What is the most dangerous place on a football field? This season it seems to be the line of scrimmage, thanks to one of the most vicious practices in the game: chop blocking.
More than ever, defensive linemen around the league say their knees are being cut and chopped at the line, both in and out of the so-called "legal" clip zone (from tackle to tackle and three yards on either side of the line). "And nobody's calling it," says Charger linebacker Billy Ray Smith.
The blitzing, 46-style defenses have forced quarterbacks to take shorter drops; instead of five or seven steps, they're taking two or three, then firing. Thus, offensive linemen have less time to fend off pass rushers.
"Why is clipping illegal everywhere else on the field, but legal at the line of scrimmage?" says Howie Long, the Raiders' All-Pro defensive end. "The league wants to emphasize scoring, so it's open season on us. Are we so lacking in value that the league considers defensive linemen a subspecies?"
Says Gunther Cunningham, the Chargers' defensive line coach, "The only guy who worries about the defensive lineman is the guy coaching him or the player himself. It's damn ridiculous."
Says Donnell Thompson, Colts defensive end, "At their next rules meeting, the owners should consider having legal chop blocks changed. The only thing it does is put defensive linemen out of work."
Last year, the Chiefs' All-Pro Art Still strained ligaments in his left knee after being chop blocked in Houston; he missed the last seven games of the season.
Bronco wide receivers informally fine each other if they don't chop block. The 49ers' offensive line even practices it on their own defensive players, albeit in training camp. Other noted chop blockers: the Bengals, Packers and Bears.
How scary is chop blocking? "When a player thinks 'knees,' he thinks 'career.' They become protective and play tentative," one coach says.
Says Browns All-Pro nosetackle Bob Golic, whose team has devised drills to combat the chop block, "Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but what happened to playing for fun and for the glory of the team? It's no longer mano a mano at the line.
"This season is the most insecure time ever for players and coaches. The pressure to win is so great; there are fewer jobs and a larger pool of players. Guys are doing anything to succeed."
John Stallworth went home to Brownsboro, Ala., last weekend to celebrate John Jr.'s 11th birthday and to watch his son play soccer. Most of all, he went home to contemplate the future.
The Steelers' All-Pro wide receiver suffered partially torn ligaments in his left knee against Houston on Sept. 28. Stallworth chose not to undergo surgery, but rather to let the knee heal on its own, through rest and therapy. At 34, his career could be over. "I'm trying not to be afraid of the future," he says. "There are a couple of goals I still want to reach. I'd like to get 500 receptions in my career. I only need 24 more.
"I've come home to Alabama to get myself out of the football atmosphere. Emotionally, walking into a stadium isn't easy. You see life goes on without you. Easily. The team doesn't miss a beat."
Those shiny pants worn by the majority of NFL teams are becoming the fashion craze in football. The pants are made of nylon spandex woven with metallic threads, which give them their sheen. Retail: about $85 each, $10 more than the old standbys.
Dennis Ryan, the Vikings' equipment manager, says, "We went to the pants five years ago. They held up better on the Metrodome turf. Before, we'd burn through four or five pairs of pants a game; now, we go through two a year. The players also think the shiny pants are more slippery than regular pants, so opponents can't get a good hold on them."
Says Ray Earley, the Bears' equipment manager, "Some of my players say they fit better; the primpers will stand in front of the mirror, before they go out on the field, to see how they look. But I think the pants just happen to be the latest fad."
One player who, at first, didn't want to make the switch to the jazzy pants was running back Walter Payton, normally a with-it kind of guy. "He'd beg not to change pants," Earley says. "He's superstitious. He'd wear the same pants over and over and over. In Detroit in 1980, he wore through the seat of his pants. I had to wrap him in a towel just to get him off the field. Since then, he accepts changes without complaint."
Steve Young, the Bucs' quarterback, is a big proponent of the two-point conversion. "It's the greatest idea in America," says Young, who just may be the best in America at the task. Young was a terror in the USFL, converting five of seven two-pointers in his two-year career with the Los Angeles Express. He also converted one of five while at Brigham Young.
"I'd like to see the sudden-death overtime done away with," Young says. "Adding the two-point conversion to the NFL would make the game more exciting to the fans. There is a lot more strategy involved. And, not taking anything away from kickers, it would sure make the extra point an interesting play."
Why the need for reform? Well, on Oct. 5, the Bucs lost in overtime to the Rams, 26-20. Los Angeles won the coin toss, drove the field and scored. "We didn't even have a chance to touch the ball," Young says.
Fans have forever grumbled that the team that wins the coin toss in overtime always wins the game. But that's not true. Of the 117 overtime games since sudden death was instituted in 1974, 56 teams that won the toss won the game; 53 teams that lost the toss won the game, and there were eight ties. Only 38 teams have immediately driven to the winning score.
Like father like son? Well, NFL players are split as to whether they would like their sons to play pro football.
Those who gave a resounding yes:
•Ron Baker, Eagles guard: "This game gives a person a sense of respect. You have to be on time. You have to work together. You have to take orders. All that means discipline. And you just can't get that everywhere."
•Gary Kubiak, Bronco quarterback: "It would give me a reason to keep going to games."
•Chris Bahr, Raider kicker: "He can take care of me when I'm older."
•Bryan Millard, the Seahawks' 6'5", 284-pound guard: "In Texas, where I come from, you start playing at age seven. If my kid's anything like me, he'll probably want to play. God didn't make this old body of mine to go run around and avoid people with. When He made this body. He said, 'There, go bump into people with that thing. Get in their way and knock 'em around. Just don't let 'em get to that skinny guy behind you [the quarterback].' "
And those players who aren't keen on the idea:
•Frank Pollard, Steeler running back: "I played just to get ahead. I want things to be a lot easier for him. I want him to go through and get an education and go the easier way."
•Neil Lomax, Cards quarterback: "The professional athlete has to live with too much pressure. One minute he's up on the pedestal and everyone caters to him for years. Then he hits the bottom and people discard him. It's a turbulent experience, and you see it ruin so many people. They can't cope when it's over."
•Chris Dieterich, Lions guard, who has an artificial left hip and a bad left knee: "A kid can get the same kind of team participation and achievement in baseball and soccer without messing up his body."
•Jimmy Williams, Lions linebacker: "In this day and age, particularly for the black family, I think it's extremely important to pursue, to the fullest, academic endeavors."
•Barry Krauss, Colts linebacker: "I'd let my kid do whatever he wants to do. Of course, as soon as he's born, I'd get him a golf club."
During the Jets' playoff years of 1981 and '82, quarterback Richard Todd was the toast of New York City. One of his closest friends and staunchest supporters was Joe Walton, who was then the team's offensive coordinator. But in '83, Walton was named head coach and the Jets went 7-9. The relationship between coach and quarterback soon became strained; Todd believed Walton had turned on him, making him the scapegoat for the mediocre season.
The Jets sent Todd to New Orleans in '84, where he started. In 1985, he sat on the bench, and last summer was waived during training camp.
Two weeks ago, Todd was returning to New York City—to enter a training program in trading at the Wall Street firm of Bear, Stearns & Co.—when Walton called, asking him to rejoin the Jets on a week-to-week basis.
"It took me about 15 minutes to reply," says Todd, who signed as an $18,000-per-game replacement for Ken O'Brien, out with a knee injury. "I had gone home to Alabama, was making runs to the beach in my plane to pick up seafood and playing with my seven-month-old son. We call him Pea Pod. Pea Pod Todd. My life was nice, very nice.
"There were so many hard feelings when I left. I wanted to remember the good times. I grew up with the Jets; some of these guys are my best friends. I wanted to come back to straighten everything out in my mind. I think Joe Walton wanted that, too. We haven't talked about the bad times, but we don't need to. Now, he and I will remember the good times."
"I've come home to Alabama to get myself out of the football atmosphere," says a pensive Stallworth.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
OFFENSE: Dallas running back Herschel Walker had 6 catches for 155 yards and carried the ball 13 times for 45 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Cowboys crushed the previously unbeaten Redskins, 30-6.
DEFENSE: Vikings nosetackle Tim Newton, making his first start since Sept. 7, had 11 tackles, 6 assists, 1 sack (for minus 11 yards) and deflected a pass in Minnesota's 27-24 overtime win over the 49ers.