Sixty years ago, the Baltimore Colts played a football game that changed their destiny. Preparing for the middling Chicago Bears, the Colts were heady (6- 1/2-point) favorites.
They lost, 57-0. On Nov. 25, 1962, Chicago crushed the Colts, shredding them for more than 500 total yards and eight touchdowns, including three scores in the fourth quarter after yanking its starters. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s moribund offense lost four fumbles and crossed midfield just four times. On one futile drive, quarterback Johnny Unitas spotted receiver Jimmy Orr open in the end zone — and overthrew him by 20 feet.
The worst loss in Colts history galled the nearly 57,000 fans, who jeered their charges, and mortified owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who took the drubbing to heart. Five weeks later, he fired longtime coach Weeb Ewbank, a patriarchal type who’d led the Colts to two NFL titles, and hired boyish Don Shula who, at 33, became the league’s youngest-ever head coach. The gamble worked. In seven years here, Shula led the Colts to an NFL championship, a second title berth and a record of 71 wins, 23 losses and four ties — the best mark by any team in that span in the 1960s.
The Chicago massacre, the fourth-worst shutout in modern (post-1950) NFL history, had proved the trigger. After winning successive championships in 1958 and 1959, the Colts fell back to the pack, going 14-12 in the next two seasons. Although they split their first 10 games in 1962, the Colts seemed on the rise in November, hanging tough until the end against Green Bay before losing, 17-13, to the undefeated (and soon-to-be champion) Packers. Next up for Baltimore was the Bears, who’d lost twice to Green Bay, 49-0 and 38-7. Oddsmakers liked the Colts. It wasn’t to be.
By halftime, Chicago led 20-0. Then things got ugly. In the third quarter, the Bears scored three times within four minutes and thundered on. Minus fearsome defensive end Gino Marchetti, sidelined early with a bum leg, the Colts’ pass rush folded. For the game, the Bears scored on nine of their 14 possessions and passed for four touchdowns. Defensively, the Colts managed to block two extra points but little else.
Unitas, the Hall of Famer-to-be, passed for a paltry 91 yards and one interception for a woeful quarterback rating of 38.7. Of his off-target aerial to Orr, one Chicago scribe called it “as badly a pass as has ever been thrown.” The crowd turned on Unitas.
Afterward, The Evening Sun reported, the loss “left 56,164 patrons stunned, disgusted, frustrated, outraged and calling for the scalps of everybody in the Colt organization, from Rosenbloom on down.”
The players were embarrassed as well.
“I’ve never been beaten this badly in my life,” said Jim Parker, the All-Pro tackle.
“I feel like crawling in a big hole,” guard Alex Sandusky said.
The Bears seemed gracious in victory.
“You could put these same two teams back out there next week and the score might be reversed,” Chicago defensive end Doug Atkins surmised.
But the damage was done, and the ripple effect was swift. The following day, in a Baltimore courtroom, a fan was admonished for attempting to sneak into the game on a stolen pass and fined $57 — one dollar for every point the Colts allowed.
“It’s no tragedy to miss a Colts game,” Municipal Court Judge Robert I.H. Hammerman declared. “In fact, it was a tragedy to see yesterday’s game.”
Most locals agreed, among them Rosenbloom, the Colts’ owner, whose chagrin at the outcome sealed the fate of his coach. On Jan. 8, 1963, Rosenbloom fired Ewbank, 55, and trotted out Shula, a onetime defensive back who’d played for the Colts years before. A change, Rosenbloom asserted, “will help us win.”
Many pundits believed the game had passed the old coach by.
“It is too bad [Ewbank] had to give way for progress — and Shula is progress,” former Colts star Buddy Young opined.
Two years later, the Colts (12-2) strode into the 1964 title game as heavy favorites but fell, 27-0, to the Cleveland Browns. In 1968, having finished 13-1 and captured the NFL championship, Baltimore reached Super Bowl III, only to lose to the New York Jets, 16-7. The winning coach? Weeb Ewbank, who likely harked back to the game years before that had prompted his firing.