In my last post I talked about the safety measures that have been put in place which have sought to transform football from the brutal sport which I played as a young man into something that is safer. With the exponential growth in the size and weight of today’s players, it is open to question whether these safety measures are as successful as they should be.
I’d like to talk about another change in football which possibly increases safety, but which gives players carte blanche to cheat—the legalization of blockers touching the “blockees” with their hands. When I played on the line, I was taught that if you put your hands on the person you were blocking, you would be flagged for holding and garner a 15 yard penalty. What you were supposed to do was hit the “blockee” with your shoulder and drive him back from the line of scrimmage. You were also taught to put your head between the “blockee” and the hole that the ball carrier was going to hit. This made it more difficult for the “blockee” to slide along the line toward the ball carrier to make the tackle. On defense, the linemen were taught to “read” the blocker’s head. Look and see which side of your body the head was going to be placed on, and slide in that direction to keep from being cut off from pursuing the ball carrier.
Old time defensive linemen defended against a shoulder block with a maneuver called variously a “forearm shiver” or a “flipper.” You hit the blocker with your forearm as hard as you could in order to fight off the block. Some blockers would also hit with the forearm rather than the shoulder. I got my facemask busted and my chin split open from a huge offensive tackle who smashed his forearm into my face. The worst part of it was that the blow caused me to swallow my cud of chewing tobacco. Aiming for the head with a flipper was a good tactic on either side of the line. As a defensive lineman, I aimed my flippers for the head of the offensive lineman. On offense I aimed my flipper at the chest of the opposing lineman. We used to wear flipper pads to prevent injury to the forearms, but my junior and senior years in high school flipper pads were outlawed because some cheaters were “loading” their pads. Consequently, during the course of a game I would beat my forearms bloody from hitting faceguards and chinstrap buckles.
Nowadays I don’t see the linemen throwing flippers. Why? They’ve been outlawed. NFL rule 12, Article 3, Section 1(a) defines unsportsmanlike conduct, among other things, as: "Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent even though no contact is made."
Shoulder blocking is why the old-time football linemen had such bulky shoulder pads—to cushion the shoulder against the impact of hitting the “blockee.” Today the offensive lineman’s first move is not to hit with his shoulder, but to put his hands on the defensive lineman and push. Being denied the use of the flipper, the defensive lineman can do nothing but push back.
The push block is less traumatic than the shoulder/flipper block, but that is not why blockers are now allowed to use their hands. They can use their hands because it is “too hard” for referees to police holding. I remember reading about the rule change when it was made, and the justification was that it made the policing of holding easier. It also made holding much easier. If you grab a defender by the front of his jersey, holding is almost invisible. It’s only when the blocker hugs the defender or obviously grabs the defender by the shoulder pads or side of the jersey that holding will be called. This makes pass rushing very difficult. Pass rushers had several tactics for evading the shoulder block of an offensive lineman in a passing situation, and these tactics are not nearly as successful when the blocker has hold of the front of the jersey. One pass rush tactic that would be outlawed today was the head-butt rush. As a pass rusher, your first move was to butt the blocker's face mask with the crown of your helmet. Can we say, "Targeting?"
Because of these rule changes, passers get much more time to get off their passes. So how does the modern game compensate for this great advantage? By legalizing all but the most egregious forms of pass interference. Being able to put your hands on or wrap your arm around a receiver who is trying to catch a pass is an open invitation to do a little grabbing and shaking the receiver to make him drop the pass. This grabbing is hard for referees to detect in the heat of combat, and that is why you constantly hear announcers saying, “Well, the defender got away with interfering on that play.”
Back before they legalized pass interference, the defender’s best way to defend a pass was to time the tackle to arrive at the moment the ball arrived and jar the receiver enough to make him drop the ball. Probably the greatest practitioner of this type of pass defense was Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. Williamson would time his tackles perfectly and deliver a stunning blow to the receiver’s head with his forearm. This blow would usually knock the ball loose from the receiver’s grasp. He also frequently knocked receivers out, and he boasted that he was going to knock the Packers’ top two receiver out in Super Bowl I. It didn’t quite work out as Williamson planned. He instead was the player who got knocked out.
I’m not suggesting that football go back to the old days of shoulder blocking and throwing flippers—those tactics produce a lot more trauma that is inflicted in today’s game, but there ought to be some way to tighten up on the grabbing of jerseys. Only the Umpire is specifically charged with the duty of looking for holding on the line of scrimmage. The Head Linesman and the Line Judge don’t appear to be assigned the task of looking for holding, and they are stationed on either side of the line of scrimmage. If they are not specifically required to look for holding on the line, they should have that task added to their duties. Maybe an off-the-field referee should be added who could monitor the line on a video screen and call in any holdings which are not detected by on-the-field referees. As far as grabbing by the pass defenders is concerned, maybe coaches should be given a limited number of challenges for no-calls in the event of the officials missing egregious pass interference. This right could be limited to interference in the end zone, the red zone, and on passes in excess of twenty yards. Maybe someday the players will wear “smart” jerseys that can signal when they’re being grabbed by opposing players.