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10 Nov 2011

Walkthrough: LCD

by Mike Tanier

Somewhere in Northern Ohio

JOSH CRIBBS: This formal meeting of the Browns Leadership Council will now come to order. Mr. Secretary, have you taken roll?

CRIBBS: Yes, Mr. Chairman. We have a quorum of members.

CRIBBS: Very well, let us proceed. We will now hear grievances against Peyton Hillis, otherwise known as The Grinch Who Stole Halloween. Read the charges, Chief Interrogator.

CRIBBS: Hillis, you have been accused of griping about your contract, missing charity events, taking games off with minor injuries, goofing off too much on the sideline before games, and generally being a tool.

CRIBBS: How do you plead?

PEYTON HILLIS: Wait, I’m confused. I thought there was supposed to be a whole council here. It’s just you, Josh.

CRIBBS: Silence!

CRIBBS: We represent the sum total of veteran leadership for the Cleveland Browns.

CRIBBS: We are legion!

CRIBBS: And we will not abide by questions while seated in the Fortress of Joshitude.

HILLIS: Fortress of Joshitude? This is a Winnebago!

CRIBBS: Silence!

CRIBBS: Hillis, there is a rumor going around that you plan to steal Thanksgiving turkeys from homeless shelters and use them as skeet shooting targets.

CRIBBS: That you play the Sigh No More LP before games to suck all of the enthusiasm and will to live out of your teammates.

CRIBBS: That since you have become famous, you have turned morose and selfish, something which has never happened before in human history!

CRIBBS: Answer the charges before all of those who stand before you now!

HILLIS: Um, okay. Well the Halloween thing was really bad, but in fairness there are many, many NFL players who have done dangerous, criminal, antisocial things who have not gotten as much flak as I got for missing a charity event. And who am I, really, except a pretty good player who had one outstanding season and suddenly became the guy on the video game box. And in terms of "outstanding" seasons, well, I finished sixth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, behind guys like Darren McFadden and LeSean McCoy who didn’t nearly receive the same amount of press as I did. Let’s face it, no one knew anything about me until before I had a few big games, but for some reason that is absolutely impossible for anyone to put their finger on, I was held up as some kind of lovable blue collar hero. And it’s very possible that I never deserved to be that person, because the label never fit me, on the field or off.

CRIBBS: He speaks the truth, Grand Interrogator.

CRIBBS: I agree, Sergeant at Arms. Perhaps our problem is one of perception. The Browns need more recognizable players than one pretty-good power runner and a legion of 200,000 special teams standouts who wear a single face and speak with a single voice.

CRIBBS: Yes, and perhaps the video-game-contest-voting public is not the best judge of a man’s character. Still, he must be punished, for the good of us all.

CRIBBS: Hillis, we sentence you to the worst punishment this body can inflict: a lucrative contract extension with the Browns. May you still be here through three coaching changes, two general management upheavals, and five quarterback controversies, until your knees are shot and your yards per carry have plummeted to 3.2.

HILLIS: No! I will do better. I will deliver toys for Christmas. And Hanukkah! I will play through high fevers and even higher ankle sprains! Don’t do this to me!

CRIBBS: So let it be written, so let it be done.

D’QWELL JACKSON: Hey! Am I late? I stopped for cheese straws. Oh, I see you started without me, Josh. And you are doing that creepy thing where there are lots of you. Well ... I’ll just leave these ... cheese straws ... over here and ... you know ... let you get back to ... whatever.

The Triumphant Return of Burn This Play!

I love a good H-back as much as the next guy. I love fullback-tight end types who can motion all over the formation, block, and run short pass patterns. Delanie Walker is one of the best in the business: he has a skill set somewhere between slot receiver and blocking back, and he fits the Niners ball-control offense as a guy who can turn a power formation into a passing formation with one simple motion. Walker can even run the ball in a pinch: entering last Sunday he had eight carries for 39 yards in his career, some of them on end-arounds.

When Walker does actually carry the ball, it’s usually on an early down. The same goes for his receptions: only nine of Walker's 96 career catches have been on third downs. H-backs are more useful on early downs, because once third-and-long comes, they are best used as blocking backs. H-backs are not fast or nifty enough to move the chains in long-distance situations. End-arounds also make high risk plays on third-and-long, in part because defenders are often dropping into zone coverage and keep an eye on what happens in front of them.

Which brings us to Jim Harbaugh’s insane decision to run a Walker end-around on third-and-seven against the Redskins.

Figure 1: Out Of Our End Around

Figure 1 shows the Niners in an empty backfield formation during the third quarter of a still-close game. Walker (46) is split left but goes in motion before the snap. He, not some speedster like Ted Ginn (who is not even on the field) is about to take a pitch. The good news is that he will have blockers with him: Anthony Davis (76) and Adam Snyder (68) pull from right tackle and guard to block for this sweep. The bad news is that the pulling action draws London Fletcher (59) and most of the rest of the Redskins defense in the direction of the play.

The blocking receivers on the play side are Kyle Williams (10) and Michael Crabtree (15). Williams does a terrible job blocking his cornerback, DeAngelo Hall (not labeled). If only the Niners put a good open-field blocker like Delanie Walker on that side of the formation. Oh wait...

Maybe some reverse action to Frank Gore might have slowed the Redskins down ... if Gore were even on the field. This is all very wrongheaded. Even the pulling linemen are a bad idea. Maybe if they down-blocked, with Williams and Crabtree cracking back inside, Walker would have had a chance to truck Hall instead of running into a mass of bodies.

This play devolves into an open-field battle between several Redskins defenders and a player with no open-field elusiveness whatsoever. Here’s what is even crazier: Walker left the field a few plays earlier with a minor leg injury of some sort. So he was not at 100 percent, speed-wise, when he ran this sweep. It was the wrong play in the wrong situation to the wrong player, and it came at a time when the Niners hardly had their win sealed up.

I love a lot of the things Harbaugh is doing offensively in San Francisco, but some of the offensive line shifts and other subtleties may be an example of self-outsmartment. This play is another example of cleverness run amok. If you do choose a sweep or end around on third-and-7, it had better be with a speedster or jitterbug, because defenders are going to pursue the play and cornerbacks are going to get off their blocks.

Keep Walker involved in the early-down offense, coach. But please: Burn This Play!


People who claim that sports-talk radio appeals to the lowest common denominator are getting their math wrong.

The lowest common denominator is a large number, equal or larger than the given denominators in an addition or subtraction problem. We mean to say that sports talk radio appeals to the greatest common factor, a smaller number that represents a tiny commonality within the given numbers.

Let’s use ages as an example. Suppose I was trying to create a show that appeals to a 40-year-old, a 24-year-old, and an 18-year-old. The lowest common denominator is 360: I would be trying to aim my show at a 360-year-old. A vampire, perhaps. Say what you will about vampires, but they tend to be sophisticated. Meanwhile, the greatest common factor of those ages is two. Using the GCF, I would try to appeal to a two-year-old: pandering, obvious, loud, silly, and designed for a micro-attention span. That sounds more correct, right?

Okay, the 360-year-old is ridiculous. Let’s look at this another way. My interests include football, classic rock music, alcoholic beverages, and a few more esoteric pursuits, like biblical analysis and video games. Your interests might include football, indie rock, alcoholic beverages, horror movies, fitness, and collecting Hummels. Another reader might like football, heavy metal, alcoholic beverages, fishing, classic car restoration, and something really out there like the NHL.

Now, to create the greatest common denominator among us, we must be inclusive of all of the pursuits, creating a show (blog, whatever) about football, alcoholic beverages, various types of music, jogging tips, when and where the stripers are running, John Carpenter’s legacy, the best place to find parts for a 1967 Chevelle, the Merry Wanderer, and recent advances in the documentary hypothesis. What a grand, glorious program that would be ... though it would probably lack focus for even the most eclectic of us.

Appeal to the greatest common factor, and you get football and alcoholic beverages, and only the ones we all like: domestic beers. To appeal to all of our musical tastes, we could only talk about classic indie heavy metal: And Justice for All, I guess. And maybe babes, because we probably alienated the women somewhere in there. Again, this sounds right, doesn’t it?

The reason people mistake GCF for LCM is that they want to get that "least, lowest" word out in front of their statement: sports talk (or television, or whichever political movement we disagree with) appeals to people of low intellect-maturity-imagination, and we don’t want a word like "greatest" gumming up the gist of things. It’s the same reason people make the "steep learning curve" mistake: steeper things are harder to climb, and anyway, no one has studied logistical modeling very deeply. It’s a different mistake from the "he made a 360 degree about-face," which I think is just an occasional slip-of-the-tongue or an urban legend used to make us feel good about knowing extremely elementary geometry.

I don’t plan on using Greatest Common Factor as a metaphor very often, and I cannot guarantee that I will not slip and say that something appeals to the Lowest Common Denominator, because it is the kind of cliché that rolls off the tongue. Sports talk, as best as I can tell, is designed to appeal to no one: most of the people I talk to about it, from all walks of life, only listen to sports talk out of obligation or exhaustion with the boring state of modern music radio.

So it appeals to no one. And everyone knows you cannot have zero in the denominator.

More Punter Stuff

We talked last week about punting averages going up, and a few people asked questions about why, in the olden times, teams might have punted on early downs. Reader Sswoods provided this very accurate answer:

In the earliest days of football -- during the 19th century -- up through the founding of the NFL in 1920, scoring a touchdown was very rare, relatively speaking. Easily less than one touchdown was scored per game for a long time. (Though, even now the average is only up to 2.2.) The game was built around field position. It was common practice to try and flip field position as opposed to trying to get a drive going. So a punt to flip it was a standard, and effective, strategy -- especially if the defense didn't have anyone back to return it. There are even examples where the offense punted on first down! Data prior to 1933 in the NFL is pretty scarce, but there is a gradual increase of touchdown scoring during the 30's, then a pretty big uptick with free substitution and a huge uptick during WWII. That just so happens to be Sammy Baugh's career -- '37-'52, I believe. Most of the early-down punting was going away during the late 20's and early 30's; early in Baugh's career it still happened enough to be normal, but by his prime years in the early 40s, offenses were too good to just give up those possessions, and it became pretty rare.

I just want to flesh these points out here and there, especially as they bear upon some historic conversations we have had around here in the past.

The forward pass officially became a legal play in college football in 1906. Footballs did not become as narrow and easy to grip as they now are until the 1920s. Players played offense, defense, and special teams until the 1940s, as Sswoods just mentioned. Early rules on forward passes were very restrictive (at first, an incomplete pass was a turnover), and while the rules slowly opened up, strategies evolved slowly. Amos Alonzo Stagg claimed in the 1950s that he had 64 passing plays ready to roll when the rules changed back in 1906. Stagg was in his 80s or 90s when he made the comment, and he was trying to refute at that point that anyone else in football history had ever invented anything, so I think he was exaggerating a bit. And even if he was not, he was Stagg, and if he had 64 plays drawn up, a less-inspired coach may have had six.

No matter how many plays Stagg might have dreamed up, the ball was difficult to grip, and football players had spent two generations running, blocking, tackling, punting, and pitching, but never throwing, so passing was incredibly rare. To picture football from the turn of the century to the early days of the NFL (the 1920s), start with the current Panthers offense. Put both running backs on the field with the two tight ends, Cam Newton, and Steve Smith. Newton is a Wildcat-style tailback, the running backs run counters and sweeps, and Smith runs sweeps, blocks on the edge, and goes out for a handful of passes per game, many of them as a decoy. Then, they all flip over to defense, Newton is a safety, and Smith is an end who plays something similar to modern-day cornerback. The football is the size of a rugby ball, and the field is a brown patch of dead autumn grass that does not drain well. There are other changes to make -- very little padding, everyone is at least 70 pounds lighter –- but this gives you a general idea.

Under those conditions, if you got the ball on your own 5, what would you do? Well, even today, you see some coaches call three runs up the middle and punt. Back in the old days, coaches might not always bother with the three runs up the middle.

That does not mean that teams would send the punter onto the field. There was no punter! I know you know that, but I am just trying to take us all back to this era. The "quarterback" (again, this guy may have been called the tailback or fullback back then) might punt, or one of the other backs might do it. He might take a step or two to his left or right and angle the punt to a sideline. This was not some surprise play, like the old Randall Cunningham "quick kicks" were. It was about as surprising, I think, as the play-action bomb from the end zone was about 20 years ago. Opponents knew it was a possibility, and may have kept a safety deep looking for it. Strategically, the threat of the punt helped the offense if it forced a defender to play a little deeper.

I went hunting through the old newspaper files, and I found a 1927 syndicated article called "Football Fundamentals" that explains the finer points of punting. "A good punter is most valuable to a football team. No eleven can be considered outstanding that lacks one," it begins. "On a well-placed punt out of bounds a team can in one play recover the ground that it has taken the opposition many downs to gain."

Note the logic at work here: the punt is almost thought of as a weapon used to neutralize the opponent’s offense. We now think of the 40-some yards a punter provides as a given, only noting when he shanks a 12-yarder or booms a 65-yarder. Back then, those yards were not taken for granted, in part because 40 yards is a huge swatch of field when an offense only moves about three yards at a time, and also because the punter was also a back, safety, and possibly a return man.

Going through other old newspaper accounts, I notice that writers say that two teams "punted back and forth" for a portion of the game. We interpret this as a series of three-and-outs, but in 1920s football, it may not have been. Even if each punt occurred on fourth down, the series were perceived differently in the old days. We would look at a sequence of, say, four straight three-and-outs between two teams as a sign of defensive dominance or offensive futility. The 1920s observer would see a duel between the punter and the return man, who might also be a punter. The punting game was a huge part of football. When you realize that players like Jim Thorpe (and later Sammy Baugh) were among the punters, and that Red Grange was back deep for the return, you understand how punting could be more of a main event than a time to hit the bathroom.

The more you pour through old newspaper accounts, the more you appreciate how important the punting game was to early football. Here is a 1916 Philadelphia Bulletin quote on Bert Bell, then a quarterback at Penn, as taken from Robert Lyons’ excellent biography of Bell. "Bert Bell played another star game. He did not fumble a punt. He used excellent judgment. He missed two field goals; but as a matter of fact, no one expected him to score with the 42-yard kick, for the wind was against him and he was way off at an angle when he made the drive. Bell’s punting was really a treat." The game itself was a 0-0 tie against Michigan. Bell was the Quakers’ quarterback, in the modern sense: he called plays, took snaps, and attempted what passes there were. But other than the note about "judgment," the entire newspaper notice is about his work in the kicking game.

An account of a season-ending 1922 game singles out Chicago Cardinals end Eddie Anderson as one of the keys to the 9-0 win over the Bears, mainly for his work on special teams, though he appears to have also "intercepted" a lateral. "Again, when Sternaman fumbled a punt just outside the side line it was Anderson who dropped on the ball. He was there ready to nail the receiver of punts at all times." This doesn’t sound like a rare mention of some Steve Tasker type: it’s how the games were reported, which means it is probably how they were perceived. Great tackles on punt returns were a major part of the game. Later accounts of Bears-Cardinals games -– with Grange playing for the Bears -– had the Cardinals consistently kicking away from Grange, to the point where the Bears sent four return men deep to increase their chances of fielding a punt.

This punt-heavy style of play eroded very slowly. In 1939, Rams rookie Parker Hall won the MVP award as a tailback-punter who later added return duties to his resume. He threw 208 passes that season (leading the league), rushed 120 times for 458 yards, and punted 58 times, including one 80-yarder that must have rolled a long way. Hall was a first-round pick out of Mississippi, and newspaper accounts called him "Pitchin’ Parker" and referred to him as a "triple threater." Hall threw 18 passes per game, so we are a long way from 1906, but we are still in the era when a great player was supposed to run, pass, and punt, not to mention sometimes placekick or play defense. Field position tactics were changing at the NFL and major college level, but I would bet that some high school coaches in the sticks still punted on early downs from deep in their own territory at that point, just as you still see some T-formations today.

This all dovetails with some of the discussions we had when talking about old quarterbacks last summer: Pitchin’ Parker Hall the triple threater was about as far back in history from Johnny Unitas as Jim Kelly is from Cam Newton. We had a few message board discussions in which it was clear that a few people thought we could go back to the eight-team leagues of 1956 or so and pretend everything else was the same: that quarterbacks started learning the West Coast Offense at the Pop Warner level, stopped playing other positions the moment they signed intent letters, received specialized training from coaches who used television and the Internet to keep abreast of new strategies or techniques, got scouted by professionalized multi-million dollar corporations with large, dedicated front offices who kept track of dozens of hours of easy-to-store digital recordings of games, then received a narrowly-defined job description upon reaching the pros as a guy who throws 35 passes per game. Under the circumstances, we could then rank them absolutely with modern statistics like quarterback rating and make firm judgments about how much better one was than another, or from the rest of the profession.

In fact, in 1956 we were only a few decades removed from a time when the newspaper accounts of two top NFL teams facing each other would focus largely on the work of the punter and the return man. How many older coaches, at the college or prep level, rejected potential tailbacks or quarterbacks because they could not punt? How many of those kids became baseball pitchers instead? How many old scouts were still filing reports on a college quarterback’s potential based on his "triple threat" status? We see how slowly mindsets change in the NFL nowadays, when old coaches still go on and on about the running game while quarterbacks throw six billion passes per season. How much more slowly did mindsets change back then, when there was no satellite feed, no email, no computer tracking of information?

Hell, it took until the early 1980s before the backup quarterback and punter stopped being the same guy once and for all. In the mid-1950s, the line between quarterback, tailback, punter, placekicker, and all-purpose super-sub was still very blurry, which is why all-time greats like Charley Trippi were still able to play three or more of the roles, young quarterbacks like Earl Morrall could fill in at punter for a year or two, and old quarterbacks like Ed Brown (coached by Paddy Driscoll and George Halas, who faced off in those old 1920s Bears-Cardinals games) could stay in the league as punter-quarterbacks even though they would today be considered bottom-rung (at best) starters at either position.

Soapbox aside, that early, punt-heavy football must have been dull at times, but it also must have been thrilling to watch a man punt a football high into the air and watch it travel 50 yards or so, only to be caught and returned by one of the best athletes the game had to offer. We now take for granted that both players are specialists, but a great punt can be breathtaking when you do not expect it, like in a high school game. And in the days when a Thorpe or an Anderson (he was also a punter) could decide a game by trading 45-yard punts for 35-yarders or angling the ball out of bounds inches from Grange’s hands, when the same guy who kicked the 60-yard roller also returned a punt 20 yards to flip field position, then ran up the middle three times, then kicked the winning field goal ... well, a great punter was a star. It was a different game, and it remained different until not that long ago.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 10 Nov 2011

61 comments, Last at 18 Nov 2011, 3:24pm by Dean


by dan hefner (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 10:26am

Great history lesson and I agree with your reasoning on the reason we listen to sports radio being the abysmal state of music these days. But I'm old and that has been proven the older you get the less you like new things. Hence the fact in my town you have a dozen stations playing songs that weren't any good the first time I heard them in 1971!

by BigWoody (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 5:37pm

Yes. And thank God for NPR!

by mcgatman (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 10:37am

This early 20th century football you speak of sounds a lot like the Giants offense of the late-70's Pisarcik/Dave Jennings era. I remember a lot of fans saying that Jennings was the Giants best offensive weapon. You'd hope the D would hold and they'd trade enough field position for the Giants to eke out a FG. I'm sure other fans of epically bad teams have similar recollections.

by Independent George :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 10:44am

So... ROBO-PUNTER really is Old Testament, then?

Hell, it took until the early 1980s before the backup quarterback and punter stopped being the same guy once and for all.

I believe Tom Tupa continued to back up Drew Bledsoe until the late 90s.

by dryheat :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 2:19pm

I believe he was on the Jets then, backing up Testaverde (and Rick Mirer). He almost beat the Patriots one time...I'm going to say opening Sunday 1999...when Testaverde went down early, and the Jets had saved a roster space by making Tupa the #2 QB and Mirer the #3. In fact, the Jets probably would've won that game if they left Tupa in, instead of going to Mirer in the 4th quarter.

by Independent George :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 2:47pm

My God you're right! Here's the boxscore:

Testaverde: 10/15, 96 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Tupa: 6/10, 165 yds, 2 TD, 0 INT
Mirer: 4/11, 28 yds, 0 TD, 2 INT

Tupa was their best passer that day.

by dryheat :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 3:13pm

Interesting that Kevin Faulk had 11 touches that day...sometimes I forget how long he's been around.

by Independent George :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 5:41pm

I remember they specifically drafted Faulk to replace Robert Edwards, after he tore up his knee in an exhibition at the Pro Bowl. Edwards, in turn, was drafted specifically to replace Curtis Martin after his departure to the Jets.

by nuk :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 11:00am

Thank you for the LCD essay! I've been going on a joking GCF crusade for years now, but it's not exactly catching on.

by Led :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 11:19am

Supercool column. It really was "foot" ball back in the day. I think that game sounds like a lot of fun to watch. Not necesarily better or worse, but different in interesting ways. You give up some of the excitement of scoring plays, but you gain a greater level of suspense and tension because any big play has such an outsize impact on the outcome of the game. There's a continuum in sports with soccer and hockey on one end and arena football and NBA basketball on the other. Over the years, football has gradually slid down (or up, depending on your taste!) to be somewhere in the middle.

by rageon :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 11:23am

Aahhh, so this is why my Madden game thinks that a punter makes a good 3rd string quarterback.

by Oldcat (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 11:49am

What you are calling Least Common Denominator is the Least Common Multiple.

The Greatest Common Factor is the biggest number that divides a set of numbers, the Least Common Denominator is the smallest.

by Jonadan :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 12:14pm

Uh, no. That would be a "Least Common Factor", which is always 1 and thus mostly ignored because it's not really interesting. Kind of like a backup punter. (The Least Common Prime Factor is mildly more intriguing but not really.)

A least common denominator is the least common multiple of (surprise?) two or more denominators, e.g. for 1/2 + 1/3 the LCD is 6, so you add 3/6 + 2/6 = 5/6.

"When you absolutely don't know what to do any more, then it's time to panic." - Johann van der Wiel

by akn :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 12:48pm

Additionally, the LCD refers specifically to the fractional notation of numbers. You counted beer-drinking, metal-band-loving, etc. as whole numbers, of which you wanted to find the smallest whole number that each of those numbers evenly multiplies into.

But that approach is inaccurate--characteristics are meant to be fractions of our whole (=1) self. As in I'm 1/5th football-obsessed, 1/10th steak-loving, etc. The goal of the LCD is then to find a format that commonly addresses/interacts with those fractions. If you define addressing/interacting as adding/subtracting, then you must first find and convert to the LCD.

And now that analogy has been over-analyzed to the point of ruining it. Mission accomplished.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 2:11pm

He defined LCD correctly at the beginning and then everywhere else used LCD to mean least common multiple. The contrast between LCM and GCF is correct. There's no such thing as "greatest common denominator" since the denominator can be an unboundedly large natural number.

by GoPatriots (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 12:01pm

Given that there is a tendency to use even numbers in these situations, i.e. 40, 24, 18 years old, the Greatest Common Factor theory would seem to indicate that we are all likely to act like 2 year-olds except for those increasingly less frequent moments as 4 and 6, etc ...not saying that's wrong, mind you (some would make a case for 5 year-olds)

by John (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 12:30pm

Hunter Smith was punter, placeholder on FGs, and 3rd string QB for the Colts last decade; his throwing skills only got used on fake field goals, if I recall correctly, so calling him backup quarterback is probably a stretch.

by Sophandros :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 12:53pm

And thus you've been able to describe the appeal of rugby union for many of us...

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 2:25pm

It's like football, but without all those pesky black people.

by LionInAZ (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 4:02pm

That statement would not be true in Australia and New Zealand.

by dryheat :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 4:06pm

Nope. Heck, I heard that in New Zealand they were all black.

by Independent George :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 5:36pm


That was outstanding.

by jebmak :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 8:33am


by mansteel (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 2:54pm

As a 12 yr old, I moved from my native US to the UK and found a wondrous and sometimes perplexing new sporting landscape. Watching darts on TV inspired dreams of becoming a professional dart thrower (really!). Watching cricket on TV inspired dreams...literally. Cricket matches lasted for days, football games were too dangerous to go to, and there was apparently a rugby team from New Zealand that fielded a team of players who were exclusively of African descent.

Never having the opportunity to see them play, it was years after I moved back to the US before I found out that their name referred to their uniforms. Fortunately I was never granted the opportunity to show off my stunning ignorance.

by jebmak :: Sun, 11/13/2011 - 11:58am

... until now!

by Mr Shush :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 6:51am

Um, I'm not sure Pacific islanders count as "black" . . .

The (major) nation with the most black players is almost certainly South Africa (though it would be broadly fair to say that in SA rugby is the most popular sport among white people of Dutch extraction, cricket among white people of English extraction and people of Indian/Pakistani extraction and soccer among black people). England, France and Wales (and some others) also have black players in their squads.

by wr (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 12:54pm

You forgot George Blanda was a backup QB/placekicker into the 1970s...

by bag (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 1:41pm

I think the easiest way to understand the early punting would be to watch a rugby match. Rugby and the early days of football were much more similar. There is no passing and times when teams exchange punts back and forth until there is an advantage is common.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 2:29pm

From 1939:
Most Punts in a Game - 36 — Charlie Calhoun, Texas Tech (FBS ) vs. Centenary (La.),

Nov. 11, 1939 (1,318 yards; 20 were returned, 8 went out of bounds, 6 were downed, 1 was blocked [blocked kicks counted against the punter until 1955] and 1 went into the end zone for a touchback. 33 of the punts occurred on first down during a heavy downpour in the game played at Shreveport, Louisiana)

Texas Tech kicked 39 times in total that game; Centenary kicked 38. Not surprisingly it was a 0-0 tie.

by Uncle Luke (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 2:30pm

Tom Tupa-last of the triple threats

by AB (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 3:33pm

Baffling (and surprisingly blinkered) that you write this whole article without refernce to rugby (especially rugby league) - despite the strong correlation between those games at the time and the fact that rugby is the closest modern comparator to old-school football. In rugby you still see attritional running, early kicking, a return man (full back) who is nearly always deep and is a star Player, multiple kickers and directional kicking.

by conquistador? (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 4:07pm

concur. for another comparison, rugby players use what a football fan would call a triple option. they will:

hand the ball off to a player attacking north-south
fake the handoff (called a dummy)
pitch the ball outside (sometimes skipping the nearest teammate)
counter pitch to someone crossing behind
keep the ball
or kick the ball

in rugby, the flow of play there is much more room for individual player's judgement, which is different than most predetermined football plays (except options, option routes, other audibles or sight-adjustments).

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 5:16pm

Part of the reason is that the football had the legal forward pass for almost all of that time -- a dramatic divergence in philosophy from rugby. It's somewhat baffling from a modern view why it took so long for it to come into prominence.

by LionInAZ (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 4:10pm

This is one of the most entertaining FO posts I've read.

1. The opening section was hilarious, despite not knowing what Cribbs did to inspire it.

2. I enjoyed Tanier's transition from his PFT story on "Players Unfairly Labeled Dirty" to "Players Unfairly Labeled as Nice Guys".

3. That end-around with Walker was mystifying to everyone. It must rank as one of the dumbest plays called this year. Maybe Harbaugh is buying into his hype and getting too cute.

4. The history lesson on punting was terrific. Sadly, the pooch kick seems to be heading into oblivion. This would be a shame because it is (or at least was) an effective weapon for a team stalled near its own end zone. A good surprise punt before 4th down can be effective in getting a team out of a hole.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 5:03pm

To wit, Randall Cunningham has the two longest punts in Eagles history. Indeed, the two longest punts since 1985 (the beginning of his career).

by tuluse :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 5:30pm

Haven't the Steelers run a pooch punt with Big Ben?

by Travis :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 7:06pm

3 times, but only on 4th down in medium-yardage situations just out of field goal range.

2005, Week 3 vs. NE: 4-4-NE 39 (7:26) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger punts 39 yards to end zone, Center-J.Hartings, Touchback.

2005, Week 8 vs. BAL: 4-7-BLT 34 (15:00) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger punts 33 yards to BLT 1, Center-J.Hartings, downed by PIT-C.Wilson.

2010, Week 12 vs. BUF: 4-4-BUF 35 (5:00) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger punts 35 yards to end zone, Center-M.Pouncey, Touchback. QB pooch punt.

As best I can tell, the last 3rd down punt in the NFL came in 1994, Randall Cunningham vs. the Cowboys:

Philadelphia was strolling along, leading by 7-0 with a little more than nine minutes left before halftime. The Dallas defense had the Eagles' offense pinned at the Philadelphia 4. It was third-and-12. The Dallas defense was eager for a turnover, maybe even a safety. What it got was a Randall Cunningham quick kick. A punt of 80 yards. Dallas ball on its own 16.

by Anonymous Patriots fan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 11:02am

I vaguely remember Cassel punting on third down for the Patriots on a very windy day against the Bills.

by Travis :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 11:33am

Yup. From Week 17 in 2008:

3-8-NE 41 (5:16) (Shotgun) M.Cassel punts 57 yards to BUF 2, Center-D.Koppen, downed by NE-S.Morris. Quick kick.

The Patriots were up 13-0 in the 4th quarter and had a 35 mile-per-hour wind at their back.

by Shattenjager :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 11:36am
by Hang50 :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 4:40pm

Superman and Pharaoh in the same dialog. Nice.

by Admorey (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 4:41pm

Danny White was the Dallas Cowboys punter (All-Pro 3 times) and backup QB to Staubach. He then became the starter and made a pro bowl and had a better career passer rating than Staubach or Aikman. He would sometimes surprise opponents with unpredictable punts or fake punts.

So in brief - all-pro punter, pro-bowl QB. Career ended in 1988.

I sometimes wonder if a backup QB like that might not be useful now.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 5:08pm

Or someone like Antwaan Randle El -- a position player who can play emergency QB.

by Admorey (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 6:04pm

I agree that someone like Randle-El used that way is worthwhile. But the punter/QB combo is particularly potent, as you have a valid passer in at punter, and perhaps a guy who can run a bit. You've covered your 3rd QB spot and expanded the capabilities of your offense in one player slot. Part of the reason the White was such a good punter is that defenses had to respect the fake.

If I was a pretty good college QB with no shot at the NFL I think I'd learn to punt if I cold.

by Dad2sca :: Sun, 11/13/2011 - 12:08pm

Why isn't Tebow anbd H Back?

by Dad2sca :: Sun, 11/13/2011 - 12:08pm

Why isn't Tebow an H Back?

by Geoff aka Geoff (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 9:27pm

Somewhere in the same thematic neighborhood: Joe Theismann returned punts as a rookie.

by Marko :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 10:03pm

But Theismann was not good as an emergency punter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-6jbFgdM-Y

by sswoods (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 10:56pm

Wow, I got quoted!

I'd like to add something to Tanier's excellent commentary. Another major reason punting was so important in the first few decades of the 20th century is that often, if not most of the time, touchdowns were scored as a result of turnovers deep within your own end. If you are backed up against your own end, a fumble likely costs you the game, so get the ball out of there as soon as possible.

I also liked Tanier's point about how the leaders of the game in the 40s and 50s were often playing the 20s. This reminds me of Earl "Greasy" Neal, most known nowadays as the head coach of the Eagles in the late 40s during the scoring explosion of post WWII. He was a key player for the famous Canton Bulldogs, along with Jim Thorpe, during the pre-NFL days of the mid 19-teens, playing the very field position game being discussed here, but was later a key innovator towards the heavier passing developing post WWII.

And finally, to back up the many rugby fans in the comment thread; rugby, football, and soccer all share the same origins; rugby and football shared a common root even longer until the famous Walter Camp helped lead the "Americanization" of the sport oh so many years ago by adding the "downs" concept, line of scrimmage, and many other changes which forever would make the two sports distinct. Interestingly, the differences between the Canadian game and the American game also trace to Walter Camp - for instance, Camp initially suggested only three downs. Highly interesting to me anyway.

And it's weird to see the first s in sswoods capitalized.

by Shattenjager :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 12:44am

Was Greasy Neale really "a key innovator towards the heavier passing developing post WWII?"

I'm asking (and I really mean this to be a question, not an argument) for two reasons.
First, I remember his name primarily because he was the coach against Paul Brown in the Browns' first game in the NFL. He responded to his 35-10 loss by saying, "Paul Brown would have been a better basketball coach than a football coach, because all he does is put the ball in the air."
Second, I've never heard him described as such before and his teams tended to be among the more run-heavy teams in the league during his career as a head coach.

by sswoods (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 1:23am

I'm referring to how Neal, during the early 40s, insisted on switching to the T formation the Bears used with such success and brought in Tommy Thompson specifically because he thought he could pass. WWII interrupted those plans as Thompson served in the Army, and when he got back the Eagles had Steve Van Buren toting the rock and had decided to be a run heavy team, even by the standards of those days. Yet, even though they were a very run heavy team, they were very effective passing - Thompson finished 1st, 2nd, and 2nd in YPA from 47-49. Those Eagles are remembered more for their dominating defense and Van Buren, but they had an outstanding offense too - between '44-49, the Eagles scored 3.3 offensive TDs a game - roughly equivalent to what the Saints scored during their Super Bowl season.

I'm not 100% sure, but I believe Neal was the first coach after the Bears to endorse the use of the T, and he did this before the Bears beat Washington 73-0.

by Shattenjager :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 2:00am

Thanks for answering. Great information.

Incidentally, I just read Neale's Hall of Fame profile (which I honestly should have thought to do before but for some reason didn't) and, even though I knew there was a player named "Neale" on the 1919 Reds, I had never realized it was him.

by sswoods (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 1:32am

Also, as a quick side note, that game you refer to between the Browns and Eagles on opening day in 1950 - reading an account of that game (and the Championship Game that year between the Browns and Rams) was what really turned me into a fan of the NFL. I don't remember the book I read it in - it was one of those "10 Greatest Games of All Time" type books - but I remember reading it while in Junior High and I've been hooked on the NFL and NFL History every since.

I remember that quote. I also remember that Paul Brown and the Browns beat the Eagles later in the year 13-7 - and didn't throw a single pass.

by mrgeof :: Sat, 11/12/2011 - 1:27am

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Aussie Rules Football, which I found highly entertaining when discovered it on espn3. A great combination of NFL, rugby and soccer: lots of almost-nonstop action like the latter two, but football strategy.

by Alfon (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 12:25am

Don't forget that the safety is the way it is because it was originally an offensive tactic where a team was willing to give up two points for a better location to punt from.

by Stew (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2011 - 3:54am

Still a tactic used in Canada, especially at the minor level.

by Raiderjoe :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 2:23pm

Dudnt trad whole thing yet becausse do not have computrr eotking home still. But see some comments about Ps. Would be bice to ser some TE/Ps or WR/Ps again. P. McInally P 1970s CIN wore 87 becauswe had side job paas catching. C. Johnson non qb punter for 68 Jets wore 33 was backip TE. What about hall of Famer L. Barney CB Loins also punted

by Marko :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 5:16pm

Another P/TE was Bob Parsons of the Bears, who wore number 86 and played for the Bears from 1972-1983.

by T-dub (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 10:55pm

Great read

by Raiderjoe :: Sat, 11/12/2011 - 9:58am

Think it was Parsons whj make embarrassinv folly vs loins early 80s game on rug ag Soldirt Field . Can be see.. Best of FootbLl Follies

by Dean :: Fri, 11/18/2011 - 3:24pm

I'm a week out of date on this but I've been out of the loop. No love for Crash Jensen of the Dolphins?

Great column, Mike!