Friday, September 30, 2011

Colts-Cowboys: Battle of the (Cartoon) Network Stars

Maybe the greatest appeal of football to men is this: It’s so linear.

You either have talent or you don’t. Either the talent performs or it doesn’t. If the talent doesn’t perform the team loses. If the team loses the coach gets fired. The switch is on or it’s off. It’s broken or it’s fixed. It’s brats or burgers.

What’s more, the product is standardized. There’s a recipe for throwing and general agreement on how to catch, how to run, and how to tackle. You don’t find a lot of knuckleballers in football. The Greenwich Mean Time of football is the 40-yard dash. You run against the clock, and the clock doesn’t keep a supply of graphite oil inside its belt.

Compare this to baseball, which is a women’s sport if ever there was one. Ichiro is arguably the greatest baseball talent of the modern age – Americans only saw the down side of his career, remember – but he is more idiosyncratic than a stop-motion David Byrne, he makes positive contact with the ball one-eighth of the time, and even if he makes positive contact there’s no guarantee of a positive outcome. And it’s all discussed incessantly by everyone involved. I was watching the season finales on Wednesday, and for all the inherent drama I mostly felt like I had just wandered into the narthex of the local Lutheran church after a Sunday-school teacher’s meeting.

Really, baseball couldn’t be more feminine if it were lavender-scented.

The ultimate lesson here is that in football talent wins more often than not, even in these fanciful made-up games I’ve been documenting over the last several months. Cachet, that certain something behind a good 70 percent of the Yankees’ world championships, doesn’t really come to play in this sandbox.

All of which is a preface to saying this: the Cowboys lose.

Now, the Cowboys have nothing if not cachet. Of all the cartoon characters football fans have created to personify their team, the Cowboys’ character is the most pervasive: The 100 percent Amurrican as wild-west cowboy, rootin’ and tootin’ and shootin’ up the town, daring the law-abiding citizens to make him stop.

Oh, and he’s short. Like five-foot-two short. And his cowboy hat falls down over his ears to such an extent that all you see of him besides his hat is a pair of cowboy boots. It’s Jerry Jones in caricature as L’il Jerry, Amurrican hero, and one way or another L’il Jerry always wins. The Cowboys oeuvre is a topsy-turvy everything’s-bigger-in-Texas act for the new Texas, where they sell more Hyundais than F-150s, and it’s custom-made for all the brawn-over-brain galoots who have secretly rooted for Yosemite Sam to blow up Bugs Bunny just once.

If the Cowboys were a baseball team they’d be the Yankees; it’s been said more than once because it’s true. The Cowboys would hit you over the head with their stadium and pitch Herschel Walker in game one, Peyton Manning would lose a fly ball in the sun, the ‘Boys would bring in Deion Sanders to close, and it’d be all over before Pat Summerall realized they were playing baseball.

However, the Cowboys’ inherent Yankeeness returns to bite them in this stadium of the mind, where the numbers throw fastballs and reality runs the 40. Dallas’ success has been self-perpetuating, often in excess of the talent producing the results. The Cowboys have won 57.6 percent of their games, just a tick behind the Bears, yet their best quarterbacks have been Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach – Hall of Famers more renowned for managing talent than displaying outlandish skills. The ‘Boys running backs are unimpeachable – you gonna argue with TD and Emmitt, despite their iffy skills as pass-catchers? – but the wide receivers aren’t difference-makers and their offensive line toils in well-deserved obscurity. The D-line is stout and the linebackers are solid, but like a lot of good teams there’s work to be done in the defensive backfield. They’re just a team, in other words, like a lot of other teams. They don’t run out Hall of famers two-deep like the Bears or have a HOF-caliber QB as the fourth-stringer, like the 49ers and Rams. They put their pants on one leg at a time, and they set no records doing it.

When you assemble a team with consistent winning as a goal, this is what you get. When you assemble a team with less coherent goals, the best-case scenario is the Colts.

Make no mistake: the Colts have won 53 percent of their games over the last 59 years – nice, but hardly exemplary. However, the Colts have only been good half that time. The other half of the time they have been so bad that it’s a surprise they’ve only moved twice in their existence. The Frank Kush years were so execrable that the Colts could have been forgiven for pulling up stakes in week 12 and resettling in Shreveport or Toledo.

To be intensely bad half of your life and still be on the plus side of the glass must mean periods of sustained brilliance, and the Colts have delivered. The Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning teams have been among the greatest teams in football history, and if the all-time Colts steal heavily from them, what of it? Do you really want to trot out Steve Emtman in the interest of equal representation?

The bottom line for the Colts is that their quarterbacks are two of the best ever, they have four HOFers at running back – a scary combination of thunder (Eric Dickerson) and lightning (Lenny Moore and Marshall Faulk) and out-of-the-backfield pass-catching ability -- and three at wide receiver, they have one HOF tight end and maybe two, their O-line sports a current HOFer and a couple of gonna-bes, and their defense is predictably strong in the front line and less strong at linebacker and D-back. Plus, they have two HOF coaches already, with perhaps the best coach (Tony Dungy) in the wings.

That’s not much more than the Cowboys, but it is more. And in the inexorable, ultimately linear game of numbers that’s being played here, slightly more wins.

Here’s how. The Cowboys take the opening kickoff and pound the ball down the field, alternating Smith and Dorsett and setting up a 38-yard Rafael Septien field goal. The Colts go three-and-out, with a Peyton Manning sack, but then the Cowboys are bottled up and the Colts get untracked. Three straight Manning completions move the ball into field-goal territory, but three straight incompletions result in an Adam Viniateri miss from 46.

No matter. A Gino Marchetti strip results in a Dorsett fumble, Dwight Freeney recovers and the Colts get a short field to work with -- bad news for the ‘Boys, as Manning finds Mackey down the middle to give the Colts a 7-3 lead.

The ‘Boys keep pounding the ball, and use a rare bomb to Bob Hayes to set up an Emmitt Smith TD as the first quarter ends. The TD hardly dings the Colts’ momentum, though. Manning deftly works the short passing game to set up a patented fade pattern to Reggie Wayne, and the Colts regain the lead 14-10.

The rest of the first half follows a similar pattern. Dallas uses the running game to lengthen its possessions; the Colts use the passing game and a no-huddle offense to speed down the field. Both teams wring a field goal out of their possessions, giving the Colts a 17-13 lead at halftime.

After the Kilgore College Rangerettes high-step at halftime and L’il Jerry dances on the star at midfield comes the game’s biggest break: The Colts get the second-half kickoff.

Bang! Sixteen yards to Ray Berry. Bang! Eleven to Marvin Harrison. Bang! A nine-yard draw play to Edgerrin James. Bang! A 23-yard screen pass to Marshall Faulk. Before the ‘Boys can react, a no-huddle onslaught rocks Dallas onto its heels, and by the time their heads clear Dickerson has galloped into the end zone and the Colts have extended their lead to 24-13.

With the pressure on Dallas to quickly move the ball, the team folds up like a Quizno’s franchise. Ted Hendricks picks off Aikman and returns it to the Dallas 19. A nine-yard pass to Berry makes it 31-13. Roger Staubach relieves Aikman and delivers a 37-yard scoring strike to Michael Irvin, but the Cowboys are unable to turn a Bob Lilly strip of Peyton Manning into points, and Manning makes them pay by firing a 43-yard bullet to John Mackey.

With the outcome in hand, the Colts put the offense on Eric Dickerson’s shoulders, and he burns more than enough clock. A late Dorsett score can’t change the ultimate reality (in a made-up sort of way): 41-27 Colts.

Peyton Manning is masterful, completing 27 of 42 passes for 342 yards and four scores. Aikman and Staubach combine to go 16 for 29 for 274 yards and two scores. Smith and Dorsett combine for 143 rushing yards, but the Colts’ four backs lay down 132 – not exactly what Dallas had in mind.

So while the cartoon embodiment of the Cowboys sheds big pooling tears on his artificial turf, the cartoon embodiment of the Colts moves on to the next challenge.

And that cartoon embodiment of the Colts is … haven’t you heard? It’s Captain America.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Browns-Rams: Pretending To Pretend

This is all fiction; that’s the only disclaimer you’re gonna get.

And because it’s fiction, and because I’m the bloke making it up, I can do what I darn well please – especially because this is a blog that at last count is being read actively by .000001 percent of the planet. So if your team doesn’t come out on top in this particular match, please don’t come crying to me. Realize this is nothing but falsehoods from invented start to faked-over finish, with players who will never elsewhere play together playing together on a pretend field, running plays cobbled together out of whole cloth, scoring points that are even more apropos of nothing than the points that are usually scored in games, and delivering a wholly made-up outcome essentially to you and no one else. Really. It couldn’t be more personal if you just sat down and thought it. So relax and let it happen. It’ll be over in about another 850 words, and you can go back to more tangible pursuits, like playing Angry Birds.
I screed because I’m looking at this particular matchup, the all-time Cleveland Browns versus the all-time Los Angeles Rams. (And they are the Los Angeles Rams, darn it, no matter what anyone in St. Louis says or thinks. In fact, I think L.A. should just claim them under eminent domain, stick them back in the Coliseum, and change the colors back to blue and white. There still may be a clown car full of wackos running for the White House, but at least one thing will be back in balance.) It’s virtually impossible to pick a winner because the talent levels are so close. Up until now there was a disparity in talent somewhere that could be exploited, on a purely academic level, solely for the entertainment of the reading audience, but not between the Rams and the Browns. They could be the same team, if the Browns’ uniforms weren’t so historically ugly. The only time they looked even remotely appropriate for a football team was when Marion Motley’s helmet matched the color of the ball – white. And that was when the AAFC played night games and no one could see anything. So the only time the Browns have dressed like a football team was when they played in the dark, whereas the Rams have always looked somewhat like a football team, even when they were fighting off Georgia Frontiere's urge to dress them like cheerleaders.
The all-time records are close. The Browns have been in existence 11 fewer years and have won 25 fewer games, so they’ve been better more often, not that that means anything. The Dolphins have been betterer oftener and they’re on the sidelines because they lack talent. It may be harder to lose with talent than to win without it, but not here.
The starting lineups similarly approximate each other. The lines are strong, the linebackers less so, the offensive backfields more so, and the defensive backfields – well, both teams hope it never comes to Erich Barnes or Ed Meador saving the day.
Let’s look at those lineups in detail.
W. Johnson
Jack Youngblood
Matthews Jr.


You look at that and think, "Oooh, the Rams' D-line is going to roll like an M-1 tank over the Browns' line" – until you look at the Browns' line, comprised as it is of three HOFers (rightly or wrongly, not my decision to make – particularly because of the fact that they are HOFers is just that, and all my stuff is just neurons acting up), an oughta-be and a will-be. And then you look at the Rams' O-line and think, "Well, that's not going to get 'er done" (I suppose you really do talk like that), and then you look across and see that they're blocking Jerry Sherk, and you realize there's more than enough there. And every "Whoa – Jim Brown!" is met with a "Man – Marshall Faulk!", until you throw up your hands at the futility of the pregame and decide to play the damn game.
(By the way, this is one huge advantage a made-up-in-the-head game has over a non-made-up game. If Howie Long runs out of things to say about a Bengals-Chiefs game five minutes into a 20-minute segment he has to keep talking – not a huge sacrifice for Howie I know, but oh, the humanity.)
And the game turns out to be a laugher.
The deal is this: Speed kills. The Rams' wideouts are some of the fastest of their respective eras. That goes double for Marshall Faulk and third-down types like Ollie Matson. Outside of Lavelli, the same cannot be said  of the Browns. Their running backs are run-you-over types, and the linemen are road-graders – and the Rams go around them like they're orange-crowned brown pylons.
It's like watching the Packers in their first game this year, against the Saints. The Packers were running an American Basketball Association fast-break offense, and the Saints, no slouches in the speed game themselves, simply couldn't keep up.
The game starts with Ollie Matson running the kickoff deep into Cleveland territory. Three plays later Bob Waterfield bombs one to Elroy Hirsch and it's 7-0.
The Browns move the ball to midfield but are forced to punt. Don Cockcroft pins the Rams down at their five ...  and this time it takes four plays for the Rams to score. A short Dickerson run is followed by a bomb to Fears, who takes it inside the Cleveland 10. A fade pattern to Isaac Bruce goes for six, and the Browns are down by 14 with scarcely six minutes gone in the first quarter.
Cleveland gamely sticks to the running game and pushes it down the field enough for Cockcroft to bang through a 36-yard field goal, but then Matson cracks off another long return, Waterfield hits Torry Holt in stride, and caps it by connecting with Marshall Faulk on a 29-yard screen pass that's good for a third TD.
It's 21-3, and you don't need to know any more other than Norm van Brocklin plays most of the second half and drills Turkey Joe Jones in the solar plexus with a two-yard bullet, just because.
Oh, and the final. 38-17 Rams.
The numbers are staggering. L.A. rolls up 483 yards of offense to Cleveland's 297. Waterfield and van Brocklin combine for 370 yards passing and four scores, two to Hirsch. The running game generates 113 from a combination of Dickerson, Steven Jackson and Lawrence McCutcheon. The Browns run for 161, 113 of it from Jim Brown, but it's largely meaningless. The Rams are faster, and every bit as good. What looks equal is actually quite unequal.
Could the outcome have been different? Of course not. Sorry; I meant to say, "What a foolish question." There are only a billion ways it could have been different, and about 425 million of them have the Browns winning.
If you feel differently, let me suggest that you get the remaining 6.775 billion people on the planet to read this and weigh in with their opinions – and even then I'm not changing anything.
After all, it's just pretend.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Returning With The Rest Of Round Two

I realized I haven't followed through with the Battle of the All-Time-Great Teams, so with no further ado, here are recaps of the remaining round-two games.

Dolphins-Rams: Call it art imitating life or what you will, but no-name defenses don’t win all-time-greats matchups. When the playing field is 8-1/2 by 11, talent carries the day. This is a bad thing for the Dolphins, who have almost always been greater than the sum of their parts. Blame it on the coaches; the great ‘Fins coaches, Don Shula and Bill Parcells, have been so ungodly good at wringing every last drop of play from their charges that the personnel guys (sometimes the coaches themselves) feel bulletproof enough to say, “I don’t care; give me that guy with the elevator cleat.” Go figure: the Dolphins have an all-time winning percentage of .576 and trot out Manny Fernandez, Jason Taylor, Bill Stanfill, and Bob Baumhower in their all-time best-ever defensive line – and the whole defense is like that. The linebackers are Bob Brudzinski, Bryan Cox, and the prototypical Dolphins defender, Zach Thomas, who turned short, unathletic, and quintessentially overachieving into a multiyear All-Something career. The secondary includes Patrick Surtain, Sam Madison, Jake Scott, and Dick Anderson – solid guys, but gird your loins with them and step into the ring with Steve Young, and let’s see how you do.

Compare this with the Rams, which have always been about squandering great talent the way a Hummer squanders liquefied dinosaurs. They flash Bob Waterfield and Tom Fears and Elroy Hirsch and Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce and Norm van Brocklin and Jack Youngblood and Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones, Inventor of the Sack. The Dolphins fire back impotently with Dan Marino, Bob Griese, Paul Warfield, Larry Czonka, and a handful of linemen. Larry Little, indeed.

All the good coaching in the world can’t save the Dolphins in this one. The Rams outrun and outpass the outflanked Dolphins, who set the tempo for exactly three minutes in the first quarter. A 10-3 game at the end of one balloons to 24-6 at halftime and 37-13 by the final gun. Waterfield throws for 419 and three scores, Hirsch catches six for 125, and Faulk and Dickerson rush for a combined 156.

While the Rams move on, the Dolphins can console themselves with this: No NFL team has historically done more with less. The unfortunate thing is that less is ultimately less.

Titans-Lions: Believe it or not, but the Titans have the better all-time record and home field for this matchup, but like we’ve mentioned before, a team only needs about three four-year periods of goodness to supply enough players for a decent all-time-greats team. The Lions make it up to two and a half, and that’s enough to take down the Toilers.

Houstennessee makes it really close, though. Warren Moon plus Earl Campbell just about equals Barry Sanders, and the Oilans throw in Chris Johnson, Elvin Bethea, Ken Houston, and a really good offensive line to counteract Joe Schmidt, Alex Karras, Roger Brown, and a cast of a thousand tough D-backs.

However, this game pivots on a matchup: Moon versus the Lions’ defensive backfield. The Lions’ historical secondary is the best in NFL history, and it’s deep. Moon, a short, impatient quarterback, is perfect cannon-fodder for Jack Christensen, Lem Barney, Night Train Lane, Yale Lary, Dick LeBeau, and Don Doll. The result: four interceptions, one pick-six, and two short fields that the Lions turn into 10 points.

Moon’s plenty productive when he’s not throwing to the other team – 328 and a TD – and Campbell and Johnson are a dynamite Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside duo, but it doesn’t matter. Despite Barry Sanders outgaining Bobby Layne (Sanders 146 rushing yards, Layne 139 passing yards), the Lions prevail 20-17.

Packers-Chargers: A replay in spirit of Super Bowl I. Despite some gaudy numbers coming in, the AFL quarterback can’t throw, the AFL running backs can’t run, and the Packers jump on early and never let up. Green Bay 27-7.

Browns-Seahawks: In the current milieu it’s hard to believe this game is even being played. In the all-time-great milieu it’s a stretch, too. The game starts out fairly evenly, as the Seahawks’ skill players and defensive stars hold their own, but it fades fast thanks to an overdose of Jim Brown and a stiff shot of Otto Graham. A surprisingly stout Browns’ defense delivers, too. In the end Brown rushes for 117 and a TD, Marion Motley adds 83 and two scores, Graham waltzes in on a naked bootleg and the Browns advance 31-10.

Recap: The final eight teams in the all-time-great-team showdown have been determined. The matchups are:

• Bears-Lions in Chicago. Four quarters of ouch, guaranteed.

• Browns-Rams in Cleveland. The Rams go back to their roots, assuming the ground’s not too frozen.

• Packers-49ers in Green Bay. The latest installment of a classic playoff matchup.

• Cowboys-Colts in Dallas. A rivalry that ought to be but has never been takes center stage.

Stay tuned for the game stories and results.