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.
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."