Red Smith’s strange ideas about football

Though he was born and raised in Green Bay — about a mile from where Curly Lambeau lived for a while — Red Smith wasn’t what you’d call a Football Guy. The famed sportswriter grew up, after all, in a baseball world. It wasn’t until the early ’70s, when he was almost 70, that the NFL became No. 1 in America’s heart.

Maybe that explains the cockamamie notions he floated in a 1958 column for the New York Herald Tribune. He attributed the first to a reader, one Robert L. Talbot of Summit, N.J., who claimed to be a “spokesman of a group of fans.” Talbot wrote:

“Whenever a team is behind by more than seven points it should be entitled to receive the kickoff regardless of which team has scored. [Say a] team that has been behind, 30 to 13, makes the score 30 to 20. This team still trails by seven points and so is entitled to receive the next kickoff.

“Another touchdown would make the score 30 to 27. With only a three-point difference, present rules would apply and the team scored against would elect to receive. We believe this would sustain interest at a higher pitch right up to the end.”

College all-star games used to have a rule like that, in case the score got too one-sided. (Perhaps they still do. I stopped watching them years ago.) Anyway, this Talbot fellow wanted to turn pro football into the North-South game — and Red was all for it!

“[T]his is no reckless, half-baked device to louse up established practice and open the gate for wild scoring,” he wrote. “The privilege of receiving the kickoff is no guarantee that a score will result, and there is a safety factor in the provision requiring an eight-point difference in scores (or a nine-point difference in college, probably) before the old order changeth. . . .

“The feeling here is that Mr. Talbot’s proposal is worth a trial. Chances are it would have little effect on the outcome of games. Certainly it would never enable a poor team to beat a good team. Yet if it helped at all to narrow the point spread between poorly matched teams, if it kept alive the possibility of a laggard catching up, it would serve its purpose.”

I’m just gonna let that argument speak for itself — and move on to Red’s second bout of temporary insanity: eliminating the clock and having games limited to a proscribed number of plays. His logic:

There is no good reason why a football game should end after 60 minutes of timed action and inaction. A championship fight goes 15 rounds. A golf match is 18 or 36 holes. Some games like soccer or hockey or basketball or polo must be clocked because there’s no other way of measuring them.

This isn’t so of football. On five minutes’ notice, statisticians could come up with figures showing how many plays a pair of live teams ought to run in any game or in any quarter of a game. There is no reason at all why a game couldn’t be measured by so many plays a quarter, rather than so many minutes.

There would then be no more of this nonsense about stopping the clock or running out the clock. Then the dial over the scoreboard would show not how much time remained but how many plays remained. Strategy wouldn’t change much, but a lot of sharp practice would be eliminated.

Yes, Red, let’s make football more like baseball, The Game That Has No Clock. All I can say is, it must have been one heck of a slow day in the Herald Trib sports department.

I don’t want anyone thinking I hold Red in low esteem. On the contrary, almost an entire bookshelf in my study is taken up with his collections. I just found this particular column hysterical. He did plenty of terrific football writing, too, like this passage on the Ice Bowl between the Packers and Cowboys:

It was the coldest Dec. 31 in the Green Bay records – 13 below zero at kickoff with a perishing wind carrying misery out of the northwest at 15 miles an hour. In spite of the 14 miles of electric heating cable under the turf, Lambeau Field froze, though not too hard for cleats. On the sidelines, players huddled under canvas hogans warmed by electric heaters, but out on the field there was no mercy.

No penguin is Bart Starr, of Montgomery, Ala. Fleeing from the rush of [Willie] Townes and [George] Andrie, he was harried back to his 7-yard line, where Townes jarred the ball out of his stiffened fingers. Andrie scooped it up and the score was 14-7.

No polar bear is Willie Wood. On a Dallas punt, he fumbled a fair catch and the Cowboys’ Phil Clark recovered on the Green Bay 17 [which led to a field goal].

Another of his dispatches on the game carried this dateline:

GREEN BAY, Wis. (BY SLED DOG) –

Finally, here he is in 1965 on the violence issue — specifically as it pertained to quarterbacks:

The mug shots of all professional quarterbacks should be displayed in the post office under the caption: “Wanted — Dead or Alive.” If John Dillinger were around today, he would be wearing jersey No. 19 like Johnny Unitas or 15 like . . . Bart Starr or 12 like Charley Johnson.

It isn’t pro football any longer. The name of the game now is get the quarterback. If [commissioner] Pete Rozelle had J. Edgar Hoover’s job, there would be 14 names — one from each team in the National [Football] League — on the FBI’s list of the 10 most wanted criminals.

It is shocking, but it is legal under the rules and probably nothing can be done about it without emasculating the game. . . . The pros have come as close as sweaty ingenuity can come to reducing an 11-man game to a game for two — the passer and the receiver. This makes the quarterback as important as the pitcher in baseball. It also makes him a prime target of ungentle monsters whose aim is to win and who know the shortest route to victory is straight over his cadaver.

Beautiful.

But pro football clearly wasn’t Red’s favorite sport — and he didn’t try to hide it. In 1960 he referred to it as “the high-scoring game of beanbag that masquerades as football in the pro leagues.”

Well, if that’s the way you feel about it . . .

One thought on “Red Smith’s strange ideas about football

  1. ken denlinger

    Red gets credit for saying at that Ice Bowl: “College basketball might be corrupt, but it’s indoors.” Congrats and Best wishes.

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