He’s Playing in Handcuffs

If I were an NFL quarterback, whenever Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood begins thumping his right foot on the ground before the snap of the ball, I would call time and send out a cape and a sword and light a candle in the dressing room or make a call to my priest.

“We know he’s coming, he doesn’t have to paw the ground,” Roger Staubach once observed irritably.

If all this suggests Jack Youngblood is a lot of bull, well, it is the view of opposing quarterbacks and offensive linemen that he sure is. They think they should be allowed to stick banderillas in his neck before he charges. Or fight him from horseback. Unlike the fiesta brava bulls, though, Youngblood is frequently the one who gets the ears and tails.

Jack Youngblood has been strewing quarterbacks around gridirons like sacks of mail for 11 years. He has flattened more people than holiday traffic. Quarterbacks would rather see the rent bill coming. If he did have horns, they’d run out of penicillin.

Jack Youngblood is one of the four or five best defensive ends ever at the position. He may be even better than that. For the simple reason that he persisted into an era when the game, in a sense, shaved the horns of defensive ends, penned them up, straitjacketed them.

Defensive ends, when Youngblood came up, used to be able to slap the ears off would-be blockers. Deacon Jones use to get to the quarterback through a series of right crosses to the helmet that would have made an ox cross-eyed. Sometimes the helmet would keep ringing for a half an hour after the blocker took it off.

After punching-bag workouts, you used to be able to take the quarterback, hold him upside-down and shake him and frisk him for the football, like a Central Park mugger taking your watch.

You could perform everything short of an autopsy on him. Big Daddy Lipscomb used to toss them in the air like a baton for a few times, or split them like a wishbone with the tackle. The only thing you couldn’t do was eat them. That would cost you 15 yards.

The blockers also had to stop you as best they could with their shoulders and neck. “Illegal” use of the hands meant any use of the hands. But, like everything else, what was illegal yesterday is common today. Now, offensive linemen can choke you if they wish. And they usually wish.

Also, the quarterback now is as untouchable as the Mona Lisa. “You have to say ‘Excuse me’ before you can make a tackle now. Read him his rights,” moans Youngblood.

“Listen,” he adds, “this game has changed 180 degrees since I came in. When I came in, defense ruled.”

In those days, he recalls, you could do everything to receivers but put them in a blanket and throw them in the air. You could handle the quarterback like a dancehall bouncer. Now, he gets more protection than Lady Di.

“TV didn’t like the game the way it was,” sniffs Youngblood. “They couldn’t sell enough underarm deodorant or Pintos or something. They let the quarterback play out of a glass booth, now. They took away from me the thing I’m best qualified to do — get the quarterback.”

They not only outlawed the head-slap, they loosened restrictions and let offensive linemen do everything short of carrying a rope, Youngblood complains. “They can grab hold of you and jerk you around like a sack of grain. It used to be the offensive linemen had great sleight-of-foot and quickness and balance. Now all they need are six-foot arms and size-14 hands. One game I screamed at the officials, ‘Can’t you see he’s holding?!’ I thought the fact the guy had six inches of my ripped jersey in his hand was proof enough. The official looked at me and says, ‘Aw, you weren’t going to get him anyway.’ I said not with King Kong holding me. I asked him if he were going to let that go on, why didn’t he just issue him a rope and be done with it? I didn’t know this was a rodeo.”

Jack Youngblood says he doesn’t pound his foot on the turf before takeoff to intimidate the opposition. It’s not like Hitler dropping leaflets. “It’s to get traction,” he explains. “You can’t hurl yourself at some 265-pound monster who’s going to try to pull your arm off while your feet are slipping. If you slip under one of those guys they may never find you.”

Herbert Jackson Youngblood III doesn’t think the day will ever come when defensive linemen can rumble through the defensive pocket like tanks rolling over chickens again.

Does this mean the new rules will ensure we’ll never see the likes of a Fearsome Foursome or a player known as The Secretary of Defense again?

“You live with rules,” concedes Youngblood. “But they should remember the quarterback has two hands, two feet, and is not made of spun glass or cotton candy and, if offensive linemen are going to be allowed to handle you like a side of beef, they should be equipped with cargo hooks.”

However, so long as the league doesn’t disallow the footslap by the left end during signal calling, the next sound you hear as usual is still going to be the quarterback’s helmet landing on the 10-yard line with No. 85 sitting on him murmuring “I hope I didn’t ruin your mascara, sweetheart.”

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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