As a matter of traditional courtesy in he National Football League, the home team provides a stretcher for the use of the players. And a good thing, too. This season in the NFL, the stretcher has been as important to the game as the football. Never before have so many knees, ribs, ankles, backs and shoulders snapped, crackled and popped. No game report is complete without a casualty list. GIANTS WIN, TITTLE HURT. JOE SCHMIDT OUT FOR MONTH. JURGENSEN SIDELINED. And so on and on and on. The question is, has the violent world of pro football become too violent? Is the game getting too rough? Sample this:
A few Sundays ago in St. Louis, Bart Starr, the Green Bay quarterback, was attacked on the field by Jimmy Hill, a Cardinal defensive back. Attacked is the word, too, not tackled. Starr was running with the ball when the two met near the sideline. As they collided, Hill's right forearm shot forward. Starr ducked and the blow glanced off his helmet. As both men fell, Hill jabbed back at Starr with his right elbow, but Starr was out of range. Hill scrambled to his knees and, as Starr rolled over on his back and started to sit up, Hill punched him in the face. Starr fell back again.
Even as Starr was falling, white handkerchiefs from two officials fluttered to the ground. Hill was thrown out of the game for misconduct, costing him a stiff fine and costing his team 15 yards plus Hill's services. But for Green Bay the price was far greater. Starr, groggy, had to be helped from the field by two teammates. He played no more that day—though Green Bay, leading 23-0 when Starr left, had no trouble winning—and after the game it was discovered he had a broken right hand and would be unable to play for several weeks. Movies revealed that Starr broke his hand when he fell on top of it, but the film clearly showed that the awkwardness of the fall was caused by Hill's right forearm thrust, which Starr had to duck. One irate Packer fan sent a telegram to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. "Do you ban Jimmy Hill for life," he asked, "or do we hire Sonny Liston?"
Not a bad question. There are some games in which even Sonny Liston would not be safe. Those who saw this year's Giant-Brown game in New York watched the best heavyweight fight of the year. The Giants tried to stop Jim Brown by beating him up. Only one unnecessary roughness penalty was called against the Giants, but several others might have been. "Being hit in the face didn't stop me from running," Brown said later. Brown personally defeated the Giants, but after the game his eyes were puffed and nearly closed. "Football is a rough game," he said, "but I don't expect to get hit in the face every game. That's not normal."
Brown is right. Punches in the face are not normal in pro football, but they well may become so unless the five officials on the field are constantly alert to this damaging fact: roughness, one of the ingredients that makes pro football so popular, can ruin the sport if it gets out of control (see cover). Hear Pete Rozelle, the commissioner, who was in St. Louis the day Starr was slugged; Rozelle saw the play and was appalled.
"The war against roughness in pro football is a continuing war," he said several days ago in his New York office. "Bert Bell fought the war when he was commissioner, and I'm fighting it now. Before the season began we made a tour of the training camps and told the players that if they weren't concerned "about their own physical well-being, we were. The players represent big investments and the league, apart from any emotional factor, can't afford to have them hurt."
To help him fight his war against roughness, Rozelle hired Joe Kuharich, the former Notre Dame coach, as supervisor of officials. "I wanted a football expert in the office," says Rozelle. "God knows I'm not." While it would be inaccurate to imply that Kuharich's sole duty is to battle dirty football, it would be equally inaccurate to say he is not concerned with it. Kuharich accompanied Rozelle when he made his tour of training camps last summer. "We explained to the players what they could do and what they couldn't do," says Kuharich. "We told them what was legal and what was illegal. And we told them that the officials would be watching them closely. We don't want officials to decide the outcome of a game. We want a flow of action uninterrupted by penalties, but we can't allow the game to get out of control either."
Most players in the NFL think the officials are doing a good job of keeping roughness to a minimum—most of the time. "They're calling things pretty close," says Eddie LeBaron, the veteran quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. "The officials are very good." Wayne Walker, Detroit Lions' linebacker agrees. "You've got to watch what you do," he says. "That 15-yard penalty for losing your temper could cost you a lot of money if it happened to lose you a game that kept you out of the championship." Bob Gain, a Cleveland defensive tackle, lost his temper recently. "In our game with Los Angeles one of the Rams hit me from behind after the play was over, so I kicked him. It was a foolish thing to do, and it cost us 15 yards."
That's the kind of talk Kuharich likes to hear. "Temperamental outbursts only hurt your own team," he says. Kuharich always refers to unnecessary roughness, even Jimmy Hill's kind, as a temperamental outburst. "The sooner the players learn that the better." The sustained Giant attack on Jimmy Brown is not so easily categorized.
As supervisor of officials, Joe Kuharich has a job most men would enjoy. Each weekday morning he leaves his home in New Rochelle, catches the 8:35 commuter train to Grand Central Station and walks six blocks to the mid-Manhattan offices of the National Football League. Once seated behind his desk and served his morning cup of coffee by a pretty receptionist, he attaches a roll of film to a projector and, one by one, watches every game played in the NFL the week before. He runs the film through from opening kickoff to final gun, studying the positioning of his officials, where they were on crucial plays, how they called the plays and whether they were correct or not. The films help Kuharich to answer the wires or memos that inevitably arrive on his desk the Monday following the weekend's games, complaints from club owners or coaches that one of the officials blew a play. Recently Harland Svare, coach of the Rams, wired Kuharich, protesting an unnecessary roughness call against one of his linemen in a game with the Bears. Kuharich studied the film, running and rerunning the play in slow motion. The penalty occurred on a kicking play, the Bears punting to the Rams. "There it is," Joe shouted. The film showed a Ram lineman swinging a bandaged arm, uppercut style, at the Bears' Ronnie Bull. As Bull fell, the Ram lineman kicked him in the back, then turned and headed innocently upfield. But the umpire's flag was already on the ground. "A good call," said Kuharich proudly. "That's the kind of stuff we have to watch."
Sometimes Kuharich gets the complaints in person. Recently Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, popped into his office. "Put our game on the projector, Joe," he said excitedly. After a few minutes the film showed a Detroit end catch a pass, get hit and drop it, all in a split second. A Dallas lineman fell on the ball. "What do you call it, what do you call it?" bellowed Schramm.
"Incomplete pass," said Kuharich, just as the officials called it.
"Incomplete?" said Schramm. "Look, stop the film right there. He's caught it. Now he's dropped it." Kuharich simply shook his head. "It's easy for us to sit here and judge after watching the play several times on film. They only get to watch it once, and they have to make their decision like that." Kuharich slammed his fist into his open palm. "And if Detroit had recovered the ball you'd be arguing that the pass was incomplete."
Besides watching every game on film and fielding the complaints of outraged general managers, Kuharich assigns officials to games—there are 45 NFL officials of whom 35 are used every weekend—keeps tabs on other officials, college and high school, who would like to get into professional football and, of course, makes certain that the officials he has now are always in control of the game.
"There are certain times in a game when the play is apt to get overspirited," says Kuharich. "When a same, especially an important game, is almost over and one of the teams knows it cannot win, some players get upset. That's when the officials really have to bear down."
Just such a situation arose in the second Giant-Brown game in Cleveland two weeks ago. In contrast to the first meeting, the game was commendably clean, but after three periods the Giants led 33-0 and the Browns were fuming. The most frustrated Brown of all was Jim Brown, who had been held to only 40 yards gained rushing and whose fumble had led to the Giants' first score. As Giant Linebacker Tom Scott made a rush on the quarterback late in the game, he crashed into Brown, swinging an arm in the direction of Brown's jaw. Brown dodged the blow, grabbed Scott and threw a punch of his own. Scott swung back and the two of them fell to the ground, fighting. Just when it looked as if the game might turn into an all-out free-for-all, the officials moved in quickly, broke it up and ejected Brown and Scott from the game. Verdict by Kuharich: good, quick work.
While the NFL is concerned with the physical well-being of all its players, it is concerned most about the safety of the man with the ball. "This game is built around great runners and passers," says Kuharich. "We've got to protect them." The NFL has taken several steps recently to guard the man with the ball from injury due to unnecessary roughness. To wit:
1) Running into the kicker, a five-yard penalty—and an automatic first down—is now called whenever there is even the slightest contact between rusher and kicker, unless the kick is blocked. In a recent game between Dallas and New York, Giant Defensive Back Erich Barnes rushed Kicker Sam Baker and nicked his foot as he went by. Of course, Baker collapsed on the ground, standard procedure with all kickers, and the penalty was called, not because Baker fell, but because contact had been made. "Some kickers leave the ground completely when they kick the ball," points out Kuharich. "If they get hit then, anything could happen." As a result of the strict enforcement of this rule this year, almost no punts are being blocked and kickers in the NFL are averaging about five yards farther per punt than they did last year.
2) Tackling the runner by the face mask (15 yards) became illegal last year. "It's strange," says Pete Rozelle, "but until last year it was illegal to grab the face mask of anyone except the runner. It was all right to grab his. Then we were looking at some films one day, and we saw a couple of plays where the runner almost had his head ripped off by a face-mask tackle. We decided we'd better make it illegal."
3) Quicker whistles now rule plays dead to prevent piling on (15 yards). NFL officials are instructed 10 blow their whistles the instant the man with the ball hits the ground. "This prevents senseless injuries," says Kuharich. "We want to protect runners from that secondary and tertiary tackle."
Still, there is plenty of room left in pro football for violence, as the players demonstrate every Sunday. Secondary ,and tertiary tackles may be illegal when the runner is down, but many is the time the runner gets caught by one ankle and, standing still, must face an avalanche of three or four tacklers. At such times no tackier simply lowers a shoulder and knocks the sitting duck down. Standard procedure is to crash into the runner standing up, forearms extended and perhaps even jabbing a bit. When the runner goes down, no self-respecting tackier would overlook the chance to land on him with a sharp elbow or knee.
Pass catchers ponder early retirement when running the button hook, a pass pattern on which the receiver starts down-field, then turns abruptly and catches a pass with his back to his defender. On those few occasions when he has really shaken his defender, the receiver has time to turn and run with the ball. But more often the defender is right there. If the defender can hit the receiver hard the split second after the receiver has touched the ball, there is a good chance the pass will go incomplete.
Linebackers, who are usually on the giving end, have been complaining this year about the crack block, which they call "legal clipping," by the flanker back. "We get it on reverses and divide screens," says George Tarasovic of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "A quarterback fakes a handoff to the fullback and, while the linebacker is preoccupied with that man, the flanker back hooks around and blocks him on the blind side. It's legal, but it shouldn't be." This season both Carl Brettschneider of Detroit and Bob Schmitz of Pittsburgh were injured on just such plays.
Still one of the roughest plays in football is the kickoff. All pro teams use special kicking and receiving units made up mostly of reserves and rookies who have only kicking plays to show what they can do. What they do, mainly, is kill each other. "They're called suicide squads, and it isn't hard to see why," says Kuharich.
Rough as pro football is, it is the consensus of most players that it is no longer dirty, or less dirty than it once was. Gone for the most part is what pro football calls the cheap-shot artist, the player who deliberately tries to hurt another. "Most of the teams always had a few guys who were out to hurt somebody," says Buzz Nutter, Pittsburgh center. "There used to be a couple of weak teams in the league who knew they couldn't win, so they went out to destroy the guys who could. But no one can afford to be dirty now. Everybody's getting more money. It's important to survive."
Says Sam Baker, Dallas kicking specialist: "The players today are better rounded and more intelligent. The game's more technical. There's more polish. That just doesn't leave any place for stupid, dirty football. Why, I think we could cut off the officials and play without them."
Sure, Sam, sure. You cut off the officials and then go back there and get ready to punt. Also get ready to be killed. Pro football may have come a long way, but it has not come that far. The five officials, their whistles and white handkerchiefs are all that stand between pro football and a gang war. The players may be more intelligent and the game more technical, but a punch in the face is still the best way to stop a quarterback. Just ask Bart Starr.