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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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The Washington Redskins had the right perspective on last week's pro football draft. They traded away their first seven choices, and when they finally picked a player, in the eighth round, he was a 28-year-old ex-marine who had spent two years with the Montreal Alouettes. As one veteran scout said, "This was the worst group of college football players in memory."

Still, the clubs took the draft seriously, perhaps too much so. In the second round, Oakland had acquired the New York Jets' choice. When that pick was just seven selections away, the Raiders traded it and another to New Orleans for the Saints' earlier second-round position. The Saints brooded over their acquisition for 11 of the 15 minutes allotted each choice, then dealt it to Dallas. By this circuitous route the Cowboys were able to snap up John Babinecz, a Villanova linebacker.

John who? Well, whoever he is, he was drafted before Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan; Ed Marinaro, the NCAA's alltime rushing leader; Lydell Mitchell, the NCAA record holder for most touchdowns in a season; Oklahoma's celebrated Wishbone quarterback, Jack Mildren; Alabama's Italian Stallion, Johnny Musso and a lot of other people who made offense the name of the college game in 1971.

Up where the money is, defense continued to make inroads; the first two picks in this year's draft were defensive linemen—Walt Patulski of Notre Dame and Sherman White of California. Once upon a time, the best athletes played offense—offensive players got paid more. Then stars like Mel Renfro began appearing in defensive backfields, and the trend reversed itself. Today, more frequently than not, the best athletes wind up on defense, the premerger signing war and rich TV contracts having brought defensive salaries in line.

Lately the draft has made such a mockery of All-America teams that one has a right to wonder if the pros and collegians play the same game. In three years at Toledo, Chuck Ealey quarter-backed the Rockets to 35 straight wins. He was named to the AP and UPI All-America squads. The pros passed him by for dudes like Cephus Weatherspoon and Hosea Minnieweather. But nowhere was the difference between pro and college more evident than in the cases of Mildren and Texas' Eddie Phillips. Both had been outstanding at running the all-but-unstoppable new offense, the Wishbone T. Both were drafted as defensive backs, Mildren in the second round by Baltimore, Phillips in the fourth by L.A.

How come? After all, some pro teams, most notably Detroit and New Orleans, ran a few option plays last season. Yet pure triple-option Wishbone was never tried, and the reasons why illuminate some of the dissimilarities between the two games. Most important, the strength of the pro defenses demands a balanced attack. "The triple option is not a good passing formation because you can only get two receivers downfield in a hurry," explains Ohio State's Woody Hayes. Sid Gillman, who formerly coached the San Diego Chargers, elaborates: "If you spread the ends on both sides with three backs intact, you have no running. If the outside ends are in tight, you have running and no passing. That puts you back in the dark ages." "Besides," asks Green Bay's Dan Devine, a bit slyly, "if you have a four-back offense, what do you do with all the flankers you've drafted as wide receivers?"

More than that, most coaches feel the Wishbone can only work if the entire system is installed; at the same time they claim that that would take up too much time, unless it was the only formation you were going to use.

Another putative drawback is that after getting clobbered on every play by 269-pound defensive ends, pro quarterbacks wouldn't last as long as pro running backs, whose careers are distressingly short. Says Gillman: "A coach spends day and night his whole life getting a quarterback so he can play pro football. Then if he exposes him to option football promiscuously, he has got to be out of his mind." But, Sid, the quarterbacks entering the pros these days are bigger, are better athletes and have run more in college. At least two coaches have indicated that they intend to employ the same sort of option Buddy Parker used with Bobby Layne at Detroit in which a guard pulled in front of him for protection. And in situations where the defense expects a run, something similar to a Wishbone will likely appear. "The Wishbone is almost unfair to the defense down near the goal line because of the demand it puts on the linebacker," says Bill Peterson, who has recently moved from Rice to the Houston Oilers.

Some proponents of the option offense think it just a matter of time before it dominates the pro game; after all, it was not too many seasons ago that the pros were saying they could never use the zone defense. Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' personnel director, has indicated that the pros will draft Wishbone quarterbacks as specialists to use inside the 10-yard line. "Until the pros use the option the way the colleges do, they just don't know what they're talking about," argues the University of Houston's Bill Yeoman. "I'm not saying that sarcastically, just technically. They won't find out the pressures the option play puts on defenses until they start running it themselves. When they do, everyone will be running it."

Essential differences between the pro and college games prevent them from progressing simultaneously. College offenses are far ahead of the defenses, which accounts for bigger scores and creates the impression of a faster-paced, more exciting game. Last year's Oklahoma-Kansas State contest is a perfect example. Kansas State did everything it could hope to do on offense. It scored 28 points, got 32 first downs and rolled up 562 yards—and lost by 47 points. "There are more mismatches in college ball," says Atlanta's Norm Van Brocklin. "When there are mismatches, you score." You also get off more long runs, still football's most exciting play. This past season Greg Pruitt of Oklahoma ran for 40 or more yards more times than all the backs in each of three NFL divisions.

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