March 11, 2010, 5:12 pm
Remembering Merlin Olsen, the Football Player
By ANDY BARALL
Andy Barall writes about pro football history for the Fifth Down.
Merlin Olsen died of cancer at age 69 on Thursday*.
At 6 feet 5 inches tall and 270 pounds, Merlin Olsen possessed tremendous natural size and strength. Unlike today’s players, he never lifted weights. He got bigger as a young man by, as he told Paul Zimmerman for “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football,” “hefting hod and bucking bales of hay.” He added, “I also worked as a ranger in Yellowstone Park until visitors began mistaking me for a bear.”
Olsen was the model professional football player, and that included off the field. He was tough, smart, physical, durable, consistent and relentless. He didn’t take plays off and was always trying to improve. He didn’t need coaches to critique his performance. He was his own toughest critic.
The original Fearsome Foursome – Olsen, Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy – helped popularize defensive football in the mid-1960’s (Grier was replaced by Roger Brown in 1967). Before the late 1950s, almost all of the N.F.L.’s biggest stars played offense. Many teams never even introduced their defensive players before the game. That started to change with Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli, Grier himself, and the success of the Giants in the late 50s and early 60s. It really took off in Los Angeles a few years later. The Fearsome Foursome were colorful characters who played with style and flair. Hollywood loved them.
At left tackle in the standard 4-3 defense, Olsen could always anchor-in against the run, both at the point of attack and in the gaps, especially to his left. Offenses frequently tried to take advantage of the quick upfield rush of Jones, the left defensive end, by running up inside him. Olsen was usually there to cover and fill.
In the 1960s, after running the power sweep a few times, the offense, at a key point in the game, would usually try the sucker play: pulling the guard and expecting the defensive tackle to follow while the running back found the vacated area. Against Olsen, he usually read the play immediately or recovered so quickly that it didn’t work. He was too smart, and had done too much preparation, to be fooled.
Early in his career, Olsen was a devastating pass-rusher. His favorite move was the basic bull-rush. He would pound and pound on a usually smaller guard, then supplement it with an additional tactic not available to today’s pass rushers: the head-slap. I even remember him occasionally using the double head-slap. Once the guard was softened up, Olsen would run a stunt to force that guard to block the unbelievably quick and fast Deacon Jones. Olsen and Jones embarrassed many an offensive lineman in the 1960s.
Most people know about the Fearsome Foursome, but Olsen also played on a great defensive line at the end of his career. Starting in 1973, he teamed with defensive ends Jack Youngblood and Fred Dryer and the underrated tackle Larry Brooks to form one of the N.F.L.’s best fronts for Chuck Knox’s Rams. At that point in his career, Olsen was more of a stay-at-home guy reading for draws and screens, and covering for the pass-rushers.
Merlin Olsen was one of the greatest and most respected players, and people, in N.F.L. history. He would have been, and later was, successful in any field he had pursued. Lucky for us, he chose pro football.
Extra point: The Times obituary by Richard Goldstein is here [link]. Roger Goodell released a statement: “Merlin Olsen was an extraordinary person, friend and football player. He was a tremendous Hall of Fame football player who then became an accomplished football broadcaster and actor. In recent years, it was an honor to work with Merlin on developing improvements for retired players. We all experienced how passionate and effective he was on that issue. He cared deeply about people, especially those that shared the game of football with him. Merlin was a larger-than-life person, literally and figuratively, and leaves an enormously positive legacy. On behalf of the entire NFL family, we extend our deepest sympathy to Merlin’s wife Susan and the Olsen family.”