Monday, December 23, 2013

Duck The Halls

In case you hadn’t heard – and how can you read this blog and not be aware of this? – the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame just announced its 2014 class.
This might be the most frabjousisical of all the frabjous days (calloo callay), because get a load of the induction class: Nirvana, Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, Linda Ronstadt, KISS, and Cat Stevens, along with the managers Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham.
To put this in some sort of perspective, this class unites the creative forces behind Mama Bone Jakon, “Shock the Monkey,” “No Brain, No Pain,” “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle,” “We Will Rock You (Lullabye Version),” and “Plastercaster,” in one bright dung-wrapped package.
In terms of hall-worthiness (and forgive me for using that term in connection with an institution where the deck is listing 70 degrees to aft and the band is playing “Nearer My God To Thee”), I would rank the class as follows: Epstein, Loog Oldham, Nirvana, Ronstadt, KISS, Hall and Oates, and Gabriel, with Stevens trailing the field.
I am never perplexed at anything the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame does, since that would require being in a state of perpetual perplexedness, like if the Adam Sandler character from 50 First Dates had to listen to My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows first thing every morning. However, I do find some of the selections especially curious.
Starting with the most worthy, Epstein was the Branch Rickey of the British Invasion (if Branch had been gay and owned a boutique) and Loog Oldham was his Walter Alston.[1] Nirvana was epochal; I don’t care for their music in the same way I find the Sex Pistols indigestible, but I was never married to someone who uses lipstick the way Chris Hovan used eyeblack, and my drummer never picked up the guitar and formed a much more successful and longer-lived band.
Ronstadt epitomized the California country-rock sound better than anyone, she had incredible taste in music – introducing the McGarrigle sisters, Karla Bonoff, and Ry Cooder to millions of listeners – and she looked better in a halter top and cutoffs than any of the Eagles.
KISS represent the triumph of crass commercialism, theatricality, and loud guitars over art and taste (bad or otherwise), which makes the RnRHOF want to clutch them to its I.M. Pei-designed bosom. Plus, they’re one of the few modern acts to have tribute bands comprised of midgets. It’s so amazing they weren’t part of the inaugural class.
Hall and Oates were the most successful blue-eyed-soul duo in history. So what if their songs had the depth of a screen protector? As mentioned many times before, hall-worthiness is not dependent on artistic avoirdupois (though woebetide you if you’re a lightweight, and good luck figuring out the line of demarcation).
Gabriel’s solo career was short but adventuresome. He had the career everyone except Sting had hoped Sting would have.
Stevens I know. My brother had every Cat Stevens album from Father and Son/New Masters on, and since he was older and controlled the record player, those records were pounded into my brain with a diamond stylus and a nine-pound hammer. I still wake up in the middle of the night screaming, “Oh very young, how will you leave us this time?”
Stevens was Gilbert O’Sullivan with poorer diction[2]. Here’s a challenge for you: Listen to Teaser and the Firecat and Richard Thompson’s Hand of Kindness and tell me which one was done by a Hall of Famer. Oh, also: Thompson has 10 albums just as good.  Teaser was the best Stevens could do.[3]
 As we’ve said earlier, complaining about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame changes nothing. Conversely, nothing the hall can do can make it relevant.
Right about here is where the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame diverges from its sporting counterparts. The sports halls honor the significant, substantial aggregate of many small events, pass upon pass, pitch upon pitch, goal upon goal; the rock hall immortalizes artists for a few large accomplishments (“few” as in “one,” in some cases). Dwight Clark made The Catch; Patti Smith made Horses. No one’s making a case for Clark as a Hall of Famer, but Smith’s already in, and grinning like a fool at Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs, whose ghosts are sitting with their ectoplasmic noses pressed against the glass.
If the RnRHOF really wanted to be like the sports halls and acknowledge that song-after-song accomplishments are more important than lightning-in-a-bottle moments, there’d be a few changes made. NRBQ would be in the next class, along with They Might Be Giants, Graham Parker, Richard Thompson, Doug Sahm, Warren Zevon, Hüsker Dü/Bob Mould, John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris, Fela, John McLauchlin, Iron Maiden, Anthrax, Edmunds/Lowe/Rockpile, Black Flag, and many others you name in your hearts.[4]
But to bring this back to football, as we inevitably do, and this particular HOF class, who are the football counterparts of this year’s class – or put another way, if these acts are in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, who would the Pro Football Hall of Fame need to put in to keep pace?
Fun stuff. Let’s jump in.

Brian Epstein: We need a non-player who had phenomenal success over a relatively short time period. Looking good in a Nehru jacket is nice but not a prerequisite. So how about Don Coryell? His career was 14 years long – nothing in coach years – he had a couple of mod seasons there at the beginning, he was an offensive innovator almost without equal, and he did some amazing things with marginal talent. A 111-83 record doesn’t exactly match up with being the brains behind the best band ever, but what else you got for me? Besides, you have to save some room for …

Andrew Loog Oldham: Brian Epstein Lite, but with staying power. The time frame doesn’t exactly line up, but let’s go with Buck Shaw. He coached two fewer seasons than Coryell and won 21 fewer games, but he lost 28 fewer. More importantly, in a league dominated by Giants and Lions and Browns he consistently brought home winners, including a 1960 Eagles team that won it all. In a small, concentrated league where every team had a couple of Hall of Famers, that’s an amazing accomplishment.

Peter Gabriel: This only seems hard until you consider the attributes: Long career as part of something important and famous, short career in the spotlight apart from that group-slash-team … we could go Ed Reed here or even Dwight Freeney, but I prefer James Harrison. Harrison was a system guy with the Steelers, a five-time Pro Bowler who was in truth not as good as all that, though he’s been better than the numbers indicate with the Bengals. Oh, and he’s a marginal Hall of Famer who will likely get in based on his Steelers ties and not his innate ability (more on that topic later). He doesn’t do performance art, though.

Hall and Oates: Here we dive into the really-successful-but-not-really-beloved end of the ocean, and while there are some obvious candidates bobbing around waiting for someone to throw them a line – Jerry Kramer, Dick Schafrath, Ken Anderson, LaDanian Tomlinson, Marvin Harrison – I’m going with Charles Woodson. There’s talk that Woodson is not a sure-fire HOFer, even though he’s an eight-time Pro Bowler, three-time first-team All-Pro, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a true shutdown corner, and a player who above all has been able to change with the changing times. He’s the first- or second-best D-back[5] in an era where cornerback/safeties are up there with rush end as the most important defensive position. Will Woodson make it to Canton? Probably. Will he have to wait longer than he should? Probably. Is this a travesty? Probably – though “travesty” and “Hall of Fame” probably shouldn’t be used in the same sentence.

Linda Ronstadt: Now things get interesting. Talented as Ronstadt was, and setting aside the 20-year crush I had on her, she was also pretty darn lucky. Her career was spent surrounded by A-plus-list talent, from Jackson Browne and John David Souther to Peter Asher and Andrew Gold to the McGarrigles to Emmylou Harris to Nelson Riddle. Maybe a dozen other singers could have done what Ronstadt did, and while that doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that Ronstadt was the one who actually did it, it points up again the inestimable value of circumstance. And no NFLer has benfitted more from circumstance than Wes Welker. Ya gotta admit, spending your career as the safety valve of choice for first Tom Brady and then Peyton Manning is the choicest of choice gigs. It’s like getting to be Jerry Rice for a few years, then switching teams and getting to be Ray Berry. So while there’s no question Welker has been incredibly productive, there’s also no question that Austin Collie or Julian Edelman or Danny Woodhead or someone else was capable of doing 98 percent of what Welker did.[6]

Nirvana: The whole short-career thing is a problem for football unless you want to go old, where Don Doll and Don Colo, among others, are waiting. But it doesn’t feel right to go old with Nirvana, and there’s the problem again. So while there aren’t many good football comps for Nirvana, there is one: Sterling Sharpe. Sterling was on his way to being the decade’s dominant pass receiver before his neck injury. He was well-nigh superhuman, and the fact that he caught 90 passes in 1989 and his quarterbacks were Don Majkowski and Anthony Dilweg ought to be more than ample proof of that. If Shannon Sharpe can make it without ever catching more than 87 passes in a season, his better, bigger brother can get in for being more productive in less time.

KISS: Let’s see: show over substance, shallow, spotlight-seeking … I’m thinking wide receiver. Terrell Owens is the obvious choice, except for one thing: Owens is good. He deserves pretty much what he thinks he does, and that includes a spot in Canton.[7] Moss is out for the same reason, and after that the wide receivers (except for Sterling Sharpe) are Jimmy Smith/Rod Smith/Harold Jackson types – productive, but modestly talented and not truly disruptive.
Much as it pains me, we need to leave the wideouts to their mirrors and touchdown dances and throw open the competition to all the ego-heavy, sass-over-substance players from the NFL’s recent past. And looky here: Donovan McNabb. McNabb was a quality quarterback, but he was never as good as he thought he was, or people thought he was going to be, or fans expected him to be. McNabb bore his burden with a little bit of humor, a fistful of arrogance, and a whole lot of Kabuki-inspired face paint. Wait; scratch that. Face paint – something with stars on it, preferably – would have helped McNabb adopt an alter-ego, one that could complete clutch passes and not alienate his playmakers.
The numbers say that McNabb threw more than 30 touchdowns in a season only once, never led the league in a significant passing category, and led fewer game-winning drives than Jake Plummer, Drew Bledsoe, Kerry Collins, Vinny Testaverde, or Brad Johnson. On the other hand, he gave Michael Vick something to live up (or down) to and he is the namesake of one of the mushiest Hall of Famers, regardless of the hall or the fame.
(Somewhere right now McNabb is going, “Geez – what is this? Even after I retire?” Yes, Donovan: Even after you retire.)

Cat Stevens: And now, the one you’ve all been waiting for: The Cat Stevens of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Let’s be honest: Most HOFers and prospective HOFers are not climbing over each other for this honor. While no self-serving football HOFer wants to be paired with a female artist (Don Maynard, ladies and gentlemen – the Laura Nyro of the Pro Football Hall of Fame!) Cat Stevens is sort of the bottom of the barrel as football/rock-‘n’-roll enshrinee comps go.[8] So the challenge is to find someone wholly undeserving of enshrinement, and I know just where to look: Pittsburgh.
It’s no accident that many of the least deserving Hall of Famers from John Henry Johnson and Bobby Layne forward hail from Pittsburgh. For better (Chuck Noll) or worse (Bill McPeak) Pittsburgh has been a system team. The whole has been greater than the sum of its parts, except when those parts were Joe Krupa and Lou Michaels. Starting with the Noll years, the number of truly brilliant Steelers that weren’t coaches starts with Joe Greene and ends a couple degrees south of Joe Greene, at Rod Woodson. (Moderately brilliant: Mike Webster, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Dermontti Dawson; occasionally brilliant: Mel Blount, John Stallworth, Jack Ham, Terry Bradshaw; rarely brilliant: Lynn Swann).
Two more names are preparing to join the ranks of the overrated yet nonetheless immortalized: Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu.
It’s hard to decide which one gets Cat Stevens and which one either gets retrofitted with Donovan or has to wait around for the Moody Blues. Polamalu has half of Woodson’s stats, better hair and more concussions; Ward is ninth on the all-time receptions list but 21st in receiving yards, has no hair whatsoever, and never led the league in anything. Ward’s closest career comp is Derrick Mason, and last I checked the Derrick Mason Canton Express was empty. But just you watch: Hines Ward is going to be in Canton long before Marvin “What Gun? What Car Wash?” Harrison and maybe even T.O.
While it’s hard to choose between Polamalu and Ward, I’ve gotta go with Polamalu. Rarely has a player with so many weaknesses in what is supposed to be the core part of his game – pass coverage – been so revered. In general, and accounting for instances of moderate brilliance, Polamalu has been a modestly talented linebacker playing another five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
So there you have it. Troy, next time you’re sitting at the piano, how’s about banging out a few bars of “Tuesday’s Dead”?

This is way longer than I thought it was going to be, and I apologize, especially because we didn’t get anywhere. That’s how it goes with Halls of Fame, though. Just when you think you’ve figured out who belongs, they start playing “Peace Train” on the Muzak and the balloters get all misty-eyed, and there you are, screwed again.
At least until next year rolls around.

[1] Though if Epstein and Loog Oldham are Hall of Famers, where’s Colonel Tom Parker? Subtle he wasn’t, but his impact on rock ‘n’ roll is still being felt.
[2] I am particularly stumped at the case for Stevens as a HOFer. His career consisted of 11 albums from 1967-78, three of which went platinum, and 24 singles, two of which went to No. 1. He was idiosyncratic but not a pioneer in any genre. For those who scoff at the Gilbert O’Sullivan comparison, Stevens’ closest career comp is – oh, looky – Christopher Cross, who is nothing but the American Gilbert O’Sullivan. The American who came closest stylistically to Stevens, Dan Fogelberg, was actually more commercially successful.
[3] I am not cherrypicking. This also works for Roy Harper, John Hiatt, Warren Zevon, Graham Parker, Mark Knopfler, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and a host of other artists.
[4] Not all of these performers are personal favorites, either. I’m not a metal guy and I find Mould preternaturally difficult, but facts is facts.
[5] His competition: Champ Bailey and Ed Reed.
[6] You also can’t ignore the Pro Football Reference player ratings. Among active players, Welker trails Jahri Evans, Brian Waters, and Matt Hasslebeck, among others, and those numbers absolutely do not lie.
[7] Which begs the question: If you had to choose one receiver to make a big catch in a crucial situation, who would you pick: Randy Moss or Terrell Owens? Even though Moss had moments of otherworldliness that T.O. and anyone else on the planet couldn’t match, if you threw a jump ball to Moss you weren’t always certain who would come down with it. There was never that doubt with Owens.
[8] Though it would have been interesting if Alex Hawkins or Sonny Jurgensen or somesuch had commented to Lindsey Nelson, after watching Lynn Swann go through his paces, “You know who he reminds me of, Lindsey? Cat Stevens. Really soft and hard to figure out. Nice jacket, by the way.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Secondary Matters

I love blind comparisons. They’re so misleading.
So this time the category is “Hall of Fame defensive backs.” One of these four players is a Hall of Fame defensive back. Can you figure out which one?

Length of career
Times All-Pro
Player A
13 years
Unsuccessful head coach; successful assistant coach
Player B
12 years

Player C
Eight years
Two world championships
Player D
Eight years

Not easy, is it? It’s the first player – Dick LeBeau. The other three are Eddie Meador, Bobby Boyd, and Bobby Dillon. None of them are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All of them could be.
Did you like that? Cool – let’s do it again. Four more D-backs; one HOFer. Find him.
Length of career
Times All-Pro
Player A
12 years
Two league championships
Player B
12 years
Two league championships
Player C
13 years

Player D
Six years
One league championship

How’d you do on that one? The HOFer is player C – Roger Werhli. The other three are Jimmy Patton, Johnny Robinson, and Don Doll – not a HOFer in the bunch.
It’s hard to sort out the Hall of Famers among ‘50s and ‘60s D-backs. Interception numbers are all over the place because of the nature of the passing game during those years. Passing offenses were changing every year, and pass defenses were struggling (or, in the case of the Lions, not struggling at all) to keep up. Quarterbacks lacked the bull’s-eye accuracy of Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, for many reasons. QBs were three or four inches shorter on average. Frankie Albert was 5’10”; Eddie LeBaron, 5’9”. HOFers like Johnny Unitas, Y.A. Tittle, and Bart Starr were right around six feet even when measured with official NFL yardsticks. There was more variance in the texture and inflation of balls. More games were played on natural turf, in less-than-optimal field conditions. Fewer receivers went out on most passing plays. Passes were longer; completed passes went for an average of 14 yards in 1949, versus 11 yards today. Rules were more relaxed on defensive-back contact with receivers. And finally, quarterbacks weren’t groomed and schooled from second grade on on optimum elbow angle and foot placement and multiple reads. George Blanda was trying to do Tom Brady stuff, but he wasn’t looking off receivers or stepping into his throws. Nothing about playing the modern quarterback position was baked into his DNA – just the opposite, in fact. Everything about the passing game was much more improvised – headed toward the modern level of sophisticated planning and analysis no question, but in no ways there yet.
Not that defenses had it all over offenses in the passing game. There were no designated pass rushers, so Hawg Hanner was left out there to run down Otto Graham. Nickel and dime defenses didn’t even exist on chalkboards, and that left Bobby Mitchell isolated on Galen Fiss. Safeties were still duck-plucking centerfielders in the Bob Waterfield/Don Hutson/Sammy Baugh mold, lacking the speed to run with receivers – and if receivers in the ‘50s had one thing in common with modern receivers, it’s speed relative to the competition. It doesn’t matter whether Tom Fears could beat Brandon Browner in a 40-yard dash. What matters is whether Tom Fears could beat Don Paul – and he most definitely could.
As with so many other things, progress was mitigated by reactionary thinking and offensive progress was matched by defensive progress. The result was small improvements in offensive performance, but nothing like what could have happened had coaches seen the lightning in the bottle.
Contrast that with line play. A lineman’s role changed only incrementally through the 1950s. Blocking was still blocking; it meant little for a lineman to step back and pass-block one-third of the time as opposed to drive-blocking all the time. There are so many more linemen from the 1950s in the Hall of Fame as opposed to skill-position players (except for quarterbacks, which wind up enshrined out of all proportion) in part because what they had to do was more refined and better defined than what ends and defensive backs had to do. When you’re doing something that generations before you have done, and honed, and perfected, you’re going to be better at it than someone who’s basically figuring things out on the fly. The horse-drawn carriage of 1892 was naturally a more advanced carriage than the automobile of 1892 was an advanced auto. They’d had 20 centuries to get the kinks out.
Given all that, who were the truly great D-backs of the period? Make that D-back: Emlen Tunnell intercepted 74 passes from 1949-60, and no one else comes close. No. 2 is a semi-dead heat among Night Train Lane (5.8 passes intercepted/year from 1952-58; four-time All-Pro), Jack Christiansen (5.1 INTs/year, five-time All-Pro), Jack Butler (5.8 INTs/year, four-time All-Pro), and Bobby Dillon (6 INTs/year, five-time All-Pro). There are intangibles to all four – Lane was a feared tackler, Christiansen a feared returner, Butler and Dillon one-man defenses – but no single player is a head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest type. They’re all simply varying degrees of tall.
To be honest, there aren’t a lot of transcendental D-backs out there, perhaps because the position is so reactive. The cases you can make for Ronnie Lott, Deion Sanders, Mel Renfro, and Rod Woodson aren’t strong. The only D-back that sticks out a little is Larry Wilson, and wouldn’t you know: He took a reactive position and made it aggressive through the full-scale employment of the safety blitz.
None of this really addresses the issue at hand, namely: Why isn’t Bobby Dillon (and contemporaries like Jimmy Patton, Don Paul, and Don Doll) in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? There’s nothing in the research to answer that question, but there is a parallel to be found in – you guessed it – the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
To get to that point, let's play the misleading-comparison game again and look at the stats of two rock-‘n’-roll artists from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. You tell me which one is the HOFer. (Big honking hint: It’s the one with the worse stats.)

Top-40 singles
No. 1 singles
No. 1s written for other artists
RnRHOFer connection
Artist A
Rolling Stones
Artist B
Elton John

Could you guess the names? Artist B is Neil Sedaka; Artist A is Gene Pitney.
I’m not a Neil Sedaka fan by any means, but I can’t understand why voters have turned a blind eye to Sedaka while enshrining someone who’s essentially an inferior Sedaka. Hey, it’s not like Pitney eclipses Sedaka in the artistic-integrity department; “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is just as sappy and contrived in its own way as “Happy Birthday Sweet 16,” but Sedaka’s song has a beat, and you can dance to it, Dick.
The only only difference between Pitney and Sedaka is that Sedaka has the perception of being soft, and perish the thought that the RnRHOF would induct someone soft, but when you find the hard edges on Pitney, ABBA, the Bee Gees, or Donovan, let me know.
It’s lesson time, and I guess the lesson in all this is not to demand consistency when it comes to Hall of Fame voting. Though all we have is the numbers much of the time, the evidence says we can’t go on numbers alone; we have to go on something else. Problem is, no one can say for sure what that something else is.