NFL coaches not just big dummies, they want control


January 30, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

"Say hello, Charlie."

"Hello, Charlie."

When Scott Norwood's kick flew wide Sunday in the final seconds of the Super Bowl, the loudest cheers came from the New York Giants and their fans. Close behind, though, were the shouts of football coaches across the land. The Giants' victory was, unmistakeably, a victory for their way of life.

Had Norwood made the kick, it would have reaffirmed all that for which the Buffalo Bills stand. Foremost on such a list would be the no-huddle offense, the fancy wrinkle that carried the Bills to the Supe, the fancy wrinkle in which -- here's the meat -- the quarterback calls the plays.

What an insult this would have been to coaches everywhere. Quarterbacks almost never are trusted to call plays anymore. Not in high school, college, even the pros. Coaches just won't allow it, convinced they know best. Had Norwood's foot been true, however, millions of fans would have watched a play-calling quarterback win the biggest football game of all.

This would have amounted to sacrilege in the coaching lodge, particularly the NFL bureau. The vast majority therein are control freaks of the highest order. Delegating responsibility is just not in their world view. Why do you think they sleep at the office during the season? They want their fingerprints on every surface.

Of course, you can't blame them for wanting to leave as little as possible to chance -- they are going to get fired if they lose too often. But let's be honest. Such compulsion is, in many cases, as much the result of raging ego as any other constituent. The coaches think they know best, and certainly more than any quarterback.

"Say hello, Charlie."

"Hello, Charlie."

"Say it like I do, Charlie."

It wasn't always so. For years, coaches ran practices, motivated players, designed alignments and made substitutions, but quarterbacks were responsible for implementing the X's and O's on Sunday. Coaches gained fame more often for powerful or idiosyncratic personalities than for insta-genius strategies. But then, goes the joke, either quarterbacks got stupider or coaches got smarter.

Paul Brown was the coach who first changed the rules of the game, in the late '40s and early '50s. He began calling the Cleveland Browns' plays from the sidelines, shuttling guards in and out with his messages. The Browns won a spate of championships, many of Brown's assistants became head coaches and a tradition was born.

Still, it wasn't universally popular until, say, a decade ago. Vince Lombardi didn't call the Packers' plays; he made suggestions to Bart Starr, but Starr made the final decisions. Terry Bradshaw called the plays as the Steelers won four Super Bowls. Len Dawson and Ken Stabler, who won Super Bowls, called their plays.

The Cowboys' Tom Landry, on the other hand, was a proponent of the Brown school. He never granted his quarterbacks the independence to make decisions. It was as if he feared they would go crazy and throw passes on every down, taking wild chances. Don Meredith was still grumbling about it on "Monday Night Football" a decade after he retired. Roger Staubach is still grumbling about it.

Landry was just ahead of his time, though. The rise of Bill Walsh and the 49ers was the end of the struggle. Walsh would call the first 25 plays before the game. He had total control; Joe Montana just followed orders. Other coaches followed the leader. The quarterback's opinion was essentially taken out of the game.

Then along came the Bills. Marv Levy had been regarded for years as conservative, but this year he threw the huddle out of his offense and handed over the play-calling to Jim Kelly. It was a shocker, the coaching version of taking hallucinogens. And look what happened. The Bills had the best offense in the NFL. They scored 95 points in two AFC playoff games. Kelly didn't throw long on every play. He actually handed off.

"Say hello, Charlie."


It was a shame, in a way, that the Bills didn't win the Supe. Today'sgame is over-coached; it would be nice to see the players wrest back a little control, become less the robot and more the complete, instinctive athlete. That might have happened had the Bills won. These things do work in cycles, and change has to start somewhere. A few teams might have tried the no-huddle, given quarterbacks a chance. Win the Supe with a gimmick, and it isn't a gimmick anymore.

Maybe we will see more of it. (It would be a step forward. The no-huddle brings a sense of thrill and urgency to the game; it is, simply, fun to watch.) Don't count on it, though. Too many coaches are just incapable of marrying the idea of their quarterbacks calling plays. Their egos are just too big. They're too distrustful.

Anyway, the Giants proved that the no-huddle can be slowed with solid, old-fashioned defense, that it isn't above basic football tenets. The Giants' performance was beautiful in its rough way, demonstrating that defense does indeed win championships, that blocking and tackling are indeed the only true essentials, that a conservative offense is indeed enough, and that the sideline conversation of the future will be as follows:

"Say hello, Charlie."

"Yes, sir."

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