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Remembering the old days on Memorial Day weekend: Offensive line blocking before 1978

reminiscing

It may be hard for all the non-Boomers in the Hogs Haven membership to imagine, but I played my last football game before 1978, which was my first full year of college. I started out playing ‘midget’ football in 1968, playing as an interior lineman on both sides of ball. I was an average defensive player, but felt right at home as an offensive guard, and I excelled as a blocker.

I reached the peak of the success that I would enjoy in my lifetime in 1971, when my team, the Northside Comets, went undefeated and won the league championship. I was the right guard (and defensive tackle) on that team, whose strength was the LG-C-RG interior line that simply dominated the opposition. My only regret from that season is that the LG and I were both named to the All-Star team, but since the All Stars played the league champs, we didn’t actually get to play ON the All-Star squad, instead, playing against them in a game that my undefeated Northside Comets won 6-0 on a TD and failed point-after attempt. Remind me some time to tell you why we didn’t get the point-after.

When I went to high school, as a freshman I was bit undersized for a guard, so the coach moved me to center, which I loved. The balance of my football career was spent snapping the ball, and, while I had always enjoyed playing guard, I think center was my more natural position.

The most memorable play of my career as a center was on our home field at Norfolk Catholic High School (unsurprisingly, the Crusaders). Our starting quarterback was a relative giant — he stood about 6’3” — but our backup QB was much more ‘standard’ sized — maybe 5’9’ or 5’10”. Their names were Kenny (the giant) and Jimmy (the backup). For their relative sizes, just look at a picture of Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke standing side-by-side and you’ll have the right idea.

In the middle of the game that day, the starting QB, Kenny, got his pinky finger caught in a defender’s helmet and broke it. He was done for the day. Jimmy trotted on the field and into the huddle. We lined up for the next play. I snapped the ball like I always did and drove into the defender with my block.

What I didn’t realize was that I had completely missed Jimmy’s hands with the football. Not only was he a half-foot shorter than Kenny, but his hands were Kenny Pickett-like in comparison. I had snapped the ball into my crotch and not even hit Jimmy’s fingers because, of course, I was accustomed to slamming the football into Kenny’s ham-sized mitts.

The football simply dropped on the grass, and the defense recovered the botched snap, so Jimmy and I had plenty of time to practice our snap exchange on the sideline before the offense had to retake the field. We didn’t fumble again.

In my heart of hearts, I think I had enough size (in those days) and talent to have played college football at a small program like, say, Old Dominion, but I didn’t even make it through 4 years of high school ball. In junior high, I had a non-sports accident that tore my knee open, exposing the bone. The accident was bad enough that the doctors discussed an amputation with my parents. In the end, they repaired my knee, and I played two or three years of high school ball, but the pain eventually became too much, and I stopped playing. 35 years later, I struggle to walk down stairs, and even stepping off a curb into the street causes me to wince if I don’t think, and step down with my right leg.

In any event, college football was not on the agenda for me, and so by the time 1978 rolled around, I was officially retired 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 obsolete now. Pretty much everything that offensive linemen do these days would have drawn a penalty flag when I played. The blocking techniques that are standard today, and key skills like hand-punch, were simply unheard of in my time as a guard and center. The rules changed in ‘78.

I was reminded of this when I read an article about Hall of Famer player, Jerry Kramer, one of the best offensive guards of the 1960s. Kramer played for over a decade in Green Bay under Vince Lombardi, and he was a critical element in the famous Packer Sweep.

Here’s a portion of that article with Kramer talking about the blocking rules that he (and I) played under.

Anyone who was an offensive lineman before 1978, was very restricted with their ability to block, whether in the passing game or the running game.

One of those players was the legendary right guard of the Green Bay Packers, Jerry Kramer, who played with the Pack from 1958 through 1968. I had another opportunity to talk with Kramer about that situation earlier this week.

“It was a totally different deal as opposed to today, Bob,” Kramer said. “Not only were you not allowed to use your hands, you had to have them up on your chest. If you let your hands get away from your body, even if your fists were clinched, and you didn’t reach for anything, they could call illegal use of hands.”

Just imagine having to stay that restricted while having to take on the likes of Alex Karras or Merlin Olsen at defensive tackle. Pass-blocking had to be extremely difficult.

“You really had to move in front of the guy,” Kramer said. “That’s why Fuzzy [Thurston] was so good at it. Fuzz had great feet. He had really quick feet. Plus, he had a wonderful sense of balance too. He was like a spinning top. The defender would hit him and Fuzzy would spin and counter the move.

“That’s kind of what you had to do. You had to get in front of the guy and stop him with force. You couldn’t grab him and you couldn’t hold him. And if he was on the edge, he was going to get by your ass. The only thing you could do was move your feet really well.

“You could also change things up once in awhile. You could mess with the defensive tackle. But not too much. You didn’t want to overdo it and you had to be pretty careful. I would often times, when we would be passing several times in a row, I would fire off the line of scrimmage like I’m blocking someone on a running play, and I would pop the guy really quick and then pop back into my stance.

“It would take the guy a little bit to re-start himself and orient himself to figure out what the hell we were doing. You could also put a lot of weight on your hand in the stance, and look like you were about to drive-block, and lean way forward, and have the defensive tackles submarine, thinking it was a running play.”

Kramer talked about one of the things he used to do against Charlie Krueger of the San Francisco 49ers, who was one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL at the time.

“Charlie was a great pursuit guy,” Kramer said. “You could take a step with your right foot, like you were pulling, which I did a few times with him, not a lot, he would be outside the defensive end in a heartbeat.

“Charlie would instinctively and instantly react that way to the move, thinking I was pulling, and he would be outside about six yards before he figured out that I was jerking him around and that it was really a pass play.”

This article took me back in time 35 or 40 years to when I had dreams of growing up to become Jerry Kramer or Jim Otto. The kind of mind games that Kramer describes were part of every game that I played. Early in a game, for example, I would let the defender assume I was stupid. I might, for example, lean my body weight obviously to the left, as if I needed to get there first to seal the hole for the running play. The D-lineman would, of course, try to beat me there, stepping right into the gap I wanted him in. One bump from my shoulder and he was out of the play.

Back then, offensive linemen were, in many ways, taught the opposite of what they are taught today in terms of hand use. As little kids, we were actually told to grab our own jersey and hold our elbows out like we were preparing to imitate a chicken. That was the posture used for blocking. As we got older, the idea of grabbing your own jersey was dropped, but the posture didn’t change much, though arm extensions and grabbing by offensive linemen who were getting beaten happened every play.

I suspect that it was part of the effort to turn the NFL into more of a wide-open passing league that was behind the change in blocking rules. The NFL story has been a long procession from a brutal ground game to one that, at first, only reluctantly embraced the forward pass. Ever since, however, the league has changed the size and shape of the ball along with the rules to consistently favor more passing, more offensive success, and more scoring. It’s made the NFL the most successful sport around, so I guess they have the formula right.

Despite all of this, I remember that when the NFL announced the blocking rule changes that took effect the year after I graduated high school, I felt betrayed. It seemed 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 confess that, even today, nearly 4 12 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 hand use, the grabbing, the choking and quasi-wrestling that goes on simply wasn’t a part of the sport that I grew up playing — at least, not if you were following the rules.

I watch film breakdowns of today’s NFL pass rushers using hand techniques against NFL tackles, and it makes me a bit wistful for the days when the game was very different. At heart, I’d rather watch a game with 50 runs and 10 passes than the opposite. What can I say? I’m a dinosaur.

Look at this running play from the first-ever NFL-AFL Championship game.

I’ve put arrows to highlight the C and RG executing perfect cut blocks. The LG (63 is HoFer Fuzzy Thurston) and LT are fully engaged with two Chiefs defenders while the RT and WR (85, Max McGee, who scored the first-ever super bowl TD) execute a double team on the other side. The TE on the left (81, Marv Fleming) is making a competent block, so there is only one defender in the hole to be cleaned up by the fullback, Jim Taylor (31). You won’t be surprised to learn that the RB, Elijah Pitts (22) scored a TD on this play (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 just one).

This play is a thing of beauty. This is the kind of football that I grew up watching and playing.

Even today, you’ll hear it said that an offensive line would rather run the ball than pass the ball. I guess that means that I’m still an offensive lineman after all these years, and even now, I’m always careful about what I do with my hands.