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Designer players

Alan Barra has a notable article in today's WSJ ($) on the evolution of players in college football. He begins by comparing today's national title contenders, USC and Texas, with the NFL's 1985 Bears.

It's increasingly difficult to distinguish top-level college football from the professional game. Some comparisons between the 2005 Trojans and Longhorns and the 1985 Bears are eye-opening. The '85 Bears had perhaps the greatest defense in NFL history; according to the Sports Encyclopedia -- Pro Football, Chicago averaged 271 pounds a man across its defensive line. This year's Trojans outweigh the Bears on the defensive line by an average of four pounds a man. The Longhorns are even bigger, averaging out to 290 apiece.

The difference in the offensive lines is even more staggering. The mean for the '85 Bears' front offensive five was 267 pounds; their 2005 USC and Texas counterparts average 312 pounds a man. Excuse us -- did we say the 1985 Bears? The offensive lines of this year's first- and second-ranked college teams outweigh that of the defending NFL champion New England Patriots by nine pounds a man.

The comparison suggests that NFL-quality players (i.e. those recruited to top programs) have gotten much bigger, but why? The answer appears to be that players and teams have adapted over time to changes in the rules, rules which encourage specialization, speed, and strength.

ESPN has been broadcasting segments in which commentators compare the Trojans and Longhorns to great college champions of the past, but to many veteran sportswriters the comparisons are irrelevant. In an interview last year, longtime college-football writer Dan Jenkins said, "Comparing the best college teams of the past five or so years to legendary champions of the past is like comparing supersonic jet fighters to propeller-driven World War II planes. The game has really changed that quickly. Most of the players I see on top teams today look like they were manufactured in laboratories."

If so, the laboratories were designed by the NFL. Up until 1963, college football players were expected to play on both offense and defense, and the most important attribute for a football player was quickness and stamina, not sheer strength. As late as 1965, Bear Bryant's Alabama national championship team still averaged little more than 200 pounds a man. But as rules changed to allow unlimited substitution, specialization took precedence over versatility and, as players spent more and more time in the weight room, their size began to increase dramatically. This development was perfect for pro football, which no longer had to guess what a player's best position might be when he was drafted; by the time the player turned pro, he already had two or more years of experience at his particular position.