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?
24 May 2012
by Mike Tanier
My dear Wormwood,
I note with concern your indecision regarding the Drew Brees situation. Your hesitation in this matter is puzzling, in that you so readily and effectively countered The Enemy’s gambits regarding Brees in the past.
Your positioning of Brees as a potential ancilary figure, or even an accomplice, in the Bounty scandal was clever master stroke. The swiftness with which you inserted the What Did Brees Know? meme into the public consciousness was exemplary; it was precisely the kind of maneuver that got you promoted from the social network adultery department in the first place. You handled it with appropriate subtlety, as well: a few sensationalized, incredulous articles and columns littered across our world wide web, some inflammatory Tweets, and soon millions of your patients began to doubt the virtuousness of one of our more troublesomely incorruptable athletes. I even sent notes on your success to our agent in charge of baseball fans, imploring him to find a way to apply the same treatment to that Jeter fellow before it is too late.
And now, here is our Brees again, refusing to sign a multi-million dollar franchise offer, missing offseason activities, and yet public sympathy is almost universally in his favor? We are giving back many of our gains. We need to act swiftly.
The difficulty caused by the Saints organization, which you outlined in your last report, is duly noted. No, there is no way the public will sympathize with them at this point, and their lack of credibility and moral virtue makes them natural villains. But here, you are naively resorting to logical reasoning: it is easy to position both sides as villains in a dispute such as this. In fact, it is preferable.
If we are to best use football fandom as an avenue for temptation, our first priority must be to make our patients, the fans, as jaded as possible. Jading them to the simple pleasures of sport opens their minds to our darker inventions: not just gambling or the lazy gluttony of all-day drunken viewing, but wrathfulness, and that creeping disatisfaction that robs them of joy in other endeavors and causes a ripple effect throughout their lives. In short, your duty in the sports department is to keep fans both disillusioned and habitual in their sport viewership. They must watch it more, and enjoy it less, in the tradition of our classic cigarette advertisments.
It is a tricky balance, but there are some simple rules. Every time we can lower our patients’ opinion of a genuine sports superstar, we must take it. And we must be proactive in smearing the reputations of the more blameless superstars. Fans close ranks against criminal types who play the game; in fact, some criminal acts, when punished or at least apologized for, activite our patients’ collective forgiveness reflex, and you know who is behind that little trick. (The Enemy!) But chip away at their heroes with innuendo, vague accusations, and petty resentments, and the fans will be left with a queasy feeling in place of the simple joy or excitement they once felt about that athlete, yet they will be left with nothing tangible to "forgive."
Brees should be positioned, in this case, as a man who has turned his back on both his struggling organization and his fans. What sort of sport hero misses practices when fans are craving a silver lining about a wretched offseason? What sort of employee turns his company’s screws when he knows that organization is in disarray? You can position Brees as not just a bad teammate but a bad citizen. And of course, these accusations do not have to stick to be effective. You just need to insert them into the marketplace of infernal ideas. Truth is not really our bailiwick.
On that count, I trust your instincts, as you are our best mass media demon. Go with your gut, as they say. Disillusionment makes a soul delectable, and you have hundreds of thousands to cultivate, simply by promoting our peculiar brand of football "appreciation."
Your Affectionate Uncle,
Faulk finished first in the NFL in receiving DVAR for running backs every year from 1998 through 2001; one of those seasons was with the Colts. When evaluating running backs, we sometimes fall into "good receiver/bad receiver" thinking: he is either a big help in the passing game or he is not. It is easy to lose track of Historically Excellent receiving, like Faulk’s, and Remarkably Terrible receiving, like Michael Turner’s or late-era John Riggins’. We do the same thing with quarterback scrambling, to some extent. In Faulk’s case, his receiving capabilities take him from an obvious Hall of Famer to someone who should be included among discussions of the top-10 running backs of all time.
The Rams won 9-to-11 games per year with Dickerson at running back and the likes of Dieter Brock, the decrepit Steve Bartkowski, broken-down Vince Ferragamo, and Steve Dils at quarterback. Just to pull up one game from 1986, Dickerson rushed 38 times for 193 yards and two touchdowns in a 16-10 win over the Cardinals, while Bartkowski finished 5-of-21 for 91 yards.
The Rams offense operated like this for four-and-a-half seasons, with Dickerson becoming more and more of a contract headache, no doubt realizing that the human body only has a handful of 400-carry seasons in it (one, in most cases). The Colts list will be interesting, because we may be seeing both Dickerson and Faulk again, though there is no guarantee that Dickerson will beat out some of the old-timers vying for space.
Jackson is nearly 2,000 yards ahead of Dickerson and Faulk on the Rams’ all-time rushing list. He now has more yards from scrimmage than Faulk with the Rams. In the eternal battle between peak and career value, Jackson is a predicament. Dickerson and Faulk have insanely high peaks Jackson can never match. How much career value must he amass to catch either of them? That’s a matter of individual preference, to a degree, but I would place Jackson ahead of Dickerson if he has a few productive seasons for some .500-plus Rams teams. The win-loss record matters in this case because it is hard to imagine the Dickerson-Dieter teams cracking .500 without Dickerson. Asking a running back to elevate his team to such a degree is a tall order, but Dickerson met it for a few years.
4. Lawrence McCutcheon
An outstanding running back who had four 1,000-yard seasons during the Dead Ball 70’s for a Rams team no one ever talks about. There is a great book to be written about the early 1970s Rams: McCutcheon, James Harris, Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer, the old Joe Namath, the young Ron Jaworski, Chuck Knox, and annual 10-4 or 12-2 seasons, followed by disappointment at the hands of the Cowboys or Vikings. If someone has already written this book, please let us know!
5. Dan Towler
Deacon Dan was the best pure runner in the Bull Elephant backfield, a three-fullback attack the Rams used when Norm Van Brocklin was their quarterback and their passing game was the greatest show on 1950s natural turf. He shared the backfield with Tank Younger (a two-way player who earns Honorable Mention) and Dick Hoerner; all of them were in the 220-pound range. When Van Brocklin was not throwing bombs to Crazy Legs Hirsch, the Rams ran jumbo-type plays, with Hoerner and Younger lead blocking for Towler.
This video does not show any of those plays, unfortunately. It is a snippet of a completely bonkers 1950s version of Hard Knocks, without the "hard," and it is only for fans of ironic humor. Towler (who became a minister after his playing career) does get a few on-screen moments to stare at a Bible, look thoughtfully into the distance, then struggle to close a suitcase.
Dick Bass was a 1960s Steven Jackson, fighting the good fight as a rusher-receiver-returner for some terrible teams. But all of this talk of Deacon Dan has made my guest contributor a little nervous.
My dear Wormwood,
Your efforts in the Junior Seau burglary case betray a disturbing lack of originality and focus. While I recognize the energy and initiative you invested in tempting some reprobates to burglarize the home of a beloved, recently-deceased football star, and I understand the theory behind your effort to wring additional evil out of that situation, I am worried about your unclarity of reasoning.
First, remember that your duty is to steer souls into our bellies by the thousands, not one at a time. When you were in the social networking adultery department, did you go door-to-door, asking bored housewives to switch on their webcams? Of course not. You helped develop software, and choice architecture, and social habits, and it earned you a promotion. This is the same principle: we do not descend into the dens of desperate people, then drive them to suitable locations to commit further crimes. That is Dark Ages strategy. And of course, the souls you tempted were already breaded and lying in the basket, ready for our deep fryers. An extra high-profile bit of evil was little more than a squirt of ketchup on their damnation.
Rest assured that I am not overlooking the second part of your report, in which you explain in detail how much despair and anger you hoped to instill in football fans, causing them to question the inherent goodness of society and the human soul, and so on. In fact, your actions had exacly the opposite effect. It galvanized righteous indignation, but of a sort that it is hard to exploit for our purposes. Righteous indignation is only an effective tool when directed against undeserved targets: people of slightly different lifestyles, values, or tax brackets. When directed against pondscum who comb the obituaries looking for houses to rob, it has as little temptation value as a momentary glance at a bikini on a beach: it is a simple impulse, too natural to provide much corruption value.
The burglary temporarily decreased the level of rancor and ill-informed debate in the football world, allowing fans to cluck their collective tongues and, worst of all, rethink their priorities. At no point do you want fans recognizing football’s proper place in their lives or in their society: as a thrilling past-time, an afternoon diversion, a harmless chance for vicarious glory. Your job is to lead them, constantly seething, from scandal to scandal, disappointment to disappointment, petty controversy to petty controversy, and to establish as much debate and as little consensus as possible, so their fandom drowns in a sea of meaningless-yet-hostile arguments. And in the event that a debate has real meaning, like the issue of head injuries and their health effects, we must proceed with extra care. We succeed by obfuscating, trivializing, and sensationalizing in equal measures, but never, ever doing what you inadvertantly did: sidetracking.
Remember that our goal is always subversion. Most pleasures are, by their essence, virtuous: such is the trickiness of The Enemy. Fine food and drink are good in moderation. Sexual pleasures are righteous and healthy between loving couples. And a Sunday afternoon of cheering for a football team, with hamburger and beer in hands and friends gathered, is in itself a wholesome and fulfilling act. You must make every effort to undermine that wholesomeness, by filling your patients’ hearts with anger, boredom, and unrealistic expectations that make their fan experience slothful, deadening, and prefuctory, a hollow spectre of pleasures past.
The burglary was, at best, tangential to our efforts, and at worst counterproductive. Please get your head in the game.
Your Impatient Uncle,
1. Roger Craig
In 1985, as you know, Craig gained over 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards. He caught 92 passes that year, for a team that had Dwight Clark and Jerry Rice at receiver and Joe Montana in his prime at quarterback. This team also had Wendell Tyler at halfback (Tyler split his career between the Rams and Niners; consider this his honorable mention for being exciting, productive, but fumble prone), the aging Freddie Solomon at receiver, an offensive line featuring Randy Cross, Bubba Paris, and Pro Bowl center Fred Quillian, and a defense with Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, and two players with double-digit sacks. Bill Walsh was the coach.
They finished 10-6.
What happened? Montana had a handful of weak games. Rice dropped a lot of passes as a rookie. The Niners schedule was very tough, with losses to the unstoppable Bears and a very good Broncos team. Walsh was transitioning from the Clark version of the Niners to the Rice version, so the team had a relatively down year, despite posessing the talent football dreams are made of and getting a historic season from a running back.
I see Craig’s 1,000-1,000 season through that lens: it was terrific, but it was as much a sign of confusion and transition as a feat. Craig caught 92 passes because the offense around him was finding itself. He was an even better player when he was catching around 76 passes.
2. Joe Perry
Perry had an incredibly high peak from 1952 though 1954 and an insanely long productive phase that extended from 1948 though the entire decade of the 1950s, then into a few final seasons with the Colts. I ranked Craig ahead of him because I remember Craig, and because the Pro Football Reference Approximate Value stat gives Craig an edge. Also, like Faulk, we run into the "historic receiver" versus "great receiver" debate. Calling these two backs 1 and 1A is certainly appropriate, and they would have made a fun backfield together, though Perry was never hurting for cool backfield mates.
3. Frank Gore
Gore faces the Steven Jackson dilemma: he gobbled up lots of career value for terrible teams, while the guys ahead of him had beautiful peaks for awesome teams. Now that the Niners are good again, Gore has lost most of his receiving value and appears ready to slide into more of a committee role, so he may be stuck in third place for a long time.
4. Hugh McElhenny
McElhenny shared the backfield with Joe Perry for many years; it was the Million Dollar Backfield, with quarterback Y.A. Tittle, John Henry Johnson and others in the mix as well. On separate teams, Perry and McElhenny would have come in first and second on a typical list, instead of second and fourth, but splitting carries has its effect on a list loaded with great players.
McElhenny was one of the most elusive backs in history, and some of his yards-per-touch numbers are just crazy: seven yards per carry as a rookie, eight in 1954. He can easily be placed above Gore, but we are dealing with a player who carried 10-12 times per game, even in his signature seasons. He was a great player, but Gore is pretty damn good, too.
Hearst had one of the strangest careers in history. It’s hard to think of a player who was so completely written off because of injuries, twice, who then returned to have excellent seasons. Hearst got a boost by playing for the late-era great Niners teams quarterbacked by Steve Young and in-his-prime Jeff Garcia, but he also made major contributions to those teams.
Honorable mention to Ken Willard, a durable fullback with a long career in the 1960s, and to J.D. Smith, who in 1959 shared the backfield with Perry and McElhenny, as well as John Brodie. He gained 1,076 yards for a team that finished 7-5. Do the Niners historically get confused when they have too much talent?
Ricky Watters had several great seasons as a runner and receiver, helping the 49ers to the Super Bowl. But readers know that talking about Watters steers me toward … evil.
My Dear Wormwood,
Perhaps I was not forceful enough in my last two missives. You lost sight of how precarious your position is, and how critical your assignment is. Our Master has taken note of your shortfalls, and has punished me for being too lenient with you, which is why I am forced to wear this Brandon Marshall Dolphins jersey for all eternity.
Your latest error, sadly, cannot be overlooked. Your ham-fisted effort to insert yourself into The Project was foolish, grasping, and worst of all, ineffective. You have set The Project back at least one year, and you came dangerously close to crippling it.
Some of the most venerable demons in the inferno have spent the last ten months on The Project. It was so rare an opportunity that The Master committed our greatest resources to it. As you know, there is no soul more nourishing, or delicious, than that of the hypocrite, spouting sanctimonious platitudes while behaving and thinking in manners which are an utter perverion of The Enemy’s perscriptions.
The Project was designed to create hypocrites by the millions. History rarely provides us with such a promising false idol to work with as The Knave, which is why orders came up from the lowest echelons to treat the subject with care, position him properly in a major population and media center, and use him as a tool of both devisiveness and the kind of foolish piety that undermines and makes a mockery of true faith. The Knave, himself merely an innocent, well-meaning manchild, is the ideal unwitting servant of our ends: we can surround his sloppy good intentions with the purest and most sublime evil, a black pearl around a harmless grain of sand.
Of course you were briefed on this, and I read your mewling justifications aloud to the other demons for a laugh. Your task was simply to work the bellows, on Twitter and the talk shows and the blogs. You simply needed to keep all religious talk thoughtless, superficial, and contentious, to make discussions of The Knave’s meager on-field accomplishments as silly and polarized as possible, and above all else to just rattle trashcan lids and make an unruly din. Eviler souls than yours would capably handle the theoretical matters.
All was going well into you threw those miseable tee-shirts into the equation.
Spare me your explanations about "blasphemy" and "naked commerce." Those tee-shirts shined a beacon onto the absurdity of The Project. Buffoonish blasphemy in the name of lazy greed plays right into The Enemy’s hands. It provokes righteous condemnation and consensus, two things I warned you about in our last letter.
Worse still, it trivializes the very issues we are trying to inflame. What Our Master hopes will become an surprising wedge issue in a destructive cultural war has instead become something corny and tangential. We are always forced to tiptoe around the self-awareness of our patients: any time you get them laughing at their own foibles, you have failed. Your tee-shirts have people laughing at their own devotion, chiding themselves for their own obsession.
Now, the Master is engraged that the sports department has potentially squandered an excellent opportunity. He assumed we could handle more after our triumph in the baseball steroid scandals and our continued success in the effort to erode the ideals of higher education. We were close to getting back privlieges and responsibilities that we haven’t enjoyed since in the Roman Colliseum! Now, he fears that we are too clumsy to handle tricky business. The Project will be assigned to another department. We are being downsized.
And you know what downsizing means around here? It means that your affectionate, ravenous uncle is about to enjoy a bacon-and-bleu cheese Wormwood burger. Perhaps your replacement, if we even get one, will understand his role: to use mass media to help make the football fan experience vacuous, prurient, dull, inisipid, rage-inducing, and soul-draining by focusing the fan’s attention on the negative, the irrelevant, the condescendinly addle-minded, and generally joyless ancillary elements of the game. If you are not replaced, we will simply fall back on humanity’s worst impulses, which have rarely let us down in the past.
Now, while you marinate, I must get ready for a talk radio sting.
67 comments, Last at 01 Jun 2012, 11:59pm by Intropy