Professional football, in the wake of its most successful season, is in imminent danger of becoming a big bore. I say this with sorrow and trepidation, since I have spent a good deal of the past 20 years deeply involved, one way or another, with pro football players, coaches, owners, fans and even commissioners. The time has come, my friend, to make some drastic changes.
The most recent and dramatic evidence of how uninteresting the game can become was provided, of course, by the Super Bowl. Ideally, the Super Bowl should match the two best teams in pro football; there should be considerable doubt about which team will win. In the Super Bowl this year it matched the best with maybe the fifth best, and almost no one doubted Green Bay's ability to dominate the Oakland Raiders. A simple change in the way the teams are selected could prevent another crashing anticlimax. Next season, instead of matching NFL conference champions in the league championship game (Green Bay vs. Dallas this season), mix it up. Let the two champions of the NFL play the two conference champions of the AFL before the winners meet in the Super Bowl. Had you done that this season, the semifinal games would have pitted Green Bay against Houston, and Dallas against Oakland. Granted, the Super Bowl match-up then would most likely have been Green Bay versus Dallas, but what is wrong with that? The Packers and the Cowboys, in the last two seasons, have provided far more exciting league championship games than the Packers and the champion of the AFL in the Super Bowl.
You could then have substituted a game between Oakland and Houston for that noncontest between Los Angeles and Cleveland in the Playoff Bowl. At least the playoff would have had the titillation of deciding the AFL championship. In the Los Angeles-Cleveland game, nothing was at stake, and most people were bored by it. In any season in which the Super Bowl matched two teams from the NFL or two teams from the AFL, the Playoff Bowl would decide the championship of the losing league and have intrinsic interest.
I know the rebuttal. It would create difficulty with TV sponsors because NBC televises the AFL and CBS has televised the NFL. This answer only points up another of the threats to the continued growth of pro football: the stifling, strangling hold the networks are beginning to take on the sport. There were times during the season just past when a viewer in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago had a pro football smorgasbord of four games laid out for his choice on Sunday. No matter how rabid the fan, that much football of any kind leads to indigestion and ennui. Maybe the networks need the extra games to get their money back, but I hope that professional football does not exist only to enrich CBS and NBC.
CBS has had a juicy bonus added to its contract during the last year—the division playoff games. They were tossed into the overall deal as a pot sweetener at no additional cost to the network. Maybe this was necessary to keep the network brass happy; if so, that should be enough of a lagniappe. Repeated Sunday TV doubleheaders can be too much of a good thing.
Moving some games to Monday night prime time as a sop to TV is not the answer, either. Again, TV plays the tune and pro football does the dance, however reluctantly. I doubt that if this proposal were put to a vote of the 26 professional football coaches, it would attract a single supporter. No coach, in the middle of a tough season, relishes interrupting the rhythm of normal preparation to play a Monday night game, especially if the game coming up on the following Sunday is an important one. Why handicap one team by lopping a day from its practice time in order to kowtow to TV? Irritating enough are the TV interruptions during the game itself. After that frozen afternoon in Green Bay, Packer Tackle Henry Jordan said that the only time he felt the cold while he was on the playing field was during the TV time-outs. It seems to me that there are enough normal interruptions in the course of a game to allow TV to cram in all of its commercials. If not, try to persuade the producers to use their instant replay techniques on the extra commercials and run them, for instance, during the half-time show. They might be a welcome relief from marching bands.
Now let's contemplate the concept of four divisions in the NFL. Basically it is a good one. Two eight-team conferences are unwieldy and the disparity between top and bottom teams late in the season tends to create disinterest among followers of the losers. If you live in Pittsburgh and the Steelers are hopelessly out of the chase by the middle of November, you are likely to stay at home and watch whatever game is being shown on television. If you are an Atlanta player and your season ends by about the fifth game, after you have lost four in a row, it is too much to ask that you go all out through the remainder of a meaningless season playing as if you cared. It is nice to say that all performers play their hearts out in every game for pure love of the sport, but this simply is not true. Players relax once a game or season is irretrievably won or lost. After the Packers had wrapped up their division this year, they lost to the Rams and, of all people, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There is a fairly simple way to avoid the disasters that occurred in the Central and the Capitol divisions. In those divisions, Green Bay and Dallas cantered home with their titles. No suspense animated play in the closing weeks. As a contrast, two superior football teams went down to the final game in the Coastal Division before it was decided. Then the Los Angeles Rams and the Baltimore Colts, clubs that in past years would have been certain of winning division championships with their 11-1-2 records, had to play each other for the division title.
The Packers (9-4-1) beat the Dallas Cowboys (9-5) for the championship of the National Football League. I happen to believe that by the end of the season Green Bay indeed was the best team in professional football and that the Dallas Cowboys were probably the second best. But neither team had to prove that in 14 games against the cream of the NFL. The Packers were in a division with Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota and were never pressed. The Cowboys played against Philadelphia, Washington and New Orleans and beat their second-class opposition so easily that, even playing indifferently, they won.
I know. On Any Given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team. The problem for the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons, the Pittsburgh Steelers and a few other teams is that there is a paucity of Given Sundays. The truth is that weak teams, on a normal Sunday, tend to get waxed by the very good teams. Supposedly, on a Given Sunday, Oakland might have beaten Green Bay, but January 14 was not a Given Sunday.
In separating the 16 National Football League teams into four divisions, you paid little attention to geography. If you had, you would not have created a Coastal Division that stretched from San Francisco in the northwest to noncoastal Atlanta in the southeast. With more logic, the divisions could be based upon equality of competition. Surely this would make more sense than whatever rationalization was behind the formulation of the Central, Century, Capitol and Coastal divisions.
They group according to ability in England, you know. Or maybe you don't know. There are four divisions in English soccer, based upon the quality of the teams. The best teams are in the first division, the second best in the second, and so on. Parenthetically, I might recommend First, Second, Third and Fourth as names for your divisions. At least they have some meaning.
Anyway, the last-place team in the first division of English soccer drops down to the second division and the first-place team in the second division moves up to the first. Theoretically, then, an exceptionally successful team can move, in a four-year period, from the fourth to the first division in English soccer.
It is this possibility of dramatic upward—or downward—mobility that keeps alive the interest of all British soccer fans. There is genuine excitement during the closing games of a season when the bottom team of one division is fighting to get out of the cellar in order to keep from dropping down a notch, or when the top team in a lower division is battling to hold its spot and graduate from the ranks of the boys to competition with the men.
Were you to use the British method in 1968, the First Division of the NFL would be made up of Green Bay, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Dallas. (For a breakdown of all four divisions, see the chart on page 17.) Green Bay and Dallas won conference championships, and Baltimore and Los Angeles had the best won-lost records in the NFL. They would play each other twice during the regular season, and none of these games, obviously, would be mismatches. They would play the teams in the Second and Third divisions once each, so that all the teams in the First Division would have 1) the same schedule and 2) the most difficult schedule in the NFL.
The division playoffs, ideally, would match the winners of the First and Third divisions, and the Second and Fourth. You would have the big plus of the possibility of a Fourth Division or Third Division team winning the big game and then meeting the Western or Eastern AFL champion for the right to play in the Super Bowl. All the world—as was amply proved in Miami in the Super Bowl—loves an underdog and the underdog would be clear cut and spelled out in these playoffs.
The owners, of course, may complain about this kind of arrangement, since most owners' concept of an ideal season is one in which their team plays the Sisters of the Poor 14 times. A few weeks ago when I suggested the idea of realignment to the Cowboys' Tex Schramm, his first reaction was favorable. "That's a great idea," he said, smiling happily. When I pointed out that his division would include Green Bay, Baltimore and Los Angeles he said, "It will never work."
The English system tends to equalize the competition, and that is an end devoutly to be desired. Until recently, in fact, one of the big pluses pro football always enjoyed over baseball was its draft system, distributing, as it did, the best players equally among the teams. Unfortunately, over the last few years, the draft system has operated only to make the rich richer and the poor destitute. This week, for instance, the strong NFL teams went into the draft system with a multiplicity of high draft choices when high draft choices are more valuable than ever. Green Bay had two of the top 50 choices, both in the first round, Los Angeles two, Dallas two. These three teams, on the basis of the players already on hand, should be among the best even without the new men they will get. They received their choice selections from the struggling clubs at the bottom that earlier were forced to exchange them for average or slightly better than average veterans who could help them at once. New Orleans, for instance, sacrificed a first draft choice for Gary Cuozzo. Cuozzo did not prove out during 1967. He may yet, but who knows what star of the future the Saints will have forgone for him?
Implicit in excellence in pro football is a strong bench and a deep taxi squad, and most of the best teams have these. This means that they have, immediately available, tested players who are no gamble for losing clubs that are trying to become winners. These tested players may not be quite good enough to make the Packers, Rams, Cowboys, Colts or the Raiders, but they are more than good enough to play regularly for an anemic team. So the temptation is well nigh irresistible for the have-nots to give up a high draft choice for a player who has already proved at least that if he is marginal he is not a bad risk.
The catch is that you do not win championships with marginal football players. You win championships with first draft choices. Someone once asked Paul Brown how you build a championship team. "You finish last for 10 years, and then you get a Vince Lombardi to put all those first draft choices together," Brown said, and he was right.
Buddy Parker, when he coached at Pittsburgh, proved the fallacy of trading high draft choices for old, good players. He decimated the Steelers over a period of years, and the old, good players never won a title.
It should be made illegal for any Second Division team ever to trade a first draft choice to a First Division club. Indeed, it should be illegal for any team to trade a first draft choice.
Now let us consider another built-in advantage the haves enjoy over the have-nots. Obviously, when the Green Bay Packers come down to the end of the training season, the residue of players beyond the 40 they can retain for the league season is of higher quality than the residue left to, say, the Atlanta Falcons. As the league rule now stands, the Packers can make trades up until midnight of the fifth Sunday of the regular season. During the first three weeks the cuts they make are available first to the team that finished last and drafted first. The theory is that the worst team should get first shot at the best available players. For the next two weeks the team currently in last place gets first choice of cut players.
But, with the late trading deadline, Green Bay, assured that a man is not going to make its squad, can trade him off to any bottom club for high draft choices. A player who has stayed with the Packers that long has proved that he has certain ability. Since the lowest clubs get first pick in the draft, they are trading not just high draft choices but the best available to teams that need them least—Green Bay, Dallas, Los Angeles, Baltimore or Oakland.
The trading deadline, then, should be set when training camp begins, not when it ends. If, two days before the regular season starts, the Packers find themselves with five or six players who cannot quite make the team but who can make the Saints or the Falcons handily, Green Bay should be forced to put the players on waivers rather than to assure its own future by using them to extract draft choices from the weak. The enactment of such a rule would guarantee, as the NFL had originally intended, the equalization of talent throughout the league. Eventually, no club would walk away with a division or conference championship or, for that matter, a Super Bowl title.
Maybe, Pete, TV would not like this, because TV is built on heroes. Variety had a survey not long ago showing that top-rated shows in prime time were old movies, an entertainment built on heroes. That, incidentally, is why CBS would like to move pro football into Monday night prime time—to compete with NBC's movies.
Well, pro football is not successful because it is a competitor for old movies. It is successful in its own right as a vital, competitive game. When the competition flags, it is dead. You meet with the owners later this month, Pete. See if you can get them to act for the interest of the game and the fan and not for CBS and NBC.
HOW 1968 NFL WOULD LOOK
As envisioned by Editor Maule, teams of equal strength would play each other with winners progressing through playoffs to Super Bowl
Los Angeles (11-1-2)
Green Bay (9-4-1)
San Francisco (7-7)
New York (7-7)
St. Louis (6-7-1)
New Orleans (3-11)
1ST DIVISION WINNER vs. 3RD DIVISION WINNER
2ND DIVISION WINNER vs. 4TH DIVISION WINNER
WINNER vs. AFL WEST CHAMPION
RUNNER-UP BOWL FOR THIRD PLACE
WINNER VS. AFL EAST CHAMPION
FOUR FIRST-ROUND TRADE PRIZES
The rich got richer when Green Bay and Baltimore were able to trade tested or aging players to weaker teams for first-round draft rights
Jim Grabowski was drafted by Green Bay with first-round pick—from Detroit for Ron Kramer.
Donny Anderson came to Green Bay in 1965 deal that sent Jim Ringo and Earl Gros to Eagles.
Bob Hyland was chosen by Packers with Steeler right traded for Tony Jeter, Lloyd Voss.
Bubba Smith went to Colts in first round after exchange that gave Gary Cuozzo to Saints.