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Real football

Posted by Jason Lisk on March 4, 2010

The league averaged the second most passing yards per game in 2009 (behind only 1995), and 300 passing yard games were commonplace. Jack Lambert would roll over in his grave, well, except he's still alive. All this explosion in passing ain't real football.

But don't take my word for it. Here are some quotes I found from a retired player who is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and played back when they played real football.

One crisp afternoon last fall, a crowd . . . in Philadelphia saw one of the most astonishing exhibitions in American sport. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New York Giants, 30-7, in what was supposed to be a football game. But the score and the result are irrelevant here. The eye-popping factor was the way they played. The pass plays ate up nearly 80 percent of the game.

If that was football, I'll eat my old [college] helmet. It looked more like basketball to me.

The bruising plunges through center, the incisive blocking that set up off-tackle slants and end runs, and the clever broken field running that featured football when I played it are fast becoming a lost art. In modern pro football, the touchdowns fly back and forth so fast they don't seem to count for much, first downs are meaningless and 40- and 50-yard field goals . . . are almost routine.

This former player didn't think much of the modern quarterback and all the changes that separate him from other players either:

He [the modern quarterback]'s got a real armchair job. He doesn't block, tackle . . . . He rarely carries the ball. He hardly ever calls signals. . . . I've watched all the top quarterbacks in the pro league and I can't recall ever seeing one in a dirty uniform--unless he had poor laundry service to begin with.

Our Hall of Famer has a prediction for football if it continues on its current course:

If the pros don't get wise to what they've done to football, they'll wake up some day and find that their circus tent is empty. The cardinal rule of business is: Don't sell yourself too cheaply. By serving up too many specialists, too many passes, too many cheap touchdowns and field goals, the pros are taking a chance on antagonizing--and worse yet, boring--the solid football fan who still pays most of the freight.

Of course, I didn't tell you that the Hall of Famer in question was a retired player named Ken Strong, and that unlike a fictional letter sent to the Packers in 1959, this one was actually published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on December 5, 1954, under the heading, "Pro Football is Just a Circus." (For young whipper snapper Otto Graham's response the following week, click here)

The tradition of retired former athletes complaining about the current state of the game dates back to about twenty years after the development of organized athletic competition. If we could find an archived online article from the Athens Sun-Tribune circa 676 B.C., we would probably find a retired Olympian complaining about the modern athlete wearing too much loin cloth. Strong hit the necessary looseness with facts in the finest retired athlete tradition, as a perusal of the box score for that Giants-Eagles game shows that they did not throw passes on 80% of the plays, and his former team ran the ball more than they passed it despite trailing all game. Still, watching the Giants lose a game where they were out-passed for almost 500 yards probably did feel like a circus to Strong.

The thing is, the game that Strong played in the 30's and 40's wasn't football either, at least to those that played a generation earlier and scored only 5 points for a touchdown and used drop kicks extensively. Players from that prior generation, the first to begin playing with the rules allowing the forward pass, didn't play real football either, at least to those players who played twenty years earlier when field goals were worth 5 points and their were no passes. And those players didn't play football either, because they played under different rules and variations than those originally developed by Walter Camp. None of them played real football . . . and all of them did.

People have been complaining about too much passing since the first pass was thrown. It is a grand and storied tradition of the game, and one passed down through the generations. It has, in fact, been football for a long time, yet it has continually changed. That is the great thing about the game of football, because the power I, the wishbone, the shotgun, the wildcat, the run-n-shoot, the fumble rooskie, the surprise onside kick, the zone blitz, the dime, the 46 defense, the stretch play, and the hook-n-ladder are all football. No other sport has seen as much adaption and innovation and strategy changes and position changes as football over the last 100 years.

What will football be like in 2050? I don't have any idea. But whatever it is, it will still be real football.