By Frank ‘Dog’ Piliere
Disclaimer: The following article is based on real events. Frank ‘Dog” Piliere created the dialogue.
Training camp started for the 2004 New York Football Giants. As they take the field it is evident these Giants are very different then last years. In addition to a new coaching staff, the Giants have replaced nearly half their roster. Sadly one Giant that fans will miss in Albany this year is Rosie Brown. The Giants’ Hall Of Fame Tackle passed away on June 9. Rosie Brown has been a regular attendee at Giants Training Camp since he was drafted in 1953. A family run organization, the New York Football Giants have traditionally strived to accept its players as if they were members of the family instead of football players or business associates. Rosie exemplified this notion as a participating member of the Giants family for over fifty years. He was a starting tackle from 1953 to 1965, an offensive line coach from 1966 to 1970 and worked in the scouting department from 1971 until his recent death in June.
Wellington Mara discovered Rosie while reading an article in a Pittsburgh newspaper. The article prompted the Giants to draft the 19 year old Rosie Brown in the twenty seventh round. Rosie was a starter his first season under head coach Steve Owen. Rosie’s second season the Giants replaced Steve Owen with Jim Lee Howell. Jim introduced specialization to the NFL by assigning Vince Lombardi the offense and Tom Landry the defense. This was the beginning of the offensive and defensive coordinator positions.
Lombardi was serving as an assistant coach at West Point when Wellington Mara selected him to join the Giants coaching staff. Lombardi struggled his first two seasons trying to learn football as it was played in the NFL. The fifties were an incredible time for professional football. Baseball, boxing, college football and horse racing were all much more popular then the NFL in the early fifties. In fact many fans viewed the players of the NFL as barbaric, uneducated ruffians who beat each other up every week in order to pay for their meals. The decade of the 50’s would change that perception. Vince Lombardi and Rosie Brown were key elements in these changes. Although college football was more popular, the NFL evolved much faster in terms of offensive and defensive strategies. Lombardi coming from the college ranks had a lot to learn. He had spent his career playing and coaching the Wing Formation, which dominated the college ranks. He was forced to quickly accept and learn the T-Formation, which was run in the NFL. Though Lombardi had much to learn he still had plenty to teach. He replaced man blocking by the offensive line and introduced zone blocking. In Zone Blocking the offensive line works as a unit. Instead of each lineman being assigned a particular man to block the entire line would work together to double team defensive linemen and improve their chance to prevent the linebackers from making a play. Zone blocking altered the manner in which the running backs maneuvered. Instead of running to a predetermined spot the running back would run to a hole created by the offensive linemen and the blocking patterns that evolved with each play. The expression ‘run to daylight’ was made famous by Lombardi. The game became more dynamic as one play could have several variations as it unfolded.
Lombardi wanted the running game to open up the passing game. He thought football was meant to be a running game and was obsessed with the wing formation. The Wing and Double Wing formations were the most popular formations when football began. The Wing incorporated seven linemen and four backs. The quarterback stood behind the guards, he was mostly a blocking back that would help the linemen double team a defense. The Wing back usually stood to the outside of the end at the same distance from the line of scrimmage as the quarterback. The full back stood further back from the quarterback usually behind a guard. The tail back was the star of the show. He would line up on center further back then the full back. He would receive the ball from the center and would then be able to run, pass or kick the ball. Passing the ball was difficult in the Wing formations because it was difficult for the ends to break away from the defenders as they lined up close to the tackles. In the Double Wing the quarterback would become the second wingback on the opposite side of the field as the first wingback. With the tight formation and lots of moving blockers it is easy to see why the wing was so useful to run the ball. Defenses learned to adjust by jamming the line of scrimmage and shutting down the wing’s effectiveness.
Lombardi diligently studied and recorded the various offenses being run in the NFL. He would write the plays on legal sized notepads for closer study. He designed his own offense in the same manner. Lombardi created plays that his players viewed as tricks or gimmicks. The plays could occasionally catch a defense off guard. The players were skeptical when Lombardi started talking about incorporating the Wing formation in the NFL. Lombardi’s first year with the Giants was difficult for him. He had trouble winning the player’s confidence. After his first season with the Giants he decided to leave. He went back to his old head coach at West Point and accepted an oral agreement to return to West Point for the 1955 season. Wellington Mara, the Giants owner, managed to coerce Lombardi to change his mind. There were many differences between the NFL players and Lombardi but because of Lombardi’s desire to succeed and his willingness to listen and compromise with his players they had come to trust and believe in each other.
When Lombardi worked a play out on paper he would test it by teaching it to his players. Lombardi was a detail-oriented teacher. He would repeatedly shout out each assignment to every player. The players knew many of Lombardi’s plays would not work in the NFL and they let Lombardi know. But Lombardi would not give up.
Rosie Brown was extremely athletic and powerful. He thrived in Lombardi’s offensive system. One day during Giants training camp in 1955, Rosie Brown sparked an event that would dominate the NFL for the next decade.
The Giants held their training camp at Willamette University in Salem Oregon. The climate was cooler then in the east. But Lombardi was still his heated self. “Do not stand still on my line of scrimmage. If you do not have a defender to block move your ass down field and find one. Now let’s line it up on three.” Conerly received the snap and turned to hand the ball to Gifford. Gifford took the ball in his midsection and sprinted toward his right; suddenly Rosie Brown appeared out of nowhere downfield and clobbered the safety. Vince Lombardi started screaming.
“Brown do you know where the hell you are? Damnit son wait for the ball to be snapped before you start moving around. Now give it to me again, on three this time, you hear that Brown on three.”
Conerly receives the snap, hands it off to Gifford. Gifford starts toward his right and Lombardi starts to go off again.
“Brown what the hell are you doing?” Once again Rosie Brown is down field.
Lombardi walks over to end Coach Ken Kavanaugh and line Coach Ed Kolman.
“Can you guys tell me what the hell Rosie is doing?” Lombardi asks.
Kavanaugh responds “Come on Vince he’s 20 years old he did a great job for us last year, I think you have him out of sorts with the zone blocking. He’ll get it just give him some reps. That’s all he needs.”
Once again the team tries the play and once again Rosie is down field taking out the safety. Vince starts screaming, “Give me the ball. Give me the damn ball!”
Lombardi was always loud and very excitable. Since he joined the Giants several players enjoyed pushing him over the edge just to get him screaming. Gifford recognized the moment as a perfect opportunity. He flipped the ball underhand towards Lombardi. Gifford threw it short with a lot of spin on it. Lombardi grabbed at the ball but it fell just out of his reach. The heavily spun ball bounced straight up as Lombardi was lunging forward and it hit Lombardi in his clipboard causing him to drop the clipboard. Lombardi violently tried to kick the moving ball only to have it bounce sharply to the right. as his leg missed the ball by a foot. Several players snickered and started to laugh. “Give me that damn ball!” Lombardi demanded. He finally had the ball. He stood beside Rosie Brown and instructed him to get in his stance. He then gets down beside him with the ball. “Now kid I don’t know if you are deaf or something but just in case you are I want you to watch the ball with your periphial vision. Don’t actually look at the ball but still see it. As soon as you see the ball move you move. Not a second before not a second after.” Lombardi stands up and tosses the ball over to the center. He shouts, “All right lets do it again on three. On three Rosie”
This time all coaches’ eyes were on Rosie Brown. The ball is snapped to Conerly who hands off to Gifford and before Gifford even moves Lombardi is yelling to stop the play. “You son of a bitch”, Vince is yelling at know one in particular. “I need a son of a bitch with a camera over here now.” Lombardi insisted on studying films. He was a pioneer for the NFL in film study as well as camera positioning. He insisted on having wide screen lenses to better see the entire field. This time he wanted a wide-angle shot of the play as well as a close up of Rosie Brown. Rosie you son of a bitch, Lombardi shouted out again flashing his big toothy grin as he starts to laugh out loud. “Do you see what is happening here?” he shouts into the clear Oregon air. Lombardi had them run the play several times to completion. He wanted the film to study. He wasn’t quite sure of the meaning but he did realize that Rosie Brown was not jumping off early. Rosie Brown was so fast that he was actually ahead of the defense. From these observations Lombardi was able to utlilize his tackle in much the same way as his wing backs thus making it possible to run the power sweep from the T-Formation. In 1955 mid way through the season the Giants offense started to stall. Jim Lee Howell requested some new ideas. Lombardi then introduced his version of the sweep to Howell.
This season Giants fans should pay close attention to the offensive line. The game is controlled on the line of scrimmage. Last season the Giants expectations were crushed when their offensive line collapsed with injuries. The next game you watch observe the coordinated efforts of the linemen while they maneuver as a unit to execute a play. Remember Hall of Famer Rosie Brown the Giants greatest tackle that ever played not only helped the Giants win the 1956 Championship and five division championships but he was monumental in the modern evolution of football. History is written by the victors. If the Giants defeated the Colts in the 58 championship and then Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in 61 and 62 perhaps we would be calling one of the most famous plays in the NFL the ‘Giants Sweep’ or even the ‘Rosie Sweep’.
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