The 1978 NFL season should have been called for holding. It was the longest, strangest, and almost certainly the least exciting pro football season ever played. And when it finally came to an end Monday night, a lot of bewildered fans were still fulminating against favorites who fizzled and flag-crazy officials. For 16 agonizing weeks the game's ever-faithful followers had been frustrated by favored teams that spent more time "pacing" themselves than playing, and by officials who seemed bound to be arrested for littering. At the end, it appeared that the main thing that happened this season was that every team got into the playoffs except the Duluth Eskimos.
If this was what the NFL intended to create with its two extra weeks of games in 1978, or with its new schedule parity, or with its "clarified" holding rule, then Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the NFL owners can sit back and congratulate each other, for they certainly succeeded. Meanwhile, millions of people are wondering whatever happened to individual heroes—where are the new O.J.s, the new Namaths, the new Csonkas and Tarkentons and Butkuses?—and those high-scoring, star-studded teams that produced excitement with their quality performances each and every week.
Why it seems like only yesterday that 10 teams would bounce around for a few Sundays, and then Sammy Baugh of the Redskins and Sid Luckman of the Bears—the best players and the best teams—would go out and throw balls at each other in the sleet, and there would be a champion. Even if this was more or less predictable, it was never dull. Now there are 10 teams in the playoffs. And it was only yesterday that teams were forced to improve themselves with guile, energy, intellect and sometimes money. Now, the worst organizations get the weakest schedules, because this season the NFL introduced parity—or "creeping socialism," as Dallas General Manager Tex Schramm calls it. The way it is now, the mediocre teams rarely have to play the good teams, except by necessity in their own divisions. And remember when blocking linemen had to practically grab onto their own jerseys to keep from being called for holding an opponent? Well, now they are permitted to extend their arms and open their hands—and this was supposed to eliminate holding?
To be slightly outrageous for a second, this season can best be summed up by citing two facts: 1) the Oakland Raiders did not make the playoffs; and 2) the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles did. Also, the outstanding player of the year was a rookie, Houston's Earl Campbell, who obviously didn't know any better than to try as hard as he could every week.
As one Sunday and Monday led to another—and sometimes to a Thursday or a Saturday, consult your local listings—there was rarely anything to count on or anyone to trust. Not for very long, anyhow. One reason was that, for the most part, the best teams saved their worst performances for national TV.
Take Dallas, for example. Please. The Super Bowl champions lost four times with big Nielsens. In fact, the vaunted Cowboys might not have won even one important game before a nationwide audience had it not been for the ineptitude of New England Placekicker David Posey, plus a couple of zebras who helped the Cowboys preserve their 17-10 victory. That Tony Dorsett gained 1,325 yards was undoubtedly a shock statistic to most followers of the sport. How could Dorsett have gained 1,325 yards when he quite obviously spent most of his time fumbling, oversleeping or arguing with Tom Landry?
Slowly, the Pittsburgh Steelers began to look like a dependable team, as Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert returned to their 1975 and 1976 Super Bowl form. But just when this happened, when the Steelers were 7-0 and unbeatable, they lost twice in prime time—first to Houston and then to Los Angeles. The Pittsburgh-L.A. game, which the Rams won 10-7, was particularly disturbing. It was billed as a possible Super Bowl preview, but if it was, then no one will want to be found dead in the vicinity of Miami on Jan. 21. Fifteen penalties were called in the fourth quarter, which took an hour and eight minutes to complete. "Watching you guys is like going to the dentist," a guy told L.A. General Manager Don Klosterman.
Only the schizophrenic could have enjoyed the Rams' conquest of the NFC West. While benched Linebacker Isiah Robertson lectured his coach about his ability—Isiah was subsequently suspended—the Rams beat Dallas, Pittsburgh, Houston and Minnesota but lost to Cincinnati, Cleveland, New Orleans and Atlanta. After being 7-0, the Rams came very close to losing eight in a row.
In terms of images that the tube provided for the masses, only two of the playoff teams survived the regular season without humiliation or embarrassment. They were Houston, which took both of its Monday night games, and the Miami Dolphins, who won five times on national TV and lost with verve and integrity at Houston. That was the 35-30 game in which Earl Campbell ran for 199 yards. By any measurement, it was the best game of the season, and it made up for quite a bit. Such as:
•Coach John McVay of the New York Giants standing idly by and allowing Quarterback Joe Pisarcik to fumble away a sure victory over Philadelphia when there was only enough time left in the game to reach in your pocket for the car keys. The Giants, who have had only two winning seasons in 15, reacted to this in their usual inept way by canning McVay's offensive coordinator, Bob Gibson.
•Oakland's Ken Stabler, deciding not to throw an interception, for a change, kept the ball on the ground for the intentional triple-fumble touchdown that beat San Diego.
•Denver and Atlanta winning games on last-play field goals when the kickers got another chance after they had missed their first ones.
•Assorted NFL cheerleaders posing in the nude, rolling undercover cops and causing almost as much embarrassment to some owners as the NFC Central.
•Carroll Rosenbloom becoming the only man ever to make a sympathetic figure out of George Allen by firing his new coach after two exhibition games.
•Such stars as O. J. Simpson, Bert Jones, Bob Griese, Chuck Foreman and Ken Anderson missing parts of the season because of injuries. Not to mention approximately 200 other players who were lost for the season.
•Chicago's Walter Payton gaining the most secretive 1,395 yards in history, because the Bears experimented with a no-quarterback offense under new Coach Neill Armstrong, who viewed Payton more as a decoy than a runner.
•Cleveland Cornerback Ron Bolton, following a near-riot in Municipal Stadium after the Browns had lost their second straight game as the result of a controversial call in the waning moments, saying of the officials, "They're the only guys who can rob you and then get a police escort out of the stadium."
•Last year's NFL scoring leader, Errol Mann of the Raiders, missing extra points in five different games and more field goals than Al Davis could count.
•David Sims of Seattle leading the NFL in touchdowns; Jim Zorn of Seattle becoming the best lefthanded quarterback since, well, Ken Stabler; and Steve Largent of Seattle becoming the new Raymond Berry by catching an AFC-high 71 passes for 1,168 yards—while all the big names were on vacation.
•New England blowing its opening game to Washington at home, partly because an unidentified Patriot left a playsheet in the Redskins' dressing room.
•The Atlanta Falcons finding a placekicker (Tim Mazzetti) in a bar.
•Detroit Coach Monte Clark discovering Quarterback Gary Danielson just in time to win six of the last nine games and barely missing the playoffs.
•Washington beating Dallas 9-5 in a touchdownless game on Monday night to raise its record to 5-0, and beating Detroit to go 6-0, but then losing eight of its next 10 games—prompting the supporters of $250,000-per-year bench warmer Quarterback Billy Kilmer to suggest that the Redskins wouldn't have collapsed had Kilmer been playing instead of Joe Theismann, which is what would have happened if George Allen had still been eating ice cream in D.C. What they overlook is that if George Allen had been in D.C, the Redskins probably wouldn't have won the first six.
•The 49ers' Freddie Solomon dropping four passes for a total of at least 130 yards in a single game, proving that if he were the sky, he could probably drop the Goodyear blimp.
Sorry, but that one demands a pause. Because Solomon's dreadful day was the same one on which Miami's Delvin Williams crashed through the 1,000-yard barrier, it particularly delighted sports-writers. It was nothing personal as far as Solomon was concerned. It was just that San Francisco General Manager Joe Thomas had traded Williams for Solomon before the season, and Thomas reportedly had accosted a sportswriter in a disco. Despite all of his years of experience, Thomas had evidently forgotten that you can't win with sportswriters. They stick together, and they always have the last word.
Well, if all of that did not make it a rather peculiar season, consider what NFL parity wrought.
It wrought New Orleans, Seattle and Tampa Bay winning more games than ever before, which was very exciting, of course, if you happened to live in New Orleans, Seattle or Tampa Bay.
It wrought 17 teams completing their seasons with records of at least .500, a giant step toward the day when all 28 clubs will finish at 8-8—and the NFL will have its parity, if not quality.
It wrought a wonderful moment late in the season when, with only three games remaining, there were still 20 teams with a mathematical chance of getting to the Super Bowl.
It wrought the marvelous total of 17 teams that improved their won-lost percentage from the previous season—parity scheduling, of course. One was the New York Jets, who came up with the new lightning-strike passing combo of Matt Robinson to Wesley Walker.
It wrought Minnesota a playoff berth with an 8-7-1 record, because 1) neither Minnesota nor Green Bay could score in 15 minutes of overtime on Nov. 26, and 2) the Vikings lost to Oakland last Sunday while the Packers lost to Los Angeles.
Parity, it would seem, could be dealt with if it were not combined with the game's other modern evils. Length of the season, for one. Football players who can demand more money than beach-front property, for two. More and more injuries, of course. And an overcomplicated rule book that makes for far too many hasty judgments by the officials.
It appears that what the NFL has fashioned in the name of progress is a sport with a runaway infection. It is a game in which athletes, who are wealthier now than ever, have even more weeks to guard against injury while playing a greater number of uninspiring opponents—all of it in front of a more confused gang of officials.
Terrific. Maybe the NFL will get really lucky some year and have the San Francisco 49ers (6-6-4) playing the Kansas City Chiefs (5-5-6) in a Super Bowl decided at the end of regulation play by a combined double-chuck, taunt and holding call.
They could even play that game in Canton.