Unitas, Berry might not have made it in today's NFL, scouts say


Before and after football practice each day, Johnny Unitas spent hour after patient hour creating a football player -- a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback -- a guy named Johnny Unitas.

That was 40 years ago. On the playgrounds and practice fields of his time.

There, morning, afternoon and evening, Unitas at first aimed for -- and then played for -- the old Baltimore Colts.

Endowed with no more than modest talent, he built himself into the National Football League's most famous self-made quarterback by endlessly repeating every little thing that the good ones try to do on every play.

Mostly, Unitas threw the ball to another modest talent, another industrious, self-made Hall of Famer, Raymond Berry, who endlessly repeated every little thing that good wide receivers try do -- on all kinds of plays.

All kinds, that is, except plays requiring wide-receiver speed.

At 40 yards, Berry could hardly beat Unitas, who could not beat anyone.

Still, in their lack of ideal physical qualifications, they were not alone.

In the six or seven decades before the NFL's coaches and scouts started setting minimum standards a few years ago, dozens of good football players who were too slow, too small, too immature, too whatever, played their way into the Pro Bowl and often the Hall of Fame.

Could they do it today? If Unitas and the others were just now turning 21 and coming out of college, could they find a home in pro ball?

"It's doubtful," veteran scout Mike Giddings said the other day. "They'd still be good enough to play the game, but they wouldn't get the chance. [Most 1990s players] are so much bigger and faster and so well trained, even before their rookie training camp, that it would be next to impossible for guys like Raymond Berry and Pete Pihos and most of the other old pros."

The NFL's relatively new 80-man summer roster limit is a "mighty barrier today," according to Giddings, a former NFL coach whose Newport Beach, Calif., scouting company serves 12 pro clubs, two in each division.

"In the old days, there were often 100 or more players in a typical training camp," he said. "If you were talented but undersized in those days, or a hard worker like Unitas, they might bring you in from a college team as a free agent. But no more.

"Today in the average 80-man camp there are 53 veterans, 11 or 12 draft choices and possibly 10 young [retreads] from other teams and camps. The [retreads] have become one of the biggest sources of supply.

"That leaves only five or six places for the college free agents who didn't get drafted -- if that many. Today, if you don't meet at least the minimum standards on their charts, they won't even look at you."

Today the league could not wait for Unitas to create Unitas, as he did in the 1950s, when, standing under 6 feet 1 and weighing less than 200 pounds, he played on semipro teams when no pro club would hire him.

Nor would the modern NFL be likely to give Raymond Berry -- or Steve Largent -- the time to demonstrate that there still is room at the top for slow, diligent wide receivers.

It probably would not accept Danny Fortmann, either, or Willie Wood or Jim Otto or Fred Biletnikoff or Pete Pihos or Jack Ham or Cliff Harris or others who, in other years, earned Pro Bowl or even Hall of Fame distinction although lacking size, speed or other credentials.

It might not even accept Paul Hornung, a Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame, still the NFL record-holder in single-season points scored. A college quarterback but no pro quarterback, Hornung -- who on the field had more moves than speed -- was converted to running back in an era when the NFL had the leisure to make such conversions.

Leisure-time hunches are out now. Pressure is in.

The NFL, in fact, is playing a new ballgame in the 1990s with a new kind of carefully measured faster, stronger performer.

"There are precise speed and weight minimums at all positions," said actor Bradford Dillman, a personnel hobbyist who works with the San Francisco 49ers during the NFL's draft season. "Say you're an offensive tackle. If you're less than 263 pounds, they won't let you in training camp this year.

"They'd even throw [Hall of Famer] Forrest Gregg back -- the guy Vince Lombardi called the greatest player he ever coached. Forrest weighed a bare 250. Goodbye, Forrest."

As for the ability to hustle, the minimum 40-yard speed is 4.6 seconds, for example, for wide receivers with a D body build.

"D is an ideal body," analyst Duke Babb said at the national scouting combine office in Tulsa, Okla. "A is short and light, B short and heavy, C tall and light."

In the NFL of two or three decades ago, nobody asked about B builds, or even D. Although there probably was as much talent then, proportionately, as there is now, sports science was in its infancy.

The main difference: Until recently, there were few scouts to quantify talent, speed, strength, optimum weight or anything else.

"In the '50s and '60s, we only had one full-time scout for the whole country," said Hall of Famer Sid Gillman, the 1950-59 coach of the Los Angeles Rams.

Hall of Famer Mel Hein, reviewing his long career with the New York Giants, said: "They didn't pull out a watch and time us linebackers. They just watched us on pass defense.

"I could cover a [wide receiver], so they said I had good speed. If a linebacker could only cover a running back, he had average speed. If he couldn't couldn't cover anybody, the coach made a note, and looked for a new linebacker. That's how they used to measure physical qualifications."

In some respects, that was the better way, in Dillman's view.

"The best receiver of all time, Jerry Rice, has never run well for the stopwatch," he said. "However, Bill Walsh wasn't a prisoner of [scouting standards]. Walsh said that Rice had 'functional football speed,' so he drafted him anyway."

Mike Giddings Jr.'s company, Proscout, Inc., which evaluates the NFL's 1,500 active players weekly, views the world from somewhat the same perspective.

"We're not in the physical-qualifications business," he said. "We want the answer to one question: Can he play on Sunday?"

To a man, championship players of other years have argued that if they could come back again, they could play again, and play effectively -- regardless of speed, size or other deficiencies.

"Sure, these guys today are bigger and faster," said Reeves, a seven-year Dallas Cowboys starter who as running back and coach has been a contestant at a record seven Super Bowls. "But if we were just coming up today, we'd be bigger and faster, too."

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