In a move designed to promote the welfare of short punters, small receivers, elderly quarterbacks, lame linebackers and bored fans, the usually conservative owners of the National Football League last week adopted nine new playing rules aimed at reanimating their game. It was the most sweeping series of changes since 1933, when George Preston Marshall pushed through regulations establishing conference playoffs for the title and allowing quarterbacks to launch passes from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.
"If the owners had met one more day," complained Redskin Coach George Allen when he heard of the new rules, "I would have expected the return of the flying wedge. The owners wanted more of a show. I don't agree, and I talked with Don Shula on the phone today and he doesn't agree either." Shula said, "I disapprove of the entire package."
One NFL official replied, "It's about time the coaches realized they are the directors, not the producers, of this show."
The altered rules are: 1) goalposts are moved from the goal line to the end line; 2) the kickoff is from the 35-yard line; 3) after a missed field goal, the ball returns to the line of scrimmage or the 20-yard line, whichever is farther from the goal line; 4) on punts and field-goal attempts, the offensive team may not move downfield until the ball is kicked; 5) wide receivers may not be blocked below the waist; 6) receivers may be bumped only once after they have gone three yards beyond the line of scrimmage; 7) wide receivers cracking back toward the ball within three yards of the line of scrimmage are not allowed to block below the waist; 8) the penalty for offensive holding, illegal use of hands or tripping, which usually occur near the line of scrimmage, is reduced from 15 to 10 yards; 9) a 15-minute sudden-death overtime is played if a game ends in a tie.
The NFL competition committee, composed of Tex Schramm of Dallas, Paul Brown of Cincinnati, Jim Finks of Minnesota and Al Davis of Oakland, had suggested one or another of the changes separately at earlier league meetings, but without success. "We were given a mandate by the owners this February in Miami," Brown says, "so we presented the changes as a package, to be accepted or rejected that way. No one agrees with all the changes, but if we had tried to get them through piecemeal I doubt that we would have gotten any changes."
The vote to accept was a resounding 24-2, reflecting the growing concern of the owners about criticism of pro football as an increasingly dull game. According to Schramm, "If it had been necessary, we could have had unanimous acceptance. We had to do something."
Not everyone feels that way. The caustic Norman Van Brocklin, coach of the Atlanta Falcons, says, "What it all means is that we'll go out there and play the old boring punting game for 60 minutes and then wake up the fans and go home. You can tell the owners made these rules changes, not the coaches."
Brown, who is general manager and coach, disagrees. "The committee wanted to put the emphasis on scoring touchdowns instead of winning by kicking five field goals," he says. "These changes are all interrelated and they came about after years of close study."
The big change, according to Brown, is the relocation of the goalposts. "That opens up the offense," he says. "The whole end zone is open for pass patterns now; the goalposts were, in effect, another safety man when you got inside the 20. You couldn't run or pass around them. And it was hard to punt or pass coming out of the end zone."
Once the goalposts were moved, it was possible to change the kickoff from the 40- to the 35-yard line. "If we had left the goalposts on the goal line," Schramm says, "we could not have changed the kickoff. We would have had long returns, which we want, but they would have set up more field goals, which we don't want."
Obviously, field-goal kickers are not enthusiastic about this change. Tom Dempsey, who holds the NFL record with a 63-yard kick, says, "The World Football League did this first and the owners have to counter. They're scared to death of the new league. I think what hacks me worst of all is the owners changing the rules I play under. The owners never played the game in high school."
Schramm, who did play football in high school, says, "We started with the premise that we had to put more of a premium on moving the football and less of a premium on ball control. Too many clubs were running three dull plays, then punting and waiting for the other team to make a mistake. We wanted to get' more penetration. Now first downs will be important at both ends of the field. You have to get down to the 30 or 35 to try a field goal, and with the new punt rule you'll have to work for a first down or two in your end of the field to avoid having the safety man run the ball down your throat."
The new rule on punts has set up some interesting possibilities. With everyone pinned to the line of scrimmage until the ball is actually kicked, long returns are likely. "The kicking game will undergo a big change," says Lou Saban, coach of the Buffalo Bills. "Say it's fourth and 10 on your own 20. The opposing team could bring nearly everyone back off the line and place them in front of its punt returners. It could line up almost like a kickoff return on some punts. Because of this, the quick kick might make a comeback, and the punt out of bounds will return, too."
The coffin corner kick, that is. For football fans under 30 who may not be familiar with the term, a coffin corner kick is one that goes out of bounds close to the goal line. It has become a lost art, but one likely to come back now. Some coaches think teams might use two punters, one to boom the ball, the other to place it out of bounds inside the five or 10. Fred Cox, the Minnesota placekicker, says, "The price of the punter has just skyrocketed."
Kansas City's Jerrel Wilson, who led the league in punting last season, is resigned to trying to kick shorter, higher and more accurately. "Those 45-yard punting averages are gone," he says. "You'll have to kick the ball higher and not as far. You'll really have to hang it up there. The danger has always been in outkicking your coverage and that will really be a disaster now."
The penalty for a missed field goal will hurt punting averages, too. "You'll be seeing a lot of 25- and 30-yard punts this season because we'll be punting a lot from around the 40-yard line instead of trying a field goal," Wilson says.
The bomb, which all but disappeared from pro football with the advent of the deep zone and the roll block on a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage, also may come back. The whippets who play on the flanks of the offensive line have been freed to run their routes almost unmolested. Harold Jackson of the Rams says, "We won't have to fight our way out of the jungle to find room to run our patterns." And, with the goalposts back to the end line, the receivers will have more room to roam in. O. J. Simpson says, "They put the passing game back in the NFL."
Veteran quarterbacks like the new rules. "As an offensive player, I feel the changes are geared to me," says Len Dawson of the Chiefs. "The restrictions on contact between defensive backs and wide receivers will open up the game offensively. That will be particularly true when you get near the goal line, because that's when most teams play the bump and run. Or on third and long yardage, a team like Miami likes to cut your wide receivers down and not let them get downfield, thus making you throw to your backs."
Now it will be almost impossible to prevent the wide receivers from getting quickly into their patterns, shallow or deep. Don Klosterman, general manager of the Rams and once a quarterback himself, says, "It will do one big thing. It will let the quarterbacks time up much better with their receivers because the delaying tactics are eliminated. You're going to see a great deal more scoring off the pass—and off the long pass." With the wide receivers free to move downfield, the quarterback will be able to hold in his running backs for more pass protection. With better protection and their quicker release of the pass, the aging drop-back quarterbacks should last forever.
The new rules, of course, give new life to small receivers like Harold Jackson, the Dolphins' Paul Warfield and Cincinnati's Isaac Curtis. "They are already calling these the Isaac Curtis rules," says Brown. "When we played the Dolphins in Miami last year, they cut Curtis down consistently. I don't think he ever got five yards downfield. But this rule wasn't put in just for him. It was put in to make the game exciting."
Abe Gibron, coach of the Bears, agrees with Brown. "It'll open up the passing game," he says. "Before the new rule, you could beat the bleep out of receivers when they got inside your 20."
Defensive backs are somewhat less than enthusiastic about the freedom granted receivers. Theirs is a difficult, thankless task at best and now it will be much more so. Clarence Scott, a corner-back for the Browns, says, "The new restrictions on the bump and run are things I didn't want to see put in. I thought the bump and run was sort of beautiful, a one-on-one battle between the defender and the receiver. I especially hate to see the new rule inside the 20-yard line. We have no other way of staying with a receiver in such a short time."
Thorn Darden, a Cleveland safety, says, "The cornerbacks are going to be in a real bind. There is no way a defensive back running backward can stay with a receiver like Warfield without the bump and run. There are going to be more bombs, a lot more."
"I knew it would come to this," says Charlie Waters, a Dallas cornerback. "Next thing we'll get is one hash mark down the middle of the field. These are the biggest changes in years. They are drastic."
Since the penalty on offensive players for holding, illegal use of hands and tripping has been cut from 15 to 10 yards, the quarterbacks may expect even more protection and time. Yet defensive linemen, who are on the receiving end of most of these infractions, are a bit more philosophical than the defensive backs.
"I don't see how there could possibly be more holding than there is now," says Bob Lilly, Dallas' All-Pro defensive tackle. His coach, Ernie Stautner, thinks he sees a silver lining in the reduced penalty. "They were getting away with murder on holding anyway," he says. "So maybe now that they've reduced the penalty they'll start to call it."
The reduced penalty, according to Brown, was put in to avoid killing a promising drive before it could develop. "We went over the statistics on holding penalties," he says. "It was astonishing how few times a team could recover from a 15-yard holding penalty. We think this may help."
The two rules most generally approved of by both coaches and players are sudden-death overtime and the abolition of the crack-back block, a blind-side block by a wide receiver that resulted in a rash of knee injuries to linebackers, the usual recipients. Even the crusty Van Brocklin approves of the sudden-death rule (somebody remarked it was the first nice thing the Dutchman has had to say about anything since his senior year in high school). "The object of the game is to have a winner," says Van Brocklin. "I've always liked that. I like the idea of going home either laughing or crying."
The most predictable objection to the sudden-death proposal came from a few players who wondered if they would be paid overtime. By this reasoning, baseball players should be paid more for an extra-inning game, basketball players for overtime periods.
The rules seem certain to enliven what had been evolving into a curiously dull sport, especially in the showcase game of the year, the Super Bowl. "We'll see how they work during the exhibition season," says Schramm. "They are not irrevocable, you know. If there are obvious flaws, we can change them anytime, even before this season starts."
If they work smoothly, the committee has a couple of other changes it would like to advocate. "We seriously considered the possibility of widening the field 2½ yards on each side to put even more pressure on the defense," Davis says. "We couldn't do it because five or six stadiums couldn't have made the change this year.
"And there is no question that the three-man defensive line has become fundamental, with eight men dropping back to protect against the pass. That makes it almost impossible to throw in some situations. Next year we may have to put in some regulation requiring four men on the defensive line."
Disgusted, Redskin Linebacker Chris Hanburger says, "They're turning it into a broad's game. Why not make it two-hand touch?"
One rule change abandons the traditional 40-yard line for kickoffs, adopts the 35.
Goal posts are moved to the end line, and the ball is returned to the line of scrimmage after missed field goals from beyond the 20.
On punts and field goals, all offensive players must stay behind the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked.
The penalty for offensive holding and related crimes at or near the line of scrimmage is cut from 15 yards to 10.
Sudden-death overtime periods will break ties at the end of regular-season games.
Crack-back blocks below the waist are out, which helps the defense, but so are rolling blocks against pass receivers and continuous bump and run by pass defenders.