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"Speed, size, specialization, their own coaches, pride in their units—all that changed the whole concept of defense. By 1977 defense controlled the game. Scoring was lower than it had been in 35 years. We had to do something, so we changed the rules. The purists didn't like it. Some coaches didn't. It represented a management point of view."
Dallas Coach Tom Landry is a purist. He spent years working on a flex defense that would shut down all the gaps, control all the lanes. The fans didn't know from flexes. They called it Doomsday. Then Landry set to work figuring out how to beat his flex. The answer: constant motion, a changing spectrum of sets and formations—anything to create indecision, confusion. It was a chess game, a labor of the cerebrum, but then along came the rulemakers to make it easy for people who couldn't figure out such things on their own.
In 1977 they took away the defensive lineman's head slap. They gave each pass defender just one bump on a receiver. Those things weren't enough. O.K., the defenses said, we're allowed only one bump per man, so we'll bump the receiver with a lot of different guys. The 3-4 defense created a picket line of big, mean linebackers, each one more than willing to take a guy's head off as he came across the field. Passing stats hit a four-year low. Rushing stats were off 4�%. And scoring was the lowest since the war years, Sammy Baugh and leather helmets.
The trouble was that the NFL didn't know how to legislate against the talents of the defensive people. The offense had no counterpart to the 6'6", 250-pound defensive end who can run a 4.7 40. Athletically, he was just too good. He was uncontrollable. There was no antidote for the 230-pound linebacker with 4.6 speed and a nasty disposition. And, worst of all, most of the inventive thinking of the last 15 years had been applied to defense, the 3-4 being the major innovation.
It was clear the offenses couldn't do it on their own. They needed help, and in 1978 the rulemakers came up with the big one. A defender could chuck a receiver once within five yards of the line of scrimmage, they said, but that was it. After that he was free and easy. No one else could take a shot at him. And to make sure the officials would spot violators of the new rule, the officiating crews were increased from six men to seven. And to make sure the quarterback had time to find that receiver, the blocking rules were more sharply defined. Offensive linemen would be allowed to extend their arms and lock their elbows and open their hands (and sometimes close them). The big push-off had arrived. The era of strong fingers. Candy stores showed heavy sales in hard rubber balls—finger conditioners.
The offensive coaches blinked twice, rubbed their eyes and still didn't believe what they saw. Can it really be? The Super Bowl convinced them. Chuck Noll had the Steelers open it up on the Cowboys. By halftime Terry Bradshaw had passed for 253 yards. "Heck, I'd only thrown for that much twice before in my life," Bradshaw says, "and those were whole games." When it was over, he had passed for a career high of 318, and the Steelers had scored 35 points. NFL coaches digested what they saw in Miami and then pulled the cork this season.
"The offenses have now gotten to where the owners wanted to get them," Landry says, sadly. "It's gotten to where you can't play pass defense against a Lynn Swann or a Tony Hill or a John Stallworth. Who can cover them without touching them? Football should be innovative. Changes should come only through evolution. But when you try to change the nature of the game through the rules, you're defeating it. Rules should be changed for one purpose—to protect the athlete from things he can't overcome with his skills. Eliminating the illegal pick, eliminating the chop block in which a back drifts outside and then cracks in on a pass rusher from the blind side, those are sensible changes. But just to say, 'We want more passing in the game, so let's change the rules,' well, I don't believe in that.
"If they would have interpreted the rules right in the first place, if they would have penalized those defensive men who strangled a receiver when he got down-field, they wouldn't have had to make these changes. But it's a lot easier just to change a rule."
But, Tom, your own general manager, Tex Schramm, was on the Competition Committee that put in these rules.
"I know it, and he probably likes them," Landry says. "But he's management oriented. I'm talking from a football standpoint."