In case you haven't noticed, the game of pro football is not as exciting as it used to be. No? Well, there has been only one truly rousing Super Bowl and that was No. III, when Joe Namath, by himself, hyped the game by guaranteeing a victory over the Baltimore Colts and then, putting his arm where his mouth was, won it. Still, the game was not exciting; Joe Willie was.
So, in seven years in the showcase event of the sport, which each January draws the biggest sports TV audience in the U.S., the viewers have watched seven seldom dramatic games. Oh, Super Bowl I was titillating, but only because so many fans were in doubt about the relative merits of the NFL and AFL. Last January, when Miami ground down Washington 14-7 in a game distinguished by the reluctance of the two teams to take any chance of any kind, the only really thrilling play occurred when Dolphin Kicker Garo Yepremian, taking leave of his senses, tried to pass a fumbled field-goal attempt, providing the Redskins with their touchdown.
The rest of the game was taken up by two very good football teams doing their best to avoid making mistakes. That may be a laudable ambition, especially when the club making the fewest boo-boos stands to earn some $15,000 per man, but playing to avoid mistakes does not create much bravura action; a parallel might be a bullfighter passing the bull at arm's length, then killing him with a rifle. He would certainly win and not be gored, but who cares?
Many things have contributed to the decline and stall of pro football. For one, the players used to be swashbuckling adventurers who risked their necks and their pittances with equal abandon; today they are businessmen, some earning more in a season than an entire team once did. Then they were paid peanuts, and it is easy to stake a sack of peanuts on a single throw or a series of throws. It is not easy to lay an annual salary of $100,000 on the line. What is true of the players goes for the coaches and owners, too. A pro football franchise is worth about $20 million today; the owner wants an accounting when his business fails, and the coach is accountable.
September 16, 1973
A few clubs are fighting the trend. One is Oakland, which has the best winning percentage in pro football over the past 10 years. The leader of the Raiders is Al Davis, an iconoclast from deepest Brooklyn who has made a career of defying the old order. In his brief reign as AFL commissioner he tried to steal two top NFL quarterbacks during the all-out war between the two leagues, and he has not changed his belief in the all-out attack as the best defense. As much as anything his raids on NFL personnel brought about peace between the leagues; his philosophy of total aggression may help revivify pro football if it catches on.
Davis no longer coaches the club, but John Madden, who does, takes his cue from his managing general partner. "We don't approach the game the way most clubs do," says Madden. "I learned a lot as an assistant coach under Al, but his philosophy is mine. Everyone is going to the running game, controlling the ball and waiting for the other club to make a mistake. We throw. That's our approach to the game. Everyone else throws short passes into the cracks of the zone and shorter passes to the running backs. We throw long, even into the deep zone. We attack the deep zone. But you have to have guts to do that and not many clubs have them today."
The successful long pass was what opened up the game in pre-ball-control days. Not the occasional, let's-remind-the-defense long pass of the '70s, but the long pass as an omnipresent threat. It was taken away by the new defenses—the deep zones, the substitution-for-situation in which a fistful of defensive backs are put in the game when a long pass is expected and a fistful of linemen in expectation of a short-yardage run. Five defensive backs can inhibit even the most daring of quarterbacks and five large men up front can usually blunt the forays of the most formidable rushers.
"I cringe when I hear a coach say, "We'll take what they give us,' " Madden says, "That means you're letting the defense dictate what you're going to do. You're playing their game, not yours. There's no way we'll let that happen. So we throw long, with pretty good success. I don't like short passes. We have the end zone in mind when we put the ball in the air. Last year we completed 37% of our passes between 30 and 50 yards down-field—a pretty good percentage. That meant that one out of every three long passes we threw most likely produced a touchdown or a field goal."
When the league brought the hash marks in last season in a timid effort to open up the passing game and discourage the zone, most coaches seized upon the change as an opportunity to run more, since the backs had greater room to operate on both sides of the field. Oakland did the same, but for a different reason.
"It set up our passing game," Madden explains. "With the old layout, when you were on the hash mark you couldn't use your out and quick sideline passes to the short side. The defense put a linebacker on the narrow side of the field and you had to throw all your patterns to the wide side. Right there, half your passing offense was gone.
"Now from the new hash mark you can use all your patterns to both sides. The receiver on the short side has time to maneuver and the throw to the receiver cutting to the sideline on the wide side is easier for the quarterback to make. It used to be a dangerously long throw into a flat zone, but it isn't anymore."
Bringing the hash marks in also resulted in more successful field goals, since the kickers had better angles. If there is a more boring play than a field goal, it is the extra point. The moving force in either case is usually provided by the instep of a European soccer player, a breed best typified by the chap who, or so the story goes, kicked a field goal and pranced off the field crying, "I keecked a touchdown!"
As the offenses grow more and more stodgy, the defenses have turned to a stratagem that may take away the last vestige of excitement. This was apparent in last year's Washington-Green Bay playoff game in which the Redskins substituted almost purely for situations. When Washington anticipated a running play its defensive line was reinforced by the addition of a fifth man, Manny Sistrunk, who took the place of Middle Linebacker Myron Pottios. When Redskin Coach George Allen felt it was 50-50 whether Green Bay would run or pass, he took out Sistrunk and put back Pottios. In obvious passing situations Allen removed Sistrunk and added Speedy Duncan, a fifth defensive back. Since Green Bay was unable to run against the five-man line, its inexperienced quarterback, Scott Hunter, often faced third and long yardage, peering into a horde of Washington defensive backs, hoping to find an open receiver. He did not.
It is unlikely that the coaches—or the players, for that matter—will opt for living the dangerous life of throwing on first down against the five-man front and running on third against what Allen calls the nickel defense, because of the five backs. The last time the game was bogged down by an overemphasis on defense was in 1932, when the Chicago Bears took the NFL title by winning seven games, losing one and tying six, three of the ties being 0-0. They defeated the Portsmouth Spartans for the championship by an explosive 9-0 score.
The outcome was greeted with roaring ennui, and George Preston Marshall, who then had the Boston franchise, pushed through two major changes that brought life to a moribund game. He lobbied successfully to have the goalposts returned to the goal line and, far more important, he was responsible for a rule that legalized forward passing from any spot behind the line of scrimmage. He must have foreseen the advent of Sammy Baugh.
He also saw to it that the league was divided into two conferences, and in 1933 the Bears beat the Giants 23-21. Unlike Super Bowl VII, it was a terrific game, the two teams scoring more than twice as many points as their modern counterparts.
Nothing as drastic as the Marshall plan is needed today to revitalize pro football, but changes are called for.
First, the hash marks. Why settle for half measures? If the hash marks are going to be moved toward the middle of the field, why not do away with them altogether and start every play midway between the sidelines? By that you put even more strain on the zone defense, thus helping receivers and passers, and you aid the running backs as well. If, as a consequence, the placekickers have a still greater advantage, there are two remedies. One, on any unsuccessful field-goal attempt the ball is returned to the line of scrimmage, not to the defending team's 20. This takes away the cheap shot from the 50-yard line, which depends on the strength in a Serbian leg, not on the strength of the team as a whole. Two, go back to the old college (and AFL) two-point conversion. (A conversion by run or pass is worth two points, by kick, one.) It was the only rule that ever lent a modicum of excitement to the extra point, and when the leagues merged it was killed by the NFL's hard-line conservatives. Last year, when the owners voted on whether to reinstate the two-point conversion, they gave way to the advice of their apprehensive coaches, who did not want any more decisions to make, especially controversial ones.
"It's a sign of how conservative most owners are," said one recently. "Why should we put coaches on a pedestal? They are paid to make decisions. Let them make a few tough ones right out in front of everyone."
If it were possible to make a rule to outlaw the zone defense, that would be the next step. But it would involve excruciating calls by officials and very likely lead to riots, so forget it. The only feasible way to destroy most of the zone and, with it, the substitution-for-situation defenses, is to clearly define where the defensive players may line up.
Now, in the nickel defense, three players are in a three-point stance on the line of scrimmage, with another player on the front line, usually upright. He would be the fourth man on the scrimmage line, but from his erect stance he can either react by coming in against a run or by dropping back into a short zone against a pass. A rule that would require the defense at all times to have four men on the line of scrimmage in a three-point stance would effectively take him out of the pass coverage and allow beleaguered quarterbacks a reasonable chance to pass for a first down on third and long.
A less important but probably effective rule would be to freeze the defensive line for the first three plays in any series of downs. In other words, if Jones, Smith, Anderson and Watkins took the field against the Jets when their team got the ball, the same foursome would have to stay in, barring injury, until the Jets had to punt, when the special team would take over. This would negate the practice of substituting tackles and ends who are pass-rushing specialists for tackles and ends who excel against the run. Although this would place a premium on all-round defensive linemen, there is nothing wrong with that. It might be even better to freeze the entire defensive team—but let's not overwhelm all the defense in one season.
It may seem strange to be inveighing against pro football when it is at the peak of its popularity, but cracks are beginning to appear in the prosperous facade. When Super Bowl VII was sold out 11 days in advance, it was put on home TV and 8,476 ticket holders chose to stay away and watch on their TV sets—and the game was played in perfect weather in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Now Congress, in its predictable obeisance to the popular ballot, has about decided that all pro football games will be seen on home TV if they are sold out 72 hours before game time. This is—or could be—the death knell of pro football, among other professional sports, and for many reasons. In cold-weather cities only an idiot would invest in a season ticket if he knew that by waiting until three days before game time he could make a much more intelligent choice between freezing in the stands or watching at home with a hot toddy. In warm-weather cities, the option might be between tolerating a free game in an air-conditioned den or paying to see a dull contest at the end of an irritating drive to a hot, crowded stadium.
Oakland probably has the right philosophy. The Raiders drafted a punter first—Ray Guy—but not for defense. They still believe in attack. "If you have a punter who averages 36 yards," says Madden, "you are like a poker player working with grocery money. You play scared because you can't afford to take a chance. Guy is an ace in the hole. He averages 46 yards a punt. We get the ball on our own 20, we can take three gambles and he'll still put the other team back to its 30, 35. A bad punter, it's the 40, 45. Guy gives us another play to gamble on."
Which is just what the NFL needs.
The predictions are those of Tex Maule and not the consensus of the pro football staff, which includes Morton Sharnik, Ron Reid and Joe Marshall.