In Los Angeles 54, 412 sun-soaked fans gurgled happily as the hometown Rams butted their way to a convincing 27-7 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. In Chicago 20,996 wondered whether Coach Paul Brown had got his dates mixed as his Cleveland Browns, the best team in football, put on their exhibition game manners and were beaten 9-7 by one of the worst, the Chicago Cardinals.
At Baltimore the Colts kicked the Chicago Bears 28-21, and in Green Bay the Detroit Lions roared through the Packers 20-16. At Pittsburgh the Steelers blasted the Washington Redskins 30-13, and at San Francisco the New York Giants crushed the 49ers 38-21.
For the more than 2 million fans who prefer technical excellence to emotion and tradition in football, the season of 1956 was finally under way, and from all indications it will be a banner year for a sport which only 20 years ago was hard put to show a total season attendance of over 500,000. This year pro football looks forward confidently to its first 3 million year, and with 214,766 already in for the kickoff games and every team from the lowly Cardinals to the opulent Rams pointing to enormously increased preseason sales, the prediction seems conservative.
From the topsy-turvy nature of the first game scores, which augur a season as wide-open as a Klondike mining camp, it even seemed possible the stretch-games crowds would be limited only by stadium capacity—even at $3.90 or thereabouts a seat. A pro football crowd may be like an operatic crowd—inclined to applaud only at superartistry and hypercritical of a false note. But it is an addiction not easily shaken. For the pros have brought the ancient and honorable sport of old Rutgers to its highest refinement—the players are the elite of sport, big but fast, nerveless but cat-agile, burly but bright. To the hooked pro fan, comparing it with college ball is like comparing the Ballet Russe to the high school recital.
Yet it was not so long ago that pro football had something of the quality of a floating crap game with its own small following—a few high rollers but mostly a lot of last-chance characters shooting for the moon with their last C note. National Football League Commissioner Bert Bell alluded to this gaudy but insolvent past at last year's draft meeting when—surveying the roomful of honest, earnest young executives poring over draft lists as though they were Standard and Poor market analysts—he snorted:
"Look at 'em! Why, I can remember in this league when you choosed up sides, picked the roughest guys you could find and climbed into a bus to make the circuit. Where you saw a level piece of ground, you stopped the bus and practiced. If anybody showed up, you passed the hat."
There are still lingering vestiges of the old days. The tie in the winged collar sometimes comes loose, and the Homburg tilts at a rakish angle.
There is, for instance, the business of exhibition games. The pros play five to seven of them apiece prior to a regular season of 12 games. This is a little like the New York Yankees showing up at the Stadium in mid-February for a 90-game spring training schedule—at midseason prices.
Most of these games, wisely enough, are played in places like Jacksonville and Little Rock and Portland, where some local charity benefits, but the exhibition schedule in pro football still partakes of the nature of a side show for the sucker trade. The teams often make their important revenue on them (Ram Owner Dan Reeves confided they make the difference between profit and loss) because they field a team which costs them only board, room and $25 a week per man—or about what the pros got in the old days Bert Bell talks about.
The exhibition teams composed of unsigned rookies and unpaid regulars cannot be expected to put on the polished show that pro fans are accustomed to, and the customer winds up paying fair-trade prices for a cut-rate product. The aging regulars and the ambitious rookies, with jobs at stake, play all-out, but the star players, in their brief appearances, often move about with all the verve of somnambulists trying to find some place to lie down. Some years ago the best coach in the league, Paul Brown, set the dreary pattern for exhibition games by simply treating them as a full-dress scrimmage, primarily for his untried rookies. Other coaches followed suit, with the result that exhibition games degenerated into contests in which victory was secondary to the testing of new talent or the reappraisal of the old.
There is a cure for this evil: let the exhibition games count a half game in the league standings. Then the stakes will be high enough to give the fan a run for his money and low enough to give the coach room to experiment, if experiment he must. If the exhibition counted at least a fraction in the league standings, the fan on the 50-yard line would be spared the sight of the Los Angeles Rams upending the Cleveland Browns by a rousing 38-21 in exhibition play, only to see the Browns demoralize the same Rams 38-14 when the marbles were down.
Another point. The pros of 1956 have a readymade farm system which costs them exactly nothing. A professional football player is rarely of any economic value until he has been the recipient of four years of skillful coaching, steaming platefuls of good training-table food and combat experience, all provided by the irreplaceable collegiate football nurseries. The pros, while gladly gobbling up the product of this vast, publicly financed farm system, still have no sensible plan for rewarding those fans who help provide it. They should, if they expect to make it pay off for both themselves and their supporters, revise the draft laws to provide for territorial rights. The Los Angeles Rams, for instance, should have first draft call on all players in the southern California area. The Detroit Lions should get Michiganders, and so on. This would give meaning to the competition and have the effect of heightening the emotional content of pro football, which, it seems to me, is its big lack at the moment.
There is potent argument for this innovation. Every football fan knows Texas is a hotbed of football enthusiasm. Yet when the pros moved a franchise (the New York Yankees, as it happens) into Dallas, the apathy—and the attendance—was so pitiful that the owners soon gave up, and Baltimore took over the franchise and breathed new life into it. Yet, when the Detroit Lions moved into Texas for a mere exhibition set, the fans broke down the doors. Why? Because the University of Texas' Bobby Layne was the Lions' quarterback; SMU's Doak Walker was the target of his passes; and Harley Sewell of Texas was smearing the Lions' opposition, Texas style. The folks in the string ties and Stetson hats had something to cheer for.
The New York Giants are another case in point. Currently one of the invalids of pro football, the Giants' franchise is suffering from nothing more or less than the fact that collegiate football died a strangling death in New York a decade ago. Football interest in general inevitably followed. The football Giants make a forlorn attempt every so often to sign an Army player or two, but Army players are not ordinarily New York boys (Tex Coulter was the last great ex-Army man in Giant uniform).
Certainly the pros should respect territorial rights for at least the first 10 draft choices. The fact that a boy who goes to school in Michigan, for instance, and would rather play football there should be taken into consideration as well.
All in all, though, pro football is the game for the real football filbert. For the fan who understands the arts and mysteries of slanting defenses, up-and-out pass patterns, "red-dogging" linebackers, wide flankers, flares and buttonhooks, there is nothing quite like it. The 33 bison-sized footballers in the livery of the home team are the super-practitioners of the art of football today, and, as a happy Detroit fan put it, they play "the best damn football in the world."
CANADA'S PROS ARE AT IT TOO
North of the border, the Canadian professional football season is nearly three-quarters over, with the same two teams which met for the Grey Cup in 1955 again leading their respective divisions. Montreal's Alouettes, coached by Douglas (Peahead) Walker, have won six and lost two to pace Eastern Canada's Big Four. A passing combination—Sam (The Rifle) Etcheverry to Harold Patterson—has given the Alouettes enough offensive punch to counteract a rather loose defense. In Montreal's recent 44-43 victory over Hamilton, Etcheverry completed 26 of 48 passes for 604 yards, Patterson at the same time setting a new record for receivers with 381 yards. Ottawa is second, two games behind Montreal, a game ahead of Hamilton and Toronto. Hal Ledyard, from the University of Chattanooga, has recovered from a slow start to give Ottawa good quarter-backing. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, whose concentration has been somewhat diverted by their troubles with the Knox family—Harvey and Ronnie—lost three games in a row after a good start. Since Ronnie and his stepfather have departed for Hollywood, the Ticats may finish fast enough to reach the playoff round. The Toronto Argonauts under Coach Bill Swiacki have had trouble replacing Quarterback Tom Dublinski, injured in a preseason game, but whipped the Alouettes 51-28 recently, with Arnie Galiffa directing the attack.
In the five-team Western Interprovincial Football Union, the Edmonton Eskimos, last year's champs, lead again. Coach Frank (Pop) Ivy has won the Grey Cup for the last two years, and this year he has essentially the same team back, including a great quarterback, Jackie Parker. The Saskatchewan Rough Riders, under Coach Frank Filchock, are a close second, principally because of the fine passing of Frank Tripucka, now in his fourth year with the club. Winnipeg's Blue Bombers are a half game behind Saskatchewan; Mississippi's Eagle Day combines with Bob McNamara of Minnesota and Bob Davenport of UCLA to give the Bombers a strong backfield. Freshman Coach Clem Crowe of the British Columbia Lions released Galiffa early in the season, and he has not yet found a replacement and is stuck down in fourth place. Last-place Calgary honored a U.S. tradition by firing its losing coach in mid-season. Otis Douglas, the new coach, has had no better results and will be lucky to better the four-won twelve-lost '55 mark.
THE PROS SPREAD WIDE
Professional football's emergence as a truly national game was dramatized from coast to coast Sunday afternoon when CBS telecast the first four of a total of 63 pro games which it will send to the country's television screens this autumn. It was the first time a major network had devoted itself to professional football on a nationwide scale—the games were carried by 187 stations—and in dozens of towns which had never seen pro ball on television (Portland, Ore. and Portland, Maine; Big Spring, Texas; Phoenix, Ariz.; Boise, Idaho; Florence, S.C.; Fort Meyers, Fla.), armies of new fans were caught up in one fell swoop.
The National Football League, it seems certain, will eventually gain at the box office (home games are blacked out for a radius of 75 miles) as a result of this vastly increased video audience, but CBS was not throwing its network open to the pros simply to popularize the game. Pro football, by its burgeoning popularity, practically forced its way into U.S. homes. Last year, although pro games were telecast only in regional circuits—by Du Mont in the East, ABC in the Midwest, on little "bastard networks" set up by some of the clubs themselves—it outdrew other Sunday afternoon programs almost everywhere. "Our programs were getting ratings like 3.8 and 4.6," says CBS's Bill MacPhail, "and the Chicago Bears had a 36 in Omaha, Neb. The New York Giants outdraw anything on either NBC or CBS in New York on a Sunday afternoon."
Last January, Columbia set out to sweep professional football up into one big—and exceedingly complex—Sunday program. Every club but Cleveland (which will be seen, however, when it plays out of town) joined forces with them. Meanwhile CBS—in order to show regional games to regional audiences—set out to divide its network into nine regional networks. Since a television signal goes only one way around the twisting maze of coaxial cable and microwave towers which link the stations, chopping the system into parts, each capable of operating as a unit for one afternoon a week, was a task calculated to drive network technicians to near distraction.
By last Sunday, however, CBS was prepared to operate nine networks—around New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Washington, Green Bay, Chicago and on the Pacific Coast—and by temporarily merging pieces of them, week by week, to show its viewers in various parts of the country the pro game of the week in which they are most interested.
The outlands have already begun reacting—as a result of seeing three preseason practice games—to the kind of football the big, fast, talented pro teams offer their audiences. Every club has begun getting letters from new admirers requesting information or tickets.