Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Brown Power

Before we get into the nuts of Jim Brown, a story. A friend who lives in Green Bay met Dick Schaap in a bar and asked him about Jim Brown as a lacrosse player. Brown played lacrosse at Syracuse and crossed paths (and sticks) with Schaap, who played goalie at Cornell. At the time Brown was Brown-shaped and completely healthy, which meant he had muscles on the outside of his shorts, and Schaap was at his adult height of five-foot-eleven, of which an honest eight inches was hair.

Schaap intercepted some of Brown's shots but wasn't religious about it. As he told my friend, "Brown wasn't much of a lacrosse player, but he didn't have to be. No one wanted to get in his way."

That might be the essence of Jim Brown the athlete right there. People got in his way but no one wanted to. Not even Sam Huff at the height of his manic-insurance-salesman powers said, "Man, I can't wait to get me a piece of that Jim Brown."

But the thing of it was, when Jim Brown was on the field everyone knew he was going to get the football, because the Browns offensively had two options: hand the ball to Brown or punt. The QB of Brown's Browns was either math whiz Frank Ryan or Milt Plum, the magician behind the Lions’ dynamic punting game of the mid-‘60s. Gary Collins, who ran like a fully loaded game-show host, was the split end. At the other end was Johnny Brewer and the mattress attached to his back. Rich Kreitling was in the mix too, to the amusement of D-backs throughout the league.

Given a choice between Jim Brown and that in the NFL of the late '50s, what did Browns GM Brown tell Coach Brown to have RB Brown do? Exactly.

The numbers tell the story. Jim Brown represented 32 percent of the Browns’ offense for his career, just rushing the ball. Add in his catches and that number jumps to 38 percent.

No running back in the postwar era comes close to those numbers for a career. O.J. Simpson was half the Bills’ offense in his 2,000-yard season, but he couldn’t sustain it. Neither could Earl Campbell or Gale Sayers. In Barry Sanders’ best year his rushing yards were 35 percent of the offense -- less if you factor in Scott Mitchell’s givebacks.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Here are the differentials between Brown and the second-place rushers for the eight seasons Brown won a rushing title.

Year      Brown's Yards      Runner-Up Yards     Differential     % Differential
1957      942                       700                          242               25.69%
1958      1,527                    791                          736               48.20%
1959      1,329                    1,036                       293               22.05%
1960      1,257                    1,101                       156               12.41%
1961      1,408                    1,307                       101                 7.17%
1963      1,863                    1,018                       845               45.36%
1964      1,446                    1,169                       277               19.16%
1965      1,544                    867                          677               43.85%

Two times in his career Brown had almost twice as many rushing yards as the league’s second-best rusher. Only once was the gap single digits.

By comparison, in Barry Sanders’ huge 1997 season he won the rushing title by 295 yards over Terrell Davis – roughly a 14-percentage-point cushion. Brown beat that gap six times out of eight.

The one-dimensional Neanderthalism of the Browns’ early ‘60s offense hadn't been seen in the NFL since Ernie Nevers took his Duluth Eskimos on a three-month romp through the playgrounds and garden spots of central Ohio, and Jim Brown took it with him when he left. In the post-Brown era every great RB required a posse, even if it was Willie Gault and Matt Suhey. The DIY ethos was gone forever.

You start with a whole lot of running backs, and what you’re left with in the end is Jim Brown. Jim Brown was his own video game before video games were invented. Jim Brown had Jim Brown and some blockers taking on platoons of HOFers, all with steel plates in their heads, and Jim Brown dominated. He was as black and proud as the truth.

Monday, July 26, 2010

He's Got Size And Speed, And He Stinks

Much is made in modern football of the miraculous case of the short D-back. For these players, the convention seems to be that the shorter they are the faster they run, and the faster they run the better they cover. That would put the double whammy on Fischer, who was small without being fast.

But just wait a minute, Pat; don't go nowhere. Speed is not inversely related to size. If it was, Usain Bolt would be the size of a gluon. And if speed is truly all that matters for a D-back, why not simply stick Usain Bolt back there and let wang chung? But Usain Bolt is not a D-back and no one is talking of making Usain Bolt a D-back, much less letting wang chung.

What's going on?

What's going on is a lie. It's like the old saw about how it's not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of fight in the dog. It's not about size but quickness, and not about quickness but about a specific type of quickness: the ability to change directions quickly.

You hear a lot of talk at the scouting combines about how a D-back prospect is either fluid in the hips or not fluid in the hips. This is not a hip thing the way some puppies get a hip thing and have to be put down. This is a hip thing that means a good D-back has to quickly throw his hips to change direction to keep up with a quick-cutting wide receiver.

Yeah, not running like Sherman Plunkett is a good thing, but assuming a D-back can cover ground faster than a garden slug, or the aforementioned Mr. Plunkett, it's far, far better to be able to stop in a heartbeat and whip the hips and catch up to a flanker coming out of a cut than it is to have another tenth in the 40.

Pat Fischer could change direction faster than Eric Mangini trying to describe his latest loss, plus he had the engaging aggressiveness of a Looney Tunes weasel contemplating Foghorn Leghorn's drumstick. He was not fast, was never fast, but was quick enough to start at corner until he was 37. It's possible. But it really has nothing to do with size.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Of Greatness, Real And Presumed

In 1950, when the NFL swelled from 10 teams to 12 with the addition of the Browns and 49ers, the NFL must have thought it had invented the sports equivalent of color TV. I mean, 12 teams? The league hadn’t had that many teams since the days when every town in Ohio was required by law to have a team, and a Nesser brother playing on it. Twelve teams was the outer bound of the universe; go any further and one would surely fall off the edge – right?

Possibly. But a funny thing about that huge new NFL. There were 12 teams, and eight HOF QBs. Nine, if you count George Blanda with the Bears.

Think about that for a minute. Twelve teams, and eight or nine HOF QBs.
That would be like every team in the modern NFL having an HOF QB except the Bills, Browns, Jags, Chiefs, Redskins, Lions, Bucs, and Rams. My God! That would make Bruce Gradkowski an HOF QB!

Now, there is a little fudge going on. The Bears had two HOF QBs on the roster in Blanda and Luckman but started Johnny Lujack. The Rams had Waterfield and Van Brocklin and split their snaps. Still, you’d have to think there will never again be a time when the density of HOF QBs is that … uh, dense.

So when you’re smacked in the face with a question like this, you have to ask why. Why were there proportionally more HOF QBs in the ‘50s than any other decade? And once you ask this question you had best strap yourself in for the answers.

The first answer is that the position evolved in the ‘50s, and the game evolved with it. In 1940 teams passed for 13,788 yards. In 1950 they passed for 25,856. For the first time since the NFL’s inception, every NFL team in the ‘50s had a QB who was primarily a passer. More passers meant more passes. More passes meant more passing records. Baugh, Layne, Luckman, Waterfield, Van Brocklin, Tittle, and Graham – and later in the decade, Starr and Unitas -- rewrote the record books. (Trippi and Blanda didn’t.) Halls of Fame recognize rewriters of record books.

Had these QBs played 10 years earlier the game wouldn’t have been ready for them. Had they played 10 years later they would have been Babe Parilli or Frank Ryan.

The second answer is that defenses were slow to catch on. Whenever someone throws three shutout innings in a spring-training game you hear, “Oh, that’s because the pitchers are so far ahead of the hitters right now.” That was the NFL of the early 50s. Frankie Albert was in the shotgun and Norm Van Brocklin was bombing Nagasaki, and Steve Owen was still stuffing nine slow guys in the box. Once the Detroit Lions started to figure out pass defense in 1955 league passing numbers fell fast and far – from 27,593 yards in 1954 to 23,009 in 1955 to just over 21,000 passing yards in 1956. It took the rest of the decade for total passing yards to approach 1950 levels.

The ‘50s also had the greatest concentration of football talent spread among the fewest teams. There were rival leagues at the end of the ‘40s and the start of the ‘60s, but the NFL had the ‘50s all to itself. African-American players finally infiltrated the game, raising the level of athleticism. The perception has been that these HOF QBs were supremely talented players excelling in a realm of supremely talented players. True that, but also realize that pro scouting was in its infancy and the college game was still running antiquated offenses, and many potentially great NFLers went right into beverage distributorship instead of taking the scenic route through Green Bay. It was largely impression that the NFL was at its zenith.

And not just the NFL. The two Golden Ages of Sport in the 20th century were the ‘20s and the ‘50s. Media was infatuated with sport in the ‘50s and got the populace squarely behind them. Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Grantland Rice, Bill Heinz, Dan Daniel, and Joe Palmer were spinning the yarns of Mickey Mantle and Jim Brown and building Bobby Thomson into a Scottish Paul Bunyan. Television in the ‘50s put games and athletes into every bar and living room. Cooperstown and Canton (and Toronto, too) are filled with players from these decades who would have lived the life of Ron Santo, minus the squeals, had they played at a different time. Charlie Trippi and Doak Walker had their equals in Hal Newhouser and Bobby Doerr.

In the pro game, the writers were paying attention to quarterbacks and running backs, largely to the exclusion of everyone else. That’s why there were 13 HOF QBs in the ‘50s (counting Trippi and Blanda but not Jim Finks, who made it to Canton on the strength of assets other than his right arm) and 16 running backs (though teams ran the ball less in the ‘50s) against seven HOF receivers, though the ends and flankers were just as responsible for the offensive explosion as the QBs.

So to sum up, in the ‘50s you had the prime movers of hot offenses playing against bum defenses at a time when great writers were in the business of glorifying QBs and everybody was paying attention.

In fact, by the end of the ‘50s every NFL team had had an HOF QB for at least two seasons – except for the Giants, who were coincidentally one of the league’s most successful teams.

If that seems preposterous now, rest assured it wasn’t preposterous then – but only because it wasn’t true. Every Lions-49ers game did not pit a backfield of two HOFers against a backfield of four HOFers, with John Henry Johnson rotating out on passing downs. We’ve simply made it out to be that way.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Swann Song

I spent a summer as the assistant GM of the U.S. National Semi-Pro Football Team, accompanied the team on its British tour, and heard a ton (metric) of Eric Swann stories on the road to the first-ever World Bowl and over pints in the pubs of the appropriately named British resort town of Blackpool.

Swann was the only semipro player in the modern era to be drafted No. 1 by any team, and by the modern era we mean the days when a scouting trip to watch players did not require knowing the password to a speakeasy.

The members of the U.S. National Semi-Pro Football Team, those who realized that passport photos cannot be taken in the backyard, in front of a tree, with a favorite dog, said that Swann wasn't the best player they ever played against and therefore shouldn't have gone No. 1 to the Cards, but they're wrong. Jackie Robinson wasn't the best baseball player of color; he was the appropriate player.

While Eric Swann was no Jackie Robinson, he was young and properly proportioned and had a clean criminal record, which put him at least one leg up on 90 percent of his semipro competition. Furthermore, he was going to the Cardinals, so it's not like the leap was huge.

If Swann never lived up to the Paul Bunyanesque expectations it's not his fault, or the fault of semi-pro football. Not every trailblazer blazes a trail clean through.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Why I Hate Charlie Trippi

Okay, I don't hate Charlie Trippi. But I don't think he's a Pro Football HOFer based solely on his on-field performance.

Trippi's closest comp among modern quarterbacks is … well, it's Ronnie Brown, actually. Runs more than passes, blockers out front. It's not very complicated or scenic, but it got Trippi a couple of All-Pro nods and a place in the Hall of Fame.

It's mind-blowing that a runner who never won a rushing crown or a passer with a 5-11 record at quarterback and whose best showing on the all-time charts is 182nd place in punting average could be a Hall of Famer, but Trippi was the best player on the Cards' only championship team, and that's ... that's enough. Those Kurt Warner doubters may want to reconsider.

Ah, but let's not leave the remains of Charlie Trippi quite so soon. This you need to know about Trippi: He filled the stands. Like Doak Walker, Trippi was a college player who came out of school dripping excitement. The postwar National Football League needed Charlie Trippi just like it needed Red Grange in the early days. There was no TV contract; what the players, teams, and league got was based almost exclusively on the number of people who came out to watch the game. And if, like Grange, Trippi was less of a player on the field than he was in the newspapers, it's somewhat secondary. He helped salvage the game by bringing out the crowds, and that, along with being the best player on the Cards' only championship team, is more than enough.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bulldog Turner, Dick Lebeau, And Hunk Anderson, In A Heap

Dick LeBeau is going into the Hall of Fame, and good for him. He was a superb defensive back and has been unsurpassed as a defensive coach, though it's a fair bet that from this point forward HOF voters will still equate putting assistant coaches into the Hall of Fame with eating wood ticks.

However, LeBeau's ascendance into Valhalla has a dark side in that his coattails will be as short as Supergnat Smith, and Hunk Anderson isn't going to be invited for the ride.

Rotten, because what LeBeau has been to defenses and D-backs Anderson was to lines, the Bears line in particular. He also -- Mr. LeBeau please note -- helped invent the blitz.

More Bears linemen are in the Hall of Fame in part because Anderson was their coach. Does that mean Bulldog Turner wouldn't have been a Hall of Famer if his coach had been, say, Aldo Donelli? Well, not in this case. Turner was an athletic, durable lineman, as smart as anyone who's made a career out of geting kicked in the head, and one of those marvelous center-linebackers of the late '30s and '40s. But Hunk Anderson helped make him, and George Musso and Joe Stydahar and George Trafton and Danny Fortmann and George Connor, and that shouldn't be forgotten.

The Last Word On Don Coryell

Don Coryell was a Sid Gillman-caliber offensive innovator, he won everywhere he went, he could motivate a 30-year veteran of the DMV, and he made bad teams better and the players and coaches on those teams into stars. If that's not the definition of a Hall of Famer, I don't know what is.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The ChiStlAz Cardinals, For Better Or ... Better? What Am I Saying?

If the Cardinals were a car they would be a Fiat. The gear shift would come off in your hand, the steering column would disconnect randomly, the windshield washers would spout brake fluid, the motor would turn over only on French holidays, and you could watch the highway go by through the holes in the floorboards.

In all fairness, the Cardinals have not always been a Fiat. At times they have been a Hillman Minx.

From this you should gather that not only have the Cardinals been abysmal, but that they have been wantonly, willfully abysmal, so much so that you expect to learn that the Cards’ GM for the last 50 years has been Sacha Baron Cohen.

This has not been the case, of course. The Cardinals have for most of their history been controlled by the Bidwill family, which is to inept football management what the Kennedys have been to bed-hopping Irish machine politics only with fewer assassinations, though not for lack of want-to.

The result of this despotism is remarkable: One world championship in 89 seasons, and that clouded by the state of the post-WWII NFL. Seven playoff appearances. A .413 winning percentage. More losses than any other team in NFL history by a margin of 100. Six Hall of Famers who spent the bulk of their careers with the team (coaches not included, and Bill Bidwill definitely not included).

Besides moving and losing, the Cardinals are known for three things: kick returners, defensive backs and offensive linemen. Of these, only offensive linemen are not commonly found on stinkers. In the post-1960s game, the weaker your defensive line the more time your quarterback has to throw, the more pressure put on the defensive backs, and the better the defensive backs appear by sheer dint of workload. The Bears have had no better than mediocre defensive backs since 1960, and they’ve not only been largely successful, they’ve earned a reputation as a defensive powerhouse because no one throws on the defensive backs – not because the defensive backs are so good but because the quarterback has no time, because the defensive line and linebackers are so good.

As for kick returners, if returning kickoffs is a big part of your game you either have Gary Hogeboom as your quarterback, Freddie Joe Nunn as your defensive anchor, or both. The Cardinals have had four or five of the top 50 kick returners in the league since 1960 – Stump Mitchell, Vai Sikahema, Abe Woodson, Terry Metcalf, and Ollie Matson, depending on your yardstick, with Willard Harrell and Eric Metcalf in reserve. A good team has one or two, and then only if they hang around for a decade out of sheer inertia, like Brian Mitchell or Troy Brown.

It is a lie that the Cardinals have never been able to run the ball except when it is kicked. There have been five distinct periods when the Cardinals have been able to run. The first was when they had Ernie Nevers and everyone ran the ball. That lasted three years. The second was when they won a championship and everyone on their team ran the ball. That lasted three years. Then there was the Ollie Matson Era, when King Hill and Sam Etcheverry gave the ball to Matson and watched him run. That lasted five years, until Matson was traded to the Rams for nine football-team parts. (Incidentally, trading one player for nine football-team parts makes sense if the team getting the parts is the Monongahela Pig-Iron Ingots of the Wyoming Valley Industrial League. It makes less sense for an NFL team, or the Cardinals.) This was succeeded by – surprise! – the John David Crow Era, which was numerically more impressive than the previous era – but, oh, King Hill and Sam Etcheverry were still the quarterbacks. And finally, there was the Ottis Anderson Era, which lasted most of six seasons, until Anderson’s yards per carry could be measured in microns. And then they traded him. To the Giants. Where he was MVP of the Super Bowl.

There you go. Twenty years out of 90 when the Cardinals really ran the ball. Heck, we’ll throw in Stump Mitchell’s thousand-yard season and Jim Otis’ good year and the year MacArthur Lane led the league in rushing TDs and call it 23. Twenty-three years out of 90. One-quarter of all seasons yay, and the remaining three-quarters populated by failed scatbacks like Leeland McElroy and mud-slow fullbacks like Earl Farrell.

The D-line and linebackers have been more a story of bad luck. Andre Wadsworth blew out a knee. E.J. Junior got hurt. Eric Swann got hurt. Seth Joyner got old. Dave Butz woke up in Washington. So did Ken Harvey. Darryl Sims never woke up at all. Jamir Miller and Simeon Rice wanted market value. Bad luck, that’s what it is. There are signs this may be changing, but the minute you say that Darnell Dockett chafes at the franchise tag and there you are, snakebit again.

There’s a lesson here, namely: It’s all about the lines, but not always. The Cards’ D-line has been a botch from the get-go. It could not have been worse had it been manned by the Backyadigans. But sometimes one line is all that’s needed to ensure a lifetime’s mediocrity, especially when the word from the Bidwills on high is that Joe Childress and Willis Crenshaw is a perfectly acceptable backfield tandem and that Edgerrin James in his Wile E. Coyote/legs-churning-furiously-in-midair phase is worth $9 million a year. In that case it doesn’t matter if Dan Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler, and Tom Banks are blocking. Anthony Munoz and Jonathan Ogden could pitch in and Tootie Robbins could be the H-back and they’d still average -3 per carry.

There are signs of a turnaround in the desert, but there are always signs in the desert. They’re mirages, or small voices of dissent crushed by a Buddy Ryan hitting town or an Aeneas Williams pulling out. It’s Tienamen Square, with Solomon Wilcotts as the sideline reporter.

No, we simply ought to consign ourselves to the reality that the Cardinals have always been bad and will always be bad. The perpetuation of the species depends on it. And there, at last, is the justification for King Hill.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Brief, Pointed Observation On Larry Wilson

Wilson is credited with inventing the safety blitz, but this is much less of an accomplishment when viewed from Wilson's practical perspective. If your front four was Don Brumm, Sam Silas, Joe Robb, and Chuck Walker, leaving only you and Dale Meinert to tackle anyone, you'd sure as hell crowd the line of scrimmage, too.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

So Is It Nature Or Nurture, Harlon Hill?

So were the Bear quarterbacks so bad because they were throwing to Tom Waddle and Willard Dewveall, or were the Bear wide receivers so bad because Steve Walsh and Jack Concannon were doing the throwing?

The Bears' career-receiving-leaders list is a smorgasbord of mediocrity peppered with Brian Baschnagels and Marty Bookers, but part of that was by design. In the first NFL draft, while the rotten teams were drafting the Jay Berwangers of the world, George Halas drafted eight linemen; subsequently he perfected a devasting rushing offense.

Under Halas and the subsequent Halas-lite leadership, first-round draft choices have been spent on running backs, linemen and linebackers, with only the occasional nod to a wide receiver (c.f., the fast but perpetually disappointing Willie Gault).

Harlon Hill was the pinnacle of Bears wide-receivership from the '30s through the '80s, rivaled only by Johnny Morris for a couple of seasons. He was a genuine home-run threat who still ranks eighth all-time in yards per catch. That and three All-Pro nods won't get you into the Hall of Fame or even buy you a cup of coffee, but by Bears standards it puts you right at the top ... yelling at Sid Luckman to throw you the damn ball.