- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
And still the pro scouts go out and beat the bushes for big, strong quarterbacks, guys with superarms. Some of them are in the league now. Players like Rudy Bukich, Roman Gabriel and Zeke Bratkowski can throw the ball 60 yards on a line and 70, 80 yards with an arch. I've never had this kind of strength, and neither have most other NFL quarterbacks. Bart Starr doesn't have a superarm; he's just a great passer. But the big muscle excites the scouts, just the same as a man who can run the 100 in 9.5 gets them all het up, thrills them to death. They're out there looking for the long bomber and it's the most overestimated talent in quarterbacking.
Well, I sulked and brooded and questioned the intelligence of the pro football establishment after it took three rounds for me to be drafted. The Vikings were offering me a $16,000 package, which was just about the going rate in those Neanderthal days before Joe Namath and Donny Anderson and all those other nouveau riche kids went on the block, and the Boston Patriots offered $5,000 more. For me there was no choice. I pride myself on trying to be businesslike, but there was no doubt that the American Football League was the inferior league, and I wanted to show everybody that I could make it with the big guys. I didn't figure it would prove anything if I went to the AFL; the new league had been going for a year and it was still a humpty-dumpty operation. So I accepted the Minnesota offer and took a plane to Minneapolis for a talk with Van Brocklin.
The club had never played a game, but they had their quarterback situation all figured out. They had wanted a veteran, and they had had a choice of Bill Wade of the Los Angeles Rams, Y. A. Tittle of the San Francisco 49ers or George Shaw of the New York Giants. Shaw was then 27 years old and had been alternate quarterback to Charlie Conerly during those years when New York was mowing everybody down. The Vikings figured George could be a great quarterback on his own if he could ever get out from under the shadow of Conerly, so they grabbed him. "There won't be a lot of pressure on you," Van Brocklin told me in that first meeting, "because there's no doubt about who our starting quarterback is. George is a seasoned professional, he's got all the tools, and we'll play him and bring you along nice and slowly, let you learn your trade."
I didn't like that; I didn't like that one bit. Maybe Van Brocklin thought it was in my best interest to be brought along slowly, but I figured I could play in the pros even as a rookie. And that's the attitude I took to camp with me.
But after a week of training camp the thought flickered through my mind that maybe I was in a little deeper water than I had expected. I didn't ever think that I wouldn't make it, not for one second, not then or any other time, but I did begin to realize that these weren't a bunch of bloomer girls I was playing with, either. We'd had a good draft that year, an excellent draft handled by Joe Thomas and Bert Rose, and guys like Ed Sharockman, Tommy Mason and Rip Hawkins had come into camp. And we had some great old pros that year. We had Hugh McElhenny from the 49ers. Until Gale Sayers came along, I would say that Hugh McElhenny was the greatest halfback in the history of the game, and I still would not rate Sayers over him. And we had Mel Triplett from New York, with that stutter change-of-pace running style, and Don Joyce, the great defensive end from the Colts, and Bill Bishop, the fine tackle from the Bears, and Bob Schnelker, the big graceful end from the Giants—all of them 10-year veterans. When you worked out with players like that who had seen it all, you realized how far you were from Broad and Lumpkin streets.
One day early in the training season Van Brocklin was watching me throw passes along the sidelines. I was lobbing them 50 yards, high and fat and soft. I prided myself on the fact that a 12-year-old kid could catch my long passes. "Hey, Peach, come over here!" Van Brocklin ordered. I walked over expecting a compliment on my featherlike parabolic passes, but instead he announced loudly that if I kept on passing like that I would be run right out of the league. "You've got to zip the ball!" he said. He ordered me to lift a five-pound dumbbell 25 times a day and work on throwing the ball in a flatter are. "Maybe you're not used to the shape of the pro football yet," he said. "Here!" He handed me a pro ball, fatter in the middle than the college model, and told me to carry it at all times till I got used to the feel of it. That made me feel like the dumbest kid in kindergarten, carrying a football with me wherever I went, learning its size. It was a badge of ignorance. See the football. See how it's shaped. See how the laces run down the middle of the football. Now throw the football. See how it wobbles.
Those preparations for our first regular season in the NFL gave me a succession of elations and depressions in almost perfect rhythm. If you made a chart of my emotions in spring training, it would look like the Himalayas. I came in brimming with confidence, and then I discovered I didn't even know how to throw a pro-type pass, and I felt down in the dumps, and then my team went out and beat George Shaw's team 35-7 in an intrasquad game and I was ready to join the All-Pro squad, and then Billy Ray Smith knocked me on my tail in the second exhibition game and I was down in the dumps again. But it's not my nature to stay down, and certainly not to give up. I sat on the bench and learned a lot during the third exhibition game, and by the time the fourth game came along, against the Chicago Bears at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I had built my confidence back up to the top. The Bears had a lot of those bubble-gum-card guys, too, but I wasn't going to go out there and faint just because the other team had some historic personages.
George Shaw started the game at quarterback, but I took over in the second quarter. The Bears had a murderous defense in those years—they still do—and my previous 15 minutes or so of exhibition-game experience had not prepared me for the Bears' blitzing defense. On one of the first plays I called, they threw an all-out blitz at us, and this enabled Doug Atkins, 6'8" and 255 pounds, to get through the line untouched. Normally he would have been picked up by our tackle, but the tackle had to block the first threat, a blitzing linebacker, and that left this diesel truck of a man headed for the pass pocket at about 90 miles an hour. There's nobody there to block him except 195-pound Tommy Mason, himself a rookie, and Tommy goes low to cut Atkins down at the shoe tops, and Atkins hurdles right over Tommy! Tommy never touches him! And all I can see from where I'm standing is this huge shape winging through the air at me, blotting out the sun, and then crunch! It sounded like a big old farm horse falling on a duck.
The Bears' corner linebacker, Larry Morris, is from Georgia Tech, the hated rival of my own University of Georgia Bulldogs, and all afternoon he would bust in on me, holler, "Hi, Bulldog!" and slam me down. To this day, I flinch when somebody says, "Hi, Bulldog!" And Bill George and Joe Fortunato, the Bears' other linebackers, were knocking me around all afternoon. When it wasn't Fortunato, it was Morris, and when it wasn't Morris, it was Bill George, and when it wasn't Bill George, it was somebody else. And I didn't have the slightest idea what to do about it!
The Bears have always had a perplexing defensive style, with about eight different defensive formations. They're confusing right now to a veteran NFL quarterback. They give you a frightful learning problem. Let's say you have five bread-and-butter running plays. O.K., when you play the Bears you have to learn how to run each of these plays against eight different defenses. That's 40 plays. But a pro football team will usually go into a game with about 30 plays on its ready list, and if you want to execute perfectly against the Bears you've got to know 240 routines, and that's just about 200 too many. The basic defensive philosophy of the Bears is to confuse, and this is the direct opposite of a team like Green Bay, whose philosophy is to let you know exactly how they're going to play and then outexecute you all the way. Of course, the complexity of the Bears' defense makes them vulnerable at a few points, too, but I wasn't experienced enough to know what these vulnerabilities were. The Bears give up a lot of home runs, but they did not against rookie Fran Tarkenton on that black day in 1961. I was demoralized, panicky and totally unsure of how to handle this team of blitzing dervishes. I'd come up to the line to call signals and I'd see the three linebackers cheating toward the line, all of them down in the stance that spells blitz. So I'd start to check off to another play, one that would work against the blitz, and the instant I'd start the audible the Bears would go into another formation, and then I'd check back and they'd change to a blitzing formation.