Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
28 Jul 2011
by Mike Tanier
It is only Day Two of OCA's -- Offseason Chaotic Activities -- and I have already lost my marbles. The RSS feed is stuffing me like a foie gras goose. Transaction news is not supposed to come fired from a Gatling gun. Four or five major news items per team, per day? It's too much.
In the time it takes to tweet a story, you miss a story. In the time it takes to report a story, you miss two stories. In the time it takes to craft a well-thought-out opinion about a team's decision, two things change to render your opinion obsolete. Four things are probably happening while I type this. I have a bathroom break scheduled for the Giants bye week.
Yes, I am covering Giants camp right now for The New York Times. It's like immersion therapy in an over-boiling kettle. The experienced beat writers are laboring to keep up. One of them confessed to simply tweeting "The Giants" and never finishing the thought. News broke while he was in the act of typing.
When Twitter is too slow and measured a medium for communication, we are screwed, folks.
Donovan McNabb to the Vikings, for two sixth-round picks? The Shanahans sure know how to drive up a guy's trade value! Matt Hasselbeck to the Titans? With his distinctive voice and hard-luck story, he could be the biggest, baldest thing to hit Nashville since Kenny Chesney. Tarvaris Jackson to Seattle? Tarvaris Jackson to anywhere?
Those stories are old news. By the time you read this sentence, a dozen more interesting stories will break. And by the time you read this, four more.
Plaxico Burress may be on the Giants by Saturday, or maybe the Steelers. I hoped to come up with a tabloid-style nickname for Burress and Tom Coughlin: PlaxiTom, or PlaxiCough, or Coughlico. Our own Vince Verhei said that PlaxiCough "sounds like a cold medicine you'd find on the bottom shelf at Wal-Mart," which means it cannot even get JaMarcus Russell buzzed. The overwhelming majority of Twitter responders, four of them, voted for Coughlico, so that is what I am sticking with.
Coughlico came to mind after Justin Tuck told reporters that Burress and Coughlin could "rekindle the love they share for each other." So Friday night's dinner between the two will be candlelit. After Tuck's outdoor press conference, the Giants reporters discovered that we were locked out of the complex. The Lockout was back! None of us bothered to prop the pressroom door with the wastepaper basket. Yes, that is really how we do it. So a dozen beat writers and cameramen banged on windows and texted Giants employees until a security guy took pity on us. Just like that, the lockout was lifted for the second time in just over 48 hours.
Forty-eight hours? That's how long ago the lockout ended? (More like 51 as I write this). It feels like three weeks. I have had hangovers that lasted 48 hours. Imagine getting a bad case of the flu on Sunday night and staying on strict bed rest until Wednesday morning. You wake up in a world where DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell are buddies, when Coughlico is an item, where McNabb is a Viking and John Beck and Tarvaris Jackson are likely NFL starters. You would probably want to do a few shots of Plaxicough and return to sizzurp slumbers.
And camp hasn't even started yet.
It's Thursday now. Albert Haynesworth to the Patriots for a fifth-round pick? The Redskins are going to own Day Three of the draft next year! Reggie Bush to the Dolphins? Bush and Ricky Williams cannot occupy the same space:
They are matter and antimatter. Williams will be gone by the time you read this.
Times are crazy for everyone. The Giants signed undrafted rookie linebacker Mark Herzlich on Tuesday. Herzlich overcame bone cancer to return to the field for Boston College last year. So he got the phone call early on Tuesday, and by Wednesday he was on a plane. By midmorning, he was in an airport shuttle with two other rookies: Iowa safety David Sims and Georgia Tech safety Jarrard Tarrant. The rookies tweeted that they were alternately stuck in traffic or going a little too fast. "This driver is driving like a bat out of hell," Sims Tweeted, using the hashtags "#buckleup" and "#carsick." Tarrant reported that Herzlich was signing autographs while getting his physical. The rookies saw Michael Strahan shopping in a Ferrari store and went straight to their smart phones, perhaps not realizing that they will see Eli Manning and Justin Tuck and maybe Coughlico in a few days. Then they reached team headquarters, and were too busy to tweet for a while.
That's what the last week has been like. We were stuck in traffic, for five months, and then for that harrowing week when lockout rumors changed every 10 minutes but signified nothing. Then we were suddenly going like a bat out of hell. We can gawk at free-agent moves, but only while speeding past them on the Interstate. And even if tweeting about football is your job, there will be times when you are too busy covering football to even cover football.
If I could have one quarterback in history to get me through one game, I would select Joe Montana.
If I could have one quarterback in history to get me through a contemporary season or series of seasons, I would select Peyton Manning.
I don't believe in magical "winner sauce," but I think it's contrary to ignore the fact that Montana was very successful in Super Bowls and other "big" games. He was also pretty damn successful in small games, so I want both his talent and any tangible grace under fire he possesses if I am trying to win one important game. I want Manning's durability and his ability to be a centerpiece and framework for a system if I need a quarterback for the long haul.
But I only want Manning if we are playing contemporary football -- modern fields, modern rules.
Say you needed a quarterback who could succeed in any era, under any conditions. One week you are playing 2011-style football. The next week it is 1977 -- receivers are getting mauled, and a late hit is something that happens on Tuesday. The next week it is 1938, guys have to play two ways, and the team might not make payroll. Under those conditions, I want either John Elway or Roger Staubach. Both ran well enough to succeed in any era. Elway could punt. I can see either one playing free safety pretty well. Elway was more durable and athletic, but if the field is a mud pile and I have to explain to players that they won't get paid until next Friday, I want Staubach there to rally them onto the field.
That's the issue with the "greatest quarterback ever." Modern quarterbacks are technicians. Early quarterbacks were field lieutenants. That concept came to a head when we were discussing Manning and Johnny Unitas a few weeks ago. I want to look at that again in a little more detail.
The year is 1955. Marty is the Academy Award winner for best picture. Otto Graham is the NFL MVP. The Lawrence Welk Show, Gunsmoke, and The Mickey Mouse Club all debut on television. Calling 1955 a "simpler time" is patronizing and inaccurate, but it was a different time. Gas cost 23 cents per gallon, and so on.
Lamar McHan was the starting quarterback of the Chicago Cardinals in 1955. He was the second overall draft pick out of Arkansas in 1954. He threw six touchdowns and 21 interceptions as a rookie. According to John Maxymuk's Quarterback Abstract, the Cardinals ran an option-like offense out of the T-formation in those days, and McHan was well regarded as a runner and pitchman. The numbers bear this out. In 1955, he attempted just 207 passes in 11 starts while rushing 56 times for a team with 438 total running plays. McHan gained 194 yards on the ground, but he was dreadful as a passer -- a 37.7 percent completion rate, 11 touchdowns, 19 interceptions. Those are dreadful numbers in any era, even the mid-1950s
In 1956, McHan's stats improved but his attitude didn't. After the Cardinals lost two games in three weeks (after a 4-0 start), he had a mini-meltdown, ignoring the plays coming in from the sidelines and refusing to re-enter the game after a brief benching. The team fined him and suspended him, but amazingly kept him around as a starter. He led the Cardinals to a 3-9 record in 1957 and a 2-9-1 record in 1958, averaging 7-to-9 completions per start for a team that spent a lot of fourth quarters trying to catch up.
McHan was traded to the Packers, where he battled Bart Starr for playing time for a few years. McHan started four games for the 1960 Packers team that lost to the Eagles in the NFL Championship. He went 4-0 as a starter despite completing 36.5 percent of his passes. (Sample "all he does is win" stat line: 6-of-14, 86 yards, one passing touchdown and a 35-yard rushing touchdown in a 35-21 over the Colts.) Sometime after completing four passes in a victory over the Steelers, McHan called Vince Lombardi a "dago" and was traded. He hung around the league for a few more years, playing for good teams. The ideal backup in the 1960s was not really a scrambler who ignored plays and spewed racial slurs. McHan settled down as he aged, and after his playing career was a coach in college and the pros for many years.
Is there any modern quarterback who resembles McHan? The scrambling, meltdowns, and second chances remind me of Vince Young. Young is better than McHan, I think, but there are enough similarities to make the comparison fair.
McHan wasn't a quarterback in college. He was a single-wing tailback who ran 332 times and passed 421 times in his Arkansas career. He also punted and returned punts. This article by Leroy Morganti includes a cool jump-passing football card of McHan and a description of some of McHan's coaching and playing exploits. Morganti compares McHan to Darren McFadden, which makes sense because the single wing was a lot like the Wildcat. It's not an oversimplification to say that the Chicago Cardinals took a McFadden-like talent and converted him into a running quarterback, something that would have fans scratching their heads (and screaming at talk radio hosts) if it were attempted today.
McHan was the worst starting quarterback of his era who held a job for any appreciable period of time. His teams were terrible except the 1956 team, which he mutinied against. Retroactively apply a quarterback rating, and he usually finished 11th or 12th in a 12-team league. His rushing value slipped after 1956. As for his character, leadership, and whatnot, read the bit about Lombardi again and get back to me. He kept his starting job for years because the Cardinals were a terrible organization and he was the kind of great overall athlete who always gets second chances no matter what horrible things he does.
The 12th-best quarterback in the NFL last year according to DYAR was Kyle Orton. DVOA prefers Drew Brees, who had an off-year turnover-wise. Brees also finished 12th in rating, between Matt Ryan and David Garrard. Ryan finished 12th in the adjusted net-yards-per-attempt metric used over at Pro Football Reference, with Joe Flacco and Eli Manning flanking him. If we polled readers to figure out who the 12th best quarterback in the NFL was in 2010, factoring in career production and potential, we would probably get a lot of votes for guys like Flacco, Ryan, and Eli, with some Orton or Garrard sprinkled in among up-and-comers like Sam Bradford (12th in yards, by the way) and Josh Freeman, or some fading guys like Carson Palmer.
None of those players bears even a surface similarity to McHan. They are all far superior, by any meaningful standard. If we squeeze and crunch McHan's skill set as far as it will possibly go, we are left with Young or Alex Smith, another running quarterback from a hinky college offense who clings for dear life to his starting job. (Smith has also had head-butts with coaches over play calls, though they seem to have been at least partially the coach's fault, as they may have been for McHan's in Chicago). It takes some mental gymnastics to bring McHan even that far: We're adding about 40 percent to his career completion percentages, for one thing.
The argument on the message boards a few weeks ago involved whether the worst quarterback in the NFL in 1958 (or 1955, which I chose because it was Unitas' draft year) should be compared to the 12th-best quarterback in 2010, because he was, by default, the 12th-best quarterback in the universe at that point.
It was a cool debate on the abstract level. Let's take it to the concrete level. Explain where Lamar McHan would rank among modern quarterbacks. Next to Matt Ryan or Eli Manning? Down with Young and Alex Smith? Lower? Would he be playing running back?
The best answer may be to conclude that McHan is different from modern quarterbacks. There were different expectations, and teams had different financial issues and different ways of assembling talent. We cannot blunderbuss into 1950s passing statistics with 2011 mindsets and start making blanket statements, or worse, statistical adjustments. We are in an era of Mouseketeers and single-wing tailbacks and Chicago Cardinals. It was a different time.
How different? Let me take another example from 1955: Charlie Conerly. You may think I cherry-picked McHan from the bottom of the barrel to illustrate my point, but Conerly was the damn Marlboro Man, and he nearly made it into the Hall of Fame. In 1955, Conerly finished third in the NFL in passer rating (retroactively) at 64.2. He threw 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, completed 48.5 percent of his passes, and played for a well-run Giants team with a half-decent coaching staff we will get to in a moment.
Conerly was not the Giants starting quarterback, despite leading the team with 202 attempts.
Don Heinrich was the Giants' starter. He was a skinny second-year quarterback who had little in common with the 34-year-old future Marlboro Man he shared his job with. Heinrich started eight games to Conerly's four, but only threw 67 passes. The Giants started experimenting with a two-quarterback strategy in 1955: Heinrich played the first few series to "probe the defense for weaknesses" while Conerly watched the proceedings from the sidelines. Then, usually by the end of the first quarter, Conerly entered the game to reap the fruits of Heinrich's probing.
What idiotic forerunner to Rich Kotite kept an obviously superior quarterback on the bench for almost a quarter of a game so a less-experienced subordinate could poke and prod? None other than McHan's favorite Italian American: Vince Lombardi. Lombardi was the offensive coordinator of those Giants, Tom Landry the defensive coordinator. They went 6-5-1 that year ... can you imagine? The Heinrich-Conerly tandem was not some Matt Leinart-Kurt Warner situation. Lombardi was not trying to nurture an unwilling or unable young prospect. The two-quarterback experiment continued through 1956, when Heinrich started 12 games and threw 88 passes. Lombardi was still futzing with it in 1958, though both quarterbacks hated it. Heinrich and Conerly each started six games that year, with Connerly throwing three times as many passes.
So if you want to normalize statistics from 1958 (a Unitas MVP year) to some 12-team standard, you must acknowledge that the No. 7 quarterback in rating, one of two guys who would figure in the "median," was not quite technically his team's starter. Furthermore, that not-quite-starter played for a 9-3 team and took orders from the greatest coach of all-time, an indication that, however loopy Lombardi's strategy looks now, there had to be some merit to it in 1950s football. As for the theory that the 12 starting quarterbacks of 1958 are automatically somehow equals to the top 12 starters of today, we must somehow account for Heinrich. Where do we rank him? How do we rank him?
Saying that "comparisons between eras are impossible and worthless" may be intellectually honest and accurate to a degree, but it is also academic and boring. It's fun to try to compare Lamar McHan to Jake Plummer! So for the last two months, I made a point of doing so as subjectively as possible. I understand historic quarterback stats better than any sane person should, which is why I used them with a grain of salt. And I operated under a simple premise: A great quarterback in any era (after the two platoon system came around, at least) is a great quarterback. The worst quarterback in the league in 1955 or 1975 is roughly equivalent to the worst quarterbacks now. An average quarterback -- statistically, or by other evidence like career length and shape -- is average in any era. Old guys get no bonus for playing in small leagues, nor do they get dinged for being smaller and running simpler offenses. And we don't play the "modern strength and conditioning" game, because it opens questions that cannot be answered. McHan, for instance, probably grew up in a house with no refrigerator. That probably had on impact on his overall athleticism.
My premise rarely mattered, because we are most interested in the special guys: Unitas, Manning, Montana, Staubach, Elway, Otto Graham, Dan Marino, and so on. They have great stats, they have great records, and they also have uniqueness. When comparing legends to legends, that uniqueness matters. It suggests that they were doing something no one else was doing. Some players were unique without being "inner circle" great, like Randall Cunningham, and some players became legends despite not being incredibly unique, like Bart Starr. But then there are those special guys. Maybe they were running a modern offense in an ancient era, or calling most of their own plays in an era no one was doing it, or throwing for 4,000 yards a decade before it was commonplace, or coming back from the Vietnam War to win Super Bowls. You can add your own player or two to the list, or maybe subtract one, but we all have our inner circle, and they got there because they did something we think few humans could ever do.
The players in those inner circles are simply great. Putting them in order is a matter of personal choice.
61 comments, Last at 06 Aug 2011, 9:33am by edgerinn