Updated 2:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Sept. 29
I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies. — Napoleon Bonaparte
You can learn more character on the two-yard line than you can anywhere in life — threadbare wisdom of Paul Dietzel, coach of LSU's famous "Chinese Bandit" teams
For decades, it was the most primitive of offensive assignments, marching out your hippos and mastodons against the other guy's hippos and mastodons, trying to get a one- or two-yard touchdown run. Punching it in. Power football, they called it, the short-yardage game.
It was last prevalent in the early 1990s, mainly in the old NFC East, with Joe Gibbs' "Heavy Jumbo" set in Washington. Most of Bill Parcells' tough Giant teams could play that way. Even Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys, with all those 10-ton heavies he'd stack up in front of Emmitt Smith. In Dallas and Washington, a two-yard plunge was a sure thing. And those little quotations you see nestled up above — Gibbs, Parcells and Johnson all could relate.
But Napoleon and his power trip have been in a box for 200 years. And after watching three weeks of NFL goal-line charges getting stiffed and choked and hurled back to the sea … OK, I'm not working off any official data here, but so far it seems the ability of most teams to power it in down close has also gone muerto.
NFL goal-line rushing, and the pure drive blocking that goes with it, stinks. It's loathsome to watch. Let's go to the horror films:
Week One — Saints at Packers. An all-night passing orgy, a frenzy fit for Bacchus. That is, until the final play of the game, at the Green Bay goal line, when New Orleans coach Sean Payton suddenly decides he's commanding a tank division and puts on his leather trench and introduces the Power-I to the battle. A whim. He hasn't tried it all night, but what the hell, it's the macho way to roll. The whole universe can see what's coming. So can Green Bay. Tailback Mark Ingram soars high on the carry, and the Packers blast him to pieces, and the Saints go home losers in their season opener.
Week Two — Seahawks at Pittsburgh, that once-upon-a-time Steeler reputation of being a wrecking ball down close, the big "smashmouth" cliché. Uh-uh. Not anymore. They're set 1st-and-goal at Seattle's one, and the series folds up like this: Mendenhall stuffed, Roethlisberger sacked, Roethlisberger scrambles back to the one, Mendenhall stuffed on fourth down … with FS Earl Thomas blowing through Pittsburgh's schlepping, ineffective "smashmouth" alignment.
Week Three — Giants at Eagles. The Eagles haven't been a true power team since Greasy Neale and Steve van Buren.
That was the 1940s. But today it's Mike Vick and explosive Philly ready at the Giants' two. A pair of plunges by their designated heavy, Owen Schmitt, then a dive by Vick get nothing, zippo. The Eagles poke a little field goal to cap off their statement.
And on an earlier drive, down to the Giants three-yard line, it went McCoy for one, then a couple of skittish, dead-end flings by Vick. Power football, hmm? No, another lollipop field goal. Philly lost.
What has happened to NFL goal-line rushing? Where are all the muscle clubs? I mean, the manpower is there, the bulk and size and inertia. Good lord, it's there. That Eagles offensive wall, which flamed out against New York, goes about 6-4, 310 per man. Pittsburgh's O-line averages 6-4, 322. So why can't these teams drive it in with any kind of authority anymore?
The probable story is they don't like to practice the grimy work during the week. Don't squeeze the Charmin, boys. Goal-line drills? You mean, beating ourselves up with hand-to-hand combat all week? Ha! Why worry about it? We'll work on the fancy stuff, pass blocking, throwing it in from the 15 … or the 25 … or the 30.
"I agree they don't work on this during the week," says former Redskins OT Joe Jacoby, part of Gibbs' Heavy Jumbo gang. "Teams are handcuffed by roster limits and salary caps, so they can't afford anyone getting hurt. Meanwhile, the college game has eroded to spreading them out and throwing it all over the place. This leads to less practice time on refining run-blocking skills and working more on finesse pass-blocking skills.
"Any run blocking is really more influence blocking — 'no hands in the dirt.' They are just putting those big bodies in the way, with no emphasis of drive blocking them off the line of scrimmage. Oh, I could go on and on about this."
And now take a look at this observation, from a person also once very familiar with the intricacies of offensive-line play and the in-close running game.
"The first thing I noticed was that the poor backs were getting killed," our mystery guest explains. "The linemen just use too many finesse techniques, not enough root-'em-out. They can't bend their knees. The worst thing pro football did for the offensive linemen was to let 'em use their hands so much. It erodes their blocking skills.
"If you're a big belly-bumper, 290 pounds, you can get by pushing people out of there. It's a pushing contest … a lot of linemen are coming into pro ball with very little conception of what the shoulder block is all about … they're so used to using their hands and pass blocking that they've forgotten almost all their drive-blocking skills."
See anything odd about that quote? The reference to "290-pound belly bumpers." Yeah, it's dated all right. The belly bumpers operate around 340 or 350 pounds now.
It was Frank Kush who made those comments, some 30 years ago, just as he was taking over the Baltimore Colts after a pair of terrific decades at Arizona State. This was before Elway and Marino and Jim Kelly and the rest of those 1980s gunners joined the league and NFL running technique really began to erode. Kush's summation, way back then: the pros don't know, or don't care, about the dirty side of run blocking.
Cover up your eyes, coach. It has gotten a whole lot worse.
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.