When the NFL started, it leaned heavily on the running game. This was due to a number of factors but a lot of it stemmed from lack of skill or offensive play calling. This parlayed into offenses having a desire for mammoth offensive linemen as they could move anything in their path. The defenses’ response to this was also to get bigger in order to withstand the continued bombardment of flesh and muscle. This continued for decades as both sides attempted to stack muscle against muscle, pound against pound. One of the most notable examples of this was famed offensive lineman Joe Jacoby. In college in the beginning of the 1980’s, he would have been considered a man of massive stature but he was ridiculed by the NFL for his lack of size. Being told by the offensive line coach for the Washington Redskins that he had a shot at an NFL career if he got bigger. He stood six foot seven and weighed 275 pounds. Eventually, he did bulk up and had a lengthy career.
Commonly referred to as the big uglies, lineman are often times the largest and strongest members of the team. While technique and athleticism are the two biggest drivers in offensive line performance, being the Hulk on the field does not hurt either. But, while linemen are often recognized for their physical stature today, in the genesis of football they looked just like anyone else. And while they might still look huge, they are actually getting smaller.
When football was first created, the game was played very differently that it is today. The forward pass had not yet been invented and it was true smash mouth football. Yet even though teams ran the ball nearly every play, offensive linemen looked just like anyone else. “In the 1920’s through the early 1940’s, most players were similar in size because substitutions were mostly prohibited” according to NFL OPS “Players were largely interchangeable and played every play” It was until the second world war that substitutions started to become more common as there was a shortage of players that were athletically able to play every play. This gave rise to specialization as players could focus on one side of the ball.
As rosters gradually expanded and coaches started to scheme to their players’ strong suits, players became highly specialized. In the offensive linemen’s case they got much bigger and much stronger. In 1920, the average size of an offensive lineman was six foot and 211 pounds. By the year 1950, it had risen to six foot two and 234 pounds. And finally by the 1990’s it had ballooned up to six foot four and 300 pounds. This sharp rise in height and weight was to counter how defenses were getting bigger as well as how run focused the league was. For the first 90 or so years of its existence, the NFL was a run first league but, as play calling and tactics have changed, so have the men in the trenches.
This human arms race kept escalating for years as both sides of the ball attempted to gain an advantage in the trenches. It seems though that things might start to be plateauing as offenses start to shift to more of a pass focused attack. The NFL finally started to embrace a style that has been popularized by colleges for decades. Systems like the West Coast Offense and the Air Raid had proliferated in the college ranks for years before making their pro debut. Some teams like the San Francisco 49ers utilized these systems and to devastating effect as they terrorized defenses on their way to an incredible trophy haul. When the system was first introduced to the NFL by Bill Walsh first as an offensive assistant in Cincinnati and then in San Francisco in 1979, it was deemed soft and finesse.
The main goal of the offense was to stretch the defense with horizontal passing plays which in effect also served as runs. These could be used to wear down a defense and make them more susceptible to passing plays which were more vertically inclined or even long run plays. These short yardage high percentage passing plays meant high completion percentages for quarterbacks and helped the offenses to stay on the field longer as they were able to convert on third downs. This form of offense also helped to start the spread of the no huddle offense which involves the offense running a high octane operation which involves the offense getting the play signaled in from the sideline rather than the quarterback telling them in the huddle.
These new types of offense demanded a new type of lineman, still a very large person but one who could keep up with the demands of these new offenses. As these new offenses started to flourish, pass blocking became a premium skill as quarterbacks could drop back to pass 30-45 times a game (the NFL record held by Drew Bledsoe is 70 attempts whereas the college record is 83 held by Drew Brees). With this new obsession with passing, pass rushing exploded in importance.
Defenses began to employ specialized players whose primary purpose was to rush the passer on critical downs such as third and long. The average defensive linemen also started to get faster and a little bit smaller as they still had to be able to hold up against the run but also be able to go and rush the passer. Defenses also dreamed up spectacular new blitzes and coverage in response to this offensive renaissance. In fact, many of the best overall defensive players would have been evaluated as too small to play in the NFL of old. The best example, Aaron Donald, stands a mere six foot one and weighs 284 pounds yet causes absolute destruction among the offensive lines of the league. This is in part why offensive linemen have started to get smaller, so they can keep up with this new breed of athletic and quick defensive linemen. Not all teams have embraced this new “small ball” yet the numbers show that many of the top offenses in the league employ less traditional offensive lines. “Five of the league’s seven lightest lines played for offenses ranked in the top half of the yards-per-game category” said Sam Borden “Including Atlanta which had the No. 1 offense”.
According to statistics from fftoday.com, only the Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans ran the ball more than they threw it in 2018. With the Seahawks running the ball 55.6% of the time. On the opposite end of the spectrum the Pittsburgh Steelers threw the ball 66.6% of the time. A few years ago, the number of teams that ran it more than they threw up would be considerably more. With NFL offenses putting up record point and yardage totals, it seems as if this trend will only continue. And so with more pass attempts, offenses need linemen who can block the quicker and more agile defensive linemen. For that, they look to men who only giants could consider small.