Sports Columns

January 12, 2014

Loran Smith: Where has all the defense gone?

In his heyday in the 1940s, University of Georgia football coach Wallace Butts, a clever raconteur, used to spin a story on the banquet circuit about accidentally bumping into a lady after a game in which his team had been roughed up by the opposition.

As he told it, he apologized for his clumsiness by saying, “Excuse, me lady, no offense.”

The lady, perturbed, was said to have replied, “Hell no — and no defense, either.”

In truth, those were halcyon times for Butts, whose 1942 team — which featured Bulldogs legends Frank Sinkwich and Charley Trippi in the backfield at the same time — scored 367 points, an average of 33.3 per game. Those are impressive numbers even by today’s lofty standards.

The Bulldogs of 2013 averaged 36.7 points per outing despite being smitten by an excessive amount of injuries. That ranked Georgia 21st in the nation in scoring. The leading point producer was Baylor, which averaged 52.4 per game.

The offensive mindset of coaches today is best reflected from a conversation with Hal Mumme. Now the offensive coordinator at Southern Methodist University, he came up with an air-it-out scheme at Iowa Wesleyan in 1989.

The Mumme coaching tree extends across the country today at such places at Baylor, Washington State, West Virginia and Texas Tech. In a conversation with him not long ago, I asked if he ever spent any time with the defensive coaches at his several head coaching stops along the way.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I bring ’em coffee and doughnuts and ask ’em how their families are doing.”

You get the drift. The avant-garde offensive coaches of today don’t want to waste their time worrying about defense. When Bum Phillips was a defensive coach with the San Diego Chargers, he became frustrated with Sid Gillman, long considered the offensive guru in pro football.  

“He didn’t care anything about defense,” Phillips said. “All he cared about was getting the ball back so he could try to score again.”

In the Amen Corner, you can hear the Mumme alumni unhesitatingly siding with Gillman.

With the spread offense gaining credibility in recent years, I browsed around my bookcase for an old title that was gathering dust. There it was: “Spread Formation Football,” by Dutch Meyer.

You might be amused that the book was written in 1952, when Meyer was the head coach at TCU.

There are at least two developments that have enhanced all the point production of late. The first and foremost was the allowing of liberal use of the hands for offensive linemen. Most coaches, especially the defensive guys, call it “legalized holding.” When a linemen is able to extend his hands and pair it with good footwork, it becomes difficult for defenses to stop the passing game — and that can eat up yardage when the quarterback is adept at getting the ball to open receivers.

Along with rules changes, there are the seven-on-seven drills and competition that have become so popular. Throw and catch, every snap.

In the NFL, scoring continues to increase every year. During the recently complete regular season, a record 11 teams scored at least 400 points. A new record for points per game was established in 2013, too — 46.8. Meanwhile, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning set records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55).

All this is intriguing when you peruse the record books, which date back to the times when coaches were adamant that to win in football you must first run the football and stop the run.

It was Gen. Robert Neyland at Tennessee who began each practice session with the view that you could not possibly win if you could not run off tackle. When he recruited tailbacks for his single wing offense there was a critical requirement — they had to be able to quick kick.

Suggesting that he ever give up the ball by quick-kicking would make Hal Mumme throw up. Option football is not dead, and it is likely to show up here and there, but to Mumme “option” means whether you want your steak cooked rare or medium well.

It might be of interest to point out that the most points scored in a game versus a major opponent since World War II was 100, by Houston against Tulsa in 1968. Blowouts are nothing new, but scoring in today’s game seems to render all defenses obsolete.

The most stunning statistic, however, is that of Neyland’s 1939 team. Those Volunteers not only went undefeated during the regular season, their defense did not yield a single point during that time. (In the Rose Bowl, Southern Cal shut out Tennessee 14-0.)

Surely Neyland is not the only late, great coach spinning in his grave.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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