Wednesday, January 30, 2013

1970s Football

I haven't done an annual college football post this year. There was plenty of scandal and disgrace that I could  weigh in on, but I don't feel moved to do so. I was more depressed than angry about the Penn State fiasco--I only seem to be able to get angry when something seems wrong to me and nobody else is seeing it; but in this instance lots of things were wrong and everybody saw it, so I guess whatever it is that arouses my fury felt like it didn't needed to be generated. I did think that a lot of people were probably overconfident in their own moral fortitude, in that what seemed to be obvious responses and courses of action in the aftermath were evidently not that obvious to dozens of people whose circumstances involved them, certainly most unwillingly, and usually in some unfavorable position with regard to their power or personal prestige, in the case. It is very clear to everyone how they should have acted now, of course, but that proper course of action does not seem to have struck anyone in a position to do anything as obviously favorable to their own credit until several days after the scandal had begun to receive substantial media coverage.

Notre Dame's re-ascension likewise was accompanied by several  unsavory incidents that it was strongly implied should dampen enthusiasm for their season. I can't bring myself to watch college football games after New Year's Day, but their game against Alabama in which they were badly beaten was also painful to hear about at third hand--I cannot imagine what it must have been like to watch it as a fan. So this is going to be mainly about old pro football.

Some genius (or perhaps several of them working independently) has been putting up NFL Films game highlights from the 1970s on Youtube. At around 2 to 3 minutes each, the fan whose primary emotional attachment to the sport resides in that era can easily lose a precious hour, or even more, gorging on these internet bonbons. The overall athleticism and quality of play in these now ancient games when compared with the present state of pro football is quaint, to say the least, but I enjoyed the games in that era a lot more--I don't watch too much football anymore, but when I do I find it joyless and emotionally unsatisfying compared to the total package on display in this classic from 1973:

I have seen at least a dozen other highlight reels from this era where the field is in a similarly hideous condition. Other observations on 1970s football.

The short passing game more or less didn't exist, presumably because defensive backs were allowed to beat receivers up off the line of scrimmage, which they cannot do now, though maybe the coaches of the day weren't advanced enough to see the advantages. When quarterbacks dropped back to pass in this era, which they did about half as often as they do now, they were looking downfield. Completion percentages, and completions, were low--often less than 50% for the former, and 10-15 a game for the latter, 20 being an astronomical total--but the average yards per completion were very high. I have seen numerous of these games where quarterbacks threw for well over 200 yards on 12 completions, and receivers averaged more than 20 yards a catch on 5 or 6 receptions.

Kicking, which has advanced to the point now where almost all pro kickers are essentially automatic inside 50 yards, was still almost primitive in the 70s. As late as '75/'76, almost all of the kickers were still classic straight-on types, but by '82/'83 Mark Moseley was the only member of that tribe still active. And if you think kickers are unathletic today, some of the guys they were strutting out there in the 70s looked like they didn't even do a minimum of aerobic exercise. The most ridiculous of many ridiculous plays in the selection above was the obese San Diego kicker Ray Wersching (who incredibly was still playing for the 49ers as late as '81) trying a field goal from the 50-yard line on a field that was nothing was muck and of course losing his footing before he could even get to the ball. In many of these films a made field goal will often be featured as a major highlight, as it often the only successful attempt out of three or four that came up in the course of the game. There also seemed to be far more blocked punts in this era than there are now--I don't think people even try for them much anymore, techniques for preventing them having become so advanced. Another thing you see quite a bit in these clips that you don't see much anymore are laterals, especially by defensive players on turnovers. Buddy Ryan encouraged this when he coached the Eagles in the late 80s, and they scored a few extra touchdowns off of it, but even by that time coaches had decided that they preferred to secure possession the ball and give it over to their quarterback. Specialization. Sucking the joy out of everything since at least 600 B.C.

I just looked at a highlight where two teams combined for 1 touchdown in 14 red zone possessions (Harry Kalas, who was the narrator on the film, called it by the old, or baseball name of "scoring position"). There were 7 field goals at least.

As a Philadelphia Eagles fan I always hated the Dallas Cowboys, but after watching several hours worth of these highlights it is easy to see why the latter won so much during this era. They look like a team of actual trained professionals on the field compared to almost everyone they played against. About half of the teams scarcely look like they are running scripted plays, or don't have any effective ones. On defense too the old Cowboys rarely seem to be caught badly out of position or lose track of people as is continually happening with other teams. Even when the Eagles became better for a couple of years under Dick Vermeil ('79-'80) and actually beat Dallas a few times, with the exception of the NFC Championship game in 1980 I never had the feeling that they were truly the stronger team. It shows you how much the game changed between 1980 and 1986 or so because in the first year Tom Landry and the rest of the organization were still considerably ahead of the rest of the league in these professional type matters, but by the second year the game was perceived to have "passed them by".

Studying the other dominant teams of the decade--and there were only a handful of them--Pittsburgh and Minnesota seem to have been impossible for most of the teams they played against to score on, while also having above average offensive talent. The secret of Miami's superiority I haven't been able to form an impression of yet, because most of the game highlights I have seen of theirs so far are against the Jets, and the Jets at this time were not good.

Joe Namath obviously was a legend, but by the mid-70s he looked awful, he could barely move, and his team was one of the worst in the league. Nonetheless I am piqued to seek more footage from the late 60s when he was supposedly actually good (if I can find any; most of this stuff from the 70s was just put up recently), because the commentators in all of these clips were still reverent of him.

Another guy getting the deity treatment from the announcers in this series is O.J. Simpson, who was a stylish and impressive-looking player. One oddity of O.J.'s football career is that he was the #1 draft pick coming out of college in 1969 but did not reveal himself to be a particularly good professional running back until his fourth year in the league, at which point he became for about 4 or 5 years possibly the best player in the league. Would a running back that good take 4 years to establish himself as a top player now? Would he be given the opportunity? Yet quite a few big name players in this period had career arcs that would probably be impossible today. John Riggins was a good running back through the early part of his career, though not a star, before rushing for a career high 1153 yards at age 30, following which he promptly sat out the following year in a contract dispute. He came back with a OK year at 32, then at 33 was the MVP of the Super Bowl, ran for 1347 yards and 24 touchdowns at age 34, 1239 yards at age 35, before slowing down to 677 yards at 36, after which he retired. Today he posts videos of himself chopping wood and discoursing on the state of the world and for a 63 year old who carried the ball over 3,000 times in the NFL he looks pretty darn good--I assume he must have some kind of chronic pain, but nowadays any retired football player you practically expect to see them in a wheelchair.

Speaking of late bloomers, I find it notable that both Roger Staubach and Joe Theismann, highly touted college stars, Super Bowl winners, and in Staubach's case a Hall of Famer, did not become full-time starters in the NFL until their 8th year out of college. They did not all of those years sitting on the bench, Theismann played 3 seasons in Canada and Staubach spent five years in the Navy after graduating from the Academy, but still, it is hard to see that happening today. Staubach, especially, was probably the best quarterback of the decade of the 1970s, and he barely played before he was 30.

This segues, mercifully, into my last topic for today regarding 1970s (and 60s) football, the quarterback who started for his team forever without achieving very much success. I live in New England, where Tom Brady's failure to win a Super Bowl in the last 8 seasons and 7-7 record in his last 14 playoff games has some fans wondering if "he can get it done anymore", I am reminded of players like Jim Hart, who was the starter for the Cardinals for 15 years (1967-81), in which he managed 5 winning seasons and 2 playoff appearances with an 0-2 record in those games. Jim Hart was probably an average quarterback on a below average team for most of his career. However it is safe to say that a player with his record would not be permitted by the fan base, press and ownership to hang around as a starter for 15 years nowadays. There were a quite a few guys like this. John Brodie was the primary starter for the 49ers from 1961-71, and had a couple of good statistical years, but the team never made the playoffs, or had an especially good record, until making runs to the NFC Championship game in the last 2 of those seasons--his 14th and 15th in the league. Archie Manning started for the Saints for 11 years, during which he compiled a record of 35-91-3 (he went 0-10 as a starter for two other teams at the end of his career).. A lot of people at the time thought he was handicapped by a terrible team, but watching some of these highlights, I don't know. Even in the 70s being held under 100 yards total offense, as happened in one game of his I saw recapped, was indicative of not the highest competence....I'm sure there are others, but I'm going to leave off here. Is there anybody even close to being in this situation among current players? Tony Romo maybe, in that he hasn't had any playoff success over a 7 year career, though his regular season record is 55-38, and a lot of people still think he is good and the organization is dysfunctional. Carson Palmer has been around 9 years with what are considered to be poorly run organizations, has a losing record and has never won a playoff game. I don't sense that anyone is very high on the likelihood of him achieving great things at this point though.

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