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At first, I didn't have anything you could call a pattern to disrupt. My style was to go out full speed and grab. The first thing Van Brocklin taught me was that you must be an actor. " Tom Fears and Elroy Hirsch were actors," he said. "They would come out of the huddle on a pass play looking poor mouth, as if they never expected the ball to come within a mile of them."
He knew what he was talking about. When your number is called you have to go out there with your eyes blank and make the halfback look at you and think, "It's a running play this time; this guy is looking to go downfield and get a block." Then when you move out you go at half speed, then turn it on, then slow up, turn it on, slow up, turn it on. You never blast off full speed because that alerts the defensive back. Or, if the ball is not coming to you, you can't just stand up. That tells your back the play is going the other way and frees him to help out over there.
Pete and Bobby Walston and I worked with Van before practice most of the time, because after practice you are too tired to absorb very much. We would go over all the moves: outs, corners, posts, hooks, pitch-outs, centers, crosses—everything. When we made mistakes Van would run the patterns himself. He wasn't fast, but watching him you could visualize what he wanted against every back you would be in against.
Speed got me to the Eagles, and now I was discovering that speed was my biggest problem. I was trying to use too much of it too often. Van taught me that you only go full throttle when you have gotten behind the defender. Otherwise you want to move at half speed or three-quarter speed and be certain your jukes are under control.
Van also taught me to concentrate. When he called a play with me as a receiver I would go out on the flank thinking, "Am I giving it away? Do my eyes look tingly? Have I got a smile on my face because I know the ball is coming to me? I'd better catch it when it comes, too, or else." You hear about players getting butterflies before a game. I got butterflies every time Van called a long pass to me.
The hardest patterns for me to learn were an out, then a corner, then a zig-out, where you run a kind of double out. You want to deceive the back into thinking you are going to run an out, where you break to the sideline. Then you turn upheld, and as soon as he is running hard with you, you cut to the sideline again. It's a hard pattern. One of the best at it was Billy Howton when he was with the Cowboys.
The footwork is tricky, and knowing exactly how fast to go and at the same time sensing whether the back is taking your bait adds to the difficulty. You don't learn it in college. It takes two or three years in the pros just to get onto the little technical things. They talk about hearing footsteps—meaning a back coming up to hit you just as you catch a pass—but those footsteps can mean different things. You must be able to judge how far away the back is without looking at him. If he is running with you, you can cut a pattern off sharp. If he is not with you and you cut it sharp anyway, he'll be right in there for the ball.
The pros do not waste time on fundamental maneuvers. If you can't execute them, forget pro ball. When they have a defensive-line scrimmage they are only interested in finding out which lineman can get to the quarterback quickest or which offensive lineman can hold the defender out best.
In Van Brocklin's finishing school I learned to experiment with the back keyed on me whether I was going to catch the ball or not. I went over the things I saw in the game films. Maybe that week he was covering to the inside. What do I do if he plays me head up or to the outside? He might play farther back or closer in. Or, with the kind of two-man coverage I get most of the time, the corner back might play me close and to the outside to take away the outs and the hitch-outs, and then again it might be inside for the hooks and slants. What if the corner linebacker helps him inside? I learned that if I got past those two the safety would likely be waiting for me, looking for a post or a corner or a cross, which would be the only patterns left to run. I would be past the point of no return on the others.