Tuesday, November 2, 2010
After three straight 4-9-1 seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals improved dramatically in 1974 under second-year Head Coach Don Coryell. They not only had a winning record for the first time since 1970, but at 10-4 won the NFC East. Coryell was an offense-minded coach, and three of the major cogs were veteran QB Jim Hart, second-year all-purpose HB Terry Metcalf (pictured at right), and fleet WR Mel Gray. All three were selected to the Pro Bowl.
The Cardinals were off to a 4-2 start in 1975 as they played host to the New England Patriots on November 2 at Busch Memorial Stadium. The Patriots, coached by Chuck Fairbanks, were off to a slow start, having lost their first four games before winning the two most recent. However, starting QB Jim Plunkett was out with a shoulder injury, and rookie Steve Grogan was taking his place.
New England got an early break when Hart’s arm was hit by DE Julius Adams as he attempted to pass and LB Steve Nelson intercepted at the St. Louis 40. The Patriots capitalized to take the lead on a 32-yard field goal by John Smith. However, the Cardinals got on the board in spectacular fashion in the second quarter when Metcalf returned a punt for a 69-yard touchdown - the only TD on a punt return of his career.
But St. Louis wasn’t able to get anything going on offense against a tough Patriots defense. Meanwhile, Grogan played well, completing 8 of 14 passes in the first half, including one for an 11-yard touchdown to WR Randy Vataha that put the Patriots back in front. The Cardinals came back, converting a fourth-and-one situation at the New England 33 with a two-yard run by slow-but-rugged FB Jim Otis. They came up empty, however, when Patriots nose tackle Ray Hamilton blocked a 44-yard field goal attempt by Jim Bakken, who had been successful on his last ten straight.
New England had another shot at the end of the half, but CB Norm Thompson intercepted Grogan’s pass at the St. Louis two yard line on the last play of the second quarter. The Patriots led by 10-7 at the intermission.
The Cardinals managed to run for only 35 yards in the first half as Metcalf had just four yards in seven attempts while Otis gained 31 yards on 10 carries, and Hart was having difficulty completing passes (not helped when veteran TE Jackie Smith was forced to leave the game with an injury).
In the third quarter, the defense added to New England’s margin as Hamilton picked up a fumble by Hart, who was attempting to hand off to Otis, and rumbled 23 yards for a touchdown. The Patriots were now ahead by ten points at 17-7.
In response, the Cardinals offense came alive and Hart was successful on six straight passes, including a 12-yard throw to WR Earl Thomas to the New England 10, on a drive that finally stalled at the three yard line. The result was a 21-yard Bakken field goal to narrow the Patriots’ lead to 17-10.
New England was forced to punt on its next series, and Gray (pictured at left), only recently being used on punt returns, ran the kick back 19 yards to give the Cardinals good field position at the Patriots’ 45. St. Louis made the most of it, driving to a one-yard touchdown plunge by Metcalf early in the fourth quarter, set up by a pounding eight-yard run by Otis.
After CB Roger Wehrli made a great play to break up a long pass attempt from Grogan to Vataha, Mike Patrick punted again for the Patriots and Gray returned the kick 27 yards to the New England 33. Five plays later Metcalf ran for a seven-yard touchdown that proved to be the winning score with 6:15 remaining.
The St. Louis defense took control in the second half, but the Patriots managed one last drive down the field late in the game. However, LB Pete Barnes intercepted a fourth down Grogan pass at the St. Louis 13 to clinch the 24-17 win for the Cardinals.
The team statistics were remarkably even, with the Patriots having a one-yard edge in total yardage (274 to 273) and the Cardinals having one more first down (18 to 17). Both teams turned the ball over three times. The game was very physical, with the Patriots playing aggressively on defense, as manifested by their being penalized 11 times to six flags on St. Louis.
After a slow start, Jim Hart completed 20 of 32 passes for 158 yards with no TDs and one intercepted. Jim Otis gained 65 yards on 21 carries, and Terry Metcalf was held to 44 yards on 17 attempts, although he had the two rushing touchdowns in addition to the TD on the long punt return. Metcalf also caught 5 passes for 33 yards, making him the team’s co-leader with Earl Thomas, who had 5 receptions for 58 yards.
Steve Grogan’s passing numbers went in the opposite direction of Hart’s - after the solid first half, he ended up completing just 14 of 34 passes for 173 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. A mobile quarterback, he also gained 21 yards on three carries. HB Andy Johnson led the Patriots with 50 yards on 16 attempts, while FB Sam Cunningham added 42 yards on 11 runs and also caught a team-leading four passes for 41 yards.
The big punt returns had made the difference, either directly scoring or setting up all three St. Louis touchdowns. Said New England’s Coach Fairbanks, “I take my hat off to Metcalf and Gray for the returns they made against us. We tried to make adjustments but they didn’t work.”
Of his punt return touchdown, Metcalf said, “Their contain man (DB Ron Bolton) kind of overran his position. It was what we had seen on their films.” He also pointed out that Gray was the lead blocker. Added Gray, “Since the offense wasn’t clicking, the special teams had to get on the ball. I think the special teams won the game.”
The win put the Cardinals in a three-way tie atop the NFC East with Dallas and Washington, on the way to repeating as division champions with an 11-3 record. They lost to the Rams in the Divisional playoff round. New England limped to a 3-11 finish at the bottom of the AFC East.
Terry Metcalf’s performance against the Patriots highlighted the all-around skills that allowed him to break the year-old record by New England’s Mack Herron for all-purpose yards with 2462 (his record would last for ten years). He gained a career-high 816 yards on 165 carries for a 4.9-yard average with nine touchdowns, caught 43 passes for 378 more yards (8.8 avg.) and two TDs, had 285 yards on 23 punt returns (an NFC-leading 12.4 avg.) with a score, and 960 yards on 35 kickoff returns (27.4 avg.) that included a touchdown. He topped all of that off with 23 yards on a fumble recovery. Maligned for a tendency to fumble, Metcalf nevertheless was a versatile and flashy key to the club’s success.
Mel Gray didn’t return many more punts (7 in all, for a 7.6 avg.), but had another good season at wide receiver as he caught 48 passes for 926 yards and a league-leading 11 touchdowns (tied with Pittsburgh’s Lynn Swann). His 19.3 yards per catch ranked second in the NFC and he was a consensus All-Pro selection.
Jim Otis (pictured below), the complement to Metcalf as the plodding inside runner, led the NFC with 1076 yards on 269 carries for a 4.0 average gain and five TDs. In the best season of his nine-year career, he was selected to the Pro Bowl along with Metcalf, Gray, Hart, CB Wehrli, PK Bakken, C Tom Banks, OT Dan Dierdorf, and G Conrad Dobler.