Everything is changing so fast in pro football, sometimes even from week to week, that it's a full-time learning job keeping up with the new styles fresh from Chicago and Dallas and San Francisco and everyplace else. If current trends keep up, I think you'll see less and less blitzing and fewer checkoffs at the line of scrimmage. A lot of people think that checkoffs—audibles—are the answer to cute defenses and fancy red-dogging patterns, and once upon a time they were. In our second year at Minnesota we carried the audible process to its ultimate against Los Angeles. We called every play audibly at the line, without a huddle, at least till the Rams made certain adjustments. The problem was that we were hurting offensively—Tommy Mason was out and we had some other weaknesses—and the Los Angeles line was jumping around a lot, from four-three to five-three to five-two with all sorts of variations, and we were having an awful time figuring out an offense. So we decided to beat their defense by going right up to the line and calling an audible play on a short count—I'd say, "Set two 25 hut hut," and boom! the play was on. They didn't even have the time for a defensive huddle, let alone the time to do all that jumping around. We played this way for one entire quarter, or long enough to make them honest.
Nowadays the problem of shifting, switching defenses isn't solved by the audible so often; it's solved right in the huddle by giving the players flexible assignments. For example: suppose our tight end is to run a square-out pattern. In the old days he'd probably have run that square-out pattern, period, and that would have been his whole assignment. But now he will run the pattern only if the linebacker on his side does not blitz. If the blitz is on, the tight end will block the blitzer. In other words, the possibility of a blitz is anticipated by the play. Of course, I've vastly oversimplified. When you figure that the tight end also will have a couple of other alternatives, you can begin to see how complex this new-type offense can get, especially when you realize that the tight end is only one of 11 players with choices and decisions to make after the ball is snapped.
The modern quarterback anticipates the probabilities and calls plays that will prepare his team for almost anything. He doesn't have to call audibles. Many times a good quarterback will go through an entire game without calling a single audible; his strategy against tricky defense is built into his play-calling. And, anyway, an audible was never much more than a way to avert disaster. All you could do was go up there and check off and hope that everybody on your team caught the signal. A play is always better if it's called in the huddle. The quarterback who calls 10 or 12 audibles is becoming a thing of the past.
In my opinion, the blitz is losing its effectiveness because of the flexible offense, and when the blitz is finally gone for good plenty of coaches will breathe easier. The blitz has always been one of the chanciest moves in football. When you blitz you're putting your defensive backs into the toughest situation they can face: you're making them cover one-on-one all over the field. No defensive back can cover a pass catcher for more than a few seconds one-on-one, so the only way the blitz can be effective is if the quarterback is dumped right away. Otherwise he'll beat you to death. Certain refinements have been introduced to the blitz, of course. You're seeing more and more safety blitzes, and last year we even got blitzed by a corner back, something I'd never seen before.
Although teams are doing a better job of camouflaging the blitz, there are still too many ways to spot it, to anticipate it. The linebackers will cheat up to the line before the ball's snapped, whereas usually they're two or three yards back. It doesn't do a linebacker any good to blitz from three yards back, so when you see him fudging up toward the line you've got to smell a blitz. You can also watch the free safety for information on a blitzing probability. Normally the free safety has no specific responsibility, and he plays pretty deep. But if there's a weak-side blitz coming up, the free safety has a definite responsibility: he has to cover the first back out of the backfield, and in order to get into position to do this he can't be his usual 12 or 15 yards from the line of scrimmage; he's got to cheat up so he's only seven or eight yards away. So you've got to get suspicious. Similarly, when the two outside linebackers are going to blitz, the middle linebacker will often give it away. Instead of his usual job, he's now got to cover the first back out of the back-field on the strong side. When I see him edging over toward the strong side to get head up with the offensive back on that side, I've got to say to myself, "Well, old Moe there must be expecting the two outside linebackers to blitz." None of this sounds too complicated when you put it down on paper, but I've only covered a small fraction of the ways in which blitzes can be tipped off, and you've got to go up to the line and figure all this out practically instantly. More and more offenses are able to do this, and they are making the blitz too big a gamble to last much longer.
The blitz reached its peak a few years ago; it was your big weapon against the pass, but now it is being superseded by a far more effective weapon: the pass rush. I wince when I think of the pass rush that's being put on by some of the teams in pro ball these days. Just for an idea, look at the Detroit Lions' pass rush. Your best rushers are usually ends; they come crashing in on you from the outside the way Andy Robustelli used to do, but against Detroit you not only have the ends but you have two All-Pro tackles, Alex Karras and Roger Brown, slamming right up the middle. You just can't ask your guards to hold that 300-pound Brown and that big bull Karras for very long, and you have to make adjustments like setting your pocket deeper against the Lions.
Back when I broke into pro football, you had a few good pass rushers, guys like Robustelli and Gino Marchetti and Jim Katcavage and one or two others. But now you've got 15 or 20 super pass rushers around the league, and every team has a few guys who'll be beating on you all afternoon. To my mind, these pass rushers are unique in sport. You can't show me another sport that asks a man to be not big but huge, preferably 260 pounds and up, preferably at least 6'5", and still be as quick as a sprinter off the blocks and plenty nimble on his feet. The pass rusher has got to be a combination of professional wrestler, Olympic 100-meter man and ballet dancer. At Minnesota last year two of the five fastest men on our squad were defensive pass rushers: Carl Eller and Jim Marshall. They tell me that the fastest man on the Los Angeles team when they timed them two years ago was Dave Jones, the pass rusher, and he's 6'5" and 270 pounds. Merlin Olsen was hardly a step behind him. Henry Jordan and Willie Davis of the Packers have great speed; so do Bob Lilly of the Cowboys, Ordell Braase of the Colts, and Doug Atkins of the Saints, and they're all behemoths.
Pass rushers are the dramatis personae in my nightmares. Some of them are notoriously effective against us ( Davis of the Packers, to name one), and I'll spend half the afternoon with them draped all over me, banging me down and sitting on me. A lot of people have asked me how I manage to hold my temper when I see the 245 pounds of Willie Davis flying through the air at me for the fourth time in a game, how do I keep from calling him some kind of insulting name or pulling his nose or doing something nasty? Well, that's one of the first things you learn as a professional quarterback: do not alienate the pass rushers. Guys like Willie Davis are tough enough when they're in a good mood. If you go out of your way to get them mad, you're asking for more trouble than I personally wish to encounter at eye level. And I also don't want them to know that they're bothering me in the least; I don't want them to think that they're disturbing my afternoon one bit. So when they knock me down I usually say something like, "Good play, nice going!" I'll say, "Deacon, you're really getting in on me today!" Or, "Ordell, is it you again?" Or, "My gosh, Willie, you're spending the whole afternoon in my backfield!" My slogan is: always leave 'em smiling. That way you hold their adrenaline flow down a little.
And, in the second place, a quarterback is a football player just like everybody else out there and he's supposed to get hit. The pass rusher is not out there to deliver a spray of forget-me-nots. He's supposed to bang you as hard as he can, break you up and shake you up. I try not to let it bother me. I've got my own work to do. Do you realize that when you're lying on the ground with 600 pounds of pass rushers on top of you it's kind of peaceful down there? It's a good time to be planning your next play (or your retirement). There isn't a quarterback in pro football who doesn't put the pleasant interlude to good use.
I'm not primarily a runner, except in emergencies, and maybe I'd take an entirely different approach if I were. A runner like Jim Taylor will get up from a tackle fighting mad, but a quarterback has to be a little cooler. As a rule, I just sort of go thunk when I'm tackled, like a sack of meal, because my mind isn't on moving forward but on completing a pass, hitting a target. I've got a million things to think about, and getting knocked on my back is one of the last.