Most football fans have experienced memorable moments, championships, games, and even bitter losses in the postseason over the last 87 years. But, many people only remember the champion or the runner-up in the last game of the NFL season, the NFL championship or Super Bowl. The December 18, 1932 playoff game featuring the Portsmouth Spartans (now known as the Detroit Lions) and the Chicago Bears was a memorable event as the NFL’s first postseason game with the Bears winning 9-0. In this special 32 part series, I will analyze each NFL team’s best championship season and the one season where they finished just short of claiming the NFL’s ultimate prize. The fifth team to be analyzed is… the BALTIMORE COLTS/RAVENS!
The 1968 Colts: Don Shula Returns to Baltimore
When Don Shula was traded by the Browns to the expansion Baltimore Colts in 1953, he was entering his third season in the NFL as a backup defensive back. After starting 43 games in his four years with the Colts, Shula finished his career with the Redskins in 1957 before beginning his coaching career in 1958 as a defensive backs coach at the University of Virginia. Two years later, Shula began his first stint in the NFL as the defensive coordinator for the Lions under head coach George Wilson and finished with the league’s 2nd best defense in 1962.
But, in 1963, the Baltimore Colts fired Shula’s former coach, future Hall of Fame head coach Weeb Ewbank, and offered Shula a chance to return to his former team. After finishing with an 8-6 record in his first year, Shula led the Colts to two straight Western Division titles in 1964 as well as 1965, but lost to the Browns in the 1964 NFL Championship and the Packers in a controversial divisional playoff game in 1965.
Despite a 9-5 record in 1966 and barely missing the 1967 NFL playoffs with an 11-1-2 record (due to a tiebreaker loss to the Rams), Shula still had a talented roster and the Colts entered the 1968 season as heavy favorites to reach the NFL Championship. But, in Baltimore’s last preseason game, the Colts chances looked slim after their leader, future Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, tore a muscle in his throwing arm.
However, two weeks prior to Unitas’ injury, Shula traded a 4th round draft pick to the Giants in exchange for backup quarterback, Earl Morrall, who was a backup on the Lions when Shula was the defensive coordinator. With Morrall stepping in as Baltimore’s starting quarterback, Shula led the Colts to a 13-1 record in 1968 and finished with the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense while Morrall won league MVP honors.
After finishing the regular season with eight straight wins, Don Shula’s Colts entered their first playoff game as 11 point favorites over a young Vikings team led by future Hall of Fame head coach Bud Grant. But, Baltimore’s defense held Minnesota’s offense scoreless for three quarters while Earl Morrall threw two touchdown passes to Tom Mitchell and future Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey in a 24-14 victory as the Colts advanced to the NFL Championship.
With a chance to win their first NFL Championship since 1959, the Colts and Browns met at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in a rematch of the 1964 NFL Championship. After losing at home to Cleveland in the regular season, Shula’s defense shut out the Browns while Pro Bowl running back Tom Matte led the Colts offense with three rushing touchdowns in a 34-0 victory as Baltimore advanced to Super Bowl III as the representatives of the NFL.
Two weeks later, Don Shula and the Baltimore Colts arrived at the Orange Bowl against his former coach, Weeb Ewbank, and the AFL’s New York Jets in Super Bowl III. However, despite being favored by 18 points, Earl Morrall and the Colts offense were shut out for three quarters while the Jets intercepted four passes as New York carried a 16-0 lead late into the 4th quarter.
But, with seven minutes to go in the game, Johnny Unitas led Baltimore’s offense on a 15 play scoring drive before fullback Jerry Hill scored a rushing touchdown with 3:32 left in the game. After recovering an onside kick on the next play, Unitas led the Colts on another drive into the Jets red zone, but could not score as Don Shula’s Colts were upset in Super Bowl III by the score of 16-7.
1968 COLTS OFFENSE
Strengths: Passing attack. After Johnny Unitas won league MVP honors in 1967, Earl Morrall benefited from the same group of players in 1968 as the Colts had the NFL’s 3rd best passing attack and Morrall led the league with 26 passing touchdowns. After sharing All-Pro honors with John Mackey the previous season, Pro Bowl wide receiver Willie Richardson teamed with All-Pro tight end John Mackey and backup wide receiver Jimmy Orr to combine for 111 receptions for 2,085 yards and 19 receiving touchdowns.
The Baltimore Colts offensive line, led by Pro Bowl left tackle Bob Vogel, also played a key role in Earl Morrall’s MVP season by allowing only 29 sacks (7th fewest in the league) and a passer rating of 84.0 in 1968 (3rd best in the NFL).
Weaknesses: Rushing attack and turnovers. Despite having the NFL’s 2nd ranked offense, the 1968 Colts did not have a great running game and were ranked 8th in the league, but had 16 rushing touchdowns during the regular season (5th most in the NFL). Pro Bowl running back Tom Matte led Baltimore’s rushing attack with nine touchdowns, but did not find the end zone in Super Bowl III despite rushing for 116 yards on 11 carries (averaged 3.6 yards/carry in 1968).
The 1968 Colts also struggled holding onto the football with 34 turnovers during the regular season (9th most in the league; 22 interceptions, 12 fumbles lost) and committed nine turnovers in their three playoff games including five interceptions from Earl Morrall.
1968 COLTS DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS
Strengths: Overall defense and takeaways. After working as a defensive assistant coach under Hall of Fame head coach Sid Gillman with the Chargers, defensive coordinator Chuck Noll teamed with defensive assistant Bill Arnsparger to form the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense in 1968 (4th in passing, 3rd in rushing) and allowed only 144 points during the regular season (fewest in the league).
The 1968 Colts also forced 41 turnovers during the regular season (4th most in the NFL; 29 interceptions, 12 fumble recoveries) and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fred Miller as well as All-Pro linebacker Mike Curtis led a dominant defense that allowed six rushing touchdowns (2nd fewest in the league), had 45 sacks (3rd most in the NFL), and limited quarterbacks to a passer rating of 49.8 (3rd highest in the league).
*All-Pro corner-back Bobby Boyd also led a dominant secondary unit for the Colts and led the team with eight interceptions in 1968.
Weaknesses: Overall special teams. Despite having the NFL’s 2nd ranked offense and No. 1 ranked defense, the 1968 Colts had some issues with their special teams unit, but backup running back Preston Pearson led the league with two kick return touchdowns and kicker Lou Michaels scored the 3rd most points in the NFL (102 points).
However, punter David Lee struggled with a yards per punt average of 39.5 (13th in the league) on 49 punts and Lou Michaels made only 64.3 percent of his field goals (18 of 28 FG’s), but Michaels’ struggles continued in Super Bowl III when he missed a 27 yard field goal early in the 1st quarter and a 46 yard field goal in the 2nd quarter after the Jets scored their only touchdown in the game.
COMING UP NEXT… THE CINCINNATI BENGALS!