Thwack! Stiff-arm sticking it to NFL defenders

In 1935, the world was a far simpler place:

Franklin D. Roosevelt, governing 127 million Americans, opens the second phase of his New Deal by proposing something called Social Security. George Gershwin writes "Porgy and Bess." Detroit wins the 16th NFL championship game, a 26-7 victory over the Giants in a sea of wool coats and fedoras.

Sculptor Frank Eliscu, using New York University running back Ed Smith as his model, produces a classic study in athleticism. The muscular figure -- ball tucked into his left hand -- turns to his right in mid-stride and deftly wards off a would-be tackler with his right arm fully extended. It was commissioned by the Downtown Athletic Club and first given to Jay Berwanger, the triple threat from the University of Chicago.

Today it is known as the Heisman Trophy. When it is awarded Saturday for the 72nd time in New York, that 25-pound hunk of brass will be the same, in every way, as the one that went to Berwanger.

What has changed, of course, is the game. For one thing, they don't make helmets like that anymore. Another measure of that change is the evolution of that quaint stiff-arm on the trophy into today's devastating NFL weapon.

"It's definitely coming back in the league," said Broncos linebacker Al Wilson. "A couple of guys have got me so far this year -- and that's big, man."

"All you really have to do is grab [a ball carrier] and fall to the ground, and at the last minute, he extends that arm, that big glove, and it comes into your face and it's like `Oooooo,' " said Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson. "It's a bad feeling, because this guy is 210 pounds and you're 300 pounds, and he drops you to the dirt."

"Guys are just running out of nowhere [saying], 'Oh, I am going to hit you so hard,' then all of a sudden you stick your hand up and get them in their chest and their feet run from under them, and it is nasty," said Giants running back Brandon Jacobs. "It's fun to watch."

It depends on your perspective.

"That stiff-arm isn't a pretty thing," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, "if you're on the end of it."

During the Jets-Dolphins game on Oct. 15, CBS analyst and former Giants quarterback Phil Simms said he couldn't remember seeing so many stiff-arms. That was nearly two months ago. Lately, the stiff-arm has proliferated to the extent that most regular-season games offer one or two devastating examples.

Amid the big plays that produce highlights -- touchdowns, sacks, jacked-up hits and interceptions -- the stiff-arm is a subtle piece of science that is often overlooked.

The stiff-arm is a complicated and sometimes unconscious choreography of many moving parts: speed, leverage, balance, strength, cunning and determination. Beyond sheer speed, it is the most basic way for a ball carrier engaged in hand-to-hand combat to create more space for himself and, with it, a few extra yards.

At the very bottom, though, the stiff-arm is about survival. Sort of like breathing.

"That stiff-arm isn't a pretty thing if you're on the end of it."
Ray Lewis, Baltimore linebacker

"Surviving and trying to get first downs, trying to get touchdowns is something we do naturally as players," said Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. "Time has built that force inside of us to try and throw that stiff-arm out there and get more yards."

Said Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, "The stiff-arm, a lot of times, is my way of hitting guys back, because I get hit all the time. That's my way of dishing out some punishment and being able to hit guys back legally."

Tossing thunderbolts

Tomlinson creates a lot of headlines with his touchdowns; he has scored a staggering 26 in the first 12 games -- three shy of breaking Shaun Alexander's record of 28 set last season. But did you know he also has a completely insane stiff-arm?

Here are three knockouts, all rendered in the past 13 months, with play-by-play commentary from Tomlinson:

Nov. 17, 2005: At Washington, Tomlinson runs into diving Redskins safety Ryan Clark in the open field. Clark is an inch taller and gives away only 16 pounds to Tomlinson, but the Chargers' back hits him with a shockingly swift thunderbolt to the collarbone. The blow simultaneously absorbs Clark's momentum and launches Tomlinson forward. Clark, face down, bounces to the grass and Tomlinson scores the winning 41-yard touchdown.

Ryan had already got into my body, so it was kind of a strong-arm, more so than a stiff-arm. Sometimes you can plant it in their face so they can't see where to grab you. And then sometimes you want to plant it in their chest, so his arms get shorter and he can't grab you.

Oct. 1, 2006: In Baltimore, linebacker Ray Lewis has a decent angle on Tomlinson, who effectively punches Lewis in the chest with a full arm extension. Lewis lands on his face.

I hit Ray pretty good. I'm pretty sure that Ray would remember that.

Well, what about it, Ray?

He actually stretched me out wider than I thought the hole was, and he kind of stuck his arm out and I bent the opposite way. It wasn't the kind of stiff-arm he's talking about. He's talking about that UUUNNNHHH! Nah. It wasn't that one.

Oct. 29, 2006: One of the cruelest stiff-arms in the archive. Tomlinson breaks into the clear against the Rams and, at the 20-yard-line, safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is the only thing between him and the goal line. Tomlinson slams the heel of his open left hand right under Atogwe's chin strap, driving it up and across the nose and past his hairline. Atogwe's helmet flies high into the air and his two hands fall away from Tomlinson, who scores. Again.

The hole was huge, and as I got through it, I saw the safety running up to get me. He came up kind of fast, so my first reaction was the stiff-arm to get myself some room, some freedom. I just happened to get him in the right spot, underneath the face mask. When you do that, when you're punching up, it lifts his face mask."

Perhaps the only stiff-arm to rival that one this season came on Sept. 24 at San Francisco. The Eagles' Westbrook was sprinting down the left sideline, but 49ers safety Mike Adams had an angle. They intersected close to the 20-yard-line. As Adams approached, Westbrook slowed slightly and seemed content to run out of bounds. But just as Adams relaxed, Westbrook turned 90 degrees and, fully extended, unleashed a devastating right-handed stiff-arm to the chin. Adams was knocked on his back and Westbrook went on to score a 71-yard touchdown.

I had to make a decision on whether I wanted to give him a stiff-arm or just get tackled. At that point, I wanted to get a touchdown. I had three, four yards on the sideline, and I had to try and create more space. He's trying to hit you up top, so you have to stiff-arm him high. You try to get him in the throat or the face. I think Mike was probably surprised. I used to use it a little in college, but I haven't used it in a long time.

A natural defense

When it comes to the stiff-arm, according to historians, there was no eureka! moment.

"It has its roots in the running game," explained Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "This was back in the days when the hash marks weren't so close to the middle of the field. They brought an out-of-bounds play in only a few feet from the sideline, so consequently there was a lot of space to one side. There were lots of student-body-right and student-body-left.

"Naturally, guys going sideways would fend tacklers off with an outstretched arm. It's physics in close quarters. When players became faster and more elusive, when the passing game came into its own, the stiff-arm fell out of fashion."

Three things helped bring it back.

As defensive players got faster -- smart defensive-minded coaches increasingly have placed a premium on speed -- offensive players had less room to operate. The stiff-arm helps them counter that speed. As weight training has entered the equation, ball carriers are stronger and more physically able than they've ever been. Third, the NFL is a copycat league. When those highlights of Tomlinson and Westbrook get serious airtime on "SportsCenter," everyone wants a piece of the action.

Tomlinson credits two predecessors, Walter Payton and Jim Brown, with influencing his aggressive stiff-arm. Brown, who played from 1957 through '65 for the Cleveland Browns, produced 12,312 yards in those nine seasons -- and uncounted headaches.

"I think that a lot of backs that are really good understand that it is part of your weaponry," Brown said. "LaDainian is very strong in the shoulders, and he has a great stiff-arm. I didn't know you guys were noticing that. I noticed that, and I think the good backs know that they can use that and get rid of that first tackler.

"It is a very proactive, aggressive type of move."

Brown, who was ahead of his time in most respects, took the benign tool of resistance and made it an offensive -- very offensive -- counter move.

"If the person is not up on you, you can actually extend your arm fully and sometimes if he is coming low, you can put your hand, the stiff-arm, on top of his head," Brown explained.

"I think that a lot of backs that are really good understand that it is part of your weaponry"
Jim Brown, Pro Football Hall of Fame running back

"The more he comes, the more he puts himself down into the ground. If he is closer, you try to hit him in the face to make him blink to throw his tackle off. If he is closer than that before you can get it out, it isn't a stiff-arm anymore, it is a forearm.

"It involves the fact that you are strong enough to put it out there and hold the guy off or strong enough to hit him in the face and make him blink and lose his particular balance. You have to try and hit him as hard as you can. If you are going to catch him, you have to use your strength to be able to resist him to keep him away from your body."

A gruesome replay

Being on the receiving end of a stout stiff-arm hurts twice.

The first time: For the defender who is used to passing out the pain, it is a blow to his immense pride in full view of a packed stadium and a formidable television audience. The second (and far worse) comes a day later, in the intimate company of his defensive teammates.

"When you get put to the ground like that," Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said, "the first thing that comes to mind is … 'We're going to watch that in the film room where these cats are going to ride me into the dirt.' "

"Everybody knows it's coming," said Colts linebacker Cato June. "The coach, he's sitting and winding while he's talking to somebody else. And while he's winding, everyone else is sitting there like `Oooooo, oooooo' every time it happens."


Giants running back Tiki Barber has distinguished himself in almost every way possible in the NFL. The stiff-arm is a rare exception.

"I don't have a stiff-arm," Barber said, sounding sad. "I think my arms are too short, and I can't get to the person without their body getting to mine. I always miss.

"I am not good at it, but I love to see it happen."

Just as defenders hate it.

"I remember some of the old-school players used to tell me, 'When they put their arms out, you break it.' " said Broncos safety John Lynch, laughing.

As you might expect, friends and enemies of the stiff-arm break down along party lines. Sort of a red state vs. blue state thing.

"If a guy is going to lead with his head, then I am going to try and stiff-arm him in the head and create separation," said Raiders running back LaMont Jordan. "If you catch a guy in the shoulder, sometimes he could really come through that. But if you alter where his head is going, his body is going to follow.

"If you give him a good shot, most guys get pissed off at that."

Which raises the question: If defenders aren't allowed to hit offensive players in the head -- this season, officials have been calling this more tightly than ever -- why isn't the letter of the law applied to ball carriers?

"Offense," said the Eagles' Westbrook, smiling, "always gets away with a little bit more."

"It's an offensive game -- people love to see touchdowns," said the Colts' June. "So that's what makes defense that much more fun, so much more challenging. I don't want to say the rules are against you, but it's one of those situations where they can hit you in the face and you can't touch them."

Said Jordan, "The stiff-arm is a great move. At the rate the NFL is going, they will probably ban it in the next eight years or so."

The Bears' Tank Johnson has a better idea.

"If they're going to be able to do it, then we're going to have to get one of our old rules back," he said.

"The head slap."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.