I must apologize first for the use of the annoying cliche "thinking outside the box" which by now should be relegated to the scrap heap of corporate buzz words and professional management fads. However, I could not think of another short hand way in which to describe the phenomenon of those who are able to make intuitive leaps in their thinking, exploding beyond the confines of conventional thinking. Stephen Hill's sudden rise in his projected draft status speaks to the ability of Paul Johnson to do this very thing. Others constantly chirp the truisms about player size, background or systems, he just keeps on seeing what others don't see. After the jump we will take a quick look at why those who insist on sticking with football orthodoxies almost always miss the true gems of the game.
Any of the names I am now going to mention can be searched on the internet to find more than enough evidence for what I am about to share. Suffice it to say, some of the greatest stars in NFL history almost didn't make the cut because talking heads continued to parrot the same lines over and over again about why some players will never make it in the pros.
Take Dick "Night Train" Lane. When he got tired of his day job he decided to walk onto the field of the L.A. Rams in 1952 -a pretty bold move given that he had never really played organized football in his life. He demonstrated some moves, though no doubt he was a little raw, as we say today. At first the coaches were not even sure where to play him. He ended up as a corner back which seemed an odd place given the fact that he was 6'2" and over 210 pounds, not the usual dimensions for corner back according to popular belief. The rest, as they say, is history. Some say he is one of the three hardest hitting players in the history of the sport. The face mask rule and almost all "head hunting" rule changes are directly or indirectly related to his vicious style. This Hall of Fame player changed the defensive side of the game perhaps more than any other single player in the game.
Johnny Unitas broke every major passing record in the history of the sport, one of which still stands. Ironically, he was considered either too slow, too small, or too dumb to play by most pro teams. He was eventually drafted in the 9th round by the Steelers but did not make the cut. He played sand lot and semi-pro ball in his spare time after that. Finally he walked on with the Baltimore Colts who took a gamble on him. Highlights of his Hall of Fame career include inventing the 2 minute offense and playing in the "Greatest Game Ever Played." Everything the experts had originally said about him ended up being wrong.
Ed "Big Daddy" Libscomb was another player who had never played organized football. He broke into the pros in the early 1950's because someone decide to give a big player a chance. Standing at over 6'6'' and weighing over 300 pounds, no one at that time thought that big players could play the game. He proved otherwise. "Big Daddy" could chase down running backs and yank them down with one arm. No one in his life time could remember seeing a big man move like that. Even into the late 1960's there were still lingering doubts about the role of big men in the game but for those who had eyes to see, "Big Daddy" changed the game for ever.
"Bullet" Bob Hayes was known as the world's fastest man in his day. He held the world record for the 60 yard, 100 yard, 220 yard, and 100 meter sprint. He was not considered football material but the Dallas Cowboys, who were always thinking outside the box, drafted him in the 7th round. He was always said to have had questionable hands but he busted enough coverage over time that the zone defense was invented just to stop him, along with bumping a receiver at the line to slow him down. The mere threat of his presence often opened big holes for the running game because the secondary was keying on him. He is the only man in history to have both an Olympic Gold Medal and a Super Bowl Ring.
The lesson these giants of the game remind us of is also the lesson that is now being reinforced by Stephen Hill. He has yet to play one down of pro ball but there are already two schools of thought on him, each reflecting a particular football bias. The first school of thought says (even after his gaudy NFL combine display) this player comes out of the wrong system to play pro ball and he did not have an extensive football background growing up and therefore he is a high risk draft choice at best.
The second school of thought says this player is another example of Paul Johnson taking an unorthodox approach to finding talent with the underlying belief that if you can play the game then all the other stuff people say about you doesn't matter. Hill barely weighed 190 out of high school and was known more as a track star than a football player. In terms of skill, 68 other players in the state were considered better than him. We still don't know how he will do in the pros but I am betting on the second school of thought. Coach Johnson continually finds talent that others overlook because they believe in football cliches. Sooner or later everyone catches up to this coach, right?