If someone were to create a fictional archetype for an NFL offensive lineman turned coach, he might name that character Howard Mudd, and have him come from Midland, Michigan, and play college ball at someplace called Hillsdale.
The book the real Howard Mudd has written is not fiction, but instead a revealing look inside the almost-secret society of NFL offensive linemen. His “The View from the O-Line” comes out in September.
He might have titled it: “A Song for the Unsung.” And if you’re a fan who wants to understand the real heart of the game, it’s here.
This has nothing to do with fantasy football or Madden videos or the nightly highlight shows. This comes from that place where they hide the guts and blood and snot bubbles and cursing.
Mudd was an All-Pro guard with San Francisco in the 1960s, and an NFL offensive line coach between 1974 and 2012, including 10 seasons over two stints in Seattle.
For years, his players and fellow coaches told him he should write a book about line play. They always asked: Who better?
They were right.
Mudd not only knows the arcane language and bylaws of this devout brotherhood, he helped invent much of it. And along with the narrative voices of a Who’s Who of NFL linemen, Mudd provides a history of this guild of misunderstood craftsmen.
Here’s the true triumph of this book: As I was reading an advance copy, it felt as if somebody had rounded up a couple dozen of the greatest offensive linemen, put them in a back room over pitchers of beer, and had Howard Mudd coax them into telling the secrets of their craft.
“I didn’t want this to be a book about me,” said Mudd, now retired in Kirkland. “I don’t want to seem that important.”
The goal, then, was to take input from the men who played the positions he identified as “the game’s heart and soul.”
It became clear that many common qualities are shared by the likes of Jackie Slater, Mike Munchak, Tony Boselli, Ed White, Randy Cross, Tarik Glenn, Willie Roaf and so many others who contributed to the book.
The key, they agree, is mental toughness. At the root is knowing that the only option after getting knocked down is to get up and be smarter the next time.
While defenders are destroyers, they say, offensive linemen are protectors.
They admit they’re probably the least athletic group on a team, so they get by with tenacity, with intelligence, with an unshakable interdependence, and with an understanding of the miracle of angles and leverage.
Toughness for offensive linemen, Mudd said, is not about how much you can dish out, but how much you can take.
Circumstances, then, force them to play as a unit. As Jeff Saturday said, “We walk in, and we are all for one.”
Their collaboration is a part of what should be considered a flawed business model: If only one of the five fails, then they all look bad. Yet if all five succeed, it’s the running back who is considered the star.
Boselli, a tackle, explained the sense of inequity.
“I can kick a guy’s butt for 64 snaps and if (the defender) makes one play out of 65, he’ll get up and dance around and make a fool of himself,” Boselli said. “If you’re a defensive lineman and you get one sack a game, you’re making $10 million and going to (the Pro Bowl) every year.”
The unity of the great offensive lines, Mudd said, is the shared bond of hard work and selflessness, but also of mutual trust. They communicate through what he describes as an aboriginal language that is often nonverbal, and not used by anybody else on the team.
Mudd wrote the book with author Richard Lister, and he was pleased that together they captured the importance of the personal relationships that Mudd has shared with the players he coached.
And Mudd was proud of the fact that so many of the linemen opened up about their experiences, especially since they come from a group that sometimes maintains an omerta-like code of silence, and typically shuns attention.
“A lineman’s greatest satisfaction is winning the game and not having to do any interviews,” said tackle Joe Thomas. “That means you’ve done your job.”
But Mudd’s name carries weight in the NFL, and he got this group to talk frankly, and often with great humor, for more than 300 pages.
It’s not just linemen, though, who revere Mudd. I’ve seen a quote attributed to Peyton Manning, who was protected for years by an Indianapolis line coached by Mudd, in which he called Mudd “a philosopher of football, an honest-to-God guru.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts and Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid each wrote a foreward for the book. Reid wrote: “If there’s one man you’d want talking about the game on the offensive line, it would be Howard Mudd.”
It’s a view only Mudd could provide, and now he’s sharing it all with his readers.