Monday, September 18, 2006

Go Long

When I went to Catholic high school in Philadelphia, we just had one coach for football and basketball. He took all of us who turned out and had us run through a forest. The ones who ran into the trees were on the football team. ~George Raveling

You were probably too hung over from the first weekend of college football to notice, but September 5 was a momentous day in the history of the gridiron. On September 5, 1906, the St. Louis University Billikens' Bradbury Robinson through the first legal forward pass in the sport's history. It was incomplete.

As Woody “three yards and a cloud of dust” Hayes once said, “Three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad.”

Despite the inauspicious start and Woody Hayes, the forward pass has come to be the centerpiece of collegiate and professional offenses. It would be difficult to imagine the game without it. But if you want to try, picture your average felonious assault, and you'd have a pretty good idea.

In 1905, national concern about the violence of football had reached a peak. People were getting seriously injured, even killed, playing this game. Of course, this was football with the flying wedge, a formation where lineman linked arms and literally steamrollered down the field, concussing and trampling would-be tacklers. This was football where a ball carrier wasn't down until he was held down. “Piling on” wasn't a penalty; it was a required part of defensive play. People were calling for the game to be banned.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who was certainly no weenie, went on record as saying he would push for Congress to pass legislation forbidding the game unless the rules committee did something. He went so far as to make very specific suggestion: Legalize the forward pass. Now any presidential suggestion carries a lot of weight; coming from a man with the drive and personality of Teddy Roosevelt it was an order. Therefore, the rules, and the game itself, were changed forever.

I certainly didn't realize that St. Louis U. was the first school to use the pass. According to an AP article I read in my local paper, they overcame that initial incompletion to generate a convincing aerial offense. Immortal coach Eddie Cochems (no, I've never heard of him either) applied the pass so successfully that they went undefeated, slaughtering one opponent 71-0. Like most people, I was conned by Pat O'Brien and Ronald “The Gipper” Reagan in the film biography of Knute Rockne. In that movie, Rockne brings out the forward pass to beat Army (without Ronald Reagan's help; he comes later in the movie), I think it was. The referees are flummoxed; they don't even know the play is legal. Of course, given the national publicity caused by Roosevelt's support, it was unlikely that the game officials would have been unaware of the play, but it made for a good movie moment.

Fans who have grown up in the last twenty years probably think that passing was the prime offensive weapon in everyone's arsenal from 1906 on. Far from it. Football was basically a ground game right into the sixties. A team that threw more than 20 times a game seldom reached the championship game (the only game in town; no playoffs, remember?). Great quarterbacks like John Brodie and Sonny Jurgenson played on also-rans. The teams that played for the title had strong running games: Cleveland, Green Bay, New York, and so on.

It's not that there weren't great passers. Otto Graham was pinpoint accurate and possibly the best clutch quarterback of all time. Bobby Layne made the Detroit Lions formidable with his passing. But, both of those teams, along with all the others, depended on the running game to set up the pass. If they couldn't run, the passing game went nowhere.

Today, we're in the other extreme; the pass sets up the run. Teams come out flinging the ball then turn to the running game when the defense is spread out defending the receivers. I don't know that it's better, but it certainly is different.

Personally, I have always like the balanced offense, which is still a hallmark of successful teams. You can throw the ball all over the place when you need to, and you can rumble on the ground when you want to. It's hard to defend when a team is able to use the entire playbook every down. It's sad to see a team that has to throw on third-and-three because they can't block for the run. It's just as sad when a team that lives with the run (like Air Force, for example) can't come back when they're more than 10 points down because they have limited options to score quickly.

Of course, the other problem with a lot of passing is that it lengthens the game. The clock stoppages for incomplete passes played a significant role in causing games to run over three hours. Passing also creates more penalties, particularly for holding, which also causes stoppages. Of course, an hour of commercials per game also is a huge factor in creating three-and-a-half hour games, but I'm not even waste wear and tear on my fingers writing about that, since no one is going to reduce the ad stoppages.

So, when you're watching Peyton Manning or your favorite collegiate quarterback filling the air with pigskin, sit back and enjoy it, because the game would be duller without it. Especially enjoy those teams that can surprise you with the pass or the run when you don't expect it, because surprise is the essence of the game. Besides, if you took away the pass, you'd have an entirely different game. You'd have rugby.

Which, as I think of it, isn't THAT bad.

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