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Original Issue

A Wishbone of contention

The pros play a great game, or so Pete Rozelle keeps on saying, but others find it overcautious, hidebound, monotonous and dull, dull, dull

The Washington Redskins had the right perspective on last week's pro football draft. They traded away their first seven choices, and when they finally picked a player, in the eighth round, he was a 28-year-old ex-marine who had spent two years with the Montreal Alouettes. As one veteran scout said, "This was the worst group of college football players in memory."

Still, the clubs took the draft seriously, perhaps too much so. In the second round, Oakland had acquired the New York Jets' choice. When that pick was just seven selections away, the Raiders traded it and another to New Orleans for the Saints' earlier second-round position. The Saints brooded over their acquisition for 11 of the 15 minutes allotted each choice, then dealt it to Dallas. By this circuitous route the Cowboys were able to snap up John Babinecz, a Villanova linebacker.

John who? Well, whoever he is, he was drafted before Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan; Ed Marinaro, the NCAA's alltime rushing leader; Lydell Mitchell, the NCAA record holder for most touchdowns in a season; Oklahoma's celebrated Wishbone quarterback, Jack Mildren; Alabama's Italian Stallion, Johnny Musso and a lot of other people who made offense the name of the college game in 1971.

Up where the money is, defense continued to make inroads; the first two picks in this year's draft were defensive linemen—Walt Patulski of Notre Dame and Sherman White of California. Once upon a time, the best athletes played offense—offensive players got paid more. Then stars like Mel Renfro began appearing in defensive backfields, and the trend reversed itself. Today, more frequently than not, the best athletes wind up on defense, the premerger signing war and rich TV contracts having brought defensive salaries in line.

Lately the draft has made such a mockery of All-America teams that one has a right to wonder if the pros and collegians play the same game. In three years at Toledo, Chuck Ealey quarter-backed the Rockets to 35 straight wins. He was named to the AP and UPI All-America squads. The pros passed him by for dudes like Cephus Weatherspoon and Hosea Minnieweather. But nowhere was the difference between pro and college more evident than in the cases of Mildren and Texas' Eddie Phillips. Both had been outstanding at running the all-but-unstoppable new offense, the Wishbone T. Both were drafted as defensive backs, Mildren in the second round by Baltimore, Phillips in the fourth by L.A.

How come? After all, some pro teams, most notably Detroit and New Orleans, ran a few option plays last season. Yet pure triple-option Wishbone was never tried, and the reasons why illuminate some of the dissimilarities between the two games. Most important, the strength of the pro defenses demands a balanced attack. "The triple option is not a good passing formation because you can only get two receivers downfield in a hurry," explains Ohio State's Woody Hayes. Sid Gillman, who formerly coached the San Diego Chargers, elaborates: "If you spread the ends on both sides with three backs intact, you have no running. If the outside ends are in tight, you have running and no passing. That puts you back in the dark ages." "Besides," asks Green Bay's Dan Devine, a bit slyly, "if you have a four-back offense, what do you do with all the flankers you've drafted as wide receivers?"

More than that, most coaches feel the Wishbone can only work if the entire system is installed; at the same time they claim that that would take up too much time, unless it was the only formation you were going to use.

Another putative drawback is that after getting clobbered on every play by 269-pound defensive ends, pro quarterbacks wouldn't last as long as pro running backs, whose careers are distressingly short. Says Gillman: "A coach spends day and night his whole life getting a quarterback so he can play pro football. Then if he exposes him to option football promiscuously, he has got to be out of his mind." But, Sid, the quarterbacks entering the pros these days are bigger, are better athletes and have run more in college. At least two coaches have indicated that they intend to employ the same sort of option Buddy Parker used with Bobby Layne at Detroit in which a guard pulled in front of him for protection. And in situations where the defense expects a run, something similar to a Wishbone will likely appear. "The Wishbone is almost unfair to the defense down near the goal line because of the demand it puts on the linebacker," says Bill Peterson, who has recently moved from Rice to the Houston Oilers.

Some proponents of the option offense think it just a matter of time before it dominates the pro game; after all, it was not too many seasons ago that the pros were saying they could never use the zone defense. Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' personnel director, has indicated that the pros will draft Wishbone quarterbacks as specialists to use inside the 10-yard line. "Until the pros use the option the way the colleges do, they just don't know what they're talking about," argues the University of Houston's Bill Yeoman. "I'm not saying that sarcastically, just technically. They won't find out the pressures the option play puts on defenses until they start running it themselves. When they do, everyone will be running it."

Essential differences between the pro and college games prevent them from progressing simultaneously. College offenses are far ahead of the defenses, which accounts for bigger scores and creates the impression of a faster-paced, more exciting game. Last year's Oklahoma-Kansas State contest is a perfect example. Kansas State did everything it could hope to do on offense. It scored 28 points, got 32 first downs and rolled up 562 yards—and lost by 47 points. "There are more mismatches in college ball," says Atlanta's Norm Van Brocklin. "When there are mismatches, you score." You also get off more long runs, still football's most exciting play. This past season Greg Pruitt of Oklahoma ran for 40 or more yards more times than all the backs in each of three NFL divisions.

At the same time, scoring in the pros has been steadily decreasing, although that popular scapegoat, the zone defense, is not to blame. But while point totals are down, the actual number of scores is not. The reason is that there are fewer touchdowns but many more field goals, which must be disturbing to product-conscious NFL brass since the field-goal play is a yawner. Something's wrong when a Garo Yepremian, no matter how cuddly, leads the NFL in scoring. Indeed, the league is contemplating moving the goalposts to the back of the end zones, where the colleges have them.

That the college game is faster paced is more than just appearance, though, principally because the colleges have five less seconds to put the ball in play and the clock is stopped after each first down, which allows for 20 or 30 more plays a game. "In college we put it in play in 25 seconds," says USC's John McKay. "I know that we get it in play most of the time in 17 seconds. I have to think that sometimes in pro ball the 30 seconds isn't enforced too closely. Some of those receivers are taking two months walking back to the huddle. I don't see why a well-conditioned athlete has to walk." Calling signals takes more time and is more complex in the NFL, too. Pro quarterbacks usually spell out blocking assignments in the huddle, although Bill Peterson says, "I don't see any advantage to it" and claims he will do away with that extravagance.

The pro game also suffers from conformity, which can only partially be attributed to balanced competition. Pro coaches like to think of themselves as great innovators, but as Jim Lee Howell, the former Giant coach, points out, "Coaches exchange ideas more than anyone." He ought to know. Personnel connected with Giant teams in the '50s spread the New York system throughout the league. Howell's players included Dick Nolan, Ed Hughes, Bill Austin, Harland Svare and Alex Webster. His two main assistants were Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi, and the latter taught the system to Tom Fears and Norb Hecker, who took it to New Orleans and Atlanta. "A few years back every club was identical," says McKay. "Only the jerseys were different."

Bob Devaney of Nebraska finds the pro game increasingly dull. "The scoring is much lower, and they play more ball control than the colleges," he says. "There is so much stress on defense and playing the game without mistakes or turnovers. There is obvious overcautiousness." Hank Stram of Kansas City admits the problem exists: "The more you win, the more you're afraid of losing. You begin to play with the fear of losing rather than the desire to win. You grow too afraid of making mistakes because that's the name of the game."

By its very nature, the college game is forced to be imaginative. College coaches have far less control over their personnel and hence must constantly reshape strategy to fit it. "The colleges have done almost everything first—the T, the wing T, the belly series," says Tommy Prothro, who has coached on both sides of the fence. "There isn't anything totally new I know of in football." By way of example, Prothro tells of the high school coach who showed him the Wishbone in a 1927 playbook. Nor is the fact that a formation is used by the pros any sign of merit. "Some people say that if it's not being done in the pros, it's no good," says Texas' Darrell Royal. "Bull! That's just the easiest out when people don't want to try something new. You can do about anything you're man enough to do."

But if strategy won't open the game up, Prothro and McKay think they know a way that will. "The field is not as big today as it was 20 years ago," says Prothro, "by the simple fact that the players are bigger. The field should be widened." "Put the hash mark in the middle," says McKay. "You can accomplish the same thing as widening the field, and all you need is a little lime. Putting the ball in the middle of the field eliminates defensive control of the zone."

For all its concern for the offense, the NFL is probably not ready for that big a change. Why mess with success? Despite its shortcomings the pro game's appeal has continued to grow. As Woody Hayes says, "An awful lot of people don't go to college, you know, and so they don't have old college ties. They gravitate to a pro team then, and it becomes their alma mater." But Hayes also recognizes superior public relations on the part of the pros, what McKay calls "the greatest selling job in the history of any sport." Bill Yeoman agrees that the pros have created a mystique about their game. "They never credit bungling or incompetence," he says. "An 0-0 game is a superb defensive struggle. A 43-37 contest is a magnificent offensive duel. They're great propagandists."

They had better be to glamorize clinkers like the last two Super Bowls.