Former Browns and long-time NFL coach Howard Mudd: Offensive line play in the NFL is poor

Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.

It’s a Mudd, Mudd world: As Browns offensive line coach during their 1980s playoff run, Howard Mudd used to stand on his head as practice ended.

“I was probably meditating, or something,” Mudd, 74, recalled in a phone conversation to talk about his new book, The View from the O-Line. “I can’t do that anymore. I’ve had so many back operations.”

Cleveland was Mudd’s fourth NFL stop in an auspicious career that spanned eight teams over 38 years, climaxing in Peyton Manning’s entire 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.

Mudd was not only Walter Jones’ first position coach with the Seattle Seahawks, he touted the left tackle to his bosses as better than Orlando Pace, the first overall pick in that 1997 draft. The Seahawks took Jones sixth overall.

When Jones was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014, Mudd drove his motorcycle from Arizona to Canton to witness the induction ceremony. That’s Howard Mudd.

Jones easily was the best offensive lineman Mudd coached. But Mudd took immense pride in molding five ordinary players into tightly-knit units that played greater than the sum of their parts.

“What I really wanted to do,” Mudd said of writing his book, “is talk about the offensive line, what we do. But it isn’t just what we do but also who we are as people and teammates. That dynamic that the offensive line has when they play well together.

“Absolutely, we had that with the Browns. The group, when we had Bernie Kosar at quarterback, those guys played really well together. None of them probably distinguished themselves. Tom DeLeone went to Pro Bowl a number of years before I got there, then Cody Risien went one year. The rest were just guys. But we played well, kept Bernie pretty clean, and he was pretty immobile. At one time we had two 1,000-yard rushers. That was pretty cool.

“I would stand on the kind of efficiency we had when I was there.”

Tossing Mudd: Howard Mudd is about to get on his soap box.

“I really don’t give a [expletive] if I hurt people’s feelings. You know I’ve always been that way,” he said.

Mudd believes there is a crisis in NFL offensive line play today for two reasons. One is the offseason practice restrictions written into the league collective bargaining agreement. The other is poor offensive line coaching.

“In the old days, we didn’t have the collective bargaining agreement that we have now, and that is you can’t coach the player from the last game until about June 1 [actually closer to April 1],” Mudd railed. “They can’t go on the field and do anything. You can’t even talk to them. So these offensive linemen are wandering around, and it’s not an instinctive position. This is truly a skilled position. Skill is something that you learn to do. It isn’t something instinctive like the other guys that catch passes and stuff like that.

“So the offensive lineman, he’s not perfecting his skills in the offseason. So he shows up June 1 and he’s been working out in the weight room, but he’s not perfecting those body movements that you need to do to pass protect.

“In the old days, when we didn’t have that, I spent time with, say, [former Browns defensive line coach] Tom Pratt, or in Indianapolis with [former Colts line coach] John Teerlinck. We’d go on the practice field with gym trunks on and we’d pass rush 80 or 90 times during the practice while they were down there throwing passes, and that’s where they learned to pass protect in the offseason. And that’s not happening. So they show up and they’re expected to make these athletic moves and it doesn’t happen. I think it’s really significant.”

Mudd doesn’t buy the argument that the proliferation of shotgun spread offenses in college football delivers under-developed offensive linemen to the NFL.

“People in the NFL, they say these guys don’t know how to play, it takes us two years to coach them,” Mudd said. “We’ve been doing that for 40 years, coaching an offensive lineman who didn’t know how to play when they got here. Go coach them. My brow is furrowed because it pisses me off to say it’s their fault. It ain’t their fault. It’s your fault. Go coach them.”

Mudd is a champion of his profession while also being hard on it. He said there might be 10 or 11 really good offensive line coaches in the league today, citing two in the Browns’ AFC North division – Paul Alexander of Cincinnati and Mike Munchak of Pittsburgh.

“The rest are pretenders. Look at how many times the quarterback gets hit. Then we all cry because we don’t have quarterbacks. Then, [expletive], find somebody to protect them,” Mudd said.

The mushroom society: In The View from the O-Line, Mudd uses 20 former and present offensive linemen, including Joe Thomas of the Browns, to tell the story of what Mudd describes as “the least understood but most intriguing position in the game.”

He writes that they belong to the Mushroom Society – a term for linemen coined by Monte Clark, a tackle on the Browns 1964 NFL championship team who went on to a distinguished career as a line coach.

Mudd writes in his book introduction that “like mushrooms, offensive linemen are kept in the dark and fed [manure] with the expectation that good things will grow.”

Well, as Mudd proved for almost four decades, it takes a skillful line coach to till the soil and water it and nurture it for those mushrooms to sprout.