- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Dean, who played with the San Diego Chargers before going to the 49ers last season, was always a thorn in my side. He was that third type, the lion who would give you the long stare. The Eighth Amendment guarantees that we will not receive any cruel or unusual punishment, but in a Rams-Chargers game in 1979, Dean violated my Eighth Amendment rights so flagrantly that I should have sued. We lost 40-16 and I had to be carried off the field twice. It was by far the worst beating I ever took, and I don't imagine too many quarterbacks in the history of football have ever had a heavier toll taken on their bodies than I did that day. I say that seriously.
The best defensive lineman I ever faced was Randy White of Dallas. In fact, all the Cowboys front four played like gods—Too Tall Jones, Harvey Martin, John Dutton—and Dallas was the best team in the league at deflecting passes. It wasn't just a matter of me being a "small"—5'11"—quarterback, either. I watched films of the Cowboys, and every time a quarterback got set to throw, they'd put their hands up. It's amazing how many teams aren't coached to do that. I'd bet my house that the Cowboys lead the league every year in tipped passes.
White really beat me up in one preseason game, which, at that time of year, isn't supposed to happen to your starting quarterback. During the game one of our coaches must have said something to our guard who was responsible for White, because the guard came up to me and said, "I can't block him." Just like that, "I can't block him." You don't know how frightening that was. I looked at the guy and wanted to say, "What do you want me to do? Do you want to throw the ball and have me try to block him?"
My rookie year, I recall Olsen telling another of our defensive tackles, Mike Fanning, that a defensive lineman has to be part charging buffalo, part ballet dancer. That's as good a description as any. But when talking about sacks, you aren't just talking about defensive linemen. The nickel defenses have changed the game. On second-and-eight, the Rams might send in five defensive backs and four defensive linemen, and they'd come from everywhere. Johnny Johnson, our strong safety, might lead the team in sacks one game. Or the Rams might dog a linebacker and blitz the free safety, leaving Jack Youngblood, an end, to cover Walter Payton. Youngblood cannot cover Payton, but the theory is that he won't have to do it very long. The most difficult thing facing a quarterback these days is reading the different blitzes. If I spotted one, I could check off in the middle of the count and call something like "Blitz, 56, left!" which would change the play, the lineblocking, the routes. It was a way of saying, "Buckle your chinstraps, here comes the cavalry."
I don't believe the pocket as we know it is long for this world. The Ram quarterbacks use the standard seven-step drop on most pass plays. The quarterback reads the strong safety's movements as he drops back, and that tells him what coverage to expect. He sets up nine or 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and waits for the play to unfold. The offensive line retreats two steps to form a pocket and tries to hold its ground. If everybody does his job, the play works. If not, maybe you've got a sack and an injured quarterback or an incompletion or an interception, or some combination thereof. Pittsburgh has used the same seven-step-drop system with Terry Bradshaw with great success.
San Francisco and San Diego, on the other hand, seem to prefer a three-or five-step drop. They essentially don't care what coverage the defense is in because by flooding three or four guys into a zone, they figure somebody's going to be open. The quarterback goes One-Two-Three Boom!—it's off. The offensive linemen don't retreat, they set up at the line of scrimmage and go right for the legs of the would-be sackers. I believe that the shorter drop will be used more and more in the future. It does a number of things, including something nobody ever talks about: It enables your quarterback to take less of a beating. Joe Montana didn't miss a game last year, and Dan Fouts hasn't missed one in the past three. If you want to know how to cut down not only on sacks but also on quarterback hits, the shorter drop is the answer.
The shorter drop aside, the classic ways to slow down a pass rush are to call 1) traps, 2) draws, 3) screens. These aren't foolproof methods by any means; they require skilled execution. The most embarrassing moment in my football career came on a screen pass when I was playing for Southern Cal. We were ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, and we opened on the road against Arkansas. I threw four interceptions in the game, which was a lot considering USC had three plays at that time—Anthony Davis right, Anthony Davis left and Anthony Davis up the middle. We were on about our 10-yard line when I called the screen. I dropped back and was looking downfield, as every good quarterback should, faking, still dropping back, faking, dropping back, faking, dropping back—and the next thing I knew the official had whistled me for a safety. I was literally back against the fence and I still didn't realize where I was.
With the Rams, if we were facing a pass rush like San Diego's, sometimes I'd tell myself before the game that the first second-and-five situation we had, I was going to call a trap against Dean. Calling that trap early in the game would give him something to think about for four quarters. One trap play I'll never forget. We were playing Minnesota, and one of our guards, Dennis Harrah, came up to me and asked me to call his trap. The thing was, the play wasn't in our game plan. The computer had decided it wouldn't work. Dennis kept bugging me about it, and I finally mentioned it to our coaching staff. Forget it, they said. It won't work. Well, Harrah just wouldn't shut up, so in the fourth quarter I finally called his trap just to get him off my back. I was sick of listening to him. Wendell Tyler took the ball and went 44 yards for a touchdown. That's what I've always loved about football—the human element. The computer charts an "Opposite slot left, Zoom, Fake 36, Z reverse pass left"—and the play works because the safety falls down.
Another way to slow down a pass rush is to vary your cadence. That was a particularly strong part of my game. With a voice like mine, who needed Bradshaw's arm? My second season I came to the line against Green Bay and barked out the signals. It was a cold day, and all of a sudden my voice cracked. I've got a high voice anyway, and Jim Carter, Green Bay's middle linebacker, started laughing. "What's going on, Haden?" he shouted. "Haven't you reached puberty yet?"
The best rushers are so quick off the ball, anything you can do to slow them down is a great help. The Rams always practiced non-rhythmic counts—HUT! (pause)...hut-hut!—and my philosophy on third downs was to go on a long count. I played in the Pro Bowl after the 1977 season, and one day at practice Harvey Martin stood nearby and listened to me call the signals. He was trying to get my cadence down. I could tell that he thought he had mastered my three-count—HUT! (pause)...hut-hut!—so I kept doing it that way and made a mental note of it. The next year when we played Dallas I varied my cadence and drew him offside on a third-and-two. I tried to save something like that for important situations. Unless I was playing the Chargers. I could draw them offside all game.