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Dashed Dreams: the 1968 Baltimore Colts


History remembers the victors much better than it does the losers. the teams that win it all are instantly immortalized as one of the sport's greatest while the loser can only stand on the sidelines watching as their legacy is forever tarnished all the while thinking: "Was all that work wasted?". Sometimes they find redemption, but for the most part, the losers of the Super Bowl never return. But this article is not about what happened before or after the Super Bowl. Instead, this is the story of a single, forgotten team: the 1968 Baltimore Colts.


The Lead-Up


After Vince Lombardi retired and his mighty empire in Green Bay, Wisconsin began to tumble back to earth, the old guard of the NFL needed another entity to emulate. They needn't look any further than Baltimore. For the past decade, Johnny Unitas had given professional football the blueprint of what it meant to be a quarterback. Whether it was the passes that he effortlessly zipped down the field, or the flattop hair cut that seemed to encapsulate all that he was as a person, the NFL had long looked to him as the greatest of his generation.



The same could be said of his coach. When Don Shula was hired by his old team as their head coach in 1963, he was 33 years old, the youngest coach in the NFL at the time. But despite his youth, the old Browns defensive back had an intellect and maturity that was beyond his lack of experience. In very little time, the young man had own over a locker room filled with grizzled veterans that had fresh memories of his own mortality as a player.


In 1964, Shula and Unitas led the Colts all the way to the NFL Championship Game where they lost to the Browns. Emboldened, the team continued to build for the future, drafting celebrated defensive end Bubba Smith and safety Rick Volk in the opening rounds of the 1967 NFL Draft.



Just before the 1968 season commenced, Don Shula sought one more piece of what he hoped would be a championship-winning team. While he didn't directly coach him, Don Shula had always liked Earl Morrall's style of play while he served a stint as Detroit's defensive coordinator just before he became Baltimore's coach. Sensing a possible need for a veteran signal-caller to back-up one of the game's greatest, Shula added Morrall to the Colt's roster just in time for Johnny U to blow out his arm against the Cowboys in the last preseason game.


It was the absolute worst time to lose the cornerstone of the franchise. Little did the Colts know just how memorable that season would become.


The Regular Season


The Colts offense didn't skip a beat. Even with Johnny Unitas sidelined for the foreseeable future, the Colts scored just over 33 points a game while they opened their season on a five game win streak. In the midst of the streak, Earl Morrall found his stride, throwing 12 touchdowns.


Times were good in Baltimore until Cleveland came to town. The Colts usually sturdy defense was surprised by Browns quarterback Bill Nelsen. All game long, Nelsen stood tall amidst a fierce pass rush, passing for three touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Colts offense was a mess. Momentarily healed, Unitas tried to make a go of it but went 1-11 for 12 yards and three interceptions before being replaced by Morrall for the rest of the year.



After being humbled by the Browns at home 30-20, the Colts regrouped and took out their frustrations on the rest of the NFL. From that moment on, it seemed like they were a team of destiny. Their defense, which was already a strength, became even better, giving up just 32 points between the Cleveland debacle and the last game of the regular season, shutting out two opponents.


AS the Colts piled up wins over the Rams (27-10), Giants (26-0) Lions (27-10), Cardinals (27-0), Vikings (21-9), Falcons (44-0) and Packers (16-3), they displayed all the qualities of an offensive machine. Fueled by running back Tom Matte's 937 total yards and 10 touchdowns as well as tight end John Mackey's 644 yards receiving and five touchdowns, the Colts entered each game virtually guaranteed to steadily move the ball down the field.


But the real story of the year was that of Earl Morrall. Thrust into the starters role mere weeks after joining the team, he took the league by storm. By the time the Colts beat the Packers 28-24, he had earned the league's MVP after leading it with 26 touchdown passes and throwing for 2,909 yards. Going into the playoffs, the Colts looked intimidating in every aspect of the game. But could they win when it mattered most?


The Playoffs


Not wanting to give Minnesota a chance, the Colts pounced on the Vikings from the very beginning, jumping to a 21-point lead in the first round of the playoffs. even though the Vikings scored two touchdowns, the Colts managed to hang on to win 24-14 with retribution swimming around in their minds all game long.


Entering Cleveland's cavernous Municipal Stadium for the NFL Championship Game, the Colts were determined to not be embarrassed like they had been earlier in the year. After a scoreless first quarter, the Colts scored 17 unanswered points in the second. The route was on.



All game long, the Colts exorcized the demons they had acquired a couple of months earlier, trying in vain to erase the one blemish on their otherwise perfect record. As the Colts poured it on the Browns, scoring 34 for the day, their defense made a statement of their own. In a complete reversal of fortune, they suffocated Bill Nelsen and hi teammates, never allowing a single point. With the 34-0 victory safely in hand, the Colts were NFL Champions for the first time in a decade. Brimming with confidence, they looked fondly at Miami for a contest that they thought would be a cakewalk: Super Bowl III.


Super Bowl III



In those days, the American Football League was overlooked, thought of as a nothing more than a "Mickey Mouse League". Going into the game, oddsmakers favored the Colts by 19.5 points.


But the New York Jets had assembled quite a roster of their own, led by AFL MVP Joe Namath who was surrounded with than excellent and a defense that may have been just a stringent as the Colts. Just days before the Super Bowl and wearied by all the negative media attention, Namath guaranteed victory.


The Colts thought it would be a breeze, they really did. But as the minutes dragged on in the first half and into the second, their once-potent offense failed to get into the end zone, or even score at all.


Meanwhile, Joe Namath was guiding one of the most unselfish offenses in Super Bowl history. While very good, the Colts defense used very few formations, expecting to beat teams with their talent alone. Sensing an opportunity, Joe Namath called most of the playfs at the line of scrimmage, using an archaic version of the no-huddle. While he may have been the AFL MVP, he usually called running plays for Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell. The strategy worked to perfection as the Jets were able to slowly build a 13-point advantage.


The going only got rougher for the Colts. Late in the third quarter and after his third interception, Earl Morrall was benched in favor of a shaky Johnny Unitas.


Facing a 16-point deficit early in the fourth quarter, Johnny U faced a daunting task. While he managed to lead the team for a touchdown, it was too little, too late. The Colts lost 16-7.



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