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A Wishbone of contention
Joe Marshall
February 14, 1972
The pros play a great game, or so Pete Rozelle keeps on saying, but others find it overcautious, hidebound, monotonous and dull, dull, dull
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February 14, 1972

A Wishbone Of Contention

The pros play a great game, or so Pete Rozelle keeps on saying, but others find it overcautious, hidebound, monotonous and dull, dull, dull

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At the same time, scoring in the pros has been steadily decreasing, although that popular scapegoat, the zone defense, is not to blame. But while point totals are down, the actual number of scores is not. The reason is that there are fewer touchdowns but many more field goals, which must be disturbing to product-conscious NFL brass since the field-goal play is a yawner. Something's wrong when a Garo Yepremian, no matter how cuddly, leads the NFL in scoring. Indeed, the league is contemplating moving the goalposts to the back of the end zones, where the colleges have them.

That the college game is faster paced is more than just appearance, though, principally because the colleges have five less seconds to put the ball in play and the clock is stopped after each first down, which allows for 20 or 30 more plays a game. "In college we put it in play in 25 seconds," says USC's John McKay. "I know that we get it in play most of the time in 17 seconds. I have to think that sometimes in pro ball the 30 seconds isn't enforced too closely. Some of those receivers are taking two months walking back to the huddle. I don't see why a well-conditioned athlete has to walk." Calling signals takes more time and is more complex in the NFL, too. Pro quarterbacks usually spell out blocking assignments in the huddle, although Bill Peterson says, "I don't see any advantage to it" and claims he will do away with that extravagance.

The pro game also suffers from conformity, which can only partially be attributed to balanced competition. Pro coaches like to think of themselves as great innovators, but as Jim Lee Howell, the former Giant coach, points out, "Coaches exchange ideas more than anyone." He ought to know. Personnel connected with Giant teams in the '50s spread the New York system throughout the league. Howell's players included Dick Nolan, Ed Hughes, Bill Austin, Harland Svare and Alex Webster. His two main assistants were Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi, and the latter taught the system to Tom Fears and Norb Hecker, who took it to New Orleans and Atlanta. "A few years back every club was identical," says McKay. "Only the jerseys were different."

Bob Devaney of Nebraska finds the pro game increasingly dull. "The scoring is much lower, and they play more ball control than the colleges," he says. "There is so much stress on defense and playing the game without mistakes or turnovers. There is obvious overcautiousness." Hank Stram of Kansas City admits the problem exists: "The more you win, the more you're afraid of losing. You begin to play with the fear of losing rather than the desire to win. You grow too afraid of making mistakes because that's the name of the game."

By its very nature, the college game is forced to be imaginative. College coaches have far less control over their personnel and hence must constantly reshape strategy to fit it. "The colleges have done almost everything first—the T, the wing T, the belly series," says Tommy Prothro, who has coached on both sides of the fence. "There isn't anything totally new I know of in football." By way of example, Prothro tells of the high school coach who showed him the Wishbone in a 1927 playbook. Nor is the fact that a formation is used by the pros any sign of merit. "Some people say that if it's not being done in the pros, it's no good," says Texas' Darrell Royal. "Bull! That's just the easiest out when people don't want to try something new. You can do about anything you're man enough to do."

But if strategy won't open the game up, Prothro and McKay think they know a way that will. "The field is not as big today as it was 20 years ago," says Prothro, "by the simple fact that the players are bigger. The field should be widened." "Put the hash mark in the middle," says McKay. "You can accomplish the same thing as widening the field, and all you need is a little lime. Putting the ball in the middle of the field eliminates defensive control of the zone."

For all its concern for the offense, the NFL is probably not ready for that big a change. Why mess with success? Despite its shortcomings the pro game's appeal has continued to grow. As Woody Hayes says, "An awful lot of people don't go to college, you know, and so they don't have old college ties. They gravitate to a pro team then, and it becomes their alma mater." But Hayes also recognizes superior public relations on the part of the pros, what McKay calls "the greatest selling job in the history of any sport." Bill Yeoman agrees that the pros have created a mystique about their game. "They never credit bungling or incompetence," he says. "An 0-0 game is a superb defensive struggle. A 43-37 contest is a magnificent offensive duel. They're great propagandists."

They had better be to glamorize clinkers like the last two Super Bowls.

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