OLD SCHOOL: 1981 Colts, Baltimore’s Worst Modern NFL Football Team

Street Talk OLD SCHOOL: 1981 Colts, Baltimore’s Worst Modern NFL Football Team

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After this past Sunday’s humiliating loss to the winless Dolphins, this year’s version of the Baltimore Ravens have now been named by some sportswriters in this town the worst team in Ravens history. An 8 game losing streak has a way of making any football fan feel that way about their team.
 
The argument has merit considering the likelihood that the Ravens will finish the season at 4-12, tying a franchise worst set in 1996. The ‘96 team beat the Steelers late that season dulling the pain and blurring the memory of that inept ’96 squad. Nevertheless, both were bad teams.
 
Yet as bad as they were neither is the worst team ever fielded by a Baltimore franchise.  That distinction goes to the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
 
The 1950 Colts, one of teams that joined the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49’ers from the All America Football Conference were an awful 1-11. They were outscored by an average of over 20 points a game, but since they played in another league in 1949 and disbanded after 1950, (the team’s owner Abraham Watner sold the team back to league), they do not count in modern NFL Baltimore history.
 
The modern era of Baltimore football in the NFL began in 1953 when a completely different franchise from Dallas was moved here and became the Baltimore Colts that we know. So while the 1950 team was horrible they were not considered for this dubious distinction.
 
The 1974 Colts were 2-12, their worst record since returning to the NFL in 1953. They had a weak record, but played teams close and were a young team on the rise. Led by second year quarterback Bert Jones and third year running back Lydell Mitchell, the ‘74 Colts lost to eventual playoff teams Miami and Buffalo 17-16 and 6-0 late in the year. In their final game of the season the Colts lost 45-38 in a spirited shootout with Joe Namath and the Jets. Jones completed a then NFL record 17 passes in a row during that game. The signs were there that this team was going to be better. Even though they lost those last three games, they built momentum for 1975. This team would win their division in 1975, being the first NFL team to go from last to first in one year.
 
The 1982 Baltimore Colts were winless, 0-8-1 – a season shortened by a players strike. This team was the youngest in the NFL. While they were winless and had virtually no star players, they played with heart, losing 2 games late in the year by a combined six points to the Bengals and Vikings, eventual 1982 playoff teams and tying another playoff team, the Packers 20-20. New head coach Frank Kush had cleaned house from the 1981 team, including trading Jones to the Los Angeles Rams and started over with the youngest team in Colts history. While they did not win a game, this team was more competitive than the 1981 Colts.  
 
The Background
 
After two 5-11 seasons in 1978 and 1979, Bob Irsay fired head coach Ted Marchibroda. The fact that star quarterback Bert Jones was able to appear in just 7 of those 32 games because of injury never seemed to matter to Irsay. He only saw wins and losses, he was not intelligent enough to take the Jones injury into consideration and fired a coach who had taken the Colts to the playoffs from 1975 to 1977. Irsay hired the former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles Mike McCormack to replace Marchibroda. McCormack had a losing record with the Eagles from 1973 to 1975, posting a 16-25-1 record, but Irsay hired him anyway. It may have been the first time in NFL history that a coach with a winning record was fired to be replaced by a coach with a losing record, another “brilliant” Irsay move.  It should be noted while McCormack may not have been the best coach he is a member of the Hall of Fame – a star offensive lineman for the Browns in the 1950’s.
 
1980
 
McCormack’s first Colt team had a healthy Jones back at quarterback and an explosive rookie running back in Curtis Dickey. They were 7-6 heading into week 14 and in the playoff hunt. They controlled their own destiny, if they could win their last three games they would be in. The schedule was in their favor, they had the Bengals, Dolphins, and Chiefs left to play, with the last 2 games being played at Memorial Stadium. None of these teams would finish with winning records in 1980 but all three of them beat the Colts to end their season. They finished with a disappointing record of 7-9 but most importantly they lost momentum, something that would carry over to their horrific 1981 season.
 
1981
 
The 1980 Colts were 7-9 and could score points. They scored 355, finishing ninth in scoring that year. Their problems rested on the defensive side of the ball.  The Colts allowed 387 points, 23rd in the league and 347 yards a game, 21st in the NFL. They had the twelfth and the eighteenth picks in the first round of the 1981 draft. With the 18th pick they selected defensive end Donnell Thompson to help a weak pass rush that registered just thirty sacks in 1980. With their first pick instead of addressing defense they selected Maryland native Randy McMillan, a running back from the University of Pittsburgh.
 
McMillan was a solid choice but the Colts were seemingly set at running back. Last year’s first round choice Curtis Dickey paced a rushing game that led the AFC in touchdowns on the ground in 1980 with 20. The choice of another running back with their first pick had the football writers scratching their heads and wondering why. Again, McMillan was a fine player but this team needed more bodies on the defensive side of the ball.
 
Sunday September 6, 1981
 
Opening day, 1981, the Colts were in Foxboro to play the favored Patriots who were 10-6 the year before and just missed the playoffs. The Colts took a 10-0 lead after one period,   Dickey sharing the backfield with McMillan ran for a 19 yard touchdown. The game went back and forth and the Colts led 16-14 in the 4th period. Jones then moved the Colts to the Patriots 35 yard line early in the period. 
 
Soon thereafter, running like he had been shot out of a cannon, McMillan slashed to the goal line with a 35 yard touchdown run around left end. He followed that with a 2 yard score later in the game. The Colts stopped a late Patriot rally and won 29-28.
 
The Colts won this game in similar fashion as they had in the previous year, outscoring rather than beating the other team. It was a big win, and it would be their last victory until Sunday December  20, 1981 when they would face the Patriots again in week 16. In between their contests with the Patriots, the Colts would lose 14 games in a row and field statistically the worst defense in NFL history.
 
The losses began the next week in Baltimore against the Buffalo Bills. Joe Ferguson, the Bills’ quarterback threw four touchdown passes in a 35-3 Bills victory. Craig Morton the veteran signal caller of the Broncos duplicated Ferguson and threw for 4 scores the next week against the Colts in a 28-10 victory for the Broncos in Denver. Over the next twelve weeks they allowed points by the truck load. In losses to the Chargers, Bengals, Jets, and Browns they allowed over 40 points in each of those games. The Eagles, Cowboys, Redskins, and Cardinals all scored at least 35 points against the Colts. Their only “respectable” losses during the streak were 31-28 and 27-10 losses to the Dolphins and a 23-17 rematch loss at Buffalo. They were outscored by an average of 20 points a game during the streak.   
 
To add insult to injury, some players they faced poked fun at the Colt defense, or lack thereof. After beating the Colts 42-28 in Cleveland and throwing 4 touchdown passes, Browns quarterback Brian Sipe was asked after the game by reporters in the locker room, “ What plays were working best for you today?” He answered, “I did not have to call plays today, I just told Ozzie (Browns All Pro TE Ozzie Newsome), run out anywhere on the field and you will be open, this was like playing in the schoolyard today.”
 
The Colts reached depths few NFL teams have reached, and two incidents in a 2 week stretch in November proved that McCormack had “lost” the team.  The 1-8 Colts hosted the Jets on November 8 before just 31,521 fans in Baltimore, a game lost by the Colts 41-14.
 
The Colts had beaten the Jets in their two contests the year before. On the first play of the game, Dickey fumbled a hand off, the Jets recovered and kicked a field goal as a result. When the Colts got the ball back, Jones’ pass protection broke down and he scrambled but was sacked for a loss. After the play, Jones slammed the ball down and visibly yelled at Dickey as they came off the field. Dickey did not return to the game. McCormack replaced him with the capable Zach Dixon in the backfield. Asked by reporters after the game what he said to Dickey, Jones replied, “I said, don’t just stand there when I am scrambling around. Go out, come back to me, block somebody, do something, make a play.”
 
Jones also noted to the reporters that Dickey falls asleep in some team meetings.
 
Dickey’s response was that he was benched by Jones, then accused Jones of being racist. In a Baltimore Sun interview Dickey said, “It’s [Jones’ racist behavior] probably been around all along, I’m not the first one he’s hurt.”
 
Dickey would later name former African American Colts Raymond Chester, Glenn Doughty, and Freddie Scott as others who have had racial disagreements with Jones.
 
African American Colt assistant coach Clyde Powers came to Jones’ defense and said no such racial bias was evident in the Colt locker room. McCormack later said “I took Curtis out to settle him down then I kept Dixon in because he was playing well.”  
 
The Colts were falling apart on and off the field.
 
In today’s world of cable television with ESPN and the NFL Network reporting everything about NFL teams and the internet there would be no way a story like this could go away. In 1981 when you had just a small group of beat writers covering a team, you could bury these matters. Not much more of this incident was reported but everyone knew this team was a disaster.
 
The next week in Philadelphia, the Eagles easily beat the Colts 38-13. Dickey scored a first half touchdown but to make matters worse for the Colts than the Eagles already had, Irsay was up to some old tricks. In the third quarter he used the coach’s phone in the press box and ordered McCormack to replace Jones with back up Greg Landry. Irsay then came down on the sidelines in the 4th quarter and put Jones back in the game, and then actually began calling plays. After the game thankfully ended, Irsay promised he would not call anymore plays but said “He would be there on the sidelines to advise McCormack.”
 
The team was the laughing stock of the NFL, again with today’s media outlets this story would have been the lead story on ESPN’s  Sportscenter, but back then the story only made the rounds inside NFL circles.
     
The Colts entered the last game of the year 1-14, they would host the New England Patriots. The Patriots were also having a miserable year, they came in at 2-13, but had been more competitive than the Colts. They lost 2 games in overtime and several more by a touchdown or less. The loser of this game would get the first overall pick in the 1982 draft. There was little doubt as who that would be, University of Texas’ all world defensive end Kenneth Sims. The Colts needed to rebuild on defense, he could have been the first building block.
 
As it turned out Sims was only an average defensive lineman in his 8 years with the Patriots, recording 17 sacks in 74 games. But who knew at the time he would not be a great player. The Colts had a chance to win the first pick, they just had to keep the losing streak going for one more week.
 
They did not.
 
Before a “crowd” of 17, 073 faithful fans at Memorial Stadium the Colts won 23-21. Jones threw three touchdown passes, 2 to second year wide receiver Ray Butler. The Colts hung on as Patriot quarterback Matt Cavanaugh (future Raven offensive coordinator) completed his Hail Mary attempt on the game’s last play, but Patriot wide receiver Lin Dawson was tackled at the Colt 16 as the gun sounded.
 
The horrific season was over. McCormack was fired the next day and admitted that some of his players had given up during the year and that he could not motivate them to play. He was replaced by Arizona State head coach Frank Kush. The change did not do much as the team would win just 7 games over the next two seasons and attendance stayed at league lows before the moving vans were loaded in March 1984.    
 
When the dust settled and the statisticians finished their work the 1981 Colts had set some records. They allowed 533 points, 68 touchdowns, 6,793 total yards and 406 first downs. All are still NFL records for a 16 game season. Also, they set another record, they had just thirteen sacks, setting the NFL record for least amount of sacks in a sixteen game season.
 
In addition to the turmoil between some of the players and the owners antics there were many factors that led to this team being a disaster. The first was defensive signal caller and middle linebacker Ed Simonini was injured before the season and had to replaced by Ed Smith who had been a twelfth round draft pick. Smith hustled but McCormack complained that Smith made wrong calls consistently at the line. Yet McCormack never replaced Smith as the signal caller.
 
The main culprit of the defensive meltdown was that there was no pass rush. Former Pro Bowler defensive tackle Mike Barnes was still on the team but was past his prime, as was 34 year old former Detroit Lion Herb Orvis. They were mixed in with first round pick Thompson, but Thompson was injured during the year and rookies and free agents such Hosea Taylor, Bubba Green, and Daryl Wilkerson had to man the line and they were run over.
 
With no pass rush the secondary had no chance. Solid veterans such as former Pro Bowler Bruce Laird and Nesby Glasgow were the only competent defensive backs. Seasoned quarterbacks were able to stay away from Laird and Glasgow and picked on youngster Derrick Hatchett and vulnerable Larry Braziel. The list of veteran quarterbacks this team faced in 1981was impressive, Dan Fouts, Ken Anderson, Brian Sipe, Joe Ferguson, Craig Morton, Ron Jaworski, Danny White, Neil Lomax, Joe Theisman, and Richard Todd.
 
Veteran linebackers Barry Krauss and Sanders Shiver held their own but Smith and New Orleans Saint cast off Joe Federspiel were weak links. This all added up to the worst single season defensive performance in NFL history.  
 
The one factor that is most overlooked about this team was the effort that quarterback Bert Jones put forth. He never had a luxury of having a large lead the entire season to work with. They were just three points from finishing 0-16. He had to play from behind in every game, even the 2 games they won. He had to throw passes in bunches and was not able to use play action, yet he threw more touchdowns (21) than interceptions (20). The press, most fans, and of course some of his team mates were happy when he was traded but his performance in 1981 was valiant to a degree. Defensive lines knew he had to throw and he had to play with constant pressure, yet he always moved the ball.
 
There were a couple of other bright spots. Butler in just his second year caught nine touchdown passes. Dickey scored ten touchdowns, ran for 779 yards, and he had an impressive 4.8 yards per carry average. McMillan gained 597 yards rushing and led the Colts with 50 receptions.  
 
Yet it clearly wasn’t enough.
 
As the Ravens prepare to play their final two games and the press and fans vent their displeasure towards them, keep in mind that even if they are shut out against the Seahawks and Steelers to end the 2007 season they will not be close to being as bad as the 1981 Colts, the worst Baltimore football team in the modern era of the National Football League.

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Kurt Backert

About Kurt Backert

Kurt's passion for the game began in the 60's watching the Colts on TV and at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. He began following the statistics of not only his beloved Colts but also those of the Colts opponents, with a keen eye on Vince Lombardi's Packers. His thirst for and attention to statistical detail would eventually lead Kurt on a journey to the world of fantasy football in the late 1980's where he's captured more titles than John Wooden's UCLA Bruins   Kurt carries a distinction that no other fan of the NFL can boast about.  He is the reigning NFL National Trivia Champion and he credits his Dad for passing on such passion for the game, something Kurt also hopes to pass along to his 9-year-old son. More from Kurt Backert

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