NFL in danger of indulging in too much forward passing

Have pro football games been turned into a perpetual highlight film? Very nearly, it seems to this writer, who's finding too much of a good thing beginning to leave him slightly jaded.

The good thing in this case is the forward pass.

Aesthetically there are few things in football more pleasing than a receiver caressing a spiral into his fingertips. But how often can the image be repeated , live or on replay, before it loses some of its excitement?

I think I found the answer in a recent first-round playoff game between the New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals. Though both teams passed often, and generally well, the most electrifying player that day was Freeman McNeil, the Jets' league-leading ball-carrier. He never broke a run longer than 35 yards, yet even his shortest bursts were feasts for the eye. They brimmed with dazzling footwork, changes of speed, and flashes of power.

But what made these runs such compelling viewing? Quite possibly it was the contrast they held to the rest of this game and so many others, in which passing plays such a prominent, sometimes overbearing, role.

It wasn't always this way.As recently as six years ago passing attacks were in trouble, straitjacketed by zone defenses, fierce pass rushes, and disruptive pass coverage techniques.

Complaints were lodged and the National Football League responded with two rule changes that made a significant impact on the passing game.

One of these allowed offensive linemen to use their hands (without holding) to block. This was a tremendous aid in keeping onrushing defenders at bay and giving the quarterback more time to throw.

The other change restricted defensive contact with pass receivers to the first five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Before this, receivers could be bumped, and often were, until the ball was in the air. But since 1978 they have run their pass routes relatively unimpeded and managed to to get open where and when the quarterback expected.

Passing output has skyrocketed as a result. Some examples:

* The 1977 season produced 388 touchdown passes, compared to 534 after the same number of games during the longer 1980 campaign.

* In 1977 quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Bob Griese were the top passers in their conferences with 210 and 180 completions apiece. Last year, with just two more games, Joe Montana and Ken Anderson completed 311 and 300 passes.

* Even in this strike-interrupted season, the passing machinery remained well oiled as nine of 28 teams went to the air more often than they ran.

As usual, the leader was Air Coryell, the nickname for Coach Don Coryell's aerial circus in San Diego, where QB Dan Fouts has made 300-yard passing games seem practically mundane. San Francisco's Joe Montana turned in a record five in a row this season.

Elsewhere, Vince Ferragamo of the Los Angeles Rams threw for 509 yards in a losing effort, and Cincinnati's Ken Anderson completed 70.6 percent of his passes, including 20 straight, for a pair of NFL records.

The expression ''touchdown drive'' in some ways has become an anachronism as teams chew up yardage in giant gulps. But maybe today's game is more in tune with our hurry-up, Federal Express society.

What has often evolved, however, is what Sports Illustrated called tennis-style football, in which you score almost every time you have the ball, then hope for a service break.

The object for the defense no longer seems to be to stop the offense in its tracks (an impossibility), but to make the big play - cause a fumble, intercept a pass, or sack the quarterback. The defense, in a sense, has become a counter-offensive.

Given the current rules, the attacking team holds the upper hand, but defensive strategists are fighting back. They've gone to a dizzying array of pass coverage schemes; used four instead of five deep defenders in clear-cut passing situations (hence the term ''nickel back''); and inserted pass rushing specialists into the game on third-and-long.

The feeling is defenses will find a way to stop the rampant passing. These things tend to run in cycles, long-time NFL watchers say, and there's no reason to believe the pendulum won't swing back the other way eventually.

Maybe so, but I, for one, hope some of the air can be taken out of the passing game soon. Overstimulated aerial attacks don't necessarily ruin the game, they just seem to devalue the pass and cheapen the thrills.

If passing stagflation can't be checked by natural evolutionary forces, the old rules could be reinstated. It might be better, however, to look for new means of defusing the offense, such as prohibiting backs from catching passes downfield, limiting the number of receivers, or banning players from going in motion, to name just a few options.

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