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There are a number of other things that make professional football a true extension of the modern American character. Ours is a civilization dominated by technology and its jargon. When we send men to the moon, they communicate back to earth in a language peculiar to extraterrestrial exploration. Sociologists, psychoanalysts, computer programmers—all the witch doctors of the concrete jungle—speak a language that nobody but other sociologists, psychoanalysts and computer programmers can fully comprehend.
Pro football also has a special vocabulary—and it, too, produces a sense of superiority. A pro football fan who can identify a flexed tackle is not unlike a diner who reads a French menu and knows without prompting what quiche Lorraine should be.
Indeed, terminology has had a great deal to do with pro football's success. A maneuver as simple as rushing linebackers across the line of scrimmage becomes infinitely more fascinating when you call it red-dogging or blitzing. If what a spread end or a flanker does when he cuts back to the middle of the line to knock down a linebacker on a running play were called a return block, no one would get very excited. But a crack-back block has verbal as well as physical impact, and if you recognize the term you feel as though you belong to the cognoscenti.
Even if you don't know precisely what a revolving defense or an overshifted line is, the terms themselves create a sort of mystique that grows from year to year, so that the fan always has new terms to assimilate, use, show off. Turnover (a term that pro football appropriated from basketball, where it gained currency circa 1960) is very big this year, and quarterbacks are no longer dumped by the pass rush—they are sacked.
This year, too, the Cowboys will play one of their defensive tackles back off the scrimmage line, to make it a bit more difficult for the offensive lineman to find him. This means that the tackle, instead of lining up as close to the lateral position of the ball as possible, will drop back a yard, giving himself a longer route to the quarterback and the blocker a longer, more devious route to the tackle. Dallas Coach Tom Landry calls this man the flexed tackle. If you call him the tackle a yard back, everyone would know who he is and where he plays—but if you can sneak flexed tackle into a conversation you are very definitely in and eligible for your Pete Rozelle secret decoding ring.
It's not so easy to be an expert on hockey, basketball or baseball. Few comprehend the mysteries of icing the puck, the offside rule and the intricacies of attack in hockey, the subtleties of offense and defense in basketball or the tactical odds in baseball. But almost every pro football fan—with the exception of some women—knows that on third and eight you can expect a pass and that on third and two most teams run. Many fans also know that on third and two on his own 40 Bart Starr is very likely to fake the run and throw a long pass. Few moments are more satisfying than the one that comes just after you have told your companion, " Starr's going to throw a play-action pass," and he does.
Finally, pro football gives us heroes, knights in armor that emphasizes their size and virility and conceals any frailty of countenance. Baseball players dress like little kids, basketball players look like they're wearing their underwear and hockey players resemble those mad old ladies who carry 14 shopping bags and wear 18 sweaters.
But a football player, arrayed in his helmet, face mask, shoulder pads, hip pads, rib pads, thigh pads and hand bandages, has obviously girded himself for battle, but perhaps one in an older, more gallant and glorious mode: for instance, that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight rather than Hamburger Hill. And since war is certainly human, any war game is a welcome release to the species—particularly to Americans, that violent subspecies.
It is a psychological clich� that the little wars on Sunday assuage the aggressions of the people who watch them—but, again, no less an authority than Konrad Lorenz sees sport as man's salvation. In the last three years the little preseason wars have achieved exaggerated importance because they've matched two leagues—two nations—and have involved the fans—their inhabitants—in close and continuing argument. No more. Next season comes the merger of the NFL and the AFL, and in many respects it is unwelcome.
It took the AFL a long time to catch up. In 1960, when the league was founded, most experts believed that if it could survive for six seasons it would be on a par with the NFL. In fact, it took the AFL more than eight years. As of now there are only five teams in the new league which could compete, Sunday after Sunday, in any NFL division—the Jets, the Chiefs, the Raiders, the Chargers and the Oilers. If any other AFL club were put in an NFL division it would almost surely finish last.