This is an article from the Sept. 7, 1981 issue
The most conspicuous waste of talent in sport can be seen, live (but barely) and in blushing color, every Sunday afternoon and Monday night on the playing fields of the National Football League. The waste occurs in what is called "running the football." That is—or was, or should be—the most exciting single thing commercial football has to offer a paying customer. Many college teams run the football quite well. Some do it spectacularly, with breathtaking flair and yardage. The pros do it poorly. Some do it with such numbing ineffectiveness that if the impact on fans were measured on an EKG, it wouldn't make a ripple. On the whole, the pros move the football on the ground as if it were a piano, and why they haven't been called on it before now is a mystery only a long-suffering $15-a-seat season-ticket holder could answer.
Evidence of this inertia—noticeable for years, chronic lately—is as near as your sports page the day after. Any day after. Most coaches (college coaches, certainly) agree that on a "good day" of rushing, a team should produce a minimum of 200 yards. Top colleges such as Nebraska, Oklahoma and Alabama consider 200 short rations because, year in and out, they average almost twice that.
But for argument's sake, call 200 a positive contribution and measure it against the rushing totals of the 28 NFL teams in games of Oct. 19-20 last season. How many would you guess gained the minimum 200 yards? Half that number? A dozen? Haifa dozen? Brace yourself. The answer is one. One team out of 28 rushed for more than 200 yards. The Houston Oilers got 245, with Earl Campbell accounting for 203 of those. Campbell single-handedly outrushed 27 NFL teams that day. In fact, 13 NFL teams didn't rush for as many yards in 1980 as Campbell did.
Like a frog under a streetlamp, the pros' passivity in this most important phase of offensive play is a subject that looks worse the closer you get. Only four of the remaining 27 pro teams on the weekend in question rushed for even 150 yards. Thirteen didn't even gain 100 yards. Dallas got 46, New Orleans 36, Minnesota 55, Buffalo 68, etc. For the week, the 28 NFL teams averaged a laughable 113.3 yards rushing. In college games that weekend, Nebraska rushed for 405, Ohio State 382, Mississippi State 339 and Georgia's Herschel Walker got 283 of his team's 331, single-handedly outgaining every NFL team.
The Sunday-Monday games before and after Black October 19-20 were only slightly less embarrassing. Four NFL teams on each of these dates rushed for 200 yards. On Oct. 26-27, 10 were under 100. On Oct. 12-13, eight were under 100.
It could be argued, of course, that Walker's impressive yardage was run up on a team (Vanderbilt) whose defense gave a marvelous impression of an open door all year long. But the colleges' best backs don't always need patsies for opponents to get ahead in life. Walker gained 238 yards against Florida and 219 against South Carolina. The latter's George Rogers got 168 yards that day and 142 against Michigan. Notre Dame's Jim Stone rushed for 224 against Miami, USC's Marcus Allen 216 against Washington, and Nebraska's Jarvis Redwine 189 against Penn State. The so-called "victims" all finished the season with winning records and all went to bowl games.
In any statistical comparison with the college game, pro offenses invariably suffer, so it's probably redundant to point out that on Walker's and Rogers' big days, college running attacks were making heads and turnstiles spin all over the country. On Oct. 4 Iowa State rushed for 449 yards, Notre Dame 405, Arkansas 475, Minnesota 466. On Oct. 11 Ohio State got 418, South Carolina 425, etc. On Oct. 18 Mississippi State rushed for 339, Oklahoma 469, Missouri 348, etc. On Oct. 25 FSU got 365, Michigan 376, Temple 357, Nebraska 403, etc. On Nov. 1 Oklahoma got 495, Houston 507, etc. On Nov. 8 Miami got 454, etc. In all, major college teams rushed for 400 yards or better 37 times last fall. No NFL team even came close to 400. Only two, Detroit and St. Louis, got as many as 300.
One could argue correctly that a good number of these figures were totted up at the expense of inferior opposition, and that not every college team runs the ball that well. But enough do to make the blank cartridges fired regularly by the NFL that much more ludicrous. Not one NFL team averaged 200 yards a game rushing the football last year. Actually, none came close. The Rams led the NFL with an average of 174 yards a game, a figure that would have put them somewhere below 70th place on the college list. Houston was next at 164.7, then Detroit at 162.4. South Carolina's Rogers (at 161.9) and USC's Allen (156.3) by themselves outrushed the rest of the NFL. Seven pro teams went the entire season without a single 200-yard game: Baltimore, Buffalo, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, the Giants. As for the argument that only the weakest teams give up big rushing totals to college giants, on Nov. 22 Nebraska rushed for 314 yards and Oklahoma 249—against each other.
The overwhelming majority of pro teams—23 out of 28—produced fewer than 150 yards a game. Fifteen—more than half—averaged fewer than 125. One pro team—New Orleans—was a rushing disaster. It averaged under 100 yards.
By contrast, you have to go down 48 places among the NCAA leaders in rushing statistics to find a Division I college team that didn't roll up 200 yards a game on the ground. Nebraska, Oklahoma and Alabama averaged more than 300. Since the early 1970s the NCAA rushing average per game, both teams, all teams, has been close to 400 yards every single year.
One might further argue that the reason for this huge disparity is that colleges sacrifice total offense for the safer aspects of the running game and that the pros, with their greater emphasis on the forward pass, offer a livelier blend of entertainment, but one would be dealing in nonsense. On either count. The college running attacks are not only more productive, but they are also more imaginative, as we will see, and stimulate a greater yield in total offense. Not one NFL team came within 100 yards of the collegiate total offense leaders, BYU's 535 yards and Nebraska's 506.9 yards a game. Since the late 1960s, college rushing leaders have averaged more than 450 yards a game (Oklahoma's 566 in 1971 is tops). The first 15 college teams in total offense last year averaged more than 400 yards a game. Only one NFL team could make that statement—San Diego, quietly, at 400.6 per game. That would have been 16th on the NCAA list. Four NFL teams didn't even get 300 a game, despite the league's well-ballyhooed increase in "passing efficiency."
The indictment carries an added charge on that particular point. Increased passing in a game ordinarily means more plays because incompletions stop the clock. Yet pass all they might, NFL teams still manage, somehow, to give their fans about 10% less offense (i.e., fewer plays) than the colleges. Year after year, games involving Division I college teams average more than 140 plays. The pros average about 130. That conclusion is obvious if you can remember what makes you fall asleep before the second half every Monday night. The NFL always leads the colleges in dragging out of and back into the huddle and in standing around doing nothing while waiting for "commercial" breaks and two-minute warnings (same thing).
But the subject here is the waste of talent, not its existence. The NFL is, of course, loaded with talented running backs. Their names are familiar to any college fan who sees them being developed and delivered on a platter to the pros: Campbell, Sims and Payton. Anderson, Dorsett and Cribbs. Pruitt, Harris and White. And now Rogers and McNeil. The pros get them all. The pros have great running backs, no doubt about it. What they do not have is great running attacks.
In the hands of the NFL, the talent that seems to squirt from a thousand holes at the undergraduate level takes on a sameness of application (where and how they run the ball) and a poverty of fulfillment (the yards they make) that is often painful to see. Ironically, deception and finesse are the earmarks of NFL passing attacks. College coaches marvel at the sophistication of the pro passing game. They laugh up their sleeves at pro running attacks.
Option running, crisply blocked counters and misdirection plays, effective double-team blocking, successful bootlegs—the elements of a versatile running attack—are virtually alien to the pro game. Hand-offs are simple and to the point, easily followed from the last row of the upper deck. If you lose track of the ball in a pro game, you're either blind or have had a peanut vendor pass in front of you. When a pro team runs a reverse, it looks like cows on ice.
The most thrilling play in football has always been the breakaway run—the long broken-field run that leaves tacklers strewn in the wake of a skilled ballcarrier and his blockers. When a long run occurs in the pros, it's usually an accident. About the only time you see one is when the opposition is in a short-yardage defense, everybody commits, a mistake is made, the back pops through and is gone. That, or when a Payton, Sims or Campbell, through the exercise of a prodigious ability, makes a lot more out of something than he should.
Through the first nine games last year, some of the finest backs the game could muster—Tony Dorsett of Dallas, Don Calhoun of New England, Delvin Williams of Miami, Lynn Cain of Atlanta, Joe Washington, then with Baltimore, and Joe Cribbs of Buffalo—hadn't made a run of more than 20 yards. Cain was the sixth-leading rusher in the National Conference, and his longest run was a 14-yarder. At season's end, only one NFL back, the irresistible Campbell, averaged 100 yards a game. Some of the best—Cain, Chuck Muncie, Vagas Ferguson, Ricky Bell, Elvis Peacock, Dexter Bussey, Franco Harris—were all under 60. That's not bad, it's pitiful.
No amount of NFL propaganda or rules and statistics-keeping modification has been able to bury the body. Some years ago, the league even changed its accounting procedures so that yards lost on quarterback sacks would be charged, justifiably, against passing totals instead of rushing. The fact that the colleges still count sacks against their rushing totals only makes their rushing preeminence that much more discernible. For example, in a game against Nebraska, Florida State wound up with a net of 12 yards rushing—but sacks totaling 88 yards were charged against its rushing production. The NFL would have called that a 100-yard rushing day.
So why can't NFL teams run the football better than they do?
Any quorum of college coaches put together to answer that question would give you three quick reasons:
1) Outdated offenses. Football is a dynamic game, invigorated by continuing change. Most college coaches phased out the so-called "pro set" and its one-and two-back running capabilities years ago in favor of the more versatile wishbone, veer, power (and option) I, etc.—and combinations thereof. The better college offenses today are three-and four-back offenses. (A "back" in this case means one who runs the ball; a quarterback used exclusively as a passer is therefore not included, nor is a "flankerback" used only as a wide receiver.)
2) Coaches fearful of change and/or of getting valuable quarterbacks hurt. Tactically, pro coaches are scared to death of option offenses. The fear's tranmuted into dogma: Option offenses imperil the quarterback. Lay off. Traditionally, pro coaches are offensive conservatives. Having much to lose (their high-paying jobs mainly), they tend to coach along duplicate lines and resist change. They draft talent and try to make it fit style, instead of vice versa. Innovations in offensive play invariably begin with the colleges, and usually to accommodate a player (or players) with unique talents. In other words, college coaches adapt better.
3) Offensive linemen who aren't schooled—or, rather, have been systematically unschooled—in effective rush-blocking. An offensive lineman who spends the great majority of his time pass-blocking soon has his ability to block for the run dulled. The techniques are as different as the acts of driving and putting a golf ball. Pass blocking is basically a defensive posture, a flat-footed "shielding" technique; rush blocking is essentially an act of aggression, requiring an explosive charge (what coaches call "firing out").
When Bud Wilkinson temporarily took leave of the television booth and his various business interests (and some say his senses) to return to coaching in a stab at revving up the moribund St. Louis Cardinals in 1978, he found what he had suspected of NFL running attacks to be true. That they were hamstrung by their own ways and means. Wilkinson's University of Oklahoma teams won national championships and went on long winning streaks; he was known for the thunderbolt strikes of his running attacks, much as Bear Bryant, Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne and Emory Bellard are known for theirs today.
Wilkinson is unconstrained to say what a lot of his fellow coaches hesitate to say (for fear of ruffling the brotherhood): that a two-back offense is a limited rushing tool unless you're blessed with overwhelming physical advantages, especially at the line of scrimmage. Without at least a three-back offense, says Wilkinson, "you have a terrible time getting any meaningful misdirection." Misdirection plays—the counters, the inside and outside reverses, the bootlegs that bring a play back away from the flow of the blocking and into the soft underbelly of the pursuit—are the bane of heavy linemen committed to a directional charge. The most deceptive of running plays, they create advantages in blocking angles and are designed to spring backs for long gains.
The real crux of the problem, however, is pro coaches' prejudice against any running play that involves (as the "third back") the quarterback—the bootlegs and, most especially, the options. The very best coaches of recent times—coaches like Wilkinson, Bryant, Darrell Royal and John McKay—agree that the toughest play to defense in football is the option play. A good option offense, from the split T of the 1950s to its modern descendants, the triple-option wishbone and veer (and Bellard's "wingbone" at Mississippi State), inspires the imagination of offensive coordinators. They love it when defenders have to tackle two or three backs on every play to make sure they get the right one.
Bear Bryant found something that ought to interest the pros about the triple-option wishbone—that the defense had to commit so many people to defend the first two options, it always left the quarterback with one-on-one coverage of his pass receivers. "It was automatic—we got it every time," Bryant says. Getting one-on-one coverage for their receivers is something pro coaches scheme and slave over from the first day of practice to the last.
Pro coaches are united in their conviction that an injured quarterback is the price you inevitably must pay for an option offense. Is it a valid fear? Probably. And presumably. And maybe. But maybe not. Even the more successful college coaches who defected to the pros (McKay is the best example) certainly have been slow to risk challenging the dogma. Wilkinson himself didn't do it, but says he was toying with the idea of incorporating option plays into his St. Louis offense when his stay there was "aborted" in 1979. He would do it today, he says, but admits it might be foolish to try without two good running quarterbacks. By the same token, more college teams than ever use option offenses, and good, tough (and sometimes very large) running quarterbacks are much more plentiful.
Nor is Wilkinson convinced that option plays are as dangerous as some of his colleagues think. "I never saw a quarterback get hurt [badly] running an option," he says. "I've seen a bunch of 'em get hurt dropping back to pass." He means that when a quarterback strings a play out to the sidelines, as he will do on option plays, the chances of his getting hit much more than a glancing blow are not nearly as great, say, as when he is at the vortex of a disintegrating pocket, taking direct hits from three or four 260-pound linemen.
Actually, the list of quarterbacks who recorded incidents of deliberate running in college, and are strong enough and fast enough and elusive enough to handle an option offense, has grown fairly long in the pros. It includes Baltimore's Bert Jones, New Orleans' Archie Manning, Seattle's Jim Zorn, Tampa Bay's Doug Williams, Miami's David Woodley, New England's Steve Grogan and Chicago's Vince Evans.
Even without options, Wilkinson points out, the pro quarterback who can run well and dares to exercise that ability is an asset (and an example) that may go far beyond what even the most devout pro watchers realize. For one thing, the better scramblers of recent NFL history, Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach, had an amazing longevity—18 and 11 years in the game (and Staubach spent four years in the Navy). More important, says Wilkinson, their maverick behavior gave a dimension to their teams' offenses that was directly related to the success of the offenses.
A good running quarterback actually makes busted plays "part" of an offense. "If you cut from the Dallas films the times Staubach [effectively] passed or ran off a scramble, Dallas doesn't win," says Wilkinson. Add one commercial consideration: Scrambling quarterbacks are fun to watch.
One factor not openly examined but obviously damaging to NFL running attacks is the negative effects on offensive linemen of the increasing reliance on the forward pass. Wilkinson found that linemen who come to the NFL, no matter how good they are, soon adopt a blocking stance "where they get used to taking the first step back [in order to pass-block]. By stepping back so much, they're not ready to explode off the ball the way you have to for an effective running game."
Bear Bryant brought the equation home to Wilkinson a few winters ago. Bryant's Alabama team had just come off another good season—with a lot of passing yardage—but it had also given up a lot of points. Bryant complained to Wilkinson that overindulging the passing game had led to a defensive weakness against the opponent's running game. How? By spending so much time pass-blocking in practice, his offensive linemen hadn't given his defensive linemen a proper indoctrination in the running game. "I'm going back to running," Bryant told Wilkinson. And, of course, he did, with well-documented results.
As for the argument that defensive players are just too big and too fast to run against, it's too dumb to get into. Offensive players are also bigger and faster than ever, and as Vince Lombardi pointed out years ago, a good 250-pound offensive lineman ought to be able to move a good 270-pound defensive lineman at least some of the time.
Of course, as the waste goes on, you would have a hard time proving it these days.
Pro football and college football are two different games. Each can generate tremendous excitement, each can put you to sleep at times, each has left its indelible memories of magic moments. But on a tactical level they operate differently. College teams get their big yardage by running the ball, the pros do it by passing. If you want to laugh at the pros because they can't run as effectively as the colleges do, then you must also chuckle at what some of the NCAA passers look like. But to equate the quality of a game with rushing yardage? Hey, get yourself a surveyor's tape and stop cluttering up our press box.
"I can prove anything by statistics except the truth," said British statesman George Canning 155 years ago. So, before we go any further, let's examine some of those showpiece college-rushing numbers John Underwood points to.
Iowa State's 449 yards rushing was in a 69-0 rout of Colorado State. Arkansas ran up its 475 yards while humiliating TCU 44-7. Ohio State's 418 came in a 63-0 shellacking of Northwestern; Missouri's 348 in a 45-7 defeat of Colorado; Nebraska's 403 came in another 45-7 win over—you guessed it—Colorado. Seems that the Buffs had a little trouble stopping runners last year. Nebraska's 405 came in a 48-7 win over Oklahoma State. Georgia's 331—283 by Herschel Walker—was in a 41-0 rout of Vanderbilt. And in Underwood's mileage of Nov. 1, the two games he mentions were laughers—Oklahoma 41-7 over North Carolina, and Houston 37-5 over TCU.
At one point, Underwood mentions 16 games that occurred between Oct. 4 and Nov. 8 last year. Seven of them resulted in margins of 37 points or more. In that same six-week period, do you know how many of the 84 NFL games ended up with such lopsided spreads? Two. And during the whole NFL season, involving 224 regular-season games and nine postseason affairs, a margin of 37 or more points was reached only four times.
Someone once told me that the appeal of sports lies in its competitive aspect, but only four of Underwood's magic 16 games could roughly be called competitive, in that the point differences were under 16. If you want to see people running up and down the field, go to a track meet.
The problem is that most of the big college football rushing numbers come at the expense of patsies. Rush for 400 yards in one game and 100 in the next, and you're still averaging 250. The record of these ground monsters is always dotted with blowouts, and the reason for these 63-0 massacres and 400-yard-rushing afternoons has little to do with football philosophy or coaching astuteness, although this helps. It's the result of good recruiting. Bigger, stronger, faster athletes going against slightly inferior ones. When you've got this kind of overmatch going for you, the ground is the safest way to travel.
Put the ball in the air and you minimize your physical superiority, because you bring in too many variables, too much reliance on only one or two people. The quarterback has a bad day or he gets hurt, you run into wind or rain or snow, and your passing attack is kaput.
Recruiting feeds on itself. The good recruiting teams get the most TV appearances, so potential recruits see those teams more often. The superteams get stronger. They can pad their schedules with occasional fish because, for a low-budget school, a big payday can save the program for another year. It's a vicious cycle of crushball, and the visible result is a weekend sprinkled with 300-and 400-yard rushing performances.
Now we get to the NFL. Brains, not money, bring in the talent. Draft well, trade well, and you've got yourself a team. No one loses money, and except for an occasional defection to Canada, they don't lose players, either. The pros don't run for as many yards as the collegians do because they don't call as many running plays. The pass is a quicker way to get the same job done, and they pass for more yards—a lot more yards, almost 80 per game more than the colleges last year. If the professional game is lacking its share of long breakaway runs—the sight of a playground recreation major being chased by three political-science students—it makes up for it by the long pass. And if you get your thrills out of long plays, where's the sign that says George Rogers lugging the pigskin is more thrilling to watch than Lynn Swann diving for the deep one?
The fact that pros, those stodgy fellas who don't know how to run the ball, averaged 3.97 yards per rushing play last season is very noteworthy. Only once since the NCAA started keeping records in 1937 have the collegians beaten that 3.97 number. O.K., you say, college statisticians count sacks as rushing losses and the pros don't, but the flip side is that you also get longer rushing plays out of sack situations in college ball. College quarterbacks are primarily runners, not 30-year-old men who have perfected the second-base, safety-first slide. College QBs have runners' instincts, and they'll dodge and dance and fight for the extra yards, and occasionally they'll break a long one that way.
The problem is, when you think of college football, you think only of the showcase teams, the dozen or so that appear regularly on TV. Those are the ones with the big rushing totals, and averages to go with it. When Greg Pruitt averaged 9.35 yards a carry 10 years ago, an all-time record, five of Oklahoma's 11 games were won by 30 or more points; the Sooners had four such blowouts in '78, when Billy Sims averaged 7.63. But when you look at the overall picture of college football, it's a little different. The average is more down to earth.
For instance, the collegiate rushing average Underwood mentions as "at or over 400 yards every year" is something less. They've hit 400 exactly twice, John. Last year the average was 356.6, a 19-yard drop from 1979. It was the biggest drop in 16 years, and here's a funny companion statistic: Passing yardage increased 25 yards a game in 1980, the biggest jump in 12 years. In 1980, for the first time in history, college passers completed an even 50% of their throws. Could it be that the collegians are starting to borrow, ever so slightly, from the NFL's modus operandi?
O.K., I can be accused of quibbling when it comes to yardage. Underwood's point is that the colleges run the ball for a lot more yards than the pros do. This isn't a matter of inability on the part of NFL teams, it's their choice. When the NFL first established its own identity and began to steal some of college ball's fan appeal, it did so with the passing game. That became the NFL's image. Eventually, however, pass defenses became uncontrollable. There was no offensive counterpart to the tall, swift pass-rusher, a far better athlete than the man blocking him, or the 230-pound linebacker who could shoot back into his drop zones with 4.7 speed. Zone and combination defenses became too confusing, defensive backs too skilled at knocking receivers out of their patterns. So the NFL brought in cosmetic legislation to help the passers—looser holding laws, the one-bump rule for defensive backs, etc.
When the NFL made the air lanes so inviting, only a fool would have passed up the chance to cash in. So the pro teams now pass more effectively than they run, which doesn't mean they can't run. It just doesn't make sense to run when it's so much easier to move through the air. Most successful college programs are afraid of the pass. It all comes down to what Underwood accurately refers to as the "safer aspects" of the running game. In big-time college football the whole idea is safety first. In the NFL one loss isn't a crushing thing. You can lose five or six games and still make the playoffs and go all the way. But one regular-season loss in college football can be devastating. For an Alabama, there's only one goal at the start of the season: No. 1 in the U.S.A. One loss and you've got problems, especially in a system so unsettled that it chooses its No. 1 by group vote rather than head-to-head competition. I mean, in 1978 Southern Cal beat Alabama by 10 points, in Birmingham. Both teams finished with just one loss, but the AP voters still ranked the Tide over the Trojans.
So you don't take chances, you don't build your offense around a passer, no matter how talented he is. You build it around those heavily recruited linemen and backs. You overwhelm people, overpower them with talent and numbers, crush them with your program. You run the ball, again and again and again.
If you want to argue that the esthetic appeal of a sport lies in the accumulation of overwhelming numbers, well, there's something a bit sadistic in that. Blowout football builds big numbers for you, and as long as you get your share of 69-0 games, you're going to get the stats. NFL attendance went up at a slightly higher rate than college attendance did last year (1.59% to 1.49%), so somebody must be in the pros' corner. (We're talking about live attendance now. The NFL always dominates the TV ratings.) Maybe the fans prefer the competitive aspect of things, the idea that the teams are more evenly matched. And how about defense? Perhaps there are a few people around who don't take an artistic delight in 500 yards' worth of offense. Maybe they like to see somebody stopping someone once in awhile.
In overall offense, the pros averaged 4.98 yards a play last season, compared to the NCAA's 4.65, an alltime record. The NFL had fewer total yards, though, because it ran fewer plays. The reason was the time clock. The pros have 30 seconds to put the ball in play, the collegians 25. That's a 16% difference, and if the pros added that 16% to their total plays called in a game, they'd top the collegians in that category every year.
Now to answer the argument that the pros have great runners but not great running attacks. What the pros have are great defenses, or, let's say, great defensive personnel. No Kansas State and Wichita State to get your rushing stats healthy for you. It's called competition. You work for your yards.
The college coaches laugh up their sleeves at the pro running game—right up to the time they get in the pros themselves. John McKay made it very big at USC with his power sweep, student body left, right, etc. Some students. He tried it for a while with the Tampa Bay Bucs. With the same tailback he had at USC, too. Ricky Bell. But not exactly the same fellas Bell ran against back in college, John. Better throw the ball.
Lou Holtz, now there was a guy who knew about option running and crisply blocked counters and misdirection. A great exponent of the veer at North Carolina State, he even wrote a book about it, called The Grass Is Greener. In his one year with the Jets, he tried incorporating some of those veer principles into the offense. Uh, you don't veer very much with Joe Namath at quarterback, so Lou devised a system in which Joe would direct the team until it got in close, and then the rookie, Richard Todd, would come in, run the veer and option the ball into the end zone. The system lasted one game.
Chuck Fairbanks, now there was a guy who knew how to put 500-yard rushing games together. King of the wishbone. He coached the 71 Oklahoma team that broke all the yardage records, remember? With the New England Patriots he found himself a fine option quarterback, a fellow named Plunkett. Oh yes, Jim liked that option play. One year Plunkett reported back to action with a pin in his shoulder and Chuck decided to option him a little against the 49ers. A gentleman named Dave Washington ended that nonsense and Plunkett wound up in the hospital.
If you want to accuse the NFL of going basic in its approach to running and junking a lot of college football's running-quarterback exotica, then you have to flip the coin and concede that some of the NCAA's most successful powers have a rather primitive approach to the passing game. How about the running backs who come into the NFL, and when you mention forward pass to them, they have to look it up in the dictionary? Billy Sims and Kenny King were two young NFL backs who proved they knew how to catch the football last year, right? At Oklahoma they had a total of four passes thrown to them in four years.
Some of those college quarterbacks are pretty interesting throwers, too. No offense intended. Veer and wishbone quarterbacks in college are usually sprinters or muscle runners. The forward pass is an afterthought.
Formations are a very big thing in college football. Go to a college coaches' clinic, and you'll see everyone dutifully copying down all these X's and O's and stress areas, etc. What they should really be lecturing about is recruiting—little tricks of the trade, how to get past the German shepherd in the front yard or the daddy with a shotgun. With the material some of these guys get, they could run a single wing and make it work. Players win for you, not formations.
I keep hearing Keith Jackson and his analysts, Frank Broyles and Ara Parseghian, telling me how swell the wishbone is as a passing formation, but there's nothing funnier to watch than a wishbone team trying to play catch-up football through the air. Mostly it involves one-man patterns into double coverage. So if the NFL doesn't run the ball as well out of its pro set as the colleges do out of their power I or wishbone, then the other side is that the colleges sure can't throw out of their formations as well as the pros can out of theirs. And the whole idea is to move the ball down the field, right?
College coaches are starting to pick up the passing game a little, but their major offensive innovations are in the area of running. And there are always the anti-pass diehards. The Big Ten, for instance. Ohio State and Michigan lost 10 out of 11 Rose Bowls to Pacific Coast teams that could throw the ball, before Michigan beat Washington last January. Watching Woody Hayes coach a team in the Rose Bowl was like watching a guy slowly walking off a cliff. We shall not pass. The recruiting story three years ago was that Woody got Art Schlichter only because he promised he'd change his offense to accommodate the kid's talents, namely throwing the ball. It was the old hubris-nemesis story, and it eventually cost Woody his job. The Clemson guy he slugged in that Gator Bowl game three years ago had just intercepted a Schlichter pass, remember?
Underwood mentions that Bear Bryant's Triple-Option Wishbone at Alabama had magical powers to isolate receivers on defenders in single coverage. I don't want to argue with both Underwood and a legend, but Bear's teams pass when they have a good passing quarterback, and when they don't—forget it. When Notre Dame led 'Bama 7-0 last year and it was obvious the Alabama running game wasn't going to do it, did the Bear open up and start throwing into that inevitable single coverage? He did not. Alabama threw five passes in the first half, three more in the third quarter and wound up completing a measly six for 15 on the day. And lost 7-0. One problem is that Alabama linemen don't know how to pass-block. They're taught scramble blocking out of a four-point stance, root-hog blocking. There's no area or position blocking. Alabama quarterbacks throw while running for their lives.
NFL linemen are primarily pass blockers, which doesn't mean they're stiffs. The pro scouts give their longest look to the giants who can run the 4.9 40, who can bench-press an apartment house. Of the armies of offensive linemen who come out of college every year, maybe one will make each pro team. Stiffs need not apply.
Now we get to the quarterback option. It works because the quarterback is a running threat. When a defensive end or a linebacker has to make the decision—go for the quarterback or the pitch man—how many times do you see him freeze for just an instant? Gosh, they're both dangerous. And that little freeze gives the offense the edge it needs.
In the NFL a linebacker facing a running quarterback is a happy fellow. Oh, man, he's giving me a shot. No qualms there. Just take the damn fool's head off...viz. Washington vs. Plunkett. And if the quarterback pitches it to the guy in back of him? That's no sweat, just level him anyway. And pretty soon the option team is fresh out of quarterbacks.
If Bud Wilkinson never saw a quarterback get hurt running an option, as Underwood maintains, he must have had the blinders on. You can string it out only so far, and then comes the moment when you have to turn upfield. And that's when the force of the blow is at its maximum, when both men are moving toward the impact.
The thing I can't understand is this: Why knock the pro running game and not the college passing game? The pros choose to pass, the colleges choose to run. Both play exciting football. Why not appreciate both games for what they are? College coaches who tried it soon learned there is no place in the NFL for the veer or wishbone. And except for an occasional Stanford or Brigham Young, the colleges seem to think there is no place on campus for a pro-style passing attack. O.K., we'll give each its own piece of turf. Personally, I like both games, but let's remember they're different games. Very different. Just ask Chuck Fairbanks. Or Lou Holtz.
Let me see if I understand this correctly. En route to professional employment, a young man plays seven or eight years of organized, even sophisticated, high school and college football. He is instructed by legions of coaches in everything from a blown coverage to a blown nose. Then, at last, he becomes a pro. And what happens? Why, he's made to play a Different Game, of course. He enters the exclusive world of the NFL and its highly technical, excruciatingly complicated renditions of Passball. All the inferior coaching that has developed him is now sublimated as the real "brains" of football take over his life.
Pro football advocates have been fed a steady diet of this baloney for so many years, it's probably only natural that they discharge it so readily. But it still comes out baloney. Pro teams pass more because they have, per capita, better passers and better receivers—the best that the colleges have developed for them. Period. There's no mystery to that. The mystery is why they don't run better for the exact same reasons.
But to tie up a loose end or two. First, the droll notion that college coaches as a group (Woody Hayes doesn't count) are by nature and circumstance so desperately conservative that the only pass they recognize is the one that gets them a free ride to Bermuda. The passing game started with the colleges. It has been refined a hundred ways by college coaches. Today, San Diego State's Doug Scovil could teach the finer points to most of the household no-names who coach pro teams; the passing tenets of the late Wally Butts of Georgia are still taught at all levels. There is nothing the pros do passing the football that the college coaches haven't tried. The reason more of them don't pass as often is simple. Excellent passers are hard to find.
It's also ironic that the pro advocate includes Bear Bryant among those who "don't build [their] offense around a passer, no matter how talented he is." Where does he think Ken Stabler came from? Abercrombie & Fitch? How about Richard Todd? And, when Bryant was at Kentucky, George Blanda and Babe Parilli? Under whose tutelage does he think the great Namath got so famous in the first place?
College coaches like Bryant build around the available talent, and running talent just happens to be more abundant than passing talent. They adjust to it, change offensive deployments and strategies to make it go.
All the truly memorable "offensive" football games I've seen have been college games. (The real offensive stinkers, conversely, have been mostly called Super Bowls.) One year when Bryant did have a fine passer, Steve Sloan, his Alabama team played Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. (Anybody here see a patsy?) Alabama passed for 296 yards that night, ran for 222 (for a 518-yard total) and won 39-28. Year before last, as USC beat Notre Dame in South Bend 42-23, Charles White rushed for 261 of USC's 280 rushing yards and Vagas Ferguson 185 of Notre Dame's 249. USC passed for 311, Notre Dame 286. The grand total of total offense for the day: 1,126 yards. The pros don't get that many in a week of dummy scrimmage.
Do offensive explosions like this happen all the time? Of course not. But they happen often enough to make you wonder, and not as infrequently as the pro advocate would like to have you believe. Last year Notre Dame rushed for 405 against Michigan State, Alabama 458 vs. Ole Miss, Nebraska 287 vs. Penn State, Penn State 351 vs. Ohio State, etc. No, formations alone don't win football games. But coaches—even pro coaches—don't spend hour after hour, day after day, devising and revising and scheming over whom to put where and in which direction without a reason, and the reason is that the slightest edge in concept and design might win the day if you're close to being equal. But show me, please, the pro team that has even tried the veer for more than a minute or two. The wishbone. The option I.
And, no, most of the pro geniuses aren't likely to ever embrace the option play because it is hairy and can lump up their high-paid quarterbacks. But just as it is absurd to suggest that college quarterbacks make so much yardage on busted plays that they offset the losses taken on sacks, so is it obvious to say that some of the most thrilling moments in football, pro or college, are gleaned from busted plays, with bodies strewn all over the field and a good runner taking advantage. Surely it beats watching a 30-year-old man make safety-first slides to avoid being tackled. Sooner or later the pro coaches will have to come to grips with the option, because option quarterbacks are about the only thing they're getting from the colleges these days. They'll have to adjust, or they'll have to coach. Don Shula is doing both now with David Woodley, and revamping Miami's offense. "Shula," says an ex-Dolphin employee, "is so good he could coach in the Big Eight."
But to bring the argument to a tidier conclusion, forget for a moment that the colleges even play football and ask yourself: If the pros don't run the football very well, why? If they're so sure Passball is the only way to go, why don't they just draft wide receivers and big blocking backs (converted guards would do) and quit cluttering up the field with runners who don't run anymore?
Where, indeed, is there a rule that says the pros have to give up running in order to pass? Nobody's asking for the charge of the Light Brigade. But it would be nice, before the thrill of another 60-yard incompletion sends us all into a permanent ennui, to see one good, long broken-field run—the kind of play that distinguishes football as a physically demanding and exciting game. It is, after all, the waste of talent that we're talking about here. If all we ask of pro football is Frisbees in the park, we're just not asking enough.
VOICE YOUR VOTE! COLLEGE OR PRO?
Which brand of football do YOU find more exciting—the college game John Underwood favors or the pro version Paul Zimmerman prefers? Call us between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 3 through Sunday, Sept. 6, and cast your vote. The results will be published in next week's SCORECARD section. To vote for College, dial 1-900-720-3303. To vote Pro, call 1-900-720-4303. Your local telephone company will charge you 500, plus tax, for the call.