The 1982 NFL season will go down in history as The Year of the Strike, of course, but it will also bear a subhead, The Year They Opened the Dime Store. Everything was cheap—cheap pass completions, cheap yardage, cheap thrills. Woolworth football.
Remember when there were only two or three big plays a game? Now there are a dozen, two dozen—so many that they all blur, become indistinguishable. Even the idea of training camp was cheapened. Who needs a month to get ready? Bring 'em back on Wednesday, play on Sunday. They're big boys, aren't they?
Then they depreciated the playoffs by allowing 16 of the 28 teams to qualify. Another artificial thrill. The playoffs are now a great, gray blob. In a normal year, a .375 team—6-10 under conventional circumstances; 3-5 in The Year of the Strike—would simply be a loser, but not under the new formula; we had to call a 3-5 club a playoff contender. Going into the last weekend of the season, half a dozen 3-5 teams had a shot at NFC playoff berths. They included the two biggest whatever-happened-to stories of the year, San Francisco and Philadelphia. The 49ers are crippled and defenseless. The Eagles? Well, things have gotten so bad that Dick Vermeil has been questioning his own coaching ability and owner Leonard Tose has suggested that the Eagles ought to go back out on strike. But there they were, on Week 9, playoff contenders. Ditto New Orleans, which started an erstwhile wide receiver named Guido Merkens at quarterback two weeks ago. Ditto Chicago Bears, with its makeshift offensive line and an unhappy Walter Payton. Also in the running were the Detroit Lions, the turmoil capital of mid-America, the L.A. Rams East. And so were the Giants, with a lame-duck coach, Ray Perkins, who was all set to jump on a plane after the final whistle and start signing Alabama high school kids to letters of intent. Only Detroit will be playing this weekend.
After he'd dropped his second straight game since announcing on Dec. 15 he was leaving to become the coach of the Crimson Tide, Perkins was reminded that the 3-5 Giants still had a playoff shot, that a 4-5 record might qualify. "To me the playoffs are kind of like a championship game," he said, "a reward for accomplishing something on the winning side, right? This way you're going to get a reward for having a losing season. Does that make sense? Doesn't to me."
The league office keeps reminding us that the current setup is a once-only arrangement, but they made a mistake when they chose the 16-team formula involving three weeks of playoffs. They could have gone for austerity—a 10-week season, with two weeks of playoffs and only four teams qualifying from each conference. I'm surprised that the Players Association didn't hold out for that, because it would have meant an extra payday for a lot more players. But instead, the league went dime store and the fans are turned off. Attendance was down, and so were TV ratings. Sunday, only 11,902 fans showed up at Kansas City's 78,097-seat Arrowhead Stadium to see the Chiefs play the Jets.
The difference in the quality of post-strike play wasn't that easy to spot with the naked eye. It was subtle. Game plans were simplified. It was easier to stick with pass-catch for a while. Running attacks require more precision, more repetition work. To one sophisticated eye, though, the differences were huge.
"For the first three weeks after the strike, it wasn't even worth my while to grade films," says Mike Giddings, a scout and evaluator of pro personnel for eight NFL teams. "That's how different the caliber of play was. The crispness didn't come back until mid-December; slide-blocking in pass protection, hook-blocking, tackling hard and causing fumbles, driving for the ball, the things that make NFL football such a great sport."
For a while it was felt that running backs would dominate the game in November and December, because they had never been so healthy and injury-free this late in the season, but the reverse happened. The great runners submerged. Every one of last year's Top Ten rushers ran at less than his yards-per-game pace of '81, and only Payton increased his average yards-per-carry, mainly because he carried the ball four fewer times each game. But Payton went seven games without scoring a touchdown rushing. Going into Dallas' game Monday night against Minnesota, Tony Dorsett's longest gain of the year was 19 yards. Earl Campbell was sore and depressed.
The passing game, on the other hand, flourished. Ken Anderson completed 40 passes against the Chargers—and lost. Vince Ferragamo threw for 509 yards against the Bears—and lost. Dan Fouts passed for 450 and 435 yards on back-to-back weekends—and won. There's no pattern to it. We haven't seen the crest yet, either. The reason is that the pass-catch game has filtered down to the grass roots. Colleges are going for the big passing attack. Just look at the numbers during Bowl week. The young linemen are pumped-up weightlifters who are being bred for pass-blocking. For most of them their basic move off the ball is to get the mitts out and hook up, whether it's a run or a pass.
"It's all strength blocking," says Randy Rasmussen, who retired from the Jets this year after 15 seasons at guard. "I'm really watching the colleges for the first time now, and I'm amazed at what I'm seeing. The linemen are all carrying too much weight. They've lost their run-block techniques. A team like Pitt, for instance, their linemen come off the ball and just start wrestling with people."
The NFL office's new concession to the offense is the cosmetic fine. If something looks bad, fine the guy, or suspend him, especially if the isolated camera catches it. Make it public. Make a big thing of it. Head shots are particularly popular items. The Jets' Stan Blinka caught the Packers' J.J. Jefferson with a forearm to the head on Nov. 28. Nasty, sure, but at one time standard operating procedure for middle linebackers. Blinka got sent down for a game. "It ranks with the worst infractions I have witnessed," said Pete Rozelle. Oldtimers laughed. Hardy Brown, the old linebacker from the '50s, used to dish out 15 of those per game.
Check the recent punishments and you'll see that they all involve a defensive man hitting an offensive player, but the worst things on a football field are the cheap shots to the knees, the roll-up blocks, the blind-siders against defensive men. Those are seldom caught by the officials or the TV cameras and go unpunished. Most players will tell you that if they have to take a shot, they'd rather take one to the head than to the knee, which could be a career-ender.
Patriot Tight End Don Hasselbeck was outspoken about the head shot Pittsburgh's Ron Johnson delivered to New England Quarterback Steve Grogan two weeks ago. "It makes me sick," Hasselbeck said, and a few Jets had to smile. He was the guy who delivered what many Jets say was the cheapest shot they've ever seen. It involved Joe Klecko on the Sept. 19 play in which the Jets' All-Pro defensive end tore a tendon in his right knee. He was on his back, gripping his leg in agony, and here comes Hasselbeck, taking a 10-yard run at Klecko and diving on his other leg. Did Hasselbeck get a flag? A fine? A suspension? Hardly. It wasn't a head shot, you see.
"I'm surprised none of your teammates put out a contract on Hasselbeck that day," someone told Klecko a couple of weeks ago.
"I guess they don't do that anymore," Klecko said. "Don't worry, though. I'm not forgetting it."
What will happen in the playoffs? Weather should determine how things go. The defenses are still trying to figure out a way to catch up with the passing game. So far, there's no real formula. The Giants rushed three men and had eight back in coverage when the Cards' Neil Lomax beat them on a last-minute pass in Week 8. He had seven seconds to throw, and he found Roy Green alone in the end zone. On the same day, the Falcons sent a furious four-linebacker blitz against the Packers' Lynn Dickey, who calmly completed an 80-yard scoring pass to James Lofton. But there's one defense against the hot passers that always works, and that's the good old Wind Chill Defense. It could get Fouts next week in Pittsburgh as it did last year in Cincinnati.
In the AFC, a West Coast playoff schedule down the line will help the Raiders' Jim Plunkett. In the NFC, Dallas seems capable of beating anyone on any field in any conditions.
Maybe next year the fans will take all this seriously.