Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pete Axthelm: The Ax

Lebron James. Why'd he play so poorly against the Celtics? What does it mean for his legacy? Will he ever win a title? What team will he play for next year? I don't know and I don't care. But good grief there was no escape from Lebron-mania the other week. Day after day, hour after hour. Has sports media ever been so all-consumed by anything like this? I thought the Peyton Manning Super Bowl stuff was bad. But it was nothing compared to this Lebron thing. Everybody with a sports platform offered their answers to the above questions with utter certainty although they couldn't possibly have known the answers. The questions aren't currently answerable. I've never seen or heard anything like it. ToO summarize it all in a quick visual, just imagine a bunch of gums flapping and spittle flying in front of a giant screen of endless Lebron highlights.  

We're not big hoops fans here at Past Interference. The National Football League, the greatest sports league that has ever existed or ever will exist, will always be our primary focus. So why am I even bringing up Lebron James? Because the whole Lebron saga brought into focus for me just how different the sports media world is now compared to my youth. Not necessarily worse. Just different.

Today we've got a number of shows on TV featuring sportswriters arguing with each other. These are ostensibly supposed to be "America writ large" as they say. You know, "we're just like you and your buddies sitting around and talking about sports". But there's one big difference. You actually like your friends.  And you enjoy talking sports with them. Compare that the experience of watching these shows featuring people who, apparently, don't like the folks they're talking to and don't enjoy talking about sports at all. One of the worst offenders is Skip Bayless. I don't get why he goes on ESPN in the first place. When athletes are caught up in scandal, it irritates him to no end. If a player gives a disappointing performance, Bayless is irritated. If someone disagrees with his opinion, he's irritated. Having to show up on the set? Irritating. And having to watch someone who's so irritable? Yeah, it's irritating.

Now if you don't get enough of Bayless on TV there's always the books he cranked about the Dallas Cowboys. He got himself in trouble for this one where he disseminated unsubstantiated rumors about Troy Aikman's personal life. Of course Bayless defended himself by claiming Barry Switzer was the one spreading the rumors and Bayless was just writing about what mean 'ol Switzer was doing, in the process showing just how badly the "ethics" our hopeless political media have infected our sports media. I didn't read that book. I'd already soured on Bayless after reading his earlier book on Tom Landry

An author couldn't be more condescending about his subject if he tried. The book's not completely without merit. But the way Bayless talks about Landry, one of the greatest coaches of all-time, is just...yeah, it's irritating. As you may know, Landry had a bit of a reputation as a reserved, straight-laced, unemotional person. Or as Duane Thomas ungenerously put it, a "plastic man". As you may also know, Landry was a devout Christian in life and apparently could speak of his faith quite movingly to groups of fellow Christians. To Bayless, Landry walling himself off from his players instead of holding their hands and sharing the Good News somehow represents hypocrisy of the highest sort. To us normal people it's obvious that Landry, a consummate professional, knew his job wasn't to minister to his player's souls but to get them to win as many freaking football games as possible, something incidentally that he did just about better than any football coach who ever lived. To Bayless, 270 wins, 20 straight winning seasons, five Super Bowl appearances and two championships aren't enough. Right.

Believe it or not watching Bayless is actually a joy compared to the chore of seeing one Jay Mariotti in action. Bayless may irritate, but at least you get that he might occasionally respect the opinions of the people he's debating on TV. Not so Mariotti. Has there ever been anyone this smug? With every smirk, with every shake of his hand, with every gesture, Mariotti communicates nothing but his utter contempt for everyone who disagrees with him. In other words, he's dismissive. And when confronted with the spectacle of someone that dismissive that often you do what? That's right.  You dismiss them! And I know I'm not the only one.

Like I said it's a different world now. When I was a kid if you wanted sports commentary you didn't get it from TV.  The first guy I remember popping up on television to offer commentary on a sporting event rather than call the event was Jack Whitaker. CBS would always drag him out to give us some high-minded verbiage on golf and horse racing. To me he was just a boring old guy in a loud jacket waxing eloquent about stuff I could have cared less about but, to be fair, I was a kid and hardly in his target audience of golfing grandpas. But Whitaker was a rarity.  If you wanted sports commentary you got it from magazines and newspapers. I was lucky. My hometown paper, the Miami Herald, had Edwin Pope writing for them.  A man thrilled by the best in sports and disgusted by the worst. He was insightful, respectful, perceptive. Clearly not someone cut out for TV work at all.  I also got lucky with magazines too; my dad subscribed to Newsweek for years. As a kid the dull dry articles about high finance and world affairs held no appeal for me, bo-ring, but Newsweek had one of the best sports columnists around, maybe the best sports columnist around, Pete Axthelm. He could really write. Just amazing stuff.

I don't know which sportswriter gets the credit for making the first official historic leap to television commentary but the first sportswriter I personally remember making an impact on TV was Axthelm. NBC hired him for their NFL studio shows and when they let him go ESPN snapped him up. I know it's hard to believe but back in Axthelm's heyday ESPN Gameday was only on for an hour and featured just Chris Berman, Tom Jackson and Axthelm. The Ax certainly didn't look like somebody cut out for TV work. He was pudgy and balding and looked like everybody's uncle. While quite witty he wasn't there as a joketeller like we saw years later with Monday Night Football's aborted Dennis Miller experiment. Axthelm knew his football.

I remember after Dan Hampton retired from the Bears Axthelm matter-of-factly stated that while other Chicago defenders might have gotten more press in a few years it was going to be Hampton quietly entering the Hall of Fame (Ax was right). Another time, after the underdog Dolphins were humiliated at home in a late 80's Monday Night Football game, Axthelm sadly and correctly noted that this was the kind of game that the Dolphins used to win. But the funny stuff he said is what has stayed with me. When the Steelers were making a playoff run a decade after their dynasty ended Axthelm pointed out how those old Steeler greats had names that seemed practically scripted: Jack Ham, Lynn Swann, Mel Blount, Mean Joe Greene, and he wondered if the Steelers could win now with guys named Bubby and Weegie

When Green Bay and Tampa Bay were both horrible in the Eighties and played each other twice a year, Axthelm famously nicknamed the series the "Bay of Pigs". Berman loved that one and used it all the time. My own favorite Axthelm on-air moment was probably his most legendary one. As I've written about before, back in the 70's and 80's it was not uncommon for NFL placekickers to hail from foreign lands. Often a land where futbol is far more popular than football, such as Mexico. And in 1987-1988, three different Mexicans, the Zendejas brothers, Luis, Max, and Tony, each kicked for NFL teams. But none of the brothers turned out to be models of kicking consistency and for awhile every single week one of them was missing a critical kick that cost his team the game. As the misses mounted Axthelm began slamming the brothers every week until he finally snapped and ranted in mock exasperation: "Enough with the Zendejases. Luis , Max, Tony, Julio, Willie and Waylon. How many are there? No more Zendejases!" It was some funny stuff. Axthelm picked the pointspread winners every week and no doubt the misses hurt his picks. More than that they probably cost him some actual money.  A lot of money. 

You certainly don't have to read between the lines of this tribute column to figure out Axthelm had a serious gambling problem.  So his "mock" exasperation with the Zendejas Bros and their missed kicks was probably all too real. I said before that Axthelm didn't necessarily look like somebody made for TV and TV wasn't necessarily made for Axthelm either. The few minutes he was allotted on TV each week couldn't possibly have been enough for him to fully explore his subject the way he could in his columns or his books. And the time he spent working for the networks no doubt cut into his writing time. Axthelm wrote several books in the 1970's, including his classic The City Game, but I don't think he wrote any other books after he became a television fixture. The frequency of his columns dwindled as well. It's understandable though; I'm sure he made a lot more money from TV than from writing.

His writing, his TV work and his life all ended when he died at age 47. From liver failure. Which suggests gambling hadn't been his only problem.

All these years later I still miss seeing him on TV. Nowadays it's all a blur of yelling and arguing and people talking over each other and "controversial" opinions and attention grabbing and ignorance and stupidity. I can't tell you how much I'd like to have Pete Axthelm's eloquence and wit back.


I was shocked to find out two weeks ago that heavy metal icon Ronnie James Dio had died at the age of 67. I wasn't shocked that he had died, I was shocked that he was 67. Paul McCartney's 67. Mick Jagger's going to be 67 shortly. Those guys are 60's icons. I never even heard of Dio until that strange brief time when metal ruled the world in the mid-80's. To achieve rock stardom at 40 is definitely unusual, and probably an unrepeatable career path. Not being a metal fan I only became acquainted with Dio through his videos on MTV. Metal bands of that era absolutely loved to make music videos with these elaborate science-fiction, fantasy, or horror scenarios that were then rendered laughable by their inadequate special-effects budgets. You know, like this one.

Anyway I never saw him in concert myself but some college friends of mine went to see him back in his heyday. My friends showed up dressed in their normal everyday attire. As they headed into the arena a Dio fanatic dressed for the occasion in leather, chains, etc., took one look at them and said with disgust, "You don't deserve Dio".

This post is dedicated to my friend Bret.  He does deserve Dio.   

Two-time championship QB's year-by-year

Ok, this should be Past Interference's last post on this topic until we approach the November showdown between Brady and Roethlisberger.  In 1939 Arnie Herber became the first NFL quarterback to ever win two championship games.  He's since been joined by 18 other men.  Two of them, Norm Van Brocklin and John Elway, retired after winning their second title.  Here's a list showing the years in which multiple-title winning QB's were active with some notes following of things I happen to find interesting:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

All-Time QB Matchups Between Two-Time (or better) Champions

Maybe Past Interference is a little obsessed with the topic of two-time (or better) championship quarterbacks, but PI uncovered some more information that was too good not to share. Once again let’s dredge up the short list of matchups between quarterbacks who’ve each led their teams to two or more Super Bowl rings:

11/14/76 PIT 14 MIA 3
11/05/78 MIA 23 DAL 16
01/21/79 PIT 35 DAL 31, Super Bowl XIII
10/28/79 PIT 14 DAL 3
12/30/79 PIT 34 MIA 14, Divisional Playoffs
09/22/85 SFO 34 LAR 10

Just six such matchups total with the last happening a quarter century ago. The first five all featured two of the following three quarterbacks: Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach. Joe Montana and Jim Plunkett faced off in the sixth and most recent matchup. But the Super Bowl era began in 1966 and the NFL was around a long time before that. PI was curious if matchups between multiple-ringed QB’s were more common in the olden days. So we spent a little time at Pro Football Reference and found out that yes, the NFL used to have a lot more of these battles, over twice as many in just a 25-year period. BUT, almost all of those games can be accounted for by maybe the two greatest quarterback rivalries in NFL history. The first takes us back to the days of leather helmets and two-way players. Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh. Luckman won back-to-back titles for the Chicago Bears in 1940 and 1941. Baugh followed suit with his second title with the Washington Redskins in 1942. So when the Bears and Redskins battled on November 21, 1943, it was the first contest in NFL history between quarterbacks who had each won two NFL titles. Baugh came out on top. But Luckman didn’t have long to wait for revenge. The best kind of revenge. The two men played again for the NFL championship a month later. Their third championship game battle but first as two-time champions. Not only did Luckman triumph, he actually knocked Baugh out of the game with a big hit administered as Slingin’ Sammy tried to bring him down (he played defense too!). The game remains incredibly historic. While first three-time championship QB, and to this day remains only one of six QB’s to win at least three rings. After their titanic 1943 matchups, the two men played five more times, the last coming in 1949. Here’s the complete list:

11/21/43 WAS 21 CHI 7
12/26/43 CHI 41 WAS 21 NFL Championship Game
11/18/45 WAS 28 CHI 21
11/17/46 CHI 24 WAS 20
10/26/47 CHI 56 WAS 20
11/28/48 CHI 48 WAS 13
11/20/49 CHI 31 WAS 21

So by themselves Baugh and Luckman top the Super Bowl era list by one. And the same goes for the great QB rivalry of the 1960’s. Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas brought us seven more matchups between two-time champs (though Starr would have a total of five titles by the time their rivalry was concluded).

09/29/63 GB 31 BAL 20
09/20/64 BAL 21 GB 20
10/18/64 BAL 24 GB 21
09/26/65 GB 20 BAL 17
09/10/66 GB 24 BAL 3
12/10/66 GB 14 BAL 10
11/05/67 BAL 13 GB 10

Starr’s Packers and Unitas’ Colts actually played many more times in the Sixties than Luckman and Baugh did in the Forties, but injuries to Starr, Unitas, or both wiped out six more potential meetings. The most unfortunate being the 1965 playoff tiebreaker game that both missed with injuries (Starr played but got hurt on the first play from scrimmage and never returned). Strangely the game wound up an all-time classic without the two legends, the second overtime game in NFL history. But it would have been the only postseason battle between the era’s two greatest quarterbacks had both men been healthy.

So 14 games total, seven for Baugh/Luckman, seven for Starr/Unitas. But we’re not quite done. PI scoured the record books, looked high and low, left no stone unturned in this matter. The great quarterback rivalry between Baugh/Luckman and Starr/Unitas was between Bobby Layne and Otto Graham in the 50’s. The two faced off in three straight championship games. Layne’s Detroit Lions took the first two and Graham’s Cleveland Browns the third, Graham’s second NFL title. Paul Brown convinced Graham to return for one more season and he did, winning a third NFL Championship, but Graham and Layne didn’t play each other that season and never would again. Other potential matchups never happened. Layne never played Unitas in 960, 1961 or 1962. Bob Waterfield didn’t play Baugh in 1952 in what proved to be both men’s final season. And like John Elway almost 40 years later, Norm Van Brocklin retired right after winning his second title and thus never had the chance to battle another multi-ringed QB. So who does that leave us?

Tommy Thompson’s kind of a forgotten player now, but he led the Philadelphia Eagles to back-to-back titles in 1948-1949. Thompson played one more season in 1950 and his team twice squared off against Sammy Baugh’s Washington Redskins. Pro Football Reference does not have complete box scores for games that old, but they do show Baugh didn’t start the week 6 matchup with the Eagles. This old newspaper article shows the Redskins actually benched the 36-year-old Baugh in favor of 24-year-old phenom Harry Gilmer. But five straight losses must have cost Gilmer the starting job as Slingin’ Sam started the week 8 matchup with the Eagles. It didn’t matter. The Eagles beat the Gilmer-led Redskins 35-3 and they beat the Baugh-led Redskins 33-0. But the latter game it did give us yet another meeting between quarterbacks with two or more championships.

11/12/50 PHI 33 WAS 0

And that would complete our list at 15. Except World War II happened.
Sammy Baugh’s got the reputation as NFL’s first true downfield passer. But some experts believe that honor belongs to a Hall of Famer named Arnie Herber. Herber was certainly a trailblazer in one big way. He’s the first man to ever quarterback a team to victory in two championship games. Her led the Green Bay Packers to NFL titles in 1936 and 1939, then retired after the 1940 season. But his NFL story wasn’t quite over as it turned out. Thanks to WWII, military service took precedence over NFL service, and NFL teams suffered a huge drain of talent during the war years. Desperate for some quality players the New York Football Giants coaxed Herber out of retirement for the 1944 and 1945 seasons. The Giants never played Luckman’s Bears during those two seasons, but they did play Baugh’s Redskins. Four times. Problem is, without boxscores I have no idea if both men actually played each other in any of the four games. Baugh and Herber could have played against each other four times, no times, or somewhere in between. All I can find are scoring summaries for each game. And in not one of those four games did both QB’s throw a TD pass! Great. Baugh tossed a TD in three of the games and Herber tossed three, all coming as luck would have it in the one game where Baugh didn’t throw one. In 1944 the Giants and Skins actually played back-to-back games, the last two of the season. Baugh threw for a TD in the first game and Herber didn’t. Herber tossed his three the next week. Surely Baugh would play a week later too right? Well, he's credited with starting only 4 games and playing in 8 out of 10 in '44. He wasn't hurt either. And he wasn’t suspended. No, according to this book Baugh missed big chunks of time in 1944 “because he had to tend his cattle ranch, as the government was making heavy demands for beef during the war.” Now that is an original excuse. So who knows if Baugh played in week 10 or if Herber played in week 9. Herber’s credited with starting only 3 games in 1944 but he is listed as active for all 10. So maybe he started or maybe he didn’t start but came into the game later. In 1945 Herber didn’t start any games and split time at QB with a couple other guys. He again is listed at being active for all 10 games. It was a different game back then; teams were still making the adjustment from single-wing to the T-formation and most players were still two-way players. Herber also played tailback, blocking back and defensive back. He could have played in those games but not as a QB. Of course he was an older player who’d already retired once. Seems unlikely he’d have done much blocking or defending at the end of his career. Maybe the Giants didn’t want to overwork him at QB. He did throw the vast majority of his team’s passes in ’44 but split more of the passes in 1945. But if Herber only played parts of games should that even count as a QB matchup with Baugh? Based on the information we have, Past Interference just has absolutely no idea how many official Baugh-Herber matchups took place in 1944-1945. If anybody out there has more info on this matter please let me know. Here’s the four games:

12/03/44 NYG 16 WAS 13
12/10/44 NYG 31 WAS 0
10/28/45 WAS 24 NYG 14
12/09/45 WAS 17 NYG 0

So through 2009, the NFL’s seen a total of between 21 and 25 games featuring matchups between quarterbacks who have each won two or more NFL championship games.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

November 14, 2010

Mark it down. We are set for some football history on November 14th, 2010. The New England Patriots play the Pittsburgh Steelers and, if Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger suit up at QB, then for the first time since 1984 we'll see our first battle between two quarterbacks with at least two Super Bowl rings. (That's a tough sentence to word properly). The big matchup appeared to be in jeopardy while the spectre of criminal charges loomed over Roethlisberger. But when the State of Georgia decided not to file charges and the NFL then chose to suspend Big Ben for "only" six games, the date with history was back on track. Now it's not a 100% guarantee this matchup comes off. Injuries happen. And Big Ben could still do something involving Little Ben and/or alcohol to get hisself an even longer suspension. Let's just hope he's not as stupid and depraved as he seems.

You know, in my original post on this topic I casually referred to Roethlisberger as a "bastard". Accurate and uncontroversial right?  Yet in a comment to that post reader "Mike" asked why Big Ben's a bastard "if he hasn't even been found guilty of anything?  Typical lawyers."  Well "Mike", if that is your real name, I see from your Blogger profile that you're a doctor, no doubt an arrogant one with a god complex.  You don't have to take my word for it Dr. Mike. Nor do you have to believe the accusations of Roethlisberger's drunken accuser. You just have to check out the latest Sports Illustrated article chronicling how


The fact that Steelers fans now openly revile the man who not so long ago quarterbacked their beloved team to two Lombardi Trophies says it all.    

Saturday, May 8, 2010

What If?

Back in the early 1980's the Miami Dolphins suffered a series of incomprehensible tragedies.  Bewildering, staggering tragedies. I'm not talking about the brutal playoff losses, I'm talking about actual tragedy.  Death.  Three deaths in fact.  All to young players in the prime of their lives.   Rusty Chambers.  Larry Gordon.  David Overstreet.  All gone within four years of each other.  All leaving families and teammates behind to ask why.  Past Interference doesn't believe in curses but that is some seriously bad luck.  Think about some more recent deaths of active NFL players: Cory Stringer, Chris Henry, Gaines Adams.  Everyone was kind of shocked right?.  Now imagine all those guys played for the very same team.  You'd have to think a black cloud was hanging over that team wouldn't you?   Well that was the 1981-1984 Miami Dolphins. 
Over a quarter century has now passed since Chambers, Gordon and Overstreet were laid to rest but PI was reminded of their unfortunate fates by loyal reader sptfrn who proposed in a comment that Past Interference begin a series of "What If" posts starting with the question: "What if Rusty Chambers, Larry Gordon, and David Overstreet didn't die?". 

That is one great idea. At the risk of exposing my true nerd self, Past Interference read a ton of comics books as a kid and believe it or not one of the comics we really, really loved was Marvel's "What If?".  Take it away Wikipedia: 
What If stories usually began with Uatu [the Watcher] briefly recapping a notable event in the mainstream Marvel Universe, then indicating a particular point of divergence in that event. He would then demonstrate, by way of looking into a parallel reality, what could have happened if events had taken a different course from that point.

My own personal favorite issue was #3, "What If The Avengers Had Never Been?".  Over 30 years later I still remember the answer to that question.  (Spoiler alert).  The original Avengers fall apart and the Hulk leaves to team up with the Sub-Mariner and fight for evil. So Tony Stark creates some bad-ass Iron Man armor for Giant Man, the Wasp and the Hulk's sidekick Rick Jones and creates a new Avengers. But while this new team is pounding the snot out of the Hulk, Stark's own suit runs out of power and his bad heart kills him.  Good times.  Bonus: fantastic art by the late Gil Kane.
Hold on another minute. I can't let go of this comic book tangent yet. I'm on a roll. Responding to what's essentially reader mail is taking me back to all the old letter columns I read in the back of my old comic books back in the day.  They're passe now thanks to the internet but once upon a time reader letters were the only feedback comic companies ever got and it was the only way for fans to connect with other fans.  Naturally DC Comics had super boring titles for their "lettercols" like "Metropolis Mailbag" and "Letters to the Batcave". Lame. But Stan "The Man" Lee, the original hipster doofus, went all out and pushed the limits with hilariously stupid titles like "Sock It To Shellhead", "Let's Level With Daredevil", and my personal favorite, "Let's Rap With Cap".  And that was well before anybody invented Rap! Word.
Ok, back to today's "What If" topic from reader sprtfn.

On July 1, 1981, Rusty Chambers died in a car accident in Louisiana and the Dolphins lost the man who had started at left inside linebacker for them for the past three seasons. So what would have happened if Chambers survived to continue playing for the Dolphins in 1981? Did his loss hurt the team? Well, you can't tell from the standings or the statistics. The Dolphins improved from 8-8 to 11-4-1 and the defense went from 9th in points allowed to 5th while staying essentially the same in yards allowed. Miami replaced Chambers in 1981 with backup linebacker Ernest Rhone. Now Rhone may have been a dropoff from Chambers, I don't know enough to say, but he was good enough to continue to start for Miami for another three seasons and it must be noted that Chambers never made a Pro Bowl in his three seasons as a starter. But let's assume there was a bit of a dropoff in talent. Would Chambers have made a difference in the Dolphins' ultimate fate?   That ultimate fate proved to be a 41-38 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers in the divisional playoffs. If you're old enough to remember that game you've never forgotten it. Could Chambers have altered the outcome? In a game that close, with so many twists and turns, so many critical plays and mistakes, you could probably point to almost any player and say he did something to make the difference. He could have made the difference but we have no reason to assume he would have made the difference. But let's say he would have made a key play or avoided a mistake made by his replacement, then what? Well, Miami would have advanced to the AFC Championship Game. And then they would have lost. I'm as sure of this as I am of anything. How do I know? Well, winning a road playoff game against a superior team with the better quarterback is tough enough. Now how about doing it minus-9 degree weather with a wind chill of minus-59? Yeah, no team from Miami is winning that game. Especially not one completely wiped out from an overtime game played one week before in the heat and humidity of South Florida. With or without Chambers then, the Miami Dolphins would never have made it to the Super Bowl in '81.

In 1982, without Chambers, the team did make it to the Super Bowl where they blew a halftime lead, collapsed in the second half and lost to the Washington Redskins. Would Chambers have made a difference? I don't think so. Miami fielded one of their best defenses ever that year. Second in scoring; first in yards allowed. They gave up 276 yards rushing in Super Bowl XVII and let Riggins pound them in the second half, but you can't put that on the defense. I don't want to rehash the whole David Woodley thing again (like I did here). Suffice it to say Woodley couldn't complete any passes, the offense couldn't move the ball or stay on the field, and Miami's tiring defense plumb wore out in the second half (I always wanted to say that). Rusty Chambers couldn't have done anything about that. Dolphins still lose.

Just five months later, on June 25, 1983, Dolphins Linebacker Larry Gordon went out for a jog in the Arizona desert and never came back. He collapsed and died from heart disease. Something called idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (though some later spoke of cocaine use by Gordon). How would the loss of two linebackers in two years affect the defending conference champions? Seemingly not at all. Miami finished first in scoring defense, added somebody named Marino to the offense, and won 12 games and a division title. The reconsituted linebacking corps was a mixed bag. A.J. Duhe and Bob Brudzinski constitued a really good left side but Rhone and Charles Bowser left a little to be desired on the right. Still, the Dolphins were heavy favorites to beat Seattle in a home divisional playoff game. But they lost 27-20. A huge upset. Would Gordon and Chambers have made a difference?

That's a tough one. If you look at the stats you'd have to say it was an evenly played football game. Only one number really jumps out at you: five. That's the number of Miami turnovers. Seattle had one. If Miami could have just held onto the ball they probably would have won. Again, the problem was on offense (and special teams), not the defense. Of course, as in the San Diego OT game, any play can be the difference in a close game. Maybe Gordon or Chambers could have made that one sack or forced that one fumble the Dolphins needed to turn the game. It's just too hypothetical to speculate on and PI needs to note here that, like Chambers, Gordon never made an All-Pro team and never made a Pro Bowl. However, I'd say that Gordon, a 100 tackle a year guy and a very good player, would no doubt have been a linebacking upgrade from Rhone or Bowser. So let's be generous and assume Gordon's presence lifts the defense enough for Miami to eke out a win and avoid the upset. What happens then? Nothing good I'm afraid. Miami would have advanced to the AFC title game and travelled to L.A. to face the hated Raiders. The Raiders owned the Dolphins back then and beat them like a drum 27-14 in week 3 of the '83 season (it was 27-0 in the 4th quarter). Of course Marino didn't start that game. He was still a rookie though and the Raiders just blew everybody away in the postseason that year including the defending champion Skins in the Super Bowl. Miami never would have got past them that year even with Gordon and Chambers.

Six months later, June 24, 1984, David Oversteet fell asleep behind the wheel of his car and died when he crashed into some gas tanks that exploded on impact just 15 miles from his home. Yet despite this unbelievable third death in four years, the team's run of success continued on. Dan Marino broke every meaningful single-season passing record and the 14-2 Miami Dolphins steamrolled the AFC on the way to Super Bowl XIX and their much-anticipated matchup with Joe Montana's 15-1 49ers. I wrote about that much-anticipated, hugely disappointing game at length here. Short version: With no running game or pass rush Miami had no chance against a more talented better-coached team, Marino or no Marino! But "What If" the Dolphins had entered the game with Chambers, Gordon, and Overstreet? Well, we move into some very interesting speculative territory here. If you ask me, and why shouldn't you, the absolute number one reason for Miami's failure in Super Bowl XIX was horrible play at the linebacker and running back positions. And Chambers, Gordon, and Overstreet played what positions? Linebacker, linebacker and running back. Would those guys have made a difference?

In the case of Gordon and Chambers we've got a problem. Had they lived, each man would have turned 31 prior to Super Bowl XIX. Again, neither man was ever selected for the Pro Bowl and it's usually the great ones who play well into their 30's. Even A.J. Duhe, a better linebacker than either, was done by 31. Of course even at an advanced football age Gordon might have still been better than what Miami had. I mean Jay Brophy actually started for them in Super Bowl XIX! That's trouble. Perhaps Gordon was a Pro Bowl quality linebacker (he made Miami's 25th anniversary team) overlooked by the selectors. So let's say he plays and and gives Miami a bit of a boost at linebacker. I don't see how it would have made much of a difference. Outside of Lawrence Taylor or Dick Butkus in their prime I don't see how any one linebacker makes the kind of difference the Dolphins would have needed. Joe Montana and the San Francisco offense were simply unstoppable that night. As for Overstreet, I wish we had more to go on. A first round pick he bolted for Canadian dollars in '81. Returned to the NFL in '83. Averaged 4.6 yards on 85 attempts. And died. How good would he have been with a full workload? We saw tantalizing glimpses but who really knows? We can say he almost certainly would have been better, probably much better than Woody Bennett, who was a fullback after all. With Overstreet in the backfield Shula might have been more likely to use the ground game once the Niners countered with 6 defensive backs to stop Marino and the Marks Brothers. But would Overstreet have equalled victory? That's too much of a stretch. Nobody ever seems to put the 1984 49ers in the greatest team of all time discussions but they have to be there. They just have to. Maybe the greatest QB and coach of the modern era. Strength at every single offensive and defensive unit. Great O-line and secondary. That team was loaded. They lost only one game all year, and that by a late field goal. Adding Overstreet and a past-their-prime Chambers and Gordon couldn't have altered what happened. Miami would still get their butts kicked.

1985? Maybe, just maybe, history would have turned in the Dolphins' favor. We can dispense with speculating about Chambers and Gordon at this point and concentrate on David Overstreet. Without him Miami won another division title and hosted their second straight AFC Championship Game. Their opponent? The New England Patriots. A team Miami had beaten 18 straight times in the Orange Bowl. 18. Straight. Times. I repeat each word to emphasize the devastation of this loss. 18 games means 18 years. And this was the Dolphins' 19th season. That means the Pats had beaten Miami in the Orange Bowl exactly once: 1966, the Phins first year. And it never happened again. Until this game. A 31-14 loss to a team that had no business winning the game. A team that just two weeks later suffered a Super Bowl humiliation the likes of which nobody had ever before seen. To the same team Miami famously defeated quite handily. How did it happen? How did the Dolphins lose to the Patriots? To Tony Eason? Turnovers my friends. Turnovers. Six to be exact including four fumbles.

We can say without hesitation that the most critical turnover of the game would not have happened with David Overstreet on the team. How do we know this? Because with Overstreet on the team Miami would never have drafted Lorenzo Hampton. And Hampton coughed it up on the team's first play of the second half. They trailed 17-7. New England took advantage of the turnover to go up 24-7. Tony Nathan had earlier set the tone for the game by fumbling on the team's very first play from scrimmage, leading to an early New Engand field goal. If Overstreet starts then Nathan never fumbles either. So let's say Overstreet starts, gets most of the carries, plays well, and holds onto the ball. It's then not a stretch to say Miami pulls out the game. It's at least a lot closer. Of course it could be a stretch to say Overstreet would have avoided the fumbles that plagued the Dolphins in that game; he had his own fumbling problem in the CFL and his fumble in the '83 playoff game with the Seahawks was costly. But if Miami wins they of course move on to Super Bowl XX and a rematch with the Shufflin' Crew. I don't know if they win but we know they were certainly capable of it. Only one offense ever embarrassed Chicago's 46-defense, Dan Marino's. The Dolphins were the one team constructed perfectly on offense to beat the Bears and the speed of Overstreet in the backfield could only have helped.

After 1985 the Miami Dolphins tumbled into the bowl of mediocrity. None of the deceased players could have helped at that point. A series of bad drafts crippled the team's talent level and a turnaround wouldn't come until 1990. In more bitter irony the untimely passing of Chambers, Gordon and Overstreet from this vale of tears set in motion a vicious cycle. Not only did the team lose the talents of those three men, the attempts to replace them in the draft led to an even further decline in talent. If Gordon hadn't died in '83, the team probably doesn't draft two busts, Jackie Shipp and Jay Brophy, at linebacker in the 1984 draft, and if Overstreet had lived, Miami doesn't blow its top pick on Lorenzo Hampton in the '85 draft, a draft with maybe the weakest running back class ever. However, who Miami would have drafted in our alternate universe is a mystery to me.

So "What If" Rusty Chambers, Larry Gordon, and David Overstreet didn't die? Would the fortunes of the Miami Dolphins organization have changed? After careful thought Pass Interference says no, at least not from 1981 through 1984. But let's linger over the 1985 season for a moment longer. PI thinks there was at least a chance that the death of David Overstreet cost Miami a Super Bowl trip and perhaps the ring that forever eluded Dan Marino.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ginn again

I'm losing it. One of my incredibly important points failed to make it in to my last post on Ted Ginn. And the point was that even if somebody thought Ginn would be a great kick returner while chipping in with a few big plays on offense, how the heck would that justify a top ten pick? You spend a top pick on a receiver you want another Randy Moss, a Larry Fitzgerald, a Calvin Johnson. You know, a stud. Sure a great returner would be nice but have you noticed how nobody ever spends a first round pick on one? Rick Upchurch, a 4th round pick. Dante Hall, a 5th round pick. Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, a 15th round pick! Michael "Beer Man" Lewis, undrafted! All those guys were great return men but so-so wide receivers (to be generous). And they weren't drafted anywhere near the first round. And you know what else they had in common? They only lit up the NFL for maybe three or four years at most. Oh, their careers may have lasted longer than that but the return magic disappeared pretty early on. I'm sure I'm oversimplifying here but it sure seems like it's tough for kick returners to stay on top very long. Just check out Devin Hester ( 2nd round pick). He's not even returning kicks anymore and his third year doing it proved to be a major drop-off from his first two. He's just an ok receiver. But Miami spent more and got less. Ginn not only underwhelmed as a receiver, he never came close to approaching Hester as a return man either. Drafting a glorified kick returner with the ninth pick? Doomed to fail.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Ginn Gone

Miami Dolphin fans can finally shut the coffin lid on the abbreviated Cam Cameron-Randy Mueller era. In his one-and-only season as head coach Cameron "led" his team to a franchise-worst 1-15 record. Mercifully both men were fired before the 2008 season began but the residue of that disastrous season lingered for three more years. And by residue I'm referring to the kickoff to the 2007 season, the spark to the gasoline, the fuse to the bomb, the carelessly tossed match to the devastating forest fire, the Dolphins' 2007 draft. A team’s record resets at 0-0 when the next season starts but for good or bad the players taken in a draft can affect their team for years to come.  And no better example can be seen than in Cameron and Mueller’s sole draft together. In one word: disastrous. Just three years later, of the ten players selected by the Dolphins in 2007 only two remain: disappointing defensive tackle Paul Soloai and quality punter Brandon Fields. But the 2007 draft is always going to be associated with the stunning first-round selection of wide receiver Ted Ginn.

Most mock drafts had the Dolphins taking Left Tackle Levi Brown or Defensive Tackle Amobi Okoye.  And a few predicted Miami would trade up to snag QB Brady Quinn, who a lot of people thought was the best quarterback in the draft.  So what to do?  Well the 2006 Dolphins weren't half-bad defensively but their best defensive players (Taylor, Thomas) were on the wrong side of 30.  Bringing in some younger talent might have been the way to go given the players available with the ninth pick.  As atrocious as the team was on offense though, especially through the air, grabbing an offensive player was a defensible move.  And when all the teams in front of Miami unexepectedly bypassed Quinn, everyone expected the Dolphins to snap him up and finally draft a successor to Dan Marino.  No need to trade up now.  Instead, the commissioner shocked us all by announcing the name of Ted Ginn. 

(Flashback: Dolphins fans boo selection of Ginn over Quinn).
The shock wasn't so much the fact that Ginn was picked, a lot of folks pencilled him in as a later first round selection, it was the not taking Quinn part that threw us for a loop.  Ginn certainly possessed the much-needed speed the Dolphins O was missing.  But it's not like there weren't red flags with this guy.  A guy named Justin Davis at the apparently now-defunct War Room Report couldn't have nailed it better:

The easy knock on Ginn is that he is a straight line runner that struggles mightily getting in and out of his breaks at speed, therefore hindering his ability to run even average pass routes and that he has questionable hands. Both of those statements are true.


After all of the talk we are hearing about his speed and his big play ability, averaging only 13.2 yards per catch (5.1 yards less that Meachem) this season seems to say otherwise.


Sometimes style blocks the view of substance when evaluating young talent. Whatever team takes Ginn in the top half of round one will be guilty of allowing that to happen.

When you're right you're right.  And I've never seen anybody be righter.  Would that Cameron and Mueller had been half as smart.  You know, I'm glad I found that column.  Now anytime I question the utter worthlessness of what I'm doing I can tell myself that some other dude who writes for a website is smarter on personnel matters than two guys running a billion dollar sports franchise.  Thanks Justin. 

Anyway, for the past three years Dolphin watchers have all seen for themselves Ginn's "questionable hands" and his struggles to run "even average pass routes".  Of course Cam and Mueller should have known all that before expending a top-ten pick but you see, they had a vision for the team.  You might recall the Chicago Bears run to the Super Bowl in 2006.  Obviously it was burned into the brains of the Dolphins' brain trust because one key to that Super Bowl run was the brilliant kickoff and punt returning of one Devin Hester.   Ginn doubled as a return man in college and Cameron and Mueller obviously thought he could do the same for Miami.  So even if he wasn't a great receiver he'd make up for it in the return game.  Well guess what?  Just as pure speed isn't enough to make somebody a great receiver, it isn't enough to make a somebody a great return man either.  Forget great, how about just average?  Here's Ginn's yearly rankings in yards per attempt on kickoffs:

Ginn, KO Average Ranking

2007: 29th
2008: 37th
2009: 13th

As unsuccessful returning the ball as he was catching the ball.  Now some have speculated Ginn's failures were the result of a fear of contact.  I don't know that.  Too often we ascribe a player's successes or failures to amorphous things like character, heart, will or the lack of same.  Maybe it was never in the cards for Ginn to succeed for the reasons Justin Davis wrote about above.  He just wasn't good enough.  No hands. No moves.  It's not personal.  But it is painful, watching a team desperate for talent burn a first-round pick on a guy who couldn't contribute.  
Check out some of the defensive players taken shortly after Ginn: Patrick Willis at 11.  Darrelle Revis at 14 (Revis!  Dang!).  Leon Hall at 18.  The Dolphins defense collapsed in Ginn's rookie season and any one of these players would have been a huge help. Maybe passing on Quinn was in fact the way to go but if Miami needed a receiver that badly instead Dwayne Bowe (23) and Robert Meachem (27) were sitting there later in the round and the team could have traded down to get a better, more NFL-ready wideout.   So in the end the Ginn pick was yet another in a long line of the past decade's abysmal draft moves for the team.  Honestly, I thought Parcells did a great job getting somebody (the Niners in this case) to even give up a fifth round pick for Ginn.  Fans in the city by the bay are going to be horribly disappointed I'm sure.  But better them than us.  Three years showed me plenty (of nothing) though I'll always be grateful for his two kick return TD's that beat the Jets in New York last year.  Ginn's one shining moment.  Hey, if Mr. Nolan Carroll (taken with the Niners' pick) turns out to be a solid player for Miami, maybe something will have been salvaged after all from the disappointing selection of Ted Ginn.