The pass-catch game has opened up the NFL like a herring knife. Offensive linemen are getting sneakier. Blitzes are back. So are lawyers; a player can now sue an opponent for cheap-shotting him. Everyone—but everyone—gets to play because there are specialists for everything, even a designated right-side sacker. Offenses are going wild, but the television ratings aren't. And, of course, the AFC has come on so strong that we don't even talk about its dominance anymore; in fact, there now is an A Division and a B Division in the league. That's where NFL '79 stands after 11 weeks of the season. It's an X-rated movie—Deep Threat, parental guidance suggested for cornerbacks and safetymen.
Defensive coaches are wringing their hands. Once they had the game by the throat. Then the rulemakers went to work: you offensive strategists can't do it on your own, so we'll help you. We'll help your receivers get free, and we'll let your linemen push off if they want to. Holding? Well, O.K., but within limits. No strangling, please. Women and children might be watching. And, oh yes, we'll also keep people from roughing up your quarterbacks.
"Hell, yes, I like the new rules," says San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh. "We've got a quarterback, Steve DeBerg, who ranked 28th in the NFL last year, and now he's on the verge of breaking John Brodie's club records. We're leading the NFC in passing, and we're 101 yards away from leading the entire league. Because of the new rules, even with our limited personnel, we can throw the ball for big yardage. When I came here I had hoped to get 300 yards a game in total offense. Right now we're a fraction under 350. Teams still can't quite believe how profitable it is to put the ball in the air."
In the war room of the Pittsburgh Steelers, George Perles, the burly little assistant head coach who's in charge of the defensive line, stares glumly at the floor and gets ready for a long, cold winter. "The offenses had the new rules for more than a year, but they didn't know what to do with them," he says. "I held my breath. They started slow, but, brother, it's gone lickety-split in the last six weeks. People are finally getting around to doing what the owners spent thousands of dollars at their meetings in Palm Springs and Hawaii to get them to do."
Perles shakes his head. He fiddles with a pencil.
"It's just spawning—spawning," he says. "It's happening in front of my eyes. I see it on Sunday, and then I have to go home and watch it on TV Monday night all over again. All those passes. It's the cycle of the 1950s coming back."
Ah, the '50s. The push for public acceptance, for the new TV dollars. Put the ball in the air. Win fans. Make money. Teams were passing for 170 to 175 yards a game. It went as high as 192, in '54. No team did it better than the Rams, Bob Waterfield and Dutch Van Brocklin throwing to Tom Fears and Elroy Hirsch and little Vitamin T. Smith, shooting out of the backfield. The P.R. director of the Rams in those joyful days was a young Californian named Alvin (Pete) Rozelle. Is it any wonder that two years ago, when the defense had clamped its icy hold on the game, he longed for the sunshine of yesteryear?
"No, no, it's not the same at all," Commissioner Rozelle says now. "Do you remember what everyone was saying about the game in the '50s?"
Indeed we do. They were saying that it wasn't football at all, that it was basketball in pads and cleats. A sissy game.
"Right," Rozelle says. "They were saying it because the physical contact was entirely different from what you have now. You had 33-man squads. Teams couldn't afford injuries. Players didn't throw their bodies around like they do now, particularly on defense. I looked at some old Ram movies the other day and saw the classic stiff-arm, the nice, clean tackle around the legs. Nowadays defensive guys come at you like this..." and Rozelle rises up out of his chair and snaps off a very wicked-looking forearm.
"Speed, size, specialization, their own coaches, pride in their units—all that changed the whole concept of defense. By 1977 defense controlled the game. Scoring was lower than it had been in 35 years. We had to do something, so we changed the rules. The purists didn't like it. Some coaches didn't. It represented a management point of view."
Dallas Coach Tom Landry is a purist. He spent years working on a flex defense that would shut down all the gaps, control all the lanes. The fans didn't know from flexes. They called it Doomsday. Then Landry set to work figuring out how to beat his flex. The answer: constant motion, a changing spectrum of sets and formations—anything to create indecision, confusion. It was a chess game, a labor of the cerebrum, but then along came the rulemakers to make it easy for people who couldn't figure out such things on their own.
In 1977 they took away the defensive lineman's head slap. They gave each pass defender just one bump on a receiver. Those things weren't enough. O.K., the defenses said, we're allowed only one bump per man, so we'll bump the receiver with a lot of different guys. The 3-4 defense created a picket line of big, mean linebackers, each one more than willing to take a guy's head off as he came across the field. Passing stats hit a four-year low. Rushing stats were off 4½%. And scoring was the lowest since the war years, Sammy Baugh and leather helmets.
The trouble was that the NFL didn't know how to legislate against the talents of the defensive people. The offense had no counterpart to the 6'6", 250-pound defensive end who can run a 4.7 40. Athletically, he was just too good. He was uncontrollable. There was no antidote for the 230-pound linebacker with 4.6 speed and a nasty disposition. And, worst of all, most of the inventive thinking of the last 15 years had been applied to defense, the 3-4 being the major innovation.
It was clear the offenses couldn't do it on their own. They needed help, and in 1978 the rulemakers came up with the big one. A defender could chuck a receiver once within five yards of the line of scrimmage, they said, but that was it. After that he was free and easy. No one else could take a shot at him. And to make sure the officials would spot violators of the new rule, the officiating crews were increased from six men to seven. And to make sure the quarterback had time to find that receiver, the blocking rules were more sharply defined. Offensive linemen would be allowed to extend their arms and lock their elbows and open their hands (and sometimes close them). The big push-off had arrived. The era of strong fingers. Candy stores showed heavy sales in hard rubber balls—finger conditioners.
The offensive coaches blinked twice, rubbed their eyes and still didn't believe what they saw. Can it really be? The Super Bowl convinced them. Chuck Noll had the Steelers open it up on the Cowboys. By halftime Terry Bradshaw had passed for 253 yards. "Heck, I'd only thrown for that much twice before in my life," Bradshaw says, "and those were whole games." When it was over, he had passed for a career high of 318, and the Steelers had scored 35 points. NFL coaches digested what they saw in Miami and then pulled the cork this season.
"The offenses have now gotten to where the owners wanted to get them," Landry says, sadly. "It's gotten to where you can't play pass defense against a Lynn Swann or a Tony Hill or a John Stallworth. Who can cover them without touching them? Football should be innovative. Changes should come only through evolution. But when you try to change the nature of the game through the rules, you're defeating it. Rules should be changed for one purpose—to protect the athlete from things he can't overcome with his skills. Eliminating the illegal pick, eliminating the chop block in which a back drifts outside and then cracks in on a pass rusher from the blind side, those are sensible changes. But just to say, 'We want more passing in the game, so let's change the rules,' well, I don't believe in that.
"If they would have interpreted the rules right in the first place, if they would have penalized those defensive men who strangled a receiver when he got down-field, they wouldn't have had to make these changes. But it's a lot easier just to change a rule."
But, Tom, your own general manager, Tex Schramm, was on the Competition Committee that put in these rules.
"I know it, and he probably likes them," Landry says. "But he's management oriented. I'm talking from a football standpoint."
A mid-season survey showed that in 1979 pass plays of 20 or more yards had increased by 26.6% over 1977 and that there had been 31.5% more 40-plus-yarders. Passing offense was up 12.4% over '78 and 22.8% over '77. Scoring is up 10% over '78 and 15% over '77.
After 10 weeks, wide receivers ranked first (San Francisco's Freddy Solomon), second (Minnesota's Ahmad Rashad) and tied for third (Pittsburgh's Stall-worth) among pass catchers. The last time a wide receiver won the pass-catching title was in 1973 (Philadelphia's Harold Carmichael).
At one time a 300-yard passing day by a quarterback was synonymous with losing. Last year, after 10 weeks, there had been eight 300-plus-yard games, but only one had been a winning effort. This year the numbers were 25 300-yard-plus passing games and 12 winning efforts. Not long ago a team that didn't run more than it passed was doomed; this year, 8-3 San Diego (53.4% pass plays) and 7-4 Cleveland (50.9%) have done more passing than running.
"Teams used to do that by necessity, because they couldn't run the ball," says Browns Coach Sam Rutigliano. "But with us, I assure you it's by design. Hey, a guy can run a crossing pattern now until he gets free, and nobody can touch him."
For the type of defensive back who specializes in dealing out physical punishment, such as Dallas Free Safety Cliff Harris, the new rules are a nightmare. "In the old days you'd make a receiver feel he was lucky to catch a pass," Harris says. "They'd run their routes cautiously. Now they're loose. You can see it in their eyes. They feel they're the intimidators downfield. I think the whole concept of these rule changes is wrong. Do the fans really like this kind of football better? I'm not so sure. Owners shouldn't be the judges of what fans like to see. You can't tell me that fans like a 55-22 game better than a good defensive battle. People are going to get bored. What kind of ratings does pro basketball have on TV? What were the things in the past that the fans really identified with? I'll tell you. It was our Doomsday Defense, the Purple People Eaters in Minnesota, the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh, Bronco-mania in Denver. All of them were keyed on the defense. How many offenses have nicknames?"
Harris may be right, because TV ratings have not gone up the way scoring has. After 10 games ABC's Monday Night Football had a Nielsen rating of 18.8, compared with last year's 21.2; the overall decline in viewers is about 11%. The ABC specials on Sunday and Thursday nights have dropped from 19.2 to 18.4. NBC had an 11.7 rating after 10 weeks, up only fractionally from 11.6 last year, and CBS had a 13.5, the same as in '78. Oddly enough, when the game was at its offensive low point in 1977, when nobody could score points and the owners were fearing a return to the Ice Age, each network earned a higher rating than it did in 1978—and also a rating higher than that projected for 1979.
But there's another factor at work here. The excitement caused by the liberalized pass-catch rules can't hide a very discouraging fact about the NFL. It's a two-caste society. In interconference games the AFC has beaten the NFC 26-10, but, even worse, except for Dallas all the action teams are in the American Conference.
The graying of pro football has a subtler aspect. Standardization. Even cheerleaders have become standardized. "I hate the uniformity," says the Steelers' Swann. "Each position has its required uniform numbers. After Rashad retires, no wide receiver will ever have No. 28. When Kenny Burrough leaves, there'll be no more double 0. Just numbers in the 80s. All the tackles will be 76 or 77, the centers will all be 52 or 53."
He sighs. "What if you're just a naturally born No. 22?"
"I long for the old days, for the classic battles between offensive tackle and defensive end," says Philadelphia Defensive End Claude Humphrey. "You'll never see them again. They're gone. You can't butt or head-slap. The offensive lineman can grab you and shove you off. The only time you can get a sack now is off a stunt, or if the offensive tackle makes a mistake and blows an assignment, or if he falls down. And even then he can push you in the back and send you past the quarterback. The way the rules are now, the person who's gonna win is the one with the longest arms."
The new rules have done one undisputably good thing, though. They've made the game safer. Backs can't chop pass rushers from the blind side anymore. ("Yeah, but the tight ends still do it," Humphrey says.) There's no more blocking below the waist on punt and kickoff returns. The quick-sack whistle means no more grabbing the quarterback and shaking him like a rag doll and no more teeing him up for someone else. Or at least not as much.
Bert Jones and Gary Danielson might not believe it, but the injury rate on quarterbacks is down. Last year there were 32 occasions when a team's No. 1 quarterback was hurt and couldn't start; this year the number is down to 24. At least one team orthopedist, Dr. James Nicholas of the Jets, thinks that everyone in the game is healthier. "The quarterbacks have fewer injuries because of the rules," he says. "Other players are protected because of the use of more sophisticated braces and equipment. In past years you couldn't get a man to wear something like the flak jacket Dan Pastorini wears. Everyone wanted to strip off as much equipment as he could to make himself lighter. Now he accepts it."
And then there are the lawyers. Last month the Supreme Court ruled that former Bronco Safety Dale Hackbart had every right to sue Fullback Boobie Clark, then with the Bengals, now an Oiler, for striking him "negligently and recklessly" while he was in the end zone in a 1973 game. The suit is for $500,000. Cheap-shotters beware. It could cost big money.
O.K., on to what's ahead. We are 11 weeks into the 16-week season, and what do we see out there? Well, no great sleeper team, unless you count Tampa Bay, which I don't. It's too soon to pick an All-Pro quarterback. Too many of them are getting too hot too often. There's no defensive end who can touch the Bucs' Lee Roy Selmon. Plays the run and plays the pass; that's what I like. The Browns' Jerry Sherk was playing the best defensive tackle in the league until he had his knee operated on last week. The Chargers' defensive tackle, Wilbur Young, leaves an unholy trail of bodies when he decides to come full tilt. There might be someone better, but I haven't seen a tight end as good as the Eagles' Keith Krepfle. When are they going to vote him into the Pro Bowl? Or the Jets' offensive guard, Randy Rasmussen? He's the No. 1 NFL player who has never been picked for anything. No linebacker has made as many big plays in crucial situations as the Giants' Harry Carson, and I haven't seen Dallas' left guard, Herbert Scott, play a bad game in the last two years.
With Swann playing semi-hurt, Stall-worth, Seattle's Steve Largent and San Diego's John Jefferson seem to be the class among receivers, but the toughest guy to cover one-on-one is the Broncos' Rick Upchurch. How do you choose two All-Pro runners from among the trio of Chicago's Walter Payton, Houston's Earl Campbell and St. Louis' Ottis Anderson? Bet the pickers chicken out and select all three.
Thorny question: Why doesn't any team use the pass-lateral? Throw to the tight end, who then pitches back to a trailer. I've seen it about three times in the last 20 years, each time for big yardage. Another one: On third-and-20, why run a draw play for five yards instead of quick-kicking? Lots of quarterbacks can punt. I saw Terry Bradshaw hanging them up for 4.7 and 4.8 seconds in practice one day.
Thorniest question: Why do teams still use that prevent defense? Give me the teams that rush four people and even blitz in the last two minutes. "The prevent defense is the slow sizzle," says former Giant Coach Allie Sherman. "It's death by torture—especially with these new passing rules."
But so many teams use it. Take Atlanta vs. Seattle on Monday night two weeks ago. The Seahawks were the ultimate gamblers, risking four whacked-out offensive maneuvers that paid off. Came the last two minutes and they went numb. Used the prevent, and the Falcons picked up 108 yards and seven points and almost won the game.
It happened to the Steelers in Super Bowls X and XIII. In X they gave the Cowboys 103 yards and seven points in the last 2:54. In XIII Staubach hit them for 137 yards and 14 points in the last 6:51. Why? Why do it?
"Damned if I know," Perles says. "I guess we wanted to start celebrating seven minutes early."
And now a prediction for Super Bowl XIV on Jan. 20, 1980 in the Rose Bowl. The two teams—and you can hold me to this—will be the ones that are healthiest down the stretch. The NFL is a survival contest. Any of four or five teams could make it; the two that are least injured will survive.
Not good enough? You want names? In the NFC the Eagles and Redskins will play in the wild-card game. A dogfight. Can't pick the winner, but they—call them the Eagleskins—will beat Tampa Bay the following week and find themselves in the NFC championship game facing—Dallas, who else? The Cowboys will get there by beating L.A. in the first round in an atypically high-scoring game for these two teams, but that's the new rules for you. Cowboys will then beat Eagleskins.
Playoff time will find the AFC showering the world with sparks. Nine teams will have winning records, and the last weekend will be crucial for five of them. The papers will be full of possible playoff combinations. The Boston Globe will run a centerfold pullout chart explaining the whole thing, and two typesetters will become so disoriented they'll wander into the wrong houses that night. The Chargers, Patriots and Steelers will win division titles. The Broncos will battle the Oilers in the wild-card playoff. Oilers will win, but then lose the following week in San Diego, while the Steelers are knocking off the Patriots. San Diego-Pittsburgh for the AFC title will be one of the classic playoff battles, featuring 600 yards' worth of passing and a stunning Charger upset.
The Chargers will have one more upset under their belts—and beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIV. Don't go out and book any bets, but if it happens, remember, you read it here first.