The most startling development in the NFL this season has been putting wheels on a Refrigerator. At 308 pounds, William Perry stumbled into the end zone two weeks ago and emerged as a hot item on the late-night talk-show circuit. Sure is an almighty fuss over a fat guy who has carried his sport all the way back to about 1908.
Who, in his tipsiest state, might have imagined before the first kickoff that defensive lineman Perry would have one more touchdown at midseason than all-pro wide receiver Art Monk? Shortly after the draft last spring, there was considerable doubt that Perry was worthy of -- or could fit into -- a Chicago Bears uniform.
"A biscuit shy of 350," joked a teammate, creating another nickname.
"A wasted pick," said Buddy Ryan, the Bears assistant coach in charge of making Perry a player.
Wasted or wistful?
A cult fascination as a collegian, whose life-sized poster as Clemson's candidate for all-America is featured in a movie, Perry is perhaps the only television star unable to squeeze into the greenroom. And his coach, Mike Ditka, is celebrated as a genius for figuring that the surest way to gain a yard is to slip the ball to the biggest guy and point him straight ahead.
Prodigious Plunger Perry is the latest example of how football evolves but rarely changes. Nearly all the formations that catch our fancy were in Amos Alonzo Stagg's playbook more than a half-century ago. The first play anyone ever doodled on a dirt field might have been the fullback up the middle.
William Perry is the fullest back there ever was.
If Perry were zoomed back to 1892, he might have witnessed a guard, the immortal Pudge Heffelfinger, scoring the only touchdown in the first game in which players were paid. That came on a recovered fumble. Football always has been enormous men trying to fight their way past other enormous men; it always will be.
Ditka swore he did not swipe the idea from the coach who whipped him for the NFC championship last year. But the fact remains that Perry first was used against Bill Walsh, who had stationed a 264-pound 49ers guard at running back a few times in that 23-0 rout.
Walsh used Guy McIntyre as an escort for smaller 49ers, which is like the City of New Orleans clearing the way for a Corvette. Nobody much wants to collide with the bully with the ball on the playground; enthusiasm isn't much keener in the NFL.
Statues have been chiseled in honor of coaches bright enough to design offenses around fairly swift toughs who were bigger than the slower toughs paid to bring them to earth.
Perry as an innovation for the ages is rather like K.C. Jones positioning Larry Bird outside the three-point line in the NBA and telling him to shoot with two hands when unguarded, because it's more accurate.
Joe Gibbs arrived in Washington five years ago with visions of the most sophisticated offense ever devised launching the Redskins to glory. His greatest success came after John Riggins suggested: "How 'bout me going inside tackle 30 times a game?"
The Redskins already have mastered The Refrigerator Play. Problem is, rascals such as the Raiders and Giants, among others, tapped their heads and concocted an antidote. How do you stop a runaway refrigerator? By buying two or three of your own, whose brand names include Lawrence Taylor and Matt Millen.
Perry is a less mobile Riggins times 1.3. He creates collisions the likes of which have not been seen since Joe Jacoby pulled to the right and planted a strong safety a couple of weeks ago. And the most colossal mismatches since 6-foot-8 Harold Carmichael ran post-ups on cornerbacks.
What we have, in every way, is an inflated legend. Perry is just athletic enough to be able to cradle a handoff to his chest and charge ahead toward a quivering linebacker who knows he is about to see stars and wishes he had majored in astronomy. He has carried the ball three times, for five yards and a touchdown.
Perry's average of 1.7 yards hardly will gain him entrance into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, unless he chooses to knock down the doors himself. Still, Rob Carpenter of the Giants is averaging just 2.3 yards for 35 carries this season. With lots more practice, Eric Dickerson and Earl Campbell are only averaging twice Perry's average.
Are 300-pound fullbacks the Offense of the '90s? Perhaps. But Perry will be a fad until Bud Grant or some other clever coach sticks a 300-pounder of his own a few steps away at linebacker. They will collide, stomach to stomach, and cause play to be stopped because the ball got squashed between them and disintegrated. Disappeared. Poof!
Ignorant fans will squeal with astonishment.
Old-timers will nod, not quite bored, but replaying in their minds the time in the '20s that Ernie Nevers punted and the ball exploded on contact.