Monday, February 13, 2012

Maynard, Saner

About a year ago, in writing a segment on the New York Jets, I wrote the following on Don Maynard:

“So how good was Don Maynard really? He had an HOF QB throwing to him, yet he was only a first-team All-AFL pick once, never all-NFL anything, and only a four-time AFL All-Star. Not to put too fine a point on it, but through most of Maynard's best years he wasn't even the best wide receiver on his team. George Sauer was a four-time AFL All-Star and a first-team All-AFL pick twice before walking away from the game after six years to wear a turtleneck and channel Tom Wolfe. Maynard was there for the Al Dorow years and hung around through most of the Namath era and was rewarded with an HOF bust, though he was clearly inferior to Sauer when the two played together. Maynard had speed and hands but was not a disciplined route-runner. Sauer had speed and hands and ran routes. Maynard was good and durable but clearly not great. In that respect he resembles Harold Jackson or Isaac Curtis, two receivers who are close to the Hall of Fame but not in, and not likely to get in.”

Permit me the luxury of reconsidering.

Certain aspects of the above statement are indisputable. Maynard was not well thought of during his career. For half of his career peak he was the most productive player on a woefully unproductive team. He was a headstrong west Texas cowboy adrift in New York City, continually criticized for running undisciplined routes and having so-so hands. (“A stubborn nonconformist who fumbled,” was Sports Illustrated’s take.) When Joe Namath arrived, it was the passes that were spectacular, not so much the pass-catcher.

But if you accept the notion that Don Maynard was the overrated split end catching passes from the overrated quarterback Joe Namath, then the question is, “How bad was Don Maynard? Otis Taylor bad? Gary Garrison bad? Dee Mackey bad? Jerry LeVias bad?”

Fortunately, there are ways to answer that question.

First, I took all the Hall of Fame wide receivers from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, plus a few others, and broke down their stats. I focused on four things: yards per catch first, then receptions, then touchdowns, and finally yards.

The order’s important. Since I don’t have a stat that measures targets, yards per catch is the only measure of a receiver’s effectiveness. A quarterback passes the ball in a calculated risk that he will gain a significant amount of yards, mitigating those instances where the passes falls incomplete and gains no yards. (Or, to revisit the Woody Hayes Perspective On Passing, those instances where the second bad thing happens and the quarterback throws an interception.) A quarterback that completes two-thirds of his passes for an average of 10 yards per completion has reached a state of perpetual offensive motion. He could conceivably move up and down the field at will. If a given receiver delivers 15 yards a catch compared to an average receiver’s 10, he’s much more efficient and therefore much more valuable.

Here’s what I mean. Lance Alworth averaged 19.5 yards per catch during the peak of his career. Lionel Taylor averaged 12.7. Taylor had to catch 50 percent more passes than Alworth to match Bambi’s production. Not surprisingly, Alworth was and is considered to be the more valuable of the two receivers.

You could argue that by catching more passes for fewer yards per catch Taylor was actually more productive, since he kept more drives going, but the counter to that is first, Alworth also caught more balls per year, and second, Alworth also had twice as many touchdowns. Taylor was nowhere near as productive as Alworth, and that’s why Taylor is not prime HOF material.

The other reason to look at yards per catch is that it takes the quarterback out of the equation to an extent. Maybe Lionel Taylor’s production suffered because Frank Tripucka and an assortment of dead-armed sphere-chuckers were entrusted with getting him the ball – but, hey, every time someone got Taylor the ball he churned out fewer yards than most tight ends. Sure, it could be that the Broncos of the ‘60s ran a lot of underneath routes because those were the only routes the quarterback could throw, but the production of Al Denson and others suggests otherwise. Lionel Taylor simply wasn’t much of a RAC guy. If you’re looking for a semi-contemporary contemporary, think Art Monk. If you prefer a contemporary who’s truly contemporary, try Hines Ward.

Receptions are important because they show how many times a receiver was achieving that big RAC. Alworth is the top receiver of the ‘60s because he caught as many passes as anyone for more yards and touchdowns than anyone. Conversely, it took Bob Hayes extra time to make it to Canton because he only caught 45 passes a year in his best years, even though his RAC and TDs were just a tick behind Alworth’s. Also remember that the pass was still largely a gambler’s play in the ‘60s; the notion of the pass as a tool for extending possession was just being formulated and accepted.

Finally, touchdowns reflect the ultimate goal of throwing passes and gaining yards: winding up in the end zone. Not to bash Lionel Taylor, who happens to be one of my favorite players from the AFL days, but five TDs a season on top of everything else pretty much deep-sixes his chances of getting to Canton. On the other hand, anything between eight and 10 TDs sustained over a seven-to-10-year career gets you noticed.

So enough of the preliminaries. Where does Don Maynard rank? Let’s go to the chart:

Well, maybe Maynard doesn’t suck after all. Taken in the highly appropriate context of where he sits with his contemporaries and measured on the basis of his best years, Maynard comes out second only to Alworth among ‘60s receivers. Oh, and he absolutely blows the doors off of George Sauer.

(Just so you know, we went apples-to-apples here. We compared continuous peak years, throwing out the tentative first years and the on-the-skids last years. These figures show what you might reasonably expect from these receivers when they were in the prime of their careers.)

This chart does no favors to the receivers who aren’t in the Hall of Fame. Harold Jackson, for all his longevity, never got much better than this. Jack Snow, who isn’t on the chart, posted some great yards-per-catch numbers but just never caught enough balls. Think of him as a poor man’s Bob Hayes, with a guest shot on The Beverly Hillbillies. The same, minus the Hollywood, applies to the underrated Carroll Dale. Ten years later they could have been Cliff Branch. Otis Taylor had decent RAC numbers, but again, he was never the target the way Maynard or Alworth was.

There are a few mitigating circumstances to consider, but not many. Hayes and Maynard were very much alike in the sense that they were old-school bomb receivers, more of a piece with Tom Fears and Harlon Hill than the Charlie Joiners and Jerry Rices to come. They were not modern receivers, but no one said they had to be.

Considering durability, competition and production, Don Maynard is one of the best three wide receivers of the ‘60s. Forgive me for suggesting otherwise.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Curtis Martin: The Malcontent's Moment

Most of the time running backs coming out of college with bad reps fully justify those reps. In fact, they often go out of their way to justify their reps. Lawrence Phillips? Choking the woman in the bar was sheer genius. Ricky Williams? You had a feeling the NFL wasn't ready for Peter Tosh, and you were right. Cedric Benson? His only faux pas was not getting arrested in grand style, in Chicago, on a Great Lake. Maurice Clarett? Rashaan Salaam? Brent Moss? Brent Fullwood? Duane Thomas? Joe Don Looney? The defense rests.

Ah, but ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution calls Curtis Martin. Martin was a first-round talent drafted coming out of Pitt, but was drafted in the third round because of concerns over his work ethic. You know where those concerns usually wind up: Larry Kinnebrew. Well, it never happened. Instead, Martin became respected for his diligent work habits and overall intelligence -- the anti-Phillips, so to speak.

Arguably the best NFL free-agent signing ever and definitely one of the top five free-agent signings in New York sports history, Martin signed a big-money deal with the Jets so he could stick with Bill Parcells, and he delivered seven straight 1,000-yard seasons. He's the Jets' all-time rushing leader, the star of this year's Canton class, and a quality individual, but consider all the damage he's done. Thanks to Martin, drafting a malcontent like Travis Henry makes sense. On the other hand, that's why God made Cincinnati start with "sin."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Charley Ane One

The role of first-ins is misunderstood. People sometimes think if the first person to do something or be something had not done or been it, then nobody would have. For instance, if Alexander Graham Bell had not shouted "Watson, come here" into a mess of steel reeds we'd all be restricted to text-messaging on our Blackberrys.

Actually, first-in is more a matter of circumstance than being so far out there that you're off the GPS. Bell did the best job of summarizing the existing science and wrangled a patent for the lot. Fact is, several people not named Bell have a legitimate case to be designated as the Inventor of the Telephone. The problem is, of course, what to do with all the postage stamps in all the stamp albums.

Jackie Robinson was Jackie Robinson, but if there hadn't been a Jackie Robinson there'd quickly have been a Roy Campanella or a Monte Irvin. Much is made of the fact that Jackie Robinosn had the perfect temperment to break the color barrier, but Irvin or Campanella would have sufficed just fine.

Charley Ane was the first Polynesian pro-footballer, and everyone from Haloti Ngata back to Mosi Tatupu should give a nod in his direction, but if there hadn't been a Charlie Ane there'd have been someone else, as soon as there was someone who made sense. You can always make a case that sure, colleges should have done a better job recruiting American Samoa and yeah, the NFL should have made a better effort to scout the Pacific Rim, but heck, Minnesota was lucky if it could track down the best kid in the Iron Range every year and the NFL was too busy overlooking Otis Taylor to be bothered with Polynesia.

It wasn't conscious exclusion; it just happened, and it's still happening. Stanford doesn't get the best halfback in Guinea-Bissau, and the NFL's scouting presence in the Falkland Islands is mediocre at best. Just count your blessings that Charlie Ane was discovered in Hawaii and got to go to USC and was scouted by the Lions and got a chance, because he was a fantastic lineman, whether at center or tackle.