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They're Playing My Game
By Hank Stram, Lou Sahadi
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2006 Lou Sahadi
All rights reserved.
I was closing out the season in Los Angeles covering the playoff game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys for CBS television. From high above the playing field I took in the symmetry of the offensive line's rumps. Two fannies, I thought, were farther back from the line of scrimmage than the others. The two guards were cheating — giving themselves a barely discernible jump on the action with a few finessed inches. My hunch was they were going to pull out of their positions and roar off to lead the play. Okay, but which way?
As a football coach I spent a lot of time studying peoples' backsides. As a sportscaster I am similarly preoccupied. It is not an idle interest, but more a professional obsession. Such hindsight, if you will, can prompt the knowledgeable observer to considerable foresight. It is not quite like reading tea leaves or divining for water, but the leeward side of an offensive line can tell you quite a lot about what is going to happen in the next few seconds. Which was something I badly needed to know because beside me, in the booth, Jack Buck was finishing his comments on the instant replay of the previous down. After a dozen years of working together I didn't even need to look at him to know I was about to get the handoff. I glanced instead at the split backfield.
The formation was good for a pass, draw, or screen. The big halfback was positioned on the right. Few teams have two big men in the backfield. Ninety-five percent of the time the big guy will do the blocking, the smaller back will run. In this instance the bigger man was not exactly even with his colleague. He was closer to the line than the smaller back: "cheating up," buying himself an extra fraction of a second to do his job by being closer to his target across the way. Probably he was to hit the linebacker or defensive end.
The small back, meanwhile, is a half-step farther to his left than usual. Why? Because he is giving the burly guard, on his side of the line, extra room to pull out and lead the way across the formation. A run to the right is my guess.
Buck preps me, gives me the lead-in. The quarterback is in his audible, calling out a color that, by prearrangement, will either confirm the play already set in the huddle or will substitute the new one he is now shouting out. No one shifts. I quietly predict a run to the right side.
The quarterback barks the count, and the ball is immediately snapped. The play goes right: a run, the guards leading; Jack nods. That's one for our team.
Around us dozens of reporters are poised over their writing machines and microphones. Eyes and TV cameras follow the action upfield, all except the camera fixed on the bench of the team opposite our vantage point. Its operator keeps the viewfinder trained on the far sideline and the zoom tight on the two assistants who motion signals to the quarterback on the field. One of them is really signaling, the other is a decoy. Both are being filmed.
Later the footage of their signals will be painstakingly matched with the plays to which they correspond, then analyzed, cross-referenced, and the signals decoded. The next time they will perhaps fool this particular opponent.
No one in the press box gives the camera a moment's thought. Its twin no doubt is somewhere on the other rim of the stadium performing a similar chore for the other team. Skunking it's called. It is an integral part of the endless sport of winning games, as honorable as military intelligence, a kind of one-upmanship that has been in the game since the beginning, since Jim Thorpe first tucked sheet metal into his shoulder pads to give his hits that extra little zing.
As games go, this one wasn't a rout, a blowout, but the Rams weren't exactly taxed either. I was feeling a little let down as the gun sounded. I always did at the end of a season. So Jack and I took off for Las Vegas and made it in time to catch the gala Saturday night show of an old friend, Bobby Vinton. It was a splendid way to finish up ... almost.
The next morning we flew to St. Louis for our regular two-hour radio talk show on the NFL. Then, finally, we parted, and I headed home to Covington, Louisiana, and my family.
Our house sits on 15 acres in a secluded spot fast by the bayou of the Tchefuncte River, about 25 miles from the wonderful city of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico beyond. It is wooded and peaceful, and I looked forward to spending some time with Phyllis and the kids after covering four preseason games and 15 league games in nearly as many states on network television and doing 26 two-hour radio broadcasts of our football call-in show. They hadn't called me "Hurryin' Henry" in high school for nothing.
The postseason lull was further delayed by the Super Bowl. It was coming to New Orleans this year and bringing with it all the attendant excitement. I had to see it, of course, and a lot of old friends like Roger and Pam Stanton. For the two weeks prior to the game they kept dropping by, or we met them in the city at Jimmy Moran's Riverside Restaurant, where most of the sports people tended to gather. Impromptu reunions took place there every night. There also was a roast for ex-Saint Archie Manning, Senator Jack Kemp's testimonial brunch (the former quarterback was running for president), an elegant cocktail party in Chris Owens's lavish home in the French Quarter with Wilson and Mikki Abraham, the National Football League party, the New England Patriots' brunch, and, wedged in among them, eight speeches I had to make. Every moment seemed filled, right up to the opening ceremonies of the game itself.
Super Bowl XX. I had the afternoon off for a change, at least from televising duties (Jack and I were scheduled for a postgame radio show). The "other" network was televising the game this year, so I could sit in the stands like a fan and enjoy most of the fray: the Chicago Bears versus the New England Patriots. Accepting the gracious invitation of Raiders owner Al Davis, my wife and I joined him in a luxurious skybox high above the emerald-green field on which I had coached my last game a decade earlier. I looked around the box. Chargers owner Alex Spanos was there as well. Also Baron Hilton, Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, Coach George Allen, and Bob Oates of the Los Angeles Times.
I stared up at the elliptical roof overhead, then scanned the pristine expanse of synthetic turf below. The sidelines were crowded with hundreds of photographers, broadcasting gear, medical equipment, ambulances, doctors and paramedics, radio phones, cables, football equipment, officials in their black-and-white uniforms, cheerleaders, security guards, TV cameramen, celebrities, and NFL officials. The Superdome was jammed as well. Seats, officially $75, were changing hands for many hundreds. Funny, I thought. When I coached my first Super Bowl game in 1967, a third of the stadium sat empty. In those days tickets cost from $6 to $12 apiece. CBS and NBC had jointly paid an unprecedented $2-million fee to simultaneously telecast Super Bowl I over both networks. It was a sum that wouldn't have bought a two-minute spot on Super Bowl XX.
Twenty seasons had passed since I coached the Kansas City Chiefs against Vince Lombardi's legendary Packers in that first Super Bowl. It felt like 20 minutes. Vince Lombardi. His team was like him — a sledgehammer. Nothing fancy. No frills, no gadgets, just a straight-ahead attack designed to run over or through you. His uncompromising nature left its mark on pro football and had come to symbolize the hard-headedness required to survive in the game. Appropriately enough, a few years after his death his name was bestowed upon the Super Bowl award itself, and so the latest winners would receive a Tiffany-crafted Lombardi Trophy of sterling silver.
It was nearing game time. The Most Valuable Players of past championships were introduced, among them Len Dawson, Kansas City quarterback. He was among the finalists in the Hall of Fame balloting scheduled for that coming week, and I was very proud of him.
The captains met at midfield. The officials walked them through the mock coin toss and designated the goals to be defended, the team to receive the kick. The captains shook hands all around and turned quickly back to their respective benches. The crowd roared. Moments later the ball arched through the air and the game was on.
As different as the setting was from that of the first Super Bowl in Los Angeles, it became oddly familiar to me as the Bears' offensive team came to the line and set up in the I formation, which I had introduced to the pros in the early '60s. Stranger still, the Patriots lined up opposite them in an odd-man 3-4 defense — another formation the Chiefs had introduced.
I swiveled around in my plush seat and looked at the composed faces of the other guests. The TV monitors overhead were carrying the network coverage. There was not a smirk on anyone's face or a disparaging comment about the formations being bush league or unworkably complex. How times had changed, I thought.
Back when I first used them, people thought I was plain crazy. They responded to these same formations with open disdain, as if we had introduced something malodorous. Now no one said a word; my heresies had become not only acceptable but normal. The moving pocket, the camouflaged slot, the double tight end, man-in-motion, set shift — once these had all been scorned as flimflam. Today they were even respectable. The arsenals of the NFL were loaded with them.
A roar went up. The Bears fumbled and lost the ball on their own 19-yard line. It looked like a great opportunity for the Patriots. If they could just beat Chicago's 46 defense.
The 46 was already the stuff of legends and said to be terribly complex. Actually it was as simple as a blunt instrument, and, like most things in football, it depended entirely on the talent of those who executed the scheme to make it successful. Its aim was to stop the run at all costs by overloading the line, battering through the offense at high speed, and shooting into the backfield. It worked especially well against the open formations so conducive to the passing game football had become. Nonetheless, there was a way to beat it.
The 46 conceded the opposition a lot of passing opportunities. The only trick was to capitalize on them even as some of the fiercest defensive players in the league charged in at you. It was a race to see who would connect first — a receiver with the ball, or a defender with the quarterback. If you had the people to make it work, it succeeded brilliantly. If you didn't — like the Atlanta Falcons, who had tried it — then it failed totally. An aggressive, gambling kind of defense it was, and exciting to watch.
Tony Eason, the Patriots' young quarterback, brought his team to the line for their first play of the game. A pass! It was unconventional, unexpected, and the right call, except the end didn't catch it. Had he, the Patriots would have looked like geniuses.
On second down the quarterback threw again, a quick slant over the middle that was right on the money, but the receiver dropped it. The Patriots regrouped and huddled. The element of surprise was gone; with third down and the full 10 yards needed to have the chance of another series, everyone in the stadium knew a pass was coming. If the Patriots intended to keep on throwing, there could be dire consequences. Also, I noticed that their quarterback was dropping straight back instead of rolling out, away from the onrushing linemen.
Of the 19 quarterbacks who had won in the Super Bowl, 16 were movers. The only straight drop-back passers were Bart Starr, who won the first two, and Joe Namath in the third. Then came the Chiefs' Len Dawson, working out of a moving pocket. All the succeeding winners moved, with the exception of Kenny Stabler in 1977, and he was an ex-scrambler who had just gotten banged up too much to run around.
Could those three great drop-back quarterbacks win today? It was a question I didn't want to think about as I watched the Bears defense deploy. Who could imagine pro football without Joe Namath, for instance? I didn't care to contemplate how he and those fragile knees of his would have fared against the pass rush that was destroying the Patriots' quarterback before our very eyes. Chicago's defensive innovations were effective as hell, and the Patriots were out of the game by their third possession.
Football in the '80s had become basketball on grass, a game of push-and-shove and pick-and-go. The reason for this is simple: a rules change that legalized holding on offense. Most changes in the nature of the game, however, originate in the imaginations of the men confined to the sideline. The one we were admiring, the 46, was Coach Buddy Ryan's.
As it turned out, the Bears were nearly as daring on offense as on defense. They were slugging away like heavyweights; the Patriots were reeling. Bears quarterback Jim McMahon played with an abandon that reminded me of Joe Kapp when we faced him and the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. This guy was a combatant.
I listened to the voices of the commentators on the TV monitors and thought back to the time when I left coaching for broadcasting. It hadn't been easy. After 40 years of playing and coaching I certainly knew the sport that I had fallen in love with as a grade-schooler. Talking about it to millions of people on television and radio was a whole other thing, however; so was having a director talk at you on your earphones even while you were talking to the folks at home. That was an alien sensation, and more than once I made the mistake of answering the whisper in my ear as if it were a voice the audience could also hear.
When I started broadcasting it was rugged. Basically, they just tossed me in and told me, "Do it." "When you see the red light go on, start talking," is how they put it. "Do it your way," was their advice. And I did. Mostly there wasn't much choice. Now it is much more organized and directed, and I am an old hand with lots of experience.
During the season I read up on the next team every day, watch film, learn names, the numbers they go with, the personalities of the guys wearing the uniforms. For a Sunday telecast I arrive on the preceding Friday morning and go straight to the stadium to meet with the team's PR director. Then it's down to the practice to see the team work out and compare notes with producer Mike Arnold or Bob Stenner and director Bob Dunphy or Bob Fishman. A lot of planning is done standing up, in brief exchanges as we move about the edges of the practice session. Afterward I look at more film and talk to everyone I can. If the air gets too thick with the usual buzz words or contradictory rumors, I seek out the guys who know the team intimately and always give it to you straight — the trainers and the equipment men. Often they have the best information and insights, like trainer Eddie Abramoski of the Bills.
A few seasons back the rumors were rife that the head coach was about to be fired because the team hadn't won a game all season and wasn't likely to win that coming Sunday against the Cowboys. Eddie disagreed. The team, he insisted, was up. Practices had been terrific all week, and the players thought their coach was getting it done, preparing them well, and that they had a good future with him at the helm.
"Don't be surprised if they beat Dallas," Eddie said. "I'd bet they will."
I conveyed Ed Abramoski's views to the public on the pregame segment that Sunday, and, sure enough, the Bills defeated the vaunted Cowboys.
Teams are mysterious. It is easy to talk about them in terms of attitude and discipline and the like, but few collections of individuals actually earn the right to call themselves a team. Few people understand what makes a team tick, what makes it go. Sometimes even great coaches, like the Patriots' Raymond Berry, cannot stop a fine team from unraveling.
I winced as the Bears scored again. It wasn't New England's day. Despite the shellacking, the Patriots' veteran defenseman Julius Adams wasn't letting up even though he was retiring afterward. For everyone else on the field it was the last game of the season. For him it was the last game of his life. Although it was already lost, he was not going to quit. Adams drove forward and banged into the Bears offensive line with the abandon of a rookie.
The game changes, the real players don't.CHAPTER 2
Winning Is the Answer
Sherrill Headrick with a hemorrhoid cushion on his head, one of those inflatable doughnut things, sitting in the back of a plane with his teammates, laughing. That's what it's about — guys like him.
When I was putting together my first pro football team for the 1960 season, Sherrill was a highly publicized linebacker out of TCU. I had never seen him play, but I'd heard lots about him over the years. When our scout, Willie Walls, had the good fortune to sign him for the team, I was delighted. When he walked into my office a few days later, I despaired.
The legendary Sherrill Headrick had a little potbelly, no muscular definition, and was just average size. He didn't look anything like the player you would have expected, given his fearsome reputation. It didn't take long to learn I had been presumptuous. Headrick came to practice and drove us crazy.
He would watch the offensive center and the two guards, and — depending on how much weight they'd put on their hands at the line of scrimmage — he could tell just where the play was going to go, and he would deliver himself there in a devastating manner. We had a hell of a time simply running through plays. No matter what we tried, we never could deceive him. He had an unfailing sense of where the ball was headed and what angle he might take to intercept it. Great football smarts. He was a great bridge player too, which should have tipped me to how savvy a linebacker he might be. He was the most instinctive I've ever seen.
Excerpted from They're Playing My Game by Hank Stram, Lou Sahadi. Copyright © 2006 Lou Sahadi. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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