Thursday, April 29, 2010

Edgerrin James: Two Great Tastes That Taste Like Anchovies and M&Ms Together

How much does a great quarterback need a great running back? The question comes up because teams have rarely been successful with HOFers at running back and quarterback. The exceptions over the last 50 years are the Dolphins, Steelers, Packers, and Cowboys, and with all of them, the HOF QBs were more famous as game managers and/or winners than record-setting passers. Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, and Bart Starr led the league in passing yards a combined zero times. They led the league in completions zero times. They led the league in TD passes three times and completion percentage five times -- which you'd expect from game managers -- but Johnny U. racked up nearly as many passing titles all by his lonesome. (The U also had a HOFer in his backfield, but Lenny Moore was as much a receiver as a running back, and in the Hall of Fame because of it, so he doesn't really count.) These QBs didn't need to throw the ball 40 times a game; they could hand it off 20 times to Larry Czonka and 20 times to Jim Taylor, and lob it to Lynn Swann or Michael Irvin as a change of pace. These QBs deserve to be in the HOF for holding all the pieces together; Lord knows there were plenty of QBs who folded like Bobby Petrino when presented with such an embarrassment of riches. (Not to name names, but: Scott Mitchell.)

In Brett Favre's case the line was that Adrian Peterson would make Brett Favre a better QB, and Favre did throw fewer balls to Hunter Hillenmeyer than in the past, but the end result was the same: the running back playing a secondary role in the big game and the QB tossing the ball in the vicinity of Ty Law or a Ty Law equivalent at the absolute worst possible moment.

That's not to say great QBs do not need good RBs -- John Elway profitted from having Terrell Davis in the backfield, and likewise with Joe Montana and Roger Craig -- but it's not essential to their success, and in some cases it merely complicates things. Brett Favre never had to ponder his options when Edgar Bennett was standing three yards behind him and Sterling Sharpe was split wide. Pitch the ball to BenJarvus Green-Ellis or throw it to Randy Moss? Hand it to Bill Belichick; he knows how to take some of the complexity out of the game.

This particular dynamic is especially interesting in the case of Edgerrin James and Peyton Manning. You'd think the Colts would have been better with Manning, James and Marvin Harrison all together, but they weren't. The individual pieces were all quite impressive but the whole wasn't, not ultimately, not when it really counted, and we wonder if it's not because when things got tight the one true path wasn't completely clear. Throw the ball or hand it off? Throw it or hand off? Throw hand or off it? The fact that Edgerrin James was good enough to put doubt in Peyton Manning's mind is all you need to know about his skills. That and he ran like a combination of Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith, which you just knew would eventually put him in a bad place, which it did, and it was Arizona, just like Emmitt. Eleventh all-time leading rusher; borderline HOFer.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jim Colclough: Home Is Where The Football Is


The Boston Patriots of the ‘60s were the last throwback to the old NFL — the really old NFL, the NFL of the Akron Pros and the Massilon Tigers. Not only were the Pats boring on offense and merely adequate on defense, but they were almost entirely comprised of locals, or guys like Gino Cappelletti and Babe Parilli and Nick Buoniconti who could have passed for locals. Defensive end Bob Dee and center Jon Morris came from Holy Cross. Dartmouth produced linebacker Don McKinnon. Quarterback Tom Yewcic played for the Red Sox, as had end Art Graham’s dad. Quarterback Butch Songin taught school in town. And Graham, Songin, defensive end Larry Eisenhauer, defensive back Ross O’Hanley, end Jim Whalen, and end Jim Colclough were products of Boston College. Everybody on the Patriots dropped R’s on certain words and added them to other words, and made sure their pro cards showed them in their college uniforms at least once. If the Pats could have found a way to get Ted Williams in cleats and pads they would have. They were even pronounced in their proclivities than the Minnesota Vikings of the ‘70s, who annually led the league in Slavic prairie linemen and Scandinavians from St. Cloud State.
           
Jim Colclough looked and caught passes like an accountant. He’s usually shown on cards regarding the ball like it was made out of red ink. But here — here he’s a high-school kid posing for his dad, the guy in the plaid slacks with the movie camera, the afternoon before the big game.
            
 Home is just across the field. And we’re having ham and scalloped potatoes for supper.

 -- From the original Football With 1 Stick Gum, 1999

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Pontiac Aztek: No Good Between The Tackles

Business Week's Web site has a feature on the 50 ugliest cars of all time. What business Business Week has dabbling in ugly cars is anyone's guess; it's a bit like Michael Jordan playing baseball or Linda Ronstadt singing opera. Go back to yammering about Goldman Sachs and leave the ugly cars to the experts, willya? Anyway, while many of their ugly-car choices were debatable (is a Bangle-era BMW 7-series really uglier than, say, a Geo Metro convertible, or merely more disappointing to Business Week readers?), they totally nailed the Pontiac Aztek. Then again, how could they miss? The Aztek is to ugly cars what acne wash is to Jessica Simpson -- something so indisputably obvious that it beggars mention. It was the only car to take its styling cues from Civil War gun emplacements. It looked rugged but had the toughness of a schaum torte, though in its defense it drove like a WWI tank -- quite capable at a walking pace, but watch out for the cordite fumes. It was only really suitable for two things: serving as a mobile geometry lab, and camping in places where a tent was too compact and a tow-behind camper too practical.

Talking about the Aztek and other ugly cars with autotrader.com's John Seals got me thinking: What was the Pontiac Aztek of modern running backs -- the running back that was simultaneously ugly as an elementary-school Kardashian and as poor-performing? The answer came to me in less time than it takes an Aztek to go from 0 to 0.3: Franco Harris with the Seattle Seahawks. The bird on the helmet? Quasi-Aztec, with a pointy grille. The physique? Angular and imposing. The performance? Capable at a walking pace, but watch out for the cordite fumes.

The 1984-model Franco Harris was perhaps the most pitiful great running back ever. He ran at a shallow angle between his position in the backfield and the sidelines and shied from tacklers as adroitly as the Dukes of Hazzard running a police blockade. His running position was still as upright as a UPS truck, but the V-8 under the hood had been replaced by a four-banger lifted from a Chevette. He was in it for the numbers, and it showed, and it was sorry.

But Franco Harris was just the first-gen Aztek. There were other Azteks to come, Infiniti FXs and Dodge Calibers. Harris was followed by the remains of Curt Warner, which were followed by the pantomime Chris Warren, who was succeeded by the former Edgerrin James. The Seahawks attracted blown-out running backs the way junkyards attract Tauruses, and they all ran the same way -- like a cartoon Wile B. Coyote in midair, futilely postponing gravity.

Of course, post-Aztek Pontiac was the pitiful one, and even an inspired G8 couldn't save it. The Greek chorus of Seahawk runners could have told you Pontiac was done for. They had already pointed the way to the underworld.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mickey Slaughter: Oh, The Carnage

The Denver Broncos' quarterbacks of the mid-'60s were so horrible Topps felt compelled to issue cards of all of them. There was John McCormick, who came over to the AFL from the Minnesota Vikings, had two great games, hurt his knee, and was never able to do anything more, quarterback-wise, than pose for cards peering down an imaginary field. (What would he be thinking in a situation like that? "Boy, since I'm totally immobile I'm glad this is just pretend"? "Boy, I'm glad the worst offensive line in pro football is playing in front of that other guy"?) There was Jacky Lee, who took time out from being the backup to Don Trull — who, experts agree, is being groomed to one day be one of the fine quarterbacks in this league — to be the backup in Denver for a season. There were Max Choboian and Scotty Glacken, who really were too awful to even be shown on a football card. There was Tobin Rote, who was 70 when he wound up his career with the Broncos in 1966. And there was the aptly named Mickey Slaughter, who, as you can tell from his card, liked to bowl. "Mickey has all the leadership abilities to be one of the greats in football," his card back read. Maybe so. But he was playing for the Broncos.
-- From the original Football With 1 Stick Gum, 1999.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pete Gogolak: Better Than Blackpool

Not just anyone can write Football With 1 Stick Gum – with a straight face, anyway. You gotta be qualified. Among my more unusual qualifications is that I accompanied the U.S. National Semipro Football team to Blackpool, England, as assistant general manager. It wasn’t just rolling out the balls, either. I had to drive. A stick-shift car with the stick in my left hand and the steering wheel in my right, and the driver’s side where the passenger’s side ought to be. In London. Trying to find Wembley Stadium. Which no one, in those pre-Mapquest days, could find. And I had to shepherd Lucky Jim, who swore he could drive a stick and drove 12 miles out of Heathrow without once shifting into second. They towed the car, and we went back for Lucky Jim and his mates. It was later he broke ribs running into the hotel staircase, and never played a down on the trip.

My mentor in this endeavor was my ad manager at the time, a fellow named John Guy. John talked like The Great Gildersleeve and looked like a Bozo the Clown Rock 'n' Bop and had a career ambition of owning a 10,000-watt AM station in Odessa, Texas.

John was, in many ways, a match for his charges. I remember one linebacker in particular who believed it was perfectly acceptable to take a passport picture with an Instamatic camera in your backyard, in front of a tree, with your cat. He never made it out of the country.

A word about Blackpool before I move on. Blackpool is an English resort town. As a sentence, this is the equivalent of saying “Lady Gaga is beautiful.” You know that under the pushups, powder and paste is a walnut. And not one of your cuter walnuts. The temperature never got above 50, the wind howled like Yoko, and it seemed that every other storefront was selling something they claimed was rock candy but I’m sure was crystal meth. That’s the only way anyone could have gotten a holiday out of the place.

The kicker on that trip was a 55-year-old Yugoslavian who claimed to have taught Pete Gogolak how to kick a football soccer-style. The Yugoslavian’s story sounded convincing despite the fact that Gogolak is Hungarian and he wasn’t, but it was late at night and the cider is mighty strong over there. In his defense, the Yugoslavian did have a trick were he would line up 10 footballs on tees and kick them one after the other, with the object being to kick the 10th through the uprights while the first was passing over the bar. He pulled it off with the surety and slick patter of someone who has kept 10 footballs in the air more than once, and his continental arrogance about this and other things began to bug the team after a while. In response, the members of the extra-point squad decided to lay down instead of block on an extra point after the team was comfortably ahead, which in the case of this game (like most of the games over there) was early in the second quarter. The linemen took it a step further by telling the opposing linemen, “Hey, we’re going to lay down on the extra point. Get in there and knock that kick back in that idiot’s face,” or somesuch. When the ball was snapped and the linemen hit the deck there was a split second of incredulity followed by several moments of lyric poetry that could only be matched by Van Morrison scat-singing WWE results. The British American footballers performed their duties with √©lan and then some, as the block actually spurred a brief rally on the Brits’ part. The Americans took the game by 10 points, give or take, and all except the Yugoslavian agreed a close game was a small price to pay for the satisfaction.

In the Bills' championship year of 1965 Jack Kemp was the AFL's MVP, despite not leading the league in a single statistical category. In fact, the Bills' offense was pretty awful that year. It was seventh in team passing, which is understandable given the Buffalo climate and the Buffalo pass-catchers, the best of which was either the speedster Elbert Dubenion or ex-CFL tight end Ernie Warlick. MVP Jack Kemp chipped in with 13 TD passes and 24 interceptions. The rushing offense wasn't much of a panacea, either, finishing sixth in the league, averaging 3.3 yards per carry and fumbling away the ball 28 times. So how'd the Bills do it? Defense and astonishing kicking. The Bills D allowed four rushing touchdowns all year, and only 226 points in 14 games. Punter Paul Maguire averaged 43 yards per punt; try that sometime in a Buffalo winter. (To put it in perspective, the supposed king of winter punting, the Packers' Don Chandler, averaged 42.9 yards/punt in '65.) And not only was Pete Gogolak perfect on all his extra-point tries (as was every other kicker in the league), but he kicked eight more field goals than anyone else. Twenty-four points to a team that gives up a rushing touchdown every fourth game would seem to be immense, but if Gogolak kicks 10 fewer field goals the Bills go 9-5 and still win it all. If he doesn't kick a single field goal the Bills still win it all; that's how bad the AFL's Eastern Division was that year. That doesn't diminish Gogolak's accomplishments; he was a phenom. He just happened to play for a team that didn't need one.

The question of how quickly an AFL-less NFL would have caught on to soccer-style kickers is moot. Gogolak was kicking footballs in college, as was his brother. College-football innovations migrated quickly to the pros in those days. At best Gogolak sped up the process by two or three years. Had there been no Gogolak and no AFL there would have been Jan Stenerud in 1967. He was simply too good to ignore.

Friday, April 23, 2010

YouTube Link

Here's that link to my appearance on The Lindy Infante Show, talking about football cards:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-5spT3dhzg

Enjoy.

Sammy Baugh: Thoroughly Modern Quarterback

A couple of years back Sports Illustrated did a great photo spread in its football-kickoff issue where it paired up current stars with former greats. The centerpiece was this wonderful picture of Sammy Baugh chatting up Peyton Manning at Baugh’s ranch in Texas. It was the perfect pairing in so many ways because Baugh was the model for the modern quarterback, and Manning was the model modern quarterback.

The thing people don’t get about Baugh, though, is why he’s the model for the modern quarterback. To do that we have to go to the numbers, and include league averages in addition to Baugh’s numbers.

Year
Cmp
LgAvg
Att
LgAvg
Cmp%
Lg Avg
Yds
LgAvg
TD
LgAvg
Yds/Cmp
LgAvg
81
69.7
171
181.5
47.4
38.4
1127
1023
8
9
13.9
14.7
63
82.4
128
203
49.2
40.6
853
1164
5
9.3
13.5
14.1
53
95.2
96
223.8
55.2
42.5
518
1417
6
9.9
9.8
14.9
111
96.8
177
225.4
62.7
42.9
1367
1379
12
10
12.3
14.2
106
97.8
193
221
54.9
44.3
1236
1340
10
9.9
11.7
13.7
132
98.6
225
224.9
58.7
43.8
1524
1361
16
10.8
11.5
13.8
133
76.9
239
173.2
55.6
44.4
1754
1131
23
11.4
13.2
14.7
82
82.4
146
192.2
56.2
42.9
849
1175
4
10.6
10.4
14.3
128
96.1
182
210.7
70.3
45.6
1669
1438
11
10.9
13.0
15.0
87
104.9
161
234.1
54
44.8
1163
1574
8
12.6
13.4
15.0
210
140.6
354
299.1
59.3
47
2938
2167
25
18.8
14.0
15.4
185
149.8
315
311.6
58.7
48.1
2599
2087
22
19.6
14.0
13.9
145
152.7
255
327.5
56.9
46.6
1903
1932
18
16.8
13.1
12.7
90
154.5
166
331.3
54.2
46.6
1130
1989
10
16.9
12.6
12.9
67
150.8
154
323.4
43.5
354
1104
1953
7
16.7
16.5
13.0
20
155.3
33
335.3
60.6
54.5
152
1919
2
18.2
7.6
12.4

The numbers show a very good record, but not exactly the record you might have expected for an epochal quarterback: five times leading the league in completions, four times leading in attempts, four times leading in yards, and twice leading in TD passes. Good, but Ken Anderson stuff, really.

Okay, now look at the completion percentage. Baugh led the league in completion percentage nine times. Now look at the yards per completion: Below the league average every year but two.

You get it now? Baugh, western-movie career notwithstanding, was not only not a gunslinger, he was the antithesis of a gunslinger. All the other top quarterbacks in the league through the Baugh years were gunslingers – Luckman, Herber, Waterfield, Van Brocklin – but Baugh was a game manager. Baugh ran an offense that was predicated on completing more shorter passes, going for doubles instead of home runs. It’s not that he was against the long ball or the TD pass; it was simply not the reason why he passed the ball. He passed because it was more effective than running – c.f., Peyton Manning.

This is the sort of stuff that gets buried. More has been made of the fact that Baugh is the only player to win a passing crown, a punting crown, and an interception title, but it’s a crackerjack record. Baugh won his interception title during the war years, when he was a glorified center fielder picking off the likes of Buss Warren, and balls were much easier to punt back then. It’s the passing that’s impressive, and it’s impressive because he was behind the league, not in front. Peyton Manning and every other purveyor of a pass-first ball-control offense ought to tip his hat in the direction of TCU before they take the field.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tom Wham: What's in a name?

While I figure out how to upload my appearance on The Lindy Infante Show, consider Tom Wham. Tom Wham was to football what Lake Speed is to racing or Josh Outman is to pitching. The only thing better would be a candidate (not Trung Canidate) named Rezi President or Wendy Senator. Only a three-year career; Wham quit at its peak because there was no money in it, though the oomph factor wanes with a beer distributor named Tom Wham.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tucker Fredrickson: You Keep Me Hangin' On

The closest thing football had to the collapse of the New York Yankees in the 1960s was the collapse of the New York Giants. Both teams got old in a hurry, and fat and complacent in the front office, and both teams wrongly assumed that their youngsters would pick up where the old greats had left off. But Steve Whitaker was no Mickey Mantle. Jake Gibbs was no Yogi Berra. Bookie Bolin was no Roosevelt Taylor. Ed Weisacosky was no Sam Huff. Gary Wood was no Y.A. Tittle. Joe Don Looney was no Alex Webster. And Tucker Frederickson was definitely no Frank Gifford.

Frederickson might have been Frank Gifford. He was the Giants' first-round draft pick in 1965, and celebrated the occasion, as he celebrated every major event in his pro career, by injuring his knee. Frederickson annually led the league in knee injuries, though Tommy Nobis would usually put up a good fight for the title. Tucker got cut on and sewed up and cleaned out and sewed up again and opened up and sewed up again, until by the end of his career he was moving as fast as a Vanilla Fudge song. When the Yankees dived in 1966 and the Giants fell to 1-12-1, Yankee Stadium was like a tomb, and all the spoiled fans of the two teams were plunged into silence. And I, for one, thought it was keen.

Peyton Manning a/k/a Pey da Man

You can put an eye out arguing who’s the best Colts QB ever, Peyton Manning or Johnny Unitas, and you’ll get nowhere because the argument winds up at the Ground Zero of whether it’s better to be the guy who thinks up the stuff or the guy who took what the other guy thought up and made it better. Henry Ford versus Enzo Ferrari. Leo Fender versus Paul Reed Smith. Thomas Watson versus Steve Jobs. Woody Guthrie versus Bob Dylan. Johnny U. redefined down-the-field passing, and he was a winner, but Pey da Man took the U’s foundation and built the Great Pyramid of Cheops over the top. The U and the Man have played almost the same number of games, and ended the 2009 season with the same number of career wins, but Manning has thrown for 11,000 more yards with 80 fewer interceptions. Don't start with the yeah-but-those-were-different-times-and-Johnny-U.-called-his-own-plays-so-how-about-that-punk shtick, because Manning changes 80 percent of the play calls at the line in the most annoyingly obvious manner possible, and if that's not Ray Noble writing "Cherokee" it's Charlie Parker coming up with a million riffs off of the changes to "Cherokee."

It’s really no clearer when you head down to the intangibles. The U has weird hair. Manning has none to speak of. Neither one is exactly hunkalicious; do you prefer bowlers or paperboys? Unitas has an annoying son; Manning isn’t waiting around for the next generation, and then there’s Eli. Both did their best work for HOF coaches. Both had HOFers to throw to. Both wear high-tops. Both appeared on cereal boxes. Both have the mobility of a Doric column.

So who’s better again? I asked this question to Jim McLauchlin, the co-author of Jim and Kit’s Big Book of Football Lineups, and he replied, “The torch-pass of QBs pretty much goes Baugh-Graham-Unitas-Tarkenton-Marino-Favre-Manning, to my mind, so both are definitely in the mix. I'd call it a coin flip at this point, and either side a winner. That said, and with Marvin Harrison's gun to my head: Manning."

I suppose. But Marvin Harrison’s gun would have to be pretty damn big.

About Football With 1 Stick Gum

"Football With 1 Stick Gum" is what the old packs of football cards used to read, when gum came with football cards and football cards were just something kids bought with their spare nickels.

Whether they meant to or not, those cards celebrated football players, and this blog is in that spirit. Every day or two, myself and a few friends will celebrate (or not) a football player with a tribute culled, trimmed and reworked from one of two book projects: the original Football With 1 Stick Gum or Jim and Kit's Big Book of Football Lineups. It's my hope that you'll like the tributes enough to want to buy the books. At the very least, I hope you like the tributes enough to want to read more tributes.

If that's the case, let me know. I'll be right here writing ... and researching ... and trying to get my teeth around that goldarn gum.

-- Kit Kiefer a/k/a the Potato Phantom