SI on the NFL: A boring, brutal league

Posted: September 6, 2011 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

Someday my parents will probably leave the three-bedroom Janesville house they’ve lived in for nearly 30 years and I’ll get the dreaded call telling me it’s time for me to come home and collect all my old stuff. I still have about 10 boxes of books, a plastic bin stuffed with old newspapers that I will still hoard when I’m 85, and a few dozen old videotapes – why buy a DVD of A League of Their Own when I can watch the recording I made off of HBO in 1995? And hey, that same tape has some old Dream On and 1st & 10 episodes.

And this will also be the time when my dad officially passes his Sports Illustrated collection down to his son. Emotions will run high. He’s subscribed since the early 1970s and each issue resides in the basement. Last year, my mom and oldest nephew actually conducted an inventory – there’s not always a lot to do in Janesville on the weekends – and the count was close to 2,100. They’ll all be mine someday, cardboard containers and all – unless my wife first steals them, then burns ’em or sells them.

On every trip home, I’ll pull a magazine out several times, randomly choosing one from 1980 or ’88 or ’98 or any year since about 1974. As a magazine geek I like seeing how Sports Illustrated evolved over the years. Look, there’s an eight-page spread on a random track and field event. Here’s 12 pages on a swimming competition. Here’s a feature on heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney. And there’s another feature on Cooney a few months later. I’ll read the old classic features and scan the Faces in the Crowd for youngsters who grew up to be famous faces.

The thing is, I can do all of that online now, too. A few years ago, SI started the SI Vault, an online collection of every magazine in its long history. And I do spend hours poring through the Internet archive, gazing at the old covers and the new stories. I’ll dig for old Frank Deford pieces and memorable Gary Smith profiles. I’ll read about a young Lew Alcindor and an old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

With the NFL season upon us, I took a tour through the Vault to dig up classic pro football covers and stories. It’s not as fun as digging through my dad’s old-school collection – which maybe I’ll put in a real vault sometime – but there is a bit less dust. So climb into your Tommy Kramer throwback jersey, put some black paint under your eyes, shoot up with some ‘roids and take a ride through the NFL’s past with the SI vault.

Even after the lockout, the NFL remains fairly infallible. We constantly hear about the league’s popularity and how a preseason game between the Rams and Panthers could draw a bigger TV audience than Game 1 of the World Series or Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Kim Jong II receives fewer fawning profiles in the North Korean press than the NFL gets in the American media. But over the years, Sports Illustrated wasn’t always enamored with the league. In fact, several times over the decades, the magazine did the publishing equivalent of a basketball audience chanting “Booooring” during a stall.

Thankfully, Brown did not follow SI's advice.

In 1983, as Franco Harris neared Jim Brown’s rushing record – Walter Payton would actually be the one to beat it, in 1984 – the old warrior appeared on the SI cover, threatening to return to the league. SI thought it was just what the boring league needed, a middle-aged dude in cleats doing…what, exactly? Averaging 5.0 yards a carry still? Running over Mike Singletary? Brown, who was 47 at the time, told SI, “Where are the heroes, the gladiators? Today’s heroes are insulated by their money. They’re worried about their women and their drugs. The Lady [cocaine] and the ladies go together. Cocaine is the prettiest lady of them all.”

Well. No disagreement here.

Just a year later, SI again hammered the league, wondering what was wrong with the NFL – aside from the fact Jim Brown was no longer stampeding around on its fields. The magazine’s longtime NFL writer, the superb Dr. Z, Paul Zimmerman, offered up his solutions for lower ratings and a general apathy that had set in with fans. Z’s advice included changing the scoring for field goals, phasing out artificial turf and easing up on the dress code. Obviously the league didn’t follow through on any of those, but at least the old-school concrete artificial turf is a thing of the past. Also, Zimmerman wanted the league to allow more access to the teams and players. “The NFL has gotten more remote, more secretive, and this isn’t smart when you’re in an era of declining interest.” Today, 27 years later, reporters have even less access, yet interest in the league remains as high as ever. Doubtful the NFL would ever think of following Dr. Z’s advice today.

What's wrong? Well, for one, it's hard to throw with that football.

William Taaffe wrote about how Pete Rozelle could liven up the TV broadcasts. Taaffe wanted preseason games off the air – amen – and the execution of the blackout rule (still alive). Switching to a spring season? The league ignored it, which, looking back, and with the benefit of time, was, perhaps, the right decision.

On an unrelated note, that same SI issue includes a great Gary Smith piece on Larry Brown. The dek included the line “he’s shown signs that coaching at Kansas could be the last stop in his odyssey.” Alas, the odyssey has included seven more stops since the article appeared. I bet he’s done now, though. Right?

I think the NFL is still often boring. This is a minority opinion, I realize.

For the next nine years the league plugged along. Payton passed Brown, as did Franco. The ’85 Bears exploded on the scene, as did the Fridge. The Broncos lost a bunch of Super Bowls and the 49ers won a bunch. The Cowboys died and came back to life. But in 1994, SI put on another intervention in an attempt to save a league that, today, probably couldn’t be killed unless fantasy football and the forward pass were both outlawed. This time, Peter King offered a prescription. The league did ditch the absurd double-bye.

QB play was a problem, as it is today. Like Dr. Z, King wanted kickers to be less-important to the game’s outcome. Today the little guys with big feet are more crucial than ever, but the league did adopt King’s idea for the two-point conversion. The league does not have to worry about any covers proclaiming it boring or in need of saving today, even though if you turn on a Seahawks-Raiders game in, say, late November – or even early September – you might find yourself wishing the apocalypse really had taken place this past May.

Thankfully the Vikes didn't give up much to get Herschel.

Herschel lives! And a part of every Vikings fan dies.

In SI’s early days, you were more likely to see a dog or a duck than an NFL player on the cover. The NFL didn’t need saving in the late 1950s and early ’60s because no one really cared enough to worry about it. Baseball obviously ruled the sports world, and college football’s popularity and coverage dwarfed the pros.

Defense can win. But can offense?

Still, the NFL made an occasional appearance. Like this cover from 1963 that featured the Cowboys and Chuck Howley. Apostrophes were apparently in short supply back in ’63 – perhaps they were still being rationed from the war, which is why you get the stilted coverline: Dallas Defense Can Win in The East. The image itself is also a bit odd. They look less like football players going all out in the brutal Texas heat during a Tom Landry-led practice and more like the old electric football figurines, who would spin around for hours and hours while you wept in the bedroom at the useless toy and your dad cursed both the manufacturer and the female “Santa” of the house who thought it’d make a great gift.

Y.A. Tittle was 23 at the time of this picture.

Your grandfather appeared on the August 16, 1965 cover. By the way, if you do a search of SI’s cover for “NFL” the very first image is of…Y.A. Tittle, from 1954. And damn it if he doesn’t look a day over 50 in it.

When SI wrote about the league’s struggles in 1983 and ’84, the strike from 1982 played a part in the NFL’s problems. A 57-day strike limited the teams to a nine-game schedule. It was a goofy season, capped by a victory by the Redskins in the Super Bowl. But for awhile, it looked like there might not be a Super Bowl.

The coverline is even cooler if you make the sound effect.

PFFFFFFT! Love that coverline. I picture editors, designers and copy editors debating the image and wording in the office late on a Sunday night. Heated exchanges. How many Fs do you put in pfffffft? If you put too few, it comes off more like a scoff. “Pfft, you think Marino was better than Elway? Come on.” I would have perhaps opted for a few more Fs, just because I think it gives a better perspective on a deflating football – and league. The air is slowly sucked out of the pigskin and the NFL. PFFFFFFFFFFFT. And maybe not the exclamation point. The exclamation point makes it sound more like you’re inflating the ball instead of slowly draining it. Anyway, I’m not a graphic designer so they probably made the right choice.

Ten-year-olds Randy White and Harvey Martin celebrate a Super Bowl victory.

Here’s another cover where you really get the full impact if you say it outloud. YIPPEEE! This was after the Cowboys won the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos in January 1978. This time, I think the exclamation point is the correct choice. A team won the Super Bowl. America’s Team won the Super Bowl. But Yippee? It sounds either sarcastic – “The Twins won last night. They’re only 29 games under .500. Yippeee!” – or the reaction a small child would provide when told they’ll get to ride the bumper cars at the fair this year. Would two dominant, destructive, powerful, co-Super Bowl MVPs scream out Yippeee! moments after the final gun? I’m skeptical.

Packer rubes – such as Terry – have had plenty of SI covers to frame over the decades, minus those pesky decades of the 1970s and ’80s. Lombardi’s teams – and the man himself – were fixtures, as were Holmgren and the QB who wore No. 4 for a few years. Now it’s a new generation with the same old success. Below is one of the most iconic pictures of their title years.

Cheeseheads everywhere bow in front of this picture.

Below is “Jim Turner of the Jets and the kicking boom,” from the September 22, 1969 issue, one of the few times a kicker and his girth were featured on the SI cover. Kickers have never been the most photogenic bunch, but they’ve always fascinated writers, probably because of how odd it still is to have these guys determine games fought for 59 minutes and 59 seconds by fast, muscular warriors who, in many cases, are literally shortening their lives in an effort to make one more tackle, catch or run.

Nothing says excitement like a kicker.

And then the kicker trots on with his ill-fitting helmet and decides who wins or loses. It’s like the 12th man coming in at the end of a basketball game to shoot two free throws, only he’s a guy who spends the rest of the week shooting granny shots on a different court, secluded from the rest of the team. Still, these men help produce great writing, as Michael Lewis and Stefan Fatsis have proven.

Miami's No. 1

Above is one of the most famous Sports Illustrated covers of all time, although the reason has nothing to do with football.

At least teams had reason to fear the Cardinals.

The St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals have, for many years, sort of been the Clippers of the NFL, right down to the longtime owner no one can stand. Success is fleeting, failure permanent – with some exceptions. Not surprisingly, very few Cardinals have graced the SI cover. Two years ago Larry Fitzgerald made it a few times during the team’s improbable Super Bowl run, as did Kurt Warner. Pat Tillman made it twice, but obviously not for anything involving the Cardinals. In the 1960s, QB Jim Hart made some appearances. And that’s about it. Between 1977 and 2004, I can actually only find two instances where a Cardinal made the cover. Both times, it was for having a dirty player who was perhaps too vicious for the league.

No, he wasn't.

One featured offensive lineman Conrad Dobler. The other, in 1993, featured safety Chuck Cecil.

It seems a little odd for a little ol’ Cardinal to be causing that much turmoil in the league, especially one that is based on violence and viciousness. It’s one reasons fans don’t think the game is boring. But with more and more players suffering more and more devastating post-career traumas – whether it’s head injuries that lead to suicide, post-concussion syndrome or crippling arthritis – more attention than ever is focused on the question of player safety. As it should be. But this issue is nothing new. Throughout its existence, in fact, SI has questioned what counts as too rough and what can be done to stop the injuries.

SI had worries about the roughness dating back to the early ’60s. To show this concern, the magazine put a picture of a…referee on the cover. A referee signaling a holding call (file shots of refs making the personal foul signal were hard to come by back then). Still, the words convey the message.

Too much roughness? Or too much holding? Or both?

The article by Walter Bingham – “A War on Ferocity” – revealed that the league was afflicted by more injuries than ever. It begins with a jolting line: “As a matter of traditional courtesy in the National Football League, the home team provides a stretcher for the use of the players. And a good thing, too.” Later, Bingham wrote, “Punches in the face are not normal in pro football, but they well may become so unless the five officials on the field are constantly alert to this damaging fact: roughness, one of the ingredients that makes pro football so spectacular, can ruin the sport if it gets out of control.”

Here we are, nearly 50 years later, and that line would not be out of place in any other story about the league. And 50 years from now – assuming players haven’t reached such sizes and attained such speeds that they’re literally causing deaths on a weekly basis on the field – we’ll read the same lines about the league.

SI has returned to the theme time and again over the decades, usually when a spate of injuries hits the top players or the public begins to notice that, wow, these guys suffer some devastating blows and hits.

There probably is no stopping it. As we've learned the last 25 years.

This 1986 cover featured a story by Zimmerman, with the headline “The Agony Must end.” Dr. Z wrote this after injuries “struck down 183 starters in the first half of the season.” Again, Zimmerman talks about the speed of the players and how that increases the risk of injury. And when you watch films from those years, think about how much smaller and slower the players are compared to today. Also a problem back in 1986? Steroids. Howie Long said, “At least 50 percent of the big guys” used them. “The offensive line – 75 percent. Defensive line – 40 percent plus 35 percent of the linebackers. I don’t know about the speed positions, but I’ve heard they’re used they’re used there, too.” Where did Howie come up with his percentages? Fifty percent of people have no idea, 25 percent know, 10 percent don’t know who Howie Long is and 14 percent of people have never heard of steroids. One percent had no opinion. Zimmerman added that one danger of steroids was “Turning pro football into a game for artificially created giants, able to inflict great damage by their sheer mass.”

The great Zimmerman – who, sadly, suffered a debilitating series of strokes several years ago and has not written since – wasn’t just a doctor – he was a prophet.

A scene we'll see a lot of - starting this week.

The carnage continued in 1992. The carnage that had been taking place since 1963, the carnage that would have been written about in 1933 if a national sports magazine existed back then. And the carnage has continued since, of course. What’s changed in the last 19 years is that when SI writes about it now, it provides striking visual evidence of the hits that lead to the devastation. No more refs or drawings.

A better picture than a ref making a holding call.

Brutal? Yeah.

Tim Layden wrote about the league’s worries over the big hit in 2007. Peter King wrote about concussions in 2010. One thing to notice is that the time between injury stories is getting shorter. Before it was measured in decades; now it’s a matter of years. No one will be surprised if another injury story pops up this year, perhaps after a star QB gets popped and is lost for the season. It’s brutal, all right. But if it’s something that’s been a concern for 50 years, there seems to be little chance that the fears will subside anytime soon. Players aren’t getting slower and smaller. SI’s graphics are, however, are getting quite a bit artsier.

But that’s the reality players – and fans – deal with when it comes to football. The players know they’ll suffer in the present and in the future. The fans know it too, but we’ll keep our focus on the present, thanks, while celebrating the just-as-brutal past.

It works that way because the NFL remains the most popular league around, no matter how brutal it is or how boring it might have once been. It’s time for the NFL and everyone else has to get out of the way. As SI itself might say: Yippeee!

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love old school SI covers! You’re missing my favorite two NFL covers, though:

    Brent Hanson

  2. shawnfury says:

    Your comment had to be moderated for some reason and I figured it out, as our setting was if there were two links it was moderated, as apparently that’s a sign that it’s spam selling you on a Nigerian money scam that can also help with, ahem, gentlemanly problems. Anyway, tweaked the settings a bit to allow more links. Back to your regular programming.

    I still remember on the Sports Reporters, the late Ralph Wiley proclaiming in 1989 that the Cowboys should take Mandarich over Aikman. Hmm. Thankfully the Pack listened and took him over Barry Sanders. Wow.

  3. […] sport is boring and, to answer the first question, believe it began to get that way this year. As I wrote, Sports Illustrated has, throughout its illustrious history, often thought that about the […]

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