December 27, 2009

1964: Gary Collins Scores 3 TDs as Browns Upset Colts for NFL Title

The NFL Championship game on December 27, 1964 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium was expected to be a classic mismatch. The visiting Baltimore Colts, who had topped the Western Conference with a 12-2 record, were heavily favored over the host Browns, the 10-3-1 winners of the Eastern Conference title.

First and foremost, the Colts had Johnny Unitas at quarterback, and he led a diversified attack that scored a league-high 428 points. HB Lenny Moore, who had nearly been written off as washed up after two injury-plagued seasons, came back in ’64 to score a then-NFL record 20 touchdowns. The defense was opportunistic and played very well as a unit, anchored by DE Gino Marchetti, CB Bob Boyd, and LB Bill Pellington.

Cleveland’s offense, as it had been since 1957, was centered around FB Jim Brown, who led the NFL in rushing for the seventh time in eight seasons with 1446 yards. A new weapon had been added to the arsenal in rookie split end Paul Warfield, who caught 52 passes for 920 yards and teamed up with flanker Gary Collins to make the passing game, directed by QB Frank Ryan (pictured below), more potent. The defense was considered vulnerable against the pass, but solid against the run thanks to the addition of ex-Giant DT Dick Modzelewski.

Both head coaches, Baltimore’s Don Shula and Blanton Collier of Cleveland, were in their second seasons on the job.

There were 79,544 fans present on an overcast, cold, and windy day, and what they saw initially was rather dull as neither team scored in the first half. The Browns had concluded in their film study of the Colts that Unitas was inclined to shuffle in the direction of his primary receiver when setting up to throw, and based their pass defense on taking out that first target on each play and giving the defensive line time to penetrate as the great quarterback looked to secondary receivers. The strategy placed a great deal of responsibility on CB Walter Beach, whose main task was covering Unitas’ favorite target, split end Raymond Berry.

Cleveland’s defensive scheme worked, as Unitas faced a relentless pass rush from Modzelewski; DT Jim Kanicki, who had a tremendous day against Hall of Fame guard Jim Parker; and defensive ends Paul Wiggin and Bill Glass. He was forced to scramble and adjust formations in an effort to get receivers open. The Colts were able to penetrate deep into Browns territory just once, getting down to the 12 yard line, but an attempted field goal by Lou Michaels failed when Boyd, the holder, bobbled the snap.

The Browns, playing conservatively, weren’t able to get anything going in the first half either, but finally broke the scoreless tie in the third quarter. Baltimore punter Tom Gilburg punted, and caught by the brisk wind, the ball traveled only 25 yards. With good field position, Ryan managed to move the Browns into range for a successful 43-yard field goal by 40-year-old placekicker Lou Groza.

The Colts were forced to punt again after their next possession. Baltimore’s defense had been concentrating on taking the area between the tackles away from Jim Brown. Now Coach Collier called for a sweep, and Brown made one of the key plays of the game, running 46 yards to the Baltimore 18. Ryan fired a pass to Collins in the end zone (pictured at top), and the Browns were ahead, 10-0.

Before the third quarter was over, the Browns struck again, with Collins once more gathering in a pass from Ryan and going 42 yards for a TD on a blown coverage by the Colts. Cleveland made it 20-0 early in the fourth quarter, thanks to another Groza field goal of 10 yards, and finished off the stunning win with a third scoring pass from Ryan to Collins, this one covering 51 yards. The defense harassed Unitas to the end (see picture at bottom), and the final score was an amazing 27-0 shutout.

Collins was the most obvious hero for the Browns, catching 5 passes for 130 yards and the three touchdowns. Frank Ryan completed 11 of 18 passes for 206 yards with three TDs and an interception. Jim Brown ran the ball 27 times for 114 yards and caught 3 passes for 37 more. In all, Cleveland accumulated 339 total yards.

By contrast, Baltimore and its formidable offense was held to just 181 yards by the inspired Browns defense. Unitas completed 12 of 20 passes for only 95 yards and was intercepted twice. Raymond Berry had only three receptions for 38 yards. Lenny Moore led the runners with 40 yards on 9 carries; a telling statistic was that Unitas, forced out of the pocket by the Cleveland pass rush, ran the ball 6 times for 30 yards.

“The Browns secondary forced us to play conservatively, and that wasn’t our style”, said Unitas later. “We wanted to go out and gun ‘em down, but they took that away.”

The championship was Cleveland’s fourth in the NFL, and eighth in all (counting the AAFC). But while the team reached the league title game three more times in the 1960s and the conference championship game twice in the 80s, they have yet to win another.