Sunday, September 19, 2010

Grant Vs. Jackson, Uncivil-War Edition

Since this an election year, my current-affairs spiel.

When Ryan Grant went down for the season with an ankle injury, the pundits among us (which does not include me; I am merely a researcher with a mean streak) immediately ticked off two imperatives:
1) Fantasy-football players must pick up Brandon Jackson; and
2) The Packers must trade for Marshawn Lynch. Even noted fantasy baller (what he does can't be real) Aaron Rodgers made that call.

Sorry to stick a pin into the hot-airheads of the blogosphere, but the chances of that happening are less than the chances of a remake of Can't Stop The Music, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the Village People.

There are two reasons for this, both of which are obvious as the rhymes in a Jonas Brothers song:
1) Ted Thompson doesn't want to; and
2) The Packers don't need Marshawn Lynch -- in fact, the presence of Marshawn Lynch on the field -- on the field, not in the locker room -- would be a detriment to the Packers.

The first reason is pretty obvious. Ted Thompson's guys are Ted Thompson's guys,and if you're not one of Ted Thompson's guys it's really hard to be one. A friend of mine got drunk with Ted Thompson one year at the Senior Bowl, and he said that Thompson was the sorriest drunk he'd ever seen, in the sense that even when he was ready to curl up with a bottle of Cutty Sark on the top of a pool table Thompson was still analyzing football talent, and expounding on the shortcomings of Whisper Goodman. Football is Ted Thompson's life, and his afterlife, and his after-after-afterlife. He wants to come back as The Duke. All he wants out of this life is a six-foot-seven 350-pounder who can run a 4.2 40 and keep his pads two inches from the ground.

The second reason is less obvious, and has to do with the underlying message of this blog, which is that teams have tendencies and play to tendencies, and the best teams fit their personnel to their tendencies. The Packers are a passing team. They are all about Aaron Rodgers spreading around the ball to Jennings and Jones and Driver and Finley, because that's where the talent is, where the yards are, and where the points are. The Packers run one running back almost exclusively and ask comparatively little from him: 15 carries, four yards a carry, catch passes out of the backfield, pick up the blitz.

Brandon Jackson can do this. Marshawn Lynch is not going to do significantly better than this, and he might do markedly worse, in the sense of the Packers netting fewer yards with him than without him.

Here's what I mean. The Packers are not currently tempted to run Brandon Jackson 20 times a game. They want to run him 15 times a game, get their 60 yards, and fling the ball all over the field with the rest of their plays. If the Packers were to pick up Lynch they might possibly be compelled to run him five more times a game. The Packers gain an average of eight yards per pass and three and a half yards per run. Taking five plays away from the passing game and adding them to the running game costs the Packers four and a half yards per play, or 22.5 yards. That may not seem like much, but what team wouldn't want an extra 22.5 yards to mess around with? They come in handy.

Swapping around football players like Pokemon cards is fun. Who doesn't like to dabble in human trafficking now and then? The problem is that people get so wrapped up in proposing the most lopsided trade possible -- Breno Giacomini for Randy Moss, anyone? -- that they neglect to think about how a team behaves and what it really needs to function properly. In the case of the Packers, they simply need a running back to play the part of a pantomime horse, to stand up there and pretend to be something it's not without distracting from the main activity on stage.

Ted Thompson would understand.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

So Sad (To Watch Good Teams Go Bad)

Just so you know, I am the only writer in the world who would dare to explain Jerry Sherk and Walter Johnson by way of Gale Gillingham.

The HOF has been extremely reluctant to recognize players from teams that used to be great but were absolutely useless when these players played for them. Actually, “extremely reluctant” is not quite right. They haven’t done it, period.

Players who played their whole career for a bad team? That’s a different story. Larry Wilson, Roger Werhli, Dan Dierdorf, and Jackie Smith played for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1960-80, a team that went 136-134-12 with a near-HOF coach for half the time. The Cardinals couldn’t yank the flags off a second-grade Pop Warner halfback and ran the ball collectively as well as Sonny Jurgensen after a brewery tour, and they have four HOFers? It must have been everyone else’s fault. Larry Stallings’ fault. Johnny Roland’s fault. Jim Hart’s fault. Ernie McMillan’s fault. Okay, it was Sam Silas’ fault, but still. Good players on traditionally bad teams skate. Good players on recently bad teams suffer.

Leroy Kelly is not an example of this. The Leroy Kelly Browns were an extension of the latter-day Jim Brown Browns. And anyway, Kelly had Gene Hickerson blocking for him.

Neither is Claude Humphrey. Humphrey really was the diamond in the dungheap. There was nothing he could do to make the Atlanta Falcons anything more than unremittingly awful. And someday he’ll be in the Hall of Fame for it.

Compare their cases to that of Gale Gillingham. Gillingham didn’t get a shot with the Packers until most of the good players blew the Bay in the wake of Vince Lombardi’s departure, and while everyone and everything around him went instantly bad under Phil Bengston’s somnolent non-leadership Gillingham stayed good – great, almost. He was a five-time All-Something playing for an offense that did not exactly trot Taylor and Hornung out there, and yet there is no one touting Gale Gillingham for the HOF.

And honestly: Who is going to push enshrinement for a player whose plaque might read, “Was the anchor of a Packers’ line that went from legendary to lousy over his 11-year career”? Who among you is willing accept that Gale Gillingham played better in 1968, the year the Packers went 6-8, than the year before, when the Packers went 9-4-1? This stuff might get written about in the hopeful between-the-seasons stories, but it’s the first to escape from long-term memory when the past is re-evaluated and players are separated good from bad.

The same applies to Mike Curtis. Curtis won a Super Bowl, but the worse the Colts got the better Curtis played. He was the definitive middle linebacker of the post-definitive-middle-linebacker era, Joe Schmidt when everyone was focused on Bubba Smith. If anyone talks about Mike Curtis for the Hall of Fame they do it under their breath.

And Pete Retzlaff, whose star rose as the Eagles slowly sunk into the east, who supplied the best early definition of a pass-catching tight end and made Norm Snead look good. (Try that sometime.) And John Gordy, Alex Karras, and Roger Brown, O-line and D-line stars on a team whose offense was built out of melted-down Edsels. And Bruce Bosley, who got to block for Ken Willard instead of Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny, and John Henry Johnson.

While it’s a fact that going down on the up escalator is not the way to get to Canton, this is not a way of making a compelling case for Walter Johnson and Jerry Sherk as Hall of Famers. Can't be done. Sherk, a Joe Klecko-type white tornado in the middle of the line, was a four-time All-Something and Johnson, a Humphrey-like pass rusher, was a three-timer, which makes them the equivalent of a Tom Keating or a Larry Hand. They’re good players, but there are better. Their teammate Jim Houston, for one.

So given that Sherk and Johnson were anchoring the D-line, Houston was linebacking, Doug Dieken was blocking his limbs down to the nubbins, and the Greg Phipps and the rest of the running-back-by-committee were cracking off 2,000 yards a season, who gets the blame for the Browns’ steady slide into mediocrity?

Forrest Gregg, just because he was rotten in Green Bay. The receiving corps, who had nothing going for them but cool names (Billy LeFear, Fair Hooker, Chip Glass, Jubilee Dunbar, Gloster Richardson). A nasty secondary beyond Clarence Scott. The rest of the linebackers and D-line. The fact that Mike Phipps had to learn on the job because Bill Nelsen couldn’t execute a five-step drop without rupturing his patellar tendon.

Guilt-by-association is easy when good teams go bad. Sherk and Johnson are undeserving of being lumped in with undeserving players. But other players deserve even better.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Last(ish) Line On Linemen

I really can’t leave Dick Schafrath alone.

All the buzz these days is that left tackle is the hardest line position to play. It's the QB's blind side, there are speed rushers coming off the edge, he rarely has help -- oh, and he has to get out and lead the way on running plays. Dick Schafrath was the Browns' left tackle from 1959-71. He was All-Something six seasons and is about as far away from Canton as Pago Pago, and he's going to stay there, thanks in part to a highly obscure restriction called the Rule Of One Or Two.

I hadn't known such a thing as the Rule Of One Or Two existed until I started writing about Schafrath and thinking of reasons why he wasn't getting more consideration for Canton. The only thing I could think of that might work against him was that if he were elected to the HOF, three of Jim Brown's blockers would be in Canton, and that's a lot. That's more than every other running back ... because almost every postwar HOF running back has a lineman who blocked for him in the Hall of Fame, but never more than two, and almost every postwar HOF offensive lineman blocked for an HOF running back. Look at the list:

Dwight Stephenson C 1980 1987 None
Mike Webster C 1974 1990 Franco Harris
Jim Langer C 1970 1981 Larry Czonka
Frank Gatski C 1946 1957 Marion Motley, Jim Brown
Jim Ringo C 1953 1967 Ollie Matson, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor
Alex Wojciechowicz C 1938 1950 Steve Van Buren
Bulldog Turner C 1940 1952 George McAfee
Russ Grimm G 1981 1991 John Riggins
Randall McDaniel G 1988 2001 None
Gene Hickerson G 1958 1973 Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly
Bruce Matthews G 1983 2001 Earl Campbell
Joe DeLamielleure G 1973 1985 O.J. Simpson
Mike Munchak G 1982 1993 Earl Campbell
Tom Mack G 1966 1978 None
Larry Little G 1967 1980 Larry Czonka
John Hannah G 1973 1985 None
Stan Jones G 1954 1966 Gale Sayers
Gary Zimmerman T 1986 1997 None
Rayfield Wright T 1967 1979 Tony Dorsett
Bob Brown T 1964 1973 Ollie Matson
Jackie Slater T 1976 1995 Eric Dickerson
Ron Yary T 1968 1982 None
Anthony Munoz T 1980 1992 None
Lou Creekmur T 1950 1959 John Henry Johnson, Doak Walker
Dan Dierdorf T 1971 1983 None
Bob St. Clair T 1953 1963 Jim Perry, Hugh McElhenny
Art Shell T 1968 1982 Marcus Allen
Mike McCormack T 1951 1962 Jim Brown
Forrest Gregg T 1956 1971 Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung
Rosey Brown T 1953 1965 Frank Gifford
George Connor T 1948 1955 George McAfee
Lou Groza T 1946 1967 Marion Motley, Jim Brown
Jim Parker T 1957 1967 Lenny Moore
Jim Taylor FB 1958 1967 Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo
Jim Brown FB 1957 1965 Frank Gatski, Mike McCormack, Gene Hickerson
Joe Perry FB 1948 1963 Bob St. Clair
Marion Motley FB 1946 1955 Frank Gatski
Paul Hornung HB 1957 1966 Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo
Doak Walker HB 1950 1955 Lou Creekmur
Frank Gifford HB 1952 1964 Rosey Brown
Lenny Moore HB 1956 1967 Jim Parker
Hugh McElhenny HB 1952 1964 Bob St. Clair
Emmitt Smith RB 1990 2004 Larry Allen*, Big Cat Williams*
Thurman Thomas RB 1988 2000 Ruben Brown*
Barry Sanders RB 1989 1998 Lomas Brown*
Marcus Allen RB 1982 1997 Art Shell
Eric Dickerson RB 1983 1993 Jackie Slater
Tony Dorsett RB 1977 1988 Rayfield Wright
Leroy Kelly RB 1964 1973 Gene Hickerson
Walter Payton RB 1975 1987 Jay Hilgenberg*
John Riggins RB 1971 1985 Russ Grimm
Earl Campbell RB 1978 1985 Mike Munchak, Bruce Matthews
Franco Harris RB 1972 1984 Mike Webster
Larry Csonka RB 1968 1979 Jim Langer
O.J. Simpson RB 1969 1979 Joe DeLamellieure
Gale Sayers RB 1965 1971 Stan Jones
Ollie Matson RB 1952 1966 Jim Ringo, Bob Brown
John Henry Johnson FB 1954 1966 Bob St. Clair

As with any chart like this, some compromises were made in the interest of proving a point. Ollie Matson spent most of his career behind linemen other than Brown and Ringo, and Shell and Allen’s careers overlapped exactly one year. Stan Jones was playing defense when Sayers came to town – and Sayers is in Canton at least as much for his skill as a kick returner. Furthermore, linemen and running backs who played most of their careers in the AFL are out, because those players were chosen more on individual merit (on, in Floyd Little’s case, individual reputation) than on continuity or team performance. Ron Mix is in the Hall of Fame because he’s a great lineman, not because of the job he did blocking for Dickie Post. Little is in despite – or perhaps because he was – running behind no one better than Bobby Maples. You see some of this on the NFL side with Mack, Stephenson, Hannah, and Munoz, but they were clearly miles above their contemporaries and the tomato cans playing behind them, and they are decidedly exceptions.

The asterisked players are not HOFers but probably will be. The only reach here is Ruben Brown, and he could be balanced by adding Chuck Foreman behind Ron Yary’s name and the RB-esque John Elway behind Gary Zimmerman.

Some previously baffling inclusions and omissions come into focus when the Rule Of One Or Two is applied. A Hog had to make it into the Hall of Fame; John Riggins’ presence required it. Duane Putnam should have been the guy riding in on Ollie Matson’s coattails, but Matson the running back is covered and Matson the kick returner doesn’t need anyone. Conversely, the only way Mick Tinglehoff, John Niland, and Marvin Powell are going in is if the crystal doors mysteriously swing open for Dave Osborn, Calvin Hill, and Freeman McNeil. Dick Stanfel is worse off; he never even blocked for John Henry Johnson. Leon Gray is definitely out because there can’t be two HOF linemen from a Patriot team whose best runner was Steve Grogan. Instant Replay aside, Jerry Kramer isn’t a HOFer because Gregg and Ringo are already there, and three Packer linemen, even with the entire Packer backfield already enshrined, would be overkill. Schafrath isn’t going in because the voters chose Hickerson instead, and they’re not going to add a fourth guy who blocked for Jim Brown. At some point, their reasoning must go, Brown has to be given credit for what he did on his own.

It will be interesting to see how this phenomenon plays out. Unless Willis McGehee kicks it into sixth, Jonathan Ogden will go into Canton without ever having blocked for a HOF RB. Walter Jones squeaks by through his limited association with Edgerrin James. Speaking of which, someone from the Colts’ line is going to have to start looking good over time. Jeff Saturday is the likely candidate, but is Canton really going to open its gates for a four-time All-Something just because he passed the ball between his legs to Peyton Manning?

Time, and the Veterans’ Committee, has a habit of rewriting history from the way things happened into the way things should have happened. It should have happened that a great running back always had a great lineman leading the way. The fact that it didn’t always is just another inconvenient truth.

Now, Jim in L.A. asks, "Is there a lineman-QB connection?" There’s a connection all right, but less of a one than there is for RBs:

Dwight Stephenson C 1980 1987 Bob Griese, Dan Marino
Mike Webster C 1974 1990 Terry Bradshaw
Jim Langer C 1970 1981 Bob Griese
Frank Gatski C 1946 1957 Otto Graham, Bobby Layne
Jim Ringo C 1953 1967 Norm Van Brocklin, Bart Starr
Alex Wojciechowicz C 1938 1950 None
Bulldog Turner C 1940 1952 Sid Luckman
Russ Grimm G 1981 1991 None
Randall McDaniel G 1988 2001 None
Gene Hickerson G 1958 1973 None
Bruce Matthews G 1983 2001 Warren Moon
Joe DeLamielleure G 1973 1985 None
Mike Munchak G 1982 1993 Warren Moon
Tom Mack G 1966 1978 Well …
Larry Little G 1967 1980 Bob Griese
John Hannah G 1973 1985 None
Stan Jones G 1954 1966 Well …
Gary Zimmerman T 1986 1997 John Elway
Rayfield Wright T 1967 1979 Roger Staubach
Bob BrownT 1964 1973 None
Jackie Slater T 1976 1995 None
Ron Yary T 1968 1982 Fran Tarkenton
Anthony Munoz T 1980 1992 None
Lou Creekmur T 1950 1959 Bobby Layne
Dan Dierdorf T 1971 1983 None
Bob St. Clair T 1953 1963 Y.A. Tittle
Art Shell T 1968 1982 Well …
Mike McCormack T 1951 1962 `Otto Graham
Forrest Gregg T 1956 1971 Bart Starr
Rosey Brown T 1953 1965 Y.A. Tittle
George Connor T 1948 1955 Well …
Lou Groza T 1946 1967 Otto Graham
Jim Parker T 1957 1967 Johnny Unitas
Troy Aikman QB 1989 2000 Larry Allen*, Big Cat Williams*
Warren Moon QB 1984 2000 Mike Munchak, Bruce Matthews
Dan Marino QB 1983 1999 Dwight Stephenson
Steve Young QB 1985 1999 None
John Elway QB 1983 1998 Gary Zimmermann
Jim Kelly QB 1986 1996 None
Joe Montana QB 1979 1994 None
Jim Finks QB 1949 1955 None
Dan Fouts QB 1973 1987 None
Bob Griese QB 1967 1980 Larry Little, Jim Langer
Terry Bradshaw QB 1970 1983 Mike Webster
Len Dawson QB 1957 1975 Well …
Fran Tarkenton QB 1961 1978 Ron Yary
Joe Namath QB 1965 1977 Well …
Roger Staubach QB 1969 1979 Rayfield Wright
Sonny Jurgensen QB 1957 1974 Chuck Bednarik
George Blanda QB 1949 1975 Well …
Johnny Unitas QB 1956 1973 Jim Parker
Bart Starr QB 1956 1971 Jim Ringo, Forrest Gregg
Y.A. Tittle QB 1948 1964 Rosey Brown, Bob St. Clair
Norm Van Brocklin QB 1949 1960 Chuck Bednarik
Bobby Layne QB 1948 1962 Lou Creekmur, Frank Gatski
Otto Graham QB 1946 1955 Frank Gatski, Mike McCormack, Lou Groza

The ones with “Well …” in the spot where an HOFer should go are up for debate. Tom Mack played with Joe Namath for four games over the course of one season. No one associates Tom Mack with Joe Namath. Can you really say Mack blocked for Namath in the same way Larry Little blocked for Bob Griese? I say no. I also say no to every HOF lineman who played with George Blanda, since they played with him when he was a benchwarmer and a kicker, no to George Connor because Luckman was done when Connor was playing offense, and no to every HOFer who played with Len Dawson when he was mucking around with Detroit and Cleveland prior to the genesis of the AFL.

I’ll believe in the QB-OL relationship when they start putting in guys like Len Hauss and Randy Cross.