John McGrath

50 years ago, Matte made an impression on NFL playoffs that lives on

Fifty years ago Saturday, the Green Bay Packers beat the Baltimore Colts in a playoff game that serves as a time-capsule relic of the NFL before it became the sports world’s Godzilla.

Begin with the word “playoffs,” which didn’t exist in 1965. But because the Packers and Colts had finished the regular season tied atop the Western Conference with 10-3-1 records, the teams played at Green Bay to decide which would face the Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Browns for the league title.

Slated for Dec. 26, the NFL title game was delayed a week. Sounds inconceivable, doesn’t it? Future Super Bowl sites are determined years in advance, but in 1965, the rescheduling of a There Is No Tomorrow football contest was not regarded as news.

The quarterback position, on the other hand, was almost as important then as it is today. Baltimore had lost Johnny Unitas to a knee injury and backup Gary Cuozzo was out with an ailing shoulder. Absent a third quarterback — with rosters limited to 40, few teams had that luxury — the Colts turned the job over to halfback Tom Matte.

Matte had a familiarity with the nuances of taking a snaps and executing pitchouts from his years at Ohio State. But passing was not a fancy of Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes, who often pointed out how “three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.”

Matte answered the challenge with legendary moxie, trusting that his wunderkind NFL coach — 35-year-old Don Shula — could figure out a way for the Colts to survive with a halfback impersonating a quarterback.

Shula found a way, scrawling playbook cues for Matte on a wristband. This is standard procedure for quarterbacks nowadays, along with helmet audio devices enabling them to hear the play call from coaches. But 50 years ago? It was a revelation.

As I watched Matte that day in front of the television with my dad — I remember this as vividly as the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — I discovered the joy of rooting for the ultimate underdog.

Matte ran for 57 yards, completed five of 12 passes for 40 yards without an interception, and defined the essence of the quarterback as a game manager.

“Baltimore’s attack without Unitas,” wrote the Milwaukee Sentinel’s Bud Lea, “was about as daring as a 1920 lady’s bathing suit.”

The no-frills, no-thrills offense kept the Colts in a game that found Packers quarterback Bart Starr on the sideline after one play. Starr hurt himself attempting to tackle linebacker Don Shinnick, whose touchdown return of a fumble gave the Colts a lead they wouldn’t relinquish until a late, eternally disputed field goal sent the game into sudden-death overtime.

Don Chandler winced when his 22-yard kick sailed somewhere over the right goal post, but the officials, nowhere near the goal posts, called it good. In the 14th minute of the not-so-sudden-death overtime, Chandler’s more authentic field goal was the difference in a 13-10 victory that paved the way for the Packers’ three-peat championship dynasty under Vince Lombardi.

As a consequence of the controversial field goal, uprights the following season were raised to 20 feet and painted yellow, and officials were put in place to, like, watch.

The “Chandler Rule” was merely a footnote during the summer of 1966, when the NFL began its morphing into a monster. Wary of continuing bidding wars for the likes of Gale Sayers (who chose the Chicago Bears over the Kansas City Chiefs) and Joe Namath (who chose the New York Jets over the St. Louis Cardinals), the NFL merged with the American Football League.

The merger produced an NFL-AFL championship game awkward in its inception — both CBS and NBC had television rights — that in 1968 came to be known as the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, the concept of playoffs gained traction. The NFL split its two conferences into four divisions in 1967 and added wild cards in 1978, around the time ESPN emerged as a start-up venture and sports-talk formats replaced pop-music formats on AM radio stations.

The unscheduled 1965 playoff game between the Colts and Packers is not the sole reason the NFL keeps a 24/7 grip on sports fans 12 months a year, but that playoff game got the ball rolling. Two teams with an ambition to advance, settling things in a compelling sudden-death showdown — this made sense.

Despite a stellar 12-year career with the Colts, Tom Matte never got into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But part of him did. His wristband.

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