In the British navy, they call it "the butcher's bill"—the tally of casualties after a battle. In the National Football League, where gallows humor is frowned upon, they merely call it "the injured list." In most years it is made up largely of running backs whose knees have popped or wide receivers who have been clotheslined into the hospital. This season, though, the dreadful roster is studded with the names of the most widely known, highly paid and loudly applauded practitioners of this violent sport. Quarterbacks.
They are dropping all over the league. Last season, a typically destructive one, 14 quarterbacks were put on the butcher's bill. This year, with six games to go, fully 20 quarterbacks have made the sheet. Two starters are out for the year—Joe Ferguson of Buffalo (broken back) and Steve Bartkowski of Atlanta (knee surgery). Nine of the league's 28 teams have been forced to start their backup quarterbacks, and two—Los Angeles and Cleveland—have had to dip down to their third-stringers. Here is the butcher's bill to date, broken down (no pun intended) by category:
ANKLE: Joe Reed, Detroit.
ARM: Billy Kilmer, Washington.
November 8, 1976
BACK: Ferguson, Buffalo; Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh.
CALF: Joe Namath, New York Jets.
CONCUSSION: Ken Anderson, Cincinnati; Mike Boryla, Philadelphia; Bob Griese, Miami; Pat Haden, Los Angeles; Namath, Jets; Brian Sipe, Cleveland.
FINGER: Griese, Miami.
HAND: Roger Staubach, Dallas; Anderson, Cincinnati.
KNEE: Bartkowski, Atlanta; Ken Stabler, Oakland; Craig Morton, New York Giants; Bob Avellini, Chicago.
NOSE: Kilmer, Washington.
RIBS: Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota.
SHOULDER: James Harris and Ron Jaworski, Los Angeles; Mike Phipps, Cleveland.
THUMB: Harris, Los Angeles; Mike Livingston, Kansas City.
But a mere listing of names and injuries cannot begin to convey the ferocity of action that fed the butcher's bill. When Bradshaw was hurt, it looked like a take from King Kong. Cleveland Defensive End Joe (Turkey) Jones caught Bradshaw running out of the pocket, grabbed him by the waist and—with Terry still struggling as the whistle blew—upended the 210-pound quarterback as if he were a stuffed panda, then pile-drove him headfirst into the ground. Bradshaw's X rays disclosed no fractures (a credit to conditioning and a neck like a bull elephant's), but his vertebrae were compressed nearly to the cracking point and he missed two full games as a result. Turkey Jones, outwardly remorseful, saw his team penalized a mere 15 yards and had his name announced (to cheers) over the loudspeaker. You naughty boy, you.
Oddly enough, Coach Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh exonerated Jones, calling his post-whistle mayhem "an enthusiastic tackle—the late hit was a normal follow-through on a play like that." Steeler Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert was not so forbearing: "I told Jones that I thought what he did was the cheapest thing I've ever seen in football. It's not football anymore, it's a street fight. Jones hurt Bradshaw intentionally. I hope he gets his neck broken."
Joe Ferguson's back injury came in the second quarter of a game against New England. Ferguson was moving the Bills into Patriot territory in the second quarter when he rolled out and ran nine yards to a first down on the 29. There he was met by three New England linebackers. Sam Hunt hit first, slamming his knee into Ferguson's left side. Then Steve Nelson arrived with a crunch, and finally Steve Zabel came in just as the whistle blew, spearing Ferguson with his helmet. The combined weight of the tacklers—705 pounds—hitting from different angles popped four of the small, hornlike projections attached to Ferguson's lower vertebrae. There was no penalty.
Bartkowski's knee injury was another case of sudden stresses coming from different directions. In a game against New Orleans, Bartkowski was dropping back when Defensive End Andy Dorris, pounding up from behind, snagged the quarterback's face mask. Simultaneously, Tackle Derland Moore slammed in low from the side, directly against Bartkowski's right knee. The Saints were penalized only five yards for the face-mask infraction.
To anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of human anatomy, it is easy to see why quarterbacks are breaking with the regularity of dropped teacups. With the possible exception of pass receivers, they are the most vulnerable men on the field—and far and away the most desirable targets for pulverization. Even a quarterback who has stayed in his protective pocket of blockers is wide open at the moment he cocks his arm to throw. Those tender short ribs are totally unprotected. His weight is on his rearmost leg, where tendons and ligaments are stretched like fragile rubber bands, ready to snap when a sudden 250-pound thrust is laid on them. His fingers, usually the most talented on the club, are not protected by the tape that linemen wear, making them prime potential victims of a crunching foot or, when the going gets really fierce, a set of snapping jaws. When the quarterback runs, as many of them are now doing, he is usually pitting a 200-pound body against the fast-moving mass of a 230-pound linebacker or—and here one tends to close one's eyes at the moment of impact—a 260-pound defensive lineman. When you stop to think about it, they should call the man a "hanged, drawn and quartered back."
What's more, the heightened emphasis on defense in the modern game has given the defense the best and biggest athletes in football. Pass rushers are bigger and, more important, quicker than ever. Zone defenses have made it far more difficult for a passer to find an open target in the few seconds he enjoys before the rushers break through to him. "We should recognize there's been a change in the structure of the defense," argues John Brodie, the retired San Francisco quarterback. "Pro basketball realized the players were so big, and had such a wide arm spread, that the people had outgrown the size of the court. This was one of the reasons zone defenses were eliminated."
Another factor militating against the quarterback is the growing attention that coaches, fans and media are paying to the "sack" (a dreadful word, though frequently quarterbacks do indeed fall like limp bags, full of blood and busted ribs). The rush lines of such teams as San Francisco, Chicago and Baltimore get nearly as much adulation as the offensive stars.
"Sacking a quarterback is just a real high altogether," grins Baltimore Tackle Joe Ehrmann, the 6'4", 254-pound leader of the Colts' Sack Pack. "It's like eating a big chocolate sundae." Once a head-hunter who avowed that Joe Willie Namath's noggin was his life's desire, Ehrmann claims to have mellowed. "I don't go after a particular number anymore," he says. "I still like to hit quarterbacks, mind you, but not Namath more than any other."
Defensive End Fred Cook, Ehrmann's sidekick, says that his own ferocity increases with every quarterback hit. "When I get a sack," he says, "it really fires me up to get another. I guess I get myself into a sadistic state of mind. I'm not out to kill a quarterback or anything like that, but I sure want to put him down." Ehrmann, Cook & Co. did just that to their onetime favorite whipping boy, Namath, at Shea Stadium two weeks ago. In the fourth quarter, John Dutton and Cook slammed him to earth with a thud that echoed over the Jet fans' groans. With his bell rung, Namath retired for the day and sat out last week's Buffalo game, too. As Namath lay cold-cocked on the wet grass, Cook knelt over him and stared down scornfully as if to say, "Why don't you get out of here while the getting's good?"
Complicating the quarterback's problems, NFL game officials now are under orders to strictly enforce rules against holding. In the fifth week of the season, Art McNally, the Supervisor of Officials, sent a "routine" memo to all his charges calling for a closer watch on holding infractions by offensive linemen. McNally's missive was long overdue: holding was so widespread, and so widely condoned except in the most flagrant cases, that college players entering the NFL could not believe what they saw. Most coaches feel that it takes three years for an offensive lineman to learn the fine points of pass blocking—that is, holding without making it too obvious. NFL rules require a blocker to keep his hands inside his elbows. He cannot extend his arms to their full length in fending off a rusher. The most common holding violation is for the blocker to clamp a rusher's hand—or hands if he's quick enough—under his own upper arms, then use his forearms to lever the opponent any way he likes.
McNally's appeal seems to have produced quick results. Last season there were 283 holding penalties imposed through the schedule's seventh game. After seven weeks this year, officials had stepped off 402 holding penalties. Holding calls had gone up from an average of 3.1 per game to 4.1—an increase of 32%.
What then can be done to protect the quarterback? The suggestions range from the sensible through the bizarre to the facetious. Cleveland Coach Forrest Gregg, tucking his tongue deep in his cheek, says that quarterbacks should be given their own yellow hankie and be permitted to throw it anytime they feel they are being abused. San Francisco's Monte Clark seriously suggests that quarterbacks be given different-colored jerseys to identify them as "fragile," much in the way teams use red shirts in training camp to identify players who are practicing with an injury.
Clark also suggests, more sensibly, that the holding rules be liberalized to permit blockers to use the elbow hook and extended arms in defense of their quarterbacks. Along with many other club officials, Assistant General Manager Jim Schaaf of the Kansas City Chiefs argues convincingly for stiffer penalties to be imposed on rushers who hit late or pile on when a quarterback is already stopped. "I'd like to see a deliberate late hit punished by more than a 15-yard penalty," says Schaaf. "Maybe even ejection from the game. The punishment should be severe enough to stop flagrant violations."
The men who have given the most thought to quarterback protection, though, are Oakland's managing general partner Al Davis and his head coach, John Madden. Members of the NFL Competition Committee, which draws up rule changes, Davis and Madden propose that the quarterback be treated the same way that a punter is—the moment his arm begins to move forward with the pass, he should be legally unhittable. "I know it sounds extreme," says Davis, "but how can you know if it's possible in this game—which is a violent, emotional struggle—without testing it?" Davis also proposes a ban on hitting a quarterback below the waist and above the shoulder pads.
Madden has mentioned the idea of giving the referee a horn, buzzer or bell that would be sounded whenever it is clear that the quarterback has gone as far as he can go—but before he gets hit. The two have also suggested that perhaps the quarterback should be denied the right to run the ball, which would doubtless save some very valuable bones from breakage but at the same time would take a measure of offense away from certain teams. "These suggestions were put before the committee but tabled, again and again," says Davis. "Sometimes I think the NFL believes it is impregnable behind its own Maginot Line. We don't exactly win awards for forward movement."
One way to keep quarterbacks healthy, suggests John Brodie, would be to legalize the intentional grounding of passes. "I played quarterback for 14 years," he says, "but it wasn't until my ninth year that I learned the full value of throwing the ball away. I learned that if a completion wasn't possible, file it. Get rid of it intentionally. In the final six years of my career, I was never penalized once for intentional grounding, but I threw the ball away hundreds of times."
That might help alleviate injuries to quarterbacks who are getting sacked, but what about the injuries suffered by scramblers? Tarkenton, perhaps the best scrambler the game has known, has been the healthiest quarterback in history; he has failed to start only one game because of injury in his 16 years (against Pittsburgh last month, because of bruised ribs, although he maintains he could have started if necessary). Tarkenton feels that a quarterback has to be smart and not make like a running back going for the extra yard. "It's much better to run out of bounds or fall down before they hit you," he says. "I'll watch for daylight to open before I run, and if it's not there I take my lumps." Tarkenton has perfected the best protective skill available to a running quarterback—the football equivalent of the second-base slide. When he sees he is about to be hit, he skids feet-first into the mangle, thus avoiding injuries that can render a passer hors de combat. The Tarkenton slide is widely imitated throughout the league, at least by those quarterbacks who have not added their names to the butcher's bill.
None of these proposals is likely to be acted upon before the end of this already brutal season, and because the NFL is highly conservative about rule changes of any kind, it is quite likely that they never will be adopted. Yet quarterbacks remain the most visible stars of the game, and among the most highly paid. To expend them wastefully and wantonly is not only ruinous to tendons, skulls, joints and bones, but destructive to the game itself. Tougher punishment of cheap-shot artists, a rewriting of holding rules, waiving of the intentional-grounding dictum—these are at least worthy items for the Competition Committee's agenda. If any or all of them are adopted, in one form or another, it can only help the game—and the much-abused men who stand open and breakable at its very heart. Quarterbacks.