First of all, let me say that I think football is a great game. The best. But it can be better. With a bit of progressive thinking, the NFL can recapture those TV fans who have drifted off to The Burning Bed and Friday the 13th Part V, the dial spinners, the bored and blasé.
We're not talking about the guys who have deserted televised sports in general. It's just a sign of the times that fewer people are staying home to watch Walter Payton or Dr. J or 18,000 marathoners clumping over the Verrazano Bridge. Instead, they're hauling the kids out to a lake, a museum or a library. Or maybe they're tossing a ball around or walking in the woods. Fine. It's probably healthier anyway. Leave the poor devils alone. But there's an indoor entertainment audience to be recaptured, and when all three networks show an alarming drop in their NFL ratings, then it's time to head off the slide before it becomes an avalanche. It's time to make the whole thing better.
Everyone has tried to cash in on the football action. In the spring and summer you've got the USFL. On Saturdays in the fall you can watch a dozen college games. On Sundays you've got the NFL on NBC and CBS, plus all the college reruns on cable, and on Monday nights, as well as the occasional Sunday and Thursday nights, you've got the NFL on ABC. They're choking us with football, and it doesn't take a member of Mensa to figure out that if you keep stuffing a goose, pretty soon it's going to explode.
My colleague, Bill Taaffe, has offered some quickie cures for the falling ratings (see box, opposite). I agree with his proposals, but they are quick fixes designed to cure the symptoms, not the malady itself. The actual malady is that football has gotten away from its essence. Football wasn't made to be played in a domed stadium on a rug. Players are supposed to get dirty. Every team isn't supposed to call the same plays and look the same. Offense and defense are supposed to be evenly matched. Officials are supposed to regulate the action, not dictate it. Players are supposed to stay on the field for a while, instead of being caught up in wave upon wave of substituting. And some of the techniques they use, as mandated by the 1978 rule changes, make for very ugly football. Who wants to see a 280-pound lineman pushing another 280-pounder in the back and call that a block? You can watch intramural football if you want to see that—subtracting about 130 pounds per player, of course.
O.K., this is an old hoot. I've been saying this for years, and people smile and nod and motion me to the rocking chair by the window. But I think there must be a whole lot of people somewhere out there who agree with me. How else can you explain the Denver-Green Bay phenomenon? On Monday night, Oct. 15, the Broncos and Packers played in a blizzard in Denver. The yard markers were obscured. You could barely make out the players. Thirty-seven seconds into the game and the Broncos led 14-0, having converted two fumbles into TDs. The ABC-TV executives must have been ready to fall on their desk sets. Oh god, another runaway. A two-TD lead right away is supposed to be death for the ratings. But here's the funny thing. The viewers hung in. They watched, right through the fourth quarter when the Packers, down 17-0, brought it to 17-14 and nearly pulled out a victory. The rating for that game (16.5) was better than it was for the Sept. 24 Chargers-Raiders (15.5) Monday night game, better than any Monday game this past October, better than Raiders-Dolphins in '83. Why? Maybe that blizzard game gave the people nostalgic feelings; maybe it let fans relive, for three hours, an era when football players battled the elements, when the passing game wasn't all gimme stuff and quarterbacks worked for what they got. Maybe the audience liked the idea that, for once, the odds were in the defense's favor. And maybe it was something special when Green Bay quarterback Lynn Dickey damn near overcame those odds by doing what the Broncos couldn't—or wouldn't—do: connect with his receivers. The game had an oldtimey feeling, and I think that's what the fans have missed.
I've got 11 prescriptions for making the patient healthier. But before I get into them, let me just mention some things I don't think are the basic causes for the declining interest in the NFL:
Scapegoat No. 1—The strike of 1982. Still the poor old strike. NFL owners, general managers, and coaches keep bringing it up. Hey, that excuse is two years old. Enough already. What's going to happen a couple of years from now when you won't have the strike to kick around anymore? Besides, I think the strike actually whetted some people's appetites. It made them hungrier for NFL football when it returned.
Scapegoat No. 2—Salaries. Here's what I can't understand. Why do people get upset about football players' salaries instead of the paychecks of people who don't earn them? I mean, a guy comes bouncing on to do the weather report on the 11 o'clock news and screams, "Bad news, folks. Tomorrow it's gonna rain." And everyone in the studio breaks up. What a comic. And do you know how much that guy gets paid for telling us it's gonna rain? About $375,000 a year. Some of them get half a million. And they've never picked up a blitzing linebacker in their life. Or bled in public. Or been told, at 32, "That's it. Find another job." How come the fans don't complain about those guys? Nope, the football players earn what they get, and if you're upset about how much money they make, then call it a balancing of the scales. For many, many years they didn't get enough, and the owners, instead of addressing the problem, stonewalled it in contract negotiation after contract negotiation. I don't think fans spin the dial away from pro football because the players make too much money. Joe Namath and his $427,000 package pulled the fans in at one time, remember?
Scapegoat No. 3—Parity. Not applicable any more. This is a non-parity year. There are more very good and very bad teams, and fewer tweeners, than there used to be. Proof: In the ninth week of the season, nine games were decided by a margin of 18 or more points. That's a lot of non-parity.
Scapegoat No. 4—Doing away with taunting, celebrating, dancing, etc. Well, I must admit I'm a little upset when I see all that twitching now. You know, a guy scores a TD, and he twitches. He's just aching to dance, but he doesn't want to get a penalty. The way I feel about it is this: if the receivers want to celebrate after a TD pass, then let's bring back bump-and-run all the way down the field—throw out that five-yard, one-bump zone. If they catch a touchdown against a real bump-and-run, then they have a right to dance.
Scapegoat No. 5—Heavy competition. Publicly, the ABC people will tell you that all network telecasting is down, not just football, because of all the cable stuff and the home VCRs. But how come after nine weeks last year, Monday Night Football—from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m., the truly competitive slot—was ahead of NBC and CBS, and this year it's No. 3?
"The Burning Bed on NBC," one ABC guy says. "They threw a blockbuster at us." C'mon now. They always threw biggies at you, and the Monday night game always overcame it. The network guys feel bitter about having to sign a five-year, $2.1 billion NFL package that was keyed to the record ratings year of 1981. The next contract, which will be negotiated after the '86 season, will be more modest, they say, if the ratings continue to slip. "But," one guy says, "there's always the hidden fear that Pete Rozelle will come up with some shot in the arm to bring the ratings back in the last year of the contract."
Such is the mystique and power that the Commissioner's office can exert to cloud men's minds. What shot in the arm? But what's on the horizon?
"We've always had peaks and valleys," Rozelle says. "In a lot of ways the high ratings in '81 were pure luck. Just like the bad luck now of having blowouts on Monday night TV. One change I would make would be to shorten the games. Our Competition Committee will get into that. Another would be to promote the game more strongly, to take it to 'em."
So much for scapegoats. I've come up with some remedies, and basically they address the structure of football. Some of them involve radical surgery, some are just a nip and tuck to firm things up—where needed.
•No. 1—Change the scoring. Field goals are weighted too heavily. Put a premium on scoring touchdowns by making an 18-to 29-yard field goal (snapped from the one-to 12-yard line) worth only one point, a 30-to 45-yarder worth two and anything over 45 worth three. Now when a team gets stopped on the one, it kicks a field goal. Why should that be worth three-sevenths of what a TD and the extra point would have been worth? The true value for giving up should be one-seventh. And change the overtime rules. A team must win by either a touchdown or a three-point field goal (of 46 yards or more). Also, put in the two-point conversion. Give the coaches some real strategy decisions to make.
•No. 2—No more mass substitutions after every down. Limit it to one sub per team per play, except for injuries. Make the guys on the field play football—in all sorts of different situations. The 49ers' coach, Bill Walsh, brought this up at the last league meetings, but it never got any farther than the suggestion stage.
•No. 3—Penalize the offensive linemen for pushing off on a running play. It isn't football, it's "belly-bumping," as Colt coach Frank Kush calls it. This will cripple the running game, you say? Not likely. What it'll do is make linemen learn the drive-block skills that were once an integral part of football, and eventually the running game will be better, because most defensive linemen are pass-rush oriented and play too high anyway. They're suckers for a drive block.
•No. 4—Safety. An offensive player shouldn't be able to cut-block a defensive lineman unless he's face up with him. No more legalized clipping along the line of scrimmage. Clipping is a penalty when it's done in the open, and it should be in tight, too. There's no more vicious technique in football. Let's have an eye-for-an-eye rule. If a guy puts an opponent out of action on an illegal shot, suspend him for the same number of games the injured player misses.
And phase out artificial turf—17 of the NFL's 28 teams have it on their home fields—over a three-year period. There isn't a player in the game who doesn't feel it's dangerous. The Lions' Billy Sims tore up his knee on the Minneapolis Metrodome's artificial field. "That turf is about as hard as this," Detroit coach Monte Clark said, rapping his knuckles on a Formica-covered table. "There's no cushion on it or nothing. It's like a cheap house rug." Get rid of those carpets. They shouldn't be part of football. If science can't come up with a strain of grass that can grow in the indoor stadiums, then allow the existing domes to have their carpets, but make sure the padding underneath passes inspection.
•No. 5—Strike a blow for nonconformity. Loosen up on the dress code. Let a guy's shirttail hang out, or his socks drag. "The dress code has nothing to do with football," Raider safetyman Mike Davis says. "The way things are going, the NFL might as well dress the NFC teams in white and the AFC teams in blue, because they're trying to make us all look alike." Relax the numbering code on uniforms. Noland Smith, the Chiefs' tiny kick returner, wore No. 1. Jim Otto, the great Oakland Raider center, wore double-zero. Bring back individuality in numbers.
•No. 6—Officiating. Make one working referee a member of the Competition Committee, rotating the referee annually. Officials are high-grade people, and they're basically competent. You only have to watch a college game to realize how much better the officiating is in the NFL. But the officials are out of touch with the essence of the game. They're protected by the league office, and they're removed from the mainstream. They can't distinguish between techniques that are inherent to the nature of football—such as a cornerback shading a receiver, slowing down to keep him from the ball just as he's coached to do—and a flagrant foul. They're too tuned in to incidental stuff that doesn't affect the actual play. Many of them feel they're not doing their job unless the flags keep flying. Make pass interference a 15-yard penalty unless it's an obvious takedown. No more 55-yard markoffs on chintzy stuff.
•No. 7—TV presentation. Speed up the officials. On an obvious call, let the man make his announcement right away instead of turning it into a production number. Get in and out of commercials faster. No more double commercials on a kick-off. You know, before the kickoff and after. That's more than two minutes of dead time to 20 seconds of action. Keep the action cleaner, both from a sound and sight standpoint. Let's have less clutter on the screen and less jargon and general gab through the microphone. Use the Vin Scully approach. Let the action speak. And for god's sake, do away with those 10-second highlights from other games between plays. They just clutter your brain. Most of the time it's just the same old thing anyway, a touchdown pass.
•No. 8—The player's image. No more guaranteed contracts, unless an injury ends a player's career. This will probably have to go on hold until after the USFL folds, if it does, but a guy getting paid whether he's cut or not lessens the old incentive. Put a set amount of community and charity work into each player's contract. They're getting paid enough. Let 'em mingle with the fans a little.
Drugs. Weekly drug testing is the only way. The guys who are clean won't mind. No more of the cosmetic, quickie drug cures—the three weeks in Hazelden or Camelback. Detoxing is one thing, curing is another. It's a long process and a serious problem. A month on the reserved-non-injured list won't do it.
•No. 9—Tighter screening of prospective owners. Carroll Rosenbloom pushed the Colts' Bob Irsay on the league, but 10 minutes in front of a businesslike owners' committee would have convinced such a group that Irsay didn't belong in pro football. Edgar Kaiser was another disaster, a quick-buck guy who turned a nifty $33.5 million profit in three years with Denver and then bailed out.
•No. 10—More and better gimmicks. C'mon now, coaches. Give us more original thought. If Tom Osborne can come up with a Fumblerooskie, and Joe Kapp a Rugby Special, then the collective minds of the NFL can do more than the same tired old flanker reverse and flea-flicker and halfback option pass. They're wearing so thin, they don't fool the program sellers anymore. In the St. Louis—Philly game I saw three gimmick plays called, two flea-flickers and a halfback option. One play got sacked, one got penalized, the third got intercepted. Where's the old pass-lateral, or maybe two laterals, or an inside lateral instead of an outside one? Or a quick kick? Or a two-minute, hurry-up offense in the middle of the game? Do something different. Anything.
•No. 11—The press. Once we were really into the game. The locker rooms were open before the games, and always after, and during the week. But the NFL has gotten more remote, more secretive, and this isn't smart when you're in an era of declining interest. It's time to make the locker rooms and the practice fields open to the press at all times. And let the media interview the official who made the tough call. Popes and presidents can be interviewed, why not NFL officials?
Once upon a time Pete Rozelle was a gung ho young publicity man who was trying to push a very colorful football team from the University of San Francisco, with stars like Ollie Matson and Gino Marchetti and Burl Toler. I wonder what he would have said if someone had told him, "Pete, Gino's shirttail is hanging out. Better fine him. And Pete, you've simply got to keep the writers out of the locker room after practice."
He'd have looked at you as if you were crazy and probably would have said, "Take a hike, pal. I'm trying to get something going here."
Well, Pete, the time has come again. Let's get something going.