Baltimore is granted a franchise in the rival All-American Football Conference after the Miami Seahawks fold. The team would be named Colts in honor of Baltimore’s distinguished history with thoroughbred racing and the area’s rich tradition in horse breeding. The Colts enjoyed only moderate success in the AAFC and would later become one of 3 teams to join the NFL in 1950. The team was a financial disaster and folded after just 1 season.
Simultaneously to the north another AAFC team, the New York Yankees shared the Colts’ fiscal inadequacies and folded after the 1949 season. The New York Bulldogs, another NFL team, finished 1-10-1 in 1949 and changed their name to the New York Yankees for the 1950 season. The divided the players of the former Yankees with the Giants.
A group of Baltimore inventors considered acquiring the Yankees in 1951 but their attempts were foiled when the league bought the team and moved them to Dallas where they became known as the Texans.
The collegiate football crazy Texas did not embrace the Texans and by the middle of their first season they were operating from the land of candy bars – Hershey, PA, and played all of their games on the road. The league folded the Texans’ shop after the season.
Once again, enter Baltimore. This time Baltimore’s argument to bring back the NFL was convincing enough. The city restored the name of the Colts.
1953 - 1954:
Lead by Head Coach Keith Molesworth, the second incarnation of the Baltimore Colts kicked off their season on 33rd Street in Memorial Stadium on September 27 against the Chicago Bears. To the surprise of most observers, the hometown team pulled off the upset while beating the Monsters of the Midway 13-9.
After starting the season with a win, the Colts would go on to a 3-2 start before dropping the last 7 games of 1953. Upon the season's conclusion, Molesworth was reassigned and the club's Director of Scouting would take over as Head Coach. His name was Weeb Ewbank. Ewbank's first season in '54 was no different than the team's last when the Colts again finished with a record of 3-9.
Despite having 12 rookies on the roster, the Colts may have given their fans a glimpse of things to come when they jumped out to a 3-0 start. Prominence would have to wait as the youthful team stumbled to a 5-6-1 finish.
Quarterback George Shaw goes down with an injury after the fourth game of the season. The Colts season held little promise after Shaw’s injury. They stared a 1-3 start square in the face and were forced to turn to an unproven backup named John Unitas. Unitas won 4 games in his 8 starts to begin what would ultimately be a remarkable career.
In Johnny Unitas' first full season as starting QB, the Colts get off to a 3-0 start, and are a factor all year in the race for the Western Division Title. After losing 3 in a row, the Colts responded by winning 4 in a row, and sat at 7-3 with the Western Title with in their grasp. However, the Colts would lose their final 2 games of the season and at 7-5, 1 game out of a 2-way tie for the title.
The Colts burst out of the gates to start the season winning their first 6 games on their way to a 9-1 start. Later in ‘58 the Colts found the terrain to be not as accommodating, losing their last two games on the season. But this season would soon take a historic and heroic turn. On December 28 the Colts took on the New York Giants in a game that would later be known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The sudden death win by the Colts had far reaching consequences. At the time the NFL was a rather distant second to baseball in terms of the attention it attracted from the viewing public. The national TV audience not only tune in to a riveting overtime victory by the Colts, they also witness the dawning of an American hero, John Unitas who in many ways served as the NFL’s springboard for its rapidly climbing popularity.
The Colts finished the 1959 season with a 9-3 record and after winning their second consecutive Western Conference Championship they earned the right to engage in a rematch with the New York Giants only this time the game would be played at Memorial Stadium. The Colts struggled for most to the ’59 championship game and trailed 9-7 after three quarters. However behind Johnny Unitas, the Colts would score 24 unanswered points on their way to a 31-16 win and their second consecutive NFL championship.
At the season’s outset, the Colts’ defense of their title was initially worthy jumping out to a 6-2 start. But they faded quickly, losing their final four games and finishing the season at 6-6 and far short of the lofty aspirations and expectations.
The Colts unfortunately picked up where they left off in ’60, essentially irrelevant in the post season, posting an 8-6 record. In ’62 they struggles continued as Father Time and injuries gripped Weeb Ewbank’s team leading to the head coach’s dismissal after a 7-7 campaign. Don Shula was named as the Colts’ head coach to start the 1963 season.
Along with a youthful head coach, the Colts roster also grew a lot less long in the tooth. Early on the inexperience was a factor although the team rebounded later to win its final 3 contests and finished with an 8-6 mark.
The Vikings defeated the Colts in the ’64 season opener in Minnesota after which the Colts ran off a ten game winning streak on their way to the Western Conference title and a 12-2 finish. Johnny Unitas won the NFL MVP award that season as well but success was not to be found in the post season as the Colts lost the championship game to the Cleveland Browns, 27-0.
The ’65 season was certainly affected by injuries as the Colts lost both Johnny Unitas and his back up Gary Cuozzo. Don Shula without options turned to halfback Tom Matte to lead his squad against the tough Los Angeles Rams. Matte while wearing a plastic wrist band designed to display the Colts playbook, led Baltimore to a 20-17 victory and a share of the Western title with the emerging Packers from Green Bay. The Colts and Packers would later take on the Pack to decide the West. The game went into overtime with the score tied at 10. The Packers would eventually win the game on a field goal late in the second overtime period.
The Pack was back n ’66 and while the Colts had a very respectable 9-5 season, Green Bay swept the Colts on their way to the Western Division Title, outpacing the Colts by 3 games.
Johnny Unitas once again wins the NFL MVP leading the way for the Colts to rip through the league going undefeated through the first 13 games. In today’s age of parity and during a time when 12 league teams qualify for the post season, it would be hard to relate to the misfortunes of the ’67 Colts. Despite an 11-0-2 record the Colts still had to beat the Los Angeles Rams in order to advance into the playoffs. The failed miserably losing to the Rams 34-10. With only 1 loss on the season, the Colts were home for the playoffs.
With Johnny Unitas out most of the season with an ailing elbow that would plague him for the balance of his career and even after his playing days, Earl Morrall stepped in and not only led the Colts to a record breaking finish of 13-1, he won the MVP along the way. Easily capturing the Coastal Division Title, the Colts were dominant defensively as well chalking up three shutouts and holding opponents to a record low 144 points.
To kick off the playoffs the Colts hosted the Vikings, beating Minnesota 24-14. They then traveled to Cleveland to face the Browns, the only team to have beaten the Colts in ’68. The Colts destroyed the Browns 34-0 to advance to Super Bowl III as decided 18 point favorites against the New York Jets.
In the Divisional Playoff round the Colts beat the Minnesota Vikings 24-14 before a sold out crowd at Memorial Stadium. In the NFL Championship Game the Colts faced the Browns in Cleveland hoping to avenge their only loss of the season. The game was never close as the Colts destroyed the Browns 34-0, to advance to Super Bowl III. Jets’ QB Joe Namath guaranteed a victory over the Colts and his teammates stepped up to the task handing the Colts a historic loss by the score of 16-7. It marked the first major victory of the AFL over the NFL and in large part, the success of the AFL in this game paved the way for a merger of the leagues.
Still smarting from the Super Bowl III loss, the Colts started the ’69 season sluggishly, losing their first 2. Baltimore was never threatened for the Coastal Division title finishing with a record of 8-5-1. After the season, Don Shula had a falling out with Carroll Rosenbloom. He asked for and allegedly received permission to speak with the Miami Dolphins about their head coaching position. Shula would leave for Miami, replaced by Don McCafferty. The Colts received a first round pick from the Dolphins as compensation.
The NFL and the AFL merge and in order to create balance the Colts are one of three teams (Cleveland and Pittsburgh are the others) to move over to the AFC. The Colts would adjust well, winning the AFC Eastern Division with an 11-2-1 record and eventually they advanced to Super Bowl V to take on the Dallas Cowboys where they would avenge their Super Bowl III loss.
Along the way the Colts would get a small measure of revenge against the Jets, defeating New York in the regular season finale, 35-20. In the playoffs the Colts would roll through Cincinnati 17-0 and the Raiders 27-17 at Memorial Stadium on their way to Super Bowl V in Miami.
By their own admission, the Colts wanted to complete dominate the Cowboys in Super Bowl V to help put the lingering bitter taste of Super Bowl III behind them. It didn’t quite work out that way despite the 16-13 victory. The game was marred by 11 turnovers and is referred to by some as the Blunder Bowl. The game ended and the championship was delivered on the foot of field goal kicker Jim O’Brien whose 32 yard attempt was perfect even though the game was anything but.
Age and injuries accelerate the decline in play of quarterbacks Unitas and Morrall yet the Colts persevere and nearly capture the AFC East again after stifling the Dolphins 14-3 in the next to last regular season game. However the Colts would drop the regular season finale forcing Baltimore to settle for a Wild Card berth. After beating the Browns 20-3 in the Divisional Playoff contest, the Colts advanced to take on Shula’s Dolphins in the AFC Championship. They could not duplicate their effort from a few weeks prior and lost decidedly to Miami, 21-0.
This season in many ways could be considered the beginning of the end of the Baltimore Colts. In July of ‘72 the Colts would make a trade the effects of which still reverberate today. Colts’ owner Carroll Rosenbloom essentially swapped ownership of the Colts to Robert Irsay who just taken control of the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for the ownership rights to the Rams. On the field, the Colts stumbled to a 1-4 start which led to the firing of Don McCafferty. John Sandusky took over for McCafferty winning 4 of the remaining 9 games to finish the season at 5-9. The beginning of the Irsay era would soon be followed by the end of the Unitas era. Following the season, Johnny U was traded to the San Diego Chargers.
John Sandusky’s tenure as the head coach didn’t last long as the Colts ushered in Howard Schnellenberger to lead the young Colts. With Marty Domres behind center leading a young team, the Colts got off to a dismal 2-10 start. The Colts found the season’s silver lining during the final two games of the season as rookie Bert Jones replaced Domres and won the season’s final two contests including a stunning upset of the Miami Dolphins – the Dolphins second loss in 30 games.
The Colts could not pick up where they left off in ’73 starting 0-3 and leading to Howard Schnellenberger’s firing. GM Joe Thomas took over as head coach. The Colts finished a miserable 2-12.
Ted Marchibroda was hired as the Colts’ head coach and under his guidance the Colts would again start sluggishly. However after a 1-4 start, the Colts would reel off 9 straight victories to finish at 10-4 and head into the playoffs to take on the Steelers. They met their match and then some in Pittsburgh as the Steelers brought the Colts season to an abrupt end, beating Baltimore 28-10.
A dispute between Ted Marchibroda and Robert Irsay led to Marchibroda’s resignation. Chaos ensued and the team threatened mutiny leading to Marchibroda’s reinstatement. Bert Jones would settle in and go on to win the league’s MVP Award and guide his team to the AFC East title and an 11-3 record. The Steelers would again bring an end to the Colts season in Baltimore, dismantling Baltimore 40-29.
The Colts raced to a 9-1 start before dripping 3 straight, forcing a must win game against the New England Patriots at Memorial Stadium for the AFC East title. The Colts pulled out the victory in a 30-24 shootout. Baltimore would go on to host the Raiders in a Divisional Playoff game and lose in double overtime, 37-31. The game would later be remembered by Raider TE Dave Casper’s over the shoulder catch on a pattern called “Ghost to the Post” which helped set up the winning score.
1978 - 1979:
Bert Jones was injured early during the ’78 season and if anyone thought the Colts had a chance without Jones, the two losses to open the season by a combined score of 80-0 proved to be a sobering reminder that they didn’t. Jones later returned to the lineup but was injured again. The Colts finished 5-11 while their defense yielded a frightening 421 points.
Jones’ health issues continued and he was replaced in the lineup by veteran Greg Landry. A different QB produced the same results – 5-11. Ted Marchibroda was fired and replaced by Mike McCormick.
Bert Jones regains his starting job and has a solid campaign producing 3,134 yards passing. The defense again was the team’s Achilles Heel as the Colts finished 7-9.
In ’81 the Colts won their first and last games of the season, both at the expense of the New England Patriots. However they lost the other 14 games in between as the sieve-like defense proved to be a welcome mat for opposing offenses while giving up 533 points. After the ’81 season Bert Jones is traded to the Rams despite throwing for nearly 3,100 yards. To the surprise of no one, Mike McCormick is fired and replaced by Frank Kush.
The season is interrupted by a two month strike. This coupled with the Colts losing ways and inadequacies of the front office causes attendance to drop precipitously. The strike may have prevented a losing season of epic proportions as the shortened season ended with the Colts at 0-8-1.
With the number 1 pick in the NFL Draft the Colts select QB John Elway from Stanford. Elway refused to report to Baltimore mostly because of his disdain for head coach Frank Kush. Despite Ernie Accorsi’s efforts to persuade Elway to report and fearful that the Colts would get nothing for the overall No. 1 pick, Robert Irsay trades away the rights to Elway to Denver for T Chris Hinton, QB Mark Hermann and a No. 1 draft pick. The Colts finish their final season in Baltimore with a 7-9 record as attendance continues to plummet and the gap between owner Robert Irsay, local politicians and the fan base widens.
The hostilities between Irsay and Baltimore showed little signs of weakening despite the solstice of the offseason. Irsay openly discussed and threatened a move of his team and began parading the Colts to prospective cities that were all too willing to give the volatile owner the red carper treatment. On February 13th Irsay received such treatment from the city of Indianapolis while he toured the Hoosier Dome. The Colts also spoke to officials in Phoenix. Meanwhile legislators in Maryland hustled to use eminent domain as a way of preventing the threatened exodus.
Phoenix dropped out of the bidding, in part prompting Irsay to dial up Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut to say that he was on his way.
On March 28 and into March 29, Mayflower Vans pulled up to Colts’ Headquarters in Owings Mills, Maryland, under a midnight snowy sky and drove off into the night with Baltimore’s football heritage. The NFL would not come to Baltimore’s aid, concerned that it could not win a battle in court given its failures to legally prevent similar efforts by Raiders’ owner Al Davis.
A thirty year love affair had come to an end, and to this day the bitterness of the divorce still lingers for some.