If John Facenda were to return to us today, and settle behind the microphone once again to study the NFL, there’s a pretty good chance he would look up and ask in his ominous baritone, “Where the hell are all the linebackers?”
Facenda, the legendary voice of NFL Films, loved linebackers in a grittier heyday, whether Ray Nitschke hovering like a grizzly bear behind the line, or Mike Singletary expelling steam from his nostrils beneath crazy, wide eyes, or any one of the monstrous meat-eating men who played the position like missiles searching for a target.
“Behold the face of a tiger.”
That was then, long before the league’s now, in which the position has been downgraded like a hurricane that has collapsed under its own weight. Not all linebackers have disappeared, but many have been replaced by players who are really just bulky defensive backs. And forget the notion of sending three of them out for every play. That would be like saddling plow horses for the Kentucky Derby.
Blame Bill Walsh for inventing the West Coast offense that replaced running plays with short passes. Blame the league for shackling defenses with a rulebook designed to promote offensive firepower. Blame the recent generations of big, athletic quarterbacks capable of completing nearly 70 percent of their passes and around whom the game now revolves.
But blame all that only if you truly miss linebackers and a brand of football in which the battlefield was actually on the ground. The cloud of dust has been replaced by the cloud of exhaust as receivers accelerate downfield, and that can be pretty entertaining judging by the ratings.
“It’s a quarterback-driven league now,” said Bill Bergey, the Eagles’ Hall of Fame middle linebacker who played in the NFL from 1969 to 1980. “I never liked it when [Chuck] Bednarik would say, ‘Well, back in my day,’ and I said I would never say that. But back in my day, when it was third-and-3, it was mano a mano. We’re coming after you and try to stop us. That’s just the way it was. Now, it can be third-and-a-half-yard and they throw the dang ball.”
Oh, in the NFL, they throw the dang ball like never before. Using three wide receivers in an offensive set is the norm rather than the exception. Tight ends have shrunken until many are dangerous downfield receivers in their own right. And running backs slither out of the backfield and find their own spaces to catch the ball.
What’s a defensive coordinator to do? This is far from an overnight development, but the coordinators have junked what is still quaintly called the “base” defense (three linebackers, four defensive backs) in favor of alignments with five and six defensive backs.
The league’s defensive transformation was completed in 2018, when, for the first time, every team in the league played base coverage less than 50 percent of the time. There were only three old-school holdovers in 2017, but even those slipped beneath the waves last season. As recently as 2008, base defense was used 57 percent of the time. In the 2018 NFL, the usage had fallen to 25 percent league-wide.
The Eagles under Jim Schwartz played base defense only 18 percent of the time in 2018, less than all but seven other teams in the league. This is a man who grew up in Baltimore watching Mike Curtis play linebacker (another of Facenda’s favorites). He has an appreciation for the position, but the league doesn’t allow as much appreciation as it once did. The question is whether the pendulum will ever swing back.
“I don’t know where it will go,” Schwartz has said. “Things tend to go in cycles. On defense, we have to play what they put out there.”
The Eagles have placed very little priority on the linebacker position recently. Last Sunday in Dallas, with Nigel Bradham out with an ankle injury, their two primary linebackers, Nathan Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill, were both converted safeties. They are the prototypes for one vision of the modern linebacker, big enough to tackle people, if necessary, mobile enough to cover tight ends and backs, if necessary. That they are excellent at neither is beside the point these days.
“The day of the 6-foot-2, 6-3, 240-pound, 250-pound linebacker is absolutely done,” Bergey said. “We are becoming an extinct animal. I would like to think it might come back, but I doubt it.”
Well, what if? Should the trend continue, it’s possible offensive coordinators might take a look at the linebacker position and decide that is the weak spot in modern defenses. The Cowboys did something on Sunday that was interesting. They went to offensive formations that kept the Eagles in base defense as much as possible, and seemed to hunt out the linebackers. Dallas ran for 189 yards, with Ezekiel Elliott accounting for 111 of those.
Not every team has an Elliott, but if enough teams are trying to stop the run with jacked-up safeties, maybe a few more elite, or seemingly elite, runners will emerge. Offensive coordinators know that (even in 2018), if they use 12-personnel (one RB, two TEs) or 21-personnel (two RBs, one TE), the opposing defense will stay in base more than 60 percent of the time.
“It’s hard to say if they were picking on our linebackers,” coach Doug Pederson said after Dallas went heavier than usual with 21-personnel. “It’s probably part of their game plan and what they are trying to get done in that game.”
Well, yeah. No kidding. And against the Eagles linebackers, they used the run to control the game.
The pendulum is never going to reverse itself fully, back to the days of Willie Lanier and Tommy Nobis and all those guys whom Facenda made sound like avenging angels pawing in the mud. It could swing back just a little, however, and only because football decided the position wasn’t important any longer.
Offenses take what a defense will give, and that middle of the field between the line and the backs, where the extinct linebackers once grazed, is increasingly becoming a gimme.