltimore. Visit your favorite shrink, play "word association", and you'll likely emit "Cowboys", "Steelers", "49ers" or "Redskins" when the term "Super Bowl" is mentioned.
In their 50-year history, the Colts are 3-2 in league championship games, regardless of what title those games went by. The reason that non-Colt fans don't equate Colts with championships is that the most recent Colt championship game is Super Bowl V. Since that 1971 classic, the Colts have been largely invisible, except for good stretches in the mid-1970s and the present day.
Peyton Manning is emerging as arguably the finest quarterback in the game today. But he has a long, long way to go to merely become the best quarterback in Colt history. Opinions vary greatly on who the greatest quarterback in league history is, and you can rest assured that Johnny Unitas will get a ton of votes, and not just from the good people of Maryland. Unitas was the first quarterback to throw for more than 40,000 yards passing, but his biggest contribution to league history has nothing to do with being the biggest numbers guy until Dan Marino came along.
Tom Brady aspires to be the best field general in league history. He is frequently compared to Joe Montana, but he could very well be compared to Unitas. Unitas authored the very best days in Colt history, and he was at the center of the two watershed games in NFL history. If you ever doubt the history of this franchise being rich with timeless moments, go home and read up.
The NFL Championship Game of 1958 still ranks with many as the greatest game ever played in the history of the NFL. It wasn't the most exciting game ever, just the most important. It was the first playoff game to go into overtime. But it was also the game which established NFL football as a national television staple, and from this point on the NFL was a major force in televised sports.
The real "stars" of this game were the New York Giants. With this game being in the media capital of the nation, any television fallout was automatically magnified. Yankee Stadium gave the Colts the biggest exposure possible for them to author what still must be recognized as the zenith of the franchise's existence. But in the end, the league exposure far outdistanced the Colt exposure, and the NFL has enjoyed the long-term benefits of this game much more so than the Colts have.
The Colts parlayed two Giant fumbles into a 14-3 halftime lead. A freak fumble recovery by Giant lineman (and future head coach) Alex Webster led to one touchdown, and the New Yorkers took the lead in the final period when Frank Gifford took a 15-yard pass from Charlie Connerly and ran it in for a score. On their final possession of regulation, Unitas led Baltimore on an 83-yard drive by playing pitch and catch with future Patriot head coach Raymond Berry. Steve Myhra tied the game with a 20-yard field goal, and history was made with the contest going into overtime.
The Giants won the toss, but went three-and-out thanks to a questionable spot of the ball on third down despite film footage showing the first down had been made by Gifford. Unitas then took the Colts on a 13-play, 80-yard drive, with Berry again his prime receiving target. Alan Ameche blasted in from one yard out, and became the star of perhaps the most replayed film clip in NFL history. The Colts were 23-17 winners, champs for the first time in team history, and in doing so completely upstaged the Madison Avenue Giants in their crib to put the NFL on the television map permanently.
The Colts won it all again in 1959, and Pete Rozelle became commissioner in 1960. The Colts would go on to lose the 1964 NFL Championship Game to the original Cleveland Browns, then four years later took center stage once again in still another landmark NFL game. The importance was just as big as 1958, but the lasting feelings from this game for the Colts are quite the opposite.
The 1968 Colts were a dominating 13-1. They brutalized the rest of the league, and won the NFL title by avenging their only loss of the season. They hammered Cleveland, 34-0, winning their third NFL title and gaining entry into a three-year-old concept which was the brainchild of Rozelle. The AFL and NFL merged in 1967, and now played in a championship game featuring the champions of both leagues. Rozelle coined a new name for this year's tilt, a clash between the Colts and the AFL Champion New York Jets: the Super Bowl.
It figures. Baltimore versus New York for the championship. Just like '58. You just knew that something awesome was about to happen. You have a 17-point dog in the Jets, and a loudmouth playboy quarterback who guarantees that his upstart bunch of overmatched neophytes will win this game. All the key component parts were in place. The only thing wrong with this game was that it was in Miami and not New York.
The venue did not matter, though the Orange Bowl has its own place in football lore. The Colts would have come out flat even if the game were played at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Not at all ready or prepared to face what Joe Namath had in store for them, the Jets took it to the favoured Colts all afternoon long. A Matt Snell touchdown and three Jim Turner field goals helped the Jets build a 16-0 lead.
One reason the Colts were playing so poorly was the fact that league MVP Earl Morrall, whose best days lay ahead in the Dolphins' 14-0 season four years hence, started this game in place of the injured Unitas and looked like anything but an MVP. Morrall committed one of the biggest Super Bowl boners in history when he threw a deep pick to Jim Hudson despite Jimmy Orr being wide open by a mile in the end zone off to the left. Morrall simply never saw Orr at all. Baltimore head coach Don Shula had to put Unitas into the game in the second half, and he led the Colts on a late touchdown drive. But that would be it.
The Jets won, 16-7, and the NFL was turned upside down. This game had two major positive fallouts which the league benefits from to this day. This game brought the AFL even with the NFL, and made the merging of schedules in 1970 completely seamless. The end result was a bigger and better league which would go on to become the preeminent professional sports league in the USA. The game also established the Super Bowl as the biggest sporting event in the nation. All the parties, hype, halftime shows, marketing, crazy commercials, all of it has its roots in Super Bowl III. It has become so much more than merely the biggest upset in league history.
Of course, the Colts would just as soon forget this game. Losing to the Jets was something that still haunts Shula to this day. Shula would go on to win two Super Bowls with Miami and eventually became the winningest head coach in league history, but this loss by the Colts was downright embarrassing and unforgivable. Namath played a terrific game and backed up his bold words, but if Baltimore had approached New York like it did against Cleveland in the NFL title game, it is hard to believe that the Jets would have been able to avoid a worse blowout than what the Browns got.
To help smooth the pain of this game over, the Colts did make it back to the Big Dance two years later and won the only Super Bowl of their existence. In typical Colt fashion, the game was a classic, but classic only in its finish. The teams combined for an astounding 11 turnovers, with Baltimore committing seven of them. But in the same venue where the Jets humbled them two years prior, an unknown rookie kicker named Jim O'Brien nailed a 32-yard field goal with five seconds left to give the Colts a 16-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys. It remained the most important field goal in Super Bowl history for 31 years, until a young buck from South Dakota named Adam Vinatieri actually won a Super Bowl with a trey.
This is the legacy which Manning will try to add on to on Sunday in Foxborough. The Patriots are well equipped to stop him. But if they don't, and if Manning is the one who makes it to Houston instead of Brady, Colt fans nationwide will slowly begin to reawaken to these rich memories of two games which helped build and shape the NFL as we know today.
But one thing Manning won't be able to do is to tweak the real fans of the Colts, and that is the people of Baltimore. Unitas was a trailblazer in his city; Manning, on the other hand, must try to become the greatest thing in his city since Rick Mears, Al Unser and A.J. Foyt.
Hang that Bob Irsay. Indianapolis had nothing to do with the rich legacy that is the Colts.
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