by Mike Tanier
Now that I have seen Maurice Jones-Drew naked, my life will never be the same.
MJD is starkers in The Body Issue of ESPN: The Magazine, a magazine I subscribe to so I can see my friends’ bylines, not my fantasy running back’s butt cheeks. In fact, just typing the word "fantasy" about MJD in this context made me shudder a bit, and admitting to you that I shuddered makes me worry about being misconstrued. My adolescent attitudes have steered Walkthrough into a ditch in a record 86 words. I blame tacks in the road.
ESPN: The Magazine is published by ESPN, one of the primary benefactors of this website and one of the reasons that many of my friends’ children eat something other than ramen noodles for dinner. Therefore, I refuse to say anything bad about the decision to temporarily turn the periodical into Mapplethorpe Monthly, and assume that the publisher’s decision to mail me a magazine with a gloriously nude Tyson Chandler on the cover simply proves that they know more about me than I know about myself.
Inside The Body Issue are photos of a lovely naked lady tennis player and a lovely naked lady mixed martial artist, as well as other physical marvels of various sports and genders. Aaron Schatz may have a three-page mathematical proof that the Chiefs will win the next four Super Bowls in there somewhere, but I never got that far. And I can promise that there are no naked Football Outsiders in the magazine, because it is not The Quarterly Review of Medical Curiosities.
MJD comes at the tail end of the pictorial, when the editors probably figure you are ready for just about anything. He is crouched forward in what looks like a classic Greek sprinter’s pose, his left thigh striding forward to hide the naughty stuff, his right hand nearly touching the ground. MJD is listead at 5-foot-6, which means he is about 5-foot-5, and when leaning forward he appears to be three feet tall. And with his muscles flexed, 495 pounds. He looks computer generated. Peter Jackson is working on a two-part movie version of The Hobbit, and he has given several interviews talking about how difficult it is to shoot battle sequences with 12 dwarf characters played by normal-sized actors. He should just use 12 CGI MJD’s.
Jackson is also worried about giving each dwarf a unique personality, a problem that did not bother him much during the Lord of the Rings movies, in which none of the characters had a personality except for the one annoying sidekick hobbit. MJD has had enough personality to cover all eleven Jaguars offensive starters for years. What’s one more?
MJD at least gets dignified with a classic pose. Chandler also gets to be a museum statue, looking like a cross between a classical Greek discus thrower and Michelangelo’s David, tatted-down. The ladies get tasteful poses, though the US Women’s Volleyball Team are all seated together awkwardly, as if someone kicked in the door of a large sauna and snapped their picture with no warning. Nearly everyone gets off easy except Rob Gronkowski, who gets the Magic Mike treatment: arms spread, pouty pose, puffy football piñata playing the role of fig leaf. Gronk looks like a male escort. The strategic football is comically huge, as if concealing a county fair winning eggplant, creating the impression that Gronk is over-compensating a smidge.
Poor Gronk. The folks at Outsports.com interviewed him before the ESPY awards. Gronk has Blurts Stupid Things Disease, and he knows it, and he knew speaking on the record about gay issues amounted to a Kobayashi Maru for him. Gronk tried to avoid the interview, realized that was worse than any dumb thing he could possibly say, and did his best to grunt through the NFL-approved version of Seinfeld’s "not that there’s anything wrong with it." Cyd Zeigler Jr. of Outsports.com praised Gronk for getting past his fears. I concur, though I wish Gronk worked up the courage to ask the photographer to shoot him catching a pass, or in a three-point stance, or doing anything more dignified than apparently blast-drying his genitals in front of an air conditioner vent, and loving it.
No one has asked MJD his opinion on gay issues yet. Someone from ComicCon asked him to comment on Northstar’s same-sex wedding in Marvel Comics, but only because he mistook MJD for Puck from Alpha Flight.
Reporters get to go into locker rooms, meaning that we often see players naked. It is, in every way, a humbling experience. As tasteful as the non-Gronkowski Body Issue photos are, I do wonder when butt cheek became acceptable in non-scientific, non-erotic magazines. It may be carefully shaded butt cheek, artfully arranged butt cheek, and butt-cheek-in-partial-profile, but it remains butt cheek. You can clearly see it on the fencing champion, and if you turn the photo of golfer Suzann Pettersen at the proper angle and stare at it for a good five minutes ... oh, there I go again.
Gronk and MJD were the only football players laid bare in The Body Issue. I expected to see Victor Cruz, because he is usually called upon for duties like this nowadays, but Cruz did not participate, probably because the Mara family has a strict no-nudity policy in the wake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Cruz did participate in a New York Magazine Q&A that was minimally invasive. Among other things, Cruz revealed that he always has Entenmenn’s doughnuts in the house and likes Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Sorry, Victor: wide receivers are only allowed to have one personality trait. You must either give up the salsa dancing or the junk food breakfasts.
Cruz also reveals that about the only art in his house is "a portrait of a zebra." Note that he says "portrait," so this is not just any zebra, but an important one who posed with an artist for the painting, perhaps with one hoof on its breast and its eyes gazing knowingly across the Serengeti. Cruz said that the portrait belongs to his girlfriend, providing a mental image of morning in the Cruz household, Victor scarfing down sugary cereals and doughnuts while his girlfriend makes plans to attend a gallery show dedicated to portraiture of serious-minded gazelles. Come to think of it, Gronk got off easy.
The Body Issue disappeared from my house. My wife probably hid it from the children, not because we are quite that prudish, but because of the way nine- and soon-to-be-six-year-old boys are. C.J. makes dramatic "yuck" noises at the sight of any nudity, be it male, female, or Jacksonville/Middle Earth, while Mikey is likely to run around the house shouting "Butt cheek! Butt cheek!" for a half-hour in search of a laugh. (It comes with the name.) The photos are all online, and I encourage you to seek them out for yourself, because the photos are striking, ESPN is our benevolent patron, and there may be some written content accompanying the pictures for all I know.
And of course, MJD and his Jaguars need all the exposure they can get.
Denver Broncos Top Five Running Backs
2. Floyd Little
The Broncos were underrepresented for so long in the Pro Football Hall of Fame that it spawned conspiracy theories. As of 2004, when John Elway got in, there were only two players who ever wore a Broncos uniform in Canton: Willie Brown and Tony Dorsett. Dorsett played one forgettable year with the Broncos, and Brown is much more famous for his Raiders accomplishments, so Elway was really the first Broncos Hall of Famer, arriving 44 years after the franchise’s inception.
Since then, the inductions of Little, Gary Zimmerman, and Shannon Sharpe have made the Broncos group more respectable, silencing suggestions that a cabal of Oakland writers were scheming to keep the Broncos out. There are franchises with more to complain about than the Broncos now. The Falcons, for example, can only point to Deion Sanders as a true representative, though there are several worthy candidates: Mike Kenn, Jeff Van Note, and Claude Humphrey, of whom only Humphrey ever reached finalist status. The Broncos still have a backlog of solid candidates, led by Randy Gradishar and Karl Mecklenberg, then Davis, Tom Nalen, Steve Atwater, and Rod Smith. You can probably list other viable candidates, depending on how big you want your Hall.
Of course, every team has a serious logjam of reasonable Hall of Fame choices, often headlined by one blatantly obvious omission like Gradishar. This is the Hall’s biggest problem right now, and the primary reason why the voters are having a hard time getting Cris Carter clocked in.
The backlog is the main reason why I don’t stamp my feet much about Davis as a Hall of Famer anymore. If I were a voter –- and I would be happy to offer my services -– I would have to get Carter through first, make prudent choices about new players as they hit the ballot, and correct the omissions of yesteryear like Gradishar and Cliff Branch. When Brian Dawkins comes up for election, I would have to put on my Eagles jersey. I think Davis is highly qualified, and I am not a big believer in most of the arguments against him, but if given five people to select every year, I would be forced to make him my fifth (or sixth or seventh) choice for many years, until the mess gets straightened out.
Little was a great player in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but we have encountered several players from his era with resumes just as good as his: Chuck Foreman, Lydell Mitchell, Larry Brown, Lawrence McCutcheon, and so on. He was a very good player. Davis was an MVP-caliber player from 1996 to 1998, playing for the best team in the NFL. He was, for three years, an all-time great. I am glad Little is in Canton, and it does not bother me that Davis will probably never make it, but there is no question in my mind which back I would rather have in his prime.
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As for the lack of Broncos in the Hall of Fame, there is no mystery. They were awful for the entire AFL era, so voters had no colorful mad bomber or Bambi-like receiver to vote for from the 1960s. Their very good 1970s teams peaked by getting the living snot pummeled out of them by the Cowboys in the Super Bowl; old-guard Hall of Fame voters were very Super Bowl-driven, so that bad game probably cost Gradishar, the best player on that Broncos team. (For the most ridiculous example of a player being kept out of the Hall of Fame for a perceived bad game in a Super Bowl, check out Mick Tingelhoff). The John Elway teams were, well, John Elway teams; Karl Mecklenburg popped up on the HOF finalist list last year, a sign that voters outside of Denver are re-remembering that there was more to the 1980s Broncos than Elway, The Drive and Super Bowl losses.
Guys like Mecklenburg and Atwater are trapped in the logjam, which gets more jammed every year. Every year, the voters dip a teaspoon into the 1965-1985 era and rescue someone like Little. Davis will have to wait 20 years and hope for the teaspoon.
3. Otis Armstong
Armstrong was a little nifty back who replaced Little and amassed 1,812 scrimmage yards in 1974. That was quite a feat, and Armstrong had a solid encore season in 1976, but mid-70s football was no place for a 195-pounder. By the time the Broncos reached the Super Bowl as cowboy steaks, Armstong was toast.
Anderson is Exhibit B in the case against Terrell Davis as a Hall of Famer. Anderson rushed for 1,487 yards after Olandis Gary rushed for 1,159 yards after injuries began swallowing Davis’ career whole, so many began pointing to Mike Shanahan’s offense or Alex Gibbs’ blocking schemes as the reasons behind Davis’ rushing success. Gibbs is a zone-blocking maestro, of course, and guys like Zimmerman and Nalen deserve tons of credit. So does Davis, and so does Anderson, who was excellent in 2000, great in 2005 (second in DVOA and Success Rate), and a very useful fullback and role player in between.
Anderson gave up the featured role for two years to...
...who would rank much higher if he had more than two seasons in Denver. Portis ranked second and fifth in DVOA in his two seasons with Denver, first and third in Success Rate. In his best Redskins seasons, Portis finished eighth in DVOA.
Portis’ record can be read as an example of Gibbs-Shanahan-Gary Kubiak turning a great-to-excellent runner into an outstanding one, though there are many variables to consider besides the teams Portis played on. Anderson’s record can be read as the Gibbs Gang turning a very good role player into a great runner, Olandis Gary’s as an ordinary runner turned into a pretty good one by the system. Only one running back turned into a 2,000-yard rushing MVP, but I promised to stay off my soapbox.
Sammy Winder, you say? Winder has some of the worst statistics of anyone who was a featured runner for six full seasons in the NFL. He averaged 3.9 yards per carry in his best year, 3.3 in a year when he was given 240 carries. He averaged 6.6 yards per catch for his season, catching passes from a Hall of Famer. Winder had 13 carries for 25 yards in three Super Bowls. He deserves Honorable Mention for being a starter on so many great teams, but I have no problem putting Anderson or Portis above him.
Kansas City Chiefs/Dallas Texans Top Five Running Backs
The best running back in football, and the focal point of one of the most dynamic offenses in football, from 2001-03. Holmes has better Hall of Fame chances than Davis, and I feel he is a worthy candidate, particularly when his role in the Ravens' Super Bowl season is factored in. His chances may be hurt by the fact that he played in a small market, was a very odd duck, and of course never won a Super Bowl with the Chiefs, which is the be-all, end-all argument for far too many otherwise literate humans.
2. Abner Haynes
Haynes is the reason why this is the Chiefs-Texans list and not just the Chiefs list. Haynes was one of the first stars of the AFL, leading the league in rushing in 1960 and yards from scrimmage in 1962. He was the star of the 1962 AFL championship team, with a big assist from Len Dawson. He’s best known for the "Kick to the Clock" incident, which almost cost the Texans the championship.
The usual suspicions about early AFL stars apply to Haynes: his career numbers drop precipitously as the overall league talent level improves. But he is a legendary player, and there is no clear-cut choice for No. 2 on this list.
3. Ed Podolak
Podolak was a running quarterback at Iowa. For the Chiefs, he was an all-purpose back and return man during the latter part of the Hank Stram/Len Dawson era. The Chiefs’ 1970s business model was to ride Dawson, Otis Taylor, and other 1960s stars until they couldn’t stand up anymore. It had predictable results. Podolak kept the aging stars comfortable for a few years.
Podolak became a college broadcaster, then retired in 2009 because of a scandal that went like this: 1) Grown man has a few beers at a bar; 2) Grown man (former NFL player, well-known television personality) flirts with younger-but-over-21-year-old female; 3) Someone takes pictures of tipsy-looking grown man getting very chummy with tipsy-looking consenting adult; 4) Internet reacts to photos as if it were a community of millions of spinster aunts; 5) Grown man and his employers go into a damage control panic as if the photo shows him clubbing a harp seal.
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Podolak later returned to the booth. We are past all of this nonsense, right? Every "drunken football personality" photo, with or without legal-age paramour, doesn’t instantly get seven trillion hits like they did three years ago.
Or maybe I am wrong. My college-aged former students tell me that they are now drowning in "don’t post any picture on the Internet that anyone would construe as inappropriate," advice, which can range from prudent (don’t photograph the menage-a-trois in the mall fountain with the wanted fugitive and the sea otter) to the needlessly paranoid (some future employer might mistake that diet soda for a bubbling mug of bath salts). One very bright college kid pointed out to me that she will start worrying about what future employers see on Facebook when she stops worrying that there will be no employers in the future.
I like to think that we are making peace with how little privacy we have given ourselves and each other. Still, I did not need to see MJD naked.
Docked two places for being a complete pain in the butt for much of his Chiefs tenure.
Would rank higher based on sentiment or video game production. Okoye caught just two passes during his signature 1989 season, and seven more during his productive 1990 and 1991 seasons, making him one of those rare less-than-zero players as a receiver. With his Nigerian Nightmare nickname, epic iterations on the first generation of truly playable football video games, and ready-for-highlights rushing style, Okoye is an easy player to overrate, and in fact I think he may be too high here.
Mike Garrett was a speedy all-purpose star for two Super Bowl teams. He could rank second on this list as much as anyone. Marcus Allen gave the Chiefs five productive seasons as a committee back. DVOA and DYAR love those seasons, but I have always felt Allen got an inordinate amount of credit for being a glorified role player in Kansas City.
Joe Delaney deserves Honorable Mention on any list.