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PUNISHMENT IS A CRIME
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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A tenet of rule-making is that if a rule puts a player at a disadvantage, it has to be changed. The question of what is "fair" is, ultimately, a rules problem. A rule to protect quarterbacks the way kickers are protected would not be difficult to write. But granting the quarterback's added potential, a "grab" rule would be more appropriate. Such a rule might also help mitigate the damage being done to high school and college quarterbacks on option plays.

The option presents a thornier problem, however. In its many forms and formations (veer, wishbone), it is probably the most difficult play to stop in college football—but it requires that the quarterback be a runner and therefore puts him in greater jeopardy. This is why pro teams haven't adopted the veer.

The evolution of defending against the option has passed through many nuances, but one gambit is now consistently applied: keep the quarterback an east-and-west runner, don't let him turn upfield and become north-south. And, as stated elsewhere in this article, tackle him on every play—before, as, or after he releases the ball. Hit him. Be aggressive. Lower the boom.

The night before last year's Ohio State game, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell reportedly promised that the Sooners would "make Rod Gerald get up on every play." Nothing malicious was implied, just some good old down-home strategy to stop the slick Buckeye quarterback. Oklahoma pounded away at Gerald, a six-foot, 175-pound string bean. The battered Gerald was taken out in the third quarter, and Oklahoma won the game.

The quarterback's relatively unprotected moves make him as vulnerable on an option play as on a pass play. He comes to the point of the pitch with his eyes at least partially averted to the trailback, his arm, or arms, extended, his feet committed. If he executes well, he will draw a tackier, which is the whole idea. But in that position he is wide open for trouble from his chin to his thorax to his knees. Trouble comes in the form of a 225-pound linebacker with fire in his eyes and an artillery shell on his head and a signed release from his coach to let his frustrations go on option quarterbacks. If the quarterback is put out of commission, so be it. Give that man another decal.

It is obvious to the most casual observer when a defense has been sent out to destroy a target, says John Pont. "Officials could call it," he says, "just as any good athlete could be made to back off a little. Coaches should look closer at game films. Some of the hits on the quarterbacks after a pitch are brutal. But one coach teaches it, the next coach does it. It's one-upmanship. Somebody has to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, there's a difference between a tackle and finishing off a guy.' "

It would seem a simple enough equation to work out: coaches and officials acting together to decide what is "necessary" in football. But the deeper issue is sportsmanship. Bad sportsmanship is always shameful. In a sport that has an inherently high potential for physical damage, it is intolerable. When a coach plots the incapacitation of a player, it is profanity to call him a sportsman.

A certain amount of concentrated effort against a star player is acceptable in sport: guard him relentlessly, double-team him, pitch to him a certain way, shift or zone the defense for him, neutralize him. But "concentrated effort" is not license to indulge in perversions of the rules.

The line is crossed with the first deliberate attempt to hurt or weaken an opposing player.

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