The 1984 NFL season will be remembered as The Year They Went Back to Football. Gone, or all but, are the troubles that made headlines in recent years—the strike, the Raider lawsuit, drugs, the USFL signings. Instead, the big story will be the chase for Jim Brown's lifetime rushing record of 12,312 yards, which has stood for 18 years, as Franco Harris and Walter Payton close in on it.
About the end of September you'll start seeing statistical tables. You'll read countdown stories as Harris nears the record, and then a few weeks later you'll see more as Payton makes his move. It'll be like Hank Aaron's chase for Babe Ruth's home run mark. Will he do it this Sunday? Next Sunday? Alert the studio. There will be interviews with Jim Brown—"Yes, I'll come out of retirement if Franco breaks it.... No, wait a minute, I'll hold off if Walter catches him. He doesn't run out of bounds."—Red Grange, O.J. Simpson, Bronko Nagurski, if the canoe doesn't freeze over on the way to Iceville, Minn.
All this pure football talk comes as a welcome relief after the stories of recent seasons. Indeed, as the new season begins, the players strike of '82 is just a bitter memory. Gene Upshaw, who replaced Ed Garvey as the executive director of the Players Association last year, has thawed the cold war between the players and owners. As for the NFL's fiery legal hassles with the Raiders, they're now just embers. The U.S. Supreme Court probably will have the last word, but not for a year or two.
Nobody gets titillated by drug abuse stories anymore, although they still exist, of course. The bang effect is gone, and, callous as this might sound, that eliminates the NFL's major concern—the tarnishing of the league's image. Clubs are turning to self-policing: When's the last time you read a major drug story about pro football?
The USFL has wounded the NFL in the pocketbook, but now the young league seems to be a house divided. Do we go to a fall schedule or stay with spring football? If we go to the fall, where do we play? And what days? The USFL has commissioned surveys to supply the answers, but it was a survey that originally told the USFL that spring football couldn't miss. USFL teams skimmed 32 of the NFL's top 100 draft prospects this year, but the signing of NFL vets has slowed considerably. Still, NFL payrolls have jumped by about $30,000 per player. If the NFL's attendance and TV ratings slump this fall, one would have to assume that the country is getting a little footballed out. So far, though, few people in the NFL feel there's any need to change the league's basic strategy—sit back and wait for the USFL to outrun its supply lines. As far as the NFL's absorbing a few of the USFL's stronger franchises, as some USFL people have secretly hoped, well, that's unlikely.
"There's no sentiment for it," Pete Rozelle says. "We like to pick our own cities for expansion. As far as a merger is concerned, you'd clearly need an act of Congress, as you did when the NFL and AFL merged. And I'm sure this would be fought by the players' associations of both the USFL and our league. And, finally, there's the matter of dilution of TV money. Our people don't want to share it."
"I don't like to have somebody try to spend me broke and then say, 'You have to take me in as a partner,' " says Dolphin owner Joe Robbie.
So here we go into 1984, and the air will be filled with footballs once again, as it has been since 1978, when new rules opened up the passing lanes. But the major interest will be Payton and Harris and the march on Jim Brown's record. Passing is passing, but nothing quickens the pulse like watching a great back busting tackles and running to daylight. It's elemental. It also has been part of the game for more than 100 years. Generations of Willie Hestons and Ted Coys and Jim Thorpes came and went before anyone got excited about a passer. And now you've got two people taking a crack at a record that once seemed untouchable.
It was bound to happen. The 16-game season (in effect since 1978) cheapened a statistic that once had a high value: the 1,000-yard year. These days, if you average 63 yards a game and stay healthy, you'll get 1,000. Last year 16 runners did so. The one-back offense also helps; the great backs are carrying the ball more.
Brown ran up his yardage (he's 362 ahead of Harris and 687 ahead of Payton) in only nine seasons, four of them 12-gamers and five 14-gamers. He never missed a game, which is his most amazing accomplishment of all, and he quit when he was 29, at the height of his powers. If he knew then what he knows now, maybe he'd have stayed around five more years and put the record out of reach, but statistics didn't mean as much to him in those days. They didn't mean that much to anybody.