- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"The press has overemphasized my intelligence," Ryan says. A case in point is his chess-playing. He used to keep eight or 10 games going through the mails, a feat that any normal 7-year-old could bring off with no difficulty. But his biographers persisted in treating his chess as a grand intellectual accomplishment. "They think there's something special about playing chess by mail, like playing the piano blindfolded," Ryan says. "Now it's coming back to haunt me, because I'm getting challenges from all over the country. The champion of the sixth grade in some place in Minnesota wants to play me. Trouble is, he probably would beat me. One time in the dressing room after a game in Los Angeles, in came this man from San Bernardino. He'd been playing me through the mails, and he came in and plunked down our unfinished game in front of me. We finished it right there, and he won. Now that I think about it, I was in a bad position anyway."
There was a time, in the distant past, when Frank Ryan, boy failure, used to run out on the football field trying to exploit the last erg of his IQ of 155, a process that often resulted in his tripping over his own intellect. As Cleveland Coach Blanton Collier, no stumblebrain himself, put the matter, "He used to overthink himself." Collier finally told Ryan: "Frank, every time you try to mastermind a situation you fail more often than not." This sent Ryan into one of his long, patented huddles with his medulla oblongata, his cerebral cortex and his cerebellum and produced a new approach. Ryan explains: "A few years ago I'd get so wrapped up in strategy that when I got to the line of scrimmage I hadn't yet switched from the play-calling to the mechanics. What's important is turning off the mental aspect and turning on the mechanical aspect. When I'm going over the films during the week I'm thinking very hard, because I want to be able to have the proper intuition during the game. Play-calling is a matter of intuition. Study-in the films requires extreme concentration. It's like working on my dissertation. When I'm writing down the facts and trying to prove the theorem I work very hard, but when I've got to rattle off my result it's easy, there it is. That's the way it is during the football week. I work very hard to weed out all the superfluous stuff and get to the heart of the matter, so that my intuition is attuned to the heart of the matter when I play the game. When I get in the game, if I try to mastermind it I mess up every time. It's got to be done in advance. On the field I've reduced the importance of being a mastermind more or less to calling a play and getting out there and reacting the right way. It's more instinct, experience, reflex than it is masterminding. I still analyze the defense, but then I rely on my intuition. And also I get a lot of suggestions from my teammates, and I almost always follow them.
"Of course, you've got to go by down and situation, but that only patterns how my intuitions go. Like if it's a running situation I don't think: Should we run inside or outside or off tackle or should we use a trap or whatnot? I just—pop! It comes like that.
"I used to put too much responsibility on my own shoulders, and I wasn't relaxed. I used to think that football was much more complicated than it is. There are so many defenses and so many ways you can run this play and hit the defensive weakness. If you let it all overwhelm you it becomes a big blur. Somewhere along the line it just occurred to me that I shouldn't concern myself so much with getting it just so, that I should make snap judgments and carry them through. More often than not, football is luck. You can study the defense and call a play that you think'll kill 'em, and all of a sudden they put on a line slant that squashes the play. It occurred to me that a lot of the success or failure depended upon the luck of the situation. My insight was that I shouldn't be tormented or worried or lose sleep over calling exactly the right play because there was such a tremendous variable of luck in it that I couldn't hope to be right every time. So I've become more relaxed, and when people are more relaxed they do better.
"Now I push this feeling even further. It's so nebulous, but I've got a feeling that I could take practically any pass pattern with three ends going down and a back flaring—that gives me four receivers—and I feel I could complete it every time against any defense. Why? Because those poor defensive people are just as bad off as I am. They don't know what's coming. They don't know where the exact spot is for them to break up the pass. Now when I've got four guys going downfield, that means at least four of their guys have to be in the right spot to stop the pass, so the percentage is on my side. And I feel that I can complete the pass every time. I know I won't, because mechanically I'm not that good a passer. I make mistakes. But I've got the feeling that the pass ought to be completed."
Ryan laughs at the popular misconception that pro football players have to learn an unreasonable number of plays and formations and defenses. "It's another clich� of sportswriters to bring up: 'Well, how many plays have you got? Isn't that a tremendous burden on your mind?' Well, it isn't, because the plays are all logically interwoven and you do things over and over so minny tarns that you never think twice about what plays you have. Knowing your own plays is the easiest part of football. I had to laugh: I was reading an article about Joe Namath commenting on the fact that he had maintained a C average in college but had not graduated, and they were trying to bring out the fact that he had a good football mind. This sportswriter was trying to give the public a new image of Joe Namath, because he said anybody who has to learn six or seven different formations and 50 or 60 pass patterns, individual cuts, this and that, it proves he's got a good football mind. The fact is it proves nothing. Learning plays is the easiest part of it."
The process of becoming a skilled pro quarterback, says theoretician Ryan, is nontheoretical. "Provided you have all the equipment, it's a process of being thrown into the fray and having to live or die in it. It's a process of learning, and the only way you can learn is to be out there under game conditions. You take quarterbacks like Norm Snead and Fran Tarkenton. They're lucky quarterbacks, because they were given the opportunity to play regularly much quicker than I was. They had to play. I didn't have to play till I was midway through my fifth pro season."
It seemed for the better part of two decades that Frank Ryan would never have to play. He was first-string for a while in the ninth grade, but he played with the scrubs in both his sophomore and junior years at Fort Worth's Paschal High School, and in his senior year, by his own evaluation, "I was the fifth best of the six quarterbacks in the conference." The All-Conference quarterback was Jim Shofner. At Rice, Ryan had his few splendid moments, but always as an understudy to King Hill who, incidentally, was one of the few people around who realized just how good his sub was. Years later, Hill was to say to a Philadelphia reporter: "I owe a lot to Frank. We beat Texas A&M when A&M was No. 1 in the country. Frank took the club about 70 yards right to the goal. I'll always remember a run he made on the last play of the drive. He spun off tackle, and there was John David Crow waiting for him. Frank stiff-armed him. He really spun his neck back and ran the ball right up to the goal. Then the quarter ended. We changed units, and all I had to do was sneak the thing over for a touchdown. It set me up for All-America. I got a lot of publicity out of the game, but Frank made it possible. You just got to like a guy like that."
All through that annoying senior year at Rice, Ryan had problems. He twisted his knee in the opening game and kept retwisting it as the season went on (it still bothers him occasionally). And although he never stopped thinking of himself as a first-string quarterback, the incontrovertible fact was that he was a scrub. "The coach was right, too," Ryan says now. "I was immature and inconsistent in my play and very emotional. When we played Clemson early in the season and lost 20—7, I had gotten to play about two series of downs and I was very disgruntled, and that was the low point for me. I was very close to quitting. I can't remember now why I didn't quit, except that I was interested in getting the education."
To Ryan's own puzzlement, he was drafted in the fourth round by the Los Angeles Rams, a team that in those years was suffering from a surfeit of owners, no one of whom got along with the others. Ryan played—or tried to play—under an astute coach, Sid Gillman, and later under a rookie coach, Bob Waterfield, both of whom were exposed to the laser beam of constant advice by the seemingly dozens of owners running around with ideas for plays like the Statue of Liberty with a triple reverse in the pike position. Ryan still grimaces and raises his voice, unRyan-like, when he discusses those years through the looking glass. " Gillman had a two-and-ten year and got the ax. Waterfield came in, and he didn't know what to do. He'd sort of been elected by public demand, and he didn't have enough coaching experience. I had a tremendous personal feeling for Waterfield that I hadn't had for any other coach. If I could have climbed mountains for him I would have. He was very fair at first. He said I was going to be his quarterback. So he started me in the preseason stuff, and I played the first half of the first exhibition game, and I played lousy. I didn't play again until four games into the league season.