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Hand-to-Hand Combat

Hand-to-Hand Combat



What is it that really separates the good players from the bad ones?





Probably the single best quote I’ve ever heard about football—the one that did the most to help me understand the game—was this: “Football is about the ability to bend at the knees and deliver a blow.” I don’t even know who said it. But it goes a long way toward explaining why some players with great “measurables” never pan out, while others who are branded as too slow, too small, too whatever, go on to have productive careers in the NFL.

The quote came up a few years ago, I think it was in the old Green Bay News Chronicle forum, during a discussion about Donnell Washington, a defensive lineman drafted by Mike Sherman in the 3rd round in 2004. Washington never made an impact and was cut after just two seasons. At 6’6” and 330 pounds, he was an imposing physical specimen, but he played too high. He was not particularly good at bending at the knees and delivering a blow. And because that’s what matters most in football, his career was over before it really began.

All football players, with the exception of quarterbacks and kickers, must excel at hand-to-hand combat. Even receivers and defensive backs need to deliver blows, though with these players, hand-to-hand combat usually takes the form of the quick move or the ability not to be fooled by it. For the most part, plays are won or lost in the first 2-3 seconds. Even plays that drag on for 8-10 seconds are heavily influenced by what happens immediately after the ball is snapped. Did the blockers successfully engage the defenders? Did the receivers get that first step on the DB’s, allowing them to set up their downfield moves?

This is why we should all be skeptical of the “measurables” that are such a hot topic during the scouting combine. Bench presses and 40-yard dash times do not tell us much about football skills. Remember Ahmad Carroll? He was drafted in the first round largely because of his blazing speed. The idea was that if he got beaten, he would be able to catch up with the receiver again. The problem is that if a DB needs to use his closing speed very often, he is in trouble. The back of Ahmad Carroll’s #28 jersey soon became an all-too-familiar sight for Packer fans, as he chased opposing receivers downfield, desperately grabbing at them for all he was worth.

Meanwhile, Al Harris, who everyone knows is slower than molasses, almost never gets beaten deep. This is because Harris usually wins those first 2-3 seconds of a play, or at least battles to a draw, due to his exceptional toughness and savvy.

We’ve also seen how this plays out on the offensive side of the ball. Bill Schroeder was the fastest player on the team but was only an average receiver because of his lack of physical presence and quickness. James Jones was widely panned when he was drafted because he was “too slow,” but he had a great rookie season and could be a special player if he can get past the injuries that ruined his second season.

I’m not totally discounting measurable skills. They play a legitimate role in the evaluation of talent. Their advantage is that they allow for unbiased evaluation. A forty time is a forty time, and no amount of wishful thinking about a player’s speed can change that number. But football is a sport where the intangibles are more vital than the so-called measurables.

Watching games is still the best way to judge talent, and based on these observations, we do our best to describe football skills by using terms like “explosion” and “he plays with a mean streak.” They may not be scientific, but if the source is reliable, they do tell us something about a player’s ability to succeed in hand-to-hand combat during those crucial moments immediately after the ball is snapped.

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Comments (8)

IronMan's picture

Wow. Rack 'em! Well done.

I don't care how fast ,or strong a player is. Can he beat the guy in front of him? That's the ONLY thing that matters.

Pack93z's picture

Football Basics 101... it is simply one of the most overlooked concepts from a average fan.

One of the primary reasons we struggle on the offensive line, this basic principle isn't adhered to in the running game. We use the Zone scheme to try an isolate the D's movement, but we don't use the leverage to do so and get pushed around a bit. I guess I am old school, I would rather see the lineman fire out low and knock the snot out of the defensive player and force a hole open. I also think that a good old fashion power drive scheme creates an attitude along the line, instead without using the cut block, we kind of dance with the defense. And dancing has no place in football, period. lol.

Good read.

Dale Z's picture

We're getting dangerously close to talking about "pad level" and that's a point of mockery lately for some reason.

Aren's picture

Excellent read Greg.

I am always surprised by how far someone "stock" falls from a below average performance at the combine. The previous four years of production suddenly lose weight in just a month.

packerslounge's picture

Outstanding article again Greg. We are fortunate to have some good writers around here.

Personally I am all about the title. It projects toughness, something I thought we lacked last year in a big way.

Andyman's picture

Great article. I admit I do like seeing the 40-times and the combine results, but just because I like the numbers doesn't mean I hold them to that high of a marker as a lot of people (namely the so-called "gurus" who study this stuff day in and day out) You nail it right on the head when you say that the intangibles are just as important (if not more so) than those measurables.

Greg C.'s picture

Thanks for the feedback, guys. It was a fun article to write. I've had all that stuff rattling around up in my head for years.

I agree with Pack93z about the O-line. I would rather see them go low and hit people. The ZBS seems a little too finesse-oriented. It hasn't been a complete failure, but on the other hand, I don't think it's really helped. It seems like it has to be executed almost perfectly to work.

Yes Dale, this is really close to talking about "pad level." I almost mentioned that in the article, the point being that McCarthy talks about it for good reason. It gets old after awhile, though, and it makes you wonder why the players don't just lower their damn pad level if that's all they need to do. It doesn't reflect well on the coaching staff if the players are screwing up on such a fundamental level in so many games.

One more thing: I probably could've said "the first 1-2 seconds of a play" instead of the first 2-3 seconds. Things really do happen fast in football.

Tyler B's picture

Nice article and solid concepts. As average and un-skilled as a player as I was in high school, I could hold my own as a 175 pound offensive lineman/linebacker going against bigger people each Friday. It's all about angles, quickness and aggressiveness in my opinion. If you go through the motions unaggressively, you will get knocked on your butt.

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