Classes haven't even started yet, but it is already clear that students of pro football will be in for a hard time if they haven't mastered the new In course, Hash Marks 101. Last week, as the pros took their third preschool tests, Houston Coach Bill Peterson exulted over hash marks, that set of insignificant chalk slashes a yard apart that run the length of a football field. Previously these hash marks were located approximately 20 yards in from each sideline of the 53‚Öì-yard-wide field. This year the pros have moved each of them exactly three yards, one foot and nine inches closer to the center of the field to line up with the goalpost uprights, and that little move, Peterson says, "is going to make the game more exciting, bring more scoring and eliminate some of the defenses. But, then, they're always coming up with something new, aren't they?"
Well, yes, which hasn't always made life easy for those spectators who insist upon understanding the niceties of the game, including influence blocking, bump-and-run, fly patterns and red-dogging, not to mention Duane Thomas on press relations, Karl Sweetan on sales and Roger Staubach on staying in the pocket. What may make hash marks more difficult, at least at the start, is that not everybody is as sure as Peterson what effect placing the 160 markings 23 yards from each sideline will have.
Hash marks, for the uninitiated, are guides that show the officials where to place the football after a runner is tackled near the sideline or is run out of bounds. Officially, they are called inbound lines and generally they are ignored by spectators. But they are important, or at least that is what the National Football League owners, who had become concerned over last season's low-scoring games (75 fewer touchdowns in 1971 than two years before), were thinking when they decided to move them. If they are right, this seemingly unobtrusive playing around with chalk may not only lead to more touchdowns but to more field goals, more end runs and perhaps even a small revival of the Statue of Liberty play.
In the new setup, every play will start from very near the middle of the field—no more wide side-short side or strong side-weak side, no more spacious prairie around one end and crowded city traffic around the other, far less lopsidedness. Offenses that so often had to be left-handed or right-handed can now be ambidextrous all the time. Short-side defensive backs who have grown expert at forcing runners and receivers out of bounds will now have to rely less on their 12th man, the sideline. ("Old Man Sideline never misses a tackle," they used to say.) It is enough to make a man forget those Wishbone-crazy collegians.
But is it working? After just a few exhibition games, it is too early to tell for sure, although a few offensive players already are making good use of the extra elbow room. San Francisco Wide Receiver Gene Washington caught five passes for 66 yards against the New York Jets and was ready to kiss the rules-makers. "I didn't realize there'd be so much difference in 3½ yards," he said, "but the little more room to cut is to my advantage. I noticed I could run either short or long patterns without too much trouble."
"I like the room and I think I can use it," said an enthusiastic Bob Hayes of Dallas, who foresees himself running lots of end-around plays and catching quick short-side passes. "Hayes likes it," said Cowboy Quarterback Craig Morton, "and anything Hayes likes, I've got to love."
Nobody expected defensive players to be thrilled, and they are not. Some of them, like Mike Curtis of Baltimore, have accepted it stoically as another burden in their frustrating jobs. "No problem," he says. "I have enough speed to compensate for the few extra yards I'll have to cover. I'll get my man."
But other defensive players are downright annoyed. "The next thing they'll do is have mechanical fields so they can tilt them and the offense can always go downhill," said Detroit Linebacker Wayne Walker.
"As I see it, there is a conspiracy in pro sports against the defense," said Miami Safety Dick Anderson. "In baseball they helped the hitters by lowering the pitcher's mound and tightening the strike zone. In pro basketball they outlawed the zone defense to get more scoring in the game. Now they've instituted a rules change to give the pro football offense another advantage. For years defensive units have used the short side of the field as an extra man because, in reality, it was that much less real estate to cover....
"All of this is because people in certain areas of power feel that football is becoming dull. Not enough scoring to keep the excitement going. And just a few years ago, when the old AFL was getting started, the same people were saying that the AFL was inferior because it didn't have the tough defense that the established NFL teams had."
The main conspirators in this case were the members of the NFL's Competition Committee, Owners Paul Brown of Cincinnati and Al Davis of Oakland and General Managers Tex Schramm of Dallas and Jim Finks of Minnesota. They are supported strongly by the Rams' Tommy Prothro, who went to the limit. "Move the hash marks five yards," he said, "or always put the ball in the middle. This will give two wide sides to run to." Chicago Owner George Halas, who well remembers the pre-1933 days when in both college and pro football a play started right from where a man was tackled, even if it was one inch from the sideline—creating an unbalanced line that was really an unbalanced line—demurred, forcing a compromise at the same distance apart as the pro goalpost uprights, 18 feet, six inches. Done.
The most dramatic effect of the rule is likely to be a big, boring increase in field goals. Kansas City Coach Hank Stram says the goal, in effect, has been widened by six yards because the bad-angle kicks from inside the 15 or 20 have been eliminated. Jan Stenerud of the Chiefs points out that the change is particularly noticeable in short yardage—"the eight-to 15-yarders," he said. "The angle is not nearly as sharp."
"The field goal cheapens the game," grumbled Atlanta Coach Norm Van Brocklin, "and now this rule makes the field goal easier." Yet the kickers don't seem to be rejoicing, maybe because they still have to worry about onrushing linemen, gusts of fickle wind and their own psyches.
"I think a lot of the kickers will get messed up by it," said Miami's Garo Yepremian. "Because there is a change, the kickers will psychologically think there is something wrong. Most of the kickers are mixed up already. They'll find any excuse for missing goals."
"I've always felt I was a better kicker from the wide hash marks, the old ones, because I concentrate more," said LA's David Ray. "Now it's a straight-on kick and I personally feel that's the toughest."
Many in the league feel the rule is aimed specifically at reducing the effectiveness of the zone defenses played so expertly by Baltimore, Miami and other teams, defenses in which, among many variations, the backs covered areas or zones on the wide side and played man-to-man on the short side. The zones have been particularly good for taking away the long touchdown pass.
"They had to do something with the zone defenses becoming so popular," said Chicago Coach Abe Gibron. "Did you see in the Super Bowl where Bob Hayes had trouble getting out? He'd run and he'd run and there'd still be a guy in front of him. If the hash-mark change doesn't work in opening up the offenses, I'm sure they'll try something else."
Safety Jerry Logan of the Colts doesn't seem to be losing any sleep over the change. "It just won't affect us too much in our zone defense," he said. "The field is still the same size and I'll still have to cover it."
Assistant Coach Bill McPeak of Detroit, Runner Pete Banaszak of Oakland and Offensive Coach Ken Shipp of New Orleans are among the majority who feel the zone will be hurt—not driven out of the sport but made more difficult to operate. Why?
"Because the middle linebacker, who last season could use the hash mark as a friend, can't do it anymore," said Shipp. "Last year, with the ball on the hash mark, he could drop straight back, using the hash mark as a guide. Now he has to commit himself sooner and take a drop that is angular rather than straight back. It's upsetting."
"The middle linebacker won't be able to take a false step one way to confuse the quarterback and then drop the other way," said McPeak. "He won't have time."
Tim Rossovich, a middle linebacker recently traded from Philadelphia to San Diego, is not considering retirement. "From the films I've seen, the hash marks don't make any difference," he said. "The defenses are set up, nobody's concerned." But, said Banaszak, "It is going to cause the linebackers to guess more. They must cheat my way, and that opens up a throwing lane for the quarterback. In our first game on a draw play I suddenly found room to the outside and I knew there was room for me. I didn't have to worry about how close the sideline was. The hash marks made that play for me. It was a good gain.
"The new markers force the zone defenses to cover more area on sweeps and enable a runner to get around the corner. There's no longer a short side, and don't tell me a defense doesn't have to worry about that!"
How about up the middle? Garland Boyette, a nine-year veteran linebacker for Houston, said he had already noticed a trend in the Oiler exhibition losses to Dallas and Chicago.
"Everybody seems to be running to the middle more, especially the halfbacks on cutbacks," he said. "I guess I've seen more cutbacks than at any time in my career. It might be because the linebackers are having to concern themselves more with the outside."
Now, there are at least two situations in which the changed markings could hurt the offensive team. (Pay close attention, students; this may show up on the final exam.) Joe Sullivan, Washington assistant, pointed out the first: "Say you're deep in your own territory, about the one-or two-yard line. If you try to run a sweep, your pulling linemen could very easily run smack into the goalpost. And the quarterback rolling out could easily run into it, too." In other words, Gus Goalpost would replace Old Man Sideline as the 12th defender.
Move the offense down the field to within a few yards of a touchdown and another problem arises. Some defensive players, backed against their own goal, are happy to stack up the middle or chase a runner a short distance to either side rather than risk chasing down somebody like Buffalo's O.J. Simpson or Denver's Floyd Little sprinting around the old wide side. If this theory holds up, touchdowns might grow scarcer and those field goals Van Brocklin admires so much might increase even more. But there are others who reason that teams no longer will have to play for good field position on third down to help their field-goal kicker, giving them one extra chance at a touchdown. School is still out on this argument.
Lest anybody forget, the field is not yet perfectly balanced, the hash marks are not smack in the center. Green Bay Defensive Backfield Coach Don Doll wants to cling to that optimistic note. "Of course, there still is a short side," he said. "This is a game of inches and there's still 18½ feet more field on one side than on the other. That's got to make some difference."
Then he joined the consensus. "But on the whole they've opened up that short side to a lot more offense. Not just passes, either. It's helped the offense, no question about that."
Well, that's it for Hash Marks 101, class, but before you move on to Professors Cosell, Gifford and Meredith, take heed of one more bit of football expertise, one more juicy subtlety, one more clever wrinkle. We return you to Middle Linebacker Rossovich: "If they run, I'll hit 'em. If they pass, I'll find 'em." Fine, the NFL is saying, but just miss once in a while? We want a touchdown!