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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jerry's Team

It is hard to believe that 20 years have passed since a then-unknown Arkansas Oilman shook up the framework of the sports world and forever changed the history of one of the storied franchises in professional sports.

From their inception as an expansion franchise in 1960 through 1988, the Dallas Cowboys were the epitome of stability in the NFL. Under the triumvirate of General Manager Tex Schramm, Head Coach Tom Landry and Scouting Director Gil Brandt, the Cowboys created a culture of success that was unparalleled in NFL history. Beginning in 1966, the Cowboys registered 20 straight winning seasons, with 18 playoff appearances, five Super Bowl appearances, two Super Bowl Championships and 12 appearances in the NFL/NFC Championship Game.

However, by the time Jerry Jones purchased “America’s Team” in February 1989, the Cowboys had been on a downward slide for a number of years. They were coming off their third straight losing season and had not won a playoff game since 1982. Accustomed to winning, faithful Dallas fans were enthusiastic that the new owner might reinvigorate the franchise, but they had no idea what was ahead.

Determined to put his own stamp on his new purchase, Jones immediately fired the stoic Landry after 29 seasons and replaced him with Jimmy Johnson, a brash college coach who had been a college teammate of Jones. Within weeks, Schramm and Brandt were also gone and the future of the Cowboys was squarely on the shoulders of the two pro football newcomers.

When the 1989 season opened with Dallas losing eight straight games while also trading their best player, skeptics wondered if the “Boys from Arkansas” were in over their heads. In reality, Jones and Johnson were actually sly as a fox and following their plan to create a football dynasty.

Recognizing that the Cowboys they inherited didn’t have the talent to compete in 1989, or the near future, they were willing to sacrifice short-term success for long-term glory. The trade of Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for five players and eight draft picks was the first of several deals that helped the Cowboys build a championship foundation.

Johnson, who coached the University of Miami to a national championship and a 52-9 record in five season, was well acquainted with the top collegiate talent and it was quickly apparent that Dallas was bringing in players capable of helping them regain their winning tradition.

After winning just one game in 1989, the Cowboys quickly began to show marked improvement. They won seven games in 1990 and in 1991 won 11 games and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1985. The following year, Dallas won 13 games for the first time in franchise history and reached the NFC Championship Game for the first time in a decade.

Facing the San Francisco 49ers, a team poised to claim their fifth Super Bowl title in 12 years, Dallas was clearly a team on the upswing, but few believed that they were ready to take the torch of greatness from the 49ers. Displaying an outward bravado that was in complete contrast to the reserved confidence of championship Dallas teams from the past, the Cowboys didn’t just take the torch from the 49ers they ripped it out of their hands.

Dallas defeated the 49ers 30-20 and then completely dominated the Buffalo Bills to win Super Bowl XXVII 52-17. The following season, Dallas repeated the feat by again beating the 49ers in the NFC title game and then defeating Buffalo to win their second straight Super Bowl.

However, just as the Cowboys were beginning to look unstoppable, they began stopping themselves. Just weeks removed from their second straight Super Bowl win and only five years after coming together to rebuild the Cowboys, Jones and Johnson parted ways following a clash of egos. The future success of the Cowboys was now squarely on the shoulders of Jones.

Initially it didn’t look like the Cowboys would skip a beat. Led by their own triumvirate of future Hall of Famers, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, the Cowboys lost the NFC Championship to San Francisco following the 1994 season, but the next season rebounded to win their third Super Bowl in four years.

However, over time free agency, missteps in the draft and the NFL’s salary cap started to impact the quality of player on the field. The Cowboys finished 10-6 in 1996 and after defeating Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs they lost to the Carolina Panthers, a team in only their second NFL season, in the second round. Over the ensuing 12 seasons, Dallas has posted the same number of losing seasons, five, as they have playoff appearances and have not earned another playoff victory.

While Jones has served as the team’s general manager throughout this entire stretch, he has employed five different head coaches. The team has also received more recognition for some of the outrageous antics and legal issues of members of the team than they have for performance on the field.

Though the Cowboys have faltered on the field, Jones has been very successful in turning his franchise into a marketing juggernaut. According to Forbes Magazine, the Cowboys are the most valuable sports franchise in North America with a value of $1.6 billion. After spending nearly 40 years playing at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys will move into a brand new $1.1 billion stadium in 2009. Not bad for a franchise that many thought Jones over paid for when he purchased the team for $140 million in 1989.

If there is an owner in modern sports history with which to compare Jones, it is probably long-time New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Like Jones, Steinbrenner dared to challenge the status quo of sports after purchasing the Yankees in 1973. Within four years, Steinbrenner had his team in the World Series and the team claimed back-to-back championships in 1977 and 1978. They again reached the World Series in 1981.

Then, like Jones, Steinbrenner and the Yankees went through an extended playoff drought. From 1982 through 1994 the Yankees annually had the leagues highest payroll, but failed to reach the postseason. During that stretch, Steinbrenner employed 10 different managers as well as numerous general managers and the Yankees regularly made more headlines off the field than on the diamond.

Steinbrenner eventually realized that for the team to be successful he could not continue the revolving door policy in the front office and needed to allow his baseball experts to handle most of the decision-making responsibilities. With Steinbrenner stepping into the background and offering only occasional insight, the duo of manager Joe Torre (who served as manager of the Yankees from 1996-2007) and general manager Brian Cashman (general manager since 1998), led the Yankees to their greatest era since the team’s hay-days of the 1950s and early 1960s. They appeared in the playoffs in every season from 1995-2007 and claimed four World Series titles.

Returning the Cowboys to their previous level of greatness might be a little tougher for Jones. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL currently has a salary cap, which means that teams can't just spend more money than anyone else to buy the best talent and compensate for errors in player evaluations. NFL teams must build through a combination of productive drafts and thoughtful free agent acquisitions. While Jones and Johnson originally built the Cowboys using that philosophy, in recent years Jones has gotten caught-up in trying to make the "quick fix" with glamorous free agent and trade acquisitions that have not always panned out.

The Cowboys of 2009 are certainly on firmer ground than the Cowboys he inherited 20 years ago, but you have to believe that Jones won't be satisfied until his new stadium is recognized as both the most financially viable stadium in sports and as the home to the best team in the NFL.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tiger's Greatest Challenge

In 13 years on the PGA Tour, Tiger Woods has proven that he can handle any challenge, but those facing him in 2009 may prove to be the toughest of his career.

Woods will make his first tour appearance since limping to the U.S. Open title last June when he tees it up for the World Golf Championships - Accenture Match Play Championship this week.

In a sport where repetition and consistency are crucial, it will be interesting to see just how much “rust” the greatest player in the world shows. There is little doubt that over the last eight months Woods has approached his rehab from major knee surgery with the same kind of competitive drive, determination and focus that made him the best golfer in the game. However, while he will likely be physically in better shape than in recent years, it will be interesting to see if going several months without playing the game will have any impact on his performance.

If history is any indicator, Woods is going to be just fine.

Woods would certainly be pleased if his return to the game this spring follows the form of that charted by another golfing great who returned to the game after an extended absence. In January 1950, just 11 months removed from a major automobile accident that nearly cost him his life, Ben Hogan made a triumphant return to the tour at the Los Angeles Open (now known as the Northern Trust Open).

Hampered by circulation and leg injuries that would impact him for the rest of his life, few expected Hogan to contend for the tournament title. However, Hogan had other ideas and finished the event tied with Sam Snead for first place. Though he lost to Snead in the playoff, Hogan showed everyone that he was still a force to be reckoned with.

Later that year, Hogan won the U.S. Open in an 18-hole playoff and went on to claim six of his nine Major titles after his accident. In 1953, Hogan became the first player in golf history to win three Majors in the same year. His accomplishment was not equaled until Woods won three Major titles in 2000.

Unlike Hogan, who was never able to play a full schedule following his accident, the knee injury suffered by Woods is not expected to seriously limit his future schedule. However, we are unsure how the other recent major event involving Woods will impact his future golf schedule.

Earlier this month, Woods and his wife, Elin, became members of the prestigious “two under two” club. Charlie joins his 20-month old sister, Sam, to form a dynamic duo that will undoubtedly liven things up for their parents.

As a former member of the “two under two” club, I can tell Tiger that regardless of whether he has any responsibilities for changing diapers, his life will never again be the same.

Now I recognize that Tiger and Elin probably have more assistance than most of us in the day-to-day upbringing of their children. However, from everything I have heard Tiger say about parenthood, I am pretty sure that he is determined that his children will not see more of him on television than they do in person.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tiger can’t be a good Dad and still be the best golfer in the world. It just means that it is going to take even greater effort and energy than before.

When on the course, golfers have to be completely focused on the moment and not thinking about potential distractions (like the crowd, wind or shot you missed at the last hole). Spending time with your young children often takes the same kind of single-minded focus.

Kids rightfully expect, and often demand, that when their parents are with them they are 100% with them (both physically and mentally). In Tiger’s case it will mean that when he is reading books or playing blocks with his kids he can’t be thinking about the putt he missed on the 17th green at Augusta, how his swing felt in practice that morning or the tournament he has the following weekend.

Throughout his career, Tiger has strived not to be great, but to be the best. He has reached that level on the golf course and I’m willing to bet that he plans on also being the best parent for Sam and Charlie that he possibly can.

I recognized soon after my children were born that having kids and giving them my love and attention didn’t mean I couldn’t still be just as successful at my job as in the past. It just meant that I would need to find additional energy to ensure that I was giving the kids the attention they needed at home while saving enough in reserve to still do a quality job at work.

The other golfers probably don't want to hear that Woods may have to push himself to an even greater level moving forward just to stay at the top, but that may be the case. His ultimate professional desire is to be the greatest golfer of all-time and I don't think a knee injury or dedication to his family will keep him from reaching that goal.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Will LeBron Be Like Mike?

The NBA season has just moved past the midway mark, yet many teams and members of the media seem to be just as focused on an event that is still 18 months away than they do on who will win the 2009 NBA title.

It used to be that when teams made trades the number one purpose was to make your current team better. While some teams, like the Orlando Magic with their recent trade for point guard Rafer Alston, are still focused on making themselves better for a run at the 2009 NBA title, many teams have been making trades with more of an eye toward the summer of 2010.

To NBA media and general managers, the summer of 2010 has the allure of Utopia. If things work out as some predict that summer could see the greatest free agent class in the history of the NBA. Superstars including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire and Chris Bosh highlight a potential class of free agents that already has many league executives salivating.

In anticipation, some teams have already begun making deals that will ensure that they have the financial flexibility to compete for the big names.

Before the 2008-2009 season was even a month old, the New York Knicks traded its top two scorers to clear more than $27 million in salary cap room for the “LeBron Sweepstakes.” Other teams have not been quite so blatant in dumping top performers for minimal return, but have also made moves designed to create room under the salary cap.

Since coming into the NBA as an 19-year old phenomenon in 2003, LeBron James has displayed the kind of talent and all-around basketball ability that invokes comparisons with Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and many other greats from the games past. Like Jordan, James has displayed the ability to significantly lift the level of performance for his team. In only his fourth NBA season, James led a mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers squad to the NBA Finals. This season, his sixth in the league, James and the Cavaliers are competing with the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic for the best record in basketball and are a legitimate contender for the NBA title.

For more than a decade, the NBA has been looking for “the next Michael Jordan” and as could be expected, James has constantly been compared with his childhood idle. Unlike others who have been unable to live up to such a high level of expectation, James, who honors Jordan by wearing his legendary number 23, seems capable of filling Jordan’s role both on and off the court.

Not only is James arguably the most talented player to come into the league since Jordan, he also possesses the kind of commercial appeal and likeability that helped make Jordan a mega-star. James isn’t as polished in his appearance as Jordan, but like Jordan, he has been able to catapult his success beyond simply being known as a great basketball player and become a desired television “pitch-man.” Much like NFL star Peyton Manning James has endeared himself with today’s buying public by not taking himself too seriously in television commercials. He comes across genuine and amicable and has been able to raise his exposure beyond the sporting world.

However, if James hopes to one-day reach the level of recognition and greatness enjoyed by Jordan, he must be able to reach the pinnacle of on-the-court success by proving that he is capable of leading his team to multiple championships.

After allowing the Chicago Bulls to spend six years surrounding him with a quality supporting-cast, Jordan led the Bulls to the NBA championship in his seventh season. They ultimately claimed the NBA championship in each of Jordan’s final six full NBA seasons.

To this point, James career has followed a similar trajectory. Though he has already played in one NBA championship, James and the Cavaliers have now developed the nucleus of a team that appears capable of consistently contending for an NBA title.

However, it is hard to tell at this point if James plans to be there to see the Cavaliers plans through to the finish. Though he grew up in nearby Akron and has had the rare opportunity to play before his hometown fans, James has made little attempt to hide his fascination with New York City. When the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians played in the 2007 Major League Baseball playoffs, James was criticized for appearing on TV wearing a Yankee hat. After the Knicks made their moves to free up salary cap room for 2010, James did nothing to quiet rumors and conjecture that he was very interested in eventually playing for the Knicks.

While I am certainly not in a position to tell LeBron James what to do, I can provide some historical perspective of how his future decisions could impact his lasting legacy.

Instead of shopping his services for the best contract or place where he could receive the most exposure, Jordan realized early in his career that the money and exposure would be there anywhere if he concentrated on being the best player in the game and winning titles. He did everything he could, including taking a significantly reduced salary, to help the Bulls build a championship team.

In essence, the Cavaliers have spent the last six years trying to prove to James that they are the rightful caretakers for his enormous talent. They have annually done everything they could to make their team better and contend for the title that season, instead of looking toward the future. Though they were unable to secure another big player before the recently passed trade deadline, many believe that Cleveland already has all the pieces needed to be a contender this year.

Regardless of whether he leads Cleveland to a title in the next two seasons, if James chooses to leave Cleveland for New York (or anywhere else) in 2010, the likelihood that he will be able to match the lasting team success of Jordan is minuscule. With James in the lineup, the Knicks could be a playoff caliber team in 2010-2011, but it will probably be another several years before they would be able to surround James with the kind of talent needed to win a championship. By then, James would be nearing 30 years of age and would have spent nearly a dozen years enduring the pounding of NBA basketball.

Perhaps the clearest example of what James might expect should he leave Cleveland can be found in Shaquille O’Neal. When he left the Orlando Magic for the bright lights of Los Angeles following four seasons and one appearance in the NBA Finals, O’Neal joined a Laker team that had won 53 games the year before his arrival. Over the next three seasons, the Lakers lost twice in the Western Conference semifinals and once in the conference finals. It wasn’t until O’Neal’s fourth season with the team, after the arrival of Phil Jackson as the head coach and emergence of Kobe Bryant as an All-Star, that the Lakers were able to win a championship.

If James does indeed leave Cleveland for New York, he will probably not be joining a team coming off a 50+ win season. The Knicks are currently mired in their eighth straight losing season and have reached the playoffs only once in the last eight years.

So, the question remains: Will LeBron follow the lead of his childhood legend and lead his original team to greatness or will he follow the lights of the big city into a much more uncertain future? We won’t know the answer for 18 months, but you can bet we will hear a lot more about it between now and then.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Florida is No Longer Dodger Blue

The crack of bats and smell of leather may be the same, but there is something noticeably different at spring training for one of baseball’s most storied franchises in 2009. For the first time in 60 years, Los Angeles Dodgers greats from the past and present are not holding court at “Dodgertown” in Vero Beach, Florida.

In another illustration that generating revenue is a much more influential element for sports teams than sentiment, history or tradition, the Dodgers have abandoned their long-time home in Florida for a new state-of-the-art facility in Arizona.

In fairness to the Dodgers, they are not the first team (nor will they be the last) to leave long-time winter digs for the allure of more money and nicer facilities. However, because of the history and tradition that spring training with the Dodgers represented, their move from Vero Beach truly represents the end of an era.

When the Dodgers located their entire major and minor league spring training to Vero Beach in 1949, they became the first team to have a true spring training complex complete with facilities for the entire organization. Beginning in 1952, the players stayed in the former Naval barracks, which by the mid-1970s had been replaced by villas. For a month each year, Vero Beach truly became “Dodgertown” as the local community became the home-away-from-home for the Dodger players.

Holman Stadium, which the Dodgers spent $100,000 to build, was the perfect stadium for old-time spring training as it was a compact stadium (only 17 rows) that provided the fans close access to the players. It also did not have dugouts, which meant the players were visible to the fans at all times.

For many years, the Dodgers prided themselves on the fact that they concentrated on molding their team through the camaraderie of spring training. There were no advertisements on the outfield fence and relatively few concession stands for a stadium that seated nearly 7,000 people. However, as times changed and spring training became another opportunity for teams to generate revenue, the quaintness of Dodgertown and Holman Field no longer seemed to fit.

So, when Glendale, Arizona offered the Dodgers the opportunity to play in an $80-million stadium that is much closer to their regular season home in California, there was truly little Vero Beach could do to keep the Dodgers. In addition to the Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians have also left their long-time home in Winter Haven, Florida for Arizona and next year the Cincinnati Reds will leave Sarasota.

Spring training is still a special time of the year, but with ticket and concession prices that rival regular season games, it just isn't quite the time of innocence and rebirth that it once was.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

NBA All-Star Game is a Star-Studded Event

Professional sports All-Star games are kind of like new pennies. They are too bright and alluring not to pick up, but you quickly realize that they aren’t really worth much.

Of the “big 3” sports, the NBA All-Star Game is probably the best, if only because the rosters are small enough that you have some of the best stars on the court from opening tip to final horn. It is also the only one of the three where you rarely hear of a player getting a mysterious injury in the days leading up to the event.

In recent years, the NBA has turned the concept of the All-Star Game into a star-studded three-day extravaganza where the actual game can almost be anti-climatic to all the events that precede it.

The idea of special events in advance of the All-Star Game actually dates back to the ABA when Julius Erving dazzled fans with his famous foul line dunk. The NBA created its own dunk contest in 1984 and added a three-point shootout two years later. The weekend now also includes skills and horse competitions, a celebrity game and a game between first and second year NBA players.

By the time the actual All-Stars take to the court tonight, seemingly half the players in the NBA will have participated in one event or another.

Because the game rules seem to prohibit anyone from actually playing defense, the average score of the NBA All-Star Game is generally much higher than what you will see in the regular season. Last year the East won the game 134-128 and the last time that both teams didn’t score at least 110 points was in 1976 when the East won 123-109.

LeBron James has won two of the last three game MVP Awards, but watch for Amare Stoudemire of the host Phoenix Suns to have a big game. The subject of trade rumors the last couple weeks, this could be his final game as a member of the Suns and I’m sure he would like to go out in style.

Daytona 500 is Full of Surprises

Today’s 51st running of the Daytona 500 is sure to be full of thrills and excitement, but it will have a hard time topping the “battle” that occurred 30 years ago.

The hot-tempered drivers of today have nothing on old-time drivers Donnie Allison, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough as 30 years ago the trio came to blows on the infield after Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the final lap of the 500 mile race.

With Allison clinging to the lead, the two cars tangled in the final turns and both men soon found their cars off the track and stopped in the infield. They were helpless as Richard Petty held off Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt to claim the sixth of his record seven Daytona 500 titles.

As Petty celebrated, the CBS cameras quickly turned back to Donnie Allison and Yarborough, who had both gotten out of their cars and were jawing in the infield. Donnie’s brother Bobby soon joined the duo and his arrival helped escalate the war of words into an actual physical battle.

Of course the tradition of temper displays by NASCAR drivers is alive and well as recent battles between Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick as well as Kurt Busch versus Tony Stewart illustrate.

No doubt the racing on the track will be exciting today, but let’s see if tempers off the track come close to reaching those experienced 30 years ago.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Legacy of Favre

Now that Brett Favre has officially announced that he has taken his final snap in the NFL, it is time to begin analyzing where he fits in the history of NFL quarterbacks.

Given his past track record, it may be wise to wait until after training camps start in July to write such a column, but I choose to believe that he learned from his missteps of last season and has indeed made a lasting decision.

First of all, while I think his antics of a year ago cost Favre some reputation points in the short term, I expect that as time passes memories will fade and thoughts will return to what he accomplished on the field. His relationship with the Packers organization and some Packer fans may be strained now, but once a couple years come and go and he makes a triumphant return to Lambeau Field to have his jersey retired, all will be forgotten.

Besides, though his divorce from Green Bay was pretty messy, Favre is just the latest in a long line of future Hall of Famers who finished their careers playing in a jersey different from the one for which they earned their place in Canton. That list includes quarterbacks such as Johnny Unitas (Chargers), Joe Namath (Rams) and Joe Montana (Chiefs), as well as other legends including Franco Harris (Seahawks), Emmitt Smith (Cardinals), Alan Page (Bears), Sam Huff (Redskins) and Jerry Rice (Seahawks).

Favre retires from the NFL as the career leader in touchdown passes, passing yardage and completions, but trying to identify the place of a quarterback in terms of all-time NFL greatness based purely on stats can often be misleading. Just by the nature of the differences in offensive philosophies and how long a player is in the league, statistics can often give the wrong impression.

For example, at the time of his retirement, Fran Tarkenton held the NFL records for touchdowns, yardage and completions, yet few considered him equal to other quarterbacks of his era including Johnny Unitas, Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw. In fact, while the other three were all first ballot inductees, it took three cracks before Tarkenton received his bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Of the 23 quarterbacks from the NFL’s modern era who are in the Hall of Fame, only eight rank among the top 20 in career passing yardage. Instead of names like Aikman, Jurgenson, Dawson, Starr, Bradshaw or Staubach, the top 20 is dotted with such names as Testaverde, Bledsoe, Krieg, Esiason, Hart, DeBerg and Hadl. While all were excellent NFL quarterbacks, none will likely ever earn a spot in Canton and certainly are not in the conversation when looking at all-time greatness.

Unlike for any other position, championship success tends to play a significant factor in determining the greatness of a quarterback. Never playing on a championship team didn’t negatively impact the inclusion of Dick Butkus, Deacon Jones or Ozzie Newsome in the conversations for being the best to ever play their positions. However, Tarkenton, Y.A. Title, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts and Warren Moon are rarely mentioned among the highest echelon of quarterbacks because they never won the big one.

In reality, winning a championship takes being part of a special team. A great quarterback can certainly help lead a team to a title, but even average NFL quarterbacks have been able to claim a title when leading a superior team. Favre is among 16 quarterbacks to claim one Super Bowl championship. Included in that group are Hall of Famers Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Johnny Unitas and Steve Young, but also on the list are Jeff Hostetler, Jim McMahon, Mark Rypien and Trent Dilfer.

The Packer squads of the mid-1990s were great teams with Favre and Reggie White leading a dynamic squad that included many Pro Bowl caliber players. Though they claimed only one Super Bowl title, they remain one of only 14 teams in NFL history to have played in consecutive Super Bowls. And while Favre was unable to lead the Packers back to the Super Bowl, he did take a team with limited talent to the playoffs five times in the last decade.

While statistics and championships are certainly part of the equation when determining the all-time greatest quarterbacks, another element to consider is how the player compared to his contemporaries. Was he always in the conversation for All Pro, MVP and Pro Bowl recognition or was he steady, yet unspectacular. In other words, while he was playing did people know and recognize that he was one of the greats.

There is no question that when Favre was at the peak of his career he was one of the greats of the game. He remains the only player to ever earn three straight NFL Most Valuable Player awards and his selection to the 2008 Pro Bowl marked the 10th time in his career that he received such recognition. He led the league in passing yards twice and touchdown passes four times.

Of course, there was also a flip side to Favre’s greatness. His detractors are quick to point out that he ranks first in NFL history with 310 passes intercepted and led the league in that category three times. He is also second all-time in career fumbles and eighth in yards lost from sacks.

The reality is that Favre was the true epitome of an NFL gunslinger. He had the big arm and, for good or bad, used his arm to make things happen. Consider that in addition to being the most durable quarterback in NFL history with 269 consecutive starts, Favre’s 169 regular season victories ranks as the most for a quarterback in league history.

So, is Brett Favre the greatest quarterback in NFL history?

There is little doubt that when all factors are considered, Favre deserves a spot in the conversation. However, I just can’t put him ahead of Montana, Elway and Unitas. So, in tribute to the jersey number he wore for 18 years, I put Favre fourth on my list of all-time great quarterbacks.

Now, what do you think?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Is Tebow a Starr in the Making?

Regardless of whether you are a fan of the Florida Gators, it is hard not to like and appreciate the drive and talent of their star quarterback, Tim Tebow.

Saying that Tim Tebow plays the game with a special passion and determination is not meant to take anything away from the thousands of other young men of all talent levels who work hard on and off the football field to achieve greatness. However, every once in a while we are lucky enough to watch a player whose combination of talent, drive, work ethic and circumstance push him to a level reserved for only a few. In his three collegiate seasons, Florida’s number 15 has risen to a level where he is rightfully being compared to the all-time greats in college football history.

Tebow certainly has physical talents, but what makes him rise above the crowd is his ability to propel his entire team to another level. Only a few special players have ever been able to impose their personal will on a team the way Tebow did on the 2008 Gators.

When Tebow addressed the media after his team suffered a disappointing one-point defeat to the University of Mississippi that, at the time, seemed to derail their dream of playing for a national title, he didn’t make a guarantee in the fashion of Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III prediction. Instead, he did something that went beyond Namath’s bold statement. By promising that no player or team would work harder than he and his teammates, Tebow lifted his entire team to a higher level.

As they say, the rest is history. The Gators didn’t just merely win the rest of their games they outscored their final eight regular season opponents by an average score of 52-12, winning each game by at least 28 points. In both the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and the Bowl Championship Series Title Game, they found a higher gear in the second half to turn close games into double-digit victories.

It amuses me that at a time when such a premium is put on winning, many are ready to ignore the obvious influence that Tebow has on the performance of his team and predict that he would have limited success as a quarterback at the professional level. Some have gone as far as saying that his best choice would be to convert to fullback or some other position where his athleticism could be utilized.

Now recent history is laden with quarterbacks who led college teams to championships, and in some cases even claimed the Heisman Trophy, but who had little or no success in the NFL. Players such as Tommie Frazier, Gino Torretta, Chris Weinke, Danny Wuerffel, Tony Rice and Eric Crouch made their college teams champions, but were unable to transfer that success to the next level.

But I think to even consider lumping Tebow into that category is to woefully sell short his talent and desire for personal and team success. Unless Tebow somehow ends up in a system and with a coach that are unable to capitalize on his running ability and athleticism, I have little doubt that Tebow will be a winner in the NFL.

In fact, as I watched Tebow and the Gators meticulously make big play after big play during key drives in the BCS title game, it got me thinking about another famous number 15 who also played quarterback in the SEC and then overcame doubters to set the standard for championship success in the NFL.

Drafted in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL Draft after leading the University of Alabama through an uncharacteristically poor (0-10) 1955 season, few could have predicted that Bart Starr would eventually lead his team to a record five NFL Championships as well as victories in the first two Super Bowls.

Like Tebow, Starr didn’t have the prototype big arm that many believe is a necessity in the NFL. However, also like Tebow, Starr possessed a desire and dedication that helped him become the field general for the great Packer teams of the 1960s.

After toiling through three losing seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Starr’s career turned the corner in 1959 with the addition of head coach Vince Lombardi. Generally soft-spoken, few believed that Starr would fit with the fiery Lombardi. However, what soon became apparent was that Starr, who like Tebow looked and acted like a choirboy off the field, possessed the iron-will of a cold blooded killer once he stepped on the gridiron.

In an era when quarterbacks called their own plays, Starr was known for making the big play at the pivotal moment of the game. In Super Bowl I, Starr turned what had been a close game in the first half into a blowout by eating away time with meticulous drives during the crucial second half.

The pinnacle moment of Starr’s career occurred a year later when he battled the elements and the Dallas Cowboys in the final moments of the famous “Ice Bowl.” Trailing 17-14 and with their chances for an unprecedented third straight NFL Championship slipping away, Starr led the Packers on a late game drive that left them facing a third down play at the Cowboy’s one-yard line with only 16 seconds left in the game. Though Starr’s career total of 15 rushing touchdowns is miniscule compared to the numbers Tebow has compiled running the football at Florida, on the biggest play of his career Starr called for a quarterback sneak then plowed over his right guard and into the end zone.

Rather than dismissing Tebow because he doesn’t possess the exact body or arm strength that most scouts think is a prerequisite for playing in the NFL, personnel directors need to remember that there is more to success in the NFL than possessing certain physical attributes. The number of first round NFL draft picks who met the scout’s idea of a perfect quarterback, yet failed miserably on the field is even longer than the list of college champions who fell short. And remember, in addition to Starr, three other great championship quarterbacks, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Tom Brady were thought to not have what it takes to succeed in the league.

After retiring, Bart Starr had a stint as head coach of the Packers, but was never able to find another Bart Starr to lead the team. Of course, he also couldn’t find another Willie Davis, Ray Nitschke, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung or Herb Adderley and eventually left the team with a losing record.

You can bet that if Starr were still coaching today, he would quickly jump at the opportunity to coach his fellow number 15. But it is probably a good thing that Starr is retired because combining football’s two choirboy assassins would certainly be deadly for the opposition.

One Big Asterisk

If anyone was still holding out hope that the rampant use of steroids in Major League Baseball was just another overblown media creation, I’m afraid it is time to give up the ghost.

The recent admission by Alex Rodriguez, generally considered the best player in the game today, that he used steroids for a three-year stretch during the peak of his career makes it clear that the magnitude of the use of performance enhancing drugs over the last 15 years is greater than anyone could have imagined.

While I refuse to go so far as to say that all the greats of the game of the last 15 years knowingly used steroids or some other drug to enhance their performance, it may be safe to say that if the numbers posted by a player appear to be too good to be true, they probably are.

It isn’t too hard to understand why a player with limited ability might have seen steroids as an answer for helping him advance to the next level. However, I struggle with understanding why someone who averaged 37 home runs, 115 runs batted in and a .315 batting average during his first six years in the league would think he needed “help” to enhance his performance. Nonetheless, if Rodriguez’s claim that his steroid use occurred only from 2001-2003 is true, then that is indeed the case.

As the number of players being identified as probable steroid users continues to grow, most accused or confessed users seem to generally fall under one of four categories:

1. Career minor leaguer who used steroids to get to the majors;

2. Serviceable major leaguer who became an All-Star caliber player after using performance enhancers;

3. All-Star players whose use of performance enhancers lifted their play to Hall of Fame stature; and

4. Sure Hall of Famers who elevated their status to all-time great through the use of drugs.

Even though there are still a few baseball broadcasters, mostly former players who played over the last 15 years, who seem determined to do everything they can to soften the stigma against their era, more and more players, owners and media members seem to have come to grips with the fact that there was indeed a “Steroid Era.”

So, now that people are finally facing this reality, it is time to move past the shock and blame that has previously occurred every time a new name is revealed and instead start coming to grips with how to wedge this era into the history of baseball.

I think for me and many other long-time lovers of baseball, what is most offensive about the steroid era is not just that players chose to try and enhance their performance through means that were unethical and in most cases also illegal, but specifically that doing so ruined the historical fluidness of the game.

More than any other sport, baseball could always be counted on for being able to connect the records of the past with those of modern day. Unlike football and basketball where changes in how the game was played made comparing players and statistics from different generations difficult, baseball remained constant enough that you could generally have a valid conversation about whether Rogers Hornsby or Joe Morgan was a better second baseman even though their careers were 40 years apart.

Baseball also has always been a sport with sacred numbers. Whether it be specific numbers recorded by individuals like Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season or 714 for his career or milestone career accomplishments like 3,000 hits, 500 home runs or 300 victories, statistical accomplishments have always been used to measure baseball greatness.

No measuring stick has taken a greater pounding over the last decade than the home run. Once described as the toughest thing to do in sports, hitting a home run is still a majestic moment during a baseball game, but the abundance of power over the last 15 years has eroded some of the luster around those who accomplish this great feat.

Of the 24 players in baseball history who have passed the 500 home run mark, nine hit a majority of those home runs during the last 15 years. Right now, Gary Sheffield is poised to become the 25th member of the club as he currently sits with 499 career round trippers and will certainly join the club if he plays in 2009.

A number of media members who have votes for the Baseball Hall of Fame have publicly said that they will not vote for anyone who has been linked to the use of performance enhancing drugs. If enough voters share that sentiment, a Baseball Hall of Fame that is already without the all-time leader in hits could also exclude the career leader in home runs, the most dominant pitcher of the modern era and multiple members of the 3,000 hit and 500 home run clubs.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t an easy answer. Even players who as of today have never been linked to steroids could have their chances at Hall of Fame induction hampered by the concept of guilt by association. Players like Jeff Kent, Chris Biggio and Mike Piazza would seem like easy Hall of Fame picks given that they rank among the greatest players ever at their positions. However, if enough voters refuse to support anyone from the steroid era, these players could have a tougher time getting elected.

I realize that Alex Rodriguez admitted his wrongdoing only after a positive test became public, but he will be an interesting test case for the future. Other players like Brian Roberts, Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi admitted some culpability and have generally gone on with their careers. Of course, these players were never considered among the all-time greats, so it is difficult to predict if fans and the media will be as forgiving of someone once perceived as being truly special.

For many observers of baseball history, the worst part is in not knowing exactly which great performances of the last 15 years are tainted and which are legitimate. Because testing has been spotty and there remains no test for HGH, just about anyone who puts up a great season is a suspect.

While it will never happen, I would almost prefer that the federal government provide amnesty to all baseball players as long as they admit if they used any banned or illegal substance to enhance their performance. That way we could make our own mind up as to how players of this generation fit in baseball history.

Of course that will likely never happen, so we are left to speculate and move forward knowing that not all numbers are as they appear.

Catching a Spot in the Hall of Fame

So what exactly does it take to become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

I suspect a number of current NFL wide receivers were asking themselves that very question after the 2009 Hall of Fame class was announced. Given the career statistics of the eligible wide receivers not chosen as part of the Class of 2009, the current receivers are probably wondering exactly what they will have to do to earn a bust in Canton.

Cris Carter and Andre Reed, who have the most catches of any players eligible for the Hall of Fame and rank third and sixth respectively for career receptions with more than 2,100 catches between them, were left off the list of players who will be inducted during the Hall of Fame Weekend in August.

Now the Hall of Fame selectors have a long history of making some of the greatest legends in NFL history wait beyond their initial year of eligibility before finally bestowing football immortality. Among the all-time greats who had to wait multiple years before getting their Hall of Fame bust were Fran Tarkenton, Sam Huff, Alan Page, Frank Gifford, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Willie Lanier and Willie Davis, so it isn’t a complete surprise that Carter has now been denied twice and Reed has missed out for the last three years. However, even recognizing that fact, they are just the most recent examples of seemingly deserving wide receivers that have struggled to catch the attention of HOF voters.

Perhaps more than any other position, the role and statistics associated with wide receiver have changed dramatically over the last fifty years as the NFL record books have gone from no players with 500 career receptions in 1960 and only four in 1970 to 106 today, including 85 who have joined the club since 1990. For that reason, the Hall of Fame selectors seem to be in a constant struggle with history to try and deduce which former pass catchers belong in Canton.

The first standard-barer for the position was the legendary Don Hutson who caught 488 passes for 7,991 yards and 99 touchdowns during an 11-year NFL career that ended in 1945. Not surprisingly, Hutson was a charter Hall of Fame inductee in 1963. However, what may be a little more surprising is that the first player to pass Hutson’s career reception total has never even sniffed Hall of Fame induction.

Billy Howton (shown above) was a consistent receiver in the NFL for 12 years, including the first seven following in Hutson’s footsteps with the Green Bay Packers. A four-time pro bowler and two time first team all-pro, he completed his career in 1963 as a member of the Dallas Cowboys and that season eclipsed Hutson’s career totals for catches and receiving yards, finishing his career with 503 catches for 8,459 yards and 61 touchdowns. Despite retiring as the leading receiver in NFL history and registering more 50 reception and 1,000 yardage seasons that Hutson, Howton has never been a finalist for the Hall of Fame.

Of the 20 Modern Era wide receivers that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, eight, including 2009 selection Bob Hayes (371 catches, 7,414 yards) and 2001 inductee Lynn Swann (336 catches, 5,462 yards) have fewer receptions and yards receiving than Howton. In fact, four of Howton’s contemporaries, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Tom Fears, Dante Lavelli and Pete Pihos, all have at least 100 fewer receptions than Howton, yet by 1976 all had received their Hall of Fame busts.

So why were these players easy Hall selections and Howton is still waiting? While Hirsch, Fears, Lavelli and Pihos were all exciting game-changers who played on championship caliber teams, Howton might be considered the NFL’s first “stats monster” as he gobbled up receptions and yardage playing primarily in anonymity for losing teams.

Howton’s reign as the all-time receiving leader didn’t last long as Raymond Berry eclipsed Howton’s career total in 1964 and since then, every eligible player who has concluded his career as the NFL’s career reception leader has earned induction into the Hall of Fame. Surprisingly, of these six players, only Berry and Steve Largent were selected to the Hall of Fame in their first season of eligibility. Charley Taylor was chosen in his second, but Charley Joiner was a finalist five times before being selected and Art Monk and Don Maynard were each chosen in their eighth year as a finalist. Of the 20 modern era wide receivers who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, only seven were selected in their first four years of eligibility.

That number will grow by one next year when sure-first ballot selection Jerry Rice becomes eligible, but it is tough to predict whether the inclusion on the ballot of Rice, who registered 447 more catches and 7,951 more receiving yards than any other player in history, will help or hinder the selection of other receivers from the modern era.

While Howton may have been the first “stats monster”, he certainly now has plenty of company. There are currently 17 wide receivers, including seven active players, with at least 800 career receptions and that number will continue to grow in the coming years.

How Hall of Fame voters choose to handle this position in the future will be very interesting. It is hard to predict whether the induction of Hayes, the former Olympic sprinter who ushered in the era of speed receivers in the NFL, will lead to the selection of other game-breakers from a by-gone era when career stats were not inflated or if his selection was a last gesture to the past.

While I think Carter, Reed and current receivers including Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss deserve enshrinement, I hope the selection committee will also continue to dig back into history to pull out worthy candidates from the past. Game-changers like Otis Taylor, Drew Pearson and Cliff Branch have been lost in this era of exorbitant stats, but all were important components of championship teams and made big plays when their teams needed them the most.

Who knows, there may someday even be room in Canton for the original “stats monster.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

When Does History Start?

I know we live in a society (and sports world) where “what have you done for me lately” is the unofficial motto, but since when did the media get the power to ignore nearly 50 years of sports history?

It hasn’t been surprising that since the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated Arizona to win Super Bowl XLIII many people have been quick to proclaim the Steelers as the best team of the Super Bowl era. I get it. They were the first team to win six Super Bowl titles, so they certainly have the right to lay claim to that title.

However, what I haven’t understood is that a number of respected veteran sports reporters have been quick to go a step further and anoint the Steelers as the “greatest franchise in the history of professional football.” What?!

In case you didn’t know (and obviously a number of well revered sports journalists have forgotten), the NFL began in 1920, not in 1967 when the first Super Bowl was played.

And in those first 47 years the Pittsburgh Steelers were nowhere near the league’s best franchise. In fact, from the time the Steelers joined the league in 1933 until the end of the first 50 years of the NFL in 1969, the Steelers could probably be considered the league’s worst team as they posted an overall record of 157-253-18 and never won a championship. But who needs facts when they get in the way of a good sound bite?

As the sports media has shifted almost total focus toward the male 18-35 year-old demographic, anything that happened before these ultra-fans were born seems to have been swept under the rug.

So, is there really such a thing as the “greatest franchise in the history of professional football?” Throughout the 89-year history of the NFL, various teams have dominated seasons or decades, but no team has claimed a championship in more than three consecutive decades. In fact, the Chicago Bears, who rank second all-time with nine NFL Championships, hold the distinction of the most decades with a championship having earned championship rings in five different decades.

Pro Football’s “Titletown” is still in Green Bay as the Packers hold the distinction of having claimed the most championships in a decade, five in the 1960s, and most all-time with 12. And, while those of you in the 18-35 age bracket might have a hard time believing it, 11 of those championships came under the guidance of a quarterback other than Brett Favre.

While championships are an important measure of greatness, consistent winning is also significant. In that category, no team has won a greater percentage of their games than the Miami Dolphins, who have been victorious at a .583 clip since playing their first game in 1966. Of the franchises who have played at least 70 seasons, the Chicago Bears rank first with a .579 winning percentage and the Packers are next at .556. And while the Steelers have won at a .606 clip since 1970, their all-time winning percentage of .516 is tied with the New England Patriots for 17th place in league history.

Now please don’t get the impression that I think for a second the 1933 World Champion Chicago Bears would have a chance if put on the field with the 2008 champion Steelers, or even the 0-16 Detroit Lions. There is no question that the players of today are far superior in size, strength and athletic ability to athletes from 30, 50 or 80 years ago. But that really isn’t the point.

Assessing the history of professional football is about looking at the entire story. No one year or period should be weighed above another just because nearly 100 million people now watch the championship game each year. While the 2008 Steelers certainly worked hard to earn their championship, the Packers of 1929, the Lions of 1957, the Dolphins of 1972 and the 49ers of 1981 all also withstood the best shots of their contemporaries to claim their championships.

I once got a letter from Clarke Hinkle (shown above) a Hall of Fame running back who played 10 years for the Packers and was a member of two championship teams. His note was in response to a letter I sent him asking if he found it ironic that he had once been the all-time leading rusher in NFL history with 3,860 career yards and at that point (mid-1980s) the leading rusher in league history had nearly 10,000 more yards than that.

Hinkle, who was known as a tough-nosed player who didn’t take any gruff, responded by saying that the players of the modern era had it so much easier and if they had to play with the same kind of equipment, play both offense and defense (as was the norm in Hinkle’s era) and endure the same kind of physical play as the players of his era, they wouldn’t last a minute.

Unfortunately, Hinkle passed away in 1988, but if he were still alive today, I guarantee he would chastise the modern sports reporters for dismissing the effort that he and many others put into becoming all-time greats and winning championships.

Just because these legends are now out of sight doesn’t mean that their accomplishments should be out of mind. Pro football has an amazing history and rather than minimizing portions of it, the fans and reporters of today should embrace the past and celebrate all generations of greatness.

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