Los Angeles — All right, America, it's time to get serious about the National Football League playoffs, which begin with the ``wild card'' games matching New England against the New York Jets and San Francisco against the New York Giants this weekend. What I'm worried about is that too many games may be decided not by men who get their uniforms dirty, but by some guy in top hat, white tie, and tails. OK, so that's an exaggeration!
Nevertheless, you know who I'm talking about; those medium-frame aristocrats with the clean jerseys, names you can't spell, and accents you can hardly understand. Officially they are called field-goal kickers, but many of them don't know the first thing about football and probably don't care.
Most of the time they are as anonymous as the butler who enters from stage right at the end of the first act and mutters: ``Sir, your bath is ready.''
During the week they don't practice with the team but with a football kicking tee that is as impersonal as they are. Skills? Sure they've got skills, but they are the kind that belong in a soccer stadium, not a football field. Nobody coaches field-goal kickers, because how can you coach a circus act?
To me, the crux of a football game is in its blocking and tackling. Somehow it doesn't seem right for a team to knock itself out all week in practice and then have some leprechaun the size of a bag of potato chips beat it with a foot too small for Cinderella's slipper.
If you don't mind NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, I'd like to give football back to the Monsters of the Midway; the Purple People Eaters; the Hogs; the Four Horsemen; and the Seven Blocks of Granite.
Nothing personal, but I guess I'm against any kicker the size of a transistor radio who can reduce 60 minutes of hard-fought action to ``Swan Lake.''
At 5 ft. 6 in. and 172 pounds, Lionel James would probably fit nicely inside one of William (the Refrigerator) Perry's ice cube trays. But once the San Diego Chargers get the football to Lionel, opponents are so busy trying to contain him they forget how tall (or short) he is. In fact, Lionel's 242 yards running, receiving, and kick returning in San Diego's last game Sunday gave him 2,535 for the year, breaking a 10-year-old NFL record for all-purpose yardage in one season.. The old mark of 2,462 had been set by Terry Metcalf of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1975.
James gained 1,027 of his yards via the pass-catching route, breaking the single-season record of 938 for a running back, which had been held by Lenny Moore since 1958. He added 516 yards rushing and got the remaining 992 on kickoff and punt returns.
As the second-year pro out of Auburn University says: ``The way I figure it, if some guy is bigger than me, then he's not going to be as fast. And if he's not as fast, that has to give me an edge.''
Twice this year James was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week. On Sept. 22 he burned the Cincinnati Bengals for 316 yards, then on Nov. 10 he exploded against the Los Angeles Raiders for 345 yards.
There are at least a couple of other things you should know about James. When he played at Auburn, he used to block for this year's Heisman Trophy winner, Bo Jackson; and although the Chargers were smart to draft Lionel, he still wasn't taken until the fifth round.
If you've ever wanted to own a pro football team, perhaps you should read these quotes from John Mecom Jr., former president of the New Orleans Saints. ``Fans are always saying how special it must be to be one of only 28 people who own NFL franchises. Well, it isn't so special. I never had what you could call a winner. In fact, one day I looked around and discovered that the owners of the teams that were winning weren't any happier than I was. I don't think today's players really identify with the sport, only with the owners' checkbooks.
Although practically everyone who follows pro football knows about the 101 defenses (only a slight exaggeration) Dallas coach Tom Landry employs, that's really just the spur of the Cowboy boot. Landry also keeps stats on how many times each of his defensive linemen get their hands up high enough to knock away the passes of opposing quarterbacks. The Cowboys' leader in this department, as you probably have already guessed, is Ed (Too Tall) Jones, who since 1980 has 58 blocks to his credit, seven o f those coming during the current season.
Tampa Bay's John McKay, who went from head coach to club president at the end of last season, will keep an even lower profile in 1986. McKay, reportedly at his own request, will no longer be involved in the day-to-day operation of the team, though he will be available as a consultant. Before becoming Tampa Bay's first head coach in 1976, John had 14 consecutive winning seasons at Southern California, eight times leading the Trojans to the Rose Bowl and winning four national champions hips.