Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Greatest Teams: 1958 Baltimore Colts

The Colts are one of the many NFL franchises with a long and storied history. From the days in Baltimore to the days in Indianapolis (after a controversial move from Baltimore in the middle of the night), the Colts can be characterized by two resounding eras: the era of Johnny Unitas and the era of Peyton Manning (one could also make a case for Bert Jones, but we'll overlook that for now). This decision was no easy one. The Colts have had many recent successful seasons, most notably in 2005. Although this recent string of successes could have biased us immensely, we decided to go with an old-timer squad. With best regards to the 1964 and 1968 teams, the greatest Colts team ever, in our minds, is the 1958 Baltimore Colts. One game in particular defined this team's greatest accomplishments, but we'll get to that later.

First up, the offense, led by none other than star quarterback Johnny Unitas. Unitas passed for over 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns, a league high. He also ran for nearly 300 yards and 3 more touchdowns, showing that he could not only do it in the air but with his feet as well. All Pro runningback Lenny Moore ran for 598 yards and 7 touchdowns while also coming in second on the team in receptions, with 50 receptions for 938 yards and 7 more scores. Fullback Alan Ameche also made big contributions to the offense, leading the backfield with 791 yards and 8 touchdowns. L.G. Dupre carried the load as well, rushing for nearly 400 yards and 3 more scores. The receiving options were deadly, with Hall of Fame left end Raymond Berry and Jim Mutscheller flanking on the right. Berry led the league in receiving touchdowns with 9 and also came in fourth for yardage. The offensive line boasted the talented left tackle Jim Parker, who was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Parker once remarked that Unitas had practically "five minutes" in the backfield to look for an open man.

On defense, the fearless Pro Bowl defensive end Gino Marchetti caused problems in offensive protection, while the All-Pro defensive tackles Art Donovan and Gene Lipscomb kept rushers to just 1291 yards on the season. Linebackers Don Shinnick and Leo Sanford combined to record 4 interceptions, but it was really the secondary that kept opposing quarterbacks on their toes. With a league high of twenty combined interceptions, the antics of Carl Taseff, Milt Davis, Andy Nelson, and Ray Brown go widely unrecognized, but the managed to contribute when it counted. Brown was also the team's punter and one of the league's best. Kicker Steve Myrha, although erratic, pulled up big performances in big games.

Under the leadership and guidance of coach Weeb Ewbank and owner Carroll Rosenbloom, the Colts dominated the NFL early in the season. After opening the season 6-0, the Colts finally lost to the New York Giants, 21-24. The chance for revenge would come soon, however, as the Colts again met the Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship game. A record crowd of 64,185 showed up for the game at Yankee Stadium, with several million more watching the game on TV. Originally up 14-3 at halftime, the Colts were reeling near the end of the 4th quarter after a touchdown pass from New York quarterback Charlie Conerly to halfback Frank Gifford. A downfield rally by the Colts and an incredible Steve Myrha field goal tied the game. With no time left in regulation, the game went into the first sudden death overtime game in NFL playoff history. The Giants quickly punted the ball after a three-and-out, thinking their all star defense led by Sam Huff could stop the Colts. However, Unitas got to work, moving the ball downfield nearly 80 yards, culminating in an exciting 1 yard touchdown run by Alan Ameche. The Colts sealed a victory, 23-17, becoming champions of what has become known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played". In the years after the 1958 NFL Championship Game, popularity in pro football surged, and the Colts also continued their dominance, beating the Giants once again in the 1959 NFL Championship, 31-16. However, the 1958 Baltimore Colts remains one of the strongest and most important teams in NFL lore, and gets our vote as the greatest Colts team of all time.

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