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The Modern Quarterback; Part One

Sid Gillman is known as the ‘Father of the Modern Passing Game,’ but it wasn’t Gillman’s absolute conception.  Francis Schmidt was the guy Gillman learned from at Ohio State as his student, assistant coach and pretend-to-be-son.  Schmidt believed the forward pass would forever change the game of football because it allowed offenses to run more efficiently and score at a quicker rate.  Part of Gillman’s brilliance was also derived from Schmidt’s teachings of misdirection.  An offense was at its best when confusing and making a defense overthink itself.  Before Schmidt, the entirety of football’s history was predicated on the run and most of the successful coaches before and during Schmidt’s era incorporated between 20 and 40 plays readily available, Schmidt had about 300 and growing.  Needless to say, Schmidt was inventive.  But more importantly, his imagination was controversial.  It wasn’t until 1906 when the forward pass was certified as legal.  Some of football’s most influential people were doggedly against it.  Pop Warner called the forward pass “a bastard offspring of real football.”  John Heisman (the Heisman Trophy guy) helped implement the rule but rarely used it when he coached at Georgia Tech.  Coincidentally, Georgia Tech still to this day has issues with passing the football.  Maybe the best quote of the controversial ‘Forward Pass Is The Devil Era’ came from Robert Neyland (University of Tennessee head coach), “[Fans] want their team to win every game, and they don’t want to see it gamble away its chances with a lot of long-shot plays.”  If only Neyland, Heisman and Warner knew what was about to come.1


[1. Two ironic things; Heisman’s trophy is the most prestigious (yet, wildly overblown and overrated) college football award - and arguably, in all of sports. Going back to ’90; twenty-one quarterbacks have won the Heisman.  You know, the guys responsible for throwing the ball in the evil direction of forward.]


 Football was becoming more popular in America but it wasn’t on the same level as baseball.2  For fans it was primarily seen as something to do, a nice way to kill a few hours and take the family out to an alternative sporting event.  But that ideology was more beheld in the professional ranks.  College football was exceedingly more popular than it is now and even high school was covered more than the professional teams, even if a city happened to have a pro team in town.  But just like now, college fans were notoriously crazy and inconsolable after a loss.   


[2. Baseball already had over 50 years of history with recognizable and household names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb. Football had guys named Fritz Pollard, Bronko Nagurski, Link Lyman and Tuffy Leemans. Sounds like a bunch of characters from a shitty Nintendo video game. Oh wait, Link actually was!]


The coach before Schmidt was a boring, passive-aggressive guy named Sam Willaman.  Gillman played for Willaman and it was through Willaman that Gillman started loosely considering a career in coaching and not as a professional player.  Or even stranger, the lawyer he always wanted to be.  Willaman’s Ohio State teams were always middle-of-the-road, never finished better than fourth in the conference and could never beat their archrival Michigan.  The fans finally had enough after a 7-1 season in 1933.  The only loss was a 13-0 shutout against the Wolverines.  The fans called for Willaman’s head despite a three-win improvement from the previous season.  What they didn’t know, however, was the incumbent Schmidt would also go 7-1, but at least they didn’t lose to Michigan, who abruptly fell from 7-0-1 in ’33 to 1-7 the following season.  In the eyes of the fans though, a loss to Illinois was not as painful.  


Francis Schmidt was an interesting man, and even more complex coach, especially for the early-1930’s.  He frequently forgot players’ names, he was overly sarcastic and confident and he was unapologetically mean.  Schmidt once told a player: “You can go straight to hell as far as I’m concerned,” after the player made a trivial mistake in practice.  That sort of behavior would be chastised in today’s camera-phone ready world.  Football was much different in its early days.  Coaches weren’t known to jump down a players’ throat after a minute screw up.  The sacrifice was the same but the ancillary payoffs were nowhere near.3  In today’s football a coach like Nick Saban can say whatever he wants to a player and the player will suffice.  Because today’s player knows his handsome reward could be waiting in the form of a multi-million dollar professional contract.  Hell, the entire world of sports was vastly different.  In the early-30’s America was recovering from the Depression, the first World War was in the rearview and the second was around the corner.4  Success in sports was a superficial notion.  It was still important for the people involved and people wanted to be involved, but the totality of the American consciousness hadn’t yet bought in.  Players were balancing families, some were going off to war and the majority of guys would follow the careers their college education taught them.  Some guys unfortunately, would never return from war.  


[3. Well, almost the same. Pro football didn’t become deeply popular until after World War II. And then, with commissioner Pete Rozelle’s persistence, TV money was negotiated and dispersed to the teams. The more people that could watch, the more popular it would become and it eventually snowballed. The growing popularity meant increased expectations, larger talent pools, better competition and higher stakes – which of course, meant richer salaries and incentives to practice, train and play harder.  

4. Some universities had to shut down their football programs because World War II grabbed many of America’s best young student-athletes. For Gillman’s Miami (Ohio) team in the summer of ’44, only 10 of his 42 players at practice were civilians. Thirty-two guys were at war, and that’s just one college.]


In short, Schmidt wasn’t a people person.  He was a Schmidt person, and in his own bizarre mind, his way was the right way, although he ultimately pushed everyone away in the process, including Gillman.  The person Gillman perceived from the onset was far different from the person he eventually came to know.  Gillman saw a mentor in Schmidt, and vice-versa, Schmidt regarded Sid as a stand-in son.  But the man Gillman immediately fell in love with, the “mad scientist” obsessed with football - who blew Sid’s mind one Spring in 1934 and worked 18-hour days and slept in the office, constantly trying to find new ways to improve, manipulate and beat the game - had a destructive and distasteful side. 

 

Schmidt didn’t allow his assistant coaches to do their jobs.  Gillman’s basic function was to stand around and appear busy when all he was really doing was handing out towels and water and holding a clipboard on the sidelines.  Moreover, the only coach who had access to Schmidt’s innovative playbook was Gillman.  None of the other coaches could even look at it.  Strangely for Gillman, he could look but he couldn’t teach any of the concepts.  Schmidt wanted full control.  How were the assistants supposed to teach something with zero comprehension themselves?  And how was Gillman ever going to progress?  Players were taught only their own assignments without the understanding of where his teammates were supposed to be as a play broke down.  If an offensive guard didn’t know what the tackle next to him was supposed to do, and where the running back would hit the gap, how was success ever going to be possible?  That flawed methodology was universal for the entire team.  The quarterback didn’t know blocking assignments, linemen weren’t told the particulars about where the backs were going and the wide receivers just didn’t have a clue.  Route running was still a few years away from existence.  The receivers basically just ran around and hoped for a look but mostly served as extra blockers on sweep and stretch plays.  Receivers weren’t even called receivers yet, they were known as ‘ends.’  That’s how new this passing thing was.  Schmidt was trying to push the needle but he didn’t care about the big picture, hell, he didn’t really understand what the ‘big picture’ constituted.  His lousy coaching practices led to an increase in losses, which in turn, led to a dissension within the team.  The fans and media quickly grew tired of losing, yet again.  


A coach can be quirky, neurotic and inwardly dysfunctional as long as he’s winning and not making everyone else crazy.  But once the losing starts fingers get pointed, questions have to be answered and the blame game begins.  Schmidt had to go for the same reason Willaman had to go - they both just didn’t get it.  All the while, as Schmidt was writing the book to his inevitable end, the guy learning the most was Sid Gillman, who stood on the sidelines through it all, taking in every poor Schmidt decision, every strange coaching approach and most importantly, learning exactly what not to do.  

 

Schmidt came into Gillman’s life for a purpose; Sid learned the precise nature of film study, graphing plays, a loose understanding of offensive theory and that the passing game would soon take over the sport.  Schmidt’s philosophies were technically ahead of the times but his flaws would ultimately cost him the Ohio State job, and Gillman’s as well.  But unlike Schmidt, Gillman was far from finished.  Sadly, Schmidt coached just two more years in Idaho, until they temporarily shut down the football program.  Sadly, he died in the fall of ’44 as an insurance salesman.  


A few years after Gillman and Schmidt first met, a professional player by the name of Sammy Baugh was making noise in the NFL.  The Washington Redskins drafted Baugh in ’37, one year removed from Washington’s move from Boston.  Baugh was the highest paid player on the team, and without question, the best all-around player during his era.  


The history books to a large degree view Baugh as the preeminent quarterback of his time.  But that’s a relatively broad stroke of thinking.  Baugh was much more than a quarterback.  Professional rosters were minimal in comparison to now, which generated an organic need for versatile two-way players.  This was especially true in 1943, when the NFL reduced rosters from 33 to 28 so its travel needs wouldn’t infringe too much on the war effort.  Thinking of a modern NFL player as a two-way guy nowadays is a ridiculous thought.  The only time(s) you might see such a thing is when J.J. Watt lines parallel to a left-tackle and runs a tight-end route on 3rd and goal.  But because of roster depth and contractual integrity no player is ever forced into a full-time role of multiple positions on different sides of the ball.  It’s really seen as archaic and no player, coach, GM, owner or fan in today’s NFL would welcome it.  Such was the exact opposite during Baugh’s generation.  


Imagine Brett Favre, some 40lbs lighter, lining up across the opposing team’s wide-receiver immediately after he threw a touchdown pass.  And further imagine Favre as a very good defensive back, producing 31 career interceptions.  And when Favre failed to convert a third down opportunity it was his responsibility to punt the ball or attempt a 37-yard field-goal.5  Sneak in some punt and kickoff returns and the occasional half-back run and now you’ve been introduced to Sammy Baugh.  It’s just a ridiculous proposition. The thinking today has actually shifted with wide-receivers and productive cornerbacks being used a lot less in the kick and punt return game. The days of Deion Sanders working all three angles are effectively gone, and not even remotely considered.  Even Andy Reid has become more hesitant to use speedsters like Tyreek Hill on return situations because the risk of injury heightens, unless it's a time of desperation. 


[5. The fantasy implications would be berserk. If there was a such thing as Player X working both sides of the ball and occasionally making a special teams appearance he would automatically be the #1 pick in all leagues. And in live drafts where selection trading was involved, a lot of money would be changing hands.]


 I could easily write another five-thousand words about Gillman’s time in Oxford as the coach of Miami, Ohio and how he took a self-induced demotion to coach at Navy under Earl Blaik, Lucy Ewbank’s 60-year grudge against Sid and how that might’ve ultimately kept him from having a statue with the ‘Cradle of Coaches.”6  And how if not for Gillman, Miami might have never built a football program and how everyone who came after Gillman owes him appreciation for making football a priority to the players and fan-base.  Gillman’s statue never happened because Miami has this cockamamie rule that the only way a potential coach gets one, is if he graduated from Miami.7  Gillman was a bonafide legend, a visionary who shaped the way we now see football. But just like any trailblazer there’s always those who come afterwards.  


[6. Cradle of Coaches; Paul Brown, Weeb Ewbank, Earl Blaik, Ara Parseghian, Paul Dietzel, Bo Schembechler, John Point and Carmen Cozza.  

7. Woody Hayes was also kept off. Complete buffoonery.]


The NFL didn't truly start becoming a pass happy league until Don “Air” Coryell's innovative San Diego offense in '79.  Using Dan Fouts' arm Coryell spread the receivers, put the WR's in pre-snap motion, sent the receivers on intermediate-to-long vertical routes with option stems, substituted multiple running backs as dual-threat weapons and used tight ends as receiving options in deep and mid-range routes.  When the Coryell offense was at its best, when the right personnel was on the field and when the QB mastered the language of the playbook; NFL defenses didn’t really have a clue, especially as the play was breaking down.  What separated Coryell’s scheme from anyone before him was the WR now had options.  The receivers could abruptly change their route depending on defensive personnel, execution and breakdown.  Let’s assume the play call is a traditional ‘pro-style’ 2WR/1TE look, with a RB and FB designated for block support in the event of a blitz, the receivers initial route could be a 20+ yard fly but at 15 yards they could turn inside or outside (towards the sidelines) depending on the position of the defender.  This required a precise degree of timing and trust from the QB to WR.  Most of the time however, that assumed 2WR/1TE look was actually 3 or 4 WR’s all on deep flies with a dynamic TE. 

 

Before Coryell’s system came to fruition, it was almost as if QB’s were mostly winging it and relying on their running backs to do all the work.  It was the beginning of an offensive revolution.  Seemingly overnight the QB became the most dangerous position on the field.  Air Coryell started this transformation with the St. Louis Cardinals in ’73.  However, he had one major problem, Jim Hart was his QB.  And I’m not talking about one of WWE’s greatest managers “The Mouth of the South.”  Despite Hart’s lack of ability, you could see the effort being made.  At worst, Coryell’s time in St. Louis was a trial run.  In ’74 Hart led the NFL in passing attempts with 388 – which doesn’t seem like much - especially compared to today’s numbers - but between ’70-75 the per year average was 426 and Hart was averaging 298 during the same stretch.  The ’74 season was actually Hart’s most productive; 20TD, 8INT and 2,411 yards.  Not great but not terrible, basically a poor man’s Alex Smith.  Hart started 180-games during his nineteen year career and threw 247INT, that’s a 4.9 per game INT percentage.  He wouldn’t have lasted six weeks in today’s NFL, if that!  


One school of thought suggests that if Coryell had a better QB and a few more decent receivers his offense would’ve broke through earlier.  Hart only had two good weapons in Mel Gray, who ranks somewhere in the top 150-200 receivers of all-time, and Terry Metcalf, who probably should’ve been used more as a running back and not PR/KR.  Metcalf was dynamic however.  In his short career (6 NFL seasons) Metcalf still owns the record for most games (7) with 250+ all-purpose yards gained.  Metcalf was a pre-day version of Josh Cribbs, if Cribbs could’ve ever stayed healthy and learned how to play the WR position.  


After Coryell’s system started making headway with Dan Fouts in San Diego, it wasn’t long after until every team with an above-average QB starting chucking the rock at will.  Before Fouts in '79, only one QB ever threw for over 4,000 yards (Joe Namath, 4,007 - which doesn't remotely help his otherwise dreadful numbers).8  Since Fouts in '79, 4,000 yards has been attained 118 times and 5,000 yards has been reached 8 times.  Since Fouts engineered 4,082 yards in ’79, the single-season league high in passing yards has only fell below 4,000 three times (Fouts ’82, Neil Lomax ’87, Jeff George ’97). 


[8 . To this day, no one has been in the Namath camp more than John Madden, who most of you know as just the video game guy. Madden has been on record for 40+ years that Namath threw the prettiest ball of all-time, and that might be true. But man the numbers were rough.


If only San Diego had any semblance of a defense.  Offensively they scored 52-points more than the next best, Atlanta, and 11 more touchdowns than Cincinnati.  But defensively they allowed more touchdowns than anyone with 47, finished third worst in points with 390 and second to last in total yards.  It didn’t help San Diego that their closest championship run involved an AFC title game in Cincinnati, which happened to be the one of the coldest games ever recorded, -9 with -59 wind chill.  The image I always think about is the scene from Cool Runnings when the Jamaicans arrived in Calgary and they’re walking through the airport exit.  They immediately stopped in their tracks once they reached the vestibule, overwhelmed and shivering from the cold.  I can see Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie and Kellen Winslow wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops and doing the very same thing when they arrived in the Natty.  The week before they beat the Dolphins in Miami under sunny skies and a temperature of 76.  Even crazier, the Bolts had not played in a cold weather game ten weeks prior to the Cincinnati freeze out.  In late-October they flew to Chicago where the temperature was 39 degrees and dropping and lost by a field-goal as an 11-point favorite.  


Here’s the following forecasts and outcomes in between Chicago and Cincinnati;

11/1 – Kansas City 20 @ San Diego 22, 68 degrees

11/8 – Cincinnati 40 @ San Diego 17, 65 degrees

11/16 – San Diego 23 @ Seattle 44, 72 degrees (Kingdome, indoors)

11/22 – San Diego 55 @ Oakland 21, 60 degrees

11/29 – Denver 17 @ San Diego 34, 57 degrees

12/6 – Buffalo 28 @ San Diego 27, 59 degrees

12/13 – San Diego 24 @ Tampa Bay 23, 58 degrees

12/21 – Oakland 10 @ San Diego 23, 63 degrees


After the game in Chicago every temperature was seemingly perfect.  Yet, they managed to go 5-3 during that stretch and lost against two cold weather teams in Buffalo and Cincinnati.  Maybe the Chargers were just too finesse and soft?  The average temp during those nine weeks until the Conference Championship in Cincinnati was 64 degrees.  Nine degrees in the negative with a –59 wind chill was complete shell shock.  Even if San Diego played a near perfect game and didn’t turn the ball over four times, they still didn’t have a chance.  They were simply outmatched from the combination of Cincinnati being very good, especially at home, and the unforgivable cold.  For those very reasons I’m convinced the ’81 Chargers will go down as one of the ten best teams who never won a championship. 


 After Coryell and Fouts came Marino, Moon, Elway and Bill Walsh's 'West Coast' offense and the days of defenses preparing for the run first were beginning to disappear, albeit very slowly.  The running back didn’t become entirely antiquated because guys like Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Marcus Allen, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith were still producing 1,000-yard seasons and slashing defenses on a weekly occurrence.  But you could see the shift.  Quarterbacks were throwing the ball more and subsequently producing ungodly numbers and running backs were seeing less carries.  Unless of course, teams just didn’t have a good QB and vice-versa.  


Dan Marino never had a solid running game to help him out therefore he finished his career with the third most pass attempts of all-time and never won a ring.  John Elway was 0-3 in the Super Bowl until Terrell Davis, a heroic helicopter spin-dive and feisty defense bailed him out.  I can’t begin to imagine what Warren Moon’s playoff win totals are if he had someone besides Lorenzo White and Allen Pinkett.  White’s lone 1,000+ season led the Oilers to a 10-6 season and the worst playoff collapse, and the equally greatest comeback, in the history of sport, appropriately titled “The Comeback.”  


Holy Frank Reich! ... talk about an under-appreciated backup!  You know damn well Moon still has nightmares about that cataclysmic collapse.  At some point Reich probably should’ve been given the opportunity to start somewhere else.  He went 4-3 in the postseason during his career, led Buffalo to Super Bowl XXVII and Marv Levy, stubbornly, started Jim Kelly who’d been injured half the year over the QB who took them there.  Moreover, Reich had thrown 6TD-1INT in the ’92 postseason before the Super Bowl.  Maybe if Reich starts the Bills only give the ball away six times instead of nine?9  Who knows!  That’s what makes sports so incredible.  Guys like myself can be critical douchebags but I never played past high school.  I don’t know what was involved; all the long days and short nights, hours of study and conditioning, having to figure out who your true friends and family are once you start making big money, appearances, travel, interviews and hoping to maintain some form of mental strength.  All that, just to step on the field.  Then you have to win, put up respectable numbers and not be a total asshole to your teammates, coaches, fans and the media because you’re stressed to the max and spread too thin.  And if you don’t win or if you are a complete dirtbag to everyone (or both), you might not have a place to play and you’ll be forced to move.  You’re playing time could diminish which in turn contributes to declining numbers and then you’ll still be shipped out via trade or free-agency.  Think of it this way; if you have a job that’s über stressful and numbers imperative, multiply it by at least ten – and that’s still probably not enough.  And if you don’t have a demanding job, if all you’re do is watch re-runs of “The Big Bang Theory” and eat Apple Jacks then you have no right to complain about how athletes “make too much money.”  Rant over! 


[9. This really happened, the Bills committed NINE turnovers in Super Bowl XXVII. Jim Kelly threw 2INT, was sacked twice, allowed a fumble and re-injured his knee. Enter Frank Reich. Too bad the game was already effectively finished.]


Back to the Oilers; White contributed nothing to that fateful Wildcard game, but that’s not really all his fault.  Imagine seeing your favorite team winning 28-3 at the half, and 35-3 early in the 3rd.  You’d probably think the game-plan would immediately involve running the ball at nauseation.  NOT!  Apparently, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride hasn’t learned much in twenty years.  The pass to run ratio was 50-19.  Yes, you read correctly.  Moon passed the rock 50 times to White’s 19 carries that maintained a decent 3.9 average per carry.  Let’s do basic math; 4 yards a carry multiplied by 2 = 8.  That equates to a favorable 3rd and 2 situation.  Even if Gilbride calls a run on first and White stays consistent with his average, Houston’s now in a manageable 2nd and 6 position, or better.  But exactly none of that happened.  Warren Moon threw the ball 25 times in the 2nd half, TWENTY FIVE!  With a 35-3 lead early in the 3rd quarter throwing the ball that much just seems impossible.  Even with a 28-3 halftime lead it seems mostly fictitious that a team would continue to pass.  Only Jason Garrett’s Cowboys could be so astonishingly retarded to blow a lead by neglecting the basic fundamentals of the game and how to protect a lead. Thank God and all that is good and holy Garrett is finally fired!10  When it’s Russell Westbrook playing ‘hero ball’ by unloading a fury of poor shot attempts when the MVP (KD) is also on the floor and they’re leading by three possessions, it’s frustrating.  When it’s Jean Van de Velde standing in the Barry Burn at the ’99 Open Championship you want to jump through the TV and tackle him.  When it’s Greg Norman at Augusta or Phil Mickelson at the ’06 U.S. Open it’s agonizing to watch.  But when it’s Warren Moon shelling 25 second half passes when his team is leading by 32 or 25 points, every person involved deserves a public castration.  I remember watching that game as a nine-year-old dipshit with zero comprehensive understanding and I was pissed.  Mainly because I didn’t like the Bills logo and I thought Warren Moon was cool because he was a black QB (I was also really into Randall Cunningham, which is weird considering I was a bandwagon Cowboys fan).  In hindsight, I’ve learned to understand the Oilers were supposed to lose that game.  Just like Van de Velde was meant for the most embarrassing moment in golf history, and Mickelson’s driver off the 18th tee at Winged Foot could not have happened any other way.  The meltdown is just as important as the victory, sometimes more.  If in thirty years we don’t remember anything else about the Oilers, we’ll always remember the “The Comeback.”  


[10. I used up a good 500 tweets on #FireJasonGarrett. It kind of saddens me I can no longer do that. Unless of course, JG finds a way to dominate the Cowboys from the opposite side.]


In Part Two of this quarterback series I am going to rewind back to Joe Namath and the Jets, Weeb Ewbank and a stat comparison unlike anything you've seen before.