Sunday, May 30, 2010

Marlin McKeever, The End Who Catches Passes Like A Linebacker

The backs of Marlin McKeever's cards say that he was switched from linebacker to tight end after three years in the league, and actually was the Rams' leading receiver one year. Maybe so, but if he tried to catch every pass like that he probably drove Roman Gabriel crazy. Hey, Marlin! The fingertips, Marlin! Catch it on the fingertips!
-- From the original Football With 1 Stick Gum, 1999

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.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sid Luckman, Who Smells Worse Than Brian Urlacher (Now)

You always hear about the guys hurt by World War II, and not just from the shelling and carnage and such but by not being able to play sports one's allotted number of years. Explain that to Nile Kinnick, and then return to consider the players who were helped by staying stateside and ringing up four years of 4-Fs. Baseball cites Hal Newhouser as the textbook example -- except some of his best years were 1946-48, when all teams were at full strength, though perhaps not entirely accustomed to a wicked 12-6 curveball being thrown by a mean man.

In the NFL, Baugh, Hutson and Isbell all got a bump from the war, but perhaps no one was bumped higher than Sid Luckman. It's not that Luckman was a bad quarterback pre-war; he was All-Pro twice in three years, and the Bears won titles in those years, in part because Luckman's supporting cast included five Hall of Famers, four of them in the line. They could have stuck Amos Alonzo Stagg behind that line, put welder's goggles on him, spun him around a couple of times, and he still would have had time to shake out the cobwebs and hit Pudge Heffelfinger streaking down the sideline.

To say Luckman thrived during the war is like saying Lockheed came out okay on the deal; he led the league in some sort of passing every year but 1942 -- and the Bears were undefeated that year. He was also a a reasonably talented punter and a hell of a defensive center fielder even though most of the contemporary photos make him look like Sonny Jurgensen in wool. In retrospect, Luckman was like the Bears' equivalent of a victory garden, or Rosie the Riveter; the war placed a premium on players who could fill multiple roles, and Luckman had to fill multiple roles because of the war. The fact that he filled them about as well as Baugh or Hutson makes him a first-line HOFer.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Take A Number, Brian Urlacher

While Brian Urlacher singlehandedly takes on the Bears' tradition, even calling out Sid Luckman from beyond the grave to go toe-to-toe and decide who smells better, he really oughta chew on this: Brian Urlacher is the fourth-best middle linebacker in Bears' history tops. He may be down as low as eighth, depending on your flexibility and sense of history.

Let's just all calm down and think about this for a second. Who's he gonna beat out: Bill George, who invented the position -- and, yes Brian, he won a championship? Dick Butkus, who dominated the position the way a pit bull dominates a dog park, championship or no? Mike Singletary, who turned his back on a lucrative career in spoon-bending and instead brought his unrelenting intensity to the middle of one of the best defenses ever -- a defense which practically won a Super Bowl unassisted? Right. How about one of the big HOFers who played the position back when it was more of a middle guard? Brian Urlacher better than Bulldog Turner? Better than George Trafton? Better than Link Lyman? And all those guys won more championships than Brian Urlacher has had injury-free seasons.

Urlacher was an irresistible combination of speed and aggressiveness his first few years in the league and has become way more resistible over time. I'm sure he'd like to think he's a sure HOFer, and one of the top 50 linebackers ever, but his closest career comps according to Pro Football Reference are Greg Lloyd and Pat Swilling, and their HOF bandwagons still have training wheels. At best -- at best -- Urlacher is Zach Thomas with better recall. But what Urlacher needs to recall, and the sooner the better, is that about a dozen of the linebackers better than him are Bears. And always will be.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Butch Byrd: C'mon, Get Pass-Happy

There’s a whole spiel in the book that talks about the weaknesses of the American Football League, and why at least some of the players from that delightful side of the aisle weren’t quite as good as we’ve been led to believe. However, a little of the opposite is true, too: Accomplishments of AFL defensive backs are of at least equal merit to their NFL counterparts because the AFL threw the ball more, and to better receivers.

In the AFL the line of demarcation between the good teams and the bad was their ability to stop the other team's passing attack. Every AFL team had at least one highly talented wide receiver, running backs that could catch the ball, and quarterbacks who would throw the ball to them or anyone else with the same promiscuous equanimity displayed by David Letterman toward his female staffers. As a result you had these astounding numbers of average annual passing and rushing attempts by league through the ‘60s:

Year                                         AFL                                                        NFL
                           Average Team          Average Team       Average Team        Average Team
                         Passing Attempts  Rushing Attempts  Passing Attempts   Rushing Attempts
1960                          462.4                      423.9                     316.5                         391.6
1961                          457.8                      402.3                     378                            436
1962                          432                         410.6                    382.6                          433.1
1963                          442.4                      383.3                    386.8                          436.6
1964                          468.8                      389.1                    388.4                          434.3
1965                          456.5                      400.4                    386.2                          430.8
1966                          442.4                      405.3                    402.2                          433.9
1967                          430.9                      412.2                    403.2                          424.3
1968                          403.7                      443.5                   374.8                           441.2

The AFL became less pass-happy, less entertaining, and generally more like the NFL after the merger was announced, better running backs came into the league, and the AFL’s expansion teams decided to run more to limit the carnage. Mike Garrett and Floyd Little trumped Charley Tolar and Wray Carlton, and Virgil Carter and George Wilson Jr. were no George Blanda and Babe Parilli.

The point here is if the experts say Butch Byrd was one of the AFL’s best cornerbacks, and you could stick him out there on anyone from Don Maynard to Lance Alworth and he would at least keep it close, that’s almost more impressive than Herb Adderley putting the clamps on Paul Flatley and Billy Gambrell week-in week-out. That’s not saying Byrd was better, but Byrd had to be better.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Don Maynard: You Sure?

So how good was Don Maynard really? He had a gunslingin' HOF QB throwing his way, yet he was only a first-team All-AFL pick once, never all-NFL anything, and only a four-time AFL All-Star. He wasn't Ray Berry, Rapid Robert Hayes or even Ray Renfro. In fact, through most of Maynard's best years he wasn't even the best wide receiver on his team. George Sauer was a four-time AFL All-Star and a first-team All-AFL pick twice before walking away from the game after six years to wear a turtleneck and channel Tom Wolfe.

On the other hand, Maynard was rockin' it out in NYC and was the twanging Texas Gary Cooper to Joe Namath's 'Bama-bred Cary Grant, and that -- not the Al Dorow years or sheer production -- got him his HOF bust, though he was clearly inferior to Sauer when the two played together. Maynard had speed and hands but was not a disciplined route-runner. Sauer had speed and hands and ran routes. Maynard was good and exceptionally durable but clearly not great. In that respect he resembles Harold Jackson or Isaac Curtis, two receivers who are close to the Hall of Fame but not in, and not likely to get in. 

There are lots of players who are victims of circumstance, and then there are players circumstance smiles upon. Don Maynard is one of those.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bobby Layne: T And Sympathy

The problem with the Detroit Lions over the years really starts with Bobby Layne. Okay, you think, Bobby Layne's a HOFer, he drank some, he was supposedly a hell of a leader; where's the problem? Ratch ear, as they say down around Tomball: Layne had the guts of a Green Beret but the arm of a Little Leaguer, he was a woefully inefficient passer, he's in the Hall of Fame on T (for Texas) and Sympathy as opposed to numbers of any kind, and while all that's okay, Layne is as good as Detroit Lion quarterbacks ever got.

In the '60s, when the defense was solid as the engine block on a Super Bee, the Lions trotted out Jim Ninowski, Earl Morrall, and Milt Plum, the rottenest trio of QBs to lead a winning team in the decade. When the Lions finally cobbled together some semblance of a running game the best of the quarterbacks, the absolute best, was Greg Landry. Otherwise it was Bill Munson, Scott Mitchell, Andre Ware, Eric Hipple, and other assorted mediocrities. And it continues to this day. Anyone want to bet on Matthew Stafford being the next great young QB? Anyone?

The Lions through the years have had the components of a great team, just never enough components together at one time. It's like The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble-Gum Book says: If you want to make a big watermelon, it's best to start with a small watermelon and not a bunch of watermelon pieces. And that goes double for quarterbacks.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Birds, The Bees, And The Fearsome Foursome

The amazing thing about Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Rosey Grier is what stars they were. Not just football stars; media stars. There was no such thing as a named defensive line prior to the Fearsome Foursome -- college or pro. The Seven Blocks of Granite were O-linemen; the Four Horsemen were a backfield, and so were Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. All the sportswriters spinning florid prose about the pigskin and the precipice and tossing around multi-word nicknames like they were em-spaces never once got around to laying a monicker on a D-line until the Fearsome Foursome, yet there were some fine D-lines prior to Olsen, Jones, Lundy, and Grier, S.C. The Bears' lines of the '40s and '60s, the Colts' lines of the late '50s and '60s, the Packers' early-'60s lines, and even the Giants' formidable fronts of the late '50s were to a man a match for the Rams' line -- but the Rams' line beat them all to glory (and a guest shot on The Beverly Hillbillies). Why?

The hint was two sentences ago. This was coming to pass in L.A., Hollywood Baby, Calif., the new media capital of the world. The Rams were respectable for the first time in more than a decade, and respectable on defense for the first time ever, and the four players most responsible (okay, three of the four players most responsible) were very charismatic, or at least charismatic enough. Think of the Fearsome Foursome the way you would the Beatles or the Monkees (or the way any woman would characterize any guy) and it takes shape: The brash one (John Lennon/Deacon Jones/Mickey Dolenz); the heartthrob (Paul McCartney/Merlin Olsen/Davy Jones); the quiet one (George Harrison/Lamar Lundy/Peter Tork); and the goofball (Ringo Starr/Rosey Grier/Michael Nesmith). Grier even went on the Dinah Shore show and talked about needlepoint, for crying out loud.

To the goyim up in Dreamland churning out I Dream of Gilligan's Acres this was material, and they ran with it. The only thing that was missing was the Rankin/Bass animated series, and that was probably on the drawing board, right after they wrapped Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town.

Like a lot of bands, athletic or otherwise, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Olsen and Grier held down the middle so Jones and Lundy could attack the edge. Olsen was exceptionally strong and reasonably quick and way more intense than you'd ever know and his play never really fell off in 15 years, not even when he was sporting a Grizzly Adams beard. Think a taller, rougher Warren Sapp and you're getting warm. He deserved the accolades, if not his own TV series. It's just interesting how it all came to pass.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Old AFL: The Tall, Yes, And The Short Of It

Charlie Tolar was five-foot-six and weighed 200 pounds. You could be taller than Charlie Tolar and still not have had your last growth spurt. Patty Duke was taller than Charlie Tolar. He's shown looking up in this picture because that's where his eyes were permanently fixed. But Charlie Tolar was a bowling ball without the holes drilled, a guy who simply would not go down, a guy who couldn't be tackled down low because there was too much of him down low and couldn't be tackled high because there was no high. He gained more than 3,200 yards in seven seasons and scored 21 touchdowns, when he wasn't bumping into opponents' knees or running up the backs of his own linemen.

Ernie Ladd was six-foot-nine and weighed 312 pounds. He wrestled professionally and liked to play ping-pong and chess in his spare time. He spent eight years with the Chargers, Oilers and Chiefs, tore an Achilles' tendon and was out of the league before he was 30.

The American Football League was the great melting pot, as far as pro football was concerned. But you were probably better off if you kept to the middle.

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

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Thing You Have To Understand About Football Teams, Vol. 2

If you’d rather not expend the effort to scroll down and read Vol. 1, let me do a little catch-up and introduce an analogy I thought of this morning as I was heading to work. Without putting too fine a point on it, I have a day job. I work in health stuff. As health stuff goes, it’s not as engrossing or uplifting as finding a cure for cancer or feeding the hungry. Definitely not feeding the hungry. If those are the Peyton Mannings of health stuff, I work in the Anthony Dilweg Division.

Like most health-stuff companies, we have a corporate mission statement. It goes something like this: “We believe dum-de-dum that people should be healthy dum-de-dum, and so we strive to provide solutions dum-de-dum for their … uh … health.” That statement has always bothered me, and not simply because it positions health as a problem that we could somehow solve. I’ve always believed we should come right out and say, “We want to be the best health-stuff provider on earth, because if we are then everyone wins – providers, organizations, and patients.”

Football teams have mission statements, too, and like my health-stuff mission statement they sound like George W. Bush reading from Finnegan’s Wake. And they’re not published anywhere; you have to divine them from coaches’ and GMs’ statements. That’s a good thing, too, because they almost always sound like this: “We supply offensive and defensive solutions for … uh … offense and defense. We run to set up the pass and pass to set up the run and rush seven and drop eight back in coverage.”

Just like my health-stuff company, football teams are the victims of fuzzy thinking, of a mission as keenly focused as a cassette from Osama bin Laden. Again, what is wrong with saying, “We are the Chicago Bears, and we run the football. We have run the football for 90 years, and we will keep running the football. Our linemen will smash your linemen in the mouth, because that’s what Bulldog Turner did”?

The reason why football teams should come right out and say it is that they come right out and do it. Chicago runs. Arizona throws. There’s really nothing to be gained for a football team to deny its destiny, which is why making Mike Martz the Bears’ O-coordinator is the most ludicrous move since Reagan made James Watt steward of the environment. So Mike Martz is going to install an Astroturf offense on a team that plays in Soldier Field and whose best receiver would be sixth-string in Indianapolis? Is he really? Let’s see it in late November, with the wind screaming off Lake Michigan and Jay Cutler screaming at Devin Hester to catch something for a change, and Mike Martz screaming at Devin Aromashudu because that’s what Mike Martz does. Marty Schottenheimer and Chicago are a match made in heaven, but it’ll never happen because it would require the Bears owning up to their identity, and only successful teams do that.

Believe it or not, there is a use for this rambling prologue: fantasy football. Now, saying something has utility for fantasy football is not like saying something has utility in corralling an oil slick. It won’t help you drill a hole in a plank without splinters or make a flan that doesn’t taste of charcoal. But it is a wet match in that insignificant mildewed corner of the basement storage room of the sports world.

Enough. As a fantasy footballer, if you had the thought after the Rams drafted Sam Bradford, “Yeah, baby! More touches for Donnie Avery!”, put your league entry fee in an envelope and send it to me, because it’ll wind up here eventually. Instead of thinking conventionally (hotshot collegian = hot rookie) you should be moving Steven Jackson five notches up your draft ladder because all the Rams know how to do right now is run, and Sam Bradford will not teach them to pass. This is not Matt Ryan being drafted by the Falcons and given Roddy White on the right, Brian Finneran on the left and Alge Crumpler down the middle. This is a skinny, bum-shouldered QB who feasted like a 12-pound newborn on leaky Ds in the Big 12 being dropped into an offense with one real talent (Jackson), an O-line full of consumptives and a group of receivers with the raw talent of Amy Winehouse and half as much discipline.

How about some others? How about Dez Bryant to the Cowboys? Eh. If the Falcons are a passing team that likes to run, the Cowboys are a running team that likes to pass. Tony Romo forgets that sometimes but over the course of a season he remembers more than he forgets, so the ‘Boys’ posse of receivers has plenty of time to work on their Terrell Owens impersonations.

Jordan Shipley to the Bengals? Eh eh. If he had gone to the Pats you’d think, “Hmmm … Wes Welker.” With the Bengals you think, “Hmmm … Peter Warrick.”

Jahvid Best to the Lions? Good. Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson works only as a counterpoint to Kevin Smith or someone getting 3.3 per carry. Smith’s in rehab. Best has the chance to be that someone.

Andrew Quarless to the Packers? Also good. One can envision a three-tight-end set with Quarless, Jermichael Finley, and Donald Lee on third-and-goal from the two, where the Packers never, ever run it unless they want to back it up to the five for a more makeable field goal.

Ryan Matthews to the Chargers? The Chargers certainly need it to work. Ever since Marion Butts the Chargers have relied on a dynamic running game to set up the pass. Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson, and Antonio Gates are simply not good enough to turn that dynamic inside-out, and Norv Turner, who wears the offensive-genius label like a pair of Jimmy Choos, isn’t coach enough to create an offense where it might happen.

Toby Gerhart to the Vikings? Much better. The fallacy is that when Brett Favre arrived the Vikings stopped being a running team and became a passing team. The truth is they were still a running team; they were simply worse at it with Favre at QB. Protecting Brett Favre from being sacked is a full-time job. (Protecting Brett Favre from himself is impossible. Bah-dum-DUM.) Ever since he woke up with Liz Taylor’s ankles Favre moves like he has 10 pounds of Mississippi mud sucking at each foot. It’s difficult for a pro O-line to block for that and then crank it into hyperdrive and kick out the middle linebacker so AP can find a seam before he lays the pigskin on the hallowed plastic of the Humpdome. Gerhart can act like Brett Favre’s Depends, and he can also kick out his own middle linebacker. Until a mobile quarterback arrives in Minnesota (ooooh … Jake Locker) Gerhart is the next best thing.

In general, any player is a fantasy value – this is important, hence the italics -- when he makes a team better at what it already does well. Scan the transactions and draft lists and see which players fit that description. There are your fantasy sleepers.

So to return to the intro for the outro, the thing you really have to understand about football teams is that 95 percent of the time they add new personnel to complement their existing personnel, not to take them in an entirely different direction. And nothing, not even the freest days of free agency, can change that.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

When Topps Cards Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd

This is a story of two journalists – “writers,” I suppose is more appropriate, since who journals any more, and for what? We’re all bloggers now, or solo crowdsourcers – who I’m sure have never met. Their circles are further apart than the front and rear wheels on a Toronado. One is my old friend Tracy Hackler, who now controls crowdsourcing and blogger channeling (with monthly forays into that Edison-cylinder technology known as magazine publishing) for Beckett Publications. The other is Jeremy Clarkson, who writes brilliantly on autos for the Times of London (which, like any good media consumer, I read online, for free).

Tracy tweeted the other day that Topps was back in the football-card business. I had heard this from other sources (all electronic, all for free), but it was good to hear it directly from an expert. It felt so much more comforting, so much more like a bowl of Sugar Jets, which General Mills doesn’t make any more because it doesn’t have to, because a bevy of cereals do what Sugar Jets used to do and do it better, without having to put a free Amazonian dartgun in every box.

I suppose since this is tangentally at least a football-card blog I should say something about Topps being back in the football-card business, and I have this to say: Great. I also hope Kenner brings back the Close ‘n’ Play. Oh – but it would have to bring back the 45, and maybe the 78, and it would have to make kids believe the iPod Touch was never invented.

See, I am the parent of a newly minted 11-year-old boy, and while his stash of cool consumer electronics is limited to a couple of 76-channel walkie-talkies with a 36-mile range (so he can talk to his brother in the tree house 20 yards away) he had a birthday sleepover a couple of weeks ago, and his friends’ stashes are not confined to 76-channel walkie-talkies. They brought over zero football cards, though they all play football; instead, they produced from their duffels a veritable Best Buy of iPod Touches, smartphones, and Nintendo DSis, and I have to say: I want them all. If I were a kid I would want them all. I would want all of them and all of the games that go with them, and I would not care any more about football cards than I would about a stick and a hoop.

(This is not quite the case with Pokémon cards, however. I edited the world’s largest Pokémon magazine during the first wave of the Pokémon invasion, and I have to say I never thought Nintendo would still be churning out Pocket Monsters more than a decade on. I praise Japan for being Japan, an ever-springing fount of wackiness, and I give Nintendo heaping Cool Whip mounds of praise for perpetuating the storyline and working the videos and tying them back into the games and creating new and engaging characters and nailing the promotional tie-ins and designing the games and just everything. As a product built to engage the modern consumer, Pokémon is better than football. There; I said it.)

This brings me back to Jeremy Clarkson. In this week’s review of a jellybean-shaped projectile called the Citroën DS3, Clarkson writes, “Designing a car to look like something else from the pages of history is not sensible. It would have been like designing a CD player to look like a turntable. Why would you do that?”

Well, you do that to lessen the shock of transition, but if your product is cool enough you needn’t bother. The iPod wasn’t designed to look like a Walkman. My old Nokia and an iPhone are chalk and cheese. And I don’t want the Walkman to come back, I don’t want my old Nokia to poke its little Finnish head out of a landfill, I don’t want a Close ‘n’ Play revival, and now that there’s Madden and ESPN and Pro Football Reference at the swipe of a finger over an iPod Touch I don’t really care that Topps is back in the football-card business.

Nothing against Topps. It’s just that football cards don’t work any more.

No matter what you want a football card to do, something else does the job better. As an expensive way of delivering cheap gum, a pack of 5 does it much more efficiently. The gum’s better, too. As an entertaining builder of young imaginations, football cards are better than those execrable kids’ books featuring magic baseball cards but not as good as a handful of pine cones and a rubber band. As a handy way of conveying sports information to kids, the iPod Touch has it all over the football card. You want Chris Pizzotti stats, pictures, video? They’re on the Touch, and it fits in your pocket. As a statement of modern design, even when football cards were at their best they were never much good. An Olds Delta 88 ad will tell you more about the styling oeuvre of the times than a ’61 Fleer, and it fits in a pocket, too. These alternatives may not make the same chattering sound in your bike spokes, but there I always thought a seven of diamonds had it all over a Volney Peters.

The only thing a football card might still conceivably work at is making a fiftysomething man not feel irrelevant. And there’s something that works better than a football card at that, too. Viagra.

Sorry, it’s not good enough for something just to be. It really does need to work. A couple of years ago I was doing a story for The New York Times on the Bathtub Nash. The Nash was sort of the SUV of its day. The seats folded into beds, the trunk was huge, it was marketed extensively to hunters and anglers, and it looked like a plumbing fixture with wheels. I visited the world’s No. 1 Nash collector who showed me his Bathtub Nashes, and like the iPod Touch, I wanted one immediately. As Clarkson wrote this week, “I wanted one more than I don’t want lung cancer.” And then I drove it.

God, it was wretched. Shifting was like prying up the floorboards with a crowbar. The steering was less responsive than Courtney Cox’s forehead. You prepared for your next stop immediately after pulling away from the last stop. The steering wheel was an embroidery hoop, and the dash was mostly chipped painted metal except for the spot in front of the passenger’s seat where it said, “Your Obituary Here.” No wonder people equated driving with sport back then. There was a 50-50 chance you would be killed driving the eight blocks to the Schulz Sav-O Center, going no faster than 25 all the way and meeting nothing more threatening than a diaper truck.

Much as I loved the way the Bathtub Nash looked and what it represented, I would not want one to do what it was put on Earth to do, which is be a motor vehicle. The only thing it could still function as in the modern world would be lawn sculpture – but, oh, the rocker panels are made of Sun Chips bags, so it doesn’t work as that, either.

It’s not quite the same with magazines. Currently there is nothing that presents pictures and words together better than a magazine. An iPad may get there, and as soon as they stuff all the back issues of The New Yorker into it I will have one. There are 35 years of Guitar Player magazines in a room in my house. Would I like to have all those issues in a package the size of one of those magazines, and have it be searchable, so when I’m looking for that review of the Peavey Classic amplifier I don’t have to spend an hour and a half looking for it? Yes I would, very much. I would also like to have every Topps football card made in the last 60 years on an iPad. Make a note of that if you would, Mr. Eisner. When an iPad gets to that stage it will work better than a magazine and they’ll largely be gone, too, except as ersatz Viagra for the recently irrelevant, and Mr. Hackler will be over here with me. The only problem may be when Apple decides that everything has been digitized and nothing remains in print and paper, and it decides to charge me $2 billion to turn the digital page. That’s when I slap the “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker on my ax and go to work.

Things change, and while fans of the old stuff hate that, it’s the only way to get from a tube TV with a six-inch screen to a 52-inch flat-panel. It is totally fitting and proper that football cards go away. The people who made cards during the wild days of the ‘90s have accepted that, because they’re smart people. I called the roll of the bright, funny, wonderful people who populated the card business during that time (and I know I’m leaving out so many) – Sherry Wallace, Frank O’Connell, Bill Bordegon, Keith Wood, Shawn Reilly, Kurt Iverson, Chris Dahl, Jeff Morris, Don Butler, George White, Baron Bedesky, Michael Cleary, Julie Haddon, Jeff Kurowski, Brad Bartlett, Scott McCauley, Bill Jemas, Victor Shaffer, and on and on – and almost all of them are out of the business. That list now includes Allan Caplan and Martha Modlin, who shuttered Inkworks at the end of last year. Tracy still does great work at Beckett and Dean Listle holds the torch at Krause Publications, but they’re not only in cards, they’re in magazines that write about cards. I worry about them.

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,/And God fulfils himself in many ways,/Lest one good custom should corrupt the world,” Tennyson wrote, and I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any of why football cards don’t matter. I wish Topps well, and Tracy and Dean better, but I think it’s time we knocked football cards into a cocked hat and adjourned to the bar for a Red Smith – a vodka-and-tonic, no fruit. Just the vodka and the tonic and the ice. It’s a much more appropriate disposal than football cards for a bunch of irrelevant old guys, content to run our hands over the past until it’s smooth.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Thing You Have To Understand About Football Teams, Vol. 1

The thing you have to understand about football teams is they are all creatures of habit. You can, with only as much thinking as it takes to dial up the Apples in Stereo on your iPod, figure out what a given pro football team will do. Not on the very next play, of course. (Well, maybe: 47 cross-trap. Correll Buckhalter loses three. There.) But over time, teams have tendencies, and they tend not to get away from those tendencies unless something cataclysmic happens, like Ahmad Rashad figuring out what those appendages on the ends of his arms are for.

Proof of this is everywhere. The Chicago Bears have been around for more than 90 years, and in only four seasons have they led the league in passing yards. Three of those seasons were Sid Luckman’s (and he had a bunch of second-place finishes in there, too); one was Billy Wade, when the Bears were hydrophobic and pass-happy and in the process of stinking up the joint so they could draft Gale Sayers – draft Gale Sayers so they could run the ball better, which is the lesson here. The Bears have been the league’s top running team 17 seasons, ranging from 1934 to their most recent title, in 1986. In the first NFL draft the Bears drafted seven linemen, so they could run the ball better and keep the other team from running. The Bears have nine linemen in the Hall of Fame, and five running backs. The Bears had the all-time career rushing leader. They had the league’s first 1,000-yard rusher. They had the first player to score seven TDs in a game. They had Bronko and the Galloping Ghost. Only once did they spend a really high draft pick on a throw-it-around guy, and then they didn’t know what they were in for with Sid Luckman. The reason why no one in the Bears’ war room has ever said, “Hey, why not that Jeff George guy?” (except when George was so far gone that he was throwing 40-yard out patterns to the Chicago Tribune billboard) is because he doesn’t fit into the offense, and it would take too much to change the offense to fit him. And if it was that way last year it would be that way this year, and next year, and it just keeps rolling.

The Bears are a running team. On the other hand, the Colts have always thrown it around, even when Kelly Holcomb was doing the throwing. The Rams have thrown it around excepting for two times: during the Ground Chuck days, when they ran the ball in the most excruciatingly direct way possible so that to the casual football fan it looked like God was punishing Los Angelinos for being so wanton, and now, when there is truly nothing else they can do. The Cards throw it around. The 49ers throw it around, which makes Alex Smith so painful for them. The Lions run it. At his best Herman Moore was a Barry Sanders’ beard, a decoy who caught 100 balls a year. (Given that, the Millions’ decision to fritter away draft picks on the Williams boys and Charles Rogers ranks higher on The Dumb List than even The Men Who Stare At Goats.) The Eagles run it. The Bills run it. The Bengals run it. The Vikings … eeesh. The Vikings have mostly always run it, but they have these spells. If you’re a Viking fan you understand.

This stuff can change, but it takes an exceptionally talented player who sticks around a long time to make it change. Earl Campbell changed the Oilers from a Blanda/Dickey/Pastorini throw-it-around team to a running team. Even Brett Favre at his gunslinging worst couldn’t not hand the ball to Earl Campbell. Speaking of Favre, he made running far more optional in Green Bay, in part because he outlasted all the running backs. When Brett Favre is your constant you throw the ball. And when an orderly transition is made to Aaron Rodgers you keep throwing, because you have Donald Driver and Greg Jennings out wide and Ryan Grant in the backfield, and guys like Mark Tauscher in the line whose idea of downfield blocking is falling forward.

The same thing works on defense, and the reasons why are more inscrutable. You’d think that since defense is largely reactive that teams’ defensive tendencies would be based on the teams they play, but that happens less often than you’d think. What happens is this: When the Buffalo Bills had Bruce Smith they drafted personnel complementary to Bruce Smith and created their schemes around the fact that they had Bruce Smith. The D-backs played tight and the safeties played for wounded-duck interceptions; linebackers who could cover were chosen over linebackers who could rush the passer; interior D-linemen who could occupy blockers were tabbed over penetrating D-tackles. And once Buffalo got all these pieces together to complement Bruce Smith … Bruce Smith split the blanket.

What do you do? You can’t dump everyone because you dumped Bruce Smith, though sending Gabe Northern packing would be a bit of lagniappe. The shining path is to take Phil Hansen, Ted Washington, John Holecek, Sam Cowart, et. al. and give them another pass rusher to play with. So the Bills did exactly that and inserted Marcellus Wiley, who did a fine Bruce Smith impersonation, and the defense rolled on. When Washington vacated his half-acre lot in 2000 the Bills plugged the hole with Pat Williams and Shawn Price – two people, in part because of Washington’s extreme avoirdupois but also because new coach Gregg Williams installed a 4-3 though the Bills’ personnel was still mostly the Bruce Smith 3-4 gang. The result smelled like chicken ranch. The team that was 13-3 in Smith’s last year and 8-8 with Marcellus Wiley went 3-13. That’s nothing against Pat Williams and Shawn Price. That’s a team being taken against its essential defensive tendencies too soon. And Rob Johnson playing like an idiot.

If teams could turn over all their offensive or defensive personnel at once it would be easy for them to change tendencies. But swapping out players one at a time is like changing a string of Christmas lights from red to green by replacing only the lights that burn out. It takes a long time, and it looks like compost in the process. It’s totally reasonable to get a third of the way in and decide, “What the heck. I like red lights better anyhow,” and never make the change.

If you want more you'll have to wait for Vol. 2.

Bob Mischak, Sir

Bob Mischak was an All-American at West Point and is probably now a retired probation officer. If this card could speak it’d be telling you to clean up your room.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Hunter Smith: The Lonliest Guy In Football?

Smith was a great punter who rarely punted for the Colts. One imagines him sitting on the sidelines through another excruciatingly long Colts drive punctuated with 15 performances of The Iceman Cometh at the line of scrimmage that finally seems to be winding down with a third-and-17 at the opponent's 44. Smith grabs his helmet, straps it on, kicks his leg over his head a time or two, practices his drop -- and in that time Manning has thrown 23 yards to Reggie Wayne through an opening the size of a Chiclet, and Smith sits down again. in 2006 Smith played in 16 games and punted 47 times, which we all know is less than three times a game. Brian Moorman punts that much before Kevin Harlan has his throat completely cleared. Another way to look at it is this: In 10 years of punting for the Colts Smith was in the top 10 in yards per punt six times; he was never in the top 10 in punting yards. When the Colts let go of Smith in 2009 it wasn't because he couldn't do the job any more; it was because the Colts forgot what job he was supposed to do. The football equivalent of the Maytag repairman.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Jim McMahon: I'm In Second, And Larry Rakestraw's Right Behind Me

So you mean to say Jim McMahon was the best quarterback not named Sid Luckman in the entire 90-year history of the Chicago Bears? Well, yes. You doubt? Then choose. The Bears have had one other Hall of Fame QB, George Blanda, but Halas restricted him to kicker and linebacker because he played like the interception half of Brett Favre, with dentures. Bill Wade led the Bears to a championship, but really ... Bill Wade? Bobby Douglass? There are plots of ground around Chicago which still haven't healed from the blunt trauma of having a football thrown into them at 178 mph by Bobby Douglass. Otherwise let us call the roll of rotten QBs: Bob Avellini, Ed Brown, Rudy Bukich, Jack Concannon, Erik Kramer, Kordell Stewart, Johnny Lujack, Gary Huff, Vince Evans, Bernie Masterson, Brian Griese, Kyle Orton, Steve Walsh, Chad Hutchinson, Virgil Carter, Jim Miller, Cade McNown, Shane Matthews, Dave Krieg, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Phipps, Mike Tomczak, and of course, Rex Grossman and the Twin-Turbo Grossman, Jay Cutler. That's a whole lot of lousyness, and if it makes Grossman feel better, he's not the worst of that bunch by far. The Bears can get away with this because their lines have had more well-directed lard than a Double Whopper Double Value Meal, but that does not atone for the sin of sticking Larry Rakestraw under center. It is, however, the reason why Jim McMahon could be Jim McMahon, a weak-armed, pig-headed QB, a Ben Roethlisberger in disco pants, and still be the leader of a Super Bowl champion. Viewed from that angle, Ed Brown looks better all the time.