As teams square off on the opening weekend of the new NFL season, one thing is certain: The players on defense for many teams will include Sam, Mike, and Will. And they might be joined by Jack and Leo.
These aren’t the names of actual players—or if they are, it’s only a coincidence. Rather, it’s the result of a perplexing system of naming defensive positions that has accrued over the years among coaches and players, leaving less-savvy fans scratching their heads. The names are a testament to the game’s constant evolution, and how, as new elaborations on old formations and plays arise, it can require a special lingo to make sense of it all.
This peculiar type of renaming doesn’t seem to take place in other major sports, says National Public Radio correspondent Mike Pesca. “Sure, in baseball there are nicknames for guys like the LOOGYs (lefty one-out guys), but their position is ‘relief pitcher.’ In basketball, there are slashing forwards, shooting forwards, power forwards, and point forwards, but they’re forwards,” Pesca pointed out to me. “Yet football has this need to rename.”
The names, for the most part, are formed by simple alliteration—arbitrary mnemonics for coaches referring to positions by their initial letters. Thus, when the defense is arrayed in a 4-3 alignment, with four linemen on the line of scrimmage and three linebackers behind them, the strong-side linebacker is dubbed “Sam,” the middle linebacker is “Mike,” and the weak-side linebacker is “Will.”
“Leo” is a relatively new defensive role, a hybrid position that is not quite a defensive end and not quite a linebacker. Befitting its “tweener” status, the name “Leo” contains the “L” of “linebacker” and the “E” of “end.” The position has also been called “Elephant,” with the “E” and “L” in reverse order.
“Jack,” too, refers to a linebacker/end hybrid, but it has no alphabetical rationale. “The name for the versatile job comes from ‘jack of all trades,’” explained Omar Kelly, NFL beat reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, in a 2007 article. “The purpose is for the Jack’s true assignment to be hidden until the ball’s snapped, with the hope opposing offenses will be confused.”
Where did this welter of names come from? The earliest examples I’ve found are decidedly less manly than today’s Sam, Mike, and Will. It was Tom Landry who pioneered the 4-3 defense as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in the late 1950s, before going on to coach the Dallas Cowboys. For the strong-side, middle, and weak-side linebackers, Landry used women’s names: Sarah, Meg, and Wanda.
Giants linebacker Harland Svare explained Landry’s system to The New York Times in November 1957. “Sometimes we want the weak-side linebacker to crash so we call Blitz Wanda,” Svare said. “If it’s the strong-side linebacker’s job we call Blitz Sarah. You understand. W is for weak side, and S is for strong side.”
Life Magazine had some fun with this gender play in its Dec. 14, 1959, issue, running a photo spread of the three burly Giants linebackers signed with corresponding code names: “Faithfully, Wanda,” “Constantly, Meg,” and “Devotedly, Sarah.” The article didn’t actually explain the mnemonic role of the names, but then, as Michael Oriard wrote in his book “King Football,” “the incongruity of feminine names for hypermasculine football players was the real point.”
In this respect Landry’s naming system resembled one far away from American football, both geographically and culturally. In South Africa, a gay slang lexicon known as Gayle has historically relied on women’s names as an alliterative code. Ken Cage’s 2003 study of Gayle lists dozens of examples, such as “Dora” for “drunk,” “Priscilla” for “policeman,” and “Frieda” or “Fiona” for “frustrated.”
Closer to home, men’s given names have served a slangy purpose for identifying directions: “hang a Louie” has meant “turn left” since at least the ’60s, while “right” is sometimes coded as “Ralph” (or “Roscoe”) and “straight” as “Sam.” Illegal drugs, too, get the alliterative treatment: cocaine has been known as “Charlie,” “Cecil,” or “Corrine,” and heroin as “Harry,” “Henry,” or “Helen,” according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang.
In the US military, the “Alfa Bravo Charlie” alphabet used for spelling out words over noisy lines of communication has encouraged similar alphabetical slang. In the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong, or V.C., were identified as “Victor Charlie,” which led American soldiers to nickname their opposite numbers “Charlie.”
In covert slang, as in street names for drugs, these substitutions can conceal meaning from authority figures. For the military, on the other hand, the spelling alphabet is intended to make language clearer. In football, too, the point of the names, despite confusing outsiders, is to ease team communication. Coaches draw up diagrams in their playbooks with letters signifying the different players’ positions, and the shorthand names then make it easier for players to remember and call them out.
Coaches tend to develop their own idiosyncratic systems, but “Sam,” “Mike,” and “Will” have, since the 1990s, become accepted by most teams playing 4-3 defense (“Mike” is sometimes called “Mack”). The names have even found their way onto some teams’ official Web pages listing player positions. But what happens if, say, first-year New England Patriots linebacker Mike Rivera isn’t a “Mike,” but a “Sam” or a “Will”? A return to the days of Sarah, Meg, and Wanda would solve that problem. But in football these days, masculinity comes at the price of a little ambiguity.Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at