This is a story about a play called Slant 36 Zeke Boss that the Washington Redskins use in almost every game. It is a running play specifically designed to ram the ball into the belly of the defense and gain one yard, or two yards, when that is what they need for a first down or a touchdown. It's the kind of play with which the Redskins have difficulty. It is football at its most physical, its most visceral and atavistic, where one man must master another. It is football at its most simple, where both teams reach inside, and where one must fail.
Ray Callahan, the offensive line coach for the Redskins, knows about failure. It is part of his life -- an attack on the self that every coach and every athlete must face no matter how successful they are -- and he has adjusted to it in the way a person with a scar or minor handicap both loves and hates that blemish.
Right now Callahan is talking about a time last December when he did fail, a failure represented on the blackboard in his office by a diagram of Slant 36 Zeke Boss, the play the Redskins needed one Sunday last December. The opponent was Dallas. Less than two minutes were left in the game and Washington still had a 13-point lead, possession of the ball and a third down. wIf the play had worked, Washington would have kept the ball, won the game, won the division championship, gone to the play-offs, maybe to the Super Bowl.
The play didn't work. It didn't work even though every Washington player did a decent job of it. It didn't work because the coaches, in setting up the blocking, had left a hole that was dangerous if Dallas called a certain defense. The coaches didn't think Dallas would call that defense. But they did.
Sitting in Callahan's office one day this summer, looking at the diagram on the blackboard, was a former college coach who immediately noticed the vulnerable point. He wondered why the Redskins blocked the play the way they did, taking what he considered an unacceptable and easily avoidable risk. In the arcane language of coaches, he asked, "Why didn't you block down and kick out?"
"We will this year," Callahan said. He was laughing, but he wasn't smiling.
Football coaches like to compare football to war, a team to an army. When they do that, they are thinking about the preparation and discipline and that unlike basketball or baseball, even the team's stars are clearly subordinate to the coaches. But the analogy goes further. There is a class structure to a football team; coaches are officers and players are enlisted men. If the men are lucky they will get a good officer, but no one ever forgets who is who. Even if they get close (coaches consider it a serious mistake to get "too close" to the players), there is always a subtle warfare between the two. This is true even in high school football; it is especially true of professional football.
Coaches like to visualize a team as a machine. They have broken football down into components that can be arranged and rearranged to create an assembly line of interchangeable parts. The parts on that assembly line are techniques -- how a player does something -- and the players themselves.
A play begins long before training camp. It emerges from a philosophy. Jack Pardee, the head coach, has a simple one.
"Some teams, like Dallas, try to fool you," he says. "The older, more veteran a defense is, the easier it is to fool." "That's because the more experienced teams have had "scientific" football ingrained in their being.
Defensive coaches are behaviorists; they teach a specific response to a specific stimulus -- if both backs go strongside, the Mike linebacker . . . if the tight end blocks inside the Stub linebacker . . . if the split end moves to a flex, the weakside safety. . . An offensive coach can use the stimulus-response that ties a defense to an offensive team's move to create a knee-jerk reaction. Against teams such as Dallas, Pardee says, "You've got to drill players into not believing what they see. We do some of that but not as much as some teams. We'll try to block someone before we'll try to fool them."
Slant 36 Zeke Boss doesn't fool anyone. Every play has a personality. Some are slick and deft, almost painless incisions of a scalpel that, even when successful, leave the opponent thinking he is winning, until he looks at the scoreboard. Slant 36 Zeke Boss is not like that. It is physical, crunching, like two men standing toe to toe and swinging baseball bats at each other; the coaches call it an "attitude" play. Yet even Slant 36 Zeke Boss is a product of precise design and intricate components.
A play is a sentence; each word in the sentence means something -- each word includes a universe of assumed knowledge -- and the words together act on one another, just as words in a sentence subtly change their meanings depending on the context. Coaches make certain the players understand what the words mean. Exactly.
Coaches ask: How does a man walk? How does he take a step? What muscles propel that? What does he do with his fingers when he runs? In his stance, what should be the angle between his calf and his hamstring? Then they decide those questions and the players conform. The coaches seek a machine of interchangeable parts, built on techniques with tolerances measured in millimeters.
This is what Slant 36 Zeke Boss means:
Slant tells the quarterback to take the football and spin opposite from where the play is going. The idea is to confuse the defense, especially the linebackers, for maybe 1/100 of a second. Every little bit helps.
"36" means two things. "3" says the fullback is getting the ball. All the backs are numbered and "46" would mean the halfback was getting it. "6" tells the fullback to run the ball over the right tackle. All the areas on the line also have numbers.
Zeke tells the end and the back lined up just behind him to double-team the defender. The defender is lined up right where the fullback is supposed to go.
Boss tells the halfback, who isn't getting the ball, to lead the fullback through the 6 hole and block, instead of, say, carrying out a fake.
The problem in Dallas last December came in the whole sentence. It tells the guard to pull out of the line, where he started the play, and lead the fullback through the hole to hit anyone in the way. The coaches expect him to be blocking the middle linebacker, but the guard might block someone else.
Nevertheless, when the play is set up that way, it leaves a big empty space in the line where the guard pulls out, and the center must snap the ball and then protect that space. This is easy against some defenses and almost impossible against others. "It's a hell of a tough block if the defensive tackle slants out" Callahan admits. The Dallas defensive tackle slanted out.
Slant 36 Zeke Boss was the Redskins best short-yardage play last year. Dallas was the only team to stop it, the only team to slant the defensive tackle out. Maybe Dallas was smart, but in football, once a team does something a little different, every other team knows about it within 48 hours. If they like it, they copy it. What Dallas tried worked.
So in preseason the coaches began experimenting with the play, considering other blocking patterns, considering a dozen ideas. The planning is nothing. The techniques are nothing. What is not nothing, are the men.
Failure may be built into Callahan's life like a scar. But it haunts Melvin Jones. To him it's a new thing, and all he wants is to be part of the machine. A strong young man, his chest and thighs and buttocks are thick and deep and dense. Built from the inside out. The other players around him, here in Carlisle at the Redskin training camp, have layers of muscle too, but theirs seems just that, layers added on. Despite his strength, Jones, a rookie and All-American from the University of Houston, is having trouble trying to learn how to become a component in Slant 36 Zeke Boss.
There is always pressure. Maybe there is more on Jones because the coaches want his body; its strength is something the Redskins lack and Jones can lift more weight with his legs than anyone else on the team. So they are on him every second.
"Is Melvin getting better?" the coaches bellow. "Is he? Is he?
Jones is in his stance, set to attack. Come on, Melvin. Get better. Dammit .
"Yeah!" shout the coaches. "Way to get off the ball, Melvin! Way to roll that up foot!"
Yet even that gives no relief. The pressure is constant, ubiquitous. If not to perform, to learn. If not to learn, to be present -- at breakfast, at morning practice, in the trainer's room, at lunch, at the afternoon practice, at dinner, at the meetings after dinner. There is no relief from football. For weeks. Will Melvin make it?
Practices, like everything else in football, gradually increase in complexity. The earliest practices are focused on individual techniques, almost in a vacuum. The quarterbacks are on one part of the field with coach Fred O'Connor and a ball, but with no one to throw to and no one to hand off to. The wide receivers are with Joe Walton, the offensive coordinator, but they don't even have a football. The linemen are with Callahan and a blocking dummy. Two tight ends have a coach, John Hilton, all to themselves. And the running backs are off by themselves too.
As the practice progresses, the players graduate from no opponent to one on one, to two on two, to five on five, to seven on seven, and finally to 11 on 11. As the season progresses, the team will spend more and more time working as an integrated unit, but right now, early in practice and early in the season, they have got only as far as one on one. Nutcracker.
Nutcracker is the most vicious drill in camp. Once the season starts, they no longer do it. The entire team, coaches and players, gathers around to watch two men to at each other. Now they are watching Ted Fritsch, a veteran backup center who snaps the ball on punts and field goals, go at a rookie.
All the techniques that both have learned have been designed for one thing, to maximize the force with which they will hit each other. They are both in their stances, ready. Sweat trickles down their faces and arms; it has already mixed with dirt to streak them with mud. Then Joe Theismann, the quarterback, says, "Hut!"
They explode at each other. Desperate, the rookie channels all of his 230 pounds of muscle into his shoulder and forearm, trying to deliver it precisely at the point where Fritsch's neck and shoulder join. When the two men make contact their pads go Crack ! It sounds like a gunshot.
Nutcracker lasts an instant, a second, a second and a half.
Fritsch pushes himself up off the ground to one knee, then climbs to his feet, shakes his head, and works his jaw, rotating it. And he is the winner.
"Hell of a shot, Ted!" the coaches scream. "Hell of a shot!" The players say little or nothing. Nutcracker is not their favorite drill. They endure it and leave it to the coaches to get excited.
Fritsch moves back, disappearing among other players, then circles behind them and stands off, by himself, and mutters disgustedly. "'Hell of a shot.' Yeah. It stings from here to my ass."
Another football player who has a reputation for toughness who always did well in nutcracker, said earlier, "I don't know what [the coaches] think they need to prove. Do they want us to prove we're men? If we're up here, they already know we can hit people." He is a hitter and has a hitter's slightly cruel smile, yet even he doesn't like nutcracker. He says it isn't football, isn't like a game situation, and it remainds him he is meat. Yet the coaches don't seem to understand -- or accept -- this objection.
"I don't know why the players don't like nutcracker," Callahan says. "They only go about twice. The rest of the time they just stand around and watch."
It is later in preseason now, and more time is spent in team work. Not "teamwork." Team. Work. Working together as a team. Bringing the components together. No amount of individual work substitutes for that. Every time a play is run, it is run differently; the blocks are different, the backs hit the hole differently, cut differently. In a way it is both a breakdown of the machine, because it can never duplicate the range of possible reactions, and it is a triumph of the machine, because the players respond with enough flexibility to succeed.
"How the play is designed on the backboard isn't important," says George Starke, the starting right tackle until he was hurt in the second game of the season. "A good offensive team can adjust, has to adjust, in the middle of a play."
The ability to adjust is a requisite, but the model remains those chalk marks on the blackboard. When a player doesn't conform to it, he is gone. No two weeks' notice either. No worry about the man's three kids. Even if he's doing a decent job, if there's someone better he's gone. It is the ultimate definition of: What have you done for me lately? Today.
Do it or be gone. The coaches will get what they want. In a battle of wills, a pro coach always wins; unlike a high school or college coach, he doesn't have to solve his problems. He gets rid of his problems.
"Hurry up! Hurry up! Better hurry up!" Joe Walton yells impatiently to a halfback when the whole offense is together, running the play against a whole defense. "You got [the] force man!"
"I know, I know I got him," the back shouts after the play, adding more softly, "Dammit."
That halfback is gone.
"No, Melvin!" Callahan snaps to Jones. "Don't position him! This is a drive block!"
And Melvin, what of young strong Melvin?
There is an element of absurdity to pro football's science, an element of Parkinson's Law -- work expands to fill time. Eight men coach 45 players for six months. What do they do the other six months? In college they are busy recruiting. In high school they teach. In the pros they get more and more technical. Everything is on film practice drills as well as games -- from several angles. Every play from every game is on film half a dozen times, on different reals. There are reels for offense, reels for defense. There are reels of short-yardage inside running plays and reels of short-yardage outside running plays. There are reels of Dallas and reels of Philadelphia. There is a whole reel of Ride 48 Rip M Grace, and another whole reel of Ride 48 Rip U Grace. And so on and so on. It is the triumph of science. Or is it? How much has all this improved football?
A few years ago almost every pro team covered pass receivers man-for-man instead of covering zones -- the way college and high school teams did (and do) -- because, pro coaches said, the pro quarterbacks were so good they would pick a zone apart. Then a couple of teams tried the zone because they had to, because their defenders weren't fast enough to cover man for man. They won with it. Quickly other teams imitated them. The zone worked so well it began to chole off the offense, and choke off scoring. Businessmen -- the owners -- think fans pay to see scores, so there was talk of outlawing it, but the owners stopped short of that and instead wrote new rules to limit the way defenders play the zone, by barring them from bumping receivers more than five yards from the line of scrimmage.
In the last couple of years another "innovation" has been the "three-four" defense. The TV announcers love to talk about it. They never say, though, that it is identical except in name to the "five-two" defense that most college and high school teams have used for years.
And what Pardee calls "the biggest change in football in the past five years" has come in blocking assignments. It used to be one man assigned to one man but, Pardee explains, "The damn defense doesn't stay in one place. They line up in one spot, and when the ball is hiked, they move to another. Now blocking assignments are more a system of two guys assigned to two."
For more than 20 years, Al Morro, the coach at Classical High School in Providence, R.I., has been pointing to two defenders and counting, "One, two," then pointing to two blockers and counting, "One, two . . . One, two. One, two. What's so hard about that? I don't care who gets 'em. Just get 'em."
I don't care who get's 'em. Just get 'em . The Zen approach to football. Deep down the Redskin coaches know that is what counts. As the games get nearer, it shows. Here the Redskins are running Slant 36 Zeke Boss. Here is the 260-pound guard Melvin Jones pulling out of the line, thundering at a 190-pound defensive back. Crack! There is Jones, on the ground, while the defensive back is on his feet, making the play.
"Inside number, outside number," yells Fred O'Connor, the backfield coach, referring to where Jones should be hitting the defensive back. "Forget that crap! Just blow him the hell out of there!"
Because pretty soon now they will open the season. For real.
The machine is being honed, excess groung away. Melvin Jones didn't make it. He didn't make All-American last year blocking the way he did for the Redskins, but here the techniques differed, the ingrained style wouldn't come out. He became like the centipede who was asked, "Which leg do you move first?" and never moved again. And anyway, Jones got hurt, which means he will be paid his salary but wil not play. Next year he will try again. Ted Fritsch is gone. For Fritsch it was simple. He had but one function -- to snap the ball seven yards back for field goals and 15 yards back for punts. The snaps became inconsistent. They were a problem. Goodbye.
The machinery itself, the system, is looked at too. The preseason games have not been kind to Slant 36 Zeke Boss even though -- or maybe because -- it worked well most of last year. Sometimes it worked in preseason too. But against Cleveland, a game which the Redskins won but in which they failed to score a touchdown, they ran Slant 36 Zeke Boss as they always had and, as Dallas did last year, the defensive tackle poured through the void and buried the fullback. Against Oakland the play worked once, twice, but on the goal line again, the Oakland defensive tackle crashed through, shoved the guard into the fullback, and destroyed the play.
In short yardage, sometimes is not good enough. Consistency is a requisite. When a team needs one yard, the play has to work. So the Redskin coaches had three choices: junk the play, change the blocking or play chess -- do things that force the defense not to slant the defensive tackle out. Dallas is the first game -- on Monday night and national television. Last December, against Dallas, that was where the troubles with the play began. Callahan knows it. Joe Walton and Jack Pardee know it. And they know what happened in preseason. What do they do? First, they intimated that they would play chess. In the preseason against Oakland and Tampa Bay, the Redskins lined up in the power formation they use for Slant 36 but they did different things -- like giving the ball to the half-back going opposite the formation, like running the fullback right up the gut, right at the defensive tackle. If the tackle slants out on that, the fullback can walk it into the end zone.
"We can do other things," Pardee says. "We can run a team out of the ballpark with Ride 48."
They can, that is, if the blockers block and the runners run. In the first game of the season, against the Cowboys, the Redskins ran Ride 48 -- for about two yards. They wanted at least five. And Slant 36 Zeke Boss was in the game plan all right; it was on the short list, one of four or five plays the coaches had decided to call in a short-yardage situation. But Washington never had a short-yardage situation. To go a whole game without once having a first and goal from the four-yard line, without once havig a third and one, doesn't happen often. But it happens.
It happened because Washington's machinery fell apart. Harmon runs -- and is crushed. Theismann throws -- off the fingertips. The Dallas machinery is also flawed. Oh, Dallas had one moment when everything worked exactly as planned when the Redskin defense was completely fooled and a Dallas tight end was wide open, wide open, with only Mark Murphy, the Redskin safety, with even a chance to get him. The play was a coaching triumph, if only Danny White, the Dallas quarterback, would throw him the ball -- a throw any good high school quarterback could make. But White couldn't. Just another incomplete pass and punt the ball. So much for coaching triumphs.
And even when Dallas made good yardage, it was less from planing than from things one can't plan. Like when Tony Dorsett took the ball to his right but the Redskins surrounded him, tried to smother him behind the line. Cornered, Dorsett bounced, spun, then turned around! -- reversed his field and headed for the end zone.
"You know," snorts a surly fan, "they haven't been the same since Nixon was president."
In the locker room after the game the floor is littered with tape, with thick sculptures of tape that look like ankles and lower legs thick and strong enough almost to walk and stand by themselves. The Redskins are subdued and angry. More than that they seem confused. As if they're not really sure what happened.
Dave Butz, a Redskin lineman who plays defense, who could not stop them when they came his way, is volunteering that he is at fault, accepting blame. "I'm not sure what it was I was doint wrong. I'll have to look at the film and figure out where I went wrong and adjust."
There are times when football is a complex game. When coaches match formations against coverages, blocking patterns against stunts. But in this case it is simple. Butz got blocked. The Redskins got whipped physically. It is the kind of failure most difficult to accept, for the essence of sport is to be able to say, I am better than you are. And that is what the Cowboys said. And as the Redskins struggled through the early season, that too is what other teams have said.
Butz's job is not an easy one, but it is simple. In the end, that is what the fans pay to watch. They don't care if the linebcker scrapes off or fills, if the tackle fold-blocks or reaches, if the quarterback opens up or reverses out. What they want is to see a man do a difficult thing, and do it well.
Against Dallas, Washington did not do that. And the fans booed. The fans do not understand failure. They forget that out there, on the field, are men. For if the coaches seek a machine, the fans seek a perfect machine.
A man who used to play football is talking to Pardee, saying that he used to consider the fans as parasites. "They always were talking about 'we'" he says. "It wasn't 'we'; I didn't do anything for them. Even when we were winning, even when they were cheering, I used to wish I was playing in an empty stadium."
Pardee nods, and says, "Sometimes I feel that way myself." And Pardee's the coach. What do the players feel?
So what of Slant 36 Zeke Boss? It has been and still is in the game plan and will be there every week. And every week is a new beginning. The second week was, certainly, against the New York Giants. Against the Giants they play viciously. Against the Giants they gain yardage on the ground and they face short-yardage situations, many of them. Against the Giants they knock people down. For the first time ever, they beat the Giants in the Meadowlands, in Giants Stadium.
They run Slant 36 Zeke Boss, too. But the Redskin coaches are not idiots. They do not run it the same way they did last year. This time they change the inflection of the wording, so now the sentence means something slightly different. Against the Giants they do not pull the guard out of the line. Instead, the guard charges through the line at an angle to the outside. Taking that angle, if the defensive tackle is slanting out, the guard will run into him. He can't help but run into him. If the tackle does not do that, then the center can block him and the guard can block the middle linebacker. The play was changed, but more than that the players changed. The play didn't work. The players made it work. Against the Giants anyway. They ran Slant 36 Zeke Boss on first and goal from the three yard line. It gained one yard. On the next play, from the two yard line, the Redskin ball carrier fumbled.