Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is Troy Aikman The Worst HOF QB, Or Just A Pale Imitation Of The Worst HOF QB?

Hall of Famers in any sport (and rock ‘n’ roll as well, though the very idea of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame still chaps us worse than bike shorts) can be dumped into one of three buckets: The absolute greats, the quite good, and the momentarily good. Halls of fame should be repositories for only the absolute greats, but if they did that they’d be out of business in a month, because the necessarily meager number of absolute greats and their fans means the halls’ rust-belt towns would go a-begging two years out of three. Canton needs Gene Hickerson fans. Cooperstown needs bonkers Cubs fans to spend like pork-barrel congressmen in support of the opium dream that Andre Dawson is actually worthy of sitting at Hank Aaron’s elbow.

The momentarily good are another issue. Sometimes it’s obvious why they make it – they only got half a career because of segregation, for instance – and other times it’s more obscure than the enduring popularity of cute cat pictures. Joe Tinker, Crab Evers and Frank Chance, for instance. They’re in the Baseball HOF because of a poem. That’s like putting the Old Spice guy in Canton because he looks good on a horse.

More on topic, Red Grange blew out his knee in his first pro season, and his career was less distinguished than that of Gob Buckeye. But Red Grange was pro football’s first great draw. Without him there might have been no Chicago Bears, no pro football, and no Football HOF. Enshrining him was an act of self-preservation akin to enshrining fire in the Hall of Great Inventions.

To a lesser extent this explains Charlie Trippi as much as anything can. Trippi was the postwar Grange and he led the Cardinals to their only championship. Call it a sop to Bill Bidwill or a nod to Trippi’s ability to put butts in seats regardless of his on-field performance, because Trippi is the worst HOF QB ever in the same way that Cy Young is the all-time winningest pitcher. No one will win 700-plus games in the majors again, and no QB will be elected to the HOF with worse numbers than Charlie Trippi. You can quit holding your breath, Stan Gelbaugh.

So the question is, which bucket gets Troy Aikman? Aikman was the Cowboys’ QB when they truly were America’s Team, a lurching juggernaut controlled by J.R. Ewing from the Mini-KISS version of Dallas. He was Tom Brady in cowboy boots without a supermodel mama on his arm, and he led his team to many a big win. Does he qualify on numbers, or did he fly in on some Texas-sized je nais se quoi?

The skinny on Aikman places him squarely in the quite-good bucket. His career comps are guys like Mark Brunell and Donovan McNabb, upper-echelon guys whose careers were nonetheless marred by an inability to win the big game. Troy Aikman, then, is an upper-echelon guy who takes the next step: a McNabb who beats the Patriots, a Brunell who beats the Oilers and gets J-Ville into the big game, a Steve McNair playing in a market that feels about football the same way Osama bin Laden feels about the Koran. Lest you think that A) winning the big game and B) playing in Dallas don't matter, consider Troy Aikman Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution.

It does beg the question, though: Even if he’s not just momentarily good, is Troy Aikman the worst non-Trippi HOF QB ever?

A very simple test is to examine the ever-helpful career comps at If someone was worse than Aikman they would likely have fewer HOFers in their career comps. So we checked the career comps and lo and behold! Roger Staubach, Bart Starr, and Joe Namath have two HOFers as career comps; Aikman, Y.A. Tittle, and Terry Bradshaw have three.

Okay, so Aikman escapes there. Let's dive deeper into the numbers. We created an index that measures how the postwar HOF QBs (and Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady) finished on categories that have nothing to do with a 16-game season versus a 12-game slate -- things like completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, career value, All-Something nods, and interception percentage. When we plotted where the QBs fit, here’s what we got (FYI: lower is better):

Manning 8.67
Young 13.44
Montana 18.67
Marino 22.56
Favre 25.00
Brady 25.78
Fouts 42.22
Kelly 43.44
Moon 43.78
Graham 47.50
Elway 49.67
Staubach 52.22
Tarkenton 53.00
Layne 60.38
Jurgensen 62.22
Aikman 67.67
Griese 72.22
Starr 73.44
Van Brocklin76.50
Unitas 77.00
Tittle 77.00
Dawson 77.11
Bradshaw 90.89
Namath 109.33
Blanda 194.78

Maybe we chose the wrong categories if we’re trying to prove Aikman’s lack of worth. Looking at it this way, the QBs separate themselves neatly into five distinct bands: The undisputed greats (Manning, Young, Montana, Marino, Favre, and Brady); the greats (Fouts, Kelly, Moon, Graham, Elway, Staubach, and Tarkenton); the consistently quite good (Layne, Jurgensen, Aikman, Griese, Starr, Van Brocklin, Unitas, and Tittle); the momentarily good (Bradshaw and Namath); and George Blanda, who we can only assume made it in as a kicker.

Aikman fares acceptably, which makes sense. He threw for a decent amount of yards in a game, and to the intended receivers, and put the ball in the end zone with reasonable frequency. He nestles in a little sub-group with the superb game managers Bob Griese and Bart Starr, and that’s about right. Aikman managed things in Dallas as well as anyone could, and that alone justifies his trip back to the rust belt.

Bronko Nagurski, Not Live From Nowhere

The amazing thing looking back at Bronko Nagurski and how he got to be there was how direct it all was. When he came down from the Iron Range all brawn and hard consonants there was no national recruiting war; he went to the University of Minnesota.

When he got out of school after four years of two-way greatness there was no protracted drama over where he would play professional football, no raccoon-coated Mel Kiper bellering at passers-by through a megaphone, "Nagurski to the Stapletons at number three; great value pick at that position."

They would have looked at him like he was completely daft, and they would have been right. They would have taken his pennant away, too.

The Bears were there first with the most money, and so he signed. Then when he got in the backfield they so much as shouted across the line, "We're running Nagurski now; try and stop us," which they couldn't, because there were three Hall of Famers in front of Nagurski, who himself was as big as their biggest lineman and ran like the 20th Century Limited. And when Nagurski retired to wrestle and fish he said, "I'm retiring to wrestle and fish," and it was done without SportsCenter on-location at Rainy River or Rich Eisen babbling live from the Mankato Armory.

People in the '30s had the tech savvy of stuffed animals and were casually bigoted, offandedly cruel, and foolishly superstitious chain smokers and binge drinkers, but they weren't so idiotic as to care where Bronko Nagurski fished, what he caught, and how the fish felt about the whole thing. Advantage them.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Have No Fears (Literally)

Fears is the missing -- okay, not truly missing, but certainly underappreciated -- link between Don Hutson and Lance Alworth. A long strider with hops and less of Elroy Hirsch's jitterbug stuff, Fears won three straight receiving titles running under bombs in the Waterfieldian era, then had his numbers tumble as the Dutchman took over and the offense opened up like the headers on a hemi.

However, Fears was only a one-time All-NFLer, and for that blame must be laid squarely at the feet of East Coast writers pretending the league ended at Chicago.

Consider this: In 1948, Fears' rookie year, Fears caught 57 passes for 698 yards and was named second-team all-NFL by two out of six major publications or syndicates. The other five all-NFL ends, Ken Kavanaugh, Bill Swiacki, Mal Kutner, Pete Pihos, and Ed Cifers, caught 18, 39, 41, 46, and 0 passes -- and none of them played west of the Mississippi. Pihos, Kutner, and Swiacki finished second, third and fourth in receiving; Kutner, Pihos, and Fears were the top three in receiving yards and yards per game; Kutner, Pihos, and Swiacki were 1-2-3 in receiving TDs, and Kutner was second in yards per catch. Kutner, Pihos, and Fears were the NFL's top three ends in 1948; Swiacki was there because he was a Columbia boy and a college legend, Cifer was a D-end, and Kavanaugh was there because he was a Bear and George Halas threatened to beat up any sportswriter who didn't vote for him.

Fears got the short end of the stick in '48, the stick got longer in '49, and he got full measure in '50. After that Fears' numbers dropped, others' rose, and he was done.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why Bart Starr is Better Than Brett Favre, Ch. 1

Starr: 9-1 record in the playoffs, five NFL championships, two Super Bowl wins, 94-57-6 record as a starter.

Favre: One Super Bowl win, one Super Bowl loss, 2-3 record in NFC championship games, 160-93 record as a starter.

Any questions? Good. On to Chapter 2.

Why Bart Starr is Better Than Brett Favre, Ch. 2

I work for a place that insists everything can and should be measured in numbers. Happy? There’s a number for that. Successful? A number for that. Depressed, choleric, pregnant, bloated, fast, slow, hard-working, lazy, fond of beets? Numbers for all of those.

Kinda like Chapter One above. Everything measured in numbers.

But in this great process to numberize everything, things that can’t be measured in numbers are being measured in numbers. How sweet and bracing the first Diet Mountain Dew of the morning tastes, for instance. It’s part of our ongoing effort as a species to explain everything around us, even Jillian Michaels Yelling At Fat People, in stark contrast to Van Morrison’s First Universal Truth, which is: It ain’t why, it just is. And nothing beats a good saxophone break.

Who’s a better football player falls right in on that list of Sisyphean challenges. You can come up with numbers that show that Ruben Brown is better than Chad Clifton, but you can also come up with numbers that show Clifton is better than Brown, and numbers that show that neither one is as good as, oh, I don't know, Anthony Clement. And unless you run them up against each other in a big mud wallow you won’t know – and once that’s done, all you’ll really know is who’s better in a mud wallow.

So seeing as we can’t pit the real Bart Starr against the real Brett Favre in any meaningful fashion, and we don’t want to play the Misleading Numbers game, let’s talk about the way they go about quarterbacking.

First, let me say that I know Brett Favre personally a little, and I consider him the most competitive man I have ever met. When he signed autographs for my client, he wanted to sign them faster and better than Drew Bledsoe. When he had lines to speak, he wanted to speak them more clearly than Troy Aikman.

Being competitive is an admirable quality in a quarterback. It’s certainly better than not being competitive. Which is why Matt Flynn still has an NFL career and JaMarcus Russell doesn’t.

However, I have never known Brett Favre to be the most competitive person ever when it comes to contests of intelligence. In words, actions, choices, and family situations (he’s a bloody grandfather! I’m 10 years older than Favre and have an eight-year-old!) Favre has never shown any reason why the stereotype of the tractor-driving southern hick should not apply in his case. When he opens his mouth to speak you’re almost surprised to hear words and not .38 Special songs. If he would ever stop agonizing over retirement long enough to take on the kids in Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader, I would pay hard money to watch. The apocryphal story is that Aaron Rodgers in his rookie season had digested more of the playbook than Favre had in year 13 – but they don’t give prizes for memorizing the playbook.

In so many ways Brett Favre ought to be every creative person’s wet dream of a QB – always willing to go off-script, to yield to the wildest flights of imagination, to extemporate, to do things his way – but to this creative person at least Favre’s freelancing comes off as wholly self-serving and doltish.

The reason for that is when Favre’s competitiveness mingles with Favre’s creativity the result is an overpowering belief in his ability to make something spectacular out of any situation. In other words, when life gives you lemons, make lobster Newburg. Or a nuclear-powered sub. Or the Crab Nebula.

As a result, Brett Favre does not so much run an offense as he allows certain plays to be called from the sidelines and run on the field until he decides it’s time for him to play his game, which involves high-risk passes often improvised in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage. It’s the football equivalent of traveling to Africa for the expressed purpose of sleeping around. Yeah, you might be able to get away with it, but there are more prudent things, if you catch the drift.

Watching Favre is like watching Evel Knievel. You know it will end badly, but you’re not exactly sure when – and the greater the fan, the more they secretly hope for the largest mushroom cloud, the most pretzelized pileup, the longest fall off the highest cliff, with the deepest, most satisfying BOOM! at the end.

Contrast this with Bart Starr. It’s not hard. In a world of shadows Favre is starless and Bible-black, and Starr is the color of the moon on a cold night.

Favre will say whatever springs to mind. Granted, it’s not much content-wise, but it’s definitely off-the-cuff. Nobody who was that bad in There’s Something About Mary is a good enough actor to summon tears at will.

Starr always gives the impression of someone who carefully chews his thoughts 32 times before speaking. As a head coach, he enjoyed calling out someone in public as much as BP executives enjoy gulf shrimp packed in oil. His life outside of football has been devoted to his church, his charities, and an enlightened brand of capitalism. He has rarely scrawled an autograph.

That class extends to his family. When his wife, Cherry, shilled furniture, she was absolutely as classy a furniture-shiller as someone in a beehive hairdo and a bullet bra could be.

Fine. So Bart Starr does not encourage 14-year-olds to marry or advocate deer hunting off the back of an International Harvester. That alone doesn’t make him even as good a quarterback as Steve Walsh (who for sheer inability to perform every significant task required of a modern professional QB had no peer). What made Starr great?

First, his ability to completely subsume personal goals for the good of the team. Starr was not a great quarterback as far as physical tools go; he wasn’t a 17th-round draft pick, either, but football teams in the 1950s had absolutely no clue when it came to drafting QBs . You may as well have been asking them to choose BlackBerry or iPhone. (Consider the QBs drafted ahead of Starr in 1956: Earl Morrall, John Roach, Fred Wyant, Em Lindbeck, John Polzer, Tom Spiers, George Herring, and George Welsh. Only Morrall was a legitimate NFL starter. And no, I have no idea what an “Em Lindbeck” is.)

Starr often expressed his disregard for personal accomplishments, and the sport took that to heart. He was first-team All-NFL once and a Pro Bowler four times. Randall Cunningham has done as much.

Starr’s willingness to do whatever was asked of him made the players around him better. That’s not to say Jim Taylor would not have been a HOFer with a different QB. Jim Taylor was enough of a Marine that he would have been a HOFer if John Tesh had been the QB. On the other hand, without Bart Starr Paul Hornung would have been a drunk French soccer player taking a dive after having been breathed on by another player. And as he stands up, grimacing more profoundly than a gutshot Samuel L. Jackson, there’s … Bob Lilly. Sort of takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

Right along with that, Starr was smart enough to know that not doing it his way does not make him any less of a leader. Think about the QB position for a minute. Even the most ornery, bull-headed, independent Texan cuss of a QB is the tool of a head coach. If he doesn’t do enough of what the coach wants he’s more gone than Blind Melon. This is immutable; even Brett Favre is bound to follow the offense to an extent, under threat of a trade to the Saskatchewan Roughriders for the rights to Don Trull (who, experts agree, is a fine backup who will one day be the number-one quarterback, and one of the top-notch passers in the league). However, the test of a QB is whether he can make his teammates in the huddle believe that a 47 Cross Trap on third-and-34 is his idea, and absolutely the play that needs to be run to its utmost in this particular situation.

The trouble starts when the willing suspension of disbelief breaks down, when the QB starts thinking he’s a better coach than the coach, that instead of a 47 Cross Trap what needs to be run is a skinny post, to a slow receiver with poor hands, against an All-Pro corner. Convincing a bunch of football players in a huddle that this is the thing to do is not like winning over the Supreme Court; there’s a lot of gullibility amidst the avoirdupois. Besides, at $3.72 million a season going for broke is relative.

Starr escaped all that by running the offense persuasively and authoritatively. He didn’t do just what Lombardi asked; sometimes he did things that out-Lombardied Lombardi. It would just have been ineptitude in synergy if the coach had been Rich Kotite, but with Starr and Lombardi it was gorgeous. Even so, there was never any question in the huddle of who was in charge and who was going to make this play work. It was going to start with Bart Starr and everyone was going to do their job, and if not, they were going to hear about it from Starr and Lombardi – and some players genuinely feared Starr’s wrath, gentle and Christian as it was, more than Lombardi’s.

In the end Starr proved out a winner, which is different than performing acts that win games. In the 2009 season Brett Favre performed at least three acts that you could definitively say won games for the Vikings – oh, but he also performed an act that definitively lost the NFC Championship and cost his team a trip to the Super Bowl. The 2010 NFC Championship (and for that matter, the 2008 NFC Championship) will be remembered long after the pass that beat the ‘Niners has been forgotten.

In Bart Starr’s career only one dumb play and one truly bad game come to mind: the ball he fumbled away to George Andrie that was returned for a touchdown in the 1967 Ice Bowl, and a 1962 Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions where Starr was sacked what seems like 31 times. The Packers won the Ice Bowl, and the Turkey Day game? The only game the Packers lost all year. And the wins are games that will never die.

Quarterbacking is way more like advertising than either the quarterbacks or the ad guys would like to admit. Brett Favre is the hyperproduced ad that leaves the world breathless but doesn’t sell a crumb more cake. Bart Starr is the simple ad that simply sells and sells and sells.

Selling is winning. Winning is selling. Bart Starr sold, the Packers bought, and together they created a dynasty.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Enter The Lions, Exit Reason

I was in Chicago last weekend after a good long time of not having been in Chicago, and I have to admit I don’t know what all the fuss is about. While there is an eternally long knot of people trying to get into the city there is a knot equally as large of people trying to get out, which makes you wonder, “If it’s so good, why are people fleeing at 11 in the morning?” This is in spite of the CTA trains which seem to be running 80 percent empty down the middle of every highway from Rockford east.

Chicago, then, fills up every day with people who have not yet recognized the futility of driving into any large city, and who once they arrive and have a good look around, climb into their Chevy Cavaliers and rush right back out again.

This is because whoever hung on Chicago the tag “Second City” knew of whence they spoke. Everything about Chicago is inferior to New York at least and often places as pedestrian as Cincinnati – and don’t even get me started on Toronto and Vancouver.

Chicago has a lake, and it’s pretty, but L.A., Miami, and New York have the ocean. I love the Great Lakes but the ocean is better, except up around the Porcupine Mountains, which is about as far as the Great Lakes can get from Chicago. The skyline is nondescript, even with the building that used to be called the Sears Tower but which now has been infested by British insurance types and is called the Willis Tower. To take the elevator to the top of the Sears Tower you pass a mural of Chicago’s most prominent historical figures: Abraham Lincoln, John Belushi, and Oprah. Once you get to the top and look about you say, “Huh. What a lot of building blocks posing as buildings.” I asked my niece about the one building I saw with architectural merit. “That’s a jail,” she said. Of course it was.

Chicago is lined with decrepit buildings on the way to Wrigley Field, which is also decrepit, and then there are more decrepit buildings until you get to the nicer suburbs, which are 10 miles south of Green Bay. Going south takes you past U.S. Cellular Field, which is nicer than Shea Stadium because Shea has been torn down, and then more decrepit buildings and more decrepit buildings and then you wake up in Indianapolis.

Chicago is a great place to eat hot dogs and pizza, therefore you see few skinny Chicagoans. The most entertaining sight in Wrigley Field is not the Cubs, who play a brand of baseball that rivals hoeing cotton for entertainment, but watching Cubs fans trying to squeeze into box seats.

In sum, then, Chicago is a great city minus the exhilaration, which is the sole defining characteristic of a great city. It’s merely a large vessel for holding people and spilling them out again.

I mention Chicago when writing about the Detroit Lions because the city and the Lions have so much in common. They have both seemingly always been around without ever having really been the one. No one has ever said, “Man, Chicago is really top of the heap,” unless they are a cow. Similarly, there have been few times in NFL history when the one thing a team had to do to prove it was really top-shelf was to beat the Lions. Only once in team history – and the history goes back to 1930 – have the Lions had the sole best record in the league. Even in the mid-‘50s, when the team was at its peak, there were other teams with records as good or better. The fact that the Lions won three championships in those years speaks to the Kwikrete character of guys like Bobby Layne and Joe Schmidt while obscuring the fact that the Lions were one of three or four teams that could have won.

Those were curious teams, the Lions of the ‘50s, in large part because they were built around a strong offensive line and a defensive backfield. The Lions were good up front offensively and from the linebackers back defensively, and few other teams have been built that way to start with, much less able to sustain that construction more than a season or two. The only other team that comes close is the Don Coryell Cardinals, and once Larry Stallings fell off they were done.

The interesting thing about the Cardinals and Lions as bedfellows is what strange bedfellows they make. The Cardinals threw the ball (mostly) and had the reputation of being porous defensively. The Lions ran the ball (mostly) and had the reputation of being impregnable. The offense part is the difference between Don Coryell and Buddy Parker. The defense part is the difference between Mark Arneson and Joe Schmidt.

The problems with sustaining this construction is that it’s physically and intellectually off-kilter, like bicycling on a tightrope with all the weight on one end of the pole. It’s easy for a GM to get caught up in a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck cartoon and yell “Duck season!”, and no sooner does he get his bill straight than he discovers he’s drafted Mel Farr. A D-backfield is also notoriously hard to draft into. Night Train Lane matriculated at the University of Nowhere and was one of the greatest ever, but draft pedigree – which everyone does -- and you wind up staring at a heaping helping of Luther Bradley.

There is a sort of symbiosis in the fact that the two most passive positions on a football field are O-line and D-backfield. A great deal of your prowess at those positions is predicated on your ability to run backwards. The fact that Detroit has often tried to build a team around these positions suggests that ultimately the Lions are a ferocious-looking mastiff that rolls onto his back and begs you to scratch his tummy, as opposed to biting your finger off at the neck.

There might be something to that. Even Barry Sanders, the greatest Lion runner, was a poke-and-prod kind of guy as opposed to a ram-it-in-there type. While it’s hard to say what the Lions are currently or even what they should be, it’s pretty obvious that they’re not aspiring to be Bears East. O-line and D-backs would be okay with them.

And that, of course, brings us around to Detroit’s own football Armageddon, the tenure of Matt Millen as general manager. I hate to be the one to thwart a vicious frontal attack, but Millen wasn’t quite Detroit’s own little Chernobyl to the extent he’s been portrayed. He was bad, sure enough, but he was more like the Exxon Valdez than the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs: not spectacularly horrible but extremely well-documented.

His vision for the Lions may have been straight out of Steven Speilberg’s 1941 (much destruction, much shouting, no point, John Belushi), but Millen also wasn’t fortunate. With a little more patience and coaching Joey Harrington could have hit. He certainly wasn’t as much of a bona-fide pileup as Andre Ware, who had a Heisman but needed a stepladder to see above Barry Sanders. Charles Rogers likewise could have stopped hitting and hit. He was the best WR available, a consensus top-five pick; we’re not talking Darius Heyward-Bey here. Maybe if Rogers had been separated from his homies he wouldn’t have smoked like a tire dump; maybe if he had wound up in Green Bay. Or Saskatoon.

At any rate, if Harrington-to-Rogers clicks the ensuing tailwhacks never occur. Millen doesn’t need a WR and doesn’t draft Mike Williams (of the University of Scandalous Collegians), who was the consensus best available but was actually Aaron Gibson in a compression suit. (Boy, check out the WRs who went first-round in 2005: Braylon Edwards, Troy Williamson, Mark Clayton, Matt Jones, Williams, and then, at long last, Roddy White. Ooof.) Then that obviates the need for Roy Williams, yet another Big 12 receiver whose mouth runs faster than his legs, and makes Calvin Johnson, the one truly great pass-catcher in the bunch, a luxury they can afford. It all looks so easy from here.

Millen never pulled a my-kingdom-for-John-Hadl trade like Bart Starr, which sent the Packers to jail for a decade. He never dealt an entire draft for Myron Pottios, like George Allen did when he assembled the Over the Hill Gang. He was never as willfully balmy as the Bidwills. He was merely quite bad, and as the Lions’ continued struggles show, being bad is more than enough.

So what about the Lions then? Is there any hope for them being very good for a very long time? Of course there’s hope. The NFL is built on the fundamental principle that all teams are created equal until Roger Goodell decides it needs another Dallas-Pittsburgh Super Bowl. The internal dynamics of the thing aside, it wouldn’t hurt for the Lions to try the D-backfield/O-line thing again, though to make it really work they’d need to find another Joe Schmidt -- and they just traded Schmidt’s emotional half, Ernie Sims. There’s a lot to be said at any time for shutting down the pass and controlling the line. However, getting there will require more sense of purpose than we’ve seen from the Lions for some time. Anyone know what Joe Schmidt is up to?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bob Waterfield: Imagineering At Work

Imagine a Tom Brady who doubles as a kicker, plays D-back, and shares snaps with Brett Favre because Brett Favre just happens to be around. And then imagine Tom Brady being deemed so vital to the success of the New England Patriots that the team moves to Ann Arbor so he can be closer to his alma mater and hyper-gorgeous wife.

Getting too weird yet? Such was the world of Bob Waterfield, West Coast jock, husband of quasi-actress and 18-Hour Bra spokesbust Jane Russell, rotten football coach, and marvelous go-for-broke quarterback who spent the last half of his career sharing time with another go-for-broke quarterback and semi-rotten coach, Norm van Brocklin.

The Rams' move from Cleveland to L.A. happened for reasons mostly other than Waterfield, but having your best player pining for his home and actress wife -- which happen to reside in the country's fastest-growing metro area -- certainly weren't marks in the minus column for Dan Reeves. Not with the AAFC right there in both backyards. (Which reminds us: If you're going to have a team in a two-team market, you want it to be Cleveland or LA CA?)

Waterfield didn't put up Van Brocklin's numbers but was smarter, which resurrects the Starr-vs.-Favre argument but puts the two QBs on the same team at the same time.

As with the Packers, the starting nod on the all-time Rams goes to the smarter QB over the numbers guy. Especially if he's married to Jane Russell.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rich Saul: Help A Brother Out, Wouldja?

Rich Saul was a six-time All-Something center -- someone has to play the position, remember -- who should not be confused with his brother Ron, though we're not sure why not.

Actually, the fact that there is a Saul brother (as opposed to a Skoal brother) to not confuse begs a different question, namely: which positions are most conducive to brothers (biologically related siblings if you please, not, you know, brothers)? If your hunch was that the positions most conducive to multiple family members of the same generation (oh, heck, let's just call them brothers) are those requiring only the ability to be consistently large, you would be right.

According to the Football HOF's list of football-playing brothers there are 157 offensive linemen who are brothers with other players -- most often other offensive linemen (though not always; leave us not forget the dynamic tandem of center Dan Turk and punter Matt Turk). This is 47 more than the next closest category, running backs, but when you figure that for what is now the majority of football history a team has played two running backs and five offensive linemen, the percentage is higher of running backs who are brothers with other players.

The overall lesson appears to be that large runs in the family, but running runs in the family, too.

As for the best of the brothers, the Matthews brothers and the Upshaws get the nod over the more highly publicized modern pairs like the Barbers, the Sharpes, the Mannings, and the Joneses, but here's a dark-horse pair to consider: Charlie Taylor and his half-brother Joe "Turkey" Jones. Taylor was a no-doubter HOFer and Jones played great D-line for the Browns and other teams for a decade. Once you get intergenerational, though, it's no contest: The Matthewses rule the day.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

And Now, For Something Completely Different.

Those of you who have been following me on LinkedIn know that I (i.e., Kit Kiefer) just finished a kids' book.

The story behind this book is that my then 10-year-old son Andy told me over last Christmas that he doesn't like reading.

You know how that goes. "No son of mine is going to tell me he doesn't like reading!" and so on.

I asked him why he didn't like reading. "Because there's no books about stuff I like," he said, or close.

I asked him what he liked. "You know -- mysteries about snowboarding."

I have to hand it to him. If the bookshelves are dripping with mysteries about snowboarding, it's a very surreptitious drip.

"Okay," I told him, brimming with fatherly pride. (I can't shoot a 30.06 to save my life but I can write, by jingo.) "I'll write you a mystery about snowboarding if you keep reading."

He kept his end of the deal and I kept mine, and some of the result is below. I can say without fear of contradiction that it is one of the top 100 mysteries about snowboarding ever written.

I still don't think Andy is much of a reader, but writing the book was fun. Hope you like the excerpt.

“You ever feel like you landed in a movie where everyone but you has a script, and they’ve all read the ending?” Jacob asked. There was a big bowl of buttered popcorn in front of him, and a math book, but Jacob wasn’t interested in either.

“Don’t worry about it,” Mitchelle said. “I’ve got it all figured out.”

“Got all what figured out?” Jacob said. “How do you figure that I have a stolen snowboard?"

“You have a stolen snowboard under your bed.”

Jacob shook his head again. It really was like he was in a movie, and he was the only one who didn’t know his lines. “Yeah – that.”

“All right,” Mitchelle said, and drew herself up tall. “Everyone knows that Micah was accused of stealing the snowboard, and everyone knows Micah’s your friend. I know you’d do anything for a friend. I also know you had your dad take you to Micah’s house the other night to defend your friend. Your dad went in the house to talk to Bill Cody because he knows Bill Cody and wanted to help you and Micah. When your dad was in the house you took the snowboard and hid it in your dad’s trunk, then when you got home you snuck the snowboard out of the truck. You hid it under the bed because, hey, where else would you hide it? No offense, but you’re not the most imaginative guy.”

Jacob raised his eyebrows. That was it, all of it. “So you don’t know I took the snowboard – you just have it figured out that I took the snowboard.”

“To protect your friend.”

“Yeah. So who took the snowboard in the first place?”

“Koast Summersweet, no doubt.”

Well, that part was good, Jacob thought. “And planted it at Micah’s?”

Mitchelle nodded. “I know – well, I almost know. I heard him talk. I’ve seen the hat and coat. And, come on – you take a policeman back to a place they’ve already searched because they didn’t find what you thought they’d find? Guilty. Super-guilty.”

Jacob leaned back and looked at the ceiling. It was a long way up. He blew out a long stream of air. “So what do you want me to say? I took the board from Micah’s?”

Mitchelle laughed. “I want you to say I’m right.”

“And you’re not going to sell me out to the Summersweets?”

She shook her head and looked down before looking up and into Jacob’s eyes. “I’ve been with Them – I’m not one of Them,” she said. “I decided I’d rather hang around with people who give themselves up for a friend than people who’d give up their friends for themselves.”

“And you’re not, like recording this somewhere? No iCarly hidden camera?”

“None – cross my heart.” And she actually crossed her heart.

Jacob was silent a long time, staring at the high, honey-colored ceiling. “You’re right,” he said, almost in a whisper. “I took the board from Micah’s.”

“And put it under your bed?”

“Yes, and put it under my bed – but my old bed, up in the loft over my garage.”

“Yes!” Mitchelle exclaimed with a fist pump. She looked at Jacob with a big grin. “I’ve never gotten it all right before.” She jumped up and did a little I-got-it-right dance.

“Great,” Jacob mumbled, looking down. “So are you, like, Nancy Drew?”

“Ruth Rose,” Mitchelle said with a giggle, and a little bit more of the I-got-it-right dance. “You know, in the A to Z Mysteries.”

Jacob groaned. It was just his luck – mystery girl to Ruth Rose in five minutes flat. “Okay, junior detective fortune-teller – what now?”

“Okay, here’s what’s going to happen now,” Mitchelle said, like it actually was going to happen now. “Kape Summersweet’s royally bent because Chris Carmyn stunk him. You saw that.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jacob said with a grin.

“Koast Summersweet’s coming home royally bent because he took the sheriff to find a snowboard that wasn’t there – plus he knows that after his little wild-goose chase the sheriff’s going to get suspicious.”

“With you,” Jacob said. She’s a nut – but she’s good, he thought.

“So you’ve got two royally bent Summersweets about two houses down from us, and an equipment locker that holds Chris Carmyn’s snowboard around the corner from them.”

Suddenly Jacob caught on.

“Another one of Chris Carmyn’s snowboards is going to disappear tonight,” Mitchelle said, but Jacob was already ahead of her.

“Borrow your phone?” he said quickly. Mitchelle picked it up off the table between them and tossed it to him.

Three times Jacob’s trembling fingers stumbled over his home phone number. Finally he dialed it right and hit the Talk button.

“Dad?” Jacob said into the phone. “Yeah, Dad, it’s me – Jacob. Yeah, it’s Mitchelle’s phone. Yeah, Dad – Dad? Stop. I have to ask you this, and ask you this fast, and if it sounds kinda weird it’s just the kind of day I’m having. Okay: Dad, after I came into your office and talked to you, did I come back in again?” There was a pause, and Jacob took a deep breath. “And did I say anything?” Another pause. “Okay, Dad, thanks. Gotta go. And Dad, can I stay a little later? We’re studying – uh, spelling. Okay. Nine. Bye.”

Jacob ended the call and looked at Mitchelle. “We’ve got to get to that equipment locker – now!” he said, excitedly. ”The Summersweets have the key!”

Friday, June 4, 2010

To Play, But Not To Play

There is no finer job in the world, really, than being a backup quarterback.

You go in either when the regular quarterback is injured or ineffective.

People are rooting for you.

If you stink, it’s because you’re a backup and can’t be expected to do what the starter does.

If you’re good, a star is born.

Don Trull was a professional backup quarterback. He played for six years with the Houston Oilers and the Boston Patriots, and every year he was on a card his bio read something like, “Don is being groomed for the number one signal-caller’s job.” He never did get the number one signal-caller’s job — anywhere — but he managed to stay a step ahead of Jacky Lee, who was always being groomed for Trull’s job.

Trull was better than Charlie Napper, who had the best job of all — he was the Packers’ taxi-squad quarterback for what seems like the better part of a decade — but probably not as good as Jack Concannon. The last I saw of Trull was on a set of Canadian Football League stickers, where presumably he gave the Edmonton Eskimos a fine backup who will one day be the number-one quarterback, and one of the top-notch passers in their league.
-- From the original Football with 1 Stick Gum, 1999

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Warren Raab And Chuck Green -- During Meals, Even

Our phy-ed classes with Mr. Royer, the guy with the zip-in knees who looked like Burt Reynolds, fell into one of two categories: fun stuff — dodgeball, floor hockey, basketball — and dancing.

The dancing unit lasted eight months and consisted of the Virginia Reel, square dancing and novelty dances. The novelty dances consisted of “Go, You Chicken Fat, Go!” and the Hokey Pokey, which everyone hated and which resembled physical education about as much as a salt-and-flour relief map of the United States actually resembles the United States.

Whenever I see Warren Raab I think of the Hokey Pokey. The you-stick-your-right-foot-out part.

Similarly, before Jack Kemp came along, the Buffalo Bills featured the most unremittingly mediocre set of quarterbacks in the history of modern professional football. In their first three years, they trotted out Johnny “Chuck” Green, Tom O’Connell, M.C. Reynolds, defensive back Richie Lucas, Manuch Wheeler, and Bob Broadhead — and still won more than half their ballgames.

It’s easy to see why Green wasn’t a better quarterback. He suffered from some rocket-scientist’s misguided calculation that the way to get more velocity on a downfield pass was to first jump real high; he had a bad number; and he had a horrible nickname.

Quarterbacks aren’t supposed to have nicknames anyway, unless it’s something flashy, like Kenny “The Snake” Stabler or “Broadway” Joe Namath, or unless their given names are beyond hope, like Christian Adolph “Sonny” Jurgensen. But Chuck? It would be like nicknaming Gomez Addams “Lee.”

The back of Green’s card reads, “With the height and weight to take a chance at running the ball, Green worries would-be rushers because of his accuracy on the long throw.”

Uh, right. You bet.
-- From the original Football With 1 Stick Gum, 1999