"Now from the new hash mark you can use all your patterns to both sides. The receiver on the short side has time to maneuver and the throw to the receiver cutting to the sideline on the wide side is easier for the quarterback to make. It used to be a dangerously long throw into a flat zone, but it isn't anymore."
Bringing the hash marks in also resulted in more successful field goals, since the kickers had better angles. If there is a more boring play than a field goal, it is the extra point. The moving force in either case is usually provided by the instep of a European soccer player, a breed best typified by the chap who, or so the story goes, kicked a field goal and pranced off the field crying, "I keecked a touchdown!"
As the offenses grow more and more stodgy, the defenses have turned to a stratagem that may take away the last vestige of excitement. This was apparent in last year's Washington-Green Bay playoff game in which the Redskins substituted almost purely for situations. When Washington anticipated a running play its defensive line was reinforced by the addition of a fifth man, Manny Sistrunk, who took the place of Middle Linebacker Myron Pottios. When Redskin Coach George Allen felt it was 50-50 whether Green Bay would run or pass, he took out Sistrunk and put back Pottios. In obvious passing situations Allen removed Sistrunk and added Speedy Duncan, a fifth defensive back. Since Green Bay was unable to run against the five-man line, its inexperienced quarterback, Scott Hunter, often faced third and long yardage, peering into a horde of Washington defensive backs, hoping to find an open receiver. He did not.
It is unlikely that the coaches—or the players, for that matter—will opt for living the dangerous life of throwing on first down against the five-man front and running on third against what Allen calls the nickel defense, because of the five backs. The last time the game was bogged down by an overemphasis on defense was in 1932, when the Chicago Bears took the NFL title by winning seven games, losing one and tying six, three of the ties being 0-0. They defeated the Portsmouth Spartans for the championship by an explosive 9-0 score.
The outcome was greeted with roaring ennui, and George Preston Marshall, who then had the Boston franchise, pushed through two major changes that brought life to a moribund game. He lobbied successfully to have the goalposts returned to the goal line and, far more important, he was responsible for a rule that legalized forward passing from any spot behind the line of scrimmage. He must have foreseen the advent of Sammy Baugh.
He also saw to it that the league was divided into two conferences, and in 1933 the Bears beat the Giants 23-21. Unlike Super Bowl VII, it was a terrific game, the two teams scoring more than twice as many points as their modern counterparts.
Nothing as drastic as the Marshall plan is needed today to revitalize pro football, but changes are called for.
First, the hash marks. Why settle for half measures? If the hash marks are going to be moved toward the middle of the field, why not do away with them altogether and start every play midway between the sidelines? By that you put even more strain on the zone defense, thus helping receivers and passers, and you aid the running backs as well. If, as a consequence, the placekickers have a still greater advantage, there are two remedies. One, on any unsuccessful field-goal attempt the ball is returned to the line of scrimmage, not to the defending team's 20. This takes away the cheap shot from the 50-yard line, which depends on the strength in a Serbian leg, not on the strength of the team as a whole. Two, go back to the old college (and AFL) two-point conversion. (A conversion by run or pass is worth two points, by kick, one.) It was the only rule that ever lent a modicum of excitement to the extra point, and when the leagues merged it was killed by the NFL's hard-line conservatives. Last year, when the owners voted on whether to reinstate the two-point conversion, they gave way to the advice of their apprehensive coaches, who did not want any more decisions to make, especially controversial ones.
"It's a sign of how conservative most owners are," said one recently. "Why should we put coaches on a pedestal? They are paid to make decisions. Let them make a few tough ones right out in front of everyone."
If it were possible to make a rule to outlaw the zone defense, that would be the next step. But it would involve excruciating calls by officials and very likely lead to riots, so forget it. The only feasible way to destroy most of the zone and, with it, the substitution-for-situation defenses, is to clearly define where the defensive players may line up.