Okay, sports fans, the subject for today will be the "prevent defense" and other high crimes and misdemeanors against society.
The prevent defense is a brainstorm of modern football, the equivalent of believing that, if you put out enough teacups, you can prevent rain from falling. You can stop the Johnstown Flood with sandbags.
Some coaches call it the "nickel" defense, probably because that's all it's worth. It's otherwise called the nickel defense because it puts five defense backs in the game in a passing situation. It works swell when you can find someone who can run backwards as fast as Cliff Branch - or Walter Payton - can run forward. It's like trying to have one cop for every criminal. Its beauty is, it doesn't work.
Perhaps you noticed with Notre Dame-USC game in which USC, on the heady crest of a 24-6 lead, went into its umbrella defense. At the half, Notre Dame's Joe Montana, the quarterback, encountering a standard defense, which is to say a sturdy pass rush by four, five or more determined linemen, had a record of 15 passes attempted, only three completed, and one intercepted. That's an efficiency rating of less than 20 percent.
In the second half, operating mostly against the so-called "prevent," Montana picked it apart. He had 26 passes, completed 17, and had none intercepted. His passing yardage in the first half was 62. His passing yardage in the second half was almost 300. In fact, most of it was in the last quarter.
In the 1963 Rose Bowl game, USC had a 42-14 lead over Wisconsin with less than a quarter to play. In the semidarkness of the final 10 minutes, the Trojans forsook the pass rush to cover the drops. When the game ended, the score was 42-37, and Wisconsin was on the move again. The Wisconsin quarterback, Ron Vanderkelen, had completed 33 of 48 passes, most of them in the last 10 minutes against the ever-loving prevent.
A prevent defense is like an open bank out on the prairie to a Jesse James. For a good quarterback, it's a license to steal. It's like getting in a poker game with a guy who stands pat on treys, or drags down on the pass line when the dice are hot. One of the worst things it does is instill a negative reaction, almost a panic among your troops. It produces an air-radio-shelter kind of mentality. You get to feel like a guy trying not to make a noise in the dark. Trying to smuggle the game into the clubhouse.
The late Red Sanders was a successful coach because he believed the best defense against the pass was the pass rush. He even had a name for his pass rush, and it wasn't nickel. It was "Omaha!" which was shouted out like "Geronimo!" by paratroopers. Some of the greatest passers in football history felt its sting, John Brodie of Stanford, for instance.
In 1957, when an otherwise-undermanned UCLA team defeated Stanford, 14-13, it was because Brodie spent the afternoon on his back. "I have never seen a passer who can complete a touchdown pass flat on his back," Sanders explained after the game. "If you want to steal a car, you go for the ignition, not the tires."
Sanders also believed a pursued, beleaguered quarterback was not nearly so effective as one who could stand there like a cigar-store Indian and wait for his receivers to sort themselves out. Sander's record speaks for itself.
Notre Dame, which rolled up a measly 59 yards net against USC in the first half, rolled up 411 altogether, 233 of them in the last quarter. Against the prevent defense, it was like batting practice.
None of the above, of course, will have any influence on coaches. The only thing that impresses coaches is success. So if someone gets to the Super Bowl some year with an 11-man rush, the following year every team in the league will have it in. Meanwhile, I know why they call it prevent. Because, widely used, it prevents you from going to the Super Bowl - or the Rose Bowl, or even the Gator Bowl. It's one case where an ounce of cure is worth a pound of prevent.