Thursday, May 27, 2010

Of Duos, Trios, And Would Joe Buck Please Shut Up?

One of the most persistent clichés in sports is the Dynamic Duo -- you know, Tinker to Chance. Nary a broadcast goes by without some ham-voiced slobberamus obsessed with the banishment of silence (nature abhors a vacuum, and so does Joe Buck) using the Double-D term to describe a pitch and a catch, a catch and a throw, a throw and a catch, a pass and a shot, a tackle, a block and a pass, back-to-back base hits, two legs of a relay, or, accompanied by a hearty guffaw, themselves. The term gets thrown around so much you’d swear sports teams are nothing but collections of superheroes and sidekicks, waiting for their chance to drop a smoke bomb on the Penguin’s umbrella.

Sorry to disappoint, but the truly dynamic genuine duo is about as hard to find in sports as a low-key sportscaster. Hockey absolutely lacks duos. They think in lines of three, and if there were two great defensemen teamed up you’d never hear about it, unless they scored like forwards, and then all you’d hear is they never play any defense. Tough life, that.

The sport where duos most often proliferate is, believe it or not, basketball, where two players hogging the action is just the stuff for a dynasty. Jordan and Pippen, Cousy and Russell, Magic and Kareem, Malone and Stockton, Kobe and Shaq – it seems to work in basketball.

It works much less well in baseball, even though pitchers and catchers would seem to be a natural for D-duo status. Alas, it ain’t necessarily so. Johnny Bench caught Tom Seaver when they were off their primes. That goes double for Carlton Fisk and Seaver. Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux never threw to an HOF catcher. Gary Carter, Gabby Hartnett, Roy Campanella? No pitchers to match. Catfood Hunter, Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan? Their catchers never measured up (though time may call Ryan-to-Rodriguez one of the best ever, know now that it wasn’t so back when it was actually happening). It may have been Spahn and Sain and pray for rain, but it mattered little that Walker Cooper was doing the catching.

For true HOF-to-HOF pitching and catching the ranks are slim. Yogi Berra caught Whitey Ford, but their teamup was hardly one for the ages. Same with the Yankee battery of 20 years previous, Lefty Gomez and Bill Dickey, or their contemporary, Ted Lyons and Rick Ferrell. Pettitte to Posada is eventually going to be an HOF battery, truth be damned, but even Tim McCarver at his Yankee-besotted worst could pick out three batteries at any stage of the P-Boys’ career that was better. (Right now: Lincecum to Molina, Beckett or Lester or Dice-K to Martinez, Jimenez to Ianetta. And for the bonus round: Mauer to anyone. And coming soon: Strasburg to Pudge.)

The best battery ever may have been Lefty Grove and Mickey Cochrane. Everyone at the time knew it, and they still know it. Grove won 195 games in nine seasons with Cochrane behind the dish, and that’ll do.

Since this is a football column, let’s head back to the gridiron. The football equivalent of the pitcher and catcher is, of course, the QB and the wide receiver. And while the odds are definitely in favor of a HOF WR having been thrown to by a HOF QB, it’s by no means universal:

Receiver Years QB 1 QB 2 QB 3 QB 4 QB 5
Lance Alworth 1962-1972 Hadl Staubach*

Fred Biletnikoff 1965-1978 Stabler Blanda* Lamonica Flores
Crazylegs Hirsch 1946-1956 Waterfield* Van Brocklin*

Steve Largent 1976-1989 Krieg Zorn

James Lofton 1978-1993 Dickey Gannon Kelly*

Don Maynard 1958, 1960-1973 Namath*

Tommy McDonald 1957-1968 Van Brocklin* Meredith Gabriel Berry Phipps
Paul Warfield 1964-1977 Griese* Nelsen Ryan

Charlie Joiner 1969-1986 Fouts* Pastorini Dickey Anderson Johnson
Art Monk 1980-1995 Rypien Shuler Williams

Raymond Berry 1955-1967 Unitas*

Tom Fears 1948-1956 Waterfield* Van Brocklin*

John Stallworth 1974-1987 Bradshaw* Gilliam Tomczak

Lynn Swann 1974-1982 Bradshaw* Gilliam Tomczak

Pete Pihos 1947-1955 Thomason Burk

Charley Taylor 1964-1975, 1977 Jurgensen* Kilmer

Dante Lavelli 1946-1956 Graham*

Jerry Rice 1985-2000 Young* Montana*

Michael Irvin 1988-1999 Aikman*

Bob Hayes 1965-1975 Meredith Staubach*

Don Hutson 1935-1945 Herber* Isbell

Red Badgro 1927, 1930-1936 Danowski McBride Newman

Bill Hewitt 1932-1939, 1943 Brumbaugh O'Brien

Wayne Millner 1936-1941 Baugh*

Roughly 15 times out of 24, or 62.5 percent of the time, an HOF WR is paired with an HOF QB for the bulk of his career. You can add to that list Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Marvin Harrison, and Randy Moss, and depending on Kurt Warner and where you place the breaks in Moss’ career every one of them will have played for an HOF QB. It may be that in the current game only the receivers of great QBs are HOF material – and it certainly works the other way: If you’re an HOF QB wannabe you darn well better have some quality targets. (cf. Kurt Warner. Bad targets = bad years.)

This whole argument takes a sharp right turn when you add in a second receiver, and move the dynamic-duo designation away from the QB and spread it over two WRs. Now you’re talking rare. As the ongoing struggle to pair Terrell Owens with anyone clearly shows, putting two great WRs on the same field is like building a house out of magnets placed north-pole-to-north-pole. Pretty soon the whole thing is going to fly apart, and someone’s gonna put an eye out. No wonder Donovan McNabb cried in the huddle. T.O. does that to people.

The current HOF list shows two WR pairs: Fears and Hirsch, and Swann and Stallworth. The list swells to three with the addition of Bobby Mitchell and Charley Taylor. Fears and Hirsch were worthy, Swann and Stallworth less so, and Fears and Hirsch were thrown to equally by two HOF QBs (which I guarantee will never happen again), but housekeeping issues aside, you can see that two really great WRs on the same team at the same time for a long time is a truly unusual and special thing.

Okay, now add to the list Bruce and Holt, two probable HOFers, and acknowledge that Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson were a heck of a pair, but not so much Jack Snow and Harold Jackson. (As time goes by you realize there weren’t too many offenses more overrated than the Rams of the ‘60s, and Roman Gabriel and Jack Snow in particular. Photogenic, yes. Productive, no.) Get the impression that the Rams, like few other teams, have been able to manage multiple great WRs on the field?

The only why I can come up with to explain what the Rams did and why it worked is this: The Rams usually had at least one good running back on the field at the same time. They were pass-first teams with dangerous running attacks. And you could say almost the same thing, less the “pass-first” line, about Chuck Noll’s Steelers. (Bill McPeak’s Redskins? No.)

Maybe it’s a reason. Maybe it’s no reason at all. And there’s no real lesson here, since it’s impossible to tell what influences what. Get a great QB and a powerful running attack, and pass the ball a lot, and your WRs will be HOFers? Not necessarily. Get two great WRs and a great QB and you’ll be able to run the ball? Uh, no. Assemble two great WRs and a great RB, and you’re liable to wind up with an HOF QB in the deal? Possibly. It’s just interesting, that’s all, and sometimes interesting is all you get. And if Joe Buck would keep his big yap shut for just a second maybe we could concentrate more on this stuff.

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