In the 1960s professional football lit a fire in America. It offered a hot mix of arrogance, violence and style, smoothly packaged by an aggressive young commissioner named Pete Rozelle. By the 1970s pro football could claim to have replaced baseball as America's game. It was relentless, challenging and powerful. Fans loved it, business envied it, television married it.
Then, in the 1980s, the NFL cooled off. Though there was much to fire the public imagination—the 49ers, Giants and Bears; Dan Marino, Herschel Walker and Lawrence Taylor—the fever broke. Fans grew tired of reading daily stories about contract holdouts, labor-management impasses and lawsuits. The network television ratings declined sharply after 1981. Monday night football slipped, and Thursday night football died. Basketball became American style, and baseball became American fun.
Now, on the eve of a new decade, the question is, will pro football return to glory, or will it continue to decline? Rozelle's successor, if the league's owners ever figure out how to choose one, will have three major problems to resolve: how to keep the league solvent, how to resolve the two-year impasse between management and labor and how to reunite the league's bickering owners.
Rozelle is marking time in a Manhattan hotel, waiting for the word that will spring him to retirement out West. Once, he could control the owners. That was his chief asset. When the time was right, he could tell them, "This is how it's going to be." He could control them, because by jacking up TV revenues, from several hundred thoushand dollars per team in 1962 to $17 million each this year, he had made them rich.
September 10, 1989
But nine clubs have been sold or resold in the 1980s. Today, new owners who paid huge sums for their teams are crying about the need to find ever greater sources of revenue, and unity has disappeared. The NFL has no strategy for dealing with the Players Association, which is on the verge of taking the league into what could be a disastrous antitrust trial. There's no agreement on how to control salaries or drugs. The NFL is a mess.
The game is not the problem. With a new wave of stars and innovative coaches, the game has plenty of potential for catching fire again. But the new commissioner had better bring a match. We've lit a small one to try to see what lies ahead, on the field and off. We'll look at the game first, because putting it second is one of the things that has gone wrong.
How will pro football be played in the 1990s? Over the years it has been like an accordion. The game opens up, and passes fill the air. Then it closes down, and the runners have their day. It opens up again and closes down. As the NFL approaches the '90s, the accordion is closing. Although the rules still favor passing, some in the NFL foresee a return to the basics.
But a wild card is at work. The man under the microscope in 1989 will be the Detroit Lions' new offensive brain, Mouse Davis (page 66), who will give the NFL its first serious look at the run-and-shoot offense. The quarterback will roll and throw; the pass catchers will adjust on the go.
Will this set the tone for pro football in the '90s? Or will it be just a gimmick to fill a big stadium? "It's either going to be the story of the year or the laugh of the year," says Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, "because if it doesn't work, the Lions are screwed."
If the Lions light up the board, their success will be a triumph of coaching ingenuity over talent, a formula that seldom works in the NFL. "Sometimes I think we're coming to the world of flag football," says Houston Oiler general manager Mike Holovak. "Seriously, we keep spreading everybody out, and I guess the next step would be to do away with linemen altogether."
The run-and-shoot notwithstanding, Bill Polian, the Bills' general manager, believes we are entering an era that will be dominated by the run. "First of all, not a lot of good [classic drop-back] quarterbacks are coming out of college," says Polian, "but there are some great running backs." This year, for example, only one quarterback, Troy Aikman of UCLA, was drafted in the first round. But five running backs went in that opening round, as did six offensive linemen.
"The supply of quarterbacks has dwindled in dramatic fashion," says Raymond Berry, the coach of the New England Patriots. "That's going to change the nature of the game to more of a running attack."
According to Miami Dolphin linebacker Rick Graf, the game of the '90s "will be big guys running into each other as hard as they can, with no technique, just trying to run the ball, control it. It'll be smash-mouth football, and the fans will love it. They'll change. Instead of wanting touchdowns, they'll want to see great defense and running—lots of running. Fullbacks like William Perry will be typical."
The accordion opens, the accordion closes. Here are some other changes to watch for:
•The defensive emphasis in the years ahead will shift to big people who can run—'tweener types, 220-pound linebacker-strong safety combinations and 250-pound linebacker-defensive ends. "You might even see the creation of a new term for the type of player who can rush, back up the line and cover," says Indianapolis coach Ron Meyer. "He'd do for the NFL what Magic Johnson did for the NBA. Whoever envisioned a 6'9" guard in basketball 25 years ago?"
•Offensive coaches will give some thought to the emergence of this new monster and then come up with one of their own, thereby fortifying the most neglected position in football, tight end. They'll convert college linebackers and quick defensive ends. They'll produce their own Magic Johnsons, big guys who can block, catch the short pass and burn a defense deep.
•Players on both sides of the ball will be taller but lighter, because an effective anti-steroid policy will be implemented, preferably in consort with the Players Association (more on that later). The new policy will put an end to the freak show of six-foot-two 290-pounders we see now, players who have proportions God never intended for the human body.
•Teams will load up on running backs, carrying as many as seven regulars, as more and more good runners come out of college. Teams will attack in waves, with three sets of running backs, to ensure that the offense always has fresh legs in the game. The heavy-duty 1,500-yard back could become obsolete.
•With the emergence of mobile, more athletic quarterbacks from the colleges, NFL teams may put an extra passer in the back-field, much the way the Dolphins sometimes used backup quarterback Crash Jensen with Marino in the mid-'80s. An offense with a halfback who can throw as well as run would give defenses something extra to worry about.
•The use of instant replays to review the calls of game officials, after having been killed in 1990—without Rozelle and former Cowboy president Tex Schramm to prop it up—will be replaced by more advanced technology. Electronic sensors positioned along the sidelines and the goal line, and even in the ball, will signal whether a ball has crossed into the end zone and whether a player's foot has touched the sideline. Game officials will be leery of the new technology. There will be a call for a return to the good old days of instant replay.
The game will flourish in the '90s if the next commissioner and the league's owners give it a chance. Mr. Commissioner, here's where to start.
The point man on the NFL's team negotiating with the players for a new collective bargaining agreement should be Raider boss Al Davis, Working closely with his friend and protègè Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the Players Association and a Hall of Fame guard for the Raiders, Davis could push through a compromise plan he first proposed in 1987. "Davis and Upshaw could get a contract worked out in two weeks," says one general manager.
The key part of the agreement would be a salary and bonus scale for rookies. Gone would be the million-dollar packages given to players who have yet to prove themselves. Rookies would be paid according to their position—with quarterbacks getting top dollar—and their place in the draft.
"You can't solve the [league's financial problems] with increased revenues," says Rozelle. "You can only squeeze so hard. You have to attack it on the other end. You have to look for cutting costs." Clubs would benefit from the wage-scale plan by saving the millions they used to toss away on question marks. Veteran players would benefit, because more money would be available for them. Colleges would benefit, because they wouldn't have to worry about agents' signing their underclassmen.
A new collective bargaining agreement could also permit random testing for steroids if the Players Association were allowed to share responsibility for enforcement. The current system of announced, league-run testing gives a player plenty of time to flush the stuff out of his system before he's tested. The players have to have a hand in policing themselves.
But first the league's owners must act. They must find common cause again and name a commissioner who is strong enough to make it stick. Then the focus can return to the game. Expansion can proceed. And another fire can be lit.