Friday, September 16, 2011
NFL Sell Out : How Pandering To The Offense Has Ruined Quality Of Play
Week one of the 2011 NFL season saw five games where both starting quarterbacks on each team exceeded 300 yards passing. Some may say the sloppy defensive play stems from a truncated preseason caused by a players strike, but this is more an indictment of the direction the game is headed.
In 1978, the NFL made two huge rule changes that have drastically changed the game of football. The first was to allow offensive linemen extend their arms and grab defenders, as opposed to the chicken wing style of blocking that had been allowed since the beginnings of the NFL.
If that wasn't enough, they set receivers free to basically prance around the gridiron without care. The 10-yard chuck rule had been lessened to a paltry five yards, making the receivers jobs much easier while their statistics ballooned.
These two rules have caused an offensive explosion in the NFL, basically turning quarterbacks the face of the game because these rules benefited them most. It is akin to when Major League Baseball lowered their mounds, shrunk the ballparks, then juiced the ball and players to increase scoring in order to lure the novice fan who had been avoiding the game for years.
The strategy has filled the National Football League's pockets like no other sport on the planet. Already a tax-free organization that had enough power to push their blackout rules through the Senate, Congress and White House in one day, this insanely rich league saw the rules cashing in ability and took it further.
The game today basically has turned a quarterback into something besides a football player. The position is a gilded image the NFL is hell-bent on protecting because that is what they deem to be their cash cow.
Not only is a defender not allowed to hit the quarterback too high or low, he cannot hit them too hard. If he lands on a quarterback, a penalty and fine are on their way for putting too much of his body weight upon the golden boy.
The term "put a skirt on them" has been used to describe an NFL quarterback for decades now. Others think the NFL may as well put flag football rules as the protective bubble the league so desperately seeks for this position.
Defenses have been castrated beyond recognition. If a team wants to play defense as the way NFL Films often hails in historic clips, they will be fined and suspended without fail. Not only has the aura of a great defense been lessened drastically, but the personalities that go with them have been greatly tempered.
It is as if the league ignores the fact defenders can come off the edge while dragging a mammoth blocker who has been clawing at them since play commenced. Despite this, the onus is on the defender to somehow pull up and not lose momentum, risking serious injury to legs especially, and lay the quarterback gently as if it were a newborn infant.
Rules that prevent clotheslines and head shots make sense, especially now that the NFL is being forced to look at head injuries. This is something they ignored since the inception of the league. While the NFL reluctantly is making adjustments, they do so with a smile as they continue to ignore all of the countless alumni of their league that have been suffering for decades.
Yet the two rules in 1978 have pretty much destroyed football as a competitive sport. It has become more an indoor track meet in hospital clean environments these days. Defenses tend to just be warm bodies providing temporary obstacles these days, instead of having a fair chance to compete anymore.
I had a discussion with Pete Rozelle in 1978. Rozelle, then the NFL commissioner, bristled at my questions of why these rules would even be allowed. Especially since it so blatantly punished the defenses and gave that side of the football much less opportunity to compete.
I thought Rozelle would understand my position, considering his background. He helped fight racism as a publicist at the University of San Francisco in 1951, the last year the school played football, where 11 members of the football team went on to the NFL. Three are inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame while five were Pro Bowl players. Rozelle joined the Los Angeles Rams soon after.
While with the Rams, he saw the team have two Hall of Fame quarterbacks split plays on the field in Bob Waters and Norm Van Brocklin. Besides having a powerful running game, the Rams passing attack was lethal. with Hall of Fame receivers Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch and Tom Fears.
The Rams had just won the 1951 championship, where the two quarterbacks ranked first and second in passing that season. Van Brocklin threw for 554 yards one game, a record that still stands today.
When Rozelle continued to be evasive giving specific answers, I decided to end the conversation by pointing out how the American Football League showed a game could accrue a ton of yards and points without castrating the defense. Rozelle, now with a red face filled by anger from mentioning the hated AFL, called me a jerk and that was the end of my chance to discover what the league's thought process was.
Rozelle was later replaced by Paul Tagliabue, a lawyer whose only athletic expertise came from playing basketball at Georgetown University. Tagliabue continued to tinker with those two rules, especially when it came to trying to help the receivers and quarterbacks.
He did such a job that now Jerry Rice is called by NFL Films the greatest player in NFL history. Rice, who constantly ran the five-yard slant pass in a dink-dunk offense that smartly took advantage of the rules, was a quick player with average speed and a tremendous work ethic. Put Rice in the 10-yard chuck rule, his 1,549 career receptions could possibly be at about 600 instead
When the NFL started out, it was a running game. One where ball carriers were not tackled until they stopped moving, meaning they could continue to crawl for more yards after contact. Scores, as expected, were generally low-scoring affairs..
The college game was the more popular sport, but that changed in 1925 when the Pottsville Maroons beat Notre Dame University in an exhibition game. Despite beating the Fighting Irish and their famous "Four Horseman" backfield, the champion Maroons were stripped of their title even though that win brought the NFL legitimacy. The reason given was that commission Joe Carr had told the Maroons not to play, while the team claimed Carr had given his approval.
Passing the football came into vogue in the NFL when the Washington Redskins drafted Sammy Baugh in 1937. Baugh is considered the innovator of the passing game in the NFL. He was so successful, the Chicago Bears drafted Sid Luckman two years later and the passing game was on its way.
Baugh, for all of his successes, had just two years of over 2,500 yards passing. In 1947, he set career high marks of 210 completions on 354 attempts for 2,938 yards and 25 touchdowns
He never passed for over 2,000 in any of his other 14 years, which includes winning two of three NFL title games. Baugh also played safety on defense for six years, grabbing 34 interceptions.
He still holds the NFL record for average yards per punt average in a career, and was inducted in Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 1963. While holding extreme importance to the NFL passing game, his numbers greatly pale to those quarterbacks who enjoy the rule changes of 1978.
Washington was also lucky to later have another quarterback to take the passing game of the NFL to even a higher level. Sonny Jurgensen set many team records in his career, and still holds on to a few this day.
Jurgensen was first mentored by Van Brocklin with the Philadelphia Eagles, serving as his backup on the Eagles 1960 title team. He was traded to the Redskins in 1964 for Pro Bowl quarterback Norm Snead, who had grown up nearby and was the second overall selection of the 1961 draft.
Jurgensen, who passed for 3,723 yards in 1961, exceeded his career high total by 25 yards previously set in 1967. He had a span of over 400 passing attempts three times over four years, highlighted by the 508 attempts he had in 1967.
Washington's head coach that year was Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham. His strategy was to throw the ball often, which is seen by the team-leading 91 carries halfback A.D. Whitfield had that year.
Jurgensen was part of a trio that would later get inducted into the Hall of Fame. Wide receivers Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell combined for 130 receptions and 1,856 yards. Tight end Jerry Smith had 67 receptions for 849 yards himself, becoming the first team ever to have their two wide receivers and tight end to have at least 849 yards each in one season.
Taylor led the NFL in receptions, while Smith was second in both receptions and touchdown catches. Mitchell was fourth in NFL receptions that year.
Joe Theismann, not Baugh or Jurgensen, is still the Redskins all-time leader in career passing yards. He was at the helm when the NFL made those three key rules changes in 1978.
His passing yards totals increased in 1981, exceeding 3,300 yards in three of the next four years. The one time he didn't was in the 1982 strike season, where he helped the Redskins win their first title since 1942.
Theismann's career high passing yards mark of 3,714 yards has been passed by Redskins quarterbacks Jay Schroeder and Brad Johnson. The team has had 12 different quarterbacks lead the team in passing since Theismann's career ended in 1985.
Washington isn't alone as a team that has struggled to find a long-term quarterback over the years. Sid Luckman, who retired way back in 1950, is still on top of the Chicago Bears list for career passing yards.
Chicago isn't the only team whose passing yards leader never was fortunate to play after 1978 and enjoy the rules that ultimately changed the game. Hall of Famers Len Dawson, Bobby Layne, Joe Namath and Luckman are the only quarterbacks whose careers ended before the 1978 rule change and still lead their franchises in career passing yards.
Layne left the Detroit Lions in 1958 after just over eight years with the team, where he led them to three NFL titles in four attempts. Credited with inventing the two-minute drill, Layne is second to Luckman in longest-running leader in passing yards for a team.
Namath is credited by some as the man who led the way to forcing the NFL to merge with the American Football League. Not only because the AFL was deemed to having a more exciting brand of football with their wide open passing attacks, but also due his famous guarantee the preceded the New York Jets defeating the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Namath was called "Broadway Joe" during this time where he was king of New York City. He was in movies and modeled, but he also had a gun for an arm. In 1967, Namath became the first professional quarterback ever to pass for over 4,000 yards in a season.
His brand of football helped bring the AFL more popularity than it had ever experienced since their 1960 inception. The NFL was known for a hard nosed running game before then, but the league tried to match their rival that season through the arms of men like Jurgensen and Fran Tarkenton.
Dawson joined the Kansas City Chiefs, then the Dallas Texans, in 1962. He led the Chiefs to three AFL titles, one that is still the longest championship game in professional football history, and two Super Bowl appearances.
His 1969 season saw the Chiefs win Super Bowl IV, the last AFL game ever. He retired after the 1975 season, having played 19 seasons total.
Tarkenton's Hall of Fame career ended with the Minnesota Vikings in 1978. He spent 13 of his 18 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, retiring with a then-NFL record of 47,003 career passing yards.
Yet it was his final year where he threw for a career best 3,468 yards, which also happened to lead the NFL. The "Mad Scrambler" had exceeded the 3,000 mark just once in his career before then, getting 3,088 with the New York Giants in 1967.
Tarkenton also led the NFL in attempts and completions in 1978. Enjoying the new rules that made his job easier, he exceeded his career best mark of attempts by 147, while surpassing his best total of completions by 82.
Some quarterbacks, who were there for the rule change in 1978, still lead their organizations in passing yards. Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, who won four Super Bowls, joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1970 and stayed there until 1983.
Despite all of Bradshaw's successes, it wasn't until after the rule changes of 1978 that his statistics picked up exponentially. He had passed for over 2,000 yards just three times in his eight previous seasons, yet that quickly changed after his job became easier.
He made two of his three career Pro Bowls after 1978, which also includes his lone First Team All-Pro nod and NFL MVP award in the 1978 season. Bradshaw passed for at least 2,887 yards the next four year, which includes a career best of 3,724 in 1979. After suffering an injury in 1983, he retired.
Kenny Stabler joined the Oakland Raiders in 1970. He won a Super Bowl and the 1974 NFL MVP with them.
Yet his 1979 season saw Stabler throw a career best 3,615 yards. He had never exceeded 3,000 yards before that. Stabler's season high in passing attempts was 310 attempts, which happened in his MVP year. Starting in 1978, he had 904 attempts in his final two years as a Raider.
Ken Anderson joined the Cincinnati Bengals in 1971 and stayed with them until 1986. His lone First Team All-Pro year came in 1981, where he set career high totals in attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns.
He led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl that year, where he set Super Bowl records in completion percentage and total completions in the Bengals loss. Anderson then set an NFL season record for completion percentage in 1982.
Perhaps no quarterback enjoyed the rule changes more than Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. The rule change coincided with the San Diego Chargers hiring head coach Don Coryell, revitalizing Fouts' career.
Coryell, whose offensive genius is still seen in every NFL offense today, ushered in an era simply called "Air Coryell". Fouts not only had Hall of Famers Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow catching his passes, he also had the services of Pro Bowler wide receivers like John Jefferson and Wes Chandler.
Fouts joined the Chargers in 1973 and had never thrown for more than 2,535 yards before Coryell's arrival. He exploded on the NFL from 1979 to 1981, exceeding 4,000 yards passing all three years. He twice led the NFL in attempts and completions as well.
The 1981 season was his best, where he set career high totals in attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns. He may have surpassed these totals in 1982, if it were not for the players strike shortening the season to nine games. Fouts retired after the 1987 strike-shortened season.
Steve Bartkowski joined the Atlanta Falcons in 1975 and stayed there until after the 1985 season. Jim Hart joined the Saint Louis Cardinals in 1966 and stayed there until 1983. Brian Sipe joined the Cleveland Browns in 1974, lasting there until 1983.
All three enjoyed their best statistical seasons after the 1978 rule change. Sipe threw for 4,132 yards in 1982, Bartkowski had 3,829 in 1981, and Hart had 3,121 in 1978. Hart is the only one of these three to go to the Pro Bowl before 1978, which he accomplished four times.
The other 21 NFL teams have career passing leaders who joined their teams after the 1978 season. Of the 20 players who own the most career passing yards in NFL history, only Tarkenton, Fouts, Hart, and Johnny Unitas had their careers start before 1978. Unitas is the only one who never experienced the pleasurable rule changes quarterbacks now enjoy.
It isn't just the quarterbacks whose statistics have been greatly jaded since 1978. The receivers have enjoyed way more credit that they deserve perhaps. Of the top 40 players in career receptions, just Hall of Famer Steve Largent had his career start before 1978.
Joiner, Harold Jackson, Stanley Morgan along with Hall of Famers John Stallworth and Fred Belitnikoff are the only receivers in the top 100 in career receptions whose careers started before 1978. Belitnikoff retired after the 1978 season.
There are only six players in that list of the top-100 receivers who never enjoyed the 10-yard chuck rule in their career. Hall of Famers Don Maynard, Charley Taylor, Raymond Berry, Lance Alworth, Bobby Mitchell and the underrated Lionel Taylor, who should be in Canton, are those players.
While the modern fan might try to say the athlete today is superior, that is true in athleticism only. In regards to football ability, that can be debated more because fundamentals of the game were so much more important then.
The players of the past held a second job, not paid so much that they could afford to train every day of the year like the modern athletes are able to now. Those past players had to make time to get into shape to prepare for training camp, which usually meant after they had worked eight hours at their primary job.
Then there is the obvious observation that the human race grows each generation. Players who weighed over 300 pounds were not too plentiful until the last few decades. Now it is common for players to weigh that much, and there are quarterbacks now closing in on that size.
The rule to help blockers cannot be argued for or against too well. The older player was subject to head injuries because they were taught to lead with their heads. The modern blocker gets to extend his hands to prevent this, but is basically allowed to hold every play.
Raymond Berry told me that this change made in blocking in the primary reason for the increase in offense. He explained that this gives a receiver and quarterback extra time to get open, giving them a tremendous advantage.
He used an example of a 15-yard out route. Berry said this play, that might have taken five seconds to run in the rules before 1978, now can last up to six or more seconds because the quarterback and receiver are afforded longer opportunities to exploit a defense.
With timing being so important between the quarterback and receiver, the extra time to delve into the opponents can mean more yards for the offense. Berry, who is known for the fantastic timing he shared with Johnny Unitas, is also a former head coach who led the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl in 1985.
Technology has also been implemented. The debate of whether it helps or not can last a long time. While now medical personnel can examine the entire body of an athlete better, there are also more cameras to examine every inch of the gridiron. The equipment players have used has been improved gradually ever since the NFL began play.
Human error is a rich part of NFL history, but this factor is now lessened by instant replay. The problem with instant replay is it can stop the game and cool down athletes, making them more susceptible to injury.
While the NFL smartly seeks to improve their brand, sometimes the lure of cash detracts from actual achievement. Loads of fans today, many who no concept nor concern for history, think the game today is better than it has ever been.
The novice fan today wants the 45-42 final score over the 17-14 tally. Much like how the baseball fan of today has been conditioned to want home runs hit over no-hitters thrown, the football fans wants a ton of touchdowns made each Sunday.
The memories of greatness achieved, when football was truly a hard sport to play for everyone involved, of history fades further into the past as the modern player posts obscene statistics helped by rules. Statistics that dwarf predecessors who had to actually earn their accolades without being helped out by the league's front office nor rules to carry them further down the gridiron.
With Tagliabue's student, Roger Goodell, now at the helm, it will get worse before it gets better for football purists. Purists who now basically have the defense sitting on the sideline with them as the offense runs their plays unabated.
Whether the 1978 rules changes helped the NFL or not is subject for debate. The modern fan will point to the cash now raked in without realizing this league has been pulling big gates in for years no matter what the dollar is actually worth. The Rams still hold attendance records set during that era Rozelle oversaw.
The fickle fair-weathered fan of today may be content with the pandering of the offense because it results in more scoring, but the idea of bring back even the 10-yard chuck rule could show them players actually earning their accolades while being fairly defended.
But fairness left the NFL long ago. The importance of cash overrides actual competitive play now. It just furthers the saying, "This isn't your fathers NFL". It's yours now. Good luck.