When the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl, Hank Stram attributed the victory in no small part to his tactical genius, which he called—the capital letters implicit in his tone of voice—The Football of the Future.
Although he is somewhat given to hyperbole, in this case Stram was undoubtedly right. The Chiefs dazzled the Vikings with their footwork and, because they succeeded, pro football has probably left the Lombardian block-and-tackle era and moved into a new decade that may well be dominated by the more sophisticated concept of the "moment of doubt."
The moment of doubt animates all of Strain's ideas, from the stack defense to the I formation and the moving pocket. It should be noted, however, that, with the possible exception of the stack defense, none of this is really new. The I has been around since about 1910, and the moving pocket is a roll-out pass by another name. But the Stram approach—total change and, hopefully, total confusion—will be the hallmark of the '70s.
The game has become more sophisticated off the field, too. At the beginning of the last decade football players were willing to sweat and toil at camp and in exhibition games for the honor of making a team and about $15 a week laundry money. Now they are paid to play exhibitions—or preseason games, as Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who is sensitive about such things, prefers. Moreover, this year the veterans went out on strike for a week, seeking, in the main, increased pension benefits (SI, July 27 et seq.s).
As far as the players are concerned, the decade of the sellers' market is over, too. The '60s were the fluid years of interleague warfare, expansion and, at last, merger. The '70s, as Rozelle has put it, will be the decade of consolidation and stabilization. "I don't foresee any more expansion in the near future," he said not long ago. "I think we will have to solidify the gains we have made so far."
Expansion probably will be postponed for at least five years, and when it comes it should come with a spate of six new teams, hopefully giving the National Football League an opportunity to change its name to the International Football League, with several teams in Canada and one in Mexico City. But until then the league will look much as it does now, with two conferences of three divisions each and a complicated playoff system in which the best second-place team in each conference goes into the playoffs. And the best four teams in each conference will, very likely, use some of the Stram ploys and stratagems that rival coaches once derided. In the decade to come Strain's I formation, moving pocket and stack defense will become as familiar as the pro set, 4-3 defense and the blitz and should generate even more exciting football.
Stram has been working on The Football of the Future for a long time. "I grew up in the shadow of Wrigley Field," he said recently. "I saw as many pro games as I could, and I found they created a feeling of excitement—and curiosity. I wondered why all the pro clubs were doing basically the same thing, running from brown or red formations, using the 4-3 defense."
Stram was in his office at the Chief training camp in Liberty, Mo., on the campus of William Jewell College. The office was roughly the size of a basketball court and deeply carpeted, and behind his massive desk the big silver trophy awarded the Super Bowl winner loomed impressively. A tape machine was playing popular music and, as Stram talked, one of his six children brought in a plate of chocolate cookies. Stram, who has a tendency to embonpoint, looked at them thoughtfully for a moment, sighed and picked one up.
"I didn't understand why more couldn't be done from an artistic standpoint," he said, regarding the cooky. "When I got a job with the Dallas Texans in 1960 I figured I'd try some of the ideas I had when I was an assistant at Purdue, Southern Methodist, Notre Dame and Miami." Stram played at Purdue, remained there as backfield coach, then moved on.
"I had tried the moving pocket at Purdue," he continued, after taking a bite of the cooky. "Len Dawson was my quarterback, and he did well with it. It put a different kind of pressure on the defense."