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SUPER BOWL XXIX : No Shocks to Wild Struts : As the Game Has Evolved, Players Have Become More Demonstrative

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cultural revolution that has taken the NFL from O.J. to alongside “The Simpsons” began, not too surprisingly, in the 1960s, with a pair of feet.

The feet belonged to Joe Namath, and every autumn Sunday afternoon, they could be seen clad in white leather, tip-toeing into the pocket.

White shoes . Thirty years ago, professional football was scandalized. Black high-tops or black low-tops, dang it, they were good enough for Bobby Layne. When Namath first took a stroll around Shea Stadium in his cleated white slippers, he might as well have been wearing panty hose--and, as history has documented, he later took care of that, too.

Namath’s white shoes begat Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, the Houston wide receiver who introduced the knock-kneed end-zone shimmy; and he begat Mark Gastineau, who invented the NFL sack dance; and he begat the Washington Redskins’ “Fun Bunch,” whose en masse leap for joy was so much fun, the NFL promptly banned it; and they begat “the Ickey Shuffle,” a brief national craze spawned by a Cincinnati running back named Ickey Woods; and he begat the post- sack George- Brett- going- for- the- fences mock baseball swing of Kansas City defensive end Neil Smith; and he begat the high-steppin’, highlight-grabbin’, groin-pullin’ waltz into the end zone made popular by San Francisco cornerback Deion Sanders.

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And, now, what have we got?

“Now, a guy makes one tackle and you’d think the game was over,” says Jack Faulkner, Ram administrator of football operations and director of pro personnel.

“They celebrate everything--a tackle, a first down, a deflected pass. . . . One tackle, what the hell is that? So you made a tackle. That’s what you’re paid for. But everybody’s jumping around, dancing. You want to shake them and say, ‘Get back in the huddle, get ready to play.’ It kind of takes away from the game.”

Or adds to it, depending on which side of the generational demographic one skews.

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Faulkner, who has spent 30 years with the Rams and 40 in the NFL, admits he’s “an old old-timer” and acknowledges that “a lot of people like that stuff.” Mostly younger people, Fox Television and a slew of NFL sponsors have noticed, which explains why a wide receiver’s over-the-crossbar football dunk receives more air time than the perfectly executed midfield block that sprung him.

“Pro football today is all about entertainment,” says Pat Haden, former NFL quarterback and current football analyst for TBS. “A lot of old-time players like myself don’t appreciate (the showmanship). That isn’t the way we were brought up playing the game. But it’s a difference era now, with a different audience.

“The entertainment threshold is so much higher today. The appetite for entertainment is increasing to the point where, you could argue, that the Bill Parcells style of football might be out of vogue five years from now. Teams might have to play 49er-style football--wide-open offense, lots of passing--to keep the fans interested and in the seats.”

Today’s NFL bump-and-grinders are, of course, yesterday’s impressionable collegians, who watched Miami’s trash-talking, helmet-removing Hurricanes rack up national championships in the 1980s and made some sort of subliminal connection. A player began devoting his college years to getting his moves down; the NFL became, merely, finishing school.

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Haden also believes “the NFL has brought some of it on itself. When I played, we never did that because we were taught we all were part of a team. On a team, one individual didn’t do things like that.

“Now, with free agency, you’re no longer a team. What you are now is a collection of players that’s broken up every three years. There is no more sense of ‘team.’ ”

Five years from now, Faulkner quips, “they’ll change the end zones to stages. Maybe put three rings out there. The players will have their own separate areas where they can perform, and they’ll set it to music. Before the game, they’ll tell each player, ‘This is your song. When you do something good, go to that ring over there and start dancing when the lights go on.’ ”

Haden: “I don’t know how much further it can go. I call Deion Sanders ‘The First Amendment with hips.’ ”

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The average NFL game in the year 2010 could come equipped with truly instant replay--"They will develop a high-tech system to make it quicker,” Faulkner says--and sideline sensors in place of referees and a field 120 yards long.

“I think the guys have outgrown the field,” Haden says. “You can tell this because A) teams don’t score as many points as they used to and B) players are bigger and stronger than they used to be.

“The size of the field hasn’t changed since Princeton and Rutgers played the first game in 1869. You have guys playing today like Junior Seau, who’s 250 pounds and can really move. A guy that big, going that fast, is going to produce a collision that’s going to hurt.

“A bigger field, I think, would mean fewer injuries and more scoring.”

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You have to give the people what they want.

You have to keep the players dancing.

Once, the NFL legislated against that sort of thing, but those days are long gone. Ban the sideline shindig, Haden warns, “and sooner or later, some player is going to sue for his First Amendment rights.”


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