Top Ten Single Season Defenses in NFL History : #6 1971 Baltimore Colts

One of the greatest defensive performances in NFL history happened in 1971. The defending Super Bowl champion Colts had the #1 defense and drug a struggling offense to the AFC Championship Game. They allowed the 2nd fewest yards per game mark in the NFL since 1970 with 203.7 yards. With only 140 points allowed, it would have been an NFL record had the ’69 Vikings not broken the ’68 Colts old scoring record of 144 with 133.

Bubba smith coming off the ball.

Bubba smith coming off the ball.

One interesting aspect of the ’71 Colts was how anemic their once great passing offense had become.  The 38 year old Unitas completed just 52.3% of his passes for 3 TDs and 9 interceptions. Earl Morrall, who was 37, fared no better with an even lower 50.3% with 7 TDs to 12 ints. They were 21st in passing offense and 12th overall making the defense work harder.

During the ’71 season the defense held 7 of their 14 opponents to 10 points or less. Including 5 of their first 6. Baltimore’s D recorded 3 shutouts and held their first playoff opponent to 3 points. In facing 5 top ten offenses that year, they were 4-1 and held two of those to 10 points or less. Yet why aren’t they remembered??

Now the media anoints others of that era and obscures this team…lets compare a few:

  • 1971 Baltimore Colts – #1 overall / 203.7 yds all. / 140 points given up / 28 int
  • 1971 Dallas Cowboys – #3 overall / 243.3 yds all. / 222 points given up / 26 int
  • 1972 Miami Dolphins – #1 overall / 235.5 yds all. / 171 points given up / 26 int
  • 1970 Minnesota Vikings – #1 overall / 200.2 yds all. / 143 points given up / 28 int
  • 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers – #4 overall / 261.5 yds all. / 162 points given up / 27 ints

Right now fans of the Doomsday Defense, The No Name Defense, and the Steel Curtain are saying to themselves ‘Its not all about stats”. Which is true until you realize this was a defending Super Bowl champion that made it back to the AFC Championship Game despite its offense. Had they won against Miami, they would have taken on the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI. Well that is who they beat in Super Bowl V to become champions in the first place.

Mike Curtis tackling Cliff Branch.

Mike Curtis tackling Cliff Branch.

Led by Pro Bowlers DE Bubba Smith, MLB Mike Curtis, LB Ted Hendricks, SS Jerry Logan, and FS Rick Volk, its amazing only Hendricks is in the Hall of Fame. Curtis definitely should be but when you think of Hendricks making the Hall that is primarily from his work with the Raiders.

This was the last hurrah for the Colts as everything came apart starting in 1972. That was the year owner Carroll Rosenbloom swapped franchises with Robert Irsay. Head Coach Don McCafferty fired, John Unitas sent to the bench and the run as an NFL elite team ended.

Yet a tremendous performance by the defense in 1971 allowed them to hang on for one more season.

Dedicated to the memories of Don McCafferty, Bubba Smith, & Carroll Rosenbloom

9 thoughts on “Top Ten Single Season Defenses in NFL History : #6 1971 Baltimore Colts

  1. VERY good bring-up!! Great article, Chancellor! And also a great – and also a very informative – response, Ken! Whether they should be even-higher on this list, or lower, or just where they’re at, simply the MENTION of them thus bringing ATTENTION to them is the main thing!

    The 1970 Colts, the team that actually WON the Super Bowl – like the 2005 Steelers – is widely/sadly considered among the lesser of all Lombardi winners (with the 9-7 Giants of 2011 getting the Ultimate such ‘honor’). Winning an “ugly” Super Bowl – also like that very team 35 years later – don’t help matters. Many surviving members don’t even wear their Ring to this day. So if the ’70 Colts themselves are hardly historically revered, then how can the NON-champion team that came one-year-later be remembered?

    Just like you’d think a different Bill Cowher team would have won-it-all instead, you’d also think a different Colts team – like ’64, ’67, especially ’68, or even…1971 – would have finished atop the pro football world instead! Baltimore had a mere top ten D when they won SBV but had – along with the ’81 Niners and ’08 Steelers – among the weakest run games EVER by a SB champ (besides, again, the ’11 Giants)! Bulaich led the pack in yards at just over 400 and also led in TDs with…(get ready)…THREE!!

    In ’71, however, the tables were turned. Much better run output as you bring up, Ken, but now the passing game, as you note Chancellor, was now the super-weak-link! And their D, of course, now #1 instead of just top ten! Much tougher schedule the ’71! In 1970, they only played against three winning teams: a split with the Dolphins and losing at home BIG to the Chiefs (who’d finish 7-5-2) on MNF in Week #2! In ’71, however, SIX teams with winning records they went against, winning three of them (3-3 better than 1-3)!

    Don McCafferty….a bit ’89 Seifert-(or ’78 Bob Lemon)-like in taking over a team a Legend built, he showed his worth even more in ’71 by taking them, as stated, back to the AFC Championship Game! Dolphins were obviously going places, didn’t have that crucial weakness holding them back that Colts now did, so 21-0 no true shame. I would have liked to see how he would have fared continuing on as an NFL head coach. How the mid-’70s Lions would have done barring that tragedy we’ll never know but likely-enough some success at the very least.

    And Mike Curtis…sadly no Hall of Fame for him if however due to just four Pro Bowl selections and just two All Pros. It doesn’t mean we have to like it though. Definitely an immediate Jack Lambert-precursor. Was more a leader to that defense if only because there wasn’t a ‘Mean Joe’ already there when he arrived. Yes, railing that fan on the field, lol, but the better “classic” story (one you think would be more discussed) was simply Colts losing at Miami in ’70, bringing them now down to 7-2-1. In the locker he – paraphrasing – said he’ll be watching everyone on the field and if he sees any slacking, he’ll kick his ###!! And we all know how many games they lost the rest of the way…he helping the Seahawks acclimate themselves into the league in ’76 something to look back on also!

    I already knew about this team, and defense, but learned more reading this article and the comments. Thanks, Chancellor and Ken!

    PS – this is SUCH an awesome site! SMORGASBORD of articles worth reading!!

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  2. I like your commentary-I remember that season well and that it ended for the Colts with a 21-0 shutout victory by the Dolphins in the second AFC Championship Game. Earl Morrall, who had come through every time the Colts needed him from his arrival in a trade with the Giants in the preseason of 1968, struggled that season. Unitas slowly worked his way back into the lineup, starting his first game of the ’71 season in November against the Dolphins in Miami (where the Colts would not win a football game until a 1976 MNF game in which Morrall made one of the last game appearances of his career). The great QB’s decline, however, was more evident in that season.
    It was clear the Colts’ offense missed Roy Jefferson, a key factor in the Colts’ 1970 championship season who was traded to the Redskins after a falling out with Rosenbloom. John Mackey had been factored out of the offense, perhaps because of his leadership of the NFL Players Association.

    But the Colts moved the ball on the ground in 1971 better than they had since the days of Alan Ameche, Lenny Moore and L. G. Dupre. Norm Bulaich had an outside shot to become the Colts’ first 1000 yard rusher before a season-ending injury against the Dolphins at Memorial Stadium in December. Tom Matte, coming back from a 1970 season in which he played only 2 games because of a knee injury, rushed for over 600 yards. Rookies Don McCauley and Don Nottingham were capable back-ups. The rookies, however, could not make up for the loss of Bulaich and Matte (who missed the ’71 AFC title game due to an injury in the previous week’s playoff victory against the Browns, the final posteason win for the Baltimore Colts). The absence of Bulaich and Matte laid bare all the more the Colts’ struggling pass offense in the title game.

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  3. Pingback: The Soul of The Game: “Mad Dog” Mike Curtis | Taylor Blitz Times

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