How Big are Big Uglies?

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

American football is one of the most complicated and beautiful sports on Earth. 11 men on each team struggling for dominance on a 100-yard rectangular field. Each of the players fulfills a certain and specific role for their team. Whether they are offense or defense or special teams, each player has been precisely prepared for their job. Quarterbacks have worked their throwing arms into condition to be able to throw accurate and catchable passes. Wide receivers have worked on their speed and their ability to make quick cuts in the open field. Running backs have put on weight and muscle mass to be able to more effectively prepare themselves for the physical pounding that they endure every game. Offensive lineman have worked in the weight room to add physical size and mass to fill out their frame

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.

You need to add a widget, row, or prebuilt layout before you’ll see anything here. 🙂

Continue Reading

The NFL: Then and Now

Legend. Pro Bowler. The best Philadelphia Eagle to ever wear number 16. Some groups even call him a Hall of Famer.

I just call him Popop Norm.

After being drafted by the Washington Redskins with the second overall pick of the 1961 NFL Draft, Norm Snead played 16 seasons for a combined five franchises. Although his playing days are long over, my Popop Norm still enjoys watching the games on TV. I enjoy talking to him and getting his unique perspective on the game and how it has changed.

The game back then was very different to what it is now.

Popop Norm was so skinny when he arrived at Wake Forest that after his first football practice when the team was heading for the showers, an equipment manager called out “Someone put a towel down over the drain, we don’t wanna lose our new QB!” By the time he got to the NFL he was 6’4”, weighed 215 pounds, and was considered one of the bigger guys in the league, especially for quarterback. In today’s NFL, that size is average for a player of his position. Players today are bigger, faster and stronger. During my grandad’s playing time, he described how there were only four to five players in the whole league who weighed 300+ pounds. Now, each team in the league has at least ten 300+ pound players. One anomaly my grandad told me about was Bob Brown, an offensive tackle who played with my grandad on the Eagles. Brown was 6’4”, weighed 300 pounds, and according to my grandad, he could run a 4.6 40 yard dash. Probably somewhat of an exaggeration, but in today’s game, it is not uncommon to see gigantic linemen running sub-5.0 times.

When I asked about other standout players, my grandad described Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas as “exceptional,” and said how dominant Alan Page was when they played together in Minnesota. Page, an imposing defensive tackle, became the first defensive player to be named league MVP since the award’s inception in 1957. Playing in four Pro Bowls throughout his career, Popop Norm certainly saw some of the very best. Described as more of a social gathering rather than a competitive game, the Pro Bowl seems to have changed very little over the years. One year Popop Norm had a locker next to Jim Brown for the game, and my grandad described him as “jacked to the point where he had muscles on his big toe.”  Today’s game features “exceptional” quarterbacks as well, such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees.  Players like JJ Watt and Adrian Peterson also stand out as a testament to how the league has evolved.

Although the physical size of the players does not affect the length of the game, an increase in player personalities has caused some changes. Games are longer nowadays thanks to TV timeouts and commercials, as well as instant replays and booth reviews for penalties. While the latter wasn’t an issue for Popop Norm’s games, he did tell me a funny story about an offensive lineman in Washington. According to my grandad and other sources, Fran O’Brien would illegally hold on every play and only get flagged twice a game. He explained to my grandad that the referees couldn’t call it every play, or they would never finish the game. An interesting strategy that I’m not sure would work in today’s game. Rule changes have led to more penalties, as well as coach challenges and requests for reviews. As for TV time not showing the game, players were involved in endorsements, but it was nowhere near the extent that it is now. Popop Norm told me about making money off commercials for Vitalis Hair Tonic and Miller Lite. He also would do appearances to meet fans and sign autographs. He charged $150 per appearance during his time in Washington and Philadelphia, but once he got to New York with the Giants, he couldn’t keep up with the growing number of appearances in addition to his practice schedule. New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, told him he could just simply start charging more money per appearance. After going from $150 to $200, then $200 to $500 and even $500 to $1000, the number of appearances didn’t falter. I think that was part of the reason why Popop Norm told me New York was his favorite place to play. The influence players have off the field has grown with their increased involvement in endorsements.

Just because the players were smaller and the games were shorter, doesn’t mean the physical toll on players was any less back then. My grandad suffered his fair share of injuries in his career, including a separated shoulder, torn ligaments in his knees, and a broken leg. During his time with the Eagles, the NFL instituted the “Two Step Rule,” allowing pass rushers to take only two steps before hitting the quarterback after the ball had been thrown. My grandad laughed as he told me how he remembers Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert commenting on the rule by saying, “Why don’t you put skirts on them?

I was surprised when my grandad told me he would rather be hit up high than low, because of how much wear and tear he had on his knees. Nowadays there is so much talk about concussion prevention and helmet to helmet hits. Although Popop Norm said he believes he only had three concussions during his entire career, I’m not so sure I believe him based on the lack of caution and understanding related to head injuries back then. Popop Norm described the concussion protocol on the sideline of a game beginning with a doctor checking to see if a player could stand independently and didn’t appear dizzy and disoriented. Then the doctor would say under his breath, “I’m holding up two fingers,” then raise two fingers on his hand and ask, “How many fingers am I holding up?” After correctly answering the question, the player was good to get back on the field. Popop Norm told me about his worst concussion where he blacked out after the hit, was taken off the field and didn’t play the remainder of the game. He then said that he only remembered the game from watching film days later. Increases in helmet technology, injury prevention techniques, and general caution have improved player safety and helped extend careers.

16 seasons in the NFL is a long career, for any time period. Popop Norm told me that he was able to play for so long because he truly enjoyed his time working out, practicing and playing. He said that when he first got into the league, a veteran told him there were three ways to get himself out of the league: he could drink or drug his way out, he could eat his way out, or he could lose his strength and injure his way out. Popop Norm took good care of his body and worked out a lot, but in the end injuries got to him. His knees were the worst and he had seven operations after he retired. Six of them were performed by UVA’s Frank McCue, who my grandad spoke very highly of. During one of his knee operations with Dr. McCue, the doctor noticed some nerve damage in a toe that had experienced frostbite during a freezing game with the 49ers in Cleveland. Popop Norm described the incident from 10 years prior, that the team showed up in Cleveland and had a Saturday morning practice in 77 degree weather. Then after a surprise snowstorm Saturday night and a tarp malfunction on Sunday, the field was wet and he thought his feet were going to freeze off. Dr. McCue decided to amputate part of one toe during that knee operation and didn’t think anything of it. Of course, when the grandkids visited Popop Norm in retirement in Naples, Florida, he told the youngsters that the toe had been bitten off by an alligator!

The last of his knee operations was a titanium double knee replacement. It originally helped him, but now in his 81st year, he struggles to walk and falls a lot. He no longer drives since he has little feeling in his legs. His calendar is filled with doctors’ appointments and medication refills. And yet, Popop Norm is my last living grandparent. My mother’s parents were slightly older, but neither experienced the same physical toll of 16 years in the NFL. My paternal grandmother was a year younger than her ex-husband and lived an active, healthy life. Our family was shocked when she suddenly passed away this past summer. Sad to say, but most of my family would not have bet on Popop Norm to be the last one standing. Even Grama Susie said to my aunts, “I can’t believe Norman is going to outlive me.”

The experiences my grandad had in the NFL are quite different than those of the players today. After the physicality of what he went through in his career, I’m glad he’s still around to share his stories. I feel honored to relay those stories and will cherish everything he has taught me.

Continue Reading

Wendys, VHS, and Football Film

Luke Goldstein at UVA Football Practice

“I was just standing there in the parking lot of a rural North Carolina Wendy’s” Luke Goldstein remarked “I looked like I was about to do a drug deal”

            Walk into the University of Virginia Football offices and turn right and you enter a hive of activity. The analysts sit in the back end of the cavernous room, eyes glued to their computers. As you look towards the front of the room, you are forced to take in a wall that is covered in televisions. As you look to the left and the right, you can find nearly a dozen desktop computers scattered around the front half of the room. Players and coaches alike sit at these monitors, gathering the intel that they need in order to win that Saturday. And in the midst of all these machines and people, you find Luke Goldstein.

            Goldstein’s desk sits in the front left corner of the video room, on his desk he has two computer monitors and a television directly above him. Covering his desks are memos from the athletic department, the head coach, and personal mementos.

            If the University of Virginia football program was Batman, Goldstein would be Alfred. As the team’s video coordinator, he serves coaches and players video on a digital platter, and they use it to understand their enemies. The amount of things that he helps the team with seem to grow every week. Ever since he started the job in 2002, he has pioneered a number of changes in the video department. This has led him to become the assistant athletics director for video services in 2013.

            Goldstein is originally from New York, growing up he knew that he wanted to be on television. This is a passion that followed him into college at Syracuse. But, his desire to be in front of the camera faded after he found out he couldn’t ever remember his lines. This led him to go behind the camera and this kick-started his career.

            He started in the equipment room for the football team and then later transitioned into shooting video for the rest of the athletics department. He shot lacrosse and also worked with the basketball team.

            After college he was able to secure a job with ESPN and he helped with the program Sports Center. Fortunately, after a few months he got a call from his old coordinator and he wanted him to come down and interview for a job with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He flew down to Florida on his own dime and interviewed for the job. He didn’t have a place to stay so he stayed with his old coworker and helped him hang Christmas lights. It was shortly after this that he decided to hire Goldstein for the job. This was a risky move as the head coach, Tom Coughlin, did not want him to be hired as he wanted someone with more experience. Thankfully for Goldstein, the video coordinator disregarded his head coach and hired him anyways.

            When Goldstein was hired, the Jaguars had just become a NFL franchise and it had to sign players to its roster. The first thing that Goldstein shot for the Jaguars was a free agent tryout. The problem was, he had never shot football before so he screwed it up until they showed him how.

            Football is shot in three different ways. The first is the game clock. This shot prefaces the play and gives context such as down and distance, who possess the ball, and time left in the game. The second shot is a wide shot which shows all the players on the field. This shows the whole play and all the routes and motions that players do. The final shot is the tight shot which is directly behind the offensive line. This helps to show blocking and blitzes by the lines.

            When Goldstein was with the Jaguars, they used all tapes to document their games and practices on. So he shot practice with a Beta SP. They had multiple racks of DVRs and processors so that they could separate the film between offense, defense, and play/blitz types. This whole process took about two to three hours and was one of the most advanced systems that money could buy. Goldstein estimates that the whole setup costed millions of dollars.

            After working for the Jaguars for three seasons he took the head video coordinator job for the University of Southern California football team. He was able to work with athletes like Carson Palmer and coaches such as Marvin Lewis. This was the first time that he was in charge of the whole process.

            He had to overhaul the entire way that the team shot and sifted through film as the old way was very outdated. He came to this profound conclusion after it took him six hours to sort the film after his first practice “I wanted to quit” Goldstein remarked.

The technology that they were using was similar to the NFL but it also lagged behind in the way that the film was sorted. He had multiple decks of VCRs and computers in order to be able to sort through the film quicker. It was during his time at USC that film started to go more digital. But, they still had to transport all the film the old fashion way.

Due to the continued heavy reliance on tapes to store film, video coordinators had to manually ship the film to other schools so they could use it to scout. This process could take a number of days especially if the team was on the opposite coast. If the game was played on Saturday, the worst case scenario was that the film wouldn’t be there until Wednesday.

Coordinators had to drive the film to the airport and ship it from there. And after 9/11, they had to start using carrier services in order to transport it far distances. For teams that were within about six hours of driving. Goldstein would meet the other coordinators halfway and end up waiting in a lot of strange places. Often he would pay one of his student interns to drive so that he could spend time with his family.

He left USC in the early 2000’s and became the head video coordinator for the entire XFL. While he was in their employ, he started capturing video directly into computers which was a turn from the capturing it on tapes. By directly putting it into a computer it took a shorter amount of time to process and make it available to coaches and players.

After the league folded, he worked on computers for a few months but hated it so much he put his name back into the job market for a video coordinator position. He was hired by the University of Virginia in 2002 and has remained there ever since.

During his time at Virginia, he has transitioned completely away from using VHS and now everything is digital. Once a game or practice finishes, the upload to the database is completed within minutes. He has film on every single team in the NFL and nearly every FBS college team readily available for coaches and players. Perhaps his favorite advancement is that film can be sent by file between teams rather than him driving hours to pick up a box set of VHS tapes.

The amount that film capture and processing has changed since the advent of the digital age is simply staggering. Goldstein explained that on each of the decks that used to process film, they could only hold 160 gigabytes. Now they have equipment that can hold 3 terabytes (one terabyte is 1000 gigabytes). This easy access film has led to the rise of highlight videos, and websites such as Hudl and DVSport. These sites help high school athletes make videos to help them get recruited, these sites also help college teams share film with each other.

            Since Luke started to work in film it has grown exponentially in importance and prestige since its inception. It has evolved from film rolls in projectors, to VHS tapes, and now has moved to a completely digital platform. This new digital platform has led to an explosion in popularity in addition to how we study and analyze the game.

            Football from its inception has been a game of strategy. Coaches and players scheming for the best possible way to beat their opponents. From this, the forward pass, the shotgun snap, blitzing, and modern football itself has grown from this. Off the field, modern medicine, nutrition, and recovery techniques have significantly improved and have helped players stay on the field. But, an important aspect that many people often skip over is film study.

Working with film is a constantly evolving job and there is no guarantee for what happens next. Luke Goldstein has gone from VHS tapes to completely digital and he is ready for whatever is going to happen next.

Continue Reading