In 1949, the year I went to work for the Los Angeles Rams as an assistant publicity director, Norman Van Brocklin was a rookie quarterback. He was paid a $750 bonus for signing and his salary was $12,000 a year. He was probably the NFL's highest-paid rookie.
Now, a little more than 26 years later, the Dutchman is in temporary retirement, I am only a few days away from retiring from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and Joe Namath has signed a new contract with the Jets for $450,000 a year. That is only a little less than the Rams lost during the 1949 season.
Van Brocklin was one of the five best quarterbacks I have ever seen; Namath was superb for two years and may be again, but even in these inflationary times he is not worth 30 or 40 times more than Van Brocklin was.
Since I feel that ticket prices are already too high and TV revenue is probably approaching the maximum, it seems to me the only way for many clubs to survive is by cutting salaries. This won't affect the game. Over the past 26 years the quality of play has been diluted as a direct result of the increase in the number of teams.
In 1950, there were 13 professional football teams, 32 players per team, a total of 416 of the very best players. In 1975 there are 37 teams, with 38 and 43 players per team for a total of 1,536 players. The colleges are not producing significantly more qualified players, so 1,120 of these men would not have made a pro football club in 1950.
There are as many stars as ever, but they are spread more thinly. The Dolphins dominated the league with five or six; when the Packers were in their prime they had 10 or 12, and when the Rams played the Browns in the 1950 championship game, both teams had starting lineups comprised almost completely of players who would be stars today.
The Cleveland quarterback was Otto Graham; the Rams had All-Pro Bob Waterfield and All-Pro-to-be Van Brocklin. The wide receivers were Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli for the Browns and Elroy Hirsch and Tom Fears for the Rams. With the exception of Speedie, all are in the pro football Hall of Fame. Running backs? Dub Jones and Marion Motley for the Browns; Glenn Davis, Vitamin Smith and three 225-pound fullbacks, Dick Hoerner, Dan Towler and Tank Younger, for the Rams.
The total payroll for the Browns and the Rams—per team—was probably less than Namath's $450,000. And there were three quarterbacks in the game who over their careers were better than Namath.
It was the best football game ever played—better than the 1958 Colts-Giants title game—the Browns winning 30-28 in the last 28 seconds on a Lou Groza field goal. The score is another indication of what has gone wrong with pro football since then.
In that game super players played against super players head to head. All the coverage was man to man. The Rams had averaged almost 40 points a game that year. They gave up more than 25 points per game because, head to head, a great receiver will more often than not beat a great defensive back. The receiver knows where he is going and how he is going to get there—the defensive back can only react, a split second later. Given passers like Graham, Waterfield and Van Brocklin, the receiver—if he is a Fears, Hirsch, Speedie or Lavelli—will win the duel.