“Defense is so easy,” says Joe Thomas, former Cleveland Browns offensive tackle, explaining why he enjoyed the mental challenge of playing on the offensive line. Aside from the quarterback, offensive linemen probably have the most complex jobs on a football team.
They need to know the play and how they will block for it but they also have to be prepared to switch plans based on how the defense lines up and what they do both before and after the snap. It’s especially complicated because the five offensive linemen play complementary roles; if one switches his assignment then the others have to do the same or something will go wrong.
That’s why Howard Mudd objects when people view offensive line play as ‘unskilled’. “Few things piss me off as much as the term skill position,” he writes.
“It suggests the only players possessing skill are quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs. What witless asshole coined that label? Had to be someone who didn’t know shit from wet cement. And certainly someone who never played on the offensive line.”
Howard Mudd played guard for the 49ers and Bears in the 1960s and is on the NFL’s all-decade team for the 60s. He retired in 1971 following a knee injury (“But the difference then was in those days, with a ligament injury, it was over,” he writes.) and went into coaching almost immediately, first with Cal and then with the San Diego Chargers – the first of eight NFL teams he would coach O-Line for over the next 40 years or so.
His longest stint as a coach was with the Colts, from 1998 to 2009. He went to two Super Bowls with them, winning one. He wrapped up his career in 2012 after two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.
This book is a combination of tribute to, and explanation of, the work of offensive linemen. The bulk of it is written in oral history style – an interviewee is introduced then given a long quote before the next is introduced and quoted, etc. The talking heads are like a who’s who of offensive line play over the last 30 years: Randy Cross, Jeff Saturday, Nick Mangold, and, of course, the aforementioned Joe Thomas.
In between their views is Mudd’s narrative, in which he takes you through his career. The chapter about being a rookie lineman, for example, is constructed around the story of Mudd’s time as a rookie but the bulk of it gathers the views from his cast of interviewees, who talk about their rookie days. It works well as a format and makes the book just as easy to dip in and out of as it is to read cover-to-cover.
The linemen explain the pros and cons of different blocking styles, the challenges of learning plays and new systems and the importance of reading the defense. The result is an enjoyable mix of anecdote and education. Alan Faneca’s story about Junior Seau is a good example:
“Junior Seau did crazy things. When he was in his heyday, he was a total free will. He did whatever he wanted to. But he knew what he was doing. He knew where the ball was going.
“He’d come from way over there to way over here in my B-Gap. He would line up right in it and would abandon what was going on over there. And of course we were running the ball in this B-Gap.
“And it was like ‘What are you doing over here?! You’re not supposed to be here. You just totally abandoned the tight end over there who you’re supposed to be covering.’
“And he’d be there time-in and time-out. He just knew.”
As you’ll have realised from the quotes so far, everything is written in a very conversational style. It’s like listening in to a group of players sitting round and chatting about the game.
Photo: Joe Thomas by Erik Drost