There will be four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff at the end of the season. What common characteristics will distinguish these teams above all others?
22 Jul 2011
by Mike Tanier
Have you ever smelled mothballs?
How did you get their little legs open?
That joke absolutely kills in a classroom full of ninth graders. The boys furrow their brows, figure it out in about two beats, and start howling. Some of the girls giggle, while other gasp nervously at the "edgy" humor. I told it once a year for about 15 years and never once got called to the principal's office for it, a sign that insect genitalia is the only thing in the world small enough to escape educational micromanagement.
I thought of the moth balls at the end of last week, when the NFL labor news suddenly got good and the negotiators started blasting through issues like Marshawn Lynch through Saints defenders. Jerry Jones told reporters late on Friday that the suits were "down to circumcising mosquitoes," which is one hell of an analogy. Have you ever circumcised a mosquito? You have? Where did you find the tiny rabbi?
Jones probably knows little about entomology. He may not know that it's the females who suck blood, so there's no need to inflict foreskin retribution on the males. The dudes don't even have penises, which probably makes them really henpecked, but I suppose you could metaphorically circumcise them by clipping the tips of their wings. As for circumcision itself, I can only guess Jones maintains blissful ignorance. He has sons but doesn't seem like the kind of guy who changed many diapers. He probably, hopefully, doesn't know if any of his players besides Igor Olshansky are circumcised, not even Dez Bryant, who likes to walk around malls with his trousers down. Olshansky is many things, but he is certainly not a mosquito.
Of course, some of the issues the negotiating team had to foreshorten in the final days appeared more Olshansky-sized than mosquito-sized. That's why we are going on six days under the scalpel. A major antitrust settlement and the resolution of a $320 million benefits disagreement would probably be at the top of most of our agendas, not in the teensy-tiny fine print, but things are different in the NFL. By Tuesday, it appeared that Vincent Jackson and Logan Mankins were among the mosquitoes, but no one calls Jackson an insect except A.J. Smith, damn it. The story of their two-man effort to hold up America waxed and waned for several days, with media and fans weighing in on one side or the other and passing along rumors about Jackson, Mankins, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. Forgive us if we have gotten a little snippy (and perhaps unprofessional) along the way. Watching labor negotiations -- and trying to profit from the analysis of them -- is like watching flies do it doggie style. The preoccupation with insect genitalia is truly infectious.
I had hoped that mosquito circumcision was the last, best meme of the 2011 Lockout. There were many. There was the Great Steak 'n Shake Massacre of late March, which sounds like side two of an old Arlo Guthrie album but was actually an extended rant by NFL Senior Vice President Greg Aiello on Twitter. Three months ago, someone on the labor side Tweeted a remark about the league's 11th hour offer to the effect "even Steak 'n Shake gives employees (something something)." Aiello unleashed a barrage of retorts. "Anyone know if Steak 'n Shake employees average $1.9 million in salary and bonus?" ... "Does Steak 'n Shake give its players five years of free medical coverage after they leave the company?" Steak 'n Shake doesn't have players, Greg, stay on message.
Doug Farrar gave me this link where you can read more, but focusing on Aiello's diatribe misses the point: There were hundreds and hundreds of responses and Steak 'n Shake hashtags. This is what we talked about for a day. For a few hours, I thought I wrote for Steak 'n Shake Outsiders. It's never a good sign when the vice president of your company resorts to the "at least you aren't making French fries" argument to justify his handling of a labor dispute, but that's where we were in March. So I am happy to be Google-searching "mosquito penis" in July, looking for tips.
About two weeks ago, the NFL Twitter-verse started dissecting the word "close" for hidden meanings. The two sides were close. ... Reports that the sides were "close" were premature; they really are not close. ... They were not close enough to be categorized as close. Drew Brees said they were close, but our unconfirmed source says Brees doesn't know what close means. Poor Drew Brees! He got dragged into the Jackson-Mankins saga this week, then Tweeted a denial of the "false media reports," which led a few of my colleagues to launch into pugnacious "how dare you call media shenanigans" Tweets. Brees is doomed to become one of those figures like P.T. Barnum or H.L. Mencken who are misquoted a century after their deaths. If any quarterback is going to have the meanings of words like "close" and "false" parsed endlessly for hidden meanings, it should be Donovan McNabb, but then it must be time to pass the baton.
Sadly, another meme has cropped up in recent hours: moving parts. There are a lot of moving parts to the settlement. Moving parts keep holding the players' vote up. Dangling, wiggly appendages need to be brought under control so we can proceed. They should be lopped down to size. A few days of Vaseline and gauze pads, and in a week everyone will forget all about these moving parts. But they appear to be a very big deal as I write this on Thursday.
Watching the Twitter wire is addictive and depressing when there is no real, good news to report. To get my mind back to on-field pursuits on Tuesday, I bought and played NCAA Football 12. I got sucked into Recruiting Mode, as I often do. Every year, they revamp the recruiting process to make it feel a little more realistic, and therefore icky. You now have "10 hours" per week to call high school kids and schmooze them. Do you want to talk about conference prestige, kid? See how much better our campus atmosphere is than your top school? I can make you a promise, son, of freshman playing time, or a chance to play in bowls, or a three-way with some tipsy sorority sisters (the last bit is more implied than stated). It really captures the sweaty desperation of college recruiting, but it hit close to home for a freelancer who often found work a little scarce during the lockout. I started composing dialogue trees for an EA Sports Pathetic Freelancer Simulator 12, with me on the cover:
You have 30 minutes to make phone calls before you have to pick the neighbor kids up from entomology camp. Who would you like to call: Football Outsiders, The New York Times, Rotoworld, or your brother-in-law for another cash loan?
What would you like to talk about: Pitch your willingness to cover the Southern Indoor Football League, talk up your talents as a baseball writer, hint at your willingness to work for free just so you can see your reassuring byline on an RSS feed, or indiscriminately beg and plead?
No, no, it hasn't been that bad. But it had its moments. And those moments pile up after five months. By Wednesday, I was watching the NFL Network all-day filibuster, and my heart sank when players left the building without voting. I shouldn't have been surprised, because I have been union leadership and taken part in sessions like the one the reps had on Wednesday. The negotiating team presents months of exhausting work, the result of endless wrangling and compromising, and then one over-entitled union member stands up, a guy who didn't lift his finger though the whole process, and goes on an uninformed soapbox jeremiad. "You mean to tell me that I only get a small raise? Why, I bet you guys were just looking out for yourselves. Even workers at the Steak 'n Shake get a better deal!"
In the education realm, that guy rounds up a dozen of the usual malcontents and tries to nix the deal in favor of the magical fairytale solution in his mind. It causes confusion, frustration, and ill feelings, but it never really accomplishes anything. That's probably what was happening behind closed doors on Wednesday, but all I got to watch was Jason LaCanfora and Albert Breer playing good cop-bad cop, or pessimist-optimist. It went something like this:
Jason LaCanfora: There will not be a vote today. There may not be a vote tomorrow. There might never be a vote.
Albert Breer: There was a real sense of optimism that everything would get done as of Tuesday night. This is all part of the labor process. We need to be patient.
LaCanfora: Life is a black hole of guttering despair. We are both going to be laid off. I need to listen to The Cure for the rest of the night.
Albert Breer: Most of the structure of the CBA is settled. Soon, we will all be back to talking about football. Soon! It will be soon! It must be soon!
LaCanfora: I've been standing in the stifling heat in a black suit for 12 hours next to Suzy Sunshine here, and I am ready to take off my glasses and pound him senseless with this microphone.
LaCanfora, Breer, and the others shouldn't be subjected to this. I propose NFL C-SPAN, a new network that takes us inside these rooms and forces these guys to present their arguments to the dozens of viewers who watch such networks. No, they aren't elected officials. They are more important. And I demand some freakin' transparency.
C'mon, let's pile those mosquito foreskins and offer them to the king, make a dowry of them, appease everyone who must be appeased. And then, let all of them blow away, because they are mosquito foreskins and, even if they existed, a million of them probably could fit on a tablespoon.
How hard is it to circumcise these little buggers?
Maybe no one can get their damn legs open.
I hope to write a "closing argument" for this series next week. For now, let's wrap things up with two interesting lists filled with near-Hall of Famers, cool AFL guys, and some very good recent quarterbacks.
1. Ken Stabler. There's a class of quarterbacks who are not in the Hall of Fame that I think of as the Near-Miss Winner Guys. There's Stabler, Phil Simms, Joe Theismann, and Frank Ryan. You can throw Jim Plunkett and/or Jack Kemp onto the list if you like. If Ben Roethlisberger retired tomorrow, he would go here, not into the Hall of Fame (especially since, if he retired tomorrow, it would probably be for some shady reason). Kurt Warner might still end up here, not in the Hall of Fame, and Joe Namath would have been here if he played in Kansas City and preferred monogamy.
These guys all have a title or two under their belts, plus some signature seasons in which they were clearly outstanding quarterbacks. Stabler has 1974 and 1976, plus some other strong years. Simms was great in 1990 and very good (though interception-prone) in 1986, and had other fine years. Theismann was outstanding from 1982 to 1984, Ryan from 1964 through 1966. Plunkett and Kemp are a notch below but certainly had their moments. The best of these quarterbacks are associated with legendary coaches and great teams. When you combine their exploits into one resume -- a three-year peak as an All-Pro level player, one or two Super Bowls with some other playoff exploits for a franchise that might well have won without you, few "wow" numbers on the stat line -- you get a pretty clear picture of what a Near Hall of Fame quarterback looks like. To reach Canton, you have to do more than Stabler, Simms, Theismann or Ryan did.
Stabler may be the best of the four, and he has the most vociferous Hall of Fame support group because old Raiders and their fans can be unrelenting. He had a long, long decline phase during which he was a pretty terrible quarterback. Look at the talent on the 1978 and 1979 Raiders, teams that each went 9-7, and it's hard to justify Stabler's 52-interception performance as a pair of "great" years. He fits much better in the grouping above than in a category with Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach.
2. Daryle Lamonica. Lamonica could also be put on the list above: three-year peak (1967 to 1969), an AFL championship, and association with Al Davis. He had a 66-16 record as a starter, with most of those wins coming after the NFL-AFL common draft, when the talent gap between the leagues quickly equalized. Lamonica also had five- and six-touchdown playoff performances in the AFL, and he played pretty darn well in Super Bowl II: 208 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception on 15-of-34 passing against the Lombardi Packers.
3. Rich Gannon. Had an amazing four-year run with Jon Gruden from 1999 to 2002, starting when he was 33 years old. Gannon did all kinds of things coaches hate during his stops in Minnesota and Kansas City, like throwing sidearm and not being big. It's amazing that everyone overlooked his athleticism: Gannon ran for 528 yards as a 34-year-old in 2000, yet he spent a decade getting yanked in and out of the lineup. By the time he reached the Super Bowl, Gruden was the coach for the other team, which did not work out so well for Gannon.
4. Jim Plunkett. I listed Plunkett among the Near-Miss guys a few paragraphs ago, based on his two Super Bowl appearances. He would be the weakest quarterback in that group. He was awkward, he was interception-, sack-, and injury-prone, and he was streaky. He also had some amazing games when it mattered most, and he was respected in the locker room, which meant a lot on a Raiders team filled with "personalities." Most people would rate Plunkett ahead of Gannon, but I don't see any reasons for that other than bling, and Plunkett didn't even start 16 games in his two Super Bowl years with the Raiders.
5. Jeff Hostetler. Started for four seasons during the first Art Shell-Mike White era. That was the first "out of ideas" era for the Raiders before Gruden arrived and imposed structure for a while. Hostetler spent most of that time throwing to Tim Brown, scrambling, and wondering when the team would groom a No. 2 receiver, or tight end, or viable running back with more juice than Harvey Williams.
Tom Flores deserves honorable mention for his work with the early 1960's AFL Raiders. This is a very solid list, and there is no one in position to crack it anytime soon: Hostetler, Plunkett, and Gannon were fine quarterbacks, and Jason Campbell hasn't accomplished anything to suggest that he will soon leap into their territory.
1. Dan Fouts. Younger fans may not realize just how interplanetary Fouts' numbers looked from 1979-82. It would be like somebody throwing for 5,500 yards and 55 touchdowns nowadays, and doing it for four straight years. We all know how influential the Don Coryell offense became, but it's amazing to look back at the stats and the old videotape and see just how unconventional the Chargers were for their time. Fouts threw for 4,802 yards in 1981, yet Coryell still found time to give fullback John Cappelletti 68 carries. The Chargers were still transitioning to an H-back offense that year, and the third wide receiver (Dwight Scales) caught just 19 passes. So Fouts threw for almost 5,000 yards to mostly base personnel, often from two-back sets. Staggering stuff.
2. John Hadl. There's a class of quarterbacks who are not in the Hall of Fame that I categorize as the Near-Miss Stat Guys. There's Hadl, Ken Anderson, John Brodie, and Randall Cunningham. Drew Bledsoe will wind up here, as will a bunch of recent quarterbacks: This is where Donovan McNabb and Matt Hasselbeck will wind up. Warren Moon might have wound up here if his story didn't have a civil rights angle and he didn't play forever and gain a lot of media friends. Sonny Jurgensen could have landed here as well, but he too played for a long time and was colorful and fun to write about. If you dig deep into this tier you get players like Dave Krieg and Jim Hart, guys who sometimes come up in regional taproom Hall of Fame arguments but are thought of by most fans as near-greats who played forever.
These guys all have several seasons of statistical dominance on their resumes, plus enough longevity to have flicked the meter on the all-time passing lists, at least at the time of their retirements. Most had some success in the standings, perhaps a Super Bowl appearance or some playoff success, but they never won an NFL championship, which weakens their Hall of Fame arguments. None assembled the "holy cow" stats a Fouts or Dan Marino accumulated, with the possible exception of Cunningham, who is in a class by himself in just about every way. All of these guys had Hall of Fame attributes, but there are major strikes against them. Cunningham was an undisciplined flake, Bledsoe spent years racking up stats as an immobile shadow of his brief peak, Anderson had a long period of mediocrity in mid-career, Brodie had most of his best years for .500 teams, and so on.
Hadl had most of his best seasons in the AFL, though it was the late-1960's AFL that was roughly equal to the NFL in talent. He led the Chargers to the playoffs twice but lost to the Bills; he was behind Tobin Rote on the bench the year the Chargers won the AFL. He was a very good quarterback who lasted into the 1970s, and like Stabler I think he makes a very good gatekeeper in Hall of Fame arguments. Compare a player like Bledsoe to Hadl and you see the similarities, including the championship-from-the-bench angle. It gives a clear picture of what a Near-Hall of Famer looks like.
3. Philip Rivers. Rivers needs two or three more seasons to pass Hadl. He probably won't challenge Fouts. Rivers is an awkward-looking dude who is going to lose what limited mobility he has pretty soon, which will turn him into a Bledsoe-like sitting duck. He doesn't look like the kind of athlete who will still be playing when he is 37 years old. But then, Plunkett fooled us.
4. Stan Humphries. A chunky, gutty handoff specialist who was very good at play-action bombing. He was a little like Craig Morton in the 1970s: He ran a conservative offense for a few years, and he led his team to a Super Bowl beating for the ages.
5. Drew Brees. This is a heckuva list! Brees was almost buried in 2003. He had two three-interception games in the course of five weeks and got benched in favor of Doug Flutie, who was ever-so-dashing and wonderful for a month. Thank heavens for Marty Schottenheimer, always the long-range thinker and patient planner, who reinserted Brees into the lineup and kept him there for two highly productive seasons. A weaker coach might have started ranting about "the best chance to win now" and buried Brees, leaving us no one to simultaneously admire and attack on Twitter.
With such a fine Top Five, there is little room for Honorable Mention, though Tobin Rote led the Chargers to an AFL championship in his lone season as a starter.
If you are reading this after a settlement is reached, stop by the comment thread and leave a Woo-hoo. I will come celebrate with you.
59 comments, Last at 27 Jul 2011, 10:35pm by BD