The question had been marinating for some time, and since the man who invented pro football just happened to be a short lateral away this afternoon, it seemed the proper moment to pop it:
Whatever happened to the middle linebacker?
Once he was about the most awesome being that roamed the earth; the original manster, part man and part monster, called at various times Huff and Butkus, Nitschke, Lanier, Nobis, Lambert and whatever else meant mean.
Middle linebacker seemed the essence of the National Football League for at least a generation: a guy with barbed wire for a beard, tough enough to knock a diesel on its axle up the middle and yet swift enough to keep a roadrunner from turning the corner.
Everybody used to have such a creature; nobody seems to any more. Either there are two grunts who couldn't carry Huff's helmet clogging the middle or one who spends as much time on the field as the foreign-born place kicker.
The Redskins' Neal Olkewicz seems properly spirited to continue the Huff-Butkus-Lambert tradition. But he makes himself obsolete simply by doing his job. If he stuffs a run on first down, Olkewicz trots off the field -- and the defense gets manned either by some pass specialist in the middle or half a dozen squirts who can backpedal like the wind and wear, of all things, gloves.
Say it ain't so.
"It's a different type game," Tex Schramm said.
Schramm did not exactly create the game, he having been born the same year as the NFL, 1921. But having been deeply involved with the NFL since 1947 and responsible for many of the recent changes under siege, he offers unique perspective on why the game is where it is -- and where it might be going.
He has two guiding thoughts: "Offense always gets more sophisticated; defense always catches up."
Even as defensive coordinators throughout the league cry for help, that natural evolution quietly is proceeding. Even as Dan Marino has thrown for the most touchdowns in NFL history; even as Walter Payton has run past Jim Brown for career yardage; even as Eric Dickerson seems about to do the same to O.J. Simpson in single-season rushing.
"Scoring is down a little," Schramm said. "It was 43 points a game last season, and might drop by as much as two points this year. We believe 40 points is pretty good balance."
During its rocket-speed ascent in the '60s, the NFL average peaked at 44 points a game.
"Then the gentleman from your country (George Allen) helped bring that down in the '70s," Schramm said. "He had that play-it-close philosophy, no mistakes on your part, force something from the other team and then kick a field goal.
"By '74, scoring in the league was down to 34 points." First, Schramm and the rest of the NFL competition committee tinkered with touchdown incentives, moving the goal post to the back of the end zone and giving the opposition the ball at the line of scrimmage on missed field goals outside the 20.
That still did not seem enough, so, in 1978, defensive backs no longer could clobber a receiver after five yards and offensive linemen could get away with blocking murder.
"Funny thing about the change in blocking," Schramm said. "It wasn't done to help the offense, though it certainly did. But so many teams were teaching those techniques anyway, so many players were using them that it was getting impossible to officiate. We just let 'em do what most already had been doing."
The decline, if not the disappearance, of the middle linebacker is a matter of NFL evolution, Schramm said.
"Two-platoon football started it, the first experience with specialization," he added. "Down through the years, it's become even more intricate, to the point where down and distance determines everything. The more receivers you have, the more you need mobile people to cover 'em."
Here some spicy irony slips into his mind and Schramm laughs again.
"Running points are about the same this year," he said, "and passing points are down about two points a game. Know what? Field goals are up."
This is just the sort of alarming trend that caused the rules adjustments in the first place, since even the most devoted NFL fan does not want the game dominated by field goal tries. Maybe the competition committee will allow blockers to hogtie Dave Butz.
Probably, some sort of short-wave communication shortly will be utilized. Mikes and receivers in helmets. Instead of barking signals, quarterbacks could almost whisper them; huddles would be obsolete, because everybody would be wired.
"Why use these hand signals from the sideline when a radio's more efficient," Schramm figures. "In place of huddles, the quarterback calls what he wants almost as soon as one play's over -- and away you go."
Even Schramm is not sure how the NFL will ride into the late-'80s and '90s, though one possibility fascinates him: "SMU's offensive line outweighs ours by 20 pounds a man. Imagine that."
Imagine 50 years hence, when five-man pass patterns become either dull or ineffective and some coach decides to run a big hoss straight ahead at those lightweights behind the line.
Pretty soon, the defense will react by standing an equally large and tough character directly in his path. Because nobody has seen anything quite so daring, this new position will require a title. Somebody clever will suggest: middle linebacker.