The 1978 NFL season should have been called for holding. It was the longest, strangest, and almost certainly the least exciting pro football season ever played. And when it finally came to an end Monday night, a lot of bewildered fans were still fulminating against favorites who fizzled and flag-crazy officials. For 16 agonizing weeks the game's ever-faithful followers had been frustrated by favored teams that spent more time "pacing" themselves than playing, and by officials who seemed bound to be arrested for littering. At the end, it appeared that the main thing that happened this season was that every team got into the playoffs except the Duluth Eskimos.
If this was what the NFL intended to create with its two extra weeks of games in 1978, or with its new schedule parity, or with its "clarified" holding rule, then Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the NFL owners can sit back and congratulate each other, for they certainly succeeded. Meanwhile, millions of people are wondering whatever happened to individual heroes—where are the new O.J.s, the new Namaths, the new Csonkas and Tarkentons and Butkuses?—and those high-scoring, star-studded teams that produced excitement with their quality performances each and every week.
Why it seems like only yesterday that 10 teams would bounce around for a few Sundays, and then Sammy Baugh of the Redskins and Sid Luckman of the Bears—the best players and the best teams—would go out and throw balls at each other in the sleet, and there would be a champion. Even if this was more or less predictable, it was never dull. Now there are 10 teams in the playoffs. And it was only yesterday that teams were forced to improve themselves with guile, energy, intellect and sometimes money. Now, the worst organizations get the weakest schedules, because this season the NFL introduced parity—or "creeping socialism," as Dallas General Manager Tex Schramm calls it. The way it is now, the mediocre teams rarely have to play the good teams, except by necessity in their own divisions. And remember when blocking linemen had to practically grab onto their own jerseys to keep from being called for holding an opponent? Well, now they are permitted to extend their arms and open their hands—and this was supposed to eliminate holding?
To be slightly outrageous for a second, this season can best be summed up by citing two facts: 1) the Oakland Raiders did not make the playoffs; and 2) the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles did. Also, the outstanding player of the year was a rookie, Houston's Earl Campbell, who obviously didn't know any better than to try as hard as he could every week.
As one Sunday and Monday led to another—and sometimes to a Thursday or a Saturday, consult your local listings—there was rarely anything to count on or anyone to trust. Not for very long, anyhow. One reason was that, for the most part, the best teams saved their worst performances for national TV.
Take Dallas, for example. Please. The Super Bowl champions lost four times with big Nielsens. In fact, the vaunted Cowboys might not have won even one important game before a nationwide audience had it not been for the ineptitude of New England Placekicker David Posey, plus a couple of zebras who helped the Cowboys preserve their 17-10 victory. That Tony Dorsett gained 1,325 yards was undoubtedly a shock statistic to most followers of the sport. How could Dorsett have gained 1,325 yards when he quite obviously spent most of his time fumbling, oversleeping or arguing with Tom Landry?
Slowly, the Pittsburgh Steelers began to look like a dependable team, as Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert returned to their 1975 and 1976 Super Bowl form. But just when this happened, when the Steelers were 7-0 and unbeatable, they lost twice in prime time—first to Houston and then to Los Angeles. The Pittsburgh-L.A. game, which the Rams won 10-7, was particularly disturbing. It was billed as a possible Super Bowl preview, but if it was, then no one will want to be found dead in the vicinity of Miami on Jan. 21. Fifteen penalties were called in the fourth quarter, which took an hour and eight minutes to complete. "Watching you guys is like going to the dentist," a guy told L.A. General Manager Don Klosterman.
Only the schizophrenic could have enjoyed the Rams' conquest of the NFC West. While benched Linebacker Isiah Robertson lectured his coach about his ability—Isiah was subsequently suspended—the Rams beat Dallas, Pittsburgh, Houston and Minnesota but lost to Cincinnati, Cleveland, New Orleans and Atlanta. After being 7-0, the Rams came very close to losing eight in a row.
In terms of images that the tube provided for the masses, only two of the playoff teams survived the regular season without humiliation or embarrassment. They were Houston, which took both of its Monday night games, and the Miami Dolphins, who won five times on national TV and lost with verve and integrity at Houston. That was the 35-30 game in which Earl Campbell ran for 199 yards. By any measurement, it was the best game of the season, and it made up for quite a bit. Such as:
?Coach John McVay of the New York Giants standing idly by and allowing Quarterback Joe Pisarcik to fumble away a sure victory over Philadelphia when there was only enough time left in the game to reach in your pocket for the car keys. The Giants, who have had only two winning seasons in 15, reacted to this in their usual inept way by canning McVay's offensive coordinator, Bob Gibson.