In case you haven't noticed, the game of pro football is not as exciting as it used to be. No? Well, there has been only one truly rousing Super Bowl and that was No. III, when Joe Namath, by himself, hyped the game by guaranteeing a victory over the Baltimore Colts and then, putting his arm where his mouth was, won it. Still, the game was not exciting; Joe Willie was.
So, in seven years in the showcase event of the sport, which each January draws the biggest sports TV audience in the U.S., the viewers have watched seven seldom dramatic games. Oh, Super Bowl I was titillating, but only because so many fans were in doubt about the relative merits of the NFL and AFL. Last January, when Miami ground down Washington 14-7 in a game distinguished by the reluctance of the two teams to take any chance of any kind, the only really thrilling play occurred when Dolphin Kicker Garo Yepremian, taking leave of his senses, tried to pass a fumbled field-goal attempt, providing the Redskins with their touchdown.
The rest of the game was taken up by two very good football teams doing their best to avoid making mistakes. That may be a laudable ambition, especially when the club making the fewest boo-boos stands to earn some $15,000 per man, but playing to avoid mistakes does not create much bravura action; a parallel might be a bullfighter passing the bull at arm's length, then killing him with a rifle. He would certainly win and not be gored, but who cares?
Many things have contributed to the decline and stall of pro football. For one, the players used to be swashbuckling adventurers who risked their necks and their pittances with equal abandon; today they are businessmen, some earning more in a season than an entire team once did. Then they were paid peanuts, and it is easy to stake a sack of peanuts on a single throw or a series of throws. It is not easy to lay an annual salary of $100,000 on the line. What is true of the players goes for the coaches and owners, too. A pro football franchise is worth about $20 million today; the owner wants an accounting when his business fails, and the coach is accountable.
A few clubs are fighting the trend. One is Oakland, which has the best winning percentage in pro football over the past 10 years. The leader of the Raiders is Al Davis, an iconoclast from deepest Brooklyn who has made a career of defying the old order. In his brief reign as AFL commissioner he tried to steal two top NFL quarterbacks during the all-out war between the two leagues, and he has not changed his belief in the all-out attack as the best defense. As much as anything his raids on NFL personnel brought about peace between the leagues; his philosophy of total aggression may help revivify pro football if it catches on.
Davis no longer coaches the club, but John Madden, who does, takes his cue from his managing general partner. "We don't approach the game the way most clubs do," says Madden. "I learned a lot as an assistant coach under Al, but his philosophy is mine. Everyone is going to the running game, controlling the ball and waiting for the other club to make a mistake. We throw. That's our approach to the game. Everyone else throws short passes into the cracks of the zone and shorter passes to the running backs. We throw long, even into the deep zone. We attack the deep zone. But you have to have guts to do that and not many clubs have them today."
The successful long pass was what opened up the game in pre-ball-control days. Not the occasional, let's-remind-the-defense long pass of the '70s, but the long pass as an omnipresent threat. It was taken away by the new defenses—the deep zones, the substitution-for-situation in which a fistful of defensive backs are put in the game when a long pass is expected and a fistful of linemen in expectation of a short-yardage run. Five defensive backs can inhibit even the most daring of quarterbacks and five large men up front can usually blunt the forays of the most formidable rushers.
"I cringe when I hear a coach say, "We'll take what they give us,' " Madden says, "That means you're letting the defense dictate what you're going to do. You're playing their game, not yours. There's no way we'll let that happen. So we throw long, with pretty good success. I don't like short passes. We have the end zone in mind when we put the ball in the air. Last year we completed 37% of our passes between 30 and 50 yards down-field—a pretty good percentage. That meant that one out of every three long passes we threw most likely produced a touchdown or a field goal."
When the league brought the hash marks in last season in a timid effort to open up the passing game and discourage the zone, most coaches seized upon the change as an opportunity to run more, since the backs had greater room to operate on both sides of the field. Oakland did the same, but for a different reason.
"It set up our passing game," Madden explains. "With the old layout, when you were on the hash mark you couldn't use your out and quick sideline passes to the short side. The defense put a linebacker on the narrow side of the field and you had to throw all your patterns to the wide side. Right there, half your passing offense was gone.