Thursday, October 14, 2010

Greatness By Committee

There’s a book called The Pro Football Abstract that purports to do what The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract does – and not only does it purport, it pretty much moves well beyond the purporting stage to the purloining stage, right down to aping the breakout boxes.

It’s not a bad read, but the author’s biases show through like a panty line in the days before Underalls.

He boots Gino Marchetti down the stairs by saying that while Marchetti was the first modern defensive end, he was far from the best. There are a bushel-basket of barrier-breaking athletes you can knock from their perches if you take that approach. Don Hutson. Sammy Baugh. Bill George. Bob Cousy. Bobby Orr. Bruce Sutter. Babe Ruth. Joe DiMaggio was just Carl Crawford with slick hair, if you want to play that game.

John Sandusky, who was coaching the Colts’ defensive line at the time, didn’t coach Gino Marchetti any differently or scheme with him any differently than he did with Don Joyce or Jim Mutscheller or any of the others. But only Gino Marchetti became Gino Marchetti. Only Gino Marchetti became the first. Only Gino Marchetti leapfrogged O-linemen and scared the prunes out of Milt Plum. And if he was eating up Lou Groza and Forrest Gregg and the rest, as the testimony shows he was, then he must have been pretty special. More special than Bruce Smith? At least as special as Bruce Smith.

The author also uses this sort of logic in reverse and plays favorites. He ranks Gene Hickerson third all-time among guards on the premise that the Browns ran the ball well in part because Jim Brown was carrying it and in part because Hickerson was leading the way.

Well, Hickerson was the first southern guard to pull out in front of a HOF running back with a monosyllabic last name, but he was far from the best. (See?) And seriously, while the numbers do show that the Browns were a great running team, the numbers also show that the Browns were a great running team not only before Hickerson cracked the starting lineup but also after, when it was Doug Dieken, Pete Adams, Bob DeMarco, John Demarie, and Gerry Sullivan leading the way. In fact, once Forrest Gregg got his system in place in the mid-‘70s, they were actually a better running team than they had been in Hickerson’s last five years, when he was a Hall of Fame guard leading the way for HOF running back Leroy Kelly.

What was the difference? The Browns transitioned from a scheme where one back did almost all the running to one where carries were shared. From 1960 to 1980 the Browns averaged 2,000 yards rushing a season. However, those yards were divvied up far differently in the ‘70s than they were in the ‘60s.

Instead of Jim Brown getting 80 percent of the work Greg Pruitt, Bo Scott, Leroy Kelly, and Ken Brown all took a hack at it. And it really didn’t matter who blocked. The Browns got their yards anyway.

Gene Hickerson – and by association, Dick Schafrath – benefitted from being very good players in a scheme calculated to net 2,000 rushing yards every year. After Otto Graham retired, the Browns’ success hinged on the passing game. A good passing year for the Browns’ QBs meant a good year for the Browns. Those incremental passing yards made the difference. And there at last you can’t say Hickerson or Schafrath made a difference.

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