“The View from the O-Line – Football According to NFL Offensive Linemen and an Uncommon Coach” by Howard Mudd and Richard Lister
New Idea, Old Concept
I WENT TO Seattle to work for head coach Jack Patera. The players weren’t sure about me. They were a young group, so they were fairly malleable. We did have Norm Evans, who had played in Miami. Nick Bebout was another veteran.
I taught the stuff I knew. We’d do my drills. The guys really gobbled it up. It was like the little chickies following the mother hen.
They went from being an awful offensive line to having a pretty good running game. We kind of became the league’s darling. We went 9–7 that first year. We beat the Raiders. It looked like we did it with smoke and mirrors. We’d use fake kicks and that kind of stuff. It was really fun. And the players were really a kick to be around.
When I got there, the first thing I wanted to do was form my linemen into a community. I asked if some of them if they would come over and to help put sod down at my house. The whole damned group came over. So we laid the sod, ate pizza, and drank beer. We built rapport.
I was supposed to mete out the standard of performance. But they could see I was a real human being—but not trying to be their brother.
The second year we went rafting. We called it the “Fat Guy Float Trip.” We got the whole group and floated a river. It was a ball. On the field they were tough and played hard. But we had more fun than anybody else on the team.
We did the river trip again the next year. Our quarterback, Jim Zorn, and receiver Steve Largent wanted to get in on it too. I said, “No, you ain’t one of us.” But Steve and Jim
later invited me to climb Mt. Rainier with them. It was like a family atmosphere.
We were seeing a lot more 3-4 defenses in 1978. Teams were stunting into gaps, complicating man-blocking assignments. We continued man blocking, but we did it in a passive way.
Zorn was a sprint-out quarterback. Teams had to recognize he could run the ball. Sherman Smith was our tailback. On the snap he’d wind way to the outside, ending up behind the tackle. Zorn would sprint to the handoff point.
The defensive linemen and linebackers were thinking Zorn would keep the ball. If they were stunting, they would have stunted out of position. If they were reading pass or run, they’d see Zorn and take off. We’d end up distorting them beyond their responsibilities. Andy MacDonald, our running backs coach who had used the sprint out in college, generated the idea. I took that and ran with it like a big dog. But it was still all man blocking.
We had great big, wide splits between our guys. The tackle would set and let the defensive end go wherever he wanted to. The guard would set, then wrap around the tackle if the defensive end came inside bringing the tackle down with him. I called that the “if” block.
We could create some big holes. It really was what I’d call passive-man blocking. Rather than applying force to the defender, we’d let the defender’s own momentum take him away from the hole we wanted to create.
It was like blocking a draw play. The tackles were setting almost like they were pass protecting. They were passive if they were covered by the defender. If the defensive end stunted, you could push him beyond his area of responsibility. Then whoever had the linebacker, usually the guard, would actually shuffle—a shuffle, shuffle, and go kind of rhythm—then come around to get his man. It was good. We opened a lot of holes for Smith.
But what stopped it was defenses figuring out they didn’t have to do anything. They started just holding their ground instead of chasing the ball. They’d run right into us and knock our guy down. We were trying to be passive, hoping the defensive linemen react to the quarterback to let them create a natural hole. When they didn’t go anywhere it messed everything up. The Raiders would stop us with their thirty-four defense. They took their big defensive linemen who just came right to us, without taking off anywhere. We couldn’t do anything with them.
As I pondered the problem, I remembered what I had once asked my former teammate and fellow San Diego Chargers assistant coach John David Crow about the running back’s vision. I wondered if he looked at the blockers when he had the ball. He said hell no. He was watching the son of a bitch that was trying to knock him on his butt.
I kept thinking about a way to avoid having our blockers picked off by stunts while at the same time having an answer to teams that would just lock up on us. We needed to get movement on the guys who would just freeze on our covered lineman.
So when Zorn sprinted to the handoff point, I decided we should become active at the snap instead of taking the passive approach. Instead of the guard shuffling, I had him double team the defensive end with the tackle.
I started thinking about it some more and concluded this was a form of power football. But instead of double teaming from the outside in, you’re double teaming from the inside out to get movement. And that’s how to explain it today. The tackle knows he’s going to get help. He can’t whiff on his guy, but someone else is going to be there. The guard could come in to bump the defensive end, then go onto the linebacker. That was my beginning with zone blocking.
The team let Patera go after the first two games in 1982, the strike season. Jack let
you have a sense of humor. The atmosphere allowed the players to have fun playing football. And we had success.
It was one of my favorite groups of people I’ve been around. Everybody fought their butt off. They went to work every day. And they laughed and laughed.
In 1983 I went to the Cleveland Browns where Sam Rutigliano was the head coach. They had been in the playoffs. The O-line was very efficient. They were all athletic. That type of player worked well for what we would be doing.
By this time, defenses were throwing enough confusion at us that zone blocking became the way we wanted to block virtually all our runs. I went about refining what I’d started in Seattle.
I believed we could use the double team at the point of attack, letting the inside blocker move after contact to the second level to pick up a linebacker. But we wouldn’t know if the man we might otherwise have been assigned is going to shoot a gap inside, outside, just lock up on our guy, or drop into coverage in a fire-zone blitz. So we’d take the defenders as we found them.
The five linemen move in unison, like elephants in a circus grabbing the tail of the one in front with his trunk. We moved as if on a track to a landmark rather than to a designated man. We wanted to leave at the snap with everyone’s shoulders at the same angle. That includes the ball carrier. We all moved toward the point of attack. Each man blocks whomever he encounters along the way in his “zone.” Thus, logically, the term zone blocking.
Excerpted with permission from View from the O-Line: Football According to NFL Offensive Linemen and an Uncommon Coach by Howard Mudd and Richard Lister (Sports Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, 2016).
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