September 15, 2010
The Baltimore Colts opened the 1963 season on September 15 against the New York Giants at Memorial Stadium in a state of transition under a new head coach. Weeb Ewbank, who had built the Colts into a championship team in 1958 and ’59, was fired after posting a 7-7 record in ’62 and replaced by 33-year-old Don Shula. Shula had been a defensive back for the Colts for four years, in between stints with the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins. He had moved into coaching upon his retirement as a player and, for the past three seasons, he had been the defensive coordinator in Detroit.
The Giants, under Head Coach Allie Sherman, had placed first in the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive year but had again failed to win the league championship as they fell both times to the Green Bay Packers. QB Y.A. Tittle had been outstanding since arriving through a trade with the 49ers prior to the 1961 season while the veteran defense was one of the NFL’s best. But just as age and injuries had caught up with the Colts, so the window of opportunity was beginning to close in New York.
It was a gray and rainy day in Baltimore, but the home fans had something to cheer about early on when the Giants fumbled on the third play of the game and star DE Gino Marchetti picked up the loose football and rumbled 40 yards for a touchdown. Two possessions later and still in the first quarter, New York fumbled the ball away again. This time QB Johnny Unitas, despite still suffering the effects of an injury to his throwing shoulder, threw a 34-yard TD pass to flanker Jimmy Orr (pictured below) for a 14-0 lead.
Don Chandler kicked a 42-yard field goal before the first quarter was over to narrow the margin to 14-3, but the Colts came back in the second period after yet another New York fumble, this by veteran HB Hugh McElhenny after a good run on a screen pass. Unitas connected with rookie TE John Mackey for a 32-yard touchdown and the Colts were up by 21-3.
The Giants began to climb out of the hole as Tittle threw to HB Phil King on a play-action pass that produced a 46-yard touchdown. When they scored again on a four-yard TD pass from Tittle to TE Joe Walton, the Baltimore margin was narrowed to 21-17. However, the Colts came back with a scoring drive that ended with FB Jerry Hill running for a three-yard touchdown. Just before the end of the half, McElhenny made up for the earlier fumble by catching a seven-yard TD pass from Tittle and the tally stood at 28-24 at the intermission.
The Giants took the lead in the third quarter with two key plays. Tittle passed to split end Del Shofner for a 43-yard gain to the Baltimore nine yard line and, when the Colts blitzed on first-and-goal, the 37-year-old quarterback ran for the touchdown (pictured at top). The extra point attempt failed, but New York was ahead by 30-28. The Giants scored one more TD in the third quarter, on a one-yard run by FB Alex Webster, and that provided the final margin of 37-28.
The three lost fumbles in the first half had nearly done the Giants in, but they outgained the Colts by 362 total yards to 295. Tittle completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions and ran for 24 yards on five carries, including the game-winning TD. Phil King (pictured at right) and Del Shofner each caught five passes, with King gaining 101 yards and scoring the team’s first TD and Shofner gaining 85 and setting up the game-winning score. New York also ran effectively, gaining a total of 119 yards on 37 rushes, with Webster leading the way at 60 yards on 15 carries.
For Baltimore, Johnny Unitas completed 19 of 33 passes for 219 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. Jimmy Orr was the leading receiver with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. The Colts were missing the outstanding HB Lenny Moore due to an appendectomy; he was replaced by Tom Matte, who gained 26 yards on 10 attempts and caught four passes for 37 more yards, while FB J.W. Lockett was Baltimore’s leading ground gainer with 37 yards on 9 carries.
The Giants went on to win the Eastern Conference for a third straight year with an 11-3 record, and once again lost the title game, this time to the Chicago Bears. It would indeed be a last hurrah for the aging club, as they dropped into the cellar in ’64 and would not return to the postseason until 1981. Baltimore suffered through an injury-plagued season in Don Shula’s first year but ended up at 8-6 and third place in the Western Conference. They would win the conference title in 1964. Shula would go on to win 347 games as an NFL head coach (328 regular season, 19 postseason).
Y.A. Tittle, in his next-to-last season, led the NFL in passing as he tossed a then-record 36 touchdown passes (already accomplished by Houston’s George Blanda in the AFL in 1961). He also topped the league in yards per attempt (8.6) and completion percentage (60.2); his 3145 yards ranked third and he was intercepted just 14 times (3.8 INT percentage, also third in the NFL). Tittle was a consensus first team All-Pro and was named league MVP by the Associated Press and NEA.
Johnny Unitas led the league in passes completed (237), yards (3481), and lowest percentage of interceptions (2.9). He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the seventh consecutive season (of an eventual 11). Both of his favorite two veteran receivers, Orr and split end Raymond Berry, missed time due to injury, but the rookie John Mackey put together a Pro Bowl season as he caught 35 passes for 726 yards and led the club in yards per reception (20.7) and receiving touchdowns (7).