The pass-catch game has opened up the NFL like a herring knife. Offensive linemen are getting sneakier. Blitzes are back. So are lawyers; a player can now sue an opponent for cheap-shotting him. Everyone—but everyone—gets to play because there are specialists for everything, even a designated right-side sacker. Offenses are going wild, but the television ratings aren't. And, of course, the AFC has come on so strong that we don't even talk about its dominance anymore; in fact, there now is an A Division and a B Division in the league. That's where NFL '79 stands after 11 weeks of the season. It's an X-rated movie—Deep Threat, parental guidance suggested for cornerbacks and safetymen.
Defensive coaches are wringing their hands. Once they had the game by the throat. Then the rulemakers went to work: you offensive strategists can't do it on your own, so we'll help you. We'll help your receivers get free, and we'll let your linemen push off if they want to. Holding? Well, O.K., but within limits. No strangling, please. Women and children might be watching. And, oh yes, we'll also keep people from roughing up your quarterbacks.
"Hell, yes, I like the new rules," says San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh. "We've got a quarterback, Steve DeBerg, who ranked 28th in the NFL last year, and now he's on the verge of breaking John Brodie's club records. We're leading the NFC in passing, and we're 101 yards away from leading the entire league. Because of the new rules, even with our limited personnel, we can throw the ball for big yardage. When I came here I had hoped to get 300 yards a game in total offense. Right now we're a fraction under 350. Teams still can't quite believe how profitable it is to put the ball in the air."
In the war room of the Pittsburgh Steelers, George Perles, the burly little assistant head coach who's in charge of the defensive line, stares glumly at the floor and gets ready for a long, cold winter. "The offenses had the new rules for more than a year, but they didn't know what to do with them," he says. "I held my breath. They started slow, but, brother, it's gone lickety-split in the last six weeks. People are finally getting around to doing what the owners spent thousands of dollars at their meetings in Palm Springs and Hawaii to get them to do."
Perles shakes his head. He fiddles with a pencil.
"It's just spawning—spawning," he says. "It's happening in front of my eyes. I see it on Sunday, and then I have to go home and watch it on TV Monday night all over again. All those passes. It's the cycle of the 1950s coming back."
Ah, the '50s. The push for public acceptance, for the new TV dollars. Put the ball in the air. Win fans. Make money. Teams were passing for 170 to 175 yards a game. It went as high as 192, in '54. No team did it better than the Rams, Bob Waterfield and Dutch Van Brocklin throwing to Tom Fears and Elroy Hirsch and little Vitamin T. Smith, shooting out of the backfield. The P.R. director of the Rams in those joyful days was a young Californian named Alvin (Pete) Rozelle. Is it any wonder that two years ago, when the defense had clamped its icy hold on the game, he longed for the sunshine of yesteryear?
"No, no, it's not the same at all," Commissioner Rozelle says now. "Do you remember what everyone was saying about the game in the '50s?"
Indeed we do. They were saying that it wasn't football at all, that it was basketball in pads and cleats. A sissy game.
"Right," Rozelle says. "They were saying it because the physical contact was entirely different from what you have now. You had 33-man squads. Teams couldn't afford injuries. Players didn't throw their bodies around like they do now, particularly on defense. I looked at some old Ram movies the other day and saw the classic stiff-arm, the nice, clean tackle around the legs. Nowadays defensive guys come at you like this..." and Rozelle rises up out of his chair and snaps off a very wicked-looking forearm.