BAUGH TO BRADY
The Evolution of the Forward Pass
Genre: Sports History / Football
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press
Date of Publication: December 15, 2017
Number of Pages: 296
There are three things that can happen when you throw a pass, and two of them are bad. –Woody Hayes
The quarterback pass is one of the leading offensive components of today’s National Football League and college football’s top level of play. This was not always the case. In early American football, the strategy focused entirely on advancing the ball one running play at a time, with the player tucking the then-roundish ball on his hip and sprinting ahead until tackled by a swarm of defenders. The revolution that transformed the sport began in 1906, when passing was first legalized. The passing weapon made the game safer, altered strategy, turned the quarterback into a key offensive player, and made possible the high-scoring games of today.
Lew Freedman traces football’s passing game from its inception to the present, telling the tale through the stories of the quarterbacks whose arms carried (and threw) the changes forward. Freedman relies especially on the biography of “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh–who hailed from Sweetwater, Texas–as a framework. Baugh, perhaps the greatest all-around football player in history, came along at just the right time to elevate the passing game to unprecedented importance in the eyes of the sports world.
EXCERPT FROM BAUGH TO BRADY
BY LEW FREEDMAN
From the Introduction
For the young football fan who believes that the passing game began when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady entered the National Football League, it should be instructive to learn that trying to obtain first downs and touchdowns by throwing the ball forward beyond the line of scrimmage was flat-out illegal before 1906.
The term “forward pass,” which is rarely used at all in the modern era, was coined to differentiate it from the lateral. Laterals are what are generally called “pitchouts” today, and the word describes a ball carrier heaving the ball either behind or sideways to a teammate.
When the colleges first began playing football in the nineteenth century, offensive football was all about running the ball—tucking it under an arm and plunging ahead. Once in a while someone would dream up a play that called for advancing the ball with a tricky lateral toss.
To a large extent early football play resembled trench warfare during World War I. While one was a sport and the other deadly earnest killing, football of the late nineteenth century and into the first several years of the twentieth century was a brutal activity.
Teams competed without helmets. The offensive and defensive lines were stacked against one another, each surging forward with all of their strength when a play began.
By 1904 college football was a far more dangerous game than either boxing or today’s Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit. Compared to college football, those modern-day sports are often termed barbaric, but really they are Ping-Pong compared to college football back then.
The death rate—note, not the injury rate—was so high the sport faced a crisis, with pleas for banning college football reaching to the White House. Although President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered and hailed for many achievements, including establishing the US Forest Service and greatly expanding the National Parks list, lesser publicized a century later is the role the sporting president played in rescuing college football.
During the 1904 season, 18 players had been killed on the gridiron and another 159 had been classified as seriously injured. On October 8, 1905, Roosevelt convened a White House summit involving the head coaches of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, the Ivy League powers in the forefront of the sport at the time. The goal was to revamp the sport, make it safer, and prevent its elimination by saving it from itself.
Roosevelt’s son, Teddy, Jr., was playing for the Harvard freshman team. The president was always a fan of the game, but he recognized it could not continue in the same vein, so overwhelmed by risk. The discussions were preliminary, but when things did not change during the 1905 season, with 19 additional players being killed on the field and 137 more serious injuries recorded, Roosevelt gathered a second influential college football group at the White House in December 1905 and ordered them to make changes in the sport.
The president had always enjoyed life in the outdoors—hunting, fishing, working on ranches, being in the wild. He believed that some rough experiences formed character. He liked football, but it was obvious that things had gone too far.
Roosevelt made it clear the future of the sport was in jeopardy if young college men continued becoming casualties at such a high rate.
Making the forward pass legal was one of the rules approved to open up the game. One season later, in 1906, passing became legal in football. It took decades for coaches and players to truly realize the potency of the weapon, to perfect sophisticated formations that made it seem as if the best passers could not be stopped.
The evolution of the pass as we know it began in September 1906 in a game featuring St. Louis University, led by Coach Eddie Cochems. He was essentially the founding father of the forward pass, though he is certainly not as well-remembered today as a founding father of the nation.
But Cochems begat Knute Rockne, who begat Benny Friedman, who begat Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell, Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, and onward, through Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, to the modern era when it is not impossible for a quarterback to throw 50 touchdown passes in a season and complete about 70 percent of his throws.
Lew Freedman is a veteran newspaper sportswriter and experienced author of more than seventy-five books about sports as well as about Alaska. He spent seventeen years at the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska and has also worked for the Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer. Freedman is recipient of more than 250 journalism awards.
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