It might be hard for any non-boomer members of Hogs Haven to imagine, but I played my last game of football before 1978, which was my first full year in college. I started playing midget football in 1968, playing as an inside lineman on both sides of the ball. I was an average defensive player, but felt right at home as an offensive guard and excelled as a blocker.
I reached the height of my lifetime success in 1971 when my team, the Northside Comets, went undefeated and won the league championship. I was the good goaltender (and defensive tackle) on this team, whose strength was the LG-C-RG inside line that simply towered over the opposition. My only regret from this season is that the LG and I were both named to the All-Star team, but since the All Stars played league champions, we weren’t able to play ON the team. All-Star, instead, playing them in a game my undefeated Northside Comets won 6-0 on a TD and failed run attempt. Remind me for a little while to tell you why we didn’t understand the next point.
When I went to high school, freshman year, I was a little too small for a guard, so the coach transferred me to center, which I loved. The rest of my footballing career was spent slapping the ball and although I have always enjoyed playing on guard, I think the center was my most natural position.
The most memorable play of my career as a center took place on our field at Norfolk Catholic High School (unsurprisingly, the crusaders). Our starting quarterback was a relative giant – he was about 6’3″ tall – but our backup QB was a much more “standard” size – maybe 5’9′ or 5’10”. Their names were Kenny (the giant) and Jimmy (the alternate). For their relative heights, just look at a photo of Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke standing side by side and you’ll get the right idea.
Midway through the game that day, starting QB Kenny caught his little finger in a defender’s helmet and broke it. He was done for the day. Jimmy trotted up the field and into the group. We lined up for the next play. I slammed the ball like I always did and drove into the defender with my block.
What I didn’t realize was that I completely missed Jimmy’s hands with the ball. Not only was he half a foot shorter than Kenny, but his hands looked like Kenny Pickett’s in comparison. I had shoved the ball in my crotch and didn’t even touch Jimmy’s fingers because of course I used to smack the football in the ham-sized mitts by Kenny.
The ball simply fell to the grass and the defense recovered the missed snap, so Jimmy and I had plenty of time to practice our exchange of snaps on the touchline before the attack had to retake the field. We no longer groped.
Deep in my heart, I think I had enough size (at the time) and talent to have played college football in a small program like, say, Old Dominion, but I didn’t even manage to spend 4 years in high school. . In college, I had a non-sporting accident that tore my knee, exposing the bone. The accident was serious enough that the doctors discussed an amputation with my parents. In the end, they fixed my knee and I played ball for two or three years in high school, but the pain eventually got too bad and I stopped playing. 35 years later, I have trouble going down stairs, and even stepping off a sidewalk into the street makes me wince if I’m not thinking, and I go down with my right leg.
Anyway, college football was off the agenda for me, and so by the time 1978 rolled around, I was officially dropped from my football career.
So why do I keep talking about 1978?
Well, because that’s when the NFL changed the blocking rules for offensive linemen. Everything I was taught about blocking when I was young is completely outdated now. Instead everything that offensive linemen do these days would have drawn a penalty flag when I played. Blocking techniques that are standard today, and key skills like punching, were simply unheard of in my time as a guard and center. The rules changed in 1978.
I remembered this when I read an article about Hall of Famer Jerry Kramerone of the best offensive backs of the 1960s. Kramer played for more than a decade in Green Bay under Vince Lombardi, and he was a vital part of the famous Packer Sweep.
Here’s part of that article with Kramer talking about the blocking rules he (and I) played under.
Anyone who was an offensive lineman before 1978 was very limited in their ability to block, whether in the passing game or the running game.
One of those players was legendary Green Bay Packers right guard Jerry Kramer, who played with the Pack from 1958 to 1968. I had another opportunity to speak with Kramer about this situation earlier this week.
“It was a totally different deal than today, Bob,” Kramer said. “Not only were you not allowed to use your hands, but you had to have them on your chest. If you let your hands go away from your body, even if your fists were clenched, and you didn’t reach anything, they might call illegal use of hands.”
Just imagine having to stay so restricted while having to face Alex Karras or Merlin Olsen at defensive tackle. Pass blocking must have been extremely difficult.
“You really had to move past the guy,” Kramer said. “That is why Blurry [Thurston] was so good at it. Fuzz had big feet. He had really fast feet. Moreover, he also had a wonderful sense of balance. He was like a spinning top. The defender punched him and Fuzzy spun and countered the move.
“It’s kind of what had to be done. You had to get in front of the guy and stop him with force. You couldn’t catch it and you couldn’t hold it. And if he was on the brink, he was going to crush you. The only thing you could do was move your feet right.
“You can also change things up from time to time. You could play defensive tackle. But not too much. You didn’t want to overdo it and you had to be very careful. I used to do that a lot, when we passed multiple times in a row, I’d shoot the line of scrimmage like I’m blocking somebody on a running play, and pop the guy real quick, then get back into my position .
“It would take a bit of time for the guy to reboot and orient himself to understand what we were doing. You could also put a lot of weight on your hand in the stance, and look like you’re about to block, and lean forward, and have the defensive tackles sub, thinking it was a racing game.
Kramer talked about one of the things he used to do against Charlie Krueger of the San Francisco 49ers, who was one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL at the time.
“Charlie was a great chase guy,” Kramer said. “You could take a step with your right foot, like you were shooting, which I did a few times with him, not much, he’d be outside the defensive end in the blink of an eye.
“Charlie would instinctively and instantly react that way to the move, thinking I was shooting, and he would be about six yards away before he realized I was shaking him and it was really a passing play.”
This article took me back in time 35 or 40 years to when I dreamed of growing up to be Jerry Kramer or Jim Otto. The kind of mind games that Kramer describes were part of every game I played. At the start of a game, for example, I let the defender assume that I was stupid. I might, for example, tilt my weight to the left, as if I needed to get there first to seal the hole for the running game. Lineman D would, of course, try to beat me there, going straight into the gap I wanted him to. A bump in my shoulder and he was out of the game.
Back then, offensive linemen were taught, in many ways, the opposite of what they are taught today in terms of hand use. As small children, we were actually told to grab our own singlets and stretch out our elbows as if preparing to mimic a chicken. This was the posture used to block. As he got older, the idea of grabbing his own jersey was dropped, but the posture didn’t change much, although arm extensions and grabbing by offensive linemen who were getting beat up happened on every play.
I suspect it was part of the effort to turn the NFL into a more open passing league that was behind the change in blocking rules. The history of the NFL has been a long procession from a brutal ground game to one who, at first, only reluctantly embraced the forward pass. Since then, however, the league has changed the size and shape of the ball as well as the rules to consistently promote more passes, more offensive hits, and more points. It made the NFL the most successful sport, so I guess they have the right formula.
Despite all that, I remember when the NFL announced the blocking rule changes that went into effect the year after I graduated from high school, I felt betrayed. It was as if the league was telling blockers that they could now cheat. Offensive linemen using their hands? ! ? Who had ever heard of such a thing?
I admit that even today, almost 4 1⁄2 decades after the blocking rules were changed, it’s hard for me to watch offensive linemen do what they do in the NFL in 2022. The use of the hand, grabbing, choking and quasi -wrestling that goes on just wasn’t part of the sport I grew up playing – at least not if you played by the rules.
I watch movie breakdowns of today’s NFL pass rushers using hand techniques against NFL tackles, and it makes me a little nostalgic for the days when the game was very different. Basically, I’d rather watch a game with 50 runs and 10 assists than the other way around. What can I say ? I am a dinosaur.
Watch this running game from the first ever NFL-AFL Championship game.
I put arrows to highlight the C and RG running perfect cutting blocks. The LG (63 is HoFer Fuzzy Thurston) and LT are fully engaged with two Chiefs defensemen while the RT and WR (85, Max McGee, who scored the first-ever Super Bowl TD) run a double team from the other side. The TE on the left (81, Marv Fleming) makes a competent block, so there is only one defender in the hole to clear from behind, Jim Taylor (31). You won’t be surprised to learn that the RB, Elijah Pitts (22) scored a TD on this game (you can just see the goal post at the top of the picture, in the middle of the end zone… and there were two of them, not one).
This piece is absolutely beautiful. It’s the kind of football I grew up watching and playing.
Even today, you’ll hear that an offensive line would rather run the ball than pass it. I guess that means I’m still an offensive lineman after all these years, and even now I’m still careful what I do with my hands.
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— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ (@NFL_Journal) May 28, 2022