It is fourth and four and the team in purple lines up to punt. Presumably to punt. The quarterback stands directly behind the center, legs spread so that the snap can go between them to the kicker. Not this time. Razzle dazzle. The quarterback takes the snap and throws a swing pass to the man who has been stationed behind him to block for the punter. The play goes for 21 yards and a first down.
High school? No, the National Football League. The staid Minnesota Vikings, in fact. And if that sets you on your heels, what do you think of Minnesota's very own Mr. Reliable, Fred Cox, having missed six extra points this season? Or NFL teams making 37% fewer field goals, Pittsburgh's Joe Gilliam throwing 50 passes in a game that lasted five quarters, and New England and St. Louis, led by players 5'5" and 5'9" respectively, smiting the Goliaths of their divisions? For a while, at least.
What's going on? The nine rule changes passed by the NFL owners last April to make their product more exciting have altered the game. An analysis of statistics for all but the last two weeks of the regular season reveals that in 1974, in defiance of the hoariest coaching cliché, offense was more important in winning football games than defense.
This conclusion was reached by statistician Bud Goode (SI, Jan. 14) and the CalComp computer. Goode's computer analysis shows that for the first time in the last six years the number of points a team scores bears a greater relationship to its won-lost percentage than the points it allows. By extension, a strong offensive team should beat a strong defensive team.
Superficially, it is hard to see how the offense has benefited. The dramatic drop in the number of field goals, brought about by moving the posts to the back of the end zone and returning missed kicks to the line of scrimmage, has lowered scoring by 8%. Miami, once a leader in field goals, was tied for last after 12 games. The rule prohibiting a wide receiver from making a crack-back block below the waist has tended to hamper teams that rely on end sweeps. Furthermore, the increase in coffin-corner punts has frequently given receiving teams dreadful field position. Less than 10% of drives that start inside the offensive team's 10-yard line lead to scores.
Nonetheless, the rule changes have helped the offense. For openers, moving the kickoff back to the 35-yard line has led to a higher percentage of returns and better field position. In addition, there is greater potential for the big play. The long pass has always been an integral part of winning, and this year its role has been even more important. The best measurement of a team's bombing capability is average yards per pass attempt. Significantly, St. Louis, the surprise team of the NFC, has shown an 11% improvement in this, largely traceable to 5'9" Mel Gray, who is averaging more than 20 yards a catch. The worst two teams in the category, Baltimore and Atlanta, have fired coaches, but Oakland, Minnesota and Los Angeles, which clinched their division titles early, are among the leaders, as are St. Louis, Cincinnati, New England, Miami and Denver.
Could the increase in average yards per pass attempt have resulted from the new rules that prohibit defenders from cutting a receiver down at the line of scrimmage (axing) or bumping him more than once after he has gone three yards beyond the line of scrimmage? Miami Coach Don Shula thinks so. His Dolphins have dropped from first in pass defense in 1973 to 15th in 1974, which goes a long way toward explaining their slow start. "The rule that prohibits cutting or axing a receiver has really opened up the passing game," says Shula. "We were successful last year doing that to receivers and when you can't do it, it allows them to come down through your secondary a lot freer than before."
One of the receivers the Dolphins harassed successfully last season was Cincinnati's Isaac Curtis. In fact, the new restrictions on pass defenders have been called the Isaac Curtis rules. This year, through 12 games, Curtis caught only 29 passes, but 10 were for touchdowns. Other speedsters who have benefited from the change are Oakland's Cliff Branch, who leads the AFC in receptions, Dallas' Drew Pearson, who leads the NFC, and Miami's sensational rookie, Nat Moore. What's more, the significance of the touchdown pass has risen. All five of the teams that had qualified for the playoffs by the 12th weekend ranked in the top half of the league in scoring passes.
The punt return also presents a better opportunity for a big play now that only two defenders can head downfield before the ball is kicked. The overall return average is up 20%, and the number of touchdowns on runbacks, always a spectacular sight, has more than doubled. Last year Goode's computer indicated that there was virtually no correlation between a team's punt-return average and its won-lost record. Notably, San Diego, with the second worst won-lost mark in the NFL, had the best punt return average, while Minnesota, which made it to the Super Bowl, ranked 25th. This season, however, the length of the return does bear a relationship to winning. Surprising New England, with 5'5" Mack Herron averaging better than 15 yards per return, topped the NFL in this category. Lowly Chicago was last. Terry Metcalf, St. Louis' 5'10" scatback, ranked fourth in the NFC in punt returns and led in kickoff runbacks.
On the surface, even though overall scoring is down, offensive explosiveness is the name of the game in 1974. Some-coaches do not approve. "I think we should go back to the way things were," says the Redskins' conservative George Allen. "I'd even like to put the hash marks back where they were. That was a bad change, too."
"You have to change coaches' philosophies as well as rules," points out Conrad Dobler, a St. Louis guard. "Our coach, Don Coryell, believes in moving the football, but most coaches are conservatives. But if we keep winning, you'll see a shift toward offensive football. Success breeds imitators."