"It's really like a chess game in there," says Carter. "What you have to do is use the different moves you develop—maybe a grab and rip, or a grab, fake and a rip. You've also got to rely on instinct. Sometimes you just feel that guard coming down and all of a sudden you know, 'I've got to shift my weight quick.' Sometimes you can dump the center in front of the guard and then you've got a big pileup. You can have some fun at times."
Every man who plays this rugged position, however, finds one aspect no fun at all. The job has grown more dangerous than honest football should be because of the chop block, which the NFL has yet to rule out.
It is decidedly a dirty technique. An offensive player employing the chop block nullifies a noseguard or other defender by hitting downward toward his knees while he is immobilized by another blocker. Combined with the legal clip zone in the line, the chop block is a crippler that jeopardizes the career of every defensive lineman.
"When that second guy goes for the knees," says Eddie Biles, the Houston defensive coordinator, "the defensive player has no chance at all. And it isn't necessary. If two people are going to work on one, the second guy doesn't need to hit below the waist. If they have to block that way, they don't belong in professional football."
"They don't really try to block, they try to maim you," says Culp. "It's something that shouldn't exist, but it does. They took the head slap away from us on defense and I never saw anyone get hurt from a head slap, but last year against Buffalo, the damn back came through the line, went past me and then turned around and clipped me at the knees. I don't mind a guy cutting me from the front, but when he's behind you, you can't see him and you can't defend against that."
Pear agrees. "It doesn't make any sense at all to me," he says, "that they can chop at my knees and maybe give me the kind of injury that can wreck my career and I have no legal weapons to compensate. Hell, they've made crack-back blocks illegal, as well as blocking below the waist on kick returns and late hits on the quarterback. They ought to start looking at some of the shots the defensive linemen have to take. Noseguards in particular are taking some unbelievable shots at the knees."
The NFL has reacted to this sanctioned sleaziness in the finest tradition of the Department of Energy. In a memo last June, Commissioner Pete Rozelle acknowledged the objectionable aspects of the chop block and urged every coach to abandon its use and instruction. Yet it remains a legal game tactic.
Despite the peril and punishment, however, the noseguard tribe increases. Since 1973, when Miami first employed the 3-4 defense on its way to a 17-0 season, eight other teams have adopted the 3-4 (though many of them revert to the four-man line on passing downs): Houston, Oakland, Denver, New England, Kansas City, Buffalo, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. As of two weeks ago, when the Giants temporarily used the 3-4 to stun Tampa Bay—New York's first victory of the season—some 20 players were staffing a position that hadn't been seen seven seasons ago. Among those challenging Culp, Pear & Co. as the best are Denver's Don Latimer (6'3", 265), who has performed admirably the entire season, never better than during Carter's recuperation from an ankle injury; Philadelphia's unsung Charlie Johnson (6'3", 262), who has had only two years' experience at the position; and Tampa Bay's Bill Kollar (6'4", 250), who has helped make defense the most consistent asset of the improved Buccaneers.
His lot in football is not easy, but the noseguard is thriving despite his bruises, and what more can a sacrificial lamb expect?