by Mike Tanier
After five years as a football writer, I thought I knew everything about football. When it comes to scouting in general and footwork in particular, I'm an expert.
I can dissect the delicate tiptoe of a jumbo left tackle as he prepares to pass block. I can pinpoint the flaws in a punter's approach. I can differentiate between the choppy steps of a linebacker and the measured strides of a quarterback's drop, explaining why each footfall is so important.
But there's one element of footwork I've never understood: swagger.
When I first started writing, I thought swagger had something to do with end zone dancing. As it turns out, it's one of the most important elements of football. Games are decided by the presence or absence of swagger. Championships are won by the team that walks the walk, so to speak.
So what is this swagger? Who has it, and how did they get it? Can teams draft or trade for it? And if it's so important, could Football Outsiders develop some swagger stats to help determine which team will walk confidently away with the Lombardi Trophy?
Now the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside
He walks with a swagger and he says to the bride
"Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride
You will not die, it's not poison"
-Bob Dylan, "Tombstone Blues"
What's more important: talent, coaching, or swagger? These quotes may help you decide. Each tells us something important about that magical gait.
Kevin Roberts of South Jersey's Courier Post after Sunday's Broncos-Eagles game. "The Eagles have lost their swagger, that dominating mental edge." It's the main difference between last year's champions and the stumblebums who spotted the Broncos a 28-point lead.
FOX's Adam Schein, on the Cowboys' rout of the Eagles a month ago: "Finally, swagger and aggressiveness from the Dallas Cowboys." Maybe the nefarious Cowpokes swiped it from the Eagles. Or maybe Barry Switzer just misplaced it in the team offices a decade ago.
Chris Harlan, Beaver County Times, on Monday's Steelers-Ravens game: "Ray Lewis was wearing jeans, but the Ravens' swagger was still there." It's a key ingredient in upsets, and stars like Lewis can horde it for five years after a Super Bowl win and project it telepathically from the bench.
Pro Football Weekly's college scouting report on Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder. "Plays with a sense of urgency. Very confident. Has a swagger." It can be spotted by trained scouts, who no doubt watch for signs of it at Senior Bowl practices.
Kwame Harris of the 49ers: "You go out there with that swagger and that attitude, and I think that trickles down to everything else." The Niners want it, and the NFC West is in trouble if they get it. Swagger also trickles somehow: a pureed metaphor if ever there was one.
Isaiah Kacyvenski of the Seahawks on last year's team: "We didn't have that right mix of players to have that confidence, that swagger." Like a good lap dance, it's unavailable in Seattle.
Wabash College quarterback Russ Harbaugh after a 44-10 win over Wooster: "It was all about breaking their swagger and getting ours back." It even holds sway in the North Coast Athletic Conference! Incidentally, Wabash's nickname is the Little Giants, not the Cannonballs, for some reason.
Chris Colston, USA Today, on J.P. Losman: "He had a swagger that reminded people of a young Jim Kelly." Kelly had it, so it's good. Losman had it, which means it's not all good.
This is serious stuff. And while Kacyvenski and Roberts equate swagger with confidence, there's clearly more to it than that. With the exception of some rookies in tight situations, all football players are confident. Swagger must be equivalent to super-duper-ultra-confidence, not to be confused with cockiness, which we all know is bad.
Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go see
Tryin' to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be?
-Bruce Springsteen, Backstreets
How can so many players and experts spot swagger while I remain blind to it? With players and teams gaining and losing it, with swagger trickling all over the league, it must leave behind some physical evidence, like a sticky film of ectoplasm or a whiff of cheap cologne.
"Lost swagger" seems like a flaw in a player's mechanics, like a receiver tipping his routes or a quarterback failing to step into his throws. Since the Eagles and Patriots apparently lost their swagger in recent weeks, I consulted game film to see if the players were walking differently.
Donovan McNabb isn't stepping into his throws, and he has a bit of a limp, but there are medical explanations. When healthy, Terrell Owens still prances. Brian Westbrook still jitterbugs. Jeremiah Trotter and Brian Dawkins still look like they are swaggering just fine. The same is true in New England, where Tom Brady still walks softly and Tedy Bruschi now jogs stoically. Whatever may be different about the Patriots and Eagles, they still walk onto the field one foot at a time just like everybody else.
Further research revealed the location of The Patriots' swagger. A Washington Post article on Charlie Weis at Notre Dame stated that the coach "wanted them to exhibit a 'swagger', a 'nasty on-field attitude,' traits Weis said he acquired through his New Jersey roots."
Weis acquired swagger from New Jersey? I live in New Jersey. That means I might have swagger! But when I asked several high school students, all of them agreed that I possess absolutely no swagger. "Actually, you kind of waddle," one student offered just before earning a Saturday detention for dropping a pencil.
For the record, Weis waddles too.
Maybe the Garden State isn't swagger central; the Sunshine State is a more likely hotbed of confident perambulation. Isaac Bruce said recently of young Florida athletes: "I think they have a certain swagger about them, particularly from Broward and Dade,"
So Bruce actually has it narrowed down by county. I checked the Broward County website for clues that might lead to the Fountain of Swag. Greater Fort Lauderdale is loaded with ultra-cool attractions, from beaches to eateries like The Bootlegger's Drafthouse and Coach Howard Schnellenberger's Original Steakhouse and Sports Theater (must have one hell of a big sign). But my search came up empty when I checked the schedule for a hotspot named Congas: Thursdays -- salsa lessons. Thursdays-Saturdays: salsa, mambo, cumbia, bachata. Sundays: Mexican night
Any nightclub with time for bachata lessons has time for a little swagger seminar. Flordia is apparently no more awash in manly walks then New Jersey. Unless the whole region is hiding something.
A History of Silly Walks
Oh yeah, just look who's laughing now
I'm gonna walk like a man
Fast as I can
Walk like a man from you
-Frankie Valli (lyrics by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio), "Walk Like a Man"
Contemporary sources were getting me nowhere. It was time to hit the archives.
The word swagger derives from the Middle English word "swag," a word probably adopted from old Norse. A swag was a heavy sack. Swag eventually came to mean the contents of the sack, which was often stolen plunder. A swagger was a man who carried such a sack: a wanderer at best, a cutthroat at worst. By the 16th century, the word applied not to the individual, but to the way he walked.
But it's a torturous route from Scandinavian sack to ubiquitous sports metaphor. In 1886, The Sporting News reported that boxing champ John L. Sullivan walked with a swagger as he boarded a train after a victory in Denver. The word isn't found again in The Sports Bible until 1920. It is used in the modern sense when comparing baseball greats Rogers Hornsby and George Sisler on April 20, 1922. "Hornsby takes precedence over Sisler because there's more swagger and go and knack for putting it over in his than Sisler's work and ways." Author William B. Hanna was clearly a pioneer in evaluating players based on vague intangibles.
Still, the word was rarely used then the way it is used now. Indianapolis Indians pitcher Danny Boone was described as having the "swagger of a champion" in 1927, but it's the only time the word was used in The Sporting News that year. Apparently, Babe Ruth and the Yankees didn't swagger. And if they didn't, nobody did, except maybe this Danny Boone character.
So what did players do back then? A New York Sun writer suggested in 1920 that "Ruth supplied the Yankees with what they have always lacked â€“ color." Notify Spike Lee. The Sun's sports section has become more analytical in recent years, and Ruth would provide a little more than color, or moxie, or pepper for the Yankees in the 1920s. But the Sultan never swaggered as such.
The King and the Duke
Don't jump in expectin' fun
Don't swagger in there with your elephant gun
Don't enter the cage with wavin' chairs
Cos I'll tell you something for nothing
There ain't no bears in there
-Pete Townsend, "Cache Cache"
My journey into the history of manly strides was not fruitless: it became clear through research that cowboys, or cowboy actors at least, swaggered.
Perfect. John Wayne was not only the king of the cowboy actors, but he was also a football player. All I had to do was study The Duke's gait, determine which NFL players walked like Wayne, pick them to win the Super Bowl, and bask in the accolades of my readers and peers.
An all-night session watching Rio Bravo, The Quiet Man, Hondo, and other films proved to be a revelation. Wayne was bow-legged, and he walked with a little bit of a limp. He always appeared to be suffering from saddle sores, whether on the lonesome prairie or in the Pacific Theater.
This is how champions walk: like they are injured and suffering from some itchy "masculine discomfort?" After reviewing game film, I determined that Joe Namath and Brett Favre walked a lot like Wayne. No help at all: both were champions long ago, and Favre has allegedly lost his swagger recently.
The Wayne exercise did help me differentiate between swagger and strut. That's a key point: swagger wins games, strut loses them. When's the last time you've heard of a team strutting onto the field and kicking some tail? Peacocks, Mummers, and shapely ladies strut. Winners do something else entirely. John Wayne clearly never strutted, though I saw him jig once.
Old rock videos are as useful as old cowboy movies in settling the stagger/strut question. It's easy to see: guitarists swagger; lead singers strut. (Bassists wander. Drummers sit). If you want to walk like a winner, study Keith Richards over Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page over Robert Plant, lots of Elvis Presley, absolutely no Joe Cocker.
Still, what does Deion Sanders do? That's clearly a strut: one with Super Bowl rings. And what about players who saunter, shuffle, stroll, meander, amble, sidle, or skip? Is the door to the Super Bowl locked to all of them?
Walk Before They Make Me Run
I just need to clear things up
'Til then I'll just walk around with a manly strut
After reviewing hours of game film and days of research, I was no closer to the secret of swagger than when I started. If you have it, you win. If you don't have it, you lose. You can acquire it suddenly and lose it just as fast, good opponents can take it from you, bad opponents can give it to you, it trickles, it breaks, and while no one can spot it before a game, everyone can tell you afterwards who had the most of it.
It's not just a meaningless cliche, is it? One of those expressions like "wanting it more" or "finding a way to get it done" or "playing with heart?" It can't just be some post ipso facto way of describing a job done well with a bit of flair. Or can it be?
Columnist J.P. Degance wrestled with these same questions in the Independent Florida Alligator four years ago. "In college football, the swagger is essential for any team to win a national title. Nearly every great team in college football seems to have that air of invincibility," he wrote.
Of course, most teams earn that air of invincibility by never being beaten. Could it be coached into a team? Taught to a new recruiting class? Degance thought he had the answer in 2001 when watching the Florida Gators. "Signs of the swagger are returning to Gainesville. But for now the swagger is as hard to detect as a whisper in the wind."
Those Gators would soon embark on the Ron Zook era, one of the least swaggering episodes in college football history. Degance, like myself, had come up dry.
But I'm not giving up. I'm going to training camp next year with a caliper to measure stride length. I'm renting Gary Cooper movies and Clash videos. I have a spreadsheet with columns labeled "swagger", "killer instinct" and "fire in the belly", and once I can plug in some values, I'll be the King of Las Vegas.
Then I'll be the one walking like a champion.
Author's note: I am well aware that I used "swagger" when describing Randy Moss in my FOX Rundown in Week 1. Hypocrisy is coin of the realm in the sports journalism business.