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A Misty-Eyed, Somewhat Nostalgic, Impressionistic Reflection on Football's Historic Obsession With Player Size

Tech fans debate endlessly about the size of their linemen. If you have heard it once you have heard it a thousand times, "Tech's offensive linemen need to be smaller than average so that they can be agile enough to master the special blocking needs of the triple option." The corollary of this on the defensive side goes like this, "The nose guard has to be relatively short so that he can have the necessary leverage to tie up two offensive blockers in the middle of the line." Neither statement is inherently true but one can point to a plethora of examples that prove the point, as well as the few exceptions that seem to prove the rule. The disclaimer among more rational Tech fans usually is along the lines of, "Well, of course you can have a 400 pound offensive lineman in the triple option, there just aren't many who can move that fast." And on the defensive side of things it usually goes, "Well, sure you can have a nose tackle that is 6'7" but he better be able to get as low as a 6'1" player or he will never have enough leverage to play the position." After the jump we will take a rambling, somewhat nostalgic look at the fascination and fads that have always been part of football's size debates.

The debate among Tech fans over the optimum size of a lineman perhaps mirrors a similar debate among college football fans across the nation, a debate that is reflected in the very history of football itself. In short, from the very beginning of football the debate has been over whether or not big men can move well enough to play the game. At different junctures in history the bias about big men has cut both ways, thus at different times establishing different orthodoxies. The optimum size for linemen remained virtually unchanged from roughly the 1936 "Seven Blocks of Granite" made famous at Fordham, up until the late 1960's, though to be sure, there were always behemoths sneaking in and out of the game.

I would argue that a1967 bowl game between Alabama and Nebraska was the last high water mark of the small linemen in major college ball. But before we get into that let's just establish some basics. Big men, relatively speaking, have always played football. The debate over the years has been whether big men sacrificed speed, agility and stamina for the sake of being big. In the early days of football there were far fewer big men. There were three reasons for this. Reason one is that there were fewer big men in the general population. There are more large players available now because the human species has been evolving to ever larger proportions. Some of this is due to improved health care, training regimens and nutrition. Some of this is due to evolutionary reasons which I hear some biologists see as an ill omen.

Reason two is that, just like in today's game, most teams preferred agility over bulk and were not willing to fill their squads with people just based on size. The intersection between size and playing ability has always been a moving target and was probably just as narrow in the good old days as it is today. That intersection, however, and where it is placed, has constantly shifted and has something to do with what is in fashion at the time. Which leads to reason three.

Reason three is the one that fascinates me. When I review the rosters of powerhouse teams from previous eras I see a decided bias against big players. To be sure, any coach who could find a big player who could actually play would not hesitate to put them on the team. But the bias was in favor of smaller players. Big players had a lot more to prove.

Which brings us to the 1967 Sugar Bowl game between Alabama and Nebraska. Nebraska fielded a team that had one of the biggest lines in the nation. Like several teams across the country in the mid to late 60's, Nebraska had come to adopt the philosophy of the pro game which believed that bigger was better. It is hard to imagine now but as late as the 1950's it was generally believed that the college game was far superior to the pro game because college players were smaller, in better shape and not overweight. (See "The Pro Game Isn't Football" by Stanley Woodward, Collier's, October 28, 1950) We often forget that every era of football has its unchallenged assumptions about what constitutes a football player.

Nebraska's line on offense and defense ranged in size from 240 to 270 pounds per man. Alabama's largest lineman on either side of the ball was 225. Most were in the 195 to 205 range. The majority of the guards on Alabama's roster were 5' 10" or shorter and averaged around 190 per man. Alabama Coach Paul Bear Bryant seemed to follow the philosophy of another coach, Paul Dietzel at LSU. Dietzel believed in being able to play multiple platoons of small players. By rotating platoons the team could take advantage of having small, fast players in the lineup. These small of stature platoons of players came to be known as Dietzel's Chinese bandits.

Prior to the Sugar Bowl when Coach Bryant was asked by a reporter how they could possibly manage to defeat a team the size of Nebraska, Bryant famously responded, "I guess we will just have to out-quick them." For those who don't know Alabama won the game fairly convincingly. They scored 17 points in the first quarter and even on defense seemed to beat the larger Nebraska line to the mark whenever the ball was snapped. Nebraska did not score until the fourth quarter making the final score 34-7 Alabama.

One final note. Alabama had a consensus All American tackle by the name of Cecil Dowdy. He was listed as 5'-11" and 205 pounds but through the course of a season his playing weight was more like 195. He was a late draft pick by the Cleveland Browns bouncing form team to team and playing on some taxi squads. It appears that the bias against small players worked against him and he never had a chance to prove himself. However, he did eventually win a starting job as an outside linebacker but an injury kept him from playing and he gave up on pro ball.

For those who might want a comparison in size, it was William Andrews who played at that same weight for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1980's. Considered by many to be too small to play fullback in the pros (at that time it was thought a fullback had to be at least 230 pounds) Andrews made several Pro Bowls as a player while setting multiple Falcon records as a running back.

When looking at when the size bias changed in football I would contend that after the 70's there were very few teams left in college ball that were willing to take the risk of filling a roster with "undersized" players. In 1967 Georgia Tech resumed an old rivalry with Notre Dame for the first time in almost a decade. Tech went into that game without its star player, Lenny Snow, who had suffered a broken leg in the previous game against Miami. Tech was still using a system for offensive linemen that had been widely employed at one time. On one side of the center was the "quick" line and the other side was the "power" line, which meant that the average weight could vary by over 25 pounds on one side versus the other. But neither side was particularly big even by that day's standards.

Notre Dame won the game against Tech resoundingly but the difference may not have been due to line size, even though Notre Dame's line on both sides of the ball ranged from 250 to 276 compared to Tech's line which was more like 200 to 226. Here were the big differences. Tech was playing a mostly 3rd string backfield. Tech's secondary was small compared to Notre Dame's receivers, with a typical size of around 5'9" 165, and this presented an unusual problem. Tech players were used to using their quickness to break up passes the instant the ball moved into the receiver's hands. Against the taller Notre Dame players this looked like interference to the referees and the Tech secondary had to completely change how they were used to playing to keep from being flagged on almost every passing play. Finally, it was not the overall size of the Notre Dame players that made the difference, it was their speed.

Down through the decades there have been notable football players in both college and pro ball who we would now consider undersized. But here is the point about large sized players. They have always existed it is just that during some periods of history they have been underrated and in other periods of history they have been overrated.

As styles of play ever change and evolve I would not bet that we have settled forever the question of ideal size for a football lineman. Rock Perdoni was a Tech Defensive Tackle who at 5'11" and 245 pounds would be considered small today. However, this All American lineman was built like Arnold Schwarzenegger (ala Conan The Barbarian) and would routinely knock players who were 35 pounds heavier back four or five yards. He was almost always doubled teamed on key downs. Tech coach Bud Carson said of him that "He was the greatest physical specimen he had ever coached." This coming from the Coach who invented the Pittsburgh Steelers' Steel Curtain Defense. Perdoni could play today. The only question is whether bias might keep a team from discovering him.

Perdoni won dozens of awards and was named to several All America teams. He was a finalist for the Lombardi award for the most outstanding linemen in the country. Unfortunately, orthodoxy about player size was changing in 1970. All five finalists for the Lombardi award that year were not given a chance to play American pro ball. Perdoni, along with legendary names from schools like Notre Dame and Tennessee, all ended up having distinguished careers in the Canadian league where speed for a lineman was still valued.

One post script to the size debate to consider. The Atlanta Falcons were an NFL expansion team in 1965. Other pro teams had to offer up players to the Falcons while trying their best to protect most of their stars. The Falcons constructed a team largely of cast-offs and those who tried out. At one practice in particular a veteran NFL linebacker weighing around 230 pounds was put in the pit with an undrafted guard out of Georgia who weighed around 198. There was something cruel about this but not for the reason you might expect. The smaller player consistently whipped the larger player in the drill. Truth is, very few players in all of the NFL at that time could be beat an athletic 198 pounder. The cruelty of the drill was that the Falcons were using this as a way to cut players. They knew the larger pro veteran had no chance against the smaller player and they had no intention of offering a position to the smaller player because that was not the direction the NFL was moving.

There is no particular moral to this story except perhaps one. Next time you hear someone say that a player isn't the right size for a particular position see if you can figure out who is establishing that as the current orthodoxy and why. Make sure that the person making the statement has clearly defined their terms and even then take the comment with a grain of salt. The player in question may in fact not be suitable for that position but their size may have little or nothing to do with it. Bigger players don't always beat smaller players and the history of football can give thousands of illustrations to support this. Usually if a player is criticized for being too tall to play nose guard, or too short to play offensive guard, or to light to play on the line, that is just a stand-in argument for some other deficiency that is just harder to quantify. It's easier to simply say it is a size thing.