The National Football League just ended a summer (a term used loosely) unlike any in its history. For starters, the league got hauled into court by the Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders, who want to move to Los Angeles. Then came a mini migration to Canada by several star players and top rookies, a $100 million lawsuit brought against the Dallas Cowboys by the developers of a futuristic training device, and the sudden retirements of New England's Russ Francis and Houston's Ken Stabler, followed by Stabler's equally sudden return to the Oilers.
For the time being, things have settled down long enough to get the 1981 regular season off on the right foot. The curtain rises this weekend with a complete slate of games, including an early-bird contest between Minnesota and Tampa Bay Saturday night.
Only two of 28 teams will wind up in the first northern Super Bowl, to be played Jan. 24 in suburban Detroit's Pontiac Silverdome. No one is given the inside track on landing a berth to this indoor struggle.
The league proved to be in a state of flux last year, when only five of 10 teams repeated in the playoffs and Pittsburgh's once-mighty Steelers, who began the season seeking a third straight title, didn't make them at all. It almost figured, then, that Oakland would become the first "wild card" team, or non-division winner, to deliver a championship.
Competitive balance may be reaching its confusing zenith, with dominant teams virtually nonexistent. The days of the gaudy winning percentage appear to be over. The league best the past two seasons has been .750, while during the seven years before that someone always won at an .800, .900, or even 1.000 clip, as Miami did in 1972.
With so many teams bunched together, the league has had to resort to a complex tiebreaking formula to determine which clubs make the playoffs. Last year, for example, seven American Conference teams played musical chairs of five post-season spots in the season's last weekend. And you thought baseball's second season was confusing!
Confusion or not, the public obviously eats up the product. The league enjoyed its highest attendance ever in 1980, with nearly 60,000 spectators per game, or 96 percent capacity.
In an attempt to keep the game entertaining, rules have been tailored to encourage passing. Until these alterations were made several years ago, the long "bomb," football's version of the home run, was headed for the endangered species list. Now, however, the ball gets fire all over the lot.
The pass-to-run ratio is nearly 2 to 1, and the 300-yard passing game no longer a rarity. A team like the San Diego Chargers has really gone airborne. Last season they became the first NFL team with three receivers to gain 1,000 yards with pass receptions -- Kellen Winslow, John Jefferson, and Charlie Joiner.
Though defense are expected to find ways to combat these high-powered passing attacks, quarterbacks are squarely in the limelight.
Those with accurate arms have moved into positions of stardom. Cleveland's Brian Sipe and Philadelphia's Ron Jaworski, the two highest rated passers last season, were presented Player of the Year honors in their respective conferences.
At the same time, quarterbacks who've lost their jobs for the reason or another are dumped unceremoniously onto the open market. Denver's Matt Robinson was picked up by Buffalo for the $100 waiver fee, San Francisco's Steve Deberg was dealth quietly to Denver, and Oakland's Dan Pastorini was placed on waivers.
A year ago Pastorini was one half of a blockbuster trade that saw Oakland and Houston swap starting quarterbacks, Ken Stabler going to the Oilers. An injury shelved Pastorini most of last season, and Jim Plunkett came on to guide the Raiders to a storybook Super Bowl championship.
Now Pastorini's out of work, and Stabler, back on the job after a one-month retirement, is making headlines of an unexpected sort. On the very night he returned to play in the Oiler's last preseason game, a story broke about his alleged association with a convicted gambler. The league has always guarded against even the appearance of evil in this area, and many wonder if Stabler's return has been jeopardized.
One person who hopes not is Houston Coach Ed Biles, Who has taken over for Bum Phillips. Fired by the Oilers, Phillips moved on to New Orleans, where he will try to rebuild the NFL's worst team around Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, a power runner in the mold of Houston's Earl Campbell. In other coaching changes, Joe Gibbs, a former San Diego assistant, now directs the Washington Redskins, and Dan Reeves, a protege of Tom Landry at Dallas, steps in at Denver. The Broncos dumped Red Miller, who took them to the Super Bowl four years ago, because young owner Edgar F. Kaiser Jr. wanted to build an organization he "could spend time growing up with."
Looking ahead, the league must return to the courtroom on Sept. 21, when a new trial begins to decide where the Raiders will play next year. The first case ended with the jurors unable to reach a decision on whether the league can block the relocation efforts of Oakland boss Al Davis. Then next summer, battle lines will be drawn at the bargaining table, as the players and owners try to work out a new basic contract agreement.