A mid-season survey showed that in 1979 pass plays of 20 or more yards had increased by 26.6% over 1977 and that there had been 31.5% more 40-plus-yarders. Passing offense was up 12.4% over '78 and 22.8% over '77. Scoring is up 10% over '78 and 15% over '77.
After 10 weeks, wide receivers ranked first ( San Francisco's Freddy Solomon), second ( Minnesota's Ahmad Rashad) and tied for third ( Pittsburgh's Stall-worth) among pass catchers. The last time a wide receiver won the pass-catching title was in 1973 ( Philadelphia's Harold Carmichael).
At one time a 300-yard passing day by a quarterback was synonymous with losing. Last year, after 10 weeks, there had been eight 300-plus-yard games, but only one had been a winning effort. This year the numbers were 25 300-yard-plus passing games and 12 winning efforts. Not long ago a team that didn't run more than it passed was doomed; this year, 8-3 San Diego (53.4% pass plays) and 7-4 Cleveland (50.9%) have done more passing than running.
"Teams used to do that by necessity, because they couldn't run the ball," says Browns Coach Sam Rutigliano. "But with us, I assure you it's by design. Hey, a guy can run a crossing pattern now until he gets free, and nobody can touch him."
For the type of defensive back who specializes in dealing out physical punishment, such as Dallas Free Safety Cliff Harris, the new rules are a nightmare. "In the old days you'd make a receiver feel he was lucky to catch a pass," Harris says. "They'd run their routes cautiously. Now they're loose. You can see it in their eyes. They feel they're the intimidators downfield. I think the whole concept of these rule changes is wrong. Do the fans really like this kind of football better? I'm not so sure. Owners shouldn't be the judges of what fans like to see. You can't tell me that fans like a 55-22 game better than a good defensive battle. People are going to get bored. What kind of ratings does pro basketball have on TV? What were the things in the past that the fans really identified with? I'll tell you. It was our Doomsday Defense, the Purple People Eaters in Minnesota, the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh, Bronco-mania in Denver. All of them were keyed on the defense. How many offenses have nicknames?"
Harris may be right, because TV ratings have not gone up the way scoring has. After 10 games ABC's
Monday Night Football
had a Nielsen rating of 18.8, compared with last year's 21.2; the overall decline in viewers is about 11%. The ABC specials on Sunday and Thursday nights have dropped from 19.2 to 18.4. NBC had an 11.7 rating after 10 weeks, up only fractionally from 11.6 last year, and CBS had a 13.5, the same as in '78. Oddly enough, when the game was at its offensive low point in 1977, when nobody could score points and the owners were fearing a return to the Ice Age, each network earned a higher rating than it did in 1978—and also a rating higher than that projected for 1979.
But there's another factor at work here. The excitement caused by the liberalized pass-catch rules can't hide a very discouraging fact about the NFL. It's a two-caste society. In interconference games the AFC has beaten the NFC 26-10, but, even worse, except for Dallas all the action teams are in the American Conference.
The graying of pro football has a subtler aspect. Standardization. Even cheerleaders have become standardized. "I hate the uniformity," says the Steelers' Swann. "Each position has its required uniform numbers. After Rashad retires, no wide receiver will ever have No. 28. When Kenny Burrough leaves, there'll be no more double 0. Just numbers in the 80s. All the tackles will be 76 or 77, the centers will all be 52 or 53."
He sighs. "What if you're just a naturally born No. 22?"
"I long for the old days, for the classic battles between offensive tackle and defensive end," says Philadelphia Defensive End Claude Humphrey. "You'll never see them again. They're gone. You can't butt or head-slap. The offensive lineman can grab you and shove you off. The only time you can get a sack now is off a stunt, or if the offensive tackle makes a mistake and blows an assignment, or if he falls down. And even then he can push you in the back and send you past the quarterback. The way the rules are now, the person who's gonna win is the one with the longest arms."