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John Underwood
August 21, 1978
Intimidation! Gang tackling! Pursuit! Those are now bywords in football, much as "sportsmanship" once was
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August 21, 1978

Punishment Is A Crime

Intimidation! Gang tackling! Pursuit! Those are now bywords in football, much as "sportsmanship" once was

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The contrast in the pros is even greater. Pat Haden of the Rams weighs 182 pounds. When he goes against the Dallas front four, he faces one 270-pounder in Ed Jones, 255-pound Jethro Pugh and two 250-pounders in Harvey Martin and Randy White.

The laws of physics still apply. Force = mass X acceleration: F = MA. As the well-conditioned athlete grows, his capacity for meting out punishment multiplies proportionately, and the athlete whose size remains almost constant is at that much more of a disadvantage. And remember, says Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors, the 265-pounder "used to be fat and slow. Now he's fast. In some cases, faster than the quarterback. That means he can deliver a terrific blow." It figures that if both M and A are greater, then F—what hurts—must have increased. The difference in footpounds, in blows delivered by a 270-pounder and a 170-pounder traveling at the same rate of speed, is roughly 60%.

The more disproportionate the blow, the more likely the injury. Dr. Fred All-man studied 43,000 Pop Warner Leaguers at the Atlanta Sports Medicine Clinic and found that the injury rate among football players of similar height and weight and skill was "very low." A study made by Dr. Carl Blyth at the University of North Carolina showed that injuries increased proportionately with age, as disproportions widened. At age 13, 25% of the players surveyed had suffered injuries. At 14, the injury percentage went up to 28 and advanced dramatically from there until, at 18, there was a 68% injury factor.

Doug Plank of the Bears is a likely source of testimony, being a notorious quarterback-buster. Plank calls it "a complete mismatch. On the one hand," he says, "you have an offensive player who really isn't conditioned to take hard hits—and maybe doesn't really know how to take them, or to fall." On the other, you have "defensive linemen coming in who are usually in great shape, are quick, agile and weigh 250 and above. Any time they hit someone who isn't built like themselves, they're going to do some damage."

Does this mean "bigger" players should not be allowed to tackle quarterbacks? Of course not. But the disadvantage of an overwhelming size differential dovetails with other, largely overlooked, factors that increase the risks.

Contrary to Plank's evaluation, the quarterback's main problem is not that he does not know how to take a hit, but that he is expected to take hits no other player is asked to take. A linebacker does not get "sacked" by three 250-pound quarterbacks while he is stumbling backwards. Quarterbacks are expected to be immune to pressure. If they do not stand in a disintegrating pocket, waiting until the last split second for a receiver to work free, and then release a perfect spiral just before the cave-in, they are said to "hear footsteps."

Compassion does not come with appreciation of this one-sided state of affairs. When he put 200-pound Tampa Bay Quarterback Mike Boryla in the hospital with torn knee ligaments last season, 280-pound Green Bay Tackle Mike McCoy was asked if he felt bad. "No," he said. "It sounds cold, doesn't it? But I didn't feel sorry for the guy. I've never felt guilty about things like that."

Well, why should he? McCoy was only doing his job in the accepted way. Coaches teach "Get the quarterback." Coaches want rival quarterbacks to "hear footsteps." Quarterbacks under duress make mistakes. Coaches shriek with pleasure when game films show a particularly heavy hit on a quarterback. They award decals to put on helmets for such feats in college, and in the NFL they keep statistics on "sacks" and give out bonuses.

A crackdown on late and redundant hits has been under way in the NFL, according to Art McNally. He instructs his referees to call out when a pass is gone to let charging offenders know the quarterback is no longer fair game. But in 1977 only 47 roughing-the-passer penalties were called in the NFL, compared with 43 in 1976. By the same token, coaches certainly do not encourage "late hits." A late hit means a 15-yard penalty. Coaches would rather have an abscess than a 15-yard penalty.

But what, really, is a late hit?

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