John Riggins, William Andrews, and 1980s Memories

Former Washington RB John Riggins
Former Washington RB John Riggins
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - The 1981 and 1982 DVOA ratings aren't just charts of names and numbers. They're a compendium of memories of players such as Washington great John Riggins, forgotten Atlanta Falcons rushing champion William Andrews, and barefooted Philadelphia Eagles kicker Tony Franklin, and of the childhood misadventures those players inspired.

William Andrews and the Monsters of the Tabletop

Four middle-school lads sit in a wood-paneled suburban kitchen around a table cluttered with red-and-white cards, poster-sized cardboard charts, dice, looseleaf, pencils, and half-empty Slurpee cups.

"G," says one lad intently.

"Inside run, William Andrews," says the other, a husky lad, rolling dice before consulting the cards and thumbing through the charts.

"Gain of 3." A third lad moves a penny a few millimeters across a green cardboard gridiron. The fourth kid waits to face the winner.

The game is APBA tabletop football, theater of the football-obsessed mind for the pre-Madden, pre-Nintendo, pre-fantasy era. "G" is the game's code for defense aimed at stopping the run. It's the autumn of 1983. William Andrews is a superstar.

Andrews would rush for 1,567 yards and seven touchdowns for the Atlanta Falcons in 1983. But the APBA cards are designed to simulate the results of the strike-shortened 1982 season. Andrews rushed for a respectable 573 yards and 4.1 yards per carry that year. His longest run of the 1982 season was just 19 yards, however, and that left him with a fascinating APBA card.

Each APBA card has 36 numbers in its rushing columns; those numbers are cross-referenced on myriad charts to determine whether a running back gains 3 yards, 30, fumbles, etc. The best result is always on boxcars, "66" in game parlance. Tony Dorsett, who scored a 99-yard touchdown in 1982, has a guaranteed touchdown at 66. San Francisco 49ers running back Wendell Tyler also has a long gain on that roll, though the rest of his card is laden with fumbles. But Andrews has a value of "15," which usually results in a modest 10- to 20-yard gain.

But here's the catch: because Andrews didn't break any long runs, his 4.1 yards per rush are more evenly distributed across lots of die rolls. Dorsett's yards per carry dipped from 4.2 to 3.7 without that 99-yard run, and his APBA card reflected that. Most superstar running backs are boom-or-bust rushers in the card game. Andrews is the ultimate ball-control workhorse.

The husky lad prefers ball-control workhorses. He owns a 1983 Street & Smith annual and therefore knows every player's yards per attempt or completion rate. Something of a math whiz, he's the only kid in the neighborhood who can comprehend the result charts, which are as tall and wide as storm windows. He's the "dungeon master" who determines results, even when he's one of the players. The other boys would accuse him of cheating if he didn't lose so often.

The husky lad is also a sponge of inherited football wisdom, a firm proponent of establishing the run and winning in the trenches. He has studied the cards and plans to win the neighborhood Super Bowl with William Andrews and a cloud of dust.

The buddy down the street has other plans, and Dan Fouts. The husky lad has Ken Anderson, chosen for his record-setting 70.6% completion rate. Like Andrews, Anderson has a card full of steady, modest gains. Fouts has a card full of whiz-bang touchdowns.

The husky lad wasn't quite stat-savvy enough to compare Fouts' 8.3 yards per attempt to Anderson's 7.5. Even the television experts of the time weren't savvy enough to compare Fouts' 3.5% sack rate to Anderson's 7.8%. The buddy down the street wasn't savvy enough for any of these things. He knew Fouts was awesome. He also knew he was playing a game, not running a grim experiment to verify Chuck Knox's tactical theories. The neighbor calls long passing plays because they are middle schoolers, it's fun, and because the plays keep working.

"D," says the husky lad: the code for pass defense.

"Medium pass play: Dan Fouts to Tony Hill. [rolls dice] Sixty-six!"

The husky lad punches the paneling and cusses. Mom yells a warning down the stairs.

It's not fair. Non-stop passing works, even when the defense keeps guessing right! And big plays appear more effective than perfectly executed runs between the tackles for 4 yards a clip. Something was wrong with all of that wisdom the husky 12-year-old had absorbed. Maybe it was bad luck. Or he was doing something wrong.

Or maybe, just maybe, many NFL coaches were learning the same lesson at the same time.

John Riggins and a Cloud of Puberty

The strip of grass beside the railroad tracks is no wider than 15 feet. The left sideline is a steep curb into a dead-end street. The right sideline: a sharp-rock bed for wooden ties and iron rails. The strip is too narrow for tackle football, unless the players are willing to improvise and endure a few bruises.

"Rigginomics!" shouts the buddy from across town as he steps back after handing off to the husky lad, who rams straight into the two other boys from the kitchen table league at full speed, which is not very fast. The trio topple over, the husky lad forward and the others backward, for a gain of … 2 feet? 3? They're still a body-length shy of the telephone pole that marks the end zone.

There is no organized youth football in their town. The baby boom went bust a few years earlier, and many of the small-town teams, the Mepri Thunderbolts and Fairview Ramblers, folded. Large-group pickup games in the playgrounds or baseball outfield were also rare; the days of the sandlot were already fading.

The tightknit foursome sometimes played in one lad's front lawn, where a large maple tree stood in the middle of the only end zone. (Offense always drove in the same direction; a pick-six the other way ended by leaping down into a neighbor's sunken driveway). The tree was christened Ed "Too Tall" Jones, and whole goal-line packages were developed to deal with him: curl route around the tree, double-move pick play using the tree, etc.

By middle school, even the smallest of the lads can cross the front yard in just a few strides. They're also outgrowing touch football in the street, and the testosterone that's beginning to simmer has filled them with an urge to rut. Hence: Goal-Line Plunge, the game of two-on-two smashmouth football to score 1-yard touchdowns. The husky lad, slow but, well, husky, is the neighborhood's John Riggins.

Riggins became a superstar during the improvised 1982 playoff tournament, when he rushed for 610 yards and four touchdowns in four games. He led Washington to victory in Super Bowl XVII with 166 rushing yards, 41 of them on a fourth-and-1 conversion touchdown to give Washington a fourth-quarter lead. By 1983, when our lads play APBA around the kitchen table and Goal-Line Plunge beside the tracks, Riggins is in the process of scoring 24 touchdowns for a Washington team about to return to the Super Bowl.

The lads live in Eagles country, mind you. The buddy down the street is a Cowboys fan because there was one in every quartet, it just couldn't be avoided. The others bled Kelly green. But Riggins was an aspirational figure for doughy white kids, as well as more than a few of the doughy white sportswriters and broadcasters of the time who couldn't get enough of the quotable late-career wonder whose name sounded like the president's name.

Back at the APBA skunkworks, the husky lad has his doubts. Riggins' card sits unused in a pack: 3.1 meager yards per carry resulted in a card that produced nothing but minimal gains and heartache. And 20 of Riggins' 24 touchdowns in 1983 were 1- or 2-yarders: anyone who watched Washington's games (they were always televised) knew that Joe Theismann usually got the team to the goal line with passes to Charlie Brown and Art Monk, then handed off to Riggins for the glory. Surely "backup" Joe Washington, who averaged 5.3 yards per rush and caught 47 passes to Riggins' five, was perfectly capable of scoring some of those touchdowns behind the mighty Hogs offensive line.

Watching Washington games, combing through magazines and APBA cards, the husky lad struggled to understand why Riggins was a superstar and Washington a mere role player. Something about NFL strategies and football's scant statistics just didn't add up.

None of that mattered beside the railroad tracks. The husky lad spent the whole year waiting for football season. He couldn't hit even a modest fastball. He could not skate. The free-throw line might as well have been 50 yards from the net. But he caught a football well enough, ran no slower than the slowest kids, and loved to hit and be hit. Football season! It was the only time he wasn't picked last with the booger eaters when divvying up sides at the playground.

And on autumn nights when it was just the tight circle of pals, he could drag his faster, fitter buddies across that bumpy strip of rocky grass, 3.1 yards at a time if he was lucky.

Tony Franklin and Frozen Toes

Tony Franklin kicked barefoot. So the husky lad would kick barefoot.

Franklin was the Philadelphia Eagles kicker. He blasted a 59-yard field goal in a win over the stinkin' Cowboys as a rookie in 1979 and became a folk hero. He was the first of the barefooted kickers. Philly adores misfits. The Eagles, putrid for most of the previous generation, were contenders, and Franklin was one of the new faces who captured the imaginations of new fans.

By 1982, it was becoming obvious that Franklin was not all that great. His field goal rates hovered around 66.7%, just below league average. Mark Moseley received (earned is too strong a word) an MVP award in 1982 for converting 95.2% of his field goals, going an unheard-of 15-of-15 within 40 yards. The best kickers of the era, like Eddie "Money" Murray, Jan Stenerud, and Nick Lowery, nailed over 70% of their attempts and were starting to make 40- or 45-yarders automatic. Franklin was not nearly in that class.

It was a strange era for kickers, as the whole idea of kicking barefoot suggests. Rolf Benirschke earned Pro Bowl notice for the Chargers in 1982 largely by kicking extra points after Fouts touchdowns. Browns kicker Matt Bahr went 7-of-13 on field goals, 3-of-10 beyond 30 yards. The Browns kept Bahr, perhaps because his brother was a successful Raiders kicker, and he led the NFL in field goal percentage in 1983. The two-way kicker/punter was not entirely extinct, nor were straight-ahead kickers such as Moseley. Punters were still sometimes backup quarterbacks; Danny White was still punting as the Cowboys starter until 1984. The days when Paul Hornung or Wayne Walker kicked field goals while starting at running back or linebacker were still well within the memories of coaches, announcers, and older fans. It's hard to tell if anyone really knew what an "average season" for a kicker looked like because the average kept changing.

Barefoot kickers of the era claimed that they could "feel" the ball better. Whatever. It's more likely to have been a quirk Franklin picked up as a young athlete playing a high-stress position, and it started a brief NFL and college fad.

But Franklin didn't just inspire younger kickers. The husky lad decided that if he could kick barefoot, it would be a much-needed arrow in his troublingly sparse athletic quiver.

On one icy winter day, he retreated to that dead-end street beside the tracks. He had received a tee for his birthday. He removed his heavy right construction boot and his thick tube sock. The blacktop numbed the bottom of his feet.

There were no uprights; kicking the ball straight and high would be enough. But all he could produce were low, odd-angled line drives which forced him to hobble into driveways or onto the railroad tracks. At least he knew from reading Ray Didinger that Franklin made contact with the football with the side of his foot, else the misguided lad might have fractured his big toe.

These were bad days for Eagles fans. The surge of the Dick Vermeil era was brief. The Eagles lost Super Bowl XV but started the 1981 season 9-2. Then came a stunning, inexplicable losing streak that ended in a playoff catastrophe. The 1982 season began with a pair of thrilling down-to-the-wire games: an overtime loss to Washington and a last-minute comeback against the Browns. Then came the strike.

Sports fans would eventually learn that cocaine was the secret behind many mysteries of the 1980s. Slugger suddenly lunging at every curveball? Cocaine! Exasperated manager trading a slumping superstar for a bag of balls? Cocaine! Disciplined team suddenly unpredictable, unprepared, and fractured? One of the guys in the locker room just might be dealing cocaine!

Such matters were beyond the experience of sheltered middle school lads, as were the complexities of a labor strike. It was only then dawning on the husky lad that athletes aren't superheroes who stay the same forever. He was too young to have witnessed a team both rise and fall in his lifetime. The Eagles would be the first.

But everything was OK when the strike dawned. The Eagles would be back after a brief midseason hiatus; it was the same guys who reached the Super Bowl two years ago!

There was a youth football field not far from the lad's grandparents' home, beside an onramp to the bridge to Philly. A different pal in that different neighborhood hung out with him after Eagles games and Sunday dinners. With no other kids to play with, they walked to the field to kick field goals in the twilight, still amped up by that Browns victory.

The right sneakers came off. The ball dribbled and blubbered in random directions.

The sneakers were laced back on. A little practice and patience. Soon, the ball wobbled over the uprights from extra point range. Then it happened again. Before their digital watches told them it was time to return home, maybe one out of every three of their extra point attempts were good.

Football season was a time when anything was possible. But man, barefoot kicking was stupid.

Ghosts of the Early 1980s

It was 1981, 1982, 1983. John Riggins, William Andrews, Tony Franklin, and those neighborhood lads are as many years removed from us now as D-Day was from them. We see the lads through a gauze of nostalgia, like characters in a football-themed Stranger Things. The players exist as grainy footage and the rows and columns in online encyclopedias.

The pro football we really recognize was born in the 1960s, with the arrival of the AFL, the advent of the Super Bowl, and the final extinction of some ancient tactics, such as kicker/linebackers. It reaches puberty all at once in 1978 when the schedule expands to 16 games and wide receivers can safely cross the field without getting run over by defenders. The 1981 and 1982 seasons are part of a long, tumultuous adolescence of labor stoppages, rival leagues, and an evolving relationship among players, franchises, television networks, emerging media, and fans. The fully-formed, all-grown-up NFL we recognize today arrives by the mid-1990s: real free agency, a salary cap, cable television packages, Madden, fantasy sports as a national pastime, draft obsession, an Internet full of NFL chatter, offenses built almost exclusively for passing, defenses built to stop them.

The husky lad came of age according to roughly the same timetable. So perhaps he's projecting a bit. But the Internet did not exist as we now know it in 1982. Fantasy sports were a strange hobby for some New York columnists. There were no Sunday or Thursday night games. ESPN still showed Australian Rules Football. Video games were as crude as cave paintings. Fullbacks and halfbacks still split carries, though Riggins and Andrews were changing that. Teams still ran the ball more than they passed in most situations, though Fouts and Anderson were changing that. Quarterbacks still sometimes punted. The football interactions you take for granted today—arguing on Twitter over Madden rankings, leaving fantasy lineups on a smartphone, watching a Football Outsiders livestream—were the stuff of science fiction in those early-adolescent early 1980s.

Projecting DVOA and DYAR back to 1981 and 1982 is more than a statistical exercise. It's a feat of archaeology. It unearths the New York Sack Exchange from beneath the mud of Joe Robbie Stadium. It reminds us of Anderson's excellence. It restores Andrews' brief peak. It also recalls an era when players fought bitterly for some very basic workplace rights.

The barefoot kicking fad faded. Cloud-of-dust tactics also slowly faded, a year at a time. Riggins reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Washington learned that Gerald Riggs, George Rogers, or Earnest Byner could be just as effective behind the mighty Hogs. The rest of the NFL learned to follow the trail blazed by Fouts' Chargers and by that Washington team. One running back. Passing on early downs. Passing in the red zone. Passing with the lead. Three or four receivers on the field, five or six defensive backs. The lads on the playgrounds and around the kitchen table were right.

The excavation of 1981 and 1982 also brings back bittersweet memories. Childhood is never quite as carefree as we remember. But there's nothing like being old enough to ride your bike to the ballfield or pizza shop but too young for adolescent crushes or castes; smart enough to know how draw plays and screen passes work but foolish enough to believe football's mythmaking machine.

The neighborhood lads inevitably outgrow the parkstrip beside the railroad tracks. Tabletop football gives way to garage bands, travel teams, drinking parties, and girlfriends. The husky lad is the staunchest holdout. He graduates from APBA chart reader to fantasy football commissioner. He drives home from college on weekends with a football in the back of his station wagon, and the lads toss it around in the yard for a few minutes, chattering about the K-Gun offense or pirouetting away from imagined defenders like Randall Cunningham, always careful not to break a sweat before pursuing their more "adult" pasttimes.

Decades later, he still searches through charts and tables for football's secret truths.


75 comments, Last at 09 Jul 2022, 7:08pm

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 30, 2022 - 10:48am

The game is APBA tabletop football, theater of the football-obsessed mind for the pre-Madden, pre-Nintendo, pre-fantasy era.

Nintendo is surprisingly old, having been started in 1889 as a playing card manufacturer.

1981 is pre-NES, but Nintendo released Donkey Kong in 1981 and had been making home console games since the late-70s.

And it's important to remind the children who are being evicted from my horticulture that the condicio sine qua non football game was Tecmo Bowl.

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#3 by Aaron Schatz // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:03am

I never had APBA football as a kid but I did have Statis Pro baseball that a neighbor gave me with the 1978 season. I knew so much about that season even though I was four years old when it was played...

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#5 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:11am

I can never remember -- did passing rules change for that season, or after that season?

I know that season was a Ragnarok, but can never recall whether it was the old world or the new one.

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#7 by KnotMe // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:17am

I think it took a while to really be adopted and start affecting how teams played so I'm not sure it matters that much. 

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#36 by andrew // Jun 30, 2022 - 4:36pm

The passing rules changed seriously after the 1979 season.   It destroyed the Bucs defense of that time period...

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#34 by andrew // Jun 30, 2022 - 4:20pm

1978 was the first season I got really into football as a kid (i had started watching in the 1976 season, got me being a viking fan (same year my dad swore them off forever after that 4th superbowl loss).    I was... uh, 9 at the time.   In 1978, living overseas, I kept a scrapbook of weekly standings cut from the newspaper and pasted in for each week, even when they'd go to print without the late games included (international edition of the Miami Herald is what I had, plus the english version of the Panama daily La Estrella.   I followed each week as the Vikings fell way behind the packers, even lost to the lowly bucs and at one point sat at 3-4 while GB was 6-1 and the headlines proclaimed "the pack is back', then they beat them and started a monthlong pursuit and caught them, leading to a late season showdown with both teams sporting identical records.... and the game ended in a tie.  Seriously.   I still wasn't seeing any matchups live, we didn't get those until the playoffs on the Southern Command network (Armed Forces Radio & Television Service).   After that both teams had multiple chances to win but didn't, and they ended up with identical 8-7-1 mark, but the vikings had the tiebreaker, which let them meet once again the Rams, 12-4 this season, and one of two teams to beat the Steelers....  in the playoffs.  On TV they drilled hom the refrain the previous two seasons that the vikings had never lost to the rams in the playoffs.   But this year, an 8-7-1 squad on the road vs a 12-4 juggernaut was no contest and the curse was over.   Then the Rams fizzled out vs the Cowboys, but that's another story.

Other things I remember from that season was how washington started 6-0 and missed the playoffs, and the two squads who started 0-8.

(sorry, I don't have any tapes of those seasons.  I think in 1979 we got a vcr, so while I did tape some games it was on betamax (panama was solidly betamax only for long after it died in the US), so those tapes were in that format and stayed there and probably got taped over long ago before being junked).....


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#37 by Mike B. In Va // Jun 30, 2022 - 5:17pm

In reply to by andrew

Beta was such a superior format. Sony, as usual, was just stupid about licensing.

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#39 by Independent George // Jun 30, 2022 - 5:29pm

Beta was not superior. You only had a 1 hour recording time per cassette, whereas VHS allowed 2 (or up to 6 if you went with lower quality settings). 

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#43 by andrew // Jun 30, 2022 - 9:58pm

Betamax had a sharper resolution, more lines per image.

I worked in the video editing industry in the 90s, betacam (not the same thing) was still a major player  in pro setups at that time.


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#70 by PackerPete // Jul 02, 2022 - 12:04pm

I had the entire Statis Pro 1973 teams. I set up a 32 game season for each team, had pitching rotations set, kept box scores for each game and tallied season stats for every player. I was a 14 year old kid just moved to a new area, lived in the countryside, knew no one, couldn't drive, loved baseball. I spent hours upon hours at a folding card table my folks let me keep my game on. 

The 1973 season featured the Braves and the first team with three teammates hitting 40+ homers: Hank Aaron, my alltime idol; Daryl Evans and Davey Johnson. Aaron's at bats were limited that year. He averaged one homer every 10 at bats, which made his player card a dinger time bomb! As he was my favorite player, I was always excited when the Braves came to play on my card table set up. 

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#24 by El Muneco // Jun 30, 2022 - 1:01pm

I never had a console, but even for the Commodore 64, "Computer Quarterback" was out in 1981 and "Super Bowl Sunday" in 1985, then 11-on-11 action game "4th and Inches" in 1987, a year before Madden.

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#28 by Jim C. // Jun 30, 2022 - 2:51pm

I first encountered APBA football as a middle-schooler in 1969, and it wasn't new then.  It's way older than any Nintendo product.

There was also APBA baseball and (believe it or not) APBA thoroughbred horse racing.

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#42 by coboney // Jun 30, 2022 - 7:17pm

In reply to by Jim C.

Nintendo started making Hanafuda cards in the 1890s, which predates the NFL in any way and I doubt APBA was doing stuff at that time.

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#2 by Independent George // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:02am

I think I'm a few years younger than Mike; for me, it was baseball, and the coke-fueled '86 Mets. I watched football, but didn't really get into it until the 90s, and didn't really become educated about it until... well, right around when FO started in the early 00's.

I remember reading Moneyball and learning about sabermetrics in college right when I was skating through my economics degree after washing out of biochemistry (because, like many young Asian students, I grew up in the belief that the only two professions that existed in the world were Doctor and Engineer). I was a newly-minted white collar worker learning the dangers a disposable income and no real responsibilities, while still being every bit as awkward with the fairer sex as my teenaged self.

I was working in the Sears Tower on 9/11, and remember evacuating and wondering about my brother working at the finance district in NYC; I didn't have a cell phone back then. A few months later, I watched one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played, just two years removed from another game that with a legitimate claim to that title. (Sandwiched in between was a humiliating loss for my beloved Giants). With my newfound love of football, an armload of statistical tools I was sure explained everything in the world, and the sense of invincibility that only anonymity and the caps-lock key can provide, I discovered a whole new world of sports commentary. 

These were the heady days of the Irrational Brady-vs-Manning debate and Catholic Match Girl. ROBO-PUNTER. And one weirdo who wrote a Watchmen homage into offseason football coverage.

Thank you, Mike.

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#4 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:09am

In reply to by Independent George

I'm probably around your age. (We do need to seriously revisit Robo-Punter at some point)

Like Tanier, I also remember barefoot kicking, ad hoc football, and the glories of a veer offense.

\I still sort of think Billy Beane came off as a colossal asshole and the moneyball teams haven't won a title within spending money like drunken pirates -- and hell, the Yankees could win that way.

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#10 by Independent George // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:24am

I think of Billy Beane as being like my college self - having learned one new thing that seemed so powerful, I became convinced that one new thing could do everything. In the mid/late 90s, he was one of the few people with the power to apply that in MLB, and it did give him an advantage. The problem is that, inevitably, there was absolutely nothing stopping the bigger, richer franchises from adopting the same analytics approach with a bigger budget. And after a while, it becomes analytics vs analytics, and you end up in the Grossman-Stiglitz paradox - everyone is hypercompetitive, but very few have a true advantage over anyone else, but a Jim Simon always emerges at the top, and everyone tries to emulate it.  

Today, my issue with the baseball analytics is that we've converged on the single most boring brand of baseball possible. Strkeout, walk, walk, strikeout, 3-run HR, strikeout is a very efficient offense, but it's also mind-numbingly boring to watch. Meanwhile in football, we seem to be converging on 'have an athletic QB hurry up to the line and chuck it', which is way more exciting than 3 yards & a cloud of dust. 

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#12 by KnotMe // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:39am

What counts as exciting in baseball?(Serious question)  I suppose the defence doesn't have to do much, but I'm not sure it really adds that much. It's a different style really. 

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#18 by KnotMe // Jun 30, 2022 - 12:42pm

Honestly, change balls to 3 and strikes to 2. People go to full count waaaay more than they used to, which is the issue.

Would reduce the need for pitching changes also. 

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#26 by Mike B. In Va // Jun 30, 2022 - 2:23pm

Pitch clock next year, which will help a lot. Banning the shift will also help - baseball doesn't have 10 years to adjust to an innovation like it used to, and watching endless ground balls to a guy who's standing right where the spray chart says he should really, really make the game boring, especially now that they killed the ball compared to last year. The three hitters rule has helped some with speeding things up, as has pitchcomm.

I don't know what to do about steals - it's a shame that part of the game has gone away. Limiting throw-overs really doesn't seem to be the answer.

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#55 by speaker42 // Jul 01, 2022 - 12:06pm

Really, to bring steals back, you most desperately need to limit home runs (the most productive of the Three True Outcomes).  To that end, springing back from the wacky ball is an important first step.  From there, I think the next logical step is to build bigger outfields and possibly add another outfielder.  [The endless ground balls to the well-positioned fielder might not make the game *exciting*, but they do make it faster.  I don't really buy into banning the shift - the way you combat the shift is by hitting differently.  That dates back to Wee Willie Keeler in the 19th century.]

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#56 by KnotMe // Jul 01, 2022 - 12:44pm

 Agree on HR's but I'm not sure what the change is, since most obvious changes would affect all hitting. (calling a HR a double would probably do it, since they already have the can't be caught bonus, but would mess with stats to much). Changing parks just isn't practical. (to much history). You might be able to swing really tall mesh or something. Hard to think of something that wouldn't affect the viewing experience till you get to star trek force fields.  Best I can think of is have a "virtual" fence height and machine fires a new ball back into the field for the fielder if a ball crosses the fence below that. You could kinda normalize park factors too via virtual fence height.   

While people have known how to combat the shift for a long time, it appears it isn't practical to teach batters to do it (i..e hitting is hard enough already).  You already see good hitters hit away from the shift when they really need a hit however but the general skill never seems to have migrated, I guess bc it's not practical to teach. 

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#57 by speaker42 // Jul 01, 2022 - 1:07pm

I think extending the height of the wall with some kind of rubberized mesh (so the fans can, you know, still see the game) might do it.  You'd still get towering home runs, but if bouncing the ball back into the field of play also allows for a catch on the fly, the risk/reward calculations change too.  As for the shift:  hitters who can take an inside-out approach do it.  Hitters who can't continue to justify their roster spots either by making the consequences of a miss pretty disastrous (dead-pull power --> home run) or by contributing in some other way (really good fielder).  Then it becomes a management choice as to who to play when.  Maybe you put in your professional spray hitter against a top-line pitcher, leave in the slugger against a more mistake-prone pitcher.  The fielding ace is probably not there for his hitting prowess in the first place.

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#61 by SandyRiver // Jul 01, 2022 - 2:14pm

So erect see-thru Green Monsters across MLB parks?  Unfortunately, that would hurt the line-drive hitters - the players less fixated on homers - far more than the TTO steep-uppercut batters, maybe not the desired effect.

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#65 by speaker42 // Jul 01, 2022 - 3:48pm

...and I disagree.  I think spray hitters are already putting the ball in play more.  Raising the walls should make it harder for the TTO steep-uppercut batters to clear them.  If you go all the way up (I am not advocating for this), there are no more home runs at all.  So, yes, it will depress home runs for everyone, and I think it will have the most impact on the players currently hitting the most home runs.

I like baseball anyway, even as it is now, but I agree with other posters who think something (read: 1980s St. Louis Cardinals baseball) is missing from the current landscape.  A high-OBP, high-speed, low-SLG team would be fun to watch.  But how do we stimulate such a renaissance?  I'm open to other ideas too.

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#66 by SandyRiver // Jul 01, 2022 - 5:29pm

As a Bosox fan I've seen (on TV, never been to the ballpark) numerous screaming LDs hit the top half of the Monster, ones that would clear the lower fences in most parks, but turned into doubles, even singles if LF grabbed the rebound cleanly.  A see-thru screen probably wouldn't allow high-speed ricochets so more 2B than 1B, but given the angles of descent, I think such a construct would keep a higher proportion of LDs from the seats than FBs.  In gross terms maybe not, as almost all batters hit more FBs than LDs.  Interesting thought, however.

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#67 by Independent George // Jul 01, 2022 - 5:35pm

In reply to by SandyRiver

I have images of blernsball in my head.

LEELA: "Face it, Fry. Baseball was as boring as Mom & apple pie. That's why they jazzed it up!"

FRY: "Boring? Baseball wasn't bo-. Huh. So they finally jazzed it up!"

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#69 by mrh // Jul 01, 2022 - 10:42pm

This is why the '14-15 Royals were so much fun to watch.  They put the ball in play and had generally good team speed that pressured defenses, whether stealing or taking extra bases.  They didn't walk much ('15 team was last in the league) or hit a lot of homers (2nd from last), so they were not a three-true-outcomes offense, but that made them less boring.  They had excellent defense, especially in the outfield, which led to a lot of exciting plays as well.  Their starting pitching was mediocre but they had a dominant bullpen.  Their stadium and budget dictated some of how they were built. 

Sadly, one of the two things that seem to have been learned from those teams was that being really bad for several years yielded a lot of high draft picks that can become the heart of a championship squad.  I don't think the Royals deliberately tanked to accomplish that (they were just badly run and very cheap), but it seems to have been a lesson drawn from those Royals (and other teams).

The other thing that was learned may have been coming anyhow - the importance of deep bullpens who throw hard.  Which has also not been a good thing in general.


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#13 by theslothook // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:40am

I remember reading a critique of moneyball, by an economist no less, who thoroughly disagreed with the primary thesis of the book.

He suggested all of The Oakland A's successes had little to do with sabermetrics and much more to do with the fact that they had unearthed a bunch of extremely talented players. That the Scott hattaberg story, while compelling, was all small potatoes.

I don't follow baseball but I am curious to know what others think

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#14 by KnotMe // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:43am

Well, that was part of it. By valuing things a bit differently it made it easier to find talented players.


Like all sports, drafting is super important bc only the Yankees could build a team of free agents. 

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#17 by theslothook // Jun 30, 2022 - 12:30pm

Ok, now I am strictly going off of the movie. So if this is all nonsense, I  am not going to take offense to it.

But, the implication there was the baseball scouts were so old fashioned that time had seriously passed them by and were letting ridiculous biases plague their processes.

However, it was implied in that critique that these same antiquated scouts were the one's who discovered all of these talented players that propelled the As. Going off of very vague memores - these included : Tejada. Mulder. Zito. Hudson. Chavez. And others that I am now forgetting. The first closer that won it for the Red Sox I believe was also an A. 

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#21 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 30, 2022 - 12:47pm

That was kind of the movie version.

What's interesting is that analytics has found itself just as deeply enamored with players of a specific kind as scouts were, and misses counterfactuals for the same reasons. Analytics is no better at predicting the guile guys than the scouts were.

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#19 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 30, 2022 - 12:44pm

The A's used analytics to unearth cheap guys who were undervalued. This was true. Their problem has been they can't afford to keep those guys long enough to win with them, because their owner pinches a penny down to the Planck scale. I can't find it in my heart to be sympathetic to a billionaire so cheap he can't keep his toilets from flooding the dugouts in shit.

But also, I found it deeply ironic that Beane spends the book making fun of the Tigers for drafting a HS pitcher high in the draft.

That guy was Justin Verlander. He'll be a first-ballot HOFer and ended the A's season twice, including this one.

That doesn't necessarily prove anything, but it served as an example of both Beane's dickish arrogance and why his shit doesn't work in the playoffs. A few acolytes have won titles, but they've almost universally done so with the biggest budget in baseball. If money is no object, brute force works too.

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#32 by Dave0 // Jun 30, 2022 - 3:27pm

haven't read the book in forever, but Verlander wasn't a high school pitcher when drafted, he went to Old Dominion.

Now the team that really deserves to be clowned on for that draft was the Padres, who took Matt Bush first.

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#44 by Spanosian Magn… // Jul 01, 2022 - 1:02am

Yes, that was Jeremy Bonderman, and technically the A's drafted him but quickly sent him to the Tigers. Not a Hall of Famer, but a pretty solid pitcher for awhile.

Oh god, Matt Bush... to be fairrrrrrr, at least to the talent evaluators, they like everyone thought Stephen Drew and Jered Weaver were the actual best talents in the draft (along with Jeff Niemann, who was also pretty good but constantly injured), but the owner straight-up told them he wouldn't pay as much as they wanted, so they intentionally over-drafted the hometown kid because he agreed to sign for less. Hey, it worked out for the Twins and Joe Mauer! Why not us?

*smash cut to Bush serving his three-year prison sentence*

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#63 by Dave0 // Jul 01, 2022 - 2:20pm

I liked how the Padres did end up getting Weaver, but it was after all major-league player usefulness had been squeezed out of him.

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#45 by David // Jul 01, 2022 - 8:45am

Beane spends the book making fun of the Tigers

Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, Billy Beane did not.

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#58 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jul 01, 2022 - 1:15pm

Lewis extensively interviews Beane. The book is practically a hagiography.

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#20 by El Muneco // Jun 30, 2022 - 12:47pm

Yes and no. Everyone latched on to "Moneyball == sabermetrics" which is less true than it sounds. What "moneyball" really was is "find good players who are systematically undervalued by the market as a whole". The key is using knowledge so that you're not competing with richer teams but getting your talent in through the side door. Analytics were a huge part of that for the Beane A's, but other teams (and not just baseball teams) have had a wide range of scouting/analytics mixes.

As for the specific criticism, it's somewhat valid in that the A's weren't able to sustain their initial successes over time (and in particular, they got pretty lucky early in the project with a number of pitchers who weren't specifically Moneyball players). However, in part this was because other teams started using their evaluation methods, so the systematic valuation gap began to dry up. Then they got kind of dogmatic about it and got outcompeted by other front offices that were more flexible.

To bring this back to football, you'll note that the last paragraph also is true about the Legion of Boom Seahawks.

ETA: As the other commenter says, this kind of strategy is a good way to build an average or better than average team, but it's real tough to build a champion because you're casting a wide net, so it takes time to get a championship-caliber team, by which time some of the gems you found early on have become too expensive. The real winners of the Moneyball era were the disciples who used analytics to inform their relatively conventional talent acquisition strategy, then married it with big contracts to the right players to take them over the top. Something Beane could never bring himself to do (partly due to ego and partly due to ownership).

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#29 by Jim C. // Jun 30, 2022 - 2:57pm

The book is highly entertaining, but the thesis is hooey.  Oakland's success was built on two things:

1.  They had dominant starting pitching, all of which they acquired based on 100-year-old scouting techniques; and

2.  Their roster was loaded with roiders.

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#38 by Mike B. In Va // Jun 30, 2022 - 5:21pm

They were correct about a couple of things:

1.) Walks are valuable as singles.

2.) HRs are more valuable than singles.

3.) With a great pitching staff, you can survive trading an All-Star young 1st Baseman for a sack of balls to prove a point.

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#40 by Independent George // Jun 30, 2022 - 5:49pm

4.) Saves are a terrible statistic.

5.) Strikeouts are largely irrelevant for hitters, but important for pitchers.

6.) Speed was, in general, overvalued, and stolen bases in particular mattered less than steal success rate (80% is the break-even point).

What's interesting is that as franchises started bidding up high OPS hitters, the value of speed and defense gradually became undervalued, and are (slowly) starting to come back into vogue (though nothing like in the past). And as steals became less relevant, catchers who could throw became less valuable, leading to higher steal rates (and more value) for fast players. I wonder if a similar equilibrium might happen to RBs in the future.   

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#50 by KnotMe // Jul 01, 2022 - 9:32am

The situation with RBs mirrors that of closers I think.  Teams realized you could fill the role with a group of cheaper players rather than a a single expensive star. 

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#68 by Independent George // Jul 01, 2022 - 8:23pm

The thing about closers is that they are important; it's just that you don't need them to close, and saves are about as useful a statistic as rushing TDs. If you've got the heart of the lineup set to bat in the 7th with a 1-run lead, that's the time to bring in your best relief pitcher, not to pray your exhausted starter holds out a little while longer so you that your closer can notch a save in the 9th. 

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#73 by beargoggles // Jul 05, 2022 - 5:47pm

Interestingly after “moneyball” principles became more widespread, Beane turned to defense as an advantage and got some mileage out of it. It was never that he didn’t think it mattered, it’s just that it took the metrics a while to catch up to offensive ones (probably they never did). I assume that advantage also dried up eventually as well. 

FYI, the movie caricatures about scouts aren’t really to be taken seriously. (Not directed at you).

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#71 by PackerPete // Jul 02, 2022 - 12:13pm

I was a huge baseball fan as a kid and an avid fan until Robin Yount retired. Nowadays, I don't know the slightest thing about all the acronym stats that show on the TV screen and I don't have the slightest interest to learn it. One stat I did hear was that last season (I think) balls were put into play an average of once every 4.1 minutes. Not hard to understand why so many people have lost interest in baseball.

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#11 by theslothook // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:34am

In reply to by Independent George

"Because, like many young Asian students, I grew up in the belief that the only two professions that existed in the world were Doctor and Engineer"

Where is Lawyer on that list??? 

Incidentally, my mom from day 1 basically told me, you aren't cut out for medicine, do something else. I suppose it's hard to argue when a doctor is the one who says that. 

Of course, then my father who is an engineer tells me do whatever but man engineering sucks...which left me choosing econ. Not that I regret it one bit, but I can confirm that other families do try to herd their kids into these kinds of careers.

I remember Tanier had a great line that I subsequently stole. Going off memory, he was like, " The media would have you believe there are two kinds of quarterbacks. SB gods and pond scum". I think these parents have a similar bifurcated view of careers.

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#16 by Independent George // Jun 30, 2022 - 12:06pm

To be fair, in the old country, doctor & engineer were two career paths where merit trumped familial clout. Not so much for lawyer. 

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#48 by SandyRiver // Jul 01, 2022 - 9:22am

My parents didn't hold that view but we college prep tracked early-60s HS snobs certainly did - only selected white-collar fields were deemed acceptable.  Forestry school was for kids not smart enough to get into a good college.  It took a long time for that elitism to be overcome, such that gaining my 4-year degree took 11 years, but after that came 46 years of looking forward to every day's work as a forester, until my knees began to break down and I retired last July, a few months after turning 75.

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#52 by Will Allen // Jul 01, 2022 - 10:17am

In reply to by Independent George

I watched less football from 81-83 than I did in any two or three year period from '69 until the pandemic. Finished high school, didn't feel like going to college immediately, had some cash (if there are DVOA pieces for '78-'80, that'll jog some interesting memories), always had a desire to see the wider world, so I took off. Ended up in Bangkok in the fall of '81, and was able to catch a few games by video tape. Knocked around SE Asia for some time, encountering colorful characters, ended up in the Middle East. More colorful characters. Always bought the International Herald Tribune to get box scores. Eventually began to be less entertained by colorful characters, and made it back to Minnesota full time, just in time, to enjoy the brief but perversely entertaining Les Steckel Era. Ya' get busy with life, turn around, and 4 decades have gone by!


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#60 by Vincent Verhei // Jul 01, 2022 - 2:10pm

And then one day you find

Ten years have got behind you

No one told you when to run

You missed the starting gun

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#72 by Atul Thakker // Jul 02, 2022 - 3:15pm

Remember feeling down in 1976 about the fourth Super Bowl loss, but never imagined the drought would continue till now!

Now I think even if the Vikings win the Super Bowl, I really just wanted the 1970s core players to win and that time is long gone.

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#6 by KnotMe // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:15am

I remember developing a new appreciation of line play playing Blood Bowl in the 90s, got to the (Super)Blood Bowl using an ork team that just pushed everyone(it's only kinda football like, but lines and space are pretty important however) . Funny how games feed your appreciation. 

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#62 by Vincent Verhei // Jul 01, 2022 - 2:16pm

Huge Blood Bowl fan, and wish I had more time to play it. I still draw comparisons between that and the NFL. The Legion of Boom Seahawks were a Dark Elf team with a star player Halfling thrower; the current Seahawks are Dwarves (very big, but very short: The current Buccaneers are High Elves. The Ravens are Skaven (convenient, with the rhyming). The Browns are Orcs.

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#8 by Travis // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:20am

Fantasy sports were a strange hobby for some New York columnists.

A bare-bones version of fantasy football predated Rotisserie Baseball.

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#9 by theslothook // Jun 30, 2022 - 11:23am

This reads a bit like stranger things with football replacing DND.

I think football innovations are naturally conservative and slow moving. A discussion in the prior thread opined how teams could be so careless with turnovers considering just how much they impact the game. It would seem this is a pretty low-hanging fruit problem and you would do all you can to address it. 

But doing it is slow moving. You might be of the mindset that forcing a 0 fumble policy implies hesitant/inferior running backs seeing the field and lots of 1 yard runs.

Mike says the game we see today was born in the mid-90s. I watched an old Packers 49ers playoff game( the famous Owens game). Even the formations there don't look like the ones today.

You can rewatch a typical NFL team in the mid-2000s and it probably looks differently than I typical team in today's NFL.



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#22 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 30, 2022 - 12:50pm

In a lot of football history, teams got the performance they could buy in exchange for part-time laborers and zero medical care.

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#46 by David // Jul 01, 2022 - 8:47am

 A discussion in the prior thread opined how teams could be so careless with turnovers considering just how much they impact the game. It would seem this is a pretty low-hanging fruit problem and you would do all you can to address it.

I didn't see this thread, but I strongly disagree (and agree with your comment) - a certain level of turnovers is good - if you're below that level, you're not maximising your opportunities/taking enough risks

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#49 by KnotMe // Jul 01, 2022 - 9:28am

Is that really true however? And what is the certain level? Ints and fumbles are the main turnovers and they are somewhat avoidable with skill. 

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#23 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 30, 2022 - 12:55pm

I have to admit to being impressed by AFPA's mechanics.

\what was Harrison's THAC0?

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#25 by JoelBarlow // Jun 30, 2022 - 2:19pm

I swear that even as a kid this never made sense to me

But it was weirdly widespread even for cold weather kickers

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#27 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 30, 2022 - 2:27pm

It made sense in era where no one made shoes designed to kick with.

Soccer was a niche sport played by euro weenies and adoring ex-pats.

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#51 by Will Allen // Jul 01, 2022 - 9:33am

The Chiefs obtained a huge edge in 1967 when the added Jan Stenerud, and entered the modern kicking era a good 10-15 years sooner than some other teams.

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#59 by SandyRiver // Jul 01, 2022 - 2:00pm

Pete Gogolak started the change 3 years earlier in Buffalo.  The Bills won the AFL championship in both of his years there, though the team was so dominant then that placekicking was a minor facet.  Then he jumped to the NYG in 1966, but they were so awful that year (1-12-1, the franchise's worst season) that Pete's kicking again had limited impact.

The lone Giants win was a 13-10 squeaker over Washington at the stadium.  Six weeks later at home, Washington missed tying the Bears for the most points in a game due to a missed PAT on their 1st TD, winning 72-41.  At least the two-team scoring set the record.  The Giants also lost 55-14 to the Rams in a game that wasn't as close as the score.  LA marched up and down the field at will - I think their 38 FDs is still the record - paused only when Olympic sprinter Henry Carr nabbed a Gabrial pass and went 101 yards to make the score 14-7.  NY allowed 501 points that season, tops for a 14-game season and the 35.8 ppg may also be the standard.

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#30 by Jim C. // Jun 30, 2022 - 3:05pm

I played a lot of APBA in the 1969-71 period.  As I recall, there were two great cheat codes with the games from that era:

1.  As Tanier suggests, APBA greatly rewards big plays.  So grab a big-armed qb (I remember Daryle Lamonica and Roman Gabriel being best for this), and then call a Long Pass on Every. Single. Play.

2.  As Tanier also suggests, APBA does not take sample size much into account.  So Calvin Hill's 1969 card reflected the fact that he went 3 for 3 passing for 137 yards and two touchdowns.  If you had Hill's 1969 APBA card on your team, calling halfback option passes was a really good idea until your buddies caught on and refused to let you do it.

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#31 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 30, 2022 - 3:19pm

In reply to by Jim C.

Admittedly, spamming the same play and throwing bombs on 4th-25 works in Madden, too.

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#33 by Emmett Creed // Jun 30, 2022 - 4:02pm

I love this, Mike--great work.  Note: It was the Orange Bowl (RIP), not Joe Robbie Stadium.

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#35 by andrew // Jun 30, 2022 - 4:21pm

How can any 1980s discussion of barefoot kickers not even mention the other great barefoot kicker, Rich Karlis, who once went 7 for 7 on field goals in a game.....



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#41 by Peregrine // Jun 30, 2022 - 6:14pm

Thanks from a Falcons fan (since the 70s) for giving some love to William Andrews, a heck of a player whose career was cut short by injury.  I remember him as being a relatively big back with decent speed, tough to tackle, and a good receiver, which was a pretty rare combo in those days and even now.  Looking through the 2021 RB stats for more modern players, I think Andrews might be compared to some combo of Leonard Fournette or Nick Chubb, or maybe - going back further - an early career Todd Gurley or Marshawn Lynch, but maybe memory plays tricks on me.

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#47 by RamsFan78 // Jul 01, 2022 - 9:12am

One thing I love about you going back and doing DVOA for older seasons is it helps pressure test my memory of those years. I was 10-11 years old during the '81 and '82 seasons and had been in love with the game for a few years by then. One thing I have always thought is that, for example, William Andrews is an underappreciated all-time RB. He's not at the top of any career rushing lists but from 1979-1983 there are only a handful of RBs you can rank ahead of him. This validates that. It's too bad his 1984 knee injury basically ended his career vs. being a 9-month injury the way it would be today.

Also reminded, as a Rams fan, just how truly awful Dan Pastorini was in 1981...

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#53 by OmahaChiefs13 // Jul 01, 2022 - 11:10am

This kind of article....where Tanier parallels a real-life series of related vignettes against a football background, where Tanier's writing really is at its best.

He did it with a Walkthrough detailing his first COVID year (...yes, I just said "first" COVID year; let's all collectively lament) in parallel with the league year, and it was as effective there as it was here.

They're probably not the absolute best of his analytical game, but they're absolutely his best work from a perspective of pure writing.

Thanks Mike...that was a great read. 

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#54 by theslothook // Jul 01, 2022 - 11:22am

Mike's Chargers wine article is my favorite of his, at least of the FO hosted content.

Rivaling that one is his all Dan Snyder Redskins team. He was practically a stand-up comic with that one.

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#64 by Akim // Jul 01, 2022 - 2:31pm

Nice piece.  Shades of Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods blog/book.

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#74 by CHIP72 // Jul 08, 2022 - 3:51pm

I'm glad that Football Outsiders was able to get DVOA figures back to 1981, because 1981 was the first season I really followed the NFL.  Thinking back to those long ago days brings back some hazy memories, like going outside, tossing around a football and talking out loud to myself the Eagles would still be alright after they lost to the Vikings after a 6-0 season start, seemingly seeing the Air Coryell Chargers in many 4 PM ET games on NBC (and often hearing the dulcet tones of the late Charlie Jones, who will always be one of my favorite play-by-play announcers), and following the emergence of an upstart 49ers team that had a quarterback with a state as a last name (and making me wonder if Joe Montana had family of some sort in Montana, even if he was, like me, from Pennsylvania).

I also remember switching back and forth between CBS and NBC to get Jimmy The Greek's (Jimmy Snyder) and the Ax's (Pete Axthelm) game picks, not grasping their picks were oriented towards gamblers.  It seems strange in retrospect that CBS' and NBC's pregame shows were only 30 minutes long.  (On a related note, until my dying day I'll always think the job Brent Musberger excelled in most in his career was hosting NFL Today on CBS; the CBS pregame show always seemed a little better than the NBC show, though that may be due to the fact I lived in and followed a team in an NFC market.)

The talk about Tony Franklin also brings a smile to my face.  I think if you were an Eagles fan and/or lived in the Philadelphia TV market at the time (yes to both questions for me personally), you were obligated to try kicking barefoot at least a few times.  I usually used a Nerf football though because I didn't want to hurt my toes too much.  The fad of barefoot kickers (there were others besides Franklin) seems really odd in retrospect; its "time" was over before the 1980s had ended and that trend has never had a resurgence.

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#75 by t.d. // Jul 09, 2022 - 7:08pm

good old Street & Smiths, brings back memories; the most memorable lede I remember from one of their previews was about the 1985 Colt first round selection Duane Bickett, how he was deeply troubled, and what was the source of personal anguish/tragedy?  That he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts  and Tiger Irsay- was shocked that they'd be that openly critical of an owner

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