The owners, who of course will not open their books to substantiate these claims, are able to get an edge because players do not get paid until the start of the regular season. The most any player can get for an exhibition game, even if he is a star performing before 92,000 fans, is $330, and then he has to be a five-year veteran. One owner, who requested anonymity, said he expected $700,000 in net revenues from the current exhibition season, and he added that a few teams, most notably the Jets, would make more than $1 million.
While the owners have been making money, player after player has been racked up. Joe Namath of the Jets is out with another knee injury; Joe Moore, the Bears' No. 1 draft pick, is encased in plaster; Lance Alworth of Dallas has fractured ribs; Chip Meyer, Cincinnati's top receiver, broke both arms. The list is endless. Strangely enough, a good many coaches shrug off injuries. "There's no way you can play this game if you worry about injuries," says Hank Stram of the Chiefs, and Saban of the Broncos says that if exhibitions were not played, the players would have to scrimmage more, doubling the chances for injury within the squad—a dubious tenet. As Norm Van Brocklin of the Falcons says, "If you do too much scrimmaging in practice, you find people getting into the brother-in-law act—not hitting anyone." In accordance with the new line that the exhibition season is the time to start building a winner, most coaches drive the players hard. According to Ram Quarterback Roman Gabriel, George Allen, now coaching the Redskins, "had us play exhibitions like they were all Super Bowl tests."
Many coaches apparently agree with Allen, but there are prominent exceptions, such as Weeb Ewbank of the Jets (the only exhibition he cares about is the one against the Giants, which he classifies as a game for "the bragging rights to New York"), John Madden of the Raiders ("We want to experiment—we are not going to allow the scoreboard to affect our plans") and Tommy Prothro of the Rams. Their attitude does not sit well with some hard-liners. As Allen says, "Most teams put out and the fans get their money's worth. A team here and there will make a farce of it."
Almost all coaches and players questioned by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED agreed that the current exhibition schedule is not necessary to get a team into shape. But none of the coaches and players argued that exhibitions were not necessary. "The tempo of a game is greater than what you establish in practice," says Coach Bob Hollway of the Cardinals. "The pressure situations are different. In a game you make a mistake, and it's a game-winning error. It's like a doctor operating on a cat and then on a human. There's a big difference." The great majority of the players and some of the coaches feel that the exhibition schedule should be cut back to three or four games, at least one of them to be played by rookies alone, while two games should be added to the regular schedule.
"Personally, I'd like to see us play three and tee it up," says Van Brocklin. "And what I'd also like to see is the league set up the exhibition [tsk, tsk] schedule and play the games only in the league cities. That would get rid of some of these tank towns we play in." The Dutchman is talking about cities like Memphis, where the Falcons drew 22,474 against the Broncos.
Tackle Merlin Olsen of the Rams agrees: "We need a couple of tune-ups, but not any six or seven. If we're going to play, I think we should just increase the regular schedule so they count. It doesn't make much sense to get banged up in games that don't count."
"They say they need a chance to look at the new guys, and I won't dispute that," says Linebacker Dave Robinson of the Packers. "But they don't use the games that way. They work the old guys to death, they don't look at everybody. A lot of veterans come into the exhibition season unsigned, and they have to be very careful not to get hurt. If they'd arrange it, say, so that a starter wouldn't be in more than two or three series in the last exhibition, it'd be a lot better. Four games would be perfect, five would be O.K., but six is too many, at least the way they use them now."
"It's football, the same kind we play in December," says Quarterback Pete Liske of the Eagles, who tore a knee ligament in an exhibition. "But we don't get December pay. I get this [his injured knee], maybe ruin the season for me, and they get this [running his thumb across his fingers to signify money]."
This is not the kind of talk Rozelle likes to hear. A couple of years ago he silenced Joe Schmidt, the coach of the Lions, for saying three exhibitions were sufficient to get a team ready.
There have been isolated reactions against the exhibition bonanza. In Baltimore the Colts, who have sold 50,246 season tickets for each of the past six years, have drawn exhibition crowds of 13,000, 16,000 and 16,200, the last against their Super Bowl opponents, the Dallas Cowboys. Baltimore fans suspect that Owner Carroll Rosenbloom and his son Steve, the president of the club, are trying to bilk them at exhibition games, mostly because John Steadman, sports editor of the News American, has attacked the Rosenblooms in column after column. Steadman has a large following, and the curious thing is that he considers himself a fanatic Colt fan. He has never missed a regular-season game; indeed, he has even been known to blow a bugle charge from the press box.