The rules make broad allowances for "momentum" in tackling. Some coaches now believe that may be the rule book's single biggest flaw. Many brutal hits on quarterbacks and running backs are excused under the vagaries of "momentum." Many hits are not tackles at all but vicious exclamation points. Even quarterbacks are conditioned to excuse them.
"Defensive linemen are brought up to rush the quarterback," says Matt Cavanaugh. "That's what they've been trained to do since they started playing football. They can't stop [a charge] the instant the" quarterback releases the ball.... Most of the problems come once the momentum is up and the lineman can't pull back, and I don't think it's possible to take that out of the game. I don't think it's possible to change the rules. You can't do that and be fair about it."
Fair? Can't stop? Impossible to change? Conditioning is complete when the street victim sympathizes with the mugger.
But can "momentum" be legislated against?
John Madden thinks so. "Why not? We tell a guy he can't plow into the kicker, we can sure as hell tell him he can't plow into the passer."
Coaches who argue against equal protection under the rule, however, say a quarterback is more likely to run than a punter—and is usually better at it—and therefore can't be made sacrosanct. Coaches don't want to give quarterbacks license to steal.
But what is really being served by allowing for "momentum," and to what actual purpose is that momentum built up? Pete Williams was a Navy halfback in the late '40s, when he was known as Pistol Pete. Williams says any schoolyard dodger knows that the tougher man to elude is not the one who has built up momentum, but the one who is in control and not fully committed to the charge. A defender rushing headlong at a ballcarrier is in much the same position as a bull rushing a matador and is just as likely to get the runaround.
Says Jack Nix, "Maybe we've bragged too long about the 'killer instinct' and made everybody think it's the only way. Hit hard, sure. Body contact, sure. But common sense should tell us we're hurting more than just a quarterback when we put him in the hospital. Is that the way we want to win?"
If coaches are willing to say no to that question, it is not as difficult to solve the dilemma as some think. However, you must be willing to assume certain things. First, that most defensive players can see. If they can see, they can be made to do things. Every coach boasts that defensive players are better than ever—bigger, faster, more gifted. That being the case, says Ara Parseghian, and acknowledging the fact that a defender advancing with more caution in the manner of a screening basketball player is less likely to get fooled, a "grab" rule might be put into effect for quarterbacks, at least on a trial basis. If the defender gets there and the quarterback still has the ball, the defender has the same tackling rights as he has in regard to the kicker before the ball is off the ground: no holds barred. "But if the ball is gone," says Parseghian, "and the defender has got his head up instead of down in that ramming position, he can see enough to hold up and just grab the quarterback. A grab is a lot less likely to break a rib."
For those rushers who still find it difficult to tell whether the quarterback has the ball or not, John Madden would add a "visual" aid: he would equip referees with special air horns to sound when—and only when—a pass has been released.