THE GREATEST TEAMS IN NFL History: 1968 Baltimore Colts
With no NFL action for the next seven months let’s take a look back at the stars of yesteryear and the teams that shaped the NFL. This list isn’t in any particulat order but we will simply highlight 10 teams that left their imprint on the league and whose blueprints are still being studied today. Over the coming off season I will take a look at each of these teams in depth and talk about what made them great in their own way and whether or not they lived up to their potential. Firstly, let’s start with the 1968 Baltimore Colts.
Led by Don Shula, the Baltimore Colts finished the 1968 season with a 13-1 record and won the NFL Championship. A team that has been hailed as one of the greatest teams in history for years, but also a team that lost to the Joe Namath led New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Throughout the regular season the Colts were beyond good and outscored opponents 28-10 on average. Having the second-best offense and the best defense in the league meant the Colts cruised into the postseason. Their avenged their sole loss of the season with their NFL Championship game when they defeated the Cleveland Browns 34-0.
The Back-up Quarterback
Before we get to the disappointing end of their season let’s look at the team that got the Colts there. Leading the offense to that second best record in the league was well travelled quarterback Earl Morrall. Before serving as Johnny Unitas back-up for the Baltimore Colts, Morrall served his time with the San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions and the New York Giants. On August 25th 1968, Morrall was traded to the Colts and little did he know he would end up leading the Colts all the way to the Super Bowl. When regular signal caller Unitas went out injured in the final preseason game, Shula had to throw Morrall into the starters position and not even the great Shula could have predicted the season Morrall would have. Prior to the coming to the Colts, Morrall’s stats looked like this:
Passing Yards: 12,808
A career back up who had only been thrust into the starter’s role a handful of times and averaged under 1000 yards per season through the first 13 years of his career. Over that span he only had six more touchdowns than interceptions and there was actually a question which number would reach 100 first. It didn’t take long for Earl to continue his trend of throwing interceptions far too often. In his very first start, and on only his third pass, he threw his first interception against the 49ers which they happily returned for a touchdown. Despite this early setback against one of his former teams, Morrall would get revenge as he led the Colts to victory in their season opener. Revenge and victory, two words that became associated with the 1968 Baltimore Colts.
Morrall went from being a league journeyman to a MVP in 1968 and praised Unitas as a big part of his transformation. Both players had a very similar type of style which is probably why Shula was happy to trade for Morrall. A field general and the ability to improvise was exactly what Shula wanted in his quarterback and Morrall showed that he was capable of filling in for Unitas. Despite not winning the Super Bowl in 1968 that the season will have been one that Morrall looked back on with fond memories as he went from a well-travelled back-up to a legend amongst Colts fans.
The Supporting Cast
The Offensive Line and Running Game
An offensive line is massively important in the modern game to give these young quarterbacks in a passing league time to throw that pretty deep ball to the lightning quick receivers. Back in 1968 the offensive line was also massively important but not for quite the same reason as it is now. The run game was utilised a lot more back in the early Super Bowl days, and the starting offensive linemen for the Colts were one of the best units in the league. With Bill Curry at center, guards of Glen Ressler and Dan Sullivan and tackles of Bob Vogel and Sam Ball, the Colts were able to provide Morrall with plenty of time to throw the ball but also provided plenty of running room for lead back Jerry Hill. Shula was always a ground and pound type coach and he got that working with this Colts team.
When Hill got injured and was replaced by number 34 Terry Cole, the run game did not falter one bit. The offensive line was doing the work upfront which allowed a rookie to come in and continue the strong run game. Tom Matte led the team in touchdowns and yards gained as the rushing attack never faltered. In what was his eighth year in the NFL, Matte’s commitment and ability to always give 100% no matter the game is a philosophy that descended down the ranks and through the entire Colts team during the entire ‘68 season.
The Pass Catchers
Where would a quarterback having the best year of his career be without his wide receivers? The group was led by Willie Richardson, who finished the season with 698 yards and eight touchdowns. After being named first-team All Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl in the 1967 season, Richardson followed that up with a second Pro Bowl nomination and second team All Pro honours in his second to last year as a Colt.
Lined up alongside Willie Richardson was Jimmy Orr. In his eleventh year he utilised his experience and contributed 743 yards and six touchdowns of his own. During the 1968 season he averaged an outstanding 25.6 yards per catch which is 12th on the all-time list. Orr never had a 1000-yard season but back then it was the quality of catches rather than the quantity of catches that mattered. Over his career he had 400 receptions and 66 touchdowns. That’s a touchdown every 6.1 catches. The great Jerry Rice only managed a touchdown every 7.8 catches.
Orr should have had one more touchdown and it is one that haunts Baltimore Colts fans everywhere. At the end of the 1968 season the Colts competed for Super Bowl III against the New York Jets. On the very last play of the first half, with the Colts down 7-0, Morrall took the snap at the Jets 42 yard line and ran a flea-flicker. Morrall handed it to Matte who then lateralled it back to Morrall. Orr set off on his route running by all the Jets defenders into the end zone where he stood all alone. Now bearing in mind the Colts ran this play successfully earlier in the year makes what happened next unbearable. For whatever reason whether it was the sun in his eyes or that Orr was lost in the background, Morrall threw it underneath to Hill but was intercepted by Jets safety Jim Hudson. The Colts would go on to lose that game and Orrs legacy was lost in history.
With both Richardson and Orr doing their bit on the outside, tight end John Mackey was left to do his work in the middle of the field. Mackey finished the season with his third straight All Pro selection and led the team in receptions with 45. He turned that into 644 yards and five touchdowns. With playmakers at every position, and a strong offensive line giving them time to go to work, the Colts scored over 400 points during the course of the season. However, the defense giving up under 200 was equally as important to the successes the team had in 1968.
If the Colts offense was great, then there are no words to describe the impact their defense had. After the Colts shot out the blocks to a 5-0 start, they would come up against the Cleveland Browns in the Memorial Stadium. Up to this point the offense had been firing on all cylinders racking up a total of 166 points, a huge average of 33.2 points per game. Perhaps more impressive though was the performance of the defense to that point. In the opening five games they surrendered just 58 points, 11.6 per game. That sort of performance on both sides of the ball is how dynasties are made. Week 6 however came around and the Cleveland Browns ended Don Shula’s hunt for an undefeated season.
After the humbling 30-20 defeat at the hands of Cleveland, the defensive unit sorted themselves out and tore through the last eight games of the regular season. Led by defensive back Bobby Boyd, the Colts finished the season with 29 interceptions, four of which were returned for touchdowns. The Colts won their last 8 games, giving up just 36 points in the process and shutting out three teams. This meant the Colts finished the season allowing an average of 10.3 points per game which was the best record in the league. The strong defensive effort continued into the postseason where a win against the Minnesota Vikings would give the Colts a chance at a rematch with the Browns and that opportunity for revenge. Ultimately, this defensive unit was one to be feared and is studied to this day. With the stingiest pass defense in the league and allowing the fewest points over the course of the season (holding 11 of their 14 opponents to ten points or less) this Colts team could provide a blueprint to many defenses today.
Falling at the Final Hurdle
1968 saw the Colts win their first NFL Championship in nne years, and also so them head to their first ever Super Bowl. Unfortunately, in that Super Bowl, against the New York Jets, a number of errors on the offensive side of the ball left the defense with too much work to do and the season would end in disappointment for the Colts.
This team went into Super Bowl III as the heavy favourites representing the NFL. Nobody predicted anything but a win for the Baltimore Colts, but on that day in Miami nothing went right and Joe Namath led the Jets home as Super Bowl Champions. Despite that, the Colts finished with a record of 15-2 and set numerous records at the time, 60 minutes in Miami could not erase all that they had accomplished. The NFL however were so disappointed that their representative did not win them the Super Bowl they handed out watches to the Colts instead of the usual prize of a championship ring got the NFL Champions.
The Colts would go on to win a Super Bowl two years later under a new head coach, but no Colts team since has been able to match the numbers put up by that 1968 team. If they had managed to win that final game in Miami then maybe it could have kick started the first NFL dynasty, but it wasn’t to be and instead this great team will be remembered as one of many to fall at the very last hurdle.