Baltimore Colts Pioneering Tight End Passes Away
Jim Mutscheller, the former Baltimore Colts end who was a member of their championship teams of 1958 and 1959 passed away Friday April 10 at the age of 85.
Mutscheller was drafted out of Notre Dame and into the NFL in 1951 by the Colts’ predecessors, the New York Yanks. The troubled franchise was moved to Dallas and renamed the Texans for 1952. They eventually failed as well. The defunct Dallas franchise was transferred to Baltimore for 1953 and renamed the Colts, thus Baltimore held the draft rights for Mutscheller who joined them in 1954 after spending two years in the military.
Jim began his sports career as a multiple sport star at Beaver Falls High School in western Pennsylvania – the same school later attended by Joe Namath.
Mutscheller was recruited collegiately to play offensive and defensive end for legendary The Fighting Irish’s coach Frank Leahy. While at Notre Dame, Mutscheller developed into a devastating blocker and reliable pass catcher. Leahy teamed Mutscheller with eventual Heisman Trophy winning end Leon Hart and ran one of the first double tight end collegiate offenses. The result was a national championship for the Irish in 1949. Jim would later go on to captain the 1951 Notre Dame squad as a senior.
Mutscheller joined new Colt head coach Weeb Ewbank at training camp in 1954 who was trying to build a winner from the previous season’s (3-9), next-to-last-place team. Mutscheller was not able to distinguish himself during camp and barely made the team. His versatility and ability to play offense and defense may have save him.
The 6’1”, 205-pound end played sparingly in 1954, but caught the attention of Colts’ veterans such as Gino Marchetti. Mutscheller soon developed a reputation for being a physical, well-prepared teammate willing to play offense, defense, or special teams. While the Colts record remained at (3-9) in 1954 there was noticeable improvement.
Ewbank had been on the coaching staff with NFL champion head coach Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns and wanted to install the Browns innovative passing attack in Baltimore. Ewbank drafted highly touted George Shaw from Oregon to quarterback his team for 1955, but he had to find receivers to pair with his rookie signal caller.
Ewbank gave virtually every player in camp reps during the preseason at offensive end. Only one player distinguished himself during camp in 1955 – Jim Mutscheller who caught 8 of Shaw’s passes during the second preseason game against the Browns.
The rest as they say is history.
Ewbank now had his cornerstone at receiver to build from.
Mutscheller caught his first career touchdown on 10/1/55, hauling in a 15-yard pass from Shaw in an upset win over the Lions. He led the team with 33 receptions for 7 scores in ‘55 and the team improved to (5-6-1). Ewbank worked diligently with Mutscheller and newcomer rookie wide receiver Raymond Berry and taught them the modern pro passing game.
In 1956 the Colts added dynamic Lenny Moore from Penn State in the draft and found quarterback John Unitas on the sandlot in Pittsburgh. When Shaw was injured during the 4th game of the year, the Unitas Era was born.
Even though the Colts 58-27, Unitas threw his first career touchdown pass, a 36-yard strike to Mutscheller. Unitas would throw for 9 TD’s the remainder of 1956 and break the rookie NFL passing mark for completion percentage. Mutscheller became his go-to receiver leading the Colts with 44 receptions for six scores. Five of Unitas’ nine scoring throws were to Mutscheller in 1956.
Two of those 6 TD grabs were key to the overall success of the Colt franchise, not just for 1956, but to their history as well. The first was during a 31-7 drubbing at the hands of the veteran Los Angeles Rams. Trailing 31-0 late in the game Unitas found Mutscheller for a three-yard score. While the touchdown itself was not a factor in the outcome of the game, the date 12/9/56, coupled with that TD pass to Mutscheller, marked the beginning of a historic streak of 47 consecutive games during which Unitas would throw at least one scoring strike.
The second big Unitas to Mutscheller scoring throw occurred 12/23/56.
With minutes remaining on the clock in their last game of the year the (4-7) Colts trailed the Redskins in the rain at Memorial Stadium. Rumor had it that if the Colts lost, owner Carrol Rosenbloom would fire Ewbank. A win would save his job for another season.
Mutscheller got behind the Redskins secondary and Unitas found him for a dramatic 53-yard touchdown. The Colts won 19-17, Ewbank’s job was saved and the rest is history. Had Mutscheller not gained separation, who knows what path the Baltimore Colts would have taken. Without Ewbank coaching would they have stayed with Unitas? We can only speculate, but Jim Mutscheller saved the day and arguably altered the future of the franchise with that catch.
The Colts led the league in passing in 1957, and Mutscheller led the league with 8 TD receptions and appeared in the Pro Bowl game, as the Colts finished (7-5), one game out of the post season.
In 1958 it all came together for Jim and the Colts, reaching the NFL title game. Mutscheller had another solid season scoring 7 touchdowns and catching 28 passes while continuing his devastating blocking.
During the 1958 title game against the Giants at Yankee Stadium, Jim was on the end of another famous Unitas spinner, but this time it was not a scoring pass – just a pass that would set up a score heard around the world.
After the Colts forced overtime, the Giants punted to the Colts and Unitas would lead them on an 80- yard march to football immortality.
The drive consisted of 13 carefully constructed plays through the best defense in the NFL. Of all those plays the most talked about and debated call of the drive occurred from the Giant 8 yard line. Although in range for an easy field goal that would win the game, the twelfth play of the drive on second and goal was not a conservative off tackle run, but a pass from Unitas to Mutscheller into the right flat of the Giant defense.
Mutscheller made the catch and his momentum carried him out of bounds at the 1-yard line. The next play Alan Ameche crashed into the end zone behind great blocking, including Mutscheller’s block on Giant linebacker Cliff Livingston.
Unitas gambled with the pass, but as he later deadpanned, “It’s not gambling if you know what you are doing.”
His rapport and trust in Mutscheller allowed him to make that call. That was the kind of teammate Mutscheller was, the kind that you could rely on to win a championship.
Mutscheller would have another 8 TD year in 1959 as he continued to be a key to the best passing game in the NFL as the Colts won another title. In 1960 and ‘61 Jim combined to make 38 receptions and he scored 4 touchdowns.
He retired after the 1961 season to embark on an entrepreneurial endeavor in the insurance business. He remained here in Baltimore and raised his family and was a noteworthy contributor to the community.
Jim Mutscheller was the first building block of the best passing offense the NFL had seen up to that point – the Unitas Era. He was an integral part of Baltimore football history and helped deliver the city of Baltimore its first major championship.
Weeb Ewbank could not have chosen a better player or person to help get the ball rolling here.
Thanks for the memories Jim.
Your legacy will live on…