When I was a kid I used to make up bubble-gum-card teams and stage football games on my bed. I'd go through the Philadelphia Eagle cards and study my personnel. There'd be Frank Kilroy and Vic Sears and Tommy Thompson, Bosh Pritchard and Steve Van Buren and Pete Pihos and all the rest, and I'd try to figure out some kind of a game plan based on what they did best, how well they had played in the previous games, how they had looked in the exhibition season and the capabilities of the guys they were playing, who would usually be the Washington Redskins led by Bullet Bill Dudley. Oh, it was a very complex process. "Steve," I'd say to the Steve Van Buren bubble-gum card, "we're going to be running you wide a lot today."
"Great, Coach," he would say, and I'd make a mental note for my game plan that Van Buren would carry the main load of the offense and that when I needed 10 yards I could always send him on an "end run."
Our fullback had a slight charley horse, but nobody on the other team knew about it, so I figured that for short yardage we could always use him on a "center plunge." Bosh Pritchard had worked the "off tackle" play successfully the day before against the Chicago Bears. Tommy Thompson was having good luck with the buttonhook pass to Pete Pihos, and once in a while he'd hit on a bomb to one of our deep receivers. So that would be my basic offensive game plan: the center plunge, end run and off-tackle play, the short pass and the long pass, and for a little razzle-dazzle, I would include a Statue of Liberty play, an end-around and a tricky tackle-eligible play. After all that planning, it was not surprising that my bubble-gum Eagles were undefeated in my bedroom.
This was when I was maybe 9 to 12 years old, and I'd come home from school and run off those games till suppertime, and then after supper I'd do it the rest of the evening, and while the other kids were doing homework I was wondering how to use Pete Pihos this week. My studies suffered, but this was my interest, this was my life.
Well, it still is. And sometimes I wish life had stayed as simple as it was in those dear dead days. Mostly, football was like a big shove-of-war. There were no flanker backs, no blitzes and no 275-pound pass rushers who could step off the 100 in 10 flat. Life was sweet and pure and simple, and none of the quarterbacks had a Ph. D. from Rice. In those days the biggest problem was to execute. You knew how the other team's defense would set up every time; the problem was how to mix the plays and beat their static defense more often than they beat your static defense.
I'm not one of those quarterbacks who tries to impress the public with the complexities of running a modern pro football offense. Everybody's job is more complex nowadays; our whole society is vastly more complex, and the pro quarterback's job can be learned, piece by piece, just like anybody else's. You don't memorize the basic 300 plays overnight, and you're not expected to, and you don't learn how to read every other team's defenses until you've been around the league for four or five years, and even then you keep on learning new ones. But it is true that you can drive yourself batty trying to read defenses, figuring out how to beat them, adjusting to the time of the game, position on the field, the weather, the capabilities of your players and the limitations of the opponents and 134 other factors. As game time approaches each week and all these problems come up anew, I go into more and more of a purple quandary trying to anticipate what's going to happen. By Friday or Saturday I'm running whole blocks of plays in my head, just like the bubble-gum days. I'm trying to visualize every game situation, every defense, and how to beat it. I say to myself, "Now, what am I going to do if I'm on their five-yard line and it's third and three and our short passing game hasn't been going very well and it's misting?" I walk around on another planet, and I'm not much fun to live with.
When I first came into the league in 1961 you could draw up your pass patterns with a reasonable expectancy of getting single man-to-man coverage or an occasional zone-type coverage, and that was all you had to worry about as far as pass defense was concerned. But nowadays they have a jillion different pass coverages to throw against you: single coverage, zone coverage, double coverage, combination coverage, weak side zones and sally zones, and who knows what all, and every one of them carefully camouflaged! As if that isn't bad enough, a lot of teams are beginning to play what is called "position on the field." Baltimore and Detroit started this, and the rest of the teams are picking it up. In "position on the field" you zone the wide side of the field at all times, but if the offense is strong into the sideline you use a double-coverage strong side and a weak side zone to the wide side and get them that way. There's a lot more to it, but basically the defense is determined by "position on the field," and you get a different concept, a more sophisticated concept, of defense.
You've got to wonder how in the world a pro quarterback can figure all these things out, especially when he has only a second or two in which to make his decision. He can study the defensive alignment as he is counting cadence, but the real decision has to be made when he is dropping back to pass, when the defensive ballplayers are on the move and the true defense (in contrast to the camouflaged defense) is being tipped off.
Every quarterback has his own system of keys for reading defenses. My own is to watch the middle linebacker and the strong-side safety. By studying those two I can usually tell what kind of pass coverage I'm up against. If the middle linebacker goes to the strong side, then I look for some type of single coverage, or maybe double, but at any rate I know it will be man-to-man. If he goes to the weak side, they're probably throwing a zone at me. If the strong safety goes back to a deep corner, that's going to be zone coverage, and if he stays up tight it's probably some sort of man-to-man. If the strong safety goes back to the middle, I'm going to expect a weak side zone. And so forth through the other possibilities. See how simple it is?
In the olden days of pro football, eight and 10 years ago, you looked for other giveaways, like the way somebody held his feet. They used to say that the Eagles' quarterback, Tommy Thompson, would stand with his left foot forward when he was calling a running play and his feet parallel for a pass play. I don't know if that was true or not, but I do know that football has become far too sophisticated for that sort of approach. In the first place, hardly anybody gives away free information anymore, and even if they did you wouldn't have time to go around studying everybody's feet. You've got too much else to do.