Every Stat Tells a Story: The 1981 Colts
by Mike Tanier
Baltimore Colts coach Mike McCormack stood at the podium on December 7, 1981, one day after his team lost 37-13 to the Cowboys. His defense surrendered 354 rushing yards to Tony Dorsett and company. The Colts had lost their 13th straight game. McCormack's team had become a national joke. Their locker room was divided. The owner was publicly undermining McCormack's authority. Colts fans, those few who were still paying attention, were calling the team The Dolts. There was nothing McCormack could say to put a positive spin on one of the most dismal seasons an NFL team ever endured. Still, he tried. After all, there were still two games left to play.
"This may sound stupid, because we are giving up 35 points per game, but we're playing better defense," McCormick said, somehow straight-faced. "We're 1-13, but we've still got pride."
One week later, the 1981 Colts -- pride and supposedly improved defense notwithstanding -- shattered the record for most points allowed by an NFL team in a season.
The Sack Pack Gets Sacked
The Colts were a very good team in the mid-1970s. Johnny Unitas and the superstars who played in Super Bowl III and won Super Bowl V were gone, but the team rebuilt quickly under coach Ted Marchibroda. The Colts won three straight division titles from 1975 through 1977 and were led by Unitas' heir apparent, Bert Jones. They also fielded a formidable defense, led by a front four nicknamed The Sack Pack. The Pack -- ends John Dutton and Fred Cook, tackles Joe Ehrmann and Mike Barnes -- registered 59 sacks in 1975, 56 in 1976, and 47 in 1977.
Marchibroda's Colts had an aggressive defense and an innovative offense. The only thing they lacked was a supportive front office. Robert Irsay, the air conditioning tycoon who acquired the team in 1972, was a ruthless businessman with an unpredictable temper and a drinking problem. He wanted the city of Baltimore to renovate or replace Memorial Stadium, the crumbling concrete bowl in a shady neighborhood that the Colts called home. While battling city hall for a new venue, Irsay ran the team on a shoestring and constantly muddled in on-field affairs.
He began to tear Marchibroda's team apart before the 1978 season, trading away tight end Raymond Chester, receiver Freddie Scott, and running back Lydell Mitchell (all effective players under 30 years old) in salary-related moves. Bert Jones missed much of the season with a shoulder injury, and the Colts fell to 5-11.
In 1979, Irsay's behavior became more erratic. He feuded publicly with Marchibroda. He accused Jones, whose shoulder problems were becoming chronic, of malingering. He threatened to move the Colts to several football-less cities, including Indianapolis. Dutton, a three-time Pro Bowler and the best of the defensive linemen, had seen enough. He refused to play for the Colts, holding out at the start of the 1979 season. The Cowboys eventually set Dutton free, trading a first- and second-round pick for the 28-year-old defender in October. "I'm so grateful I would do anything Dallas wanted me to do except shoot someone," Dutton said after the trade.
The Sack Pack was already fading before Dutton left. They collapsed without him. The Colts recorded just 39 sacks in 1979 and 30 sacks in 1980. Ehrmann, the oldest member of the famed front four, was waived in July of 1981. A few days later, Cook was traded to the Redskins for two low draft picks. The Colts drafted defensive end Donnell Thompson in the first round of the 1981 draft to reinforce the line, then stocked the rest of the line with rookies and youngsters like Bubba Green, Daryl Wilkerson, and Hosea Taylor. Barnes, the last of the Sack Packers, and 34-year-old Herb Orvis were the only experienced players on the defensive line.
Other parts of the defense also suffered losses before the 1981 season started. Lyle Blackwood, a star in the mid-1970s who was benched in 1980, asked for a trade. The Colts traded him to the Giants for a draft pick (Blackwood quickly moved on to the Dolphins). By the time camp opened, only a handful of defensive veterans remained from the Marchibroda heyday: Barnes, safety Bruce Laird, linebacker Ed Simonini, and a few bench players. Only Barnes and Laird had ever appeared in a Pro Bowl.
Despite all the young faces on defense, the Colts were optimistic entering the 1981 season. McCormack, the former Eagles head coach and Bengals assistant who replaced Marchibroda, led the team to a 7-9 record in 1980. Jones stayed healthy that season and threw for 3,134 yards and 23 touchdowns. Rookie running back Curtis Dickey added 800 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The offense, like the defense, suffered some losses before the 1981 season (disgruntled all-purpose running back Joe Washington forced a trade to the Redskins), but many observers felt that the Colts could compete for a wild card if their offense could score enough to keep up with opponents. "With Bert Jones throwing to Roger Carr ... and Ray Butler, the Colts should be able to score early and often," Joel Buchsbaum wrote in a wire service season preview, predicting a second-place Colts finish. "Baltimore whipped Buffalo twice and could be the sleeper of the division," read the Associated Press preview for the AFC East, noting that the Colts pass defense was expected to improve. The Colts had allowed 5,546 yards of total offense in 1980; it was certainly reasonable to assume that they would get better.
The Proverbial Snootful
The Colts were the only team to endure a winless preseason in 1981. Still, tempered optimism reigned in Baltimore. Jones was healthy, productive, and sharp in the exhibition games. Rookie fullback Randy McMillan proved to be a capable receiver, making him a suitable complement to Dickey and replacement for Washington. The defense suffered one more major loss: linebacker Ed Simonini suffered an injury and landed on injured reserve before the season opener. Ed Smith, a second-year player and former 12th-round draft pick, took Simonini's place.
The Colts opened the season as road underdogs against a Patriots team that finished 10-6 in 1980. The Colts won an exciting-but-sloppy contest, with McMillian and Dickey rushing for 249 yards in a 29-28 victory. The Patriots moved the ball easily, with quarterback Steve Grogan throwing for 264 yards and orchestrating several long drives, but they committed several costly penalties and couldn't stop the run. The Colts defensive line pressured Grogan frequently during the game. "He got hit as much as in any game I've ever seen him play here," Patriots coach Ron Erhardt said after the game.
Few observers were impressed by the Colts' win. No one knew at the time that the Patriots, like the Colts, were destined for a 2-14 season. But the Patriots had a reputation for failing to salt away weaker opponents. "The Patriots are considered by more than a few observers to be the collective head cases of the National Football League, finding one way after another to blow the 'gimmie' games," wrote one AP columnist. The Colts were about to face a more consistent opponent. Entering Week 2, the Colts were 2.5-point underdogs in their home opener against the Bills.
The Bills covered, 35-3.
The Bills gained 430 yards in total offense. Quarterback Joe Ferguson threw four touchdowns. The Colts offense was as bad as their defense, totaling just 147 yards of offense and surrendering five sacks. It was sweet revenge for the Bills, who finished 11-5 despite two close losses to the Colts in 1980. "We caught the proverbial snootful," McCormack said in his Monday press conference.
When McCormack outlined his team's mistakes after the Bills loss, he gave the offense and defense equal time. "We had receivers open, and we didn't hit them. We did not do the basic things necessary to develop a running game. We had people in position to make four interceptions, and we made one. Their linebacker play, compared to ours, was the main difference in the game."
The Colts defense got its four interceptions in Week 3, but the picks weren't enough to prevent a 28-10 loss to the Broncos. Quarterback Craig Morton threw four touchdowns to go with his four picks, including one in which receiver Steve Watson ripped the ball from cornerback Larry Braziel's hands and scored a 48-yard touchdown. The game wasn't as close as the score; backup quarterback Steve DeBerg drove the Broncos to the one-yard line in the fourth quarter but allowed time to expire instead of adding meaningless points.
The Colts offense returned in Week 4, gaining 519 yards and scoring 28 points. Unfortunately, the defense gave up 428 yards and 31 points to the Dolphins. "Offensively, we played as we feel we can and as we must play," McCormack said after the game. Defensively, however, "we can't go on playing like this ... We've got to play with emotion." McCormack noted that the defensive line had regressed badly since Week 1, due in part to injuries to Thompson and fellow rookie Bubba Green. The coach also made some changes in the secondary after the Dolphins loss, shifting free safety Nesby Glasgow to cornerback to replace Braziel while promoting Kim Anderson to replace Glasgow.
The tweaks in the secondary produced some short-term results in a Week 5 rematch with the Bills. Ferguson, who threw four touchdown passes in Week 2, was held to just 148 yards and one touchdown in the rematch. Unfortunately, the Bills rushed for 229 yards, 159 of them from running back Joe Cribbs, and won the game 23-17. "The secondary tightened up its coverage," McCormack said, sounding like the Little Dutch Boy. "But now we need more aggressive play out of the linebackers."
McCormack made it clear which linebacker was at fault after the second Bills loss: Ed Smith, who wasn't in Simonini's class as a signal caller. "He called his first bad game," the coach said. McCormack emphasized that the plays the Colts called in the huddle were fine, but that Smith made mistakes at the line of scrimmage. "I don't understand it. We see 10 people doing exactly what we want, and one man makes an error."
Smith's reaction to McCormack's remarks is lost to history. We know how the team reacted.
Jones vs. Dickey, McCormack vs. Irsay
The Colts weren't the type of team to rally after a 1-4 start. They knew the meaning of, and several synonyms for, the word "quit."
Linebacker Barry Krauss, probably the best defender on the 1981 Colts, described the team's locker room culture in a 2001 Sporting News interview. "I lost five games in three years at Alabama, won two Southeastern Conference championships, won a national championship, and I walked in there and we lost 11-12 games and nobody cared, nobody cared." Krauss said that in that era Irsay would "come in drunker than hell and fire people, fire players." Veterans blamed ownership, coaches, or rookies on the team's downfall; rookies got little support from lame-duck Marchibroda and weak-willed McCormack. Racial problems festered, but McCormack refused to address them. "When you lose you find out who has the guts and who doesn't,"Krauss said. When the Colts started losing in the late 70s, the players with guts (like Dutton) used them to stand up to Irsay and get out of town.
The racial discord and the owner's drunken shenanigans would soon turn the Colts' 1981 season from tragedy to farce. (Or maybe that's backward.) First, though, the team had some embarrassing losses to sleepwalk through. The Bengals trounced them 41-19 in Week 6, with Kenny Anderson throwing for 257 yards and three touchdowns in three quarters before hitting the showers. "This was our best offensive game of the year," Anderson said. "They just couldn't seem to stop us." They just couldn't seem to stop Dan Fouts and the Chargers, either, from cruising to a 43-14 win. Week 8 brought a third-straight 40+ point performance for a Colts opponent, with the Browns beating the Colts 42-28. After a less-humiliating 27-10 loss in Miami, the Colts hosted the Jets.
On the first play of the Jets game, Curtis Dickey fumbled a handoff. The Jets recovered and kicked a field goal. On the next possession, Bert Jones scrambled on third-and-long and was tackled for a loss. He slammed the ball to the turf and shouted at his running back as they left the field. Dickey didn't play another down the rest of the game.
Jones told the press what he told Dickey: "Don't just stand there when I'm scrambling around. Go out, come back to me, block somebody, do something. Make a play." Jones also told reporters that Dickey had fallen asleep at some team meetings. When reporters confronted McCormack about Jones' allegations, the coach became livid. "Anything that comes out of a meeting is bad," McCormack said; the AP report of his news conference states that his hands were shaking as he spoke. "What goes on in this meeting room stays in this room."
Once calm, McCormack explained that he didn't bench Dickey after Jones' tirade; he took him out to settle him down, but reserve Zack Dixon was playing too well to return to the bench. Dickey wasn't buying it. He claimed that he was essentially benched by Jones, then accused the quarterback of racism. "It's probably been around all along," Dickey said in a Baltimore Sun interview. "I'm not the first one he's hurt and I won't be the last one ... I'll talk to him on the field only." Dickey went so far as to name three former Colts receivers who had racial disagreements with Jones, while Colts assistant coach Clyde Powers (the team's lone black coach) came to Jones' defense.
In the pre-Internet, pre-300-channel-cable-package era, a 1-9 team could contain a racial feud between the quarterback and running back and prevent it from becoming a season-long sideshow. McCormack held meetings and quieted everyone. End results overshadowed allegations: the Colts lost to the Jets 41-14, their fifth straight blowout loss.
Anyway, the Colts were Irsay's circus. He wasn't about to let players hog the big top.
The Eagles crushed the Colts 38-13 in Week 11. "I'll be honest," Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski said after the game. "I don't remember a game like this where we could do whatever we wanted on offense." Jaws also probably couldn't remember a game in which the other team's owner grabbed a headset and started calling plays on the sidelines. Irsay, sitting in the coaching box at Veterans Stadium, got fed up with his team's performance in the third quarter, picked up a telephone, and ordered McCormack to replace Jones with backup quarterback Greg Landry. Irsay later appeared on the sidelines, ordered Jones back into the game, and called several plays. Needless to say, coaches and players were stunned. And a little displeased.
In his inimitable fashion, Irsay simultaneously downplayed the incident and justified his involvement, noting that he called a Jones-to-Dixon touchdown pass. He compared himself to Al Davis, the Raiders owner whose hands-on involvement was still beneficial to his team in those days. He assured fans that he wouldn't call any more plays, but that he would stay on the sidelines to counsel McCormack with his enlightened leadership. "It's like when you build a building," Irsay said. "You hire a professional architect and engineers and let them go at it. But at the same time, if things aren't going the way you want, you say, 'Hey, I don't want this. Here's more of what I want.'"
McCormack was less philosophical about Irsay's headset experiment. Reporters asked him if he would resign at his Monday news conference. The exhausted coach vowed to stick it out. "I think I am the same coach that had pretty good games last year," he said. "What happened, I don't know."
With quarterback, running back, coach, and owner adding spice to a controversial stew, the defense became a bland, forgotten side dish, too awful to analyze, too dull to scrutinize. The team tried to make adjustments, acquiring veteran tackle Mike Fultz from the Dolphins, moving Glasgow back to safety, promoting more youngsters, but the results were a string of 40-point losses. The local press didn't talk much about the Colts defense until it started closing in on the record books.
A Helluva Finish
After the Irsay incident, the humor and dramatic irony drained from the Colts losing streak. A 35-24 loss to the Cardinals suggested that there was at least some fence-mending and improvement on offense. A 25-0 loss to the Jets exposed the offensive surge as a mirage. Jones was sacked five times and completed just ten passes in the shutout loss. Defensively, the Colts were as bad as ever against the Jets, despite allowing their second-lowest point total of the season. Safety Bruce Laird missed a tackle against rookie running back Freeman McNeil to yield the Jets' first touchdown, and the Jets contentedly sat on the ball for most of the second half, making the score more respectable than it should have been.
In a desperate effort to shake things up, McCormack changed quarterbacks before facing the Cowboys. With Jones nursing injuries after the Jets game, McCormack turned to David Humm, a seven-year veteran signed just 10 days before the game. The lefty passer went 7-for-24 before dislocating a finger on his throwing hand. McCormack called his performance "gutty." He praised Dickey, who seemed invigorated by Jones' absence (or perhaps by a Cowboys defense in prevent mode), and gained 130 yards. When McCormack claimed that his defense was "playing better" after the 35-3 loss, when he said the team is close to "turning it around," he probably knew that few would take his words seriously. Irsay was openly courting former Arizona State coach Frank Kush to replace McCormack. Jones was being shopped around. And the Colts were 262 yards and 28 points away from setting league records for defensive futility.
Those records wouldn't last through their 38-14 loss to the Redskins. The game was depressingly typical. Colts defensive backs Reggie Pinkney and Derrick Hatchett were beat several times for long completions ("Reggie was out-of-position for most of the game," McCormack said after the contest). Joe Washington, the former Colts running back traded for a second round pick because he refused to stay in Baltimore, gained 130 total yards. Irsay paced and seethed on the sidelines. The unpredictable owner didn't lecture the team as he did after many of their losses that season, but McCormack finally dropped the "we've got heart" faÃ§ade and admitted that several players were going through the motions. "I'm going to have to look long and hard at the films to see if certain individuals quit," he said. "We got an awful lot of people working too darn hard for some others to let them down."
With many dubious defensive records shattered, the only thing left for the Colts to do in Week 16 was sew up the first pick in the 1982 draft. As bad as they were, the Patriots were almost equally inept, and they entered the final game with a 2-13 record. A Colts win would knot their records, but the Colts owned the tiebreaker; after all, their only other win was the season opener against the Patriots.
Naturally, the Colts won the one game they probably should have lost, a sloppy 23-21 affair marked by numerous penalties and turnovers. The Colts offensive line played well, Dickey and McMillian had great games, and Glasgow recorded a drive-killing interception that appears to be the team's only clutch defensive play of the season. But the few fans who saw the game -- "Office Christmas parties would draw more people," Ken Denlinger quipped in the Washington Post about a crowd estimated in the 18,000 range -- probably weren't dazzled by heroics. Instead, they were amazed at a 46-yard Colts field goal attempt into a stiff wind; the ball barely reached the end zone. They were bewildered by a Jones third-down scramble that ended when the quarterback went into his slide just after the down marker ... the wrong down marker, because Jones was still eight yards shy of a first down.
The few thousand who stayed to the end even witnessed one last defensive near failure. Patriots quarterback Matt Cavanaugh uncorked a Hail Mary pass from his own 43-yard line on the game's final play. A crowd of players leapt for the ball, but Patriots receiver Lin Dawson caught it at the 16-yard line. The Colts defense, incompetent enough to allow the reception, couldn't avoid tackling the player they surrounded, and they preserved a win that hurt the team's draft position.
With Dawson's final catch, the Colts allowed 6,793 total yards, a league record that still stands. They allowed a total of 68 touchdowns, a league record that still stands. They allowed 406 first downs, a league record that still stands. They registered just 13 sacks, a league record in a non-strike season. And of course, they allowed 533 points, another record that has endured for over 25 years.
"We had a helluva start and a helluva finish," McCormack said after the Patriots game. Irsay would fire him and install Kush the next day.
The Colts actually managed to get worse after the 1981 season.
Already picking second in the draft, the Colts dealt Jones in a package to the Rams for the fourth overall pick. Their haul: Johnnie Cooks, a much-needed linebacker who would help the team for several years, and Art Schlichter, a fresh-faced Ohio State quarterback with a crippling gambling addiction. The Colts gave Schlichter a $350,000 signing bonus, much of which he wagered away before the league suspended him. Fellow rookie Mike Pagel started at quarterback while Kush -- a controversial individual who was suspended by Arizona State in 1979 for allegedly punching a player and intimidating others into silence -- tried to put his stamp on the team. The team didn't win a game in that strike-shortened year, finishing 0-8-1.
In 1983, the Colts selected John Elway with the first pick in the draft. Elway noted that the Colts owner was a drunk and their coach a possible player-puncher, so he refused to sign with the team. Elway was traded, and the Colts improved to 7-9 as their offensive line jelled and defenders like Thompson, Krauss, and Cooks finally came of age. But the Colts were drawing crowds of under 30,000 by December. On March 29th, 1984, in the foggy pre-dawn snow, 15 Mayflower moving vans appeared at Colts headquarters. Years of cloak-and-dagger machinations by Irsay were over. The Colts moved to Indianapolis.
McCormack took a front office position with the Seahawks at the start of the 1982 season. During the strike, Seahawks management fired coach Jack Patera, and McCormack spent the rest of the season as interim coach. He compiled a 4-3 record, his only winning season in the NFL. He worked his way up to president of the Seahawks before being fired in 1989. He later served in the Panthers front office for several years.
Kush, whom Krauss described as a belittling individual with "a serious little man syndrome," left the Colts before the final game of the 1984 season to take a job with the Arizona Outlaws of the USFL. The allegations of 20 years earlier forgotten, Kush returned to Arizona State in 2000 as an assistant athletic director.
Jones played just one season with the Rams before retiring. Dickey and McMillian enjoyed several productive seasons with the Colts. Ed Smith and Mike Barnes left the NFL after the 1981 season. Simonini and Laird left the Colts and played out the string in other cities. But several of the overmatched defenders of 1981, including Krauss, Thompson, and Glasgow, went on to long and productive careers. Krauss and Glasgow later became motivational speakers, Glasgow after a long stint as an executive with the Colts and Seahawks. All three players were still starters in 1987, when the Colts finished 9-6 and allowed the fewest points in the NFL (though two great replacement game efforts padded their stats).
Robert Irsay's erratic behavior didn't end when he reached Indianapolis, but he mellowed as the 1980s wore on. In 1994, he hired Bill Tobin as director of football operations and officially moved into the background. The Colts started winning consistently. Irsay suffered a stroke in 1995 and died on January 15, 1997, one year after the Colts reached the AFC championship.
The 1981 Colts fielded the worst defense in NFL history, but their defensive personnel wasn't terrible. They had young talent and a few veterans who could still play. They lost Ed Simonini, their middle linebacker and field general, but they suffered few other crippling injuries. They may have had the defense of a 2-14 team, but on paper, it wasn't a record setter.
But the good players on that Colts defense -- Krauss, Glasgow, Thompson, Laird, Barnes -- had no support. Their coach was inept, their owner poisonous to team chemistry. Their offense, statistically competent, was divided along racial lines and unable to make those 45-14 defeats a little closer. Dutton, the All Pro who forced a trade long before the 1981 debacle, described the situation in a Washington Post interview in December of that year. "I can talk to them [his former teammates] and look at their faces and see how much they're hurting inside. They realize they have no future with the Colts. You are not talking about washed-up players. They've got talent and character ... but they've knocked the spirit out of these guys."
The difference between a bad team and a historically awful one is rarely talent. Usually, it's the will to do something better, to win games in the name of professionalism or pride or just camaraderie. A bad owner, a bungling coach, whispers (or shouts) of racial discord ... any of these things can choke out a team's will to succeed. The Colts had all three. Great players could overcome such distractions and still perform adequately. Mediocre players, like many of the 1981 Colts, could not. Their defense may have set the records, but the entire team, from the ownership down, earned them.