The Quarterback

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | dec. 2016

Part One of a Two-Part Series

Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football,“Goddammit, you suck, Rodgers," the drunk guy in the “Favre" jersey yelled. Despite the general din, everyone in the sports bar could hear him. The Packers were trailing the Vikings, 14-17 and Aaron Rodgers had just tossed an interception, killing a drive that might have put the Pack ahead.

Turning from the big screen TV to the crowd, he launched his rant:

“Brett Favre was the best quarterback the Packers ever had and we've got to watch this idiot. Rodgers sucks."

Turning back toward the TV, he flashed his two middle fingers and let out, “You suck, Rodgers, and you're an arrogant motherf*cker, too."

Some folks chuckled — mostly at the guy himself. Some winced. Everyone had moaned at Rodgers' interception, but no one had gone off like this guy in the “4" jersey.

The Packers went on to lose the game and Aaron Rodgers was strangely off-target with many of his passes.

Ignoring the arguable parts in the guy's tirade — Bart Starr was great and Favre tossed a few glaring “picks" of his own — there was an animus that caught this writer's ear. Especially the “arrogant" part. An arrogant NFL quarterback? Pray tell. Favre wasn't arrogant? Yeah, right.

Since that Vikings game, fans have witnessed a sub-par season marked by four-straight losses, embarrassment at home and futile on-field play uncharacteristic of Mike McCarthy-led Packers teams.

While none of the discussion to date has been as laser-focused on Rodgers as the drunken guy in the Favre jersey would have it, much of it has centered on the Packers quarterback. To be sure, there have been lots of factors contributing to the Packers' struggles and Rodgers' stats — while “un-Rodgers-like" — had him 15th out of 32 starting quarterbacks as of this writing.

A couple of print items have also appeared this fall that have fueled the anti-Rodgers fire: First, the book, “Gunslinger," by Jeff Pearlman, which airs some unflattering tales about Rodgers. Second, the recent Bleacher Report piece by Tyler Dunne asking, “Can Aaron Rodgers Be the Type of Leader the Packers Need?"

The Microscope

Now this column isn't about Olivia Munn or the current state of Aaron Rodgers' relationship with his family. It won't critique his no-dairy diet or address sundry rumors floated about over the years. Sorry.

Rather, it's about how the position of contemporary NFL quarterback has evolved to the point where a team's man behind center has become the face of a franchise and the focal point of discussion — even vitriol — over a team's fortunes.

In the process, we'll review some of the claims made about this particular Packers “QB" as he leads the team forward.

Let's start with the axiom that — like every other sport — contemporary football has developed over time and continues to do so. The forward pass so much a part of the current game wasn't even a legal play until 1906 and wasn't even a practical part of a team's offensive arsenal until 1912.

It was at the 1876 Massasoit Convention — largely driven by early footballer Walter Camp — that football's first set of modern rules was drawn up. More and more guys on college campuses were learning the game and inter-collegiate contests were cropping up like wildfire. Some kind of uniformity was necessary or the first hour of every game would be spent deciding what was what.

Over the next few years, “foot-ball" became more and more distinguished from its “parents" — rugby and soccer. A line of scrimmage was defined and the idea of “snapping" the ball to start individual plays became the norm. This encouraged an evolving strategy consisting of individual “plays" as a team moved the ball downfield toward “goal."

Since this was foot-ball, the ball was first put into play when the center kicked the ball to a player in the backfield. This player was usually the quarter-back.

At the Intercollegiate Football Association convention of 1880, Camp wrote the following rule, which the assemblage adopted:

“A scrimmage takes place when the holder of the ball puts it on the ground before him and puts it in play while on-side either by kicking the ball or by snapping it back with his foot. The man who first receives the ball from the snap-back shall be called the quarter-back and shall not rush forward with the ball under penalty of foul."

The “quarter-back" was merely a vehicle for putting the ball in play — no more important than the “center" that kicked the ball to start the whole shebang. His position as “quarter-back" got its name because he wasn't all the way or “full" back and he wasn't halfway or “half" back.

The quarter-back's sole responsibility was handing the ball off to someone who could actually run with it and, then, blocking for that would-be runner behind the line of scrimmage only.

In some cases, he didn't even touch the ball — it being snapped directly to one of the other backs. In many cases, the quarter-back didn't even call the signals to start the play as this was the job of the team captain from whatever position he was playing — often one of the more-involved, exciting positions.

Getting Into the Game

At the turn of the twentieth century, the quarter-back position was a far cry from the pivotal, exotic position it is today. Indeed, he was typically the least-heralded guy in the backfield.

Eventually the rule that the quarter-back had to stay behind the line of scrimmage and the practice of kicking the ball to the quarter-back were both abandoned. Princeton University is often credited with having the quarter-back first call the signals — but not until 1888.

Various permutations of the backfield evolved over time with different colleges experimenting with where to put the quarter-back relative to the other backs. Legendary college coaches emerged from the era, based on the offensive formations they designed and implemented.

The legalization of the forward pass shortly after the turn of the century was nigh as controversial then as the legalization of pot is today. Coaches, players and fans argued incessantly over its impact on the game: It would ruin foot-ball. It would save the game. A few teams might try it, but they'd ditch it soon afterward. It was here to stay and it would revolutionize the sport. It would eliminate the running play completely. It would make running the ball more effective.

Proponents of Hegelian Dialectics look back on the time and grin broadly. Those with a hankering for modern football know that the debate is rekindled each season as every coach — including Mike McCarthy — addresses the strategic balance between his passing and running games.

For the quarterback position, the forward pass changed everything: It was out with the hyphen and in with a new-found, hundred-fold responsibility — that of throwing the ball on passing plays as well as handing it off on running plays. Skill at both was essential.

The Limelight

Colleges had enjoyed almost sole-possession of the sport and the growing celebrity and celebration associated with it. Individual collegiate players emerged as stars. The 1913-Notre Dame passing tandem of Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne, for example, came with a ready-made legend about the two of them perfecting the forward pass while working as lifeguards at a summer resort. When the Golden Domers defeated a vaunted Army team later that year, the legend became lore.

Professional leagues had popped up and died with regularity since as early as 1902. But sustaining them as free-standing entities not supported by an institution like a college was nearly a prescription for failure. In 1920, however, a new league — the American Professional Football Association — had started-up and seemed determined to steal some of the spotlight away from the college boys. In 1922, the APFA became the NFL.

Fielding former college stars, the NFL began to gather a following. Coaches like Green Bay's Curly Lambeau made the passing game a feature of the pro game and early quarterbacks like the Packers' Redd Dunn and the New York Giants' Benny Friedman became ballyhooed in the nation's newsreels.

To be certain, the emphasis remained on a fleet of utility backs that dominated the rosters of most pro teams, but these guys were considered “triple threats" because they could run, pass and kick the pigskin. The Packers' Johnny Blood McNally was one such player.

Next issue, we'll shine the light back on the Packers' current signal-caller, Aaron Rodgers — including that “arrogant" thing. By then, the Packers' season will be nearing an end. Will they make the playoffs and, if so, has their quarterback turned things around enough to commandeer a deep run?

If the Pack is winning, the heat will likely have dimmed on Rodgers. If they're still struggling, the guy in the Favre jersey — wherever he is — will be apoplectic.

As 2016 fades into 2017, educator, author, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson continues to write about all things Titletown from a farm west of Green Bay and a cottage near Lakewood.

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