NPF: BACK ME UP

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on September 25th, 2014 by Ed

My Cardinals are off to a surprising 3-0 start, surprising not only because they aren't as talented as many other teams but also because they're down to their backup quarterback. Luckily they're one of the few teams in the NFL that has that valuable commodity known as a backup QB. And I mean the old school kind, the kind you don't see very often these days. The Professional Backup is a unique animal, far more rare than the backups most often seen around the league.

There are four types of backup QB. First and most common is the Failed Starter. Guys like Jason Campbell, Derek Anderson, and Jimmy Clausen are classic FS types. The problem is that they failed as starters because they're not very good, so if you have to play them it turns out that they're…well, not very good. Second is the Untested Rookie. You spent a high draft pick on him and he makes a decent salary so by default he's second on the depth chart. If he has to play, it's a total crapshoot. Third is the Aged Veteran. He was a good starter at some point but he's pushing 40 now. The team hopes that if he does have to play, it will be mercifully brief. Each hit could be his last, and the speed/arm strength are gone. Finally there is the Professional Backup – a guy who knows that he is not the starter, knows his place on the roster, and is competent to play without crippling the team's chances to win. The PB plays a quarter here or there when the starter is having an off day; he starts a game every year or two when the #1 guy sprains his ankle. After each performance he returns to the bench with zero complaints. There is never a "QB controversy" on account of his ego because he doesn't have one.

Arizona's Drew Stanton is a good modern example of the PB, but undoubtedly the greatest ever was Earl Morrall. Most casual fans have no idea who he is. But he backed up some of the greatest greats – Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese, etc – and was always ready to provide competent if unspectacular play in relief. Did any fans out there realize that during the legendary 1972 Dolphins undefeated season Morrall started and won more games than gimpy Griese? Or that in 1970 he took over for an aging Johnny Unitas on short notice and won a Super Bowl? And yet everyone including Morrall himself knew he was the caddy and not the starter. He never set the world on fire when he played; he did the same as Stanton is currently doing in the desert – not making mistakes and playing within his limited skill set. Like a professional.

The PB has disappeared for the same reason that the Long Reliever has disappeared from baseball: there is a shortage of quality quarterbacks so anyone remotely competent is anointed a starter. Josh McCown, for example, is a great backup but now he's starting on a woeful Tampa Bay team. Some other great PBs that come to mind are Zeke Bratkowski (Bart Starr's longtime caddy), Don Strock, Jeff Hostetler (who supported Phil Simms on those great Giants teams), and Jon Kitna. The latter two were eventually turned into starters – Hoss with the Raiders and Kitna with Cincinnati and Detroit – by desperate teams even though it was clear that they were destined to be excellent number twos. Green Bay's Matt Flynn is a recent example of a guy who clearly isn't a starter but who plays great in relief.

Scarcity is slowly driving the Professional Backup into extinction, but there are still a few out there. It's the kind of thing that you appreciate if you're a non-casual fan with an eye for the little things that make the game fun to watch. Viva Earl Morrall.

NPF: READING INTO

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on March 20th, 2014 by Ed

In one of my previous lives I was paid small amounts of money to write things about football. Specifically I wrote about NFL draft prospects; I was an early adopter of Draft Mania that has overtaken sports publications and networks in the last ten years. In the late Eighties and early Nineties there was none of the circus you see today. Mel Kiper was some schmuck who hawked an annual draft guide in ads in Pro Football Weekly. It was a spiral-bound packet of black-and-white copier paper, the kind you make at Kinko's.

When I began grad school in 2003, I had to let the draft writing go by the wayside. I didn't have the time to commit to it anymore and it's not possible to write anything useful or accurate without investing the necessary time. The thing is, I used to be not-bad at it. Sometimes I see the overwhelming amount of space networks like ESPN devote to the NFL draft today and I wonder if I made a bad career choice (Hint: I did). But in any case, I've been planning to come out of retirement for day because of a player in this year's draft class who is attracting the attention of people who ordinarily don't give two shakes about football: Michael Sam.

The amount of media attention being focused on this guy right now is completely unfair, but could have been predicted in advance of his announcement on ESPN (He had told his college teammates privately and without fanfare about a year ago). And now the NFL is getting scrutiny from a lot of places where the football side of what's about to happen is not well understood. Based on events of the past few weeks, Sam is likely to be a late-round draft pick. And I'm pretty sure that when it happens, "It must be because he's gay" is going to be a most common response. It's a little more complicated than that.

The day before Sam made his announcement, he was likely to be a mid-round (3rd/4th) pick. These guys are usually productive college players who lack ideal size or speed to impress the NFL or guys who are physically gifted but who never really did much in college. Sam is the former. The day after he made his announcement, he was still a mid-round pick. That's not naive; NFL executives and coaches are under intense pressure to win now and they would draft a guy who wore pink panties and had two dicks growing out of his chin if they thought it would help them win. I'm not so naive to think that everyone in the league is open and accepting of gay people, but if they think this guy can take down quarterbacks they'll put up with a lot of baggage (as they define it).

The problem is that Sam went to the NFL Combine (a tryout camp, basically) and took a major dump. For a pass-rusher without great size, he ran a very slow 40-yard dash (4.92) and put up a pitiful 17 reps on the bench press. By normal human standards he's a phenomenal athlete, but those numbers are basically those of a player who isn't good enough to get drafted at all. In fact, it's only because he showed such good production on the field at Missouri that someone will take a shot at him in the late (5th-7th) rounds.

Sam improved upon those numbers just a bit on Thursday at a workout on the Missouri campus but he looks like the classic "tweener" – a guy who isn't big or strong enough to overpower NFL players and not fast enough to compensate for the lack of size/strength. If you're gonna be small, you have to be fast. If you're gonna be slow, you better have superhuman strength or size. "But he was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year!" Yes, he was. Tons of guys who are great college players flop in the NFL. Despite what whacko SEC fans might tell you, the SEC is not the NFL. The players are smaller and slower than even the least competent players Sam will face in the NFL.

So what NFL coaches are looking at in Sam is a guy who is going to bring a media circus with him (through no fault of his own) and has "Tries hard but just isn't good enough" written all over him. A step too slow, a bit too small, etc. Of course, the draft is always a crapshoot – Sam could become the best player in the NFL for all we know. However, the track record of players like Sam isn't great. My best guess is that Sam will be something like a 5th round pick, based on his on-field success at Missouri, for a team like the Bears or Saints that uses traditional ends in a 4-3 front. If he's drafted there (or later) we should avoid reading too much into it. No one can deny that he was a great college football player, but he's just not that exciting as an NFL prospect and that's all there is to it. The attitude and college production say Great Player while his overall athletic ability says Warm Body.

NPF: AUTOMATIC

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on January 3rd, 2014 by Ed

The Cardinals team that I expected to go 3-13 this season closed out a surprise 10-6 year with a close loss to their hated rivals the 49ers on Sunday. In a tight game (San Fran 23, Arizona 20) the kickers were the difference. The Cardinals' Jay Feely missed two makeable field goals (37 and 43 yards) while SF's Phil Dawson provided the three-point margin of victory with a 56 yard moon shot in the 4th quarter. Retrospectives on the season are unanimous, as are fans around the internet, that Feely must be replaced this offseason.

This highlights a fascinating trend in the NFL over the past twenty years. The kicking game has become so accurate that coaches, players, and fans alike treat it as automatic. If a kicker ever misses, his job security is immediately called into question. I've done a bit of research and uncovered some statistics that underscore the point.

For the season Jay "Unemployed" Feely was 30 for 36 on field goals (83%). In 1965, the league leader, long-time Cardinal Jim Bakken, hit 67% of his kicks. In 2013 the worst kicker in the league, an aging Sebastian Janikowski, hit 70%. The league leader, Matt Prater, was a ridiculous 25-of-26 (96%) including an unheard of 64 yarder, a record. The Saints Garrett Hartley was waived a few weeks ago for hitting 73% on the year. So the worst kicker in today's NFL was better than the best kicker in seasons past. Jim Bakken's league-leading 67% from 1965 wouldn't even have been good enough to keep his job today.

Want a few more percentages? The current career leaderboard is dominated by active and recent kickers. Of players with at least three seasons of experience, former Colt Mike Vanderjagt is the all-time leader with 86% for his career. Dozens of other modern kickers are right behind him with career averages between 80 and 85 percent. Jan Stenerud, the sole kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and widely recognized as a legend, hit 66% for his career. George Blanda, another Hall of Famer as a QB and K, held the NFL scoring record for decades following his retirement and was a 52% career FG kicker. And he was a full-time kicker in the NFL for twenty-six years.

It's not just about accuracy; let's talk about distance. The NFL career mark for over-50 yard FGs is held by Jason Hanson, who made 52 such kicks. Morten Andersen, considered widely to be the greatest long-range kicker in history upon his retirement, made 40 (on 84 attempts!) in his career. In 2012, Vikings rookie Blair Walsh made ten-of-ten FGs over 50 yards. That is, in one season he got a quarter of the way to Andersen's total from 22 seasons. And he didn't miss a single one. Hall of Famer Stenerud made a grand total of 17 kicks from over 50. Walsh will surpass that in his third season. Of the 14 field goals made from 60 or more yards in NFL history, half (7/14) have been since 2010. Sixty-yarders aren't exactly routine but they're no longer rare.

One final stats: League-wide, kickers made 13% of kicks over 50 yards in the 1960s. Since 2000 the number is 54% and increasing annually. What was once seen for what it is – a remarkably difficult thing to do, kicking an oblong ball through six-yard wide uprights from 150+ feet over a seven-plus foot wall of men trying to block it – is now routine:

When Jason Hanson entered the NFL nearly two decades ago, he got hugs and high-fives for nailing a long field goal. Now, he's lucky to get a handshake. "It used to be 45 and over was, 'Great kick! You made it!"' the Detroit Lions kicker recounted. "Now, it's like, you miss under 50 and people are kind of like, 'What's the matter?"'

So what gives? The two most obvious answers are, one, that kickers are becoming better, stronger athletes just like every other NFL player. Compare the 230-pound offensive linemen and the scrawny 5'10" receivers of the 60s and 70s with the 350-pound behemoths and 6'3" 220-pound sprinters of today and the difference is obvious. The second big change was the development of the soccer-style kick as opposed to the traditional straight-on approach, a topic I've written about at length previously due to the influx of hilariously-named foreign kickers it brought into the NFL.

There are additional factors. There is better coaching from an earlier age combined with the era of specialization. Today's kickers are kickers – period. George Blanda kicked but was also a QB. Ditto Hall of Famers like QB Bob Waterfield, RB Paul Hornung, and OL Lou Groza. Teams didn't have "a kicker" prior to 1960. It was whoever they had at some other position that happened to be the best at kicking. They lined up during training camp and took a whack at it and the coach picked someone to kick (and punt). It was not unusual for six or seven different players on the roster to attempt a kick during a season. Today kickers are dedicated kickers from Pee Wee and high school football up to the pro level. And they have specific kicking coaches all along the way. Specialization has also taken place with the kickers' best friends, the long-snappers, who now do nothing but long-snap and place the ball precisely in the right spot. Every time.

One other thing is often overlooked, in my opinion: the playing surface has improved. Kicking is extremely sensitive to weather (Remember the hilarious kicks in that Bears-Niners game in gale force winds a few years ago?) and the field. In rain or snow or wind, accuracy falls rapidly. Well now we have domed stadiums all over the league and either impeccable grass surfaces or advanced artificial ones like FieldTurf. Compare that to the muddy, sparse cow pastures teams played on (in outdoor stadiums) in the past and there's no question it helps.

The kicking game has become almost too accurate; the machine-like precision of modern kickers is changing the game. Today, as soon as a team gets across the 40 yard line it's getting to be an automatic 3 points. This has led to calls to narrow the goalposts in an effort to make the game less predictable, although that proposal has been met without enthusiasm. Fans know that the sport has changed a lot over the years, but it's odd to think of a guy like Jay Feely getting the pink slip over a performance that a few years ago might have earned him a case full of trophies.

NPF: BOMBS AWAY

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on September 6th, 2013 by Ed

Sometimes I feel like the NFL is turning into the Arena Football League, or perhaps one of those low-end NCAA Division I conferences out west that treat us to regular 49-38 shootouts that grace our cable channels late on Saturday evenings. The season just opened with a Thursday night (???) contest between the Ravens, a team long known for staunch defense and a methodical offense, and Broncos combining for 800 passing yards and 9 touchdown passes. Despite the presence on the field of possibly the best all-around runner in the game, Ray Rice, both teams put up only the mildest pretense of running the ball. This game illustrates why passing (and receiving) statistics from the past 15 years have become meaningless. For the first 75 years of NFL history, one QB threw for 5000 yards in a season (Dan Marino, 1984). Since 2008 it has happened five times, thrice in one season (2011).

Like Major League Baseball was guilty of manipulating the game to produce more scoring at several times during its history, this offensive explosion in football is rooted in rule changes made specifically to light up the scoreboard. Hall of Fame defensive backs from years past would step onto the field today to learn that they can't so much as lay a finger on receivers without drawing a penalty, and offensive lines are given vast leeway to protect quarterbacks – in addition to the many rules in place to prevent QBs from getting injured. This is simple self interest from the league's perspective. The NFL is well aware that the "watchability" of its product depends heavily on having a decent or better QB on every team, and there aren't enough QBs to go around (let alone enough to give any team a second decent one as a backup). If you want to see some truly awful football, watch two teams with crappy QBs go head to head, or notice the sharp drop-off that occurs when a good QB leaves a game due to injury.

I understand the desire to protect the game's most important assets; the other rules, particularly the new emphasis on throwing penalty flags for any contact between defenders and receivers, are less beneficial to the game. Many of the TEs and WRs in the league today border on uncoverable if defenders are not allowed to get physical. Larry Fitzgerald? Jimmy Graham? Antonio Gates? How in the hell is anyone supposed to cover guys like that? Graham is my favorite example; at 6'7", 280 with arms like a 747 and the ability to run like a deer, the defenders might as well not be on the field if they can't make contact with the guy until after the catch.

The downside to all of these rules designed to boost offense was made clear this evening. I don't feel like that was a football game; that was Tecmo Bowl, or some Arena League game where one QB throws 15 TD passes. Everyone loves watching a good shootout now and then, but the NFL has turned the game one-dimensional. It went from a run-first league to pass-first to the pass-only game we're starting to see in the last few years. If we're going to continue down this path, just take the 12-15 teams with good QBs, put them in the playoffs, and forget about the regular season. I appreciate this game, brutal as it is, on a lot of different levels. I enjoy watching a good passing attack, but it's not the only thing I enjoy watching.

NPF: MAYBE CALL IT A DAY

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on June 28th, 2013 by Ed

Ten years ago I attended an NFL training camp on the credentials of a website I used to do some writing for, and it really struck me to see up close and personal the toll that this kind of entertainment has on the athletes' bodies. We've all read the stories and seen the TV segments about concussions, knee injuries, or some retired athlete who is wheelchair bound by arthritis at age 43. We know, but we don't see it very much. It was revealing to see the scars, the constant injections (usually cortisone), the hematomas, the handfuls of painkillers morning and night, the creaky knees, and the "bell ringers" (i.e., concussions, i.e., traumatic brain injury). I've seen 25 year old men who need help getting in and out of a bathtub and yet perform at an elite level during games, thanks in no small part to the miracles of the pharmaceutical industry.

I don't need to re-hash the whole "tough guy" culture of sports here; needless to say these guys are under relentless pressure to play hurt. That said, everyone has a line. There is a point – torn muscles, blown ligaments, severe concussions – where that guy simply isn't going out on the field/pitch/ice again. Even the teams and team doctors have a limit, a point at which their long-term interests dictate that the injured should rest rather than play.

At least I like to think that line exists.

In the recent Stanley Cup Finals – those who follow G&T on Facebook know that my devotion to hockey borders on troubling – here is a brief selection of injuries that did not manage to keep players off the ice:

-Bryan Bickell, CHicago: Grade II knee sprain
-Marian Hossa, Chicago: Crushed vertebra in lower back, total numbness in right leg
-Michal Handzus, Chicago: Broken wrist, torn medial collateral ligament in knee
-Patrice Bergeron, Boston: broken ribs, torn chest cartilage, punctured lung, separated shoulder
-Jonathan Toews, Chicago: Concussion

Look at that list. Most of us could not get out of bed or walk around our kitchen with injuries of that type. Bergeron's injuries look like the aftermath of a typical car accident. In light of his decision to go out on the ice for (what turned out to be) the decisive Game 6, I'm not the only person asking…dude, where's the line? You'd think someone would say, "Gee Patrice, we know you're quite the competitor and all, but…maybe sit this one out. You know, with that hole in your lung."

Instead, all of these guys played injured. Visibly injured, in the cases of Hossa, Bergeron, and Bickell. I attended Game 2 and the entire stadium buzzed about something being obviously wrong with Bickell. Hossa missed one game and then returned to (by his own admission) limp around the ice and accomplish none of his usual feats. And Bergeron…before Game 6 the cameras zoomed in on him during warmups while the commentators spoke admiringly of his toughness. My dad and I, watching at home, immediately commented on how "not right" he looked. He moved around and flipped pucks at the net, but on the closeups I recognized immediately that dull, gauzy look of a man full of as many painkillers as the doctors could give him without rendering him unconscious. And so he zombie-skated through 17 largely ineffective minutes of playing time during the game.

Why? Why do they do this? Why do we pat them on the back for doing it? There has to be a point at which the players, coaches, doctors, etc. recognize that it's not worth it. Not the Super Bowl, not the Stanley Cup, not the Olympics…nothing. If nothing else, they should be persuaded that seriously injured, highly medicated players tend to accomplish very little in a competitive setting.

My favorite player to talk to at training camp came from a wealthy family, attended only the best schools, and was much more philosophical than the average player. I once asked him if he worried about the toll that football would take on his body. He thought for a minute and then said, "When I entered the league I measured 6'6". In my physical the other day, I was 6'4"." We sat there in silence for about 10 minutes. I couldn't think of a thing to say.

NPF: A SHORT HISTORY OF FOREIGN PLACEKICKERS WITH FUNNY NAMES

Posted in Skip this if you hate sports on May 3rd, 2013 by Ed

Like any sport, American football has evolved dramatically over the years due to changes in rules, equipment, and technique. The invention of the forward pass, for example, was coupled with the development of the easier to grip oblong ball used today (previously, a more rounded, rugby-style ball was used) to revolutionize the game. Other major changes followed advances like the West Coast offense (the timing-based passing game), the blitz, and so on.

Maybe the most significant rule changes for the modern game is totally foreign (foreshadowing!) to most fans today. True fact: even the worst kicker in the modern NFL is better than the best kickers of 40+ years ago. Today, kickers routinely hit 80%+ of their field goal attempts, whereas for most of the game's history field goals were a 40% proposition or worse. There are two reasons for this. First, kickers were rarely specialists before the 1960s. Someone who played another position usually pulled double-duty as a (lousy) kicker. Hall of Famers at other positions, like Lou Groza, Paul Hornung, and Bob Waterfield, were also kickers for their teams.

The second change was the development of the Soccer-Style kick. The SSK was to football what the Fosbury Flop was to high jumping. Kickers used to approach the ball straight-on and kick it with their toe and the bridge of their foot. Accuracy depended on how squarely they hit the ball, which is to say they were not very accurate under game conditions. The ball also left the foot at a very high angle, meaning that lateral distance was limited.

Then along came two Hungarian brothers – Pete and Karol (Charlie) Gogolak. They started playing football when their parents immigrated to the U.S. Having grown up playing soccer they kicked the ball with an angled approach and the instep/arch of their foot, like a soccer ball. Everyone noticed that the ball went much farther with much more accuracy. When Charlie took the NFL by storm, other teams were so desperate for their own soccer-style kicker that Peter, a kicker at Princeton, became the 6th overall pick in the 1966 draft.

Since American-born kickers couldn't shake the straight-on habits they had been using for years, NFL teams had to look overseas for soccer-trained Europeans who could adapt to the NFL game. (Trivia note: the last straight-on kicker, Mark Moseley of the Redskins, retired in 1986). That's how the NFL, representing a quintessentially American game with few if any foreign-born players, was suddenly flooded with Europeans, Latin Americans, and others who did not look like football players, had no skills other than kicking, and had funny names.

This became a punchline in the 1970s and 1980s – it seemed like every team had a foreign kicker (remember Homer Simpson's line, "This country was built on immigrants. We need them. Without them, who would train our tigers and kick our extra points?") Their contributions greatly improved the game by turning the kicking game into a strategy rather than a crapshoot. One of them, Norway's Jan Stenerud, is still the only kicker in the Hall of Fame.

Here is my tribute to some of the scrawniest, most lovable foreign players to enliven the NFL during the Soccer Style craze and beyond.

More German Than German: Horst Muhlmann – A part-time bricklayer and soccer goaltender, Muhlmann was imported by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969. No, he did not have a handlebar mustache and he put up with plenty of Colonel Klink jokes. Honorable Mention: Uwe Von Schamann, whose name is more fun to say and who absolutely nailed the mustache befitting a German.

Adorable Little Fella Award: Garo Yepremian – Most Americans don't even know where Cyprus is, but football fans remember this Cypriot kicker. First, he looked less like a football player than anyone who ever lived.

garo

Even non-fans recognize a line Yepremian shouted after kicking one game-winning field goal – "I keek a touchdown! I keek a touchdown!" – when it became one of Johnny Carson's favorite catchprhases. And finally, fans remember little Yepremian making one of the most embarrassing (and decisive) plays in Super Bowl history in 1973.

Polack of the Century: Czezlaw "Chester" Marcol – Packer fans fondly recall "the Polish Prince" for the time he ran one of his own blocked kicks in for a touchdown, which he later admitted he was able to do because he was high on cocaine. Look at this fucking guy!

Chester Marcol

Safety specs AND the single-bar facemask!

So British It Actually Hurts: Mick Luckhurst – If you're going to have a kicker from Redbourn, England, he better be named something as stereotypically British as Mick Luckhurst. Quite the handsome chap, too!

Speaking of Micks: Cornelis "Neil" O'Donoghue – Cardinals fans certainly remember this fucking twat, whose career highlights include missing the field goal that would have put them in the 1984 playoffs and the game in 1983 that ended in a 20-20 tie because O'Donoghue missed three (!!!) FGs in overtime.

The Flying Argentines: Bill and Martin Gramatica – After stellar college careers, these tiny sprites had only decent NFL careers. Older brother Martin, aka Automatica, kicked decently for Tampa and several other teams, while Martin is remembered solely for blowing out his goddamn ACL while celebrating a routine kick.

Colombian Superstar: Fuad Reveiz – This former Viking and Dolphin makes the list solely on the basis of his incredible nickname, "Fuad-o-Matic", and Chris Berman's habit of referring to his kicks as "Fuad Shots".

Rolls off the Tongue: Raul Allegre – Such a happy sounding name on this 1980s New York Giant hailing from Mexico. Dishonorable Mention: Cowboys Mexican kicker Rafael Septien, whose name wasn't as fun and who somehow avoided prison after pleading guilty to molesting a kid.

Not Just Europeans Award: Obed Ariri – How fun is it to say "Obed Ariri"? The pint-sized Nigerian kicked briefly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he apparently drives a taxi in St. Petersburg today. Honorable Mention: Donald Igwebuike, who idolized Ariri, replaced him on the Buccaneers, and eventually got busted swallowing balloons of heroin and trying to smuggle them into the U.S.

How Can I Only Pick One Swede? – Ove Johansson? Bjorn Nittmo? Ola Kimrin? I sure as hell can't pick just one. When I was 10, I was convinced that "Bjorn Nittmo" was the kind of name that takes you places, even if you're not talented (he wasn't).

Insert Hitler Joke Here: Austrian trio - Anton "Toni" Fritsch, Toni Linhart, and longtime 49er Ray Wersching all hailed from the land of the Fuhrer. Fortunately for them, I doubt most football players actually know Hitler was Austrian and not German.

The trend lives on today, with foreign kickers like Lawrence Tynes (Scotland), Sebastian Janikowski (Poland), and Shaun Suisham (Canada) currently kicking away. As the NFL becomes a bit more popular around the world, non-American players are hardly a surprise (Germany's Bjoern Werner was drafted in the 1st round last week). This is a great development for the league and for the game, but I have to admit that I could use the simple pleasure of the occasional lovably-accented placekicker named something like Olaf.

(Super Honorable Mention: Former Charger Rolf Benirschke was born in the U.S. to German parents, but he deserves mention because he retired after 9 seasons to become the host of Wheel of Fortune.)

NPF: BALANCE OF POWER

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on April 5th, 2013 by Ed

(Mind the category tag; you're really not going to give a crap if you don't like sports. Even if you do, it's dicey. For non sports fans, here is the just-released archive of the National Security Agency's classified internal newsletter, "Cryptologs", from the 1970s to the late 1990s. There is plenty of redaction, but also plenty of amazingly interesting tidbits.)

I have the bad luck of being a devoted fan of three teams that have been very bad for a very long time, experiencing a modicum of success only recently. The White Sox had not won a championship since 1917 when they were victorious in 2005. The Cardinals managed the improbable feat of winning one playoff game between their NFL Championship in 1947 (!!!) and their run to the Super Bowl after the 2008 season. And the Blackhawks, saddled with the worst non-Donald Sterling owner in professional sports for decades, won a Stanley Cup in 1961 before experiencing four-plus decades of futility.

Even as a young Blackhawks fan in the 1980s it was apparent that the team would not win a championship until Old Man Wirtz died. The last decade of his horrible life was a dark time for Chicago hockey fans, immediately after the dynamic teams they fielded in the early 1990s (Roenick, Chelios, Belfour, Suter, etc.) but before the Cup-winning team of 2009 began to take shape (the current lineup of Toews, Sharp, Kane, Keith, etc.) To be blunt, the Blackhawks teams of the last few years before Wirtz's 2007 death were among the saddest excuses for hockey in the history of the sport.

The 2003-2004 season – the impending lockout wiped out the following season, if you recall – was the Hawks' nadir as a franchise. Not only was the team awful, it was awful with no hope of future improvement. The players were old, anonymous journeymen (their top center was 33 year old Igor Korolev, who managed three goals all season) and young minor leaguers who…belonged in the minors. Their coach, Brian Sutter, was ordered halfway through the season to lose as many games as possible with the goal of getting a top draft pick. Being a somewhat self-respecting person, he refused. So the Wirtz's long-time hatchet man, GM Bob Pulford, developed a brilliant strategy of putting any player who showed a slight ability to play the game of hockey on Injured Reserve with mysterious ailments. This deprived the coach of what few half-decent players he had, and the team won exactly 3 of its final 20 games that year. It was brutal.

With two games left in the season the team was bad enough to be assured of the #1 overall draft pick. To be certain of that outcome, Pulford determined that the team's goaltenders – the eminently forgettable duo of Michael Leighton and Steve Passmore – were both "injured" and thus unavailable. They called up from the minors a failed former first-round pick named Adam Munro to play out the string. In the second to last game of the year, Mr. Munro stood on his head for 60 minutes in goal, stopping 41 of 42 shots by the equally terrible Phoenix Coyotes before surrendering a goal in overtime. In the NHL a loss in overtime is worth 1 point in the standings (compared to two for a win, zero for a loss). That one point knocked the Blackhawks out of contention for the first draft pick; instead they ended up with the third.

The first pick was some guy named Ovechkin, followed by Evgeni Malkin at #2. With the #3 pick, the Blackhawks took the legendary Cam Barker, who is currently disappointing his 5th NHL team. The Blackhawks have certainly turned things around in recent years, but I never see Ovechkin or Malkin without thinking, "Damn you, Adam Munro!" Oh, the possibilities.

NPF: MAYBE THEY WON'T NOTICE

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on September 28th, 2012 by Ed

We're in unanimous agreement that the NFL replacement refs just about ruined the game for a few weeks. If you think nothing could make the games more painful to watch, you're betraying your age (or lack thereof). You clearly don't remember 25 years ago when the NFL owners decided that they would continue playing games during a players' strike using replacement players.

The year was 1987. Nine year-old Ed had only recently discovered football and was thoroughly convinced that it was the greatest thing ever. No comic books or anything like that for me. Just sixteen football Sundays per year. I remember quite clearly turning on the first game after the players went on strike (a concept I understood only vaguely) and seeing the Chicago Bears play the Philadelphia Eagles. In those pre-satellite days I didn't have the option of watching the Cardinals, but I was still plenty excited. The recent Super Bowl champs! Walter Payton! Jim McMahon! Samurai Mike Singletary! All of the superstars would be there!

Imagine my shock when I saw not The Punky QB throwing to Sweetness but some asshat named Mike Hohensee throwing to the legendary Lakei Heimuli (and I am deeply ashamed to admit that I didn't have to look either of those up. I remember this shit.) The Eagles human highlight reel Randall Cunningham was gone, and their QB was named, I am not even shitting you, Guido Merkens. It turned out that the NFL owners thought we wouldn't notice if they took the familiar jerseys and helmets and slapped them on a bunch of…random dudes, essentially. Even at nine years old I noticed that all of the defensive linemen looked like guys who drove beer trucks, which was true because most of them were guys who drove beer trucks.

If you're too young to remember this, let me summarize: it sucked. In hindsight it was pretty hilarious – guys off the street playing in empty stadiums, often looking like they just met (which they had) and running high school or college type offenses. In a nationally televised game between the 49ers and Giants, Niners coach Bill Walsh had his team run the Wishbone while he and Giants coach Bill Parcells stood at midfield, shrugged, and laughed like two guys who know they're doing something really embarrassing.

The real players were back after 3 "replacement" games that, yes, counted in the standings. It was a crushing win for the players, who won the right to free agency (although full unrestricted free agency didn't arrive until the Federal courts mandated it in 1993) and the 25 year salary explosion that followed. And all the scab players just…disappeared. Never heard from again.* Never to play another game.

If you peruse the NFL records you'll find the curious phenomenon of guys who accomplished statistical feats despite playing only three games in the league. For example, Redskins fans might assume that the team's single-game receiving record is held by Hall of Famers Art Monk, Bobby Mitchell, Paul Warfield, or Charley Taylor. Nope. Turns out it's some gas-pumper named Anthony Allen, who developed magical chemistry with a human being named Ed Rubbert (!) who happened to be playing QB for the team that would go on to win the Super Bowl that year. Allen caught 255 yards worth of passes from (giggle) Rubbert against the then-St. Louis Cardinals, one of the top 20 performances in NFL history. His name is alongside guys like Jerry Rice and Steve Largent. Allen, in fact, was one of the few scrub players who actually stuck around past the strike. For one year, anyway.

In short, the players' strike was one of the last gasps of the old-school owners who had purchased or inherited their teams in the olden days and thought so little of the players (and fans) that they thought we'd swallow the shit sandwich and smile. It turned out they were quite wrong. We only put up with real players officiated by scrubs for three weeks; in hindsight it's stunning that the experiment with fake players lasted that long. Needless to say neither the fans nor the media were willing to take the fake players seriously, and the strike and its players quickly became a mere footnote. I wonder how I would have reacted to it had I been an adult at the time…but when the games are so bad that even a nine year old won't watch them, we can safely assume that it really was that bad.

And then they made Gene Hackman's worst movie about it to add insult to injury.

*(The Bears QBs that day, Hohensee and Sean Payton, each played only those 3 scrub games but had 20 year coaching careers. Hohensee has been a fixture in the Arena League since it was founded and Payton is a Super Bowl winning – and suspended – coach of the Saints. So I guess they weren't all losers. They were just awful, awful players.)

NPF: MANTLE & MAYS REDUX

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on July 27th, 2012 by Ed

Sometimes fate conspires to create natural rivalries between athletes. When two players begin their careers simultaneously (i.e., Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) and share similar roles it is obvious that their careers will be measured against one another. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the 1951 baseball season when two brilliant rookies – 20 year old Willie Mays and 19 year old Mickey Mantle – began their careers within weeks of one another. Over the next two decades they were inextricably linked as they smashed records, won awards, and on two occasions (1951, 1962) squared off in the World Series. Mantle enjoyed more success, winning an astounding seven World Series titles to Mays' one, while Mays racked up better numbers and was arguably the more complete player.

Obviously I was not alive in 1951, but most accounts of their rookie season indicate that the career path of both players was apparent the moment they reached the majors. That is, everyone knew as soon as they laid eyes on these guys that they would be superstars (although note that Mays' first great season didn't come until age 23, after a year of military service. Anyone else surprised to see that he missed a year for Korea? I certainly never knew that.) They both passed the eyeball test. Now certainly there is a hindsight bias in effect here; it is easy to look back on a superstar and say "Ah, I knew it all along!" Nonetheless, the near-immediate success of both players – Mantle led the league in OPS in his second season – suggests that it did not take a ton of prescience to recognize that these guys were both going to be incredible.

I feel like baseball fans are experiencing the same thing this season, a rare opportunity to see two young players who are quite obviously generational talents entering the league together. I'm referring to 19 year old Bryce Harper and 20 year old Mike Trout. Simply put, I've never seen two players enter the league at such a young age with such obviously elite talent (with the possible exception of Alex Rodriguez, who was similarly impressive at 20). Everyone knows about Harper, a #1 overall draft pick who has made headlines since he was 14, but if not for a baseball obsessed friend mentioning some of his mind-boggling minor league numbers I would not have been familiar with Trout before this season. Lots of young baseball players show the potential to be great, but not many of them are already great. Especially with Trout, it is so obvious to even the most casual fan that he has an astonishing level of talent that it would be more surprising if he wasn't a Hall of Fame caliber player 15-20 years from now.

Harper is playing a good CF – a position, mind you, that he never played in his life twelve months ago – and has more natural power than anyone this side of Josh Hamilton. His speed is above average but not elite, but he is likely to put up .300-35-100 seasons for the next dozen-plus years with the potential for 40-50 homer seasons. Trout, conversely, might top out power-wise at ~25 HR but he has ~.350 plate discipline and is probably the fastest player in the majors right now. There are some batting titles and 50+ SB seasons in his future, and probably a lot of them. More importantly, his talent looks completely effortless, whether he's leading the league in steals, winning the batting title by 20 points, or making over-the-wall catches he has no business making in center. He missed the first 20 games of the season languishing in the minors and yet he leads the league in three counting stats – runs, steals, and WAR – while putting up a ridiculous .356/.414/.606 at the moment. If he doesn't falter, he's likely to be just the third player to win RoY and MVP awards in the same season.

To make the comparisons more compelling, Harper and Trout have personality differences similar to Mays and Mantle. Mays was flashy, a big talker, and an anomaly in an era when black athletes were expected to Know Their Place. Harper is similarly brash – the words "arrogant" and "asshole" have been bandied about over the years – reflecting his healthy ego. Mantle, on the other hand, was seen as the quieter, all-American (read: white) boy with almost unbelievable five-tool talent, similar to Trout. Let's hope Trout doesn't turn out to be a surly closet alcoholic too.

There are only two previous times that I saw a player and immediately thought, "This guy is going to be in Cooperstown if he doesn't get hurt" – A-Rod and Frank Thomas, the latter of whom clearly lacked the all-around skill sets of guys like Trout and Harper. Even Ken Griffey Jr. didn't strike me as great immediately, and the numbers reflect that it took him several years to build up to superstar-level numbers. No one can predict the future, of course, and Harper/Trout might blow out a knee tomorrow and never be the same player again. It's also possible, albeit unlikely, that this is just a fluke and they will revert to being average players soon enough. Caveats aside, if I had to bet my life savings ($57) on one or both of these guys modeling for a bust in Cooperstown 25 years from now, I would do it with confidence.

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NPF: CRUEL, RANDOM PERFECTION

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on April 27th, 2012 by Ed

Ever have one of those days where you feel like everything you do is right? Like you're in the zone and nothing can stop you? Yeah, me neither. But apparently it happens to even the lowliest among us sometimes.

I'm on record as an admirer of the perfect game, a feat so rare that despite an anomalous burst of four in four years, there are still fewer people who have done 27 up, 27 down in the Major Leagues (19) than have orbited the moon (24). Baseball fans are unsurprised that the list includes legends and Hall of Famers like Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning,* and Roy Halladay, or solid All Star players like David Cone, David Wells, Mark Buehrle, Kenny Rogers, and Dennis "El Presidente" Martinez. We might expect that in a large sample of pitchers of that caliber, a few of them would accomplish a statistically improbable feat over time. What is more surprising, and I think more interesting, is the presence of pitchers like Don Larsen (Career record: 81-91, ERA+ 99), Len Barker (74-76, ERA+ 93), Dallas Braden (26-36, 4.19 career ERA), and, as of Saturday…Philip Humber?? Philip Humber, he of 12 career wins, zero complete games, and, on Thursday night, nine runs surrendered in his follow-up start? How does that happen?

This, I think, is one of the more intriguing aspects of baseball in particular and sports in general – the potential that on any given day, some slob can stroll out on the field/court/etc and enter a zone of complete perfection. We expect to see Michael Jordan or Arnold Palmer or Roger Federer approach perfection. They do it all the time. We never expect to see the guys we've never heard of come out and accomplish things that even the legends of the game rarely approach.

In 2001, I was watching so much baseball that it was probably detrimental to both my health and my personal life. Yet on September 3, 2001, just a few days before sports became the last thing on our minds, a gentleman by the name of Bud Smith, allegedly of the St. Louis Cardinals, threw a no-hitter. It's not quite on par with the perfect game, but it is a rare and difficult feat in its own right. And I looked at the TV and said aloud to no one, "Who in the hell is Bud Smith?" Bud threw the no-hitter in his 13th career start, aged 21. He was not considered a hot prospect. He would start less than a dozen more games in the majors after that day. He was out of baseball by 23. Career record: 7-9. ERA: 4.95. Bud Smith, ladies and gentlemen.

The sheer randomness of such feats from a player who either has no talent or is clearly unable to harness his talent even semi-consistently is fascinating to me. I suppose it comes down to the law of large numbers, of the million monkeys with a million typewriters who, given the time, will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. Psychologically it must be very challenging to try to re-create that level of perfection throughout one's career only to face the cold, hard reality of regressing to the mean – that is, returning to mediocrity. What did I do on that day that made me perfect, and why can't I do it again? I don't expect that Philip Humber will be out of baseball in a year like Bud Smith, nor will he become a dominant player. We often write off failures to randomness and bad luck – Don't worry about it, it just wasn't your day! – but are less eager to do the same for successes. "Luck" is not the right word here, but the fact remains that people like Humber can simply have a day where everything goes their way. Every stoplight on the way to the stadium is green, the wind is blowing in the right direction on every pitch, and the players on the other team are all in slumps. If and when such a day ever comes for me I hope I'm able to recognize it while it's happening and enjoy it, knowing well that it's unlikely to happen again.

*Yes, it's common knowledge that Bunning is only in the Hall because he was a powerful Senator at the time of his election. There are politics involved.