Some of those college quarterbacks are pretty interesting throwers, too. No offense intended. Veer and wishbone quarterbacks in college are usually sprinters or muscle runners. The forward pass is an afterthought.
Formations are a very big thing in college football. Go to a college coaches' clinic, and you'll see everyone dutifully copying down all these X's and O's and stress areas, etc. What they should really be lecturing about is recruiting—little tricks of the trade, how to get past the German shepherd in the front yard or the daddy with a shotgun. With the material some of these guys get, they could run a single wing and make it work. Players win for you, not formations.
I keep hearing Keith Jackson and his analysts, Frank Broyles and Ara Parseghian, telling me how swell the wishbone is as a passing formation, but there's nothing funnier to watch than a wishbone team trying to play catch-up football through the air. Mostly it involves one-man patterns into double coverage. So if the NFL doesn't run the ball as well out of its pro set as the colleges do out of their power I or wishbone, then the other side is that the colleges sure can't throw out of their formations as well as the pros can out of theirs. And the whole idea is to move the ball down the field, right?
College coaches are starting to pick up the passing game a little, but their major offensive innovations are in the area of running. And there are always the anti-pass diehards. The Big Ten, for instance. Ohio State and Michigan lost 10 out of 11 Rose Bowls to Pacific Coast teams that could throw the ball, before Michigan beat Washington last January. Watching Woody Hayes coach a team in the Rose Bowl was like watching a guy slowly walking off a cliff. We shall not pass. The recruiting story three years ago was that Woody got Art Schlichter only because he promised he'd change his offense to accommodate the kid's talents, namely throwing the ball. It was the old hubris-nemesis story, and it eventually cost Woody his job. The Clemson guy he slugged in that Gator Bowl game three years ago had just intercepted a Schlichter pass, remember?
Underwood mentions that Bear Bryant's Triple-Option Wishbone at Alabama had magical powers to isolate receivers on defenders in single coverage. I don't want to argue with both Underwood and a legend, but Bear's teams pass when they have a good passing quarterback, and when they don't—forget it. When Notre Dame led 'Bama 7-0 last year and it was obvious the Alabama running game wasn't going to do it, did the Bear open up and start throwing into that inevitable single coverage? He did not. Alabama threw five passes in the first half, three more in the third quarter and wound up completing a measly six for 15 on the day. And lost 7-0. One problem is that Alabama linemen don't know how to pass-block. They're taught scramble blocking out of a four-point stance, root-hog blocking. There's no area or position blocking. Alabama quarterbacks throw while running for their lives.
NFL linemen are primarily pass blockers, which doesn't mean they're stiffs. The pro scouts give their longest look to the giants who can run the 4.9 40, who can bench-press an apartment house. Of the armies of offensive linemen who come out of college every year, maybe one will make each pro team. Stiffs need not apply.
Now we get to the quarterback option. It works because the quarterback is a running threat. When a defensive end or a linebacker has to make the decision—go for the quarterback or the pitch man—how many times do you see him freeze for just an instant? Gosh, they're both dangerous. And that little freeze gives the offense the edge it needs.
In the NFL a linebacker facing a running quarterback is a happy fellow. Oh, man, he's giving me a shot. No qualms there. Just take the damn fool's head off...viz. Washington vs. Plunkett. And if the quarterback pitches it to the guy in back of him? That's no sweat, just level him anyway. And pretty soon the option team is fresh out of quarterbacks.
If Bud Wilkinson never saw a quarterback get hurt running an option, as Underwood maintains, he must have had the blinders on. You can string it out only so far, and then comes the moment when you have to turn upfield. And that's when the force of the blow is at its maximum, when both men are moving toward the impact.
The thing I can't understand is this: Why knock the pro running game and not the college passing game? The pros choose to pass, the colleges choose to run. Both play exciting football. Why not appreciate both games for what they are? College coaches who tried it soon learned there is no place in the NFL for the veer or wishbone. And except for an occasional Stanford or Brigham Young, the colleges seem to think there is no place on campus for a pro-style passing attack. O.K., we'll give each its own piece of turf. Personally, I like both games, but let's remember they're different games. Very different. Just ask Chuck Fairbanks. Or Lou Holtz.