Professional football, in the wake of its most successful season, is in imminent danger of becoming a big bore. I say this with sorrow and trepidation, since I have spent a good deal of the past 20 years deeply involved, one way or another, with pro football players, coaches, owners, fans and even commissioners. The time has come, my friend, to make some drastic changes.
The most recent and dramatic evidence of how uninteresting the game can become was provided, of course, by the Super Bowl. Ideally, the Super Bowl should match the two best teams in pro football; there should be considerable doubt about which team will win. In the Super Bowl this year it matched the best with maybe the fifth best, and almost no one doubted Green Bay's ability to dominate the Oakland Raiders. A simple change in the way the teams are selected could prevent another crashing anticlimax. Next season, instead of matching NFL conference champions in the league championship game ( Green Bay vs. Dallas this season), mix it up. Let the two champions of the NFL play the two conference champions of the AFL before the winners meet in the Super Bowl. Had you done that this season, the semifinal games would have pitted Green Bay against Houston, and Dallas against Oakland. Granted, the Super Bowl match-up then would most likely have been Green Bay versus Dallas, but what is wrong with that? The Packers and the Cowboys, in the last two seasons, have provided far more exciting league championship games than the Packers and the champion of the AFL in the Super Bowl.
You could then have substituted a game between Oakland and Houston for that noncontest between Los Angeles and Cleveland in the Playoff Bowl. At least the playoff would have had the titillation of deciding the AFL championship. In the Los Angeles- Cleveland game, nothing was at stake, and most people were bored by it. In any season in which the Super Bowl matched two teams from the NFL or two teams from the AFL, the Playoff Bowl would decide the championship of the losing league and have intrinsic interest.
I know the rebuttal. It would create difficulty with TV sponsors because NBC televises the AFL and CBS has televised the NFL. This answer only points up another of the threats to the continued growth of pro football: the stifling, strangling hold the networks are beginning to take on the sport. There were times during the season just past when a viewer in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago had a pro football smorgasbord of four games laid out for his choice on Sunday. No matter how rabid the fan, that much football of any kind leads to indigestion and ennui. Maybe the networks need the extra games to get their money back, but I hope that professional football does not exist only to enrich CBS and NBC.
CBS has had a juicy bonus added to its contract during the last year—the division playoff games. They were tossed into the overall deal as a pot sweetener at no additional cost to the network. Maybe this was necessary to keep the network brass happy; if so, that should be enough of a lagniappe. Repeated Sunday TV doubleheaders can be too much of a good thing.
Moving some games to Monday night prime time as a sop to TV is not the answer, either. Again, TV plays the tune and pro football does the dance, however reluctantly. I doubt that if this proposal were put to a vote of the 26 professional football coaches, it would attract a single supporter. No coach, in the middle of a tough season, relishes interrupting the rhythm of normal preparation to play a Monday night game, especially if the game coming up on the following Sunday is an important one. Why handicap one team by lopping a day from its practice time in order to kowtow to TV? Irritating enough are the TV interruptions during the game itself. After that frozen afternoon in Green Bay, Packer Tackle Henry Jordan said that the only time he felt the cold while he was on the playing field was during the TV time-outs. It seems to me that there are enough normal interruptions in the course of a game to allow TV to cram in all of its commercials. If not, try to persuade the producers to use their instant replay techniques on the extra commercials and run them, for instance, during the half-time show. They might be a welcome relief from marching bands.
Now let's contemplate the concept of four divisions in the NFL. Basically it is a good one. Two eight-team conferences are unwieldy and the disparity between top and bottom teams late in the season tends to create disinterest among followers of the losers. If you live in Pittsburgh and the Steelers are hopelessly out of the chase by the middle of November, you are likely to stay at home and watch whatever game is being shown on television. If you are an Atlanta player and your season ends by about the fifth game, after you have lost four in a row, it is too much to ask that you go all out through the remainder of a meaningless season playing as if you cared. It is nice to say that all performers play their hearts out in every game for pure love of the sport, but this simply is not true. Players relax once a game or season is irretrievably won or lost. After the Packers had wrapped up their division this year, they lost to the Rams and, of all people, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There is a fairly simple way to avoid the disasters that occurred in the Central and the Capitol divisions. In those divisions, Green Bay and Dallas cantered home with their titles. No suspense animated play in the closing weeks. As a contrast, two superior football teams went down to the final game in the Coastal Division before it was decided. Then the Los Angeles Rams and the Baltimore Colts, clubs that in past years would have been certain of winning division championships with their 11-1-2 records, had to play each other for the division title.
The Packers (9-4-1) beat the Dallas Cowboys (9-5) for the championship of the National Football League. I happen to believe that by the end of the season Green Bay indeed was the best team in professional football and that the Dallas Cowboys were probably the second best. But neither team had to prove that in 14 games against the cream of the NFL. The Packers were in a division with Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota and were never pressed. The Cowboys played against Philadelphia, Washington and New Orleans and beat their second-class opposition so easily that, even playing indifferently, they won.
I know. On Any Given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team. The problem for the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons, the Pittsburgh Steelers and a few other teams is that there is a paucity of Given Sundays. The truth is that weak teams, on a normal Sunday, tend to get waxed by the very good teams. Supposedly, on a Given Sunday, Oakland might have beaten Green Bay, but January 14 was not a Given Sunday.