It will be the season of lame ducks, long passes, lost friends, lonesome spectators and law courts. For the National Football League, entering its 55th season, the world has flip-flopped; 1974 is the year of change.
The old paternalistic relationship between owners and players has-become a confrontation between labor and management. The brash young World Football League has challenged the NFL's monopoly of the sport and hired away some of its best players for future delivery. The player strike hurt the exhibition season and contributed, along with the televising of home-game sellouts, to a decline in season-ticket sales. And some of the cherished regulations that have allowed the clubs to retain players against their will are being contested in a series of court cases. Should the NFL lose these legal actions, the whole structure of the game could come tumbling down. Finally, even the playing rules have been changed. Ironically, the new rules have created a more interesting game at the very time when teams may be playing before increasing numbers of empty seats.
After months of bickering, the strife between players and owners subsided into a stalemate. No new contract was agreed upon; the players returned to the field with the squabble unsettled and with only a nebulous promise of further bargaining. They had presented an unwieldy and unrealistic list of 63 demands when negotiations began, the owners did little to meet those demands, and a stalemate was inevitable. The whole distasteful and boring procedure may impair the start of the 1975 season, too.
The main sticking point for both owners and players was the Rozelle Rule, under which Commissioner Pete Rozelle decides what compensation should be made to a club losing a player to another team after he has played out his option. That rule—as well as the option clause—is being challenged in court, most notably by Joe Kapp. The Kapp case will be decided in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, where Judge William T. Sweigert will rule in a few weeks on the legality of the Rozelle Rule, the option clause and the draft. If he decides against the NFL, the players may have won what they unsuccessfully struck for.
The WFL has already given NFL players an option, the best they have had since the American Football League was formed, and several dozen veterans have signed to play with the new league in 1975 or 1976. The WFL is the equivalent of Linus' blanket for NFL players. They did not have to work as hard in camp; if they were cut, they could go to the WFL. Since this is true for marginal players as well as for superstars, it is difficult to evaluate the comparative strengths of NFL teams going into this season. If Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield coast—however subconsciously—in Dolphin games, how good is Miami?
From the fans' point of view, the only change for the better is in the rules. So far, in an exhibition season played first by rookies and rejects, then by rusty veterans, one thing has been constant: more offense. There have been more long scoring plays, more touchdowns, more long punt and kickoff returns and only half as many field goals as last year. Seldom is a kickoff downed in the end zone anymore. The wide receiver is running long patterns again—and catching the ball. It is a more exciting game and, as the veterans shape up, the new rules should result in spectacular, high-scoring contests. And the resultless game—the tie—is all but a thing of the past, with sudden death now in effect.
So here comes a lively, unpredictable season, full of bombs and bombast. That doesn't sound so bad. Kick off.