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Classes haven't even started yet, but it is already clear that students of pro football will be in for a hard time if they haven't mastered the new In course, Hash Marks 101. Last week, as the pros took their third preschool tests, Houston Coach Bill Peterson exulted over hash marks, that set of insignificant chalk slashes a yard apart that run the length of a football field. Previously these hash marks were located approximately 20 yards in from each sideline of the 53?-yard-wide field. This year the pros have moved each of them exactly three yards, one foot and nine inches closer to the center of the field to line up with the goalpost uprights, and that little move, Peterson says, "is going to make the game more exciting, bring more scoring and eliminate some of the defenses. But, then, they're always coming up with something new, aren't they?"
Well, yes, which hasn't always made life easy for those spectators who insist upon understanding the niceties of the game, including influence blocking, bump-and-run, fly patterns and red-dogging, not to mention Duane Thomas on press relations, Karl Sweetan on sales and Roger Staubach on staying in the pocket. What may make hash marks more difficult, at least at the start, is that not everybody is as sure as Peterson what effect placing the 160 markings 23 yards from each sideline will have.
Hash marks, for the uninitiated, are guides that show the officials where to place the football after a runner is tackled near the sideline or is run out of bounds. Officially, they are called inbound lines and generally they are ignored by spectators. But they are important, or at least that is what the National Football League owners, who had become concerned over last season's low-scoring games (75 fewer touchdowns in 1971 than two years before), were thinking when they decided to move them. If they are right, this seemingly unobtrusive playing around with chalk may not only lead to more touchdowns but to more field goals, more end runs and perhaps even a small revival of the Statue of Liberty play.
In the new setup, every play will start from very near the middle of the field—no more wide side-short side or strong side-weak side, no more spacious prairie around one end and crowded city traffic around the other, far less lopsidedness. Offenses that so often had to be left-handed or right-handed can now be ambidextrous all the time. Short-side defensive backs who have grown expert at forcing runners and receivers out of bounds will now have to rely less on their 12th man, the sideline. ("Old Man Sideline never misses a tackle," they used to say.) It is enough to make a man forget those Wishbone-crazy collegians.
But is it working? After just a few exhibition games, it is too early to tell for sure, although a few offensive players already are making good use of the extra elbow room. San Francisco Wide Receiver Gene Washington caught five passes for 66 yards against the New York Jets and was ready to kiss the rules-makers. "I didn't realize there'd be so much difference in 3� yards," he said, "but the little more room to cut is to my advantage. I noticed I could run either short or long patterns without too much trouble."
"I like the room and I think I can use it," said an enthusiastic Bob Hayes of Dallas, who foresees himself running lots of end-around plays and catching quick short-side passes. " Hayes likes it," said Cowboy Quarterback Craig Morton, "and anything Hayes likes, I've got to love."
Nobody expected defensive players to be thrilled, and they are not. Some of them, like Mike Curtis of Baltimore, have accepted it stoically as another burden in their frustrating jobs. "No problem," he says. "I have enough speed to compensate for the few extra yards I'll have to cover. I'll get my man."
But other defensive players are downright annoyed. "The next thing they'll do is have mechanical fields so they can tilt them and the offense can always go downhill," said Detroit Linebacker Wayne Walker.
"As I see it, there is a conspiracy in pro sports against the defense," said Miami Safety Dick Anderson. "In baseball they helped the hitters by lowering the pitcher's mound and tightening the strike zone. In pro basketball they outlawed the zone defense to get more scoring in the game. Now they've instituted a rules change to give the pro football offense another advantage. For years defensive units have used the short side of the field as an extra man because, in reality, it was that much less real estate to cover....
"All of this is because people in certain areas of power feel that football is becoming dull. Not enough scoring to keep the excitement going. And just a few years ago, when the old AFL was getting started, the same people were saying that the AFL was inferior because it didn't have the tough defense that the established NFL teams had."