Thursday, November 18, 2004

So Many Super Bowls, So Few African American Quarterbacks--Will the Trend Continue?

There have been 38 Super Bowls, dating back to the first one following the 1966 season. That means 76 starting quarterback opportunities in the big game's history. Plenty of guys have made multiple SB starts: Bradshaw, Elway, Montana, Starr, Favre, Griese Sr., Brady, Theismann, Aikman, Warner, Plunkett, Staubach, Tarkenton. Each of these fellows has at least one SB victory, with the exception of Tarkenton, who started three games for the Minnesota Vikings of the mid-'70s and came up empty-handed each time. (Sidebar: The Vikings, a well-respected and somewhat storied franchise, have never won a Super Bowl. They've played in four, lost 'em all pretty convincingly, and the drought of zero SB appearances goes back to the 1976 season.)

In the entire history of the Super Bowl, there has been but one victorious African American starting quarterback: Doug Williams, who won Super Bowl XXII for the Washington Redskins following the 1987 season. Williams' career was pretty much finished after that high-water mark, but his achievement was thoroughly historic. And, with the increasing numbers of African American QBs in later years, you'd have thought that maybe what Williams did might have opened the floodgates for his brethren black field generals. But we have seen only one other black QB start a Super Bowl since--Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans, who lost in Super Bowl XXXIV. That makes Williams still the only one of his kind.

A few more thoughts about Williams: He was a studly athlete arriving in the NFL out of Grambling in 1978, the first black ever drafted in the first round as a quarterback. He toiled mostly haplessly for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for five years--the team won a little, but Williams' numbers weren't particularly good. Then he abandoned the NFL for three seasons: Following the death of his wife Janice from brain cancer in 1983, Williams signed a lucrative USFL contract that gave him some financial security but didn't really raise his profile as a football player.

Redskins coach Joe Gibbs rescued him from the scrap heap in 1986. In 1987, a partial strike year, Williams played in five games for the Redskins, then caught fire in the postseason and went on to perform brilliantly in the Super Bowl, which the 'Skins won 42-10 over John Elway's Denver Broncos. Williams was sort of a scrambler type initially, but it was playing for mediocre Tampa teams that basically kept him on the run. Under Gibbs, he stayed in the pocket, looked for his receivers, then used his gun of an arm with efficiency. He was deadly accurate in the Super Bowl, completing 18-29 passes for 340 yards and 4 TDs.

Now we come to a time in the NFL when black QBs are commonplace. It's probably just a matter of time before one of these gifted athletes wins the big game. There's Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, and Aaron Brooks, to name a few. There's also still McNair, of course, who shared the 2003 NFL MVP honor with Indianapolis' Peyton Manning.

Nevertheless, there's something amiss here. In an age of obviously gifted black QBs, we still see lily-white fellows like Brad Johnson, Jake Delhomme, Rich Gannon, Kerry Collins and Chris Chandler getting into Super Bowls. Even Trent Dilfer, an almost complete non-entity, competed in Super Bowl XXXV, and managed to get the "W" for the Baltimore Ravens.

A couple of years ago, I was convinced that Vick was going to emerge through the playoffs and take his Atlanta Falcons to the promised land. It didn't happen. Then there's McNabb, who has lost three consecutive NFC championship games. He can't get over the hump. Culpepper looks great, puts up amazing numbers, and yet his Vikings are currently lingering at 5-4, having lost three straight after a torrid start. Brooks looks great one minute, then totally tanks out. The Saints, consequently, remain one of the league's big mystery teams, talented but inconsistent. As for McNair, injuries continue to plague him, and, now in his early thirties with a Titans team in transition, he may never have another shot at ultimate glory.

No one would ever confuse the physical abilities of Michael Vick with the likes of Dilfer or Johnson. So does any of this mean anything?

Well, let's look at Doug Williams. In many ways, he was the original model for these contemporary black QBs: Strong, quick-footed, great arm. But Williams floundered until he operated in a system that enabled him--encouraged him--to harness all the offensive team's possibilities while sublimating some of his own natural gifts. Quarterbacks who run around, showing what great athletes they are, make for the subject of entertaining highlight reels. They often astound us with their feats. They're exciting as all get out. But they do NOT win Super Bowls. Offenses run by jackrabbit QBs make great plays and win their share of games, but they do not put together a big stretch run that is typical of Super Bowl winners. I hate to say it, but all that "creativity" that Culpepper, McNabb et al. exhibit may be a lot of fun to watch, but it's not apparently what quarterbacking is all about.

Go into the record books. Look at the Super Bowl runs put together by the likes of Starr, Bradshaw, Montana, Aikman, Elway and Brady. Their numbers are very good--sometimes breath-taking, like 1989, the year Montana completed 70.2% of his passes for the season and the 49ers defeated their playoff and Super Bowl opposition by a combined score of 126-26.

But what these QBs are in particular, in every case, is models of efficiency. The don't scramble, they rarely improvise, and they don't throw the ball much more than 25 times a game. They minimize mental errors (e.g., when to throw a pass out of bounds), they manage the clock with uncanny awareness, and they take their teams on critical, game-breaking drives with poise and uncommon nerve. And, above all, they use every weapon in their arsenal. Running backs, tight ends and wide receivers shoulder equal burdens because the QBs know how to mix it up and keep their opponent off-balance.

In short, successful quarterbacking is more about leadership than it is about flinging a ball 60 yards after running all over the backfield eluding desperate defensive linemen. In fact, the earliest template for non-success is Tarkenton: he may have been a white man, but that didn't help him, because what he was first and foremost was a scrambler and an improviser. He was sure interesting to watch, but he couldn't win the big one. And he's the only multiple Super Bowl QB who never went to Disney World.

The only question now is: Which of the new breed of African American hotshots will learn his craft, and take his place next to Doug Williams?

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Now Let's Talk About the REAL Curse...

Yeah, yeah, yeah....THE CURSE. We're hearing about it so damn much that a reasonably contrary individual--who might otherwise be pulling like mad for the Boston Red Sox in the World Series--could start to get fed up and switch allegiance to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Not that I want to jinx anybody or anything. Sure, the Red Sox are cuddly. They sucked it up but good and bested the talented Yankees in historically improbable fashion. Which spawned a debate over whether THE CURSE is considered lifted by virtue of the Yankees being vanquished. How sweet it was.

But no, they were talking about THE CURSE in 1986, when the bad-ankle-hobbled Bill Buckner blew a potential Series-winning grounder in Game 6 versus the New York Mets. The endlessly vilified Buckner--who was a very good baseball player (go check the numbers)--never has lived it down, because the Mets went on to win that game and also Game 7, to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat. The point being that the Sox were better than the Yankees back then, but didn't win the whole enchilada, which reestablished that THE CURSE was really all about the fact that the Red Sox have not won a world championship since 1918.

They've had their chances, though. Before the '86 fiasco, there was 1946 and 1967, when they lost the Series, both times, to (gulp) the St. Louis Cardinals. (Not a good sign to anyone who believes in the big "C," I daresay.) The Sox also lost the classic 1975 Series to the Reds, when Carlton Fisk gestured his Game 6-winning homer to stay fare. It matters little that, as of this writing, the Red Sox are up two games to none heading into Game 3 in St. Louis. If THE CURSE is real, then there is still plenty for Sox fans to fear.

But the focus on the Sox as the ultimate baseball tragedians is totally off-base. The saddest sacks of all are the Chicago Cubs. If black magic has a hold on any MLB franchise, it's the Cubs.

Consider: Red Sox fans moan that their team hasn't won a World Series since 1918. Gotcha beat: the Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908. Furthermore, while the Red Sox are currently making their fourth World Series appearance in 37 years, the Cubs have not participated in a Series since 1945. That's 59 years without a league championship, and 96 years without a world championship. If anyone's got the bad karma, it's the Cubs, who are the oldest established baseball franchise to have gone the longest without tasting some kind of finite victory. Heck, even the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Florida Marlins, both fairly recent expansion teams, have won all the marbles.

No, something REALLY deep afflicts the Cubs. One need look for proof no further than 2003's playoff set pitting Cubs versus Marlins. Nerdy-looking Steve Bartman interferes with a potential pop-foul out, and the Marlins take advantage, winding up winners. (I wonder if there's a desert island somewhere, where guys like Bartman and Buckner can live out their lives in relative peace. Sort of an anti-Field of Dreams. Other spotted drinking coconut juice: Ralph Terry, Fred Merkle, Mitch ("Wild Thing") Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, the entire 1981 Montreal Expos team.)

Yeah, I'm losing my jizz where the Red Sox are concerned. Because THE CURSE doesn't really belong to them. I'm here to set the record straight: the Cubs are the sorriest old-line franchise in baseball. Even when they have talent, they manage to tank out. And they do it really pathetically. Their record of ineptitude is unparalleled. They are cursed beyond the boundaries of normal cursedom.

Of course, the title will go to Chicago if the Red Sox should win it all. There will be no more talk about "long-suffering Bosox fans." No more expletives uttered in conjunction with the name of Bucky Dent. No more Bill Buckner to kick around anymore.

But if the Sox blow it, and all that public angst and media-intensive wailing and gnashing of teeth has us back on THE CURSE Watch, I say, "Sorry, Ben Affleck, your team may blow the Big One, but at least you GET to the Big One..."

Cubs fans are the loneliest baseball fans on the planet. They always, ultimately, have absolutely nothing to cheer about. This despite their share of philosophical reasons to hope for better days. The Red Sox, after getting their hopes up, may become disappointed with the girl they've brought to the prom, but heck, the Cubs can't even get a date.

So the Sox have a golden opportunity to put an end to THE CURSE folderol. I wish 'em luck, if that's what they really want. It's not gonna be the same, though. They'll become the "all-powerful Red Sox," then. If they wanna throw 86 years of charismatically frustrating tradition down the drain, that's their prerogative. At least then the Cubs can wear the crown that has always been rightfully theirs.

But hey, don't count the Red Sox out yet. A two-game lead is nothing these days. They proved that themselves only last week. But if you do win it all, Bosox, you can't ever get THE CURSE back. So you might wanna re-consider.

Prediction: Cards in 7. THE CURSE lives.

Justice for Leslie Frazier

I lived in Chicago for about 20 years. It's arguably the greatest sports town in the land. During my years there, I was let down plenty of times by the baseball teams (and that beat goes on...and on). But I was also present for all six of the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan-led world championships. And, perhaps most memorably, I was there in 1985, when the Chicago Bears Super Bowl Shuffled their way to the NFL title. The Bears had a ferocious defense, a varied offense led by Walter Payton and Jim McMahon, and they finished the season 15-1. They then vanquished their three postseason opponents by a combined score of 91-10, including kicking the New England Patriots all around the field in Super Bowl XX. Final score in New Orleans: 46-10.

Among the Bears' excellent players was a quietly efficient cornerback named Leslie Frazier. Frazier was a fifth-year pro out of Alcorn State in Mississippi. He led the Bears in interceptions that year with six. Aside from that, you never really heard Frazier's name called that much by the broadcasters. He just seemed to show up every week, clamped down on opposing receivers, got his occasional pick (he ran one back for a touchdown in 1985), and otherwise played his role on a brutal and fearsome defensive squad. Frazier was, if nothing else particularly noticeable, tenacious. And he never got his name called much on TV, I guess, because not that much got past him. On a team that had big-name defenders like Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Wilber Marshall, Otis Wilson, and William ("The Refrigerator") Perry, Frazier was unsung.

But getting his Super Bowl ring was a bittersweet thing for Frazier. In the second quarter of the big game, Frazier was called upon to carry the ball on a fake punt. The play was a flop. Worst of all, Frazier tore his anterior cruciate ligament at the end of the play. He hobbled off the field--and he never played another second of pro football in a regulation game. He attempted comebacks in 1986-87 with the Bears and Eagles, suiting up for pre-season games, but he never got a roster spot.

For years, I used to think about what a screw job Frazier had gotten. He was a first-string cornerback. What was he doing on the special teams helping them run a trick play? Just always seemed a cruel turn of fate to me. While the city of Chicago's Super Bowl celebration reached delirium proportions, talented, stalwart Leslie Frazier was finished. And I always wondered what the heck happened to him.

Fast forward to last night's "Monday Night Football" game. The Cincinnati Bengals, looking a lot more aggressive and hungry than usual, trying to rebuild under head coach Marv Lewis, squared off against the generally formidable Denver Broncos. Whattya know...the Bengals roar and beat the Broncs decisively, 23-10. Then the camera zeroes in on an intense, nice-looking guy holding a clipboard. Shazam! It's the Bengals' defensive coordinator--none other than Leslie Frazier--and Al Michaels and John Madden are singing his praises.

So the question that has dogged me for nearly 20 years has been answered. How did Frazier do it? Sort of like he played cornerback: quietly, determinedly.

After leaving the game behind as a player, Frazier took a job at tiny Trinity (IL) College, where he was the NAIA school's first ever head coach from 1988 to 1996. He departed in 1997 to take a coaching job at the University of Illinois, but not before Trinity would name its football field after him. (Frazier was all of 38 at the time.) After two years with the Illini as a defensive secondary coach, Frazier joined head coach Andy Reid's staff with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999. Four successful seasons coaching Eagles defensive backs led to Frazier's appointment in 2003 as Bengals defensive coordinator.

The Bengals have been an NFL doormat for a long time now. They showed signs of life early last year, then kind of underachieved their way to an 8-8 record. But even that was a huge improvement over 2002, when they were 2-14, and they haven't had a winning record since 1990. Their modern-day futility is legendary.

But maybe they're gonna get good. And maybe Leslie Frazier's gonna have something to say about it.

I don't know where all those big Bears stars of 1985 are now. I'm sure most of them are doing fine, though I seem to recall both McMahon and Hampton getting DUIs sometime in the not too distant past. Lord only knows what the "Fridge" is doing these days. Sadly, the great Payton left this mortal coil in 1999.

But Leslie Frazier, a fine football player who should have played a lot longer than he did, picked himself up off the slag heap of the game and went out and made an even better name for himself in the sport he loves so much.

This is the kind of justice I like. Way to go, Les.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Black Athletes, White Women and the Economics of Modern Love

There's an old shibboleth that mothers used to repeat to their daughters: "You can marry a rich man just as easily as you can marry a poor one." The message is clear, and one is tempted to paraphrase Tina Turner; it's not at all clear what love has to do with it.

Recently, I turned on the television and saw a news report about a local fundraising fashion show. In attendance were many members of the Tennessee Titans football team. It looked to be a bit of a gala affair, and reporters were working the room, extracting supportive comments from players and their wives. I was struck by the fact that veteran Titans defensive lineman Kevin Carter's wife was white. So too was defensive back Andre Woolfolk's. A few weeks back I'd seen a TV feature on Titans tight end Erron Kinney and his family. His wife too is white.

I'm gonna betcha that there is at least one other black Titans player who is married to a white woman. Which means there are probably a whole bunch of black NFL players whose wives are white. Possibly a hundred or even a lot more, if you take the Titans as a typical group and do the math.

Now, I'm a firm believer in live and let live. And I've got nothing against white women marrying black men. Or vice-versa, for that matter. But it wasn't very long ago where interracial marriages were still considered fairly controversial in American society. There are still people who just aren't automatically comfortable with the idea, no matter how much social progress has been made since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. I don't know about you, but, practically speaking, I still don't see interracial marriages very often.

Clearly, this is only a serious problem for those who have a serious problem with it, and their numbers are dwindling. With every passing day, you will find fewer and fewer Americans who would raise an eyebrow at an interracial marriage. And that's a good thing for social progress.

So let's say for the moment that indeed the doors to interracial marriage have eased open quite a bit, and there's pretty much access for all. Now, I want someone to do a demographic study and compare the percentage of white women who have married black professional athletes versus the percentage of white women who have married a) black dishwashers; b) black taxi drivers; and c) black hardware store clerks.

I used to work in a restaurant with a black dishwasher named Carl. He was one of the coolest guys I ever met. Great sense of humor, loving, patient, and sensitive. As a man, I'd stack him up against any professional athlete you can show me. Funny, I didn't see any babe-licious white ladies hanging around him. Carl went along his hardworking way, and eventually married a very nice lady named Joanne. As far as I know, they're very happy.

But the cynic in me says that the situation in the NFL, where interracial marriage is so easily accepted, has nothing to do with racial openness or true love but has everything to do with economic reality. Mother was right: You CAN marry a rich man just as easily as a poor one, and why not expand the preferred pool by targeting the whole new class of athlete insta-millionaires? Sure, some of them are white--one wonders how many of them have married black women--but the majority are black, and mother never put a color-coding on that old adage. Except maybe the color green.

I'd love to believe that these jock wives totally fell in love with their husbands. That 24-year-old Andre Woolfolk's young, blonde wife worships the ground he walks on. But athletes these days are like rock stars, and you gotta wonder about the driving force that, within this self-contained world, suddenly has everyone way more color-blind than people probably are in almost every other area of society.

But hey, more power to the white girls. They're roping in prime studs who earn millions---presuming they remain at the top of their game, or don't blow a knee out in their rookie season. Mother'd be proud.

I don't guess your average black hardware-store clerk worries too much about why white babes aren't flocking around him. And sad-sack white guys in dead-end jobs never have a shot at ladies like that anyway.

But I do wonder this: Does it piss off the black girls?

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

And Now...A Few Words About Julio Franco

Julio Franco just completed another season of major league baseball with the Atlanta Braves. He played in 125 ballgames and batted .309. Nothing, on the surface, particularly earth-shattering about that. Good numbers, though. I'm sure he played a serious role in helping the team win its 14th division title in a row (or whatever the heck it is for the Braves, who, remarkably, keep grinding it out, even if they don't ever win the World Series).

But here's what has me scratching my head: On August 23 of this summer, Julio Franco turned 46 years old. Now, I've been thinking. And doing a little research, too. The question that spurred me on was this: Has ANYONE in the history of major league baseball ever played 125 games at the age of 46 and batted .309???

Well, I didn't search out every nook and cranny of the record book. But I'll tell you what I DID find. Neither Pete Rose nor Ty Cobb ever played to age 46. Cobb did bat .323 his last year at the age of almost 42. Rose, at 45, batted .219 his last year, and he probably should've hung 'em up a couple of years prior. And you can come up with a whole bunch of old-timers, guys born in the 19th century, who played baseball well into their 40s. Guys with names like Jim O'Rourke, Sam Thompson, Kid Gleason, Dan Brouthers, Hughie Jennings, and Arlie Latham. As far as I can see, every one of these guys was making only token appearances at their advanced ages. They sure didn't play in 125 games.

In more modern times there was the legendary Minnie Minoso, who had a huge reputation as being older than God and still able to swing a bat. But really, Minoso's later exploits were overblown, and in fact his baseball skills--considerable in his prime in the '50s--had deteriorated by his late 30s. The Chicago White Sox used to trot ol' Minnie out for show, and he actually appeared in a game at the age of 57. More recently, Carlton Fisk played to the age of 45, remarkable especially because he was a catcher. But Fisk hit .189 in 25 games his final season, and truthfully, he hung on about two seasons too long (though the longevity helped him get into the Hall of Fame, methinks).

There have been a raft of modern-era players, great ones all, who have played on into their 40s. Dave Winfield almost made it to his 44th birthday. He batted .191 his final season. Carl Yastrzemski DID make it to 44. He batted .266 that final year. Paul Molitor batted .281 in his final season in which he played 126 games. But he retired a mere pup at the age of 42. There are others. Ted Williams, 42. Enos Slaughter, 43. And, of course, Willie Mays, whom many sadly remember from his last season, at age 42, falling down on national television during the 1973 postseason playing for the New York Mets in a last-gasp effort to reclaim the spotlight. It wasn't the kind of attention Willie wanted. He batted .211 that year.

As for Franco, it's not like he's on the downslide. He batted .284 in '02, and .294 in '03. He's actually improving! Even more ironically, after a career spent mostly in the American League, where they have the designated hitter option for aging players, Franco has spent his final four years in the National League, where he must play a position. More recently, that's been first base, but Franco has played every position but catcher over the course of his long career. Another oddity: Franco was out of big-league baseball for all of '95, '98 and '00 and virtually all of '99. (He was playing in Latin America during that time.) He made his triumphant return to the majors in 2001--at the age of 43!

Franco's career numbers are excellent. He's got 2,457 hits, 1,110 RBIs and a lifetime batting mark of .300. If he'd played those years he was out of MLB, he definitely would have hit the 3,000 mark for hits.

So as far as I'm concerned, Julio Franco is the greatest oldest baseball player who ever lived. I applaud him heartily. I salute him with utmost respect. I doff my hat to him. I wish I could shake his hand. Someone oughta give him a parade.

Tough part now is, I don't want Julio's luster to fade. I wonder if he's thinking of coming back next year... Hmmm...

Maybe hang 'em up, Julio. Go out a champ. Don't pull a "Willie" on us. Preserve the legend, and know that you struck a blow for middle-aged men everywhere.

Friday, October 15, 2004

The Great Colin Cowherd Experiment a bust. I've tried and tried to listen to this guy, who took over Tony Kornheiser's old morning slot on ESPN Radio. But it's useless. What is it about this guy? He has some ideas, like lining up a bunch of long-distance phone feeds from a string of beat reporters nationwide. In rapid succession, we get team updates from the best local sources, and all the reporters apparently are content with holding on the line while Cowherd gets to them in turn. Unfortunately, we have to listen to Cowherd ask them the questions.

This guy is earnest, all right. Too much so. He's also kinda insecure, which, in fact, he has good reason to be. For one thing, his vocal style needs a Valium. Also, when he defaults to telling personal stories, it's always lame-o. (Nobody cares, Colin.) In addition, his sports knowledge is of the canned variety, filled with fake enthusiasm and insights that might've come from a press release. Where'd this guy come from, anyway?

I used to bitch that Kornheiser had turned his radio gig into a version of "Sports Entertainment Tonight." And Tony also used to spend too much time telling us about his son going to Penn, or his membership in the exclusive Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md., or any number of other arrogant things. The constant plugs for "PTI" were also obnoxious. In fact, there was a lot that was obnoxious about Kornheiser on radio, yet the guy was smart and he conducted interviews well. There was also a joie de vivre on that show that made it listenable even when it was annoying. Tony may have been a legend in his own mind, but it was still fun to tune him in.

I've given Mr. Cowherd (nice name...NOT!) every chance. Sorry, he's wimpy and he sucks. If anyone at ESPN Radio has any sense, they should be plotting his ouster as we speak. What's more curious, though, is how this guy got on the air in the first place. He's not an ex-jock, which is often a good explanation for lame-o on-air sports personalities. So, in fact, someone thought he had talent. Or maybe Cowherd is in possession of some compromising photos of an ESPN exec. Otherwise, logical explanations for his ascent to this choice radio slot remain elusive.

Seeya, Colin. Good luck, wherever you land.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

What's Wrong with the Redskins?

A lot it would seem. At 1-4, the fabled team looks like a sleek new automobile with all kinds of systemic failures. Joe Gibbs' return to the NFL sidelines has not been smooth or productive, and quite honestly Joe looks a little lost out there. He's still learning how to challenge a referee's call, and the team has otherwise had time-management problems that seem to be the result of bad communication from sideline to the field. These gaffes are correctable, and one assumes that once Gibbs gets his sea legs again, after a 12-year absence from the game, he'll know how to use the clock and work the challenge system. Now if he can only do a serious tune-up job on his offense.

It's funny. Brian Billick was brought in to coach the Ravens years back on the strength of his reputation in Minnesota as an offensive coordinator. Ever since, the Ravens have been known as a brutalizing defensive team with pedestrian offenses.Then Tony Dungy was brought in to Indianapolis on the strength of his reputation in Tampa Bay as a defensive guru. Now the Colts are an offensive juggermaut with a fairly porous (though possibly improving) defense. Same with Gibbs. Hailed as an offensive genius through the '80 and '90s, leading his Redskins to four Super Bowl appearances (winning three of them), Gibbs now oversees a team with a tough-minded defense but an offense that is going nowhere.

The off-season signing of veteran QB Mark Brunell looked smart at first. Gibbs took a serious meeting with the former Jaguars star, supposedly to probe his character and see if D.C. might be a good place for him to rejuvenate his career. (Brunell's got serious stats, dating back to 1993. As of this writing, he's thrown for 26,610 yards with a 60% completion rate and a fabulous TD/INT ratio.) Maybe Joe channeled the Lord, and was told that a big, strong guy named Mark, who played his college ball in the state of Washington, could lead the team to the Super Bowl, just like Gibbs' "other" Mark--Rypien--did after the 1991 season. Whatever the reason, Gibbs didn't have enough faith in third-year pro Patrick Ramsey NOT to sign Brunell. Now the 34-year-old lefty QB is helming a popgun offense characterized by awful dinks and dunks, which usually follow yet another abortive run by hotshot off-season acquisition Clinton Portis.

At one point in last Monday night's game against the Ravens, I counted nine straight plays in which Portis got the ball: eight runs, one pass. Uh...pathetic. Then Brunell dumps a 5-yard pass off to rookie H-back Chris Cooley. More pathetic. Gibbs should ask the Lord to tell him where in the heck are Rod Gardner and Laveranues Coles, the team's ace receivers. This engine needs a new transmission; the 'Skins can hardly get out of first gear.

The Portis situation is a problem, but for a different reason. The guy's a huge talent. His stats the past two years with Denver don't lie. But Gibbs is running him into the ground. Besides this being strategic folly, Portis is gonna get beat up that way. Portis is not a big back. He's not small, but he's no John Riggins either. It's getting to be "cringe time" every time Portis takes a handoff. The Ravens especially hammered him, and Gibbs kept sending him into the line. Scary stuff. This offense needs to at least ATTEMPT diversification, if only to take the heat off Portis and give him a chance to be effective.

The Redskins defense actually looks pretty good, now under the direction of Gregg Williams, formerly the Bills head coach and the defensive coordinator of the Titans' 1999-season Super Bowl team. The 'Skins are playing aggressively under Williams' tutelage, even without Lavar Arrington, the All-Pro linebacker hobbled by injury. However, they're not a great defense by any means, and this team needs an effective offense to even begin to think about winning consistently.

Is Brunell washed up? The thought crossed my mind Monday night. He wouldn't be the first 34-year-old athlete to simply "lose it." The Ramsey option still intrigues. He's young and strong and he's got a pro arm. He seemed to be a pretty tough character the past two years, as defenders constantly harassed him. Ramsey would fend off incoming linebackers, then bravely step up into the pocket, often taking a hard lick as he released the ball. Alas, consistency was a problem. Can he handle the supposed intricacies of a Gibbs offense? Maybe not. On the other hand, he certainly can hand the ball off to Portis, which is all that Brunell is doing presently.

When Gibbs first came to Washington in 1981, the team had a disastrous 0-5 start. He was 40 years old, full of evangelistic zeal and a lot of offensive ideas, and he turned the team around fast. They finished the '81 season winning 8 of their last 11 games, and the next year went to the Super Bowl, beating the Dolphins when Riggins made a now-storied game-breaking touchdown run. But it's no consolation to think that Gibbs has "been here before." That's not the way it was supposed to be. Fact is, it's a lot harder to cut an icon any slack. Gibbs' postgame comments are amazingly bland and generic, and you gotta wonder what's going on here. You can bet petulant team owner Little Danny Snyder is.

'Skins fans hope the Lord is on Gibbs' side, and I guess he gets a pass for a little while. But here's the $64,000 question no one wants to ask: Has the game passed Gibbs by?

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Sad Case of Joe Buck

What a break baseball fans got this Sunday past, when Fox broadcaster Joe Buck had to fly somewhere to cover a football game. Finally, we were spared his desperate attempts at presenting himself as a "seasoned" baseball broadcaster. He doesn't do football any better, but the action is faster and we're not as conscious of him. The same can't be said of baseball, whose languorous pace is a part of its charm, but also induces lightweights like Buck to prattle on between pitches as if they have something of substance to contribute. Sadly, Buck was back in the baseball booth with sidekick Tim McCarver—see photo—on Tuesday night, for the opening game of the Yanks-Red Sox LCS.

I'm not sure what's worse: the worthless things Buck says, or the overly pious and pseudo-dramatic way in which he says them. One of the worst things that ever happened to sports broadcasting was the passing of Jack Buck, Buck the Lesser's dad, a grizzled voice announcer who made his mark on the national scene as well as a broadcaster for the St. Louis Cardinals. The younger Buck had already wimped his way into the profession on the strength of the family name. Then, when Poppa Buck passed, network executives began to foist Joe on us like some anointed prince. Joe doesn't mind evoking dad's memory on the air, either. He seems to do it every chance he gets. Which maybe means that even though Junior is a relentlessly annoying on-air presence--filling the air with stupid and speculative commentary delivered with faux authority--he might have a brain cell working. Now anointed on the strength of the outpouring of sympathy for his departed dad, Young Buck can be expected to parlay his good fortune (Thanks, Dad!) into a multi-decade career as signature sports broadcaster. No doubt, eventually, he'll be dubbed venerable, and the suck-up broadcasters that follow him will then talk about what a "great broadcaster Joe was." Even more galling is the fact that Bucky has recently taken to commercials, as manipulative advertisers try to cash in on his "new young breed" looks. (Yuck.)

Earlier in the past year, Mark Howard, a local Nashville television sports reader, wrote a newspaper column in which he defended himself and his profession, saying that being on TV, and in sports broadcasting, wasn't as easy as it looks. It was a strange defense, one getting the impression that Howard felt the need to lash out publicly at something someone might've said at a cocktail party. You can almost hear some oafish dude, three beers over his limit, saying to Howard: "Oh yeah, you're that sports guy on TV. Christ, what a cushy gig THAT must be. How do they give out those jobs, anyway? Is there a big lottery, or is it all about having a relative grease the wheels? It can't possibly be based on merit, or objective criteria. You sit there and read the sports stuff off a TelePrompter, and we're supposed to believe that there's something 'professional' about the way you do it. Sort of like the way Star Jones is a 'professional' on 'The View.' Hell, my 14-year-old knows more about football than Dennis Miller, and they paid that guy a ton to be on TV. I guess you're a lucky stiff too. Well, anyway, nice to meet ya. Go Titans!"

The fact of the matter is that Howard's counter-salvo (or whatever it was) sounded just too defensive to be true. Like he knew the truth for sure, but had to strike a blow in the press for sports broadcasters everywhere. Give us a break, Mark. There are probably hundreds, maybe thousands, of young broadcasters all over the country, many of them dying for the kind of chance Buckette has gotten. They'd kill for Howard's gig too. As the saying goes, "this ain''t rocket science," and if it were even close to that, then broadcasters would be hired for their intelligence and artfulness behind a microphone. Instead, we get absolute meatheads like ex-jock Mike Golic, who's an abomination on ESPN Radio, yet is allowed to continue because--why else?--he's an ex-jock. Which is a huge problem that will never go away. All those college kids in radio/TV programs across the country, and most don't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting to the top of their profession because the ex-jocks have decided that they're going to simply segue from the playing field to the broadcast booth. Do they go to college for it? No. Do they get any extensive broadcast experience to prep for their chores? No. What? They didn't make enough money playing football or baseball, so now they have to horn in on the most lucrative industry on the planet?

And then Mark Howard comes along wondering why people think what he does is a snap. Well, hey, if lame-brains like Terry Bradshaw and Dan Dierdorf (who I turn down the moment I hear his distinctively blubbery and overwrought voice) can do it, then so could I, Mark. And so could the guys who've been to broadcasting school but face years in obscurity because bigmouths like Neon Deion and Shannon Sharpe were bored after leaving the game and didn't have anything to do but use their celebrity to make a pile of TV cash prattling on with make-believe enthusiasm.

So it's all about who you know or if you played the game. For anyone outside that category, it all looks like a crap shoot. And let's face facts: there IS no objective criteria for sports broadcasting. Hell, there isn't much subjective criteria, either, since having a pleasant speaking voice doesn't even figure into things. (One presumes being able to read counts for something, but who knows? What comes out of the mouth of Tim McCarver--Buck's sidekick--is certainly improvised nonsense, delivered in an annoying drawl, so maybe reading is an irrelevant skill, after all.)

Too bad. Dumbass glad-handers too often rule the sports airwaves. And connected insiders get the plum gigs. (Which reminds me, Is Kenny Albert Marv Albert's brother?? He sure reeks of it.)

Meanwhile, we have to suffer in silence--providing we have the sense to turn down the sound. Now, if only Paul Maguire looked like Melissa Stark, he could at least be seen and definitely not heard.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Kid Has Arrived

This is Nashville, Tenn. Home of the Tennessee football Titans. So it's appropriate on Columbus Day, 2004, to talk about Chris Brown, a young man who has truly arrived in a New World. In his second pro season, Brown has replaced the venerable ex-Titan Eddie George at running back. and has gained over 100 yards in each of four of the first five games. And while the Titans, currently 2-3 on the season, appear to have some problems (more on that later), they also appear to have found a marquee runner.

Brown is tall and rangy--6'3", 219lbs.--but without the absolute bulk of George. He gets criticized for his "straight up" running style, but the critics are biding their time at the moment, since Brown, with his smooth gait and deceptive speed, has nothing but impressive results to show for his efforts (556 yards). The most immediate comparison that comes to mind is Eric Dickerson, also a sleek, straight-up runner, who gained 13,259 yards in a stellar career (1983-1993) with the Rams, Colts, Raiders and Falcons. Dickerson had a lot of muscle as well as speed, which probably helped him to avoid injuries, maybe the straight-up runner's biggest nemesis.

There's a reason why coaches tell runners to lower their heads: you can "power" through the line, protect the ball, and also protect yourself. But that's a lot easier to do when you're 5'11" and built lower to the ground. Brown does appear to be a wide-open target, but so far he's outrunning defenders, and he's also shown a penchant for a wicked stiff-arm. Brown, a third-round 2003 draft choice (#93 overall) out of Gary Barnett's program at Colorado, also appears to be a nice kid with a genuine enthusiasm for the game.

You always gotta wonder what's happening on draft day, when a talent like Brown slips down a few rounds. There were three RBs selected before him in '03--Willis McGahee (out of Miami), Larry Johnson (Penn State) and Musa Smith (Georgia). I'd say Titans general manager Floyd Reese pulled another rabbit out of his hat--in this case, a big jackrabbit.

Everyone in Nashville wishes Eddie George a gracious end to his career with the Cowboys (or wherever he ends up). He still might have some years left as a role player. But we all know that running back is a young man's position, and no amount of experience can compensate for flat-out youthful speed and an ability to hit a hole with maximum quickness. We mourn Eddie's passing in Nashville, and we thank him for his 8 previous courageous years. But the future is now, and his name is Chris Brown.

Speaking Sportswise

I'm a professional journalist. Mostly covering artistic concerns such as books, theater and music. Occasionally, I get the chance to write about sports. But if I'd had my druthers, I'd've launched a career as a sportswriter long ago. I have a huge appetite for, and knowledge of, baseball and football. I like basketball okay, but it's not my long suit. Still, especially when the NCAA Tournament comes around, I like to think I know my general roundball business. I also enjoy the world of golf. (As for hockey, you can have it.) The "big three" is basically where I'm at, and you can expect plenty of football discussion at this site. Moreover, expect a wealth of opinion on the media of sports: how it's covered, how the scribes and announcers relate it, how the players act on and off the field, how the fans react, what the experts are saying--in short, anything that relates to the games and the guys (and, where applicable, the girls) involved.

This is a huge time of year, what with the NFL in full swing and the baseball playoffs hot and heavy. So roll up your sleeves and get ready to join in with the newest, rockingest, frankly-est opinionated and entertaining online sports outlet.


Martin Brady