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There have already been a handful of iconic moments in the 2009 NFL season.
Peyton Manning's perfectly placed 21-yard touchdown pass to rookie Austin Collie against Seattle. Denver coach Josh McDaniels fist-pumping his way down the sidelines after beating his mentor, Bill Belichick. The Bengals bear-hugging their bereaved defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer. A cool, calm Brett Favre looking 25 while savoring his revenge against the Packers. Rookie Jets QB Mark Sanchez lowering his shoulder and willing himself into the end zone against the Titans.
But when I think of a moment that truly captures the current state of the game, my mind still goes back to a scene near dusk after a long, loud, hot and crowded day at the Chicago Bears training camp. The nearly 10,000 fans were almost all gone, trickling up the highway back toward the city. The fields were empty. The coaches had all left. Even security was packing up for the day. But on the far side of the field, almost 30 minutes after everyone else had called it a day, the Bears' offensive linemen remained behind to work through a series of exhausting drills that had the look and intensity of hand-to-hand combat.
|Happy Hug An O-Lineman Day! Print this out and wear it with pride.|
Later, working my way from Roberto Garza to Olin Kreutz, I tried to find someone on the Bears' line who would take just one simple compliment on their work ethic and intensity, but, to a man, they all just shrugged it off.
Part of the job. It's what we do. No biggie. Doncha wanna talk to the quarterback?
"The last group to get noticed on any team are always the linemen," says Hall of Fame guard and Titans offensive line coach Mike Munchak. "That's just a linemen's life. Most linemen just want to stay in the background any way. Ya know, just let us do our job and leave us alone in our own little world."
No. Not today.
Today, on what I am now officially declaring the Flem File's first HUG AN O-LINEMAN DAY, we're going to talk about the men who toil in total anonymity in order to bring us the extra second Peyton Manning needs to find the end zone and drop our jaws, the newfound poise of Kyle Orton, the power behind the NFL's leading rusher Cedric Benson, Favre's fountain of youth and Sanchez's sanctuary.
Because, while we continue to throw headlines, ink and bandwidth at quarterbacks -- old and young -- at great new coaches and cool, wild and wide-open schemes like the Spread and the Wildcat, it's so like us (isn't it?) to completely ignore the old, reliable, diesel engine that quietly and consistently powers the whole thing.
The offensive line.
The most underappreciated position in all of sports.
So today, wherever you are -- the supermarket, Bob's Big-n-Tall Shop, your favorite fishing hole or Spandex Anonymous -- I want you to walk up to that gimpy barrel chested guy with the crooked fingers and the shoes the size of rowboats, wrap your arms (halfway) around that big sad lug and say "thank you." And I want you to mean it.
I first suspected that O-linemen needed their own day this summer when I asked Jags offensive line coach and former 12-year NFL vet Andy Heck what made linemen so dang unique, and he mentioned that during his playing days the Redskins would evoke The Stretcher Rule -- meaning, no one on the line could leave the game unless it was on a stretcher.
A month into the NFL season, Heck says most blockers are "walking around, on a daily basis, with the kind of pain that would cause most people to run to the hospital and say, 'Oh my god, help me, something is terribly wrong.'"
Beyond superhuman pain tolerance, the required skill set of an NFL lineman has evolved at a breathtakingly rapid (although largely ignored) rate. From the slow-moving, wide-bodied road graters of the Dallas Dynasty, to a modern-day Swiss-army knife mixture of almost cartoonishly contradictory physical assets piled on top of a laundry list of intangibles.
"People think there are a lot of us out there who can do this job, but there aren't," says Texans tackle Eric Winston. "A tackle can't be taller than 6-9, any taller than that and you can't get under [a] guy's pads on a run block. But, at the same time, you also have to be at least 6-4. You have to be at least 285 pounds but not more than 350 or you can't move fast enough to hit your pass-block sets. Now, of that group, who also has the coordination and athletic ability to meet a speed rusher on the edge, who can run a 5.2 in the 40, and who is smart enough to learn the position, think on his feet when there's blitzes and stunts going off everywhere, have that mindset of toughness, durability, pain tolerance and the desire to smash your head into people day in and day out for six months at a time."
All for our entertainment.
See what I mean?
Go. Now. All of you. And start hugging.
Ravens center Matt Birk, who went to Harvard and whispered his way through our interview in the spring because he didn't want to wake up his napping kids. HUG.
Titans 6-foot-7 all-pro tackle Michael Roos, who spent the first 10 years of his life in the Soviet Republic of Estonia, where his mother, Mae Bates, taught violin to help make ends meet? HUG.
The Lions' Jon Jansen, who once suffered a gruesome ankle injury where his foot was pointing the wrong way, like a tangled-up ventriloquist's doll. HUG.
Carolina center Ryan Kalil who, at USC, once shot a comedy short with Will Ferrell and then didn't offer a single word of protest when I Chris Farley'ed him into recounting every single second of the experience? HUG.
Flozell Adams? Andre Gurode? Chris Snee? Nick Mangold? Kris Dielman? And everyone else who puts the power in high-powered offense? HUGS.
See, when a running back also occasionally hands the ball off, or when a shutdown corner helps with run support, or a tight end runs the deep seam and blocks a linebacker, shoot, we name shoes and streets after 'em and throw piles of money their way. In today's complicated game, though, linemen have to be all that -- and more.
They have to be massive and strong but mobile and technically sound. They need thick legs, fast feet and long arms. They should be driven and relentless but tactical too. Mean, yes, but poised. Confident but quiet. The ultimate linemen is like a great chili recipe: an imperfect and constantly changing combination of a dozen or so ingredients.
"Other than quarterback, what linemen are asked to do on the field requires the most wide range of abilities of any position," says Winston. "We're at a point where you could take the really athletic offensive linemen and argue that, pound for pound, they are the best athletes on the field."
So these aren't hollow hugs. These guys deserve our understanding and support. On any given snap, a lineman like Winston might be called upon to drive low, as if falling down stairs, and maul a defensive tackle on a short-yardage run play; pull to the outside ahead of a running back with 4.4 speed to seal the corner, or mule kick his 320-pound heft backwards (think: Olympic shot putter) with enough leverage and balance to neutralize a defensive end crashing the edge with a two-step head start.
Yet even if he possesses the rare collage of physical gifts needed to pull that off, there's still the mental side of the position. First, he has to know what the other four linemen are doing on every play and be able to improvise and adjust on the fly, seamlessly, when hit with a stunt or a blitz, because there is rarely enough time, or any way to be heard, after the ball is snapped. "The position has moved so far beyond the 'you just block that guy there' mentality," says Munchak. "People still underestimate just how much these guys have to learn and the feel they have to have for the game and the decisions they have to make on the fly."
Many perfect physical specimens, with beautiful long arms like a forklift, were rendered paralyzed by the avalanche of data: Is that safety walking up to the line going to blitz or fake? Do I have help from the running back? What angle should I take on the edge? Wait, did the quarterback just audible? Hike -- that needs to be processed before and after each snap. "It's like a gymnast, the way this position gets constantly critiqued and judged for the tiniest things," says 49ers tackle Tony Pashos. "Dwight Freeney gets paid $70 million just to beat me once a game, but I have to play 60-70 flawless snaps to have a good game in most people's minds."
And yet, even then, we still don't care to know them. So they work in the shadows. They play through pain. Their job is far more physically demanding and mentally taxing than they ever get credit for. And on top of all that, the only time these guys ever get any air time or proper pub is when they jump offside on third-and-goal or get caught for holding after a 75-yard TD run.
"Linemen live in a world where, if someone's calling your name, it usually means you just totally screwed up," says Winston.
Maybe that's true the other 364 days of the year.
But not today.
Not on the Flem File's first official HUG AN O-LINEMAN DAY.
Now, go forth and get your Snuggie on.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship." And his work will be featured in the 2009 Best American Sports Writing anthology. The Flem File appears every Wednesday during the NFL season with updates on Mondays and Fridays.