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Cleveland: On The Change Of Professional Football

So much about professional football has changed and evolved since this writer first began to watch in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
For one thing, holding is seemingly legal now for offensive linemen but not for defensive backs. And that has led to the game becoming pass first, run second rather than vice versa. The old saying was that when you throw the football, three things can happen and two of them are bad. But when offensive linemen can hold and defensive backs can’t, it is much less likely for those bad things to happen.
Vince Lombardi’s championship Packers teams pounded you and pounded you on the ground. The teams that win the Lombardi Trophy these days are more likely to throw the ball over you.
The 51st Super Bowl will feature two of the game’s best throwers, Tom Brady of New England and Matt Ryan of Atlanta. Ryan threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns in the Falcons’ NFC Championship Game conquest of Green Bay. Brady threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns in the Patriots’ pasting of Pittsburgh.
Contrast that with this: Winning quarterback Bart Starr threw the ball just 24 times and gained 228 yards passing in the first Super Bowl way back when. Ryan and Brady likely will throw the ball that many times each before halftime of the upcoming Super Bowl.
What struck this writer in Sunday’s championship game was the evolution of the pro football pass receiver over the last half century. All players at all positions are bigger than they were back then but wide receivers may have changed the most.
It really struck home in the third quarter of the NFC game when Atlanta’s Julio Jones caught a short pass over the middle and turned it into a 73-yard touchdown. First, he manhandled a defensive back at the line of scrimmage, then he caught the ball and shed a would-be tackler, almost as if brushing away a pesky gnat. Then, a few yards later, he stiff-armed a safety to the ground. And then he raced down the sidelines, faster than anyone else, for a touchdown.
Now then, here’s the deal: Jones is listed at 6 feet, 3 inches and 220 pounds. He looks like he might be 6-4 and 240. He has muscles on top of muscles. He’s bigger and stronger than the guys who cover him. He is also faster.
John Mackey of the Baltimore Colts was the prototypical tight end of 1960s. He was big and strong and fast. He was also 6-2 and weighed 224. I know because I looked it up. That’s about the average size of a wide receiver these days.
Your typical wide receiver 50 years ago was more like Harold Jackson, of Hattiesburg and Jackson State – and what a splendid player he was. He caught passes for more than 10,000 yards and 78 touchdowns in his so-highly productive career. Harold, or Sunny as he was called, was 5-10 and weighed 175 pounds after a really big meal.
Julio Jones would seemingly make two of Harold Jackson. And Jones is hardly alone in bringing height and muscle to the position in the modern game. Larry Fitzgerald (6-3, 218), Calvin Johnson (6-5, 236), Anquan Bolden (6-1, 223), Andre Johnson (6-3, 226), Brandon Marshall (6-4, 230) and Saints rookie Michael Thomas (6-3, 210) are just a few of the guys who combine speed, muscle and leaping ability in this new generation of receivers. Remember, defensive backs are not allowed to touch them after they are five yards past the line of scrimmage. It’s impossible really.
This modern breed of receiver makes cornerback the most difficult position in pro football. Safety isn’t a walk in the park either because safeties usually hit these super-sized receivers after they have reached full speed. That can’t be fun. It’s like tackling a speeding truck.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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