The Second-Biggest Season : Exhibition Games Get Football Fans' Attention; NFL Needs One Improvement: Better Play-Calling

Again it's late summer in America, and to sports fans, that means, among other things, the reappearance of pro football. This is the NFL's 75th anniversary season.

And as the fun begins, here are three of the year's most frequently asked questions:

--Why do so many Americans spend so many summer days and evenings viewing exhibition football--a fall sport?

--Why do pro football players spend so much of their summer in training camps?

--Who should call NFL plays--coaches or quarterbacks?

Some answers:

* Football fans like exhibition games.

There is more public support for the NFL exhibition season than many people realize. To American spectators, according to TV ratings, it is the second-most popular of all sports seasons--behind only the NFL regular season.

* Pro football's training camps are indispensable.

They are often wrongly compared to baseball's spring training--which is in part a publicity gimmick. Football is an arduous, intricate team sport whose appeal would diminish without a lengthy series of hard days at training camp.

* Quarterbacks call better plays than coaches.

In a more perfect world, the NFL's training camps and the exhibition schedule would be used to give quarterbacks leadership experience.

The needless sameness of pro games, often criticized, stems mainly from the league's many conservative coaches, who keep sending in similar, safe, conventional plays. Most pro clubs would improve noticeably with quarterback-called plays, leading to improvements in the quality of their sport.

In particular, the Raiders would have been a Super Bowl team last season with better game-day decisions. They can win it this season if they let quarterback Jeff Hostetler call the plays. That should be their top priority.

THE FINAL SCORE: LEAST IMPORTANT EXHIBITION STAT

To measure public interest in the various U.S. sports, one significant barometer is the number of TV viewers.

The most recent Nielsen findings:

For every 2 million Americans who watch NFL regular-season games, there are 1,150,000 viewers for NFL exhibitions, 742,000 for NBA regular-season games, and 530,000 for baseball's regular-season games.

The latest full-schedule national rating averages:

NFL regular season, 13.2; NFL exhibition season, 7.6; NBA regular season, 4.9; major league baseball regular season, 3.5.

On ABC in recent weeks, the average American TV rating for the 11-game, once-in-a-lifetime World Cup tournament in the U.S. was 5.3.

Exhibition football seems out of place in that company, some would say. What's there to like about an exhibition?

Not the result, obviously. The least-important exhibition-game statistic is the final score, and largely for that reason sports fans prefer regular-season games.

In most NFL cities, indeed, the distribution of exhibition tickets is tied to regular-season ticket sales.

For TV spectators, however, there are no tie-ins. It's a fact that nobody forces Americans to turn to televised exhibition football.

Yet thousands do.

Here are some of the reasons why:

First, there are more fans for football than other sports.

Second, in a typical exhibition-game first half, the teams tend to match their best players in what becomes something of a test of comparative strengths. Football fans view it as a mini-preview of the fall season.

Third, during the exhibition schedule, they also compare new and old players. Football fans enjoy keeping up, forecasting the future, nudging the coach.

And, fourth, the better TV commentators--John Madden, Pat Haden, Bob Trumpy--are usually informative.

And for football fans, that's enough.

ARE YOU (PHYSICALLY) READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?

As for the training-camp season, the excitement has always appealed to many of the hangers-on.

For the better part of half a century, it has seemed that the three best days of the year are Christmas, the first day of vacation, and the first day at training camp.

To football players, however, the camp season is something else. To many, it can be a grind.

The Rams, who have been training in California for 49 years, once brought in 150 candidates and ran them around in the oppressive Redlands heat until several passed out and dropped.

Said former Ram coach Sid Gillman, "That's how they used to cut the squad."

Training camp in those days was for running players into condition.

These days, most veterans, insuring their $700,000 salaries, work out year-around. And with as many as 80 candidates at any training camp, modern coaches prey on the players' minds, mainly, not their muscles.

The Raiders, for instance, on their first day at camp last month on the grounds of Oxnard's Radisson Suite Hotel, seemed physically ready for a game.

But they wouldn't have played well. Theirs is a sport with hundreds of different offensive and defensive procedures--each involving precise teamwork--that must be learned, practiced, and mastered.

That takes time.

So their summers are still crowded with all-day and all-evening meetings and practices. And although they still don't like it much, they wouldn't be a team in September without the grind of July and August.

Camp followers don't always understand the extent of the problem.

For example, hotel man Barron Hilton was unfamiliar with most training camp routines in 1960, when he founded the Los Angeles--now San Diego--Chargers.

Hilton, a former prep receiver, had made a fast start in pro ball by hiring the most distinguished coaches of his day, with Gillman in charge assisted by Al Davis, Al LoCasale, Jack Faulkner, Joe Madro and Chuck Noll. Today, three of the six, Gillman, Davis and Noll, are in the Hall of Fame.

But at the Chargers' first training camp, when a photographer wanted Hilton to pose with his four best receivers, he readily agreed--and asked LoCasale to pick them out.

"I'm afraid I can't do that," said LoCasale, who is now No. 2 to the No. 1 Raider, Davis. "We've got 12 prospects at those positions, and I never saw any of them before."

Said Hilton, "Don't worry about it, Al. Just pick out the four who are going to make the team."

Those were difficult days--for others, too. Absent were two modern training-camp landmarks, the camera tower and a helmet pump.

Forty years ago, NFL coaches waited a week for practice-field movies. Today's videotapes are instantly ready for viewing.

Forty years ago, nobody's helmet fit. That's one reason football players look so funny in the old pictures. Today, the players, using an air pump, carefully shape their expensive helmets to their heads vary considerably in size.

"The players are different, too," said Raider equipment manager Richard Romanski, whose opening day this summer was his 32nd. "Give me the old-timers. These millionaires are tough to handle."

But they work just as hard.

WHY RUN ONE MAN INTO EIGHT DEFENSIVE LINEMEN?

NFL executives are missing another chance this summer to school their passers as play-callers in training-camp scrimmages and exhibition games.

Instead, fretting about noisy stadiums, they have wired their quarterbacks with helmet radios to make it easier for coaches to call the plays.

That is a major NFL mistake.

Coaches have too much control already.

Too often on game day, all around the league, their first thought is for survival--and, too often, that leads coaches to send in safe, unimaginative, unexciting plays that they can plausibly explain.

An off-tackle run that fails can be blamed on the blockers, or, in Los Angeles, on the ballcarrier.

The single most misunderstood aspect of today's high-tech football is the value of judicious play-calling.

We're talking about a lost art.

In a notorious recent example, Raider coaches, with the better players, were taken out of the playoffs last winter by the plays they called at Buffalo, where they opposed a team they should have eliminated--a team they led at the half.

For 30 minutes, the Raiders had run the ball with some success, after which TV announcer O.J. Simpson asked both teams about their second-half strategy.

Said the Raiders, "We're going to come out running."

Said the Bills, "We're going into a four-four front to stuff their run."

And with millions of sports fans apprised of their intentions, both teams did just as they had said.

The Raiders kept running and punting to the Bills until they blew the game.

But it needn't have happened.

With a player as their play-caller, the Raiders, in the critical moments that day, would surely have thrown more often. For players are aware of sudden shifts from three-four to four-four fronts. They become immediately aware of any front that leaves only three opponents in the pass defense.

And Hostetler is more than just another player. A Super Bowl winner as recently as 1991, he is by far the best quarterback the Raiders have had since Jim Plunkett, who called the plays the last two times they were in the Super Bowl--where they won games XV and XVIII.

What a good signal caller understands--what Hostetler should be working on this summer in training camp and exhibition games--is the gospel according to John Unitas, the Hall of Fame quarterback who said, "Take what the defense gives you."

Although that hasn't been a favorite Raider way, it's the way most Super Bowls are won.

It can mean passing when the opponents brace for a run. It can mean running if they're lining up in a pass defense.

And any good quarterback can be taught to call plays that way. In fact, it is his natural tendency.

Quarterbacks know how easy it is to complete a pass on first down. They know how hard they're hit when asked to stand in the pocket on third and long.

Give a quarterback his head, he'll move you down the field the easiest way.

All of the above is crucial to this year's Raiders, whose chief executive, Davis, has signed--for the second year in a row--Super Bowl talent in most positions.

Moreover, the Raider coaches, Art Shell and his assistants, are experienced, proficient leaders.

They just shouldn't be calling the plays.

They do deserve prior knowledge of what their quarterback is up to. The radios should be in their hats.

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