It’s difficult to make the case for historic, oft-forgotten offensive linemen. Typically, the case is made using Pro Bowls and total starts (as Dan Fouts pointed out) and we never have much information about quality of play — even from ardent students of the game; we have more understanding of the differences between the deep-threat capabilities of Bob Hayes and Paul Warfield than we do the fundamental distinctions that separate John Hannah and Larry Allen.
This problem crops up quite a bit when it comes to players that just missed on Pro Bowl accolades or earned All-Pro honors from an organization other than the Associated Press. Though Ed White has four Pro Bowls and more starts for an offensive lineman than anyone before him in NFL history with 241, he doesn’t earn widespread recognition for excellent play.
White earned All-Pro honors from the Newspaper Enterprise Association twice (1974 and 1975) and second-team All-Pro honors from the Pro Football Writers Association and the Associated Press in 1976 and 1979 respectively, but generally is not considered to have placed among the NFL’s best in a single season by any now-recognized awards group.
White has had an unusual career arc, and switched from defensive line play in college to offensive line play in the NFL. After switching from left guard to right guard, he immediately earned his first Pro Bowl berth.
Tom Speicher interviewed White about this change of position, and it’s fascinating seeing the Vikings’ thought process.
“Jerry Reichow (the Vikings’ longtime personnel guru) just saw something in me that he thought would translate into a great offensive lineman,” White says. “I enjoyed it. I begged them a bunch of years to also let me play defense.”
Reichow, who still works as a player personnel consultant for the Vikings, believes White could have been a defensive tackle in the NFL, but Minnesota had a more pressing need in 1969, the season in which all four starting defensive linemen—Jim Marshall, Alan Page, Carl Eller and Gary Larsen—went to the Pro Bowl.
“We were looking for a guard,” he says. “I had seen him play for a couple of years and really liked him. Some scouts and I thought he could play guard. He had brutal, unbelievable strength.”
Despite his various accolades, there’s a pretty good chance that White hasn’t been properly appreciated by history and wasn’t by his contemporaries at the time. One of the first player to be selected for all-conference recognition for two different conferences, White has earned entry into the Vikings’ Top 50 selection and the Chargers’ Hall of Fame.
White’s talent had long been worthy of praise and postseason honors. Even in 1983, Sport’s Illustrated’s illustrious Paul Zimmerman — Dr. Z — had this to say about him:
My other guard may surprise some people: 36-year-old Ed White. He has been taken for granted all these years, not watched closely enough. People have always raved about White’s pass-blocking skills, but he has also been one of the NFL’s best drive-blockers for years. The Chargers aren’t bashful about having White pull out and lead on screen passes or on one of Chuck Muncie’s sweeps.
Zimmerman picked an aging White over an in-prime Russ Grimm and an established Bob Kuechenberg. Even late in his career, White was an excellent player.
The USC product was the Chargers’ Offensive Lineman of the Year for each year between 1983 and 1985 despite playing next to a Pro Bowl guard in Doug Wilkerson. White earned that distinction while the Chargers were the second-least sacked team in the league, with only Miami’s Dan Marino hitting the turf less often per dropback.
Expanded over the course of his Chargers tenure — 1978-85 — and White was arguably the best offensive lineman on the line that allowed the fewest sacks per drop back in the league.
Dr. Z was a big fan of White and argued that he and Wilkerson formed “one of the finest guard tandems to ever play the game” in the 1984 version of his book The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football.
Stylistically, White was unusual for the NFL at the time. At his prime, White played at over 285 pounds when the average weight for offensive linemen was 255-260 pounds—though sometimes the team would have him lose weight in order to increase his speed. White is listed at NFL.com as 269 pounds, but there are records of him playing at 260 pounds, 269 pounds, 279 pounds, 280 pounds, 288 pounds and at least once at 300 pounds… a decade prior to that being the norm.
For consistency’s sake, the way White tells it is that he played in the region of the 260s in Minnesota and above 285 in San Diego.
Despite playing above average lineman weight, “Big Ed” White was frequently described as quick and explosive — a trait which he argues was a reason he stayed healthy for so long. From that Speicher interview:
“Quick feet are key for an offensive lineman. It’s also the reason why I think I stayed healthy for so long,” he says. “When I got hurt my last year (1985), it was because after a play a defensive lineman shoved me backwards and my foot was caught under a guy lying beneath me. I went over backwards and popped my tendon off my bone. That’s the reason I had to stop playing. I believe because of quickness, your feet are not attached to the ground as much and the chance of getting seriously hurt is lessened.”
White was quick and specialized as a pass protector, but was sometimes referred to as the strongest man in the NFL because he had won a number of arm-wrestling contests against other professional football players, including one sponsored by CBS in 1975 that earned him nationwide recognition for the feat.
Informally, his competitors included his Minnesota and San Diego teammates. In a more structured setting, he wrestled against a slate of NFL linemen like Curley Culp and Cedrick Hardman. In his final match of the 1975 championship, he wrestled against Joe DeLamielleure of the Buffalo Bills.
That strength has been his calling card, giving rise to stories about how he could rip phonebooks (what are those?) in half with his bare hands. Given that game-trackers like Dr. Z argue that White’s run-blocking has gone underrated in respect to his excellent pass-protection, that’s a minor curiosity—typically strong linemen are known for their skills in the run game.
Fouts might be the biggest supporter of Big Ed there is. When he isn’t calling White a genius for his mental acumen, he’s arguing for White’s inclusion into the Hall of Fame.
White almost certainly won’t get his due in a Hall of Fame debate, but it’s certainly worth recognizing his place among historically underrated Vikings.