02 Sep 2010
by Mike Tanier
The United Football League has been in the news lately, which can only mean that someone's career has entered the "depressing" phase.
OK, so Maurice Clarett reached the depressing phase years ago, just after burning through the terrifying phase. Clarett will play for the Omaha Nighthawks this year, having impressed coaches in a tryout early in the week. Clarett expressed interest in the UFL early in August, and the Nighthawks were willing to give him a tryout if the troubled ex-collegiate star could get legal permission to leave Ohio. Gosh, even when written with journalistic detachment, the story has a creepy, Internet-seduction character to it. Come on out to Omaha, baby. Just hop a Greyhound from Columbus. No one will know..
If he makes the Nighthawks, he'll join a roster that includes Jeff Garcia, Ahman Green, Hollis Thomas, Craphonso Thorpe, D.J. Shockley, Robert Ferguson, and other guys whose names make you smack your head and say "I remember him ... barely." JaMarcus Russell was supposed to be a Nighthawk at some point, but he's on no UFL roster as of now. It's as if the league has a Statue of Liberty motto. "Give us your tired, your poor, your axe-wielding, purple-dranking masses yearning to wear pastel."
To be fair, the 2009 UFL uniforms are gone. The league dressed all four of its teams in muted aqua tones last year, because nothing fosters fan identification like conformity and interchangeability. This year, the Las Vegas Locomotives will wear an orange and black uniform that looks a little like the Philadelphia Flyers jersey. The Nighthawks have opted for a black and gold color scheme. If I tune in to a UFL game on Versus or the HD-network this year, I won't be assaulted by pastels, and I will actually know which two of the five teams are competing. Now, all they have to do is reset the brightness and color contrast on the high-def cameras so I don't feel like I am watching the director's cut of Tron. Maybe it was just my television, but UFL games always looked so bright and buzzy that it was as if the Wachowski brothers ate a whole box of Captain Crunch and tried to recreate the Peter Gabriel "Sledgehammer" video with football players instead of claymation foodstuffs.
There are five teams this year: the Nighthawks, Locomotives, Florida Tuskers, Hartford Colonials, and Sacramento Mountain Lions. Only the Tuskers and Locos suffer from Expansionitis, a disease that strikes sports franchises in hinky leagues and forces them to adopt embarrassing, faux-edgy team names. All of the good names are taken, and new teams are dead set against reusing time-honored collegiate names like Bulldogs or Wildcats because they are unoriginal and probably bad for marketing. So we're forced to hear names that reek of focus-group flopsweat, like the Spokane Shock or the Tulsa Talons. The Arena Football League is plagued by Expansionitis. They suffer from the nearly eradicated old strain that emphasizes "cool" graffiti misspellings like Oklahoma City Yard Dogz. The modern strain, prevalent in the baseball minor leagues, pairs a local resource with some phylum from the animal kingdom. The Aberdeen Ironbirds. The Stillwater Nickelwolves. The Qunicy Linseedinvertebrates. Colonials and Mountain Lions are dignified team mascots. I get the impression that a Tusker is some sort of wild hog, not a girl kept around the studio to keep Lindsey Buckingham satisfied.
The team logos have improved, and the rosters are now a who's who of who isn't. The Tuskers have guys like Brooks Bollinger, Seth Wand, and Odell Thurman -- guys who would qualify as AAA players in baseball. Everything else about the league is still wrong. Their training camp runs concurrent with the NFL's, which is silly because the NFL is about to cut several hundred UFL-qualified players. Not only are the NFL roster cuts in football shape and ready to work, but they've just gotten some national television exposure. The UFL will integrate some September cuts onto the roster, but why practice with Bollinger for a month when Kellen Clemens could be available just when the team gets comfortable? There's a slim chance that Colt McCoy could get cut by the Browns: He has to be a better face for the front of the media guide than someone like Bollinger or (shudder) Clarett.
The current UFL schedule runs from mid-September through late November, the heart of the college football season, with the baseball pennant and World Series thrown in. Why not run from late October through mid-December? The college football schedule starts winding down later in the fall and there's no baseball to contend with. As it stands, no one in the major media has the bandwidth to cover the UFL seriously.
The league compounds its image problem by making its season statistics unattainable. Search their website. There's no sortable stat spreadsheet, the kind we take for granted in other sports. Maybe it's there, but I can't find it, and I shouldn't have to play hide-and-seek. By contrast, check out the CFL website. Click the "Stats" link, find a recognizable name like Cleo Lemon, and you'll find his career numbers, in English. It's a big deal. The UFL needs the recognition that comes when a J.P. Losman spends a year in their league, then makes the jump back to the NFL. Football writers need to be able to cite Losman's stats. If we have to hunt for them, two things happen: 1) We may just throw our hands up and decide they aren't worth mentioning, which is bad for the UFL or 2) We mention them, but the experience of having to quest for them makes the UFL look even more bush-league, leading to a tongue-in-cheek remark or just a mental impression that the league is more rinky-dink than the Obscure Valley Conference, and therefore beneath attention.
It also doesn't help that the UFL is in a tooth-and-nail battle for the top of the Google search list with the University of Florida. It's a day-by-day battle, like a pennant race; I searched UFL three times in the course of a week and the league and school flopped places twice. At least the league has passed the Ulchi Focus Lens. If there are any Web historians reading, you can help me out here: Was Major League Baseball once beaten to the domain name mlb.com by a law firm? Didn't they have to ask the firm to provide a link at the top of their site for baseball fans? Comment if you can confirm that this isn't just a faulty memory.
These problems lead us back to the Clarett situation. The UFL only makes the news when they amuse us by pursuing the likes of Clarett or Russell, or when they exhume Garcia or Daunte Culpepper. An independent minor league is going to go through this kind of growing-pain period, but the UFL hasn't put itself in position to do anything else. I'm told that the quality of play was pretty high last year, but I'm too busy in October to focus on another football league. When I research some UFL kicker that's in an NFL camp, I can't even find his darned stats. I want to like the UFL. I like to get paid to write about football, so the more the merrier. But it only exists right now as a clearing house for Behind the Music caliber ex-players.
The UFL needs a Kurt Warner, and right now Pat White is languishing on the back of the Dolphins roster. The Dolphins may cut him, and he fits the model of a minor league star. Maybe if the Nighthawks gave up on Clarett, pastured Garcia as a coach, gave White the ball in a spread-option offense, we'd have something worth splicing into the highlight reels. Then, if we knew by December that White threw for 200 yards and rushed for 100 yards every game, we'd be talking about White's return to the NFL. Or we'd be talking about a UFL player worth switching over from a Conference USA game for.
The UFL needs a young, exciting player like White, and White needs a chance to play here in his native country. We don't need another chapter in the Clarett saga. All that does is make the UFL look like the XFL. And no one wants to look like the XFL.
Samkon Gado resurfaced for the Tennessee Titans last week, scoring two short touchdowns in the preseason game against the Cardinals. The Titans have suffered a rash of injuries and punchings at running back. Stafon Johnson suffered a major injury in the first preseason game, and LeGarrette Blount's altercation with a teammate, while no big deal by the standards of camp dust-ups, was just a little too much like his post-game smackdown of a Boise State player last year. Javon Ringer is the only experienced backup to Chris Johnson, and Ringer isn't exactly Chester Taylor.
Enter Gado. You may remember him from 2005, when he rushed for 582 yards and six touchdowns for the Packers, topping 100 yards in three games in relief of Ahman Green. We all grabbed him for our fantasy leagues and made Lord of the Rings jokes about his name, but I don't think anyone was fooled into thinking that he was more than a replacement-level back having a few good games. His DVOA was negative, and he recorded a whopping 10 DYAR for the season.
The Packers let him go after he carried two times for a loss of seven in a 26-0 loss to the Bears in 2006; if you are curious, his two carries lost three and four yards. The Texans picked him up to get them through an injury rash, and again he wasn't bad, rushing for 67 and 69 yards in one two-week stretch. His DYAR was -21, his Success Rate a measly 38 percemt. He was a replacement level player at his absolute best, and he quickly dropped below that level.
But he didn't drop out of the league. The Texans gave up on him after six games in 2007, but the Dolphins were in an injury crunch. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams were hurt, leaving Jessie Chatman as the starter on a team that would lose 15 games. It was a situation that screamed Gado. Gado had a magical game against the Bills with touchdowns of 12 and 20 yards, a 35-yard reception. The Dolphins lost 38-17. Gado earned 18 carries the next week and mustered 43 yards. The Dolphins started to give Lorenzo Booker, a kid who had trouble learning the playbook early in the year, a longer look.
Gado carried the ball two times for four yards in a 47-3 Rams loss to the Jets in 2008. You would think that was the end of him, but the Rams had injury troubles in 2009, so Gado spent 15 games on the active roster. He carried 14 times for 26 yards. His season highlight was an 11-yard run against the Vikings; a little arithmetic tells us that he gained 15 yards in his other 13 runs. He carried four times for five yards in a 42-6 loss to the Colts. To be fair, one of his runs was a six-yard gain on 3rd-and-5, albeit with his team down by 36 points. He got one carry against the Cardinals in Week 11; he was stuffed on 3rd-and-1. We thought we had seen the last of him. But then the Titans had an injury crunch.
It's been a remarkable career. How many guys get to play for two 1-15 teams and a 2-14 team? How many players survive three seasons in the league averaging less than three yards per carry? Most interestingly, how does Gado hang in when at least 30 better running backs leave college for the NFL each year? He's proven that he adds little as a runner. He has returned a total of four career kicks. If he were a good special teams blocker, he wouldn't always get cut in mid-season or spend weeks on the waiver wire. He just keeps climbing off the scrap heap and onto the roster. Maybe it's the name. If he were Rob Jackson or someone everyone would have forgotten him, but Samkon Gado sticks in the mind. He comes into a blowout loss, and we all smile about 2005.
Or maybe it's a reminder that it always pays to be a good citizen, to stay in shape and give coaches nothing to complain about. If you are going to scratch out a living on the absolute bottom of the NFL scene, you should go out of your way not to punch anyone.
A quick update: After three preseason weeks, Gado has nine carries for 19 yards. His longest run was four yards. Vintage Gado.
It was August of 1984, and an undrafted rookie cornerback was fighting hard to make a bad Eagles team. Every morning, he waited for the Turk.
"I came in about 7:30 in the morning," the rookie said, 26 years ago. "I looked around at the lockers, and everybody's name was still up there from Thursday night. I saw coach (Harry) Gamble. I felt like he'd stop me if I was cut. He usually gives the news. He didn't say anything. About 8 o'clock, I knew I had made the team."
The rookie had impressed coaches with his man-coverage abilities and his toughness. He had slipped through the draft cracks because his college didn't even have a sports information department, but he kept making plays in camp. He beat Dennis DeVaughn for the final roster spot in the secondary, behind Herm Edwards, Roynell Young, Wes Hopkins, Ray Ellis, Brenard Wilson, Elbert Foules, and fellow rookie Evan Cooper. Both rookies returned kicks, justifying the eight-man secondary.
The rookie cornerback in question was Andre Waters, but the 1984 Waters is unrecognizable to us now, a shy Southern kid with a slight stammer who didn't seem destined to draw Dan Dierdorf's attention, let alone his ire. Waters spent a year as the second kick returner, bringing one back for a touchdown in an upset win over the mighty Redskins and spent another season as a special teamer. He moved to safety, and when Buddy Ryan arrived, he promoted Waters over Ellis because he liked the way Waters "turns people upside down and laughs at 'em."
The rest is history. Waters didn't make any Pro Bowls or Super Bowls, but he changed the game. You can trace many of the modern specifications about unnecessary roughness back to Waters, a master of lunging at the knee, leading with the head, and shoving five yards out of bounds. Yes, Waters' cheap-shot reputation was 50 percent hot air, but the other 50 percent could still end a quarterback's career. He was passionate to a fault, clumsy and sloppy in his aggression, and he was brutally exciting to watch.
Later, we learned that he was more of a danger to himself than others. He once said that he lost count after 15 concussions, and there's no real record of most of them. He said he would sniff smelling salts and run back onto the field without telling a trainer. Once, after a 1991 game against the Buccaneers, he had seizures so bad that terrified teammates didn't want to talk about them. He was hospitalized overnight with "body cramps." He played the next week. After he committed suicide, we learned that he had the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's victim. He's a reminder of how far we've come in our understanding of athlete concussions, and how far we have to go.
Hero, villain, victim. Waters mattered. He's a part of football folklore, and he started his career scratching to find a roster spot between Evan Cooper and Dennis DeVaughn. This is the time of year when lists of cuts go by on the NFL Network crawl. We watch the blur of unrecognizable names, listen as the hosts rattle off the few well-known players -- college stars who didn't pan out and veterans like Antonio Bryant on their last legs. They comment briefly, then go back to talking about Brett Favre. For every four or five cuts, there's an eighth defensive back or seventh linebacker who made the team. He may be another Cooper or Foules. Or he may be Andre Waters, someone who will still be discussed 25 years later.
So this is a short shout-out to the guys clinging to the bottom of the roster. Good luck. Play hard. Take care of your health. Respect the health of others. You have a chance to become a player who matters. Make the most of it.
This is scary.
My wife is going back to school. So are my children and most of my friends. I am not.
Audubon High School granted me a sabbatical for the 2010-11 school year, but when the paperwork was processed in April, it was all distant and abstract. I was teaching my face off, writing Football Outsiders Almanac chapters, prepping for the draft. School ended in June, but school always ends in June, and I take a few weeks off in July. This year, I started writing The Phanatic Code in July, but with no urgency. Summer was what summer has always been since my oldest son was born: pool trips, cartoon mornings, evening writing sessions, living off money squirreled away from working two jobs in autumn and winter.
But September's here, and it's real. I'm a writer now. This is my chance to prove what I can do without one hand tied to a chalkboard. This is the contract year, make-or-break year, put up or shut up year.
It's scary. But watching C.J. dive into the deep end or ride a loop roller coaster is scary. Getting older is scary. The thought that I would spend 20 more years in B-104 teaching trigonometry, wondering how far I could have gone as a sportswriter, analyst, humorist, author ... well, that's really scary.
So here it goes.
You'll find me here at Football Outsiders every week. Once the season kicks off, the play diagrams will return, plus all of the loopy skits and other random observations.
I will be breaking down games for The New York Times Sunday edition just like last year; the capsules will also appear on Fridays on the Fifth Down Blog. Like last year, the capsules will mix news, stats, and a generous dose of off-beat, referential humor. They aren't hard-core picks for folks in pools. FO Premium is your best source for that. I will also write other pieces for The Times now and then, so check the Extra Points.
I am writing a weekly column called Going Deep for Rotoworld. Once the season starts, it will be a Monday breakdown of Sunday's highs and lows, with lots of stats and a joke or two.
Work on The Phanatic Code continues; the Andre Waters essay was a by-product of that research. More updates on the book to come. I'll be tweeting all of this at FO_MTanier, and while there isn't a lot of activity at the Facebook group Walkthrough Readers, it costs you nothing to join, and I'm sure to make a few updates there.
That's a lot to keep me busy, which will keep that terrifying unemployed feeling from overtaking me. It also helps to know that you are out there. You're the readers who forgive the depth chart mistakes and spelling errors, who take the extra time to click around to find me in odd places, who I've seen come to my defense on strange message boards. Your support means a lot. If I worked for some other sites, where the message boards are silly and the feedback is negative, I would have given up (or started phoning it in) years ago. You are always there to remind me that there's an audience for something off the beaten path, that I might be able to earn a living while keeping a little bit of indie cred.
There, it's not so scary anymore. To heck with back-to-school season. It's football season. Let the games begin.
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