Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Jack Youngblood: "I Retired Because I Was Fired"

By John Turney
It looks as though the Rams new defensive coordinator will likely, though not 100% certain, switch the Rams from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 base front, though it will be what Phillips calls a 30 Sink under and a 30 Wink over, a front which is not much different than a typical overshift and undershift in a 4-3 defense. Thus, it is a one-gap 3-4 defense.

The last time the Rams switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 was 1983 and the type of 3-4 installed then was a two-gap style that relied on the three defensive linemen to push their man back, read and react to the play and cover two gaps, one if the plays came to them and another if the flow was away. It was a much harder scheme which is not used very much at all these days.

One of the players the 1983 switch affected the most was Jack Youngblood, then a 33-year old defensive end with 12 years experience in a 4-3 system. He played two years in the new 3-4 scheme and then, in August 1985, hung up his cleats forever. Youngblood told the media, "Dignity, integrity, respect, and pride is how I want to be remembered" adding "The clock ran down on me this year, it was time to make a decision. The only right thing to do for the team and for (Coach) John (Robinson) and Georgia was to come to a decision whether you were gonna go try and you were gonna play or you were not gonna play. To try (and then not play) was not acceptable to me. It was either play or don't play."

However, retirement wasn’t in his plan when he arrived at training camp that Summer, “I know I had two more years in me,” he’ll say to this day. But the Rams coaching staff had different ideas.

The Rams coaches wanted Jack back, alright, but only as a designated pass rusher, not as a starter. That idea of Youngblood playing only passing downs had been around since 1983 when the Rams made the switch under defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur.
Fritz Shurmur. Credit: LA Rams
A little background:  Shurmur's playbook used the consecutive numbering system for defensive line techniques. That is a little different than what most NFL playbooks used, thus, the head-up technique on a tackle in Shurmur's lexicon is a 5-technique, rather than a 4-technique. And a 6-technique is the outside shoulder of a tackle, what most defensive playbooks call a 5-technique.

Here are the technique numbering rules for Shurmur's playbook:
Consecutive numbering system
For comparison, these are the more traditional numbering rules for defensive line techniques:
Traditional technique numbering
The following are screenshots of Youngblood in the 5- and 6-techniques (considered the 4- and 5-techniques by the traditional numbering systems.

So, going into the 1983 season Shurmur and head coach John Robinson didn’t know if the 245-pound Youngblood could play in the two-gap scheme. They knew he was a gamer, they knew for sure he could play in the nickel but he'd never played head up on a tackle before, so there was doubt. There was also doubt in the media who question whether an undersized defensive end could handle the rigors of a 3-4 defense being undersized and never having played it.

Youngblood's stance in the new 3-4 defense. Credit: AP Images
Robinson and Shurmur let camp play out and Youngblood proved he could play the position and it turned out well.  After the first game of the NFL season against the Giants, Youngblood had 2 sacks, and after the game an effusive John Robinson said, “Anyone who said Jack Youngblood can’t play a 3-4 defense I want them to print a retraction.”

Credit: CBS. Fair use claim for education and criticism
Youngblood ended the 1983 season playing 92% of the defensive snaps (the only times he came out were in blowouts and he came off the field to give Doug Barnett, his backup some experience) and had 10.5 sacks and was highly rated by Proscout, Inc. (13th in NFL) as a two-gap ‘tackle’ which is what they called players who aligned nose-up on an offensive tackle, like Howie Long and Youngblood that season. He ended the season with a 2-sack performance versus the Saints, one of which went for a safety and for his efforts Youngblood was named NFL Defensive Player of the Week by Pro Football Weekly.
Credit: AP Images
In 1984 Youngblood was even better (ranked 12th in NFL by Joel Buchsbaum of Pro Fooball Weekly) as he bulked up to 255 pounds ("I ate everything in sight and hit the heavy weights more" says Youngblood) and was voted Second-team All-NFC and a first alternate to the Pro Bowl and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Week versus the Giants when he had 2 sacks and drew 3 holding penalties. New York Giant tackle Karl Nelson, in his biography Life on the Line wrote, "I had a really awful day against Jack Youngblood, their 14-year defensive end. That was the worst game of my career. Youngblood had three sacks and drew three more holding calls. He beat me mentally and then beat me physically."

Credit: LA Rams

Credit: CBS. Fair use claim for education and criticism
He also was the Football News Defensive Player of the Week in Week 9 after a 3-sack, 3 penalty-drawn game versus the Cardinals, a game which he also blocked a potential game-tying FG to preserve the win for the Rams. He also hit Cardinal quarterback Neil Lomax numerous times. His defensive line coach Marv Goux said about that performance, "It was the finest performance I have ever seen by an individual player.”

Additionally, PFJ research shows that in those two seasons, on passing downs, Youngblood was double-teamed 41% (including playoffs) of the time and drew 52 penalties on opposing tackles, guards, and tight ends (including playoffs) in 34 games. In 1983, in addition to his 10.5 sacks he had 21 quarterback knockdowns, 24 quarterback hits on top of that and 46 “hurries”. In 1984 the numbers were 15 knockdowns, 20 hits and 46 hurries on top of his 9.5 sacks.

It should be noted that none of the total pressures came when Youngblood was unblocked. These days you will see players get sacks or hurries when there is a blown assignment and they run free to the quarterback. It just didn't happen with Youngblood like it does not or even did in the early days of the rushbackers (blitzing 3-4 linebackers), from say 1980-84 or so. In all the plays we saw in 1983 and 1984 Youngblood always drew at least one blocker ad as pointed out, often more.
This clip is an example of the double-teams Youngblood faced. Youngblood is at the top of the screen and is met by the Giants tight end, then is blocked by the Giant right tackle and the Giant right guard moves to help the right tackle.
Credit: CBS, fair use for education and criticism
However, late in the 1984 season, versus the Buccaneers, he blew out his back. He tried to play through it but he really was not effective late in 1984. He even missed his first game ever versus the Oilers. He could have played to continue the streak but told the papers, “Damn the record. The record has no meaning whatsoever. I want to play and help the team get to the playoffs."
Coaching up defensive line in the only game he missed, 1984 vs. the Oilers
Nolan Cromwell said, "The streak is not that important to him he said just one play could hurt the team. He didn’t want to go out there and hurt the team”. He played some snaps in the season finale versus the 49ers and played the entire Wild Card game against the Giants but Youngblood himself called his performance in those games "pathetic".
Youngblood stretching his back in 1984 finale versus 49ers. Credit: AP Images
In the off-season, doctors recommended surgery to repair the back (L-5, S1) and Youngblood refused, choosing weights and calisthenics to heal the lower back problems. He cut his weight from 255 to 240 with his workouts and reported to the Rams in terrific shape.

The Rams allowed Youngblood to miss the first couple of weeks of training camp to work out on his own to get himself in game shape telling him he didn’t need to go through the reps and rigors of camp.

He was told to report in late August 1985. When he arrived he was met with the news he’d lost his starting job. Robinson was quoted as saying, “We’re just not going to give back a jersey and have his job back. He’s got to prove he belongs”.
John Robinson. Credit: LA Rams
Youngblood does not recall seeing that in the paper, but he had a meeting with John Robinson in Team President John Shaw's office with Shaw behind the desk and Robinson seated next to him. It was in that meeting he was told his role with the Rams would only be a pass rusher.

Youngblood responded by asking Robinson, “When did I lose my job?”. Robinson didn’t answer directly but stated he and Shurmur felt this was the role that would be most effective for him and it would help the team, Youngblood recalls.

Robinson explained that, “We think by keeping you fresh for the pass rush, you’ll be more effective and be able to go all-out in those situations”.  Youngblood was incensed and asked, “When did I ever not go all-out on every play? I train for that, I do all that extra conditioning for that, to be able to go 12-15 plays in a row”.

In fact, Saints right tackle Stan Brock told the New Orleans Times Picayune “I like playing against the best and Youngblood is it. He’s a 100 percenter. You know he is coming all the time.”  Marv Goux said, "I’ve never seen a man compete as hard as he does on every down.  And I’ve seen a few.” So it is understandable that Youngblood was offended by Robinson's explanation for the diminished proposed role.

It's not that Robinson thought Youngblood was washed up. He's only ever said positive things about him, for example, “I think that Jack Youngblood is the best football player I’ve ever been around. He is truly special. He has worked harder to achieve greatness than anyone I have ever seen. I’ve never seen anyone in my career display more leadership. From the beginning, he said, ‘I’m going to make this team work’. For that, I will be eternally grateful.”

In an interview for NFL Films, he said “Here’s a guy who works out for six days, almost ritualistically, to get ready for Sunday. For two years I have been pointing to him and saying ‘That’s how you do it".
On Youngblood's retirement day Robinson told the Los Angeles Times“All of us assume greatness is a gift. But anyone who’s been around greatness on a daily basis knows that’s not true. Jack worked harder to be great in the brief time I’ve been around than any I’ve ever seen.”

However, to Youngblood, it was clear this was a decision that had already been made and there was nothing he could do to change Robinson's mind. But, Youngblood then asked directly, “Now that I am back (in camp) can I win the job back?“ Well”, Robinson replied, “Well, no this is the direction we are going to take as an organization.”

“I was floored.” says Youngblood, “it (the designated rush plan) was never told to me that whole off-season or during the time I missed in camp”, adding further that “Merlin (Olsen) and Deacon (Jones) taught me to play from whistle to whistle. If you couldn’t do that, you were not any good to the team. It was the professional pride and professional ethic I believed in.”

“What I did in '83 and '84 didn’t seem to matter, I was out”. "I was told 'Play on third downs or don’t play at all' and I chose to retire rather than be a shell of what I was. I felt that would cheat myself and my fans.”

Youngblood says would have been accepting of the situation if he’d been beaten out by a better, younger player. “That’s part of the game, a young ‘un comes in and chases you out of a job. But, nothing against Doogie (Doug Reed) but he wasn’t ready to beat me out. I didn’t spend hours and hours in the weight room to be the second strongest defensive lineman on the team, I did it to be the strongest and most in shape defensive lineman on the squad”.  And in the pass rush, some of our guys couldn’t get out of their own way.”
Rams defensive line coach Marv Gouz. Credit: LA Rams
“I played the 30 scheme for those two seasons, and teams didn’t run on us, I don't think they ran on me. (In 1983 and 84 the Rams allowed only 3381 rushing yards the fourth-fewest in the NFL those seasons and a 3.60 average per carry, the second-lowest behind the Steelers, who allowed 3.58 yards a carry those two seasons combined). I controlled the 3- and 5-hole (current terminology would be B and C-Gap). I just didn’t always do it exactly like Fritz and Marv (Goux) said they wanted.”

Credit: Spokeo
“I cannot tell you how many times, in film sessions, I’d slip a tackle and make a play and Marv would stop the projector and say, 'Jack, you cannot do that.'".

"Do what?” I'd say.
He’d say “You cannot let that tackle go, he got to a linebacker.”

"I told him ‘I made the play’".
"In our scheme, we don’t let that tackle go. You’ve got to knock him back.”

“Marv, I made the play, I can control those gaps without knocking him back.”
Marv would say, “You really have to knock that tackle back.”

And getting more frustrated I’d tell him, “No, you REALLY don’t.” Once, in the film room after a Monday night game, I’d beaten a tackle and tripped up Dorsett for a loss. I got the stink eye from Marv because I looped behind the blockers and made the play."

Credit: ABC. Fair use claim for education and criticism
“To me, their scheme was not possible," Youngblood states.

Here are the defensive formations for the "Ram" and "Under" that were used the most. They also had an "Even" and a "Flop" and "Ram Flop" but those were not used quite as often.

Here are the coaching points for Youngblood's position, which was tackle, a 5- or 6-technique.

"Sure, I could knock a guy back, deliver a blow, but then what? If pass shows, how am I supposed to get a pass rush while I have this 300-pound monster in my face. The way I’d approach it was line up outside the tackle a bit, take him on from an angle, and make sure my gaps were covered and if it happened to be a play-pass I'd then have the angle and can work a move to get pressure on the quarterback. They didn’t want that. And teams would just complete short pass after short pass on us. We were a bend-but-don’t break defense in those two seasons.”

As the playbook examples show, there seemed to be an option for this angle approach, but Youngblood stated that in film sessions he'd get "chewed on" for doing it and that Goux and Shurmur preferred the 5-technique and the "knock him back" approach that Youngblood insists is impossible to do and be truly effective.

The Rams defensive statistics bear that out, they were excellent at stopping the run, but were 21st in sacking the quarterback in 1983-84 with 76 sacks and Youngblood has 20 of those or 26% of the total.

“John and Fritz", Youngblood continues, "wanted to stop the run and take away deep passes and force teams to make 10-12 plays without making an error (fumble, interceptions) and when they didn’t they’d score because we couldn’t get good pressure on them. That was because we had three linemen trying to “push” back 300-pound offensive linemen. Their scheme worked well against some teams, but if the opponent had an efficient passing game, like the 49ers or Redskins, it was difficult to rush them and dictate to them, they usually could dictate to us."

Credit: Spokeo
"So, after John told me I couldn’t win my job back, I had to make a tough decision the toughest in my life. It wasn’t in me to hold out or demand a trade. I’d signed a 3-year $1.2 million contract prior to the 1983 season. When the old man (Carroll Rosenbloom) was alive, he’d talked to me many times about my joining the Rams front office when I retired, whenever that turned out to be. John Shaw was aware of that, as was Georgia (Frontiere). So I took all the information in front of me, spoke to John and was told that they’d honor the old man’s wishes and called John and told them I was going to retire and begin a new phase in my life."
Carrol Rosenbloom, Rams owner 1972-79 Credit: Spokeo
"There was quite a lot of press that (his retirement) day, the papers, local television, all the hoopla. But I felt empty and queasy."

"As it turned out I now know why. The Rams and Shaw never let me develop into the administration structure as Carroll and I had discussed. I was put in charge of some corporate sales, did Rams radio, but my goal was to be someone who made decisions as to the team, to have a hand in running a franchise, similar to what Ozzie (Newsome) is doing in Baltimore.

"For five or six years I'd wait my turn, wait for John (Shaw) to involve me more. But it just didn't happen. It was beyond frustrating. When I'd see him in his office he'd be watching this contraption, I suppose a forerunner to an Internet modem, that would let him see the price of foreign currencies in real time. He'd want to see what the Deutsche Mark or Franc or Pound was doing. I'd just shake my head and wonder what was going on in terms of the football team.
Former Rams executive John Shaw. Credit: St. Louis Rams
"By 1991 the writing was on the wall that I was going nowhere so I had to leave the Rams and go to the World League (WLAF) to get the opportunities I was seeking. Shaw just wasn’t going to relinquish the power he’d been given by Georgia."

Youngblood was in the Administration for the Sacramento Surge in the WLAF and the Sacramento Gold Miners of the CFL before moving to the Arena League's Orlando Predators where he was in charge of football operations.

"I was asked recently by someone in the Rams front office 'Why aren't you in the NFL, why didn't you stay with the Rams when you retired'. I looked at him and told the truth." Youngblood shared. "I got screwed". And he retired because . . . "I retired because I was fired".

Youngblood doesn't think the current 4-3 to 3-4 switch the Rams will make will affect players like Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn because they won't have to two-gap against huge offensive linemen, "But, they may not be doing those young men any favors for the career, either".

"In a 4-3 defense there is a certain mystique, a quality known and felt among those four men, that they have a job to do, which is pressure the quarterback and when you move to a 3-4, the emphasis of the pass rusher often relies on scheming rather than those four to get pressure.

"Quinn, if he moves to linebacker or rushbacker, whatever they call it, will sometimes have to cover and they will send a replacement rusher to cover that. And to me, that takes away the mystique, the esprit de corps, or Menschheit, the honor and character of the four of us. And, remember, if Quinn moves he will be part of the linebacker meetings and film sessions, he won't be part of the line, like he would be with a 40 scheme.

"But, Wade (Phillips) is a super bright guy, and I loved his father. Before or after a ball game or at an appearance, Bum would love to talk football or horses, he just loved to talk. And he was a helluva football coach.
"Wade is the same way as his daddy, he'll do a great job, The one thing I hope is that he adapts those ball players into a scheme that will win and will give these young 'uns a chance to etch their names in Rams history by being a dominant front four or defense."

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