When talk turns to athletic freaks, offensive linemen rarely rate a mention.
The term is usually applied to an NBA greyhound who can dribble around guards as easily as dunk over 7-footers. Or in the realm of football, maybe a quarterback who can complete 65 percent of his passes while scurrying like Barry Sanders.
But ask scouts, coaches and fellow pros about Jonathan Ogden, and the words "freak" or "freakish" come up over and over. When Ogden goes into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, Baltimore fans will celebrate him as the first Ravens draft pick so honored, a cornerstone for all the success that followed. It's worth taking a moment, however, to reflect on Ogden as a pure football phenomenon.
If a mad football scientist could assemble the perfect left tackle out of parts from every lineman in history, he might end up with Ogden. For 12 years, the Ravens had the luxury of filling one of the NFL's most important positions with Frankentackle.
You start with size. The ideal left tackle must be bulky enough to wrestle 300-pound defensive tackles and have long enough arms to fend off the fleeter pass rushers racing around the corner. But he can't be stiff in the body. No, he must have the forward speed to bolt out and flatten linebackers, and he must move just as fluidly in reverse, because he'll be backpedaling much of the game.
Balance, particularly the ability to regain it after being knocked askew, is another pre-requisite. And our guy must be equal parts ferocious and patient, with the mind to identify patterns amid brutal chaos.
Even in the NFL, land of genetic wonders, few combine all those traits. The 6-foot-9, 345-pound Ogden did.
"He checks every box," said Trent Dilfer, the quarterback Ogden protected for the Ravens' first championship team.
"That's the poster child," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who drafted Ogden No. 4 overall in 1996.
"He was as natural a left tackle as I've ever seen," said longtime NFL executive Ernie Accorsi, who scouted Ogden for the New York Giants. "He was like velvet out there."
Ogden will be the first to say that most of what made him great came naturally. His father, Shirrel, was a 300-pound lineman at Howard, so his bulk is no mystery. And even in high school, he glided around on his size-16 feet and flexed his frame as easily as much shorter, lighter players. He also inherited from his parents a sharp mind — dad was an investment banker, mom a community activist with a law degree — and seriousness of purpose.
Terry Donahue built a good program at UCLA, but when Ogden arrived, the longtime coach saw a different tier of talent.
"The first day of practice, I just said, 'Oh my God!' " he recalled. "He was so flexible in the ability to bend his knees and adjust his motions to hit a moving target. He was just once in a lifetime."
Donahue, who went on to become general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, loved to pull Ogden and have the mobile giant race out to clear blockers in front of counter runs.
Ogden worked himself into peak shape at UCLA and big as he was, he looked almost slender compared to other linemen. He had the rare frame to carry more than 300 pounds without a jiggle of fat.
That's one thing Accorsi remembers from the trip he took to Los Angeles to scout Ogden against Fresno State. But it isn't the main thing. "It struck me that he, and this is unusual, he made it look easy," Accorsi said. "And it's not an easy position."
He thought of a UCLA great from another sport, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who towered over everyone on the court but played with grace that would have made him a star at any height.
In his last two college seasons, Ogden grasped how good he was, how little chance defenders had of beating him one-on-one. So the game became a competition with himself, with his own standard of excellence.
"I've always been confident," he said. "I'm not going to say I always believed I was the best. But I always believed that when I did my best, no one was going to touch me. So it was always about me. It wasn't about the other guy."
His rare gifts made him the consensus top lineman in the 1996 draft. Longtime ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper gave him the fourth-highest grade he has ever assigned an offensive line prospect.
He entered the pros at a time when left tackle had become a premium position — chief protector of quarterbacks in an increasingly pass-happy game. But Ogden actually played his first season at guard, an adjustment he pulled off with aplomb, said his first offensive line coach, Kirk Ferentz.
Ferentz recalled a play in training camp when Ogden pulled in front of veteran running back Earnest Byner on a screen pass. Coaches watched, wide-eyed, as Ogden moved faster throwing blocks than Byner did carrying the ball.
"When I talk at clinics," said Ferentz, now the head coach at Iowa, "I say that I have not been around too many freaks of nature. But he was as close to that as anyone I've ever been around."
Ogden's grace reminded Ferentz of watching Roberto Clemente play the outfield for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In the meeting room, Ogden sometimes pretended to doze or ignore the day's lessons. But if Ferentz tried to nail him, he invariably knew what was going on and could answer any question.
Teammates became familiar with his dual nature as well, the laidback veneer in the locker room that gave way to controlled fury during games. Center Mike Flynn, probably his closest friend on the team, can still picture Ogden's enormous eyes, glaring wide from his helmet.
"Once he stepped on the field, he flipped a switch," Flynn recalled. "Throwing his helmet, screaming at people, treating every play like it was his last."
Dilfer was a frequent target of Ogden's tongue lashings, an unusual dynamic in a sport where quarterbacks usually do the barking. "I would just get in his face and tell him to relax," Dilfer said, laughing.
Ogden was so good that Dilfer would've tolerated just about anything. The Ravens quarterback had never played behind a great tackle and he was amazed at the possibilities Ogden created by singlehandedly neutralizing elite defenders. Dilfer puts only Walter Jones, whom he played with in Seattle, on the same level. Like Accorsi, he was struck by the ease of Ogden's dominance.
"The joke with Jonathan was, 'Are you sweating yet?' " said Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst. "The great ones make difficult things look easy. They're just so efficient with their body movements."
As his career went on, Ogden sometimes grumbled about the arduous routines of practice. But he didn't do it out of laziness, Flynn said. He simply didn't need as much fine tuning as his teammates to play at a high level.
"Even your really, really good players can't just show up," Flynn said. "But Jonathan was one of those few who could probably roll out of bed, take 85 snaps against the Steelers and do just fine. He had that ability."
With such talent, the conversation inevitably turns to legacy. Ogden made 11 Pro Bowls in 12 seasons. He coasted into the Hall of Fame on his first try. Might he have been the greatest tackle of all time?
Longtime executives are reluctant to go that far, instead placing Ogden in an elite group of five or six. Few dispute that he set the modern blueprint. He's the biggest lineman ever to enter the Hall of Fame but also one of the most mobile.
Accorsi refuses to rank any offensive lineman above Colts Hall of Famer Jim Parker or Parker's contemporary, Roosevelt Brown. But he said Ogden deserves to stand in their company. "You're going to look a long time to find one that athletic," he said. "He's unique."
Newsome recently discussed Ogden's career with former NFL quarterback and Ravens executive James Harris.
"He said it this way," Newsome recalled. "There are a lot of great offensive linemen, and there are a lot of great players who are in the Hall of Fame that are very deserving. But I don't know if there's anybody who played the position any better than Jonathan Ogden did.'"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun