In the National Football League, the offense of the '80s is a Ferrari body covering a Model T. For all those receivers scampering in motion, most of the very good teams still are running the sort of Riggo drills that were the staple of champions back when Riggo was named Bronco Nagurski.
It's gonna be a fullback fall, judging from the way John Riggins and Franco Harris have slid off tackle the first few games. By usual NFL standards, they ought to have been retired for years, at home in a rocker with a shawl draped about sagging shoulders and reaching for the arthritis medication.
Should Riggins continue at this present pace, he would finish the regular season with a staggering 400 carries. At that rate, he would sail past the NFL record for running workaholics (378 carries by George Rogers) early in the opening period of the last game.
By Riggins' rate, Harris is scarcely showing up for work, averaging a pitifully productive 20-plus totes a game. And, at 33, he's eight months younger than Riggins. Still, even though he started a year later, his playing for superior teams has enabled Harris to run much more often and much farther than Riggins for his career.
Since most coaches regard fullbacks as guards without their egos entirely clipped, it's nice that two geezers are outplaying many of the gazelles. It's also odd that during a phase of football when the rules practically mandate passing, the record for single-season rushes has been broken every full year but one since 1977.
Appropriately, the game still requires its ultimate winners to do a little bit of everything on offense, and a whole lot on defense. Since the 1971 Cowboys, no team that has led the league in passing yards has made the Super Bowl. In that same period, 11 teams that have led their respective conferences in fewest points allowed have gotten to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers were supposed to have demonstrated the wave of the future when they proved a team could win the NFL championship with a sophisticated passing game that covered for ordinary foot soldiers. Sammy Baugh could be heard laughing all the way from Rotan, Tex.
"Lotta teams are finding out the last few years that if you don't have a short-passing game you're a loser," he said. "Hell, I found out in college (in the early '30s) that you had to keep those defensive backs from layin' back there all game.
"If you didn't throw short, draw 'em up so you could eventually beat 'em long, defenses would tell you what to do . . . Good golly, you'd have thought it (the 49ers winning the Super Bowl) was the first time anyone in the world thought about short passes."
Gracious sakes, Sam, lots of teams seem to be realizing the virtues of running all over again. Promise pass, but slip the ball to Riggins, Harris or Walter Payton every chance possible. It might not yield much at the moment; game-long, it's decisive.
For instance, the 273 yards Riggins has gained on those 75 carries averages slightly more than a first down every three cracks. Not much of a return for getting your body twisted at frightening angles and plopped on by a quarter-ton of meanies.
Over 60 minutes, Riggins pounding behind the behinds of the most massive blockers on the planet usually causes the smaller defenders to wilt sometime in the second half. Even better, running plays keep the clock running. They give the opponents less time to establish control.
That helps explain why a largely no-name Redskin defense could be so effective last season, and remains among the most stingy with a vastly less experienced secondary. With Riggins and the Hogs slogging away so effectively, not necessarily gaining lots of yardage each time but wasting lots of time, defenders are where coaches prefer them to be--on the bench.
The extraordinary NFL teams of the last decade, the '72 and '73 Dolphins and the four-time champion Steelers, featured a fullback first and a quarterback second. Terry Bradshaw and Bob Griese each missed huge chunks of a regular season and their teams still eventually won the Super Bowl.
The Riggo-Redskins have been extraordinary the last 19 games.
So the most entertaining team in the NFL, the Chargers, will not win an NFL title until they deserve it. And the very good, very balanced teams will be able to win and have fun at the same time. Payton and the Redskins showed us that last week.
So often, and effectively, had the Redskins run Riggins into the line on third-and-short yardage that when they faked it, Joe Theismann had Clint Didier open by 15 yards for a touchdown pass. Payton threw better than his quarterbacks for one game, because he had run as well as anyone for eight years.
Moving pockets and airborne Xs and Os are the fashionable fluff of football; a flaky fullback and some Hogs never go out of style.