Saturday, July 31, 2010
When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced plans for possibly expanding the regular season to 18 games, several experts said the change was on the horizon years ago. Not only does it increase revenue, but it may draw even more fans in the long run.
Extending the schedule of the regular season is nothing new for the NFL. Since 1922, the regular season went from 11 to 12 games in 1935, then to 14 games in 1961, to the current 16 game schedule in 1978. The 32 year gap now represents the longest time the league has gone without adding more games.
One of many problems in the Goodell plan is his wanting to shorten training camps and exhibition seasons. Though seasons will now run well into February under an 18 game schematic, the loss of training camp time could greatly hinder the league in both fundamentals and character.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is supposed to represent the greatest player to have ever stepped on the gridiron. Many men in those hallowed walls played for the NFL, and many made the league via their play in a training camp. Coming from virtually nowhere, their names are now as prevalent as the pads, goalposts, and football itself.
In 1955, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut their ninth round draft pick in training camp. The young man hitchhiked home to save the few dollars he had earned for his family. He worked construction and played weekend semi-pro football the rest of the year.
He joined the Baltimore Colts in their 1956 training camp and made the team. Eventually he won three championships and went to the Pro Bowl ten times. Johnny Unitas, a man many consider the greatest quarterback in football history, may not have achieved all of this success without a real training camp to participate in.
Dick "Night Train" Lane is widely considered one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history. He made the Lo Angeles Rams in 1952 as a 24-year old man who just left a job at a factory and decided to try football. He hadn't played the sport since he was in junior college for one season over five years earlier.
He wanted to play wide receiver, but the Rams already had future Hall of Famers Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch and Tom Fears there. The Rams moved him to cornerback and he intercepted 14 passes that year. Not only is it a rookie record, but it is the most in the history of professional football for one season.
Though Lane was a notoriously hard hitter, and expert of the horse collar tackle, he finished with 68 interceptions and seven Pro Bowls in his Hall of Fame career. A career that probably would not have been enjoyed by millions if he had to participate in the shortened version of the Goodell training camp.
One lamentation of the NFL historian is the erosion of fundamentals the last decade. More players lead with their heads, going for the kill shot. With defenses castrated by runs heavily favoring the offensive side of the ball, the kill shot has become more part of the game than the zone defense.
Defenses also lean heavily on the zone defense because of the receivers allowed to run virtually unimpeded off the line of scrimmage and few cornerbacks left have solid enough fundamentals to play man to man defense.
Part of the reason is that the NCAA has drastically cut practice time down each week. Players get less time to learn their positions, which is evident in translation on the professional gridiron. Agents cal also keep many players from jumping right in as they negotiate contracts, which also inhibits the learning curve.
Goodell's plan to shorten training camps puts a hindrance on the unknown. Teams will more likely keep the high round draft choice over the undrafted player who outperforms him because of moneys invested. That means there will be several excellent players looking for jobs.
This type of development bodes well for the Canadian Football League, United Football League, and even the upstart All-American Football League that looks to debut in 2011. Though there are no guarantees a Unitas, Lane, or countless other players with similar stories, will come out in the next few years. However, each decade there are players who appear from off the grid to make a significant impact on the game.
You will probably see less of these, the All-American kid from parts unknown walking onto any NFL field and becoming a legendary part of the fabric of a game millions consider a religion. Greed over quality. This what the NFL has been known for the past few decades. It seems is it Goodell's mission to drive that message home into the wallets of the viewers while offering less as a return.
Friday, July 23, 2010
The 2009 Washington Redskins season was not just hampered by an injury bug that often revels on numerous rosters each year, having a fan expect it to be wearing a jersey of its own. The offensive line was a weak point of the roster from opening day, and it only eroded daily as injuries took away some of the players most considered the top tier talent of the unit.
Gone is perennial Pro Bowler Chris Samuels, who retired because of a spine injury suffered in the fifth game last year that left an enormous void at the left tackle position. The man who replaced him for eight games, veteran Levi Jones, is no longer with the team as well.
Right guard Randy Thomas has suited up for just five games in three years, so the teams parted ways with the 11-year veteran as well. Mike Williams, who started eight games as a replacement for Thomas, reportedly has blood clots near his heart and may sit out the entire 2010 season.
Center Casey Rabach enters his tenth season and will be 34 years old in September. His contract expires as seasons end, so he may be playing his last year with the team. He has missed one game in his five years with the team, though his level of play seems to lessen each year.
Washington has a few prospects lined up to take over. Edwin Williams is a local player who made the team as a free agent rookie last year, and started two of the three games he played at guard. He performed quite well at a position he had not played since his freshman year at Maryland University. If he makes the team, as expected, he could very well be Rabach's replacement.
Will Montgomery is a four-year veteran also fighting for a roster spot as both a center and guard. He is on his third team, but he did start three games for the Redskins last year. Erik Cook is a 6'6" center who was voted the Most Valuable Player by his teammates at New Mexico University last year. He was drafted in the seventh round and will learn how to play guard as well.
Though Washington appears to have no proven quality depth at this position, veteran offensive line coach Chris Foerster will be called upon to up the youngsters abilities. Forester, who previously was an offensive line coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens, and San Francisco 49ers, is replacing the legendary Joe "Boss Hog" Bugel and has just as big a job before him as Bugel did in 2009.
The redskins finished 26th in offense during the 2009 NFL season. They also finished 28th in takeaway/ giveaway ratio. The offensive line was often seen collapsing on each play, sending Redskins quarterbacks scrambling for their lives and running backs hobbling to the sidelines injured.
First year general manager Bruce Allen not only drafted Cook, but he picked up a few veterans off of free agency and trades to attempt to bolster the unit. Artis Hicks has spent most of his seven NFL seasons as a reserve with the ability to play guard or tackle. He now will be handed a starting job for the first time in his career.
Jammal Brown is a 29-year old left tackle who has gone to two Pro Bowls in his four years in the league. He also was a member of the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl XLIV winning team. His acquisition was a tremendous get for Allen and the Redskins.
Right tackle has been manned mostly by Stephon Heyer the past few years, though 2009 was the first time he played all 16 games. Washington drafted Trent Williams in the first round of the 2010 draft to play the position. This position appears unsettled for now because the rookie can be expected to have the typical growing pains as he learns his position.
Left guard also seems set with eight year veteran Derrick Dockery. Men like Chad Rinehart, Kory Lichtensteiger, Selvish Capers, William Robinson, and Clint Oldenberg will also battle for roster spots. None have more than two years of experience, so injuries could leave the team with as many question marks as they had last year.
The Redskins do not want to have another 4-12 finish like 2009, so they picked up veterans like Donovan McNabb, Willie Parker, Larry Johnson, Joey Galloway, Bobby Wade, Roydell Williams, and Mike Furrey. Most of these veterans are not quite as explosive as they once were, so they will needed added seconds to show what they have left.
This is where the offensive line comes under the glare of the spotlight. Though Washington appears to have an idea what to expect from most players, as far as production goes, the unknown entity of the blocking unit has to leave some nerves unsettled for the brand new coaching staff.
Many prognosticators are picking the Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC East in 2010. The Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants are also very strong teams in the division, both capable of winning it all. They all have very good defenses that will test the Redskins offensive line at least six times this year.
The unit has very good proven players in Brown and Dockery, but questions everywhere else. Getting solid seasons from Rabach, Hicks, and Williams is needed if they want to create holes for a group of running backs most critics call ancient and on their last legs. The ground game that is needed to survive a season in the NFC East.
If they can get adequate play from the group, Washington's hopes for competing in their division and beyond will appear more feasible. Though several pieces in their puzzle must fall into place for this to be a reality, it all appears to start in the trenches.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Some of the most legendary teams in NFL history usually have a running back or two that still serves as a prominent face of a franchise that transcended into a dynasty.
The Bears had men like Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, George "One Play" McAfee, and Walter Payton lead them to championships. The Green Bay Packers had Johnny "Blood" McNally, Jim Taylor, and Paul Hornung help them to several championships. The Miami Dolphins had Larry Csonka and the Pittsburgh Steelers had Franco Harris. The Washington Redskins had Cliff Battles and John Riggins, and the Dallas Cowboys had Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith while the Cleveland Browns had Marion Motley and Jim Brown.
These teams have fielded some of the most dominant teams in league history, and each one of the running backs that helped them attain that level are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Legendary players who would put their teams on their backs and run through opponents to garner the trophy that symbolized champion. A lore left by these men have made the NFL billions of dollars and helped them infiltrate the fabric of so many homes and countries.
In 1989, Paul Tagliabue was named the commissioner of the league. He took over a league that was leaving its roots behind on their way to a new way the game would be played. Tagliabue was a basketball playing lawyer with no football experience, and he quickened the games changes to resemble a fast break in pads. His successor, Roger Goodell, took over in 2006 and has kept the ball rolling.
Gone is the game played in sporadic conditions in favor of a hospital clean environment to draw in corporate sponsorship to buy luxury seating. Gone are the blockers with folded arms akin to a chicken wing to where they can extend their arms and hold every play. Gone is a defense now castrated by several rules that make it virtually impossible to play the game.
It is the quarterbacks game now. The golden child of the NFL and the darling of the media. Fans have been easily programmed to accept these changes as progress, while historians of the game lament the loss of testosterone in favor of a casual fan friendly sell out job. As the quarterback rears back to throw unimpeded, defenders are told not to hit him too high, low, or hard. Putting all of ones weight on the quarterback is also not allowed anymore.
A defender, running full speed with a 320-pound blocker holding on and mauling him, must take these rules into consideration and try to pull up without ripping muscles as they reach the quarterback. With rules like this, teams are more apt to pass against teams that never play man to man or try bump and run pass coverage anymore. They choose to get picked apart in zone coverage while waiting for a mistake.
The running back has had no rules affect his position because it is too pure and the only way to tamper with it is to change the rules of the other players surrounding the position. This is what has happened, as only 14 teams had running backs gain over 1,000 yards in 2009. The two teams that represented the NFL in Super Bowl XLIV were pass happy squads led by Pro Bowl quarterbacks.
The New Orleans Saints won the game while getting just 1,447 rushing yards from Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, while the losing Indianapolis Colts were led in rushing by Joseph Addai's 828 yards. This has been a recurring theme since 2002, where four teams won titles with running backs that failed to gain over 791 yards in a season. Two other Super Bowl winners since then had running backs that gained 1,081 and 1,009 respectively.
Gaining 1,000 yards in a season is not quite the achievement it used to be. In the current 16 game format, a running back only needs to average just 62.5 yards to reach the barrier. Hardly worthy of entry into the hallowed walls of Canton. If Goodell foolishly gets his greedy way of cutting training camps and extending the season to 18 games, a running back will only need to rumble for 55.6 yards a game to get over 1,000 yards.
Chris Johnson, of the Tennessee Titans, ran for 2006 yards in 2009. He is only the sixth man in professional football history to run for over 2,000 yards, but four other men achieved this in a 16 game season like Johnson did. Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson heads the list, gaining 131.6 yards per game in 1984 that is only the fourth best in league history.
O.J. Simpson ran for an astonishing 2,003 yards in 1973 on a Buffalo Bills team where opponents knew he was the only one getting the ball. He still gathered a record 143.1 yards per game. It is ten yards better than the next man on the list, fellow Hall of Famer Jim Brown of the 1963 Browns. A debate over comparisons of Simpson's and Dickerson's seasons is akin to the Babe Ruth and Roger Maris situation in 1961.
That year saw Maris break Ruth's 34-year old record of 60 home runs by one. He did it with a batting average 87 points less than Ruth's 1927 season in a year two expansion teams joined the league and the season was increased by eight games. Many baseball fans asked for an asterisk to be placed by Maris' record, to show the discrepancy in games played.
Many NFL fans clamored for the same thing when Dickerson passed Simpson with two more games played that was needed to achieve the record. No running back has yet surpassed or come close to 2003 yards in 14 games.
Other football purists noted blockers for Dickerson were allowed to extend their arms and hold each play, while Simpson played in an era where defenses could head slap, clothesline, and horse collar while blockers could only have their arms tucked in like chicken wings to try to block.
Other than the 1,635 yards that Corey Dillon gained for the 2004 champion New England Patriots, there has not been a Super Bowl winner since 1998 to have a running back average over a hundred yards per game. Terrell Davis led the Denver Broncos to victory that year, becoming one of the six men to get over 2,000 yards by eight yards.
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens had both Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes carry the ball to a title. Lewis, who gained 1,364 yards that year, would run for 2,066 in his his only Pro Bowl year in 2003. Holmes, who chipped in 588 yards, moved to the Kansas City Chiefs in2001 and became a three time Pro Bowl star. After leading the league in rushing that year, he scored 48 touchdowns off of 3,035 yards the next two seasons before an injury halted his career in the eight game in 2004 after getting 892 yards.
Terrell Davis is the only 2,000 yard running back that got a ring in his magical season. In the top-20 rushing seasons in NFL history, only Davis won a championship. Two others on the list, Shaun Alexander and Jamal Anderson, led their teams to the title game but lost. These numbers were all achieved since 1998, showing the old formula of a solid ground game with ball control consuming the clock is no longer the way to win in the NFL.
Most teams now are going with the idea at least two running backs are needed to be effective to have a winning season. While six running backs had over 300 carries in 2009, Johnson's league best 358 carries places as only the 44th most in league history. While he averaged just over 22 carries a game, many experts theorize the day of the cow bell running back is coming to an end in an era of specialists.
While gaining 1,000 yards might not be the achievement it used to be, nor needed to win Super Bowls in the modern NFL, they still hold an important historic place. Men like Simpson, Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell, Curtis Martin, Dickerson, Thurman Thomas, and LaDanian Tomlinson are just a few of the most respected running backs in football history, none have won championships and only Thomas and Martin played in a championship game.
Get used to the Goodell game, which is pass oriented with frightened defenders walking on eggshells spooked at the thought of fines and suspensions from a tyrannical commissioner whose regime borderlines on a fascism. Less cold and mud with more points scored, just as the Tagliabue blueprint was drawn up and followed through diligently by his lackey. Get used to a game where the thousand yard warhorse has been put out to pasture.
Friday, July 9, 2010
After clearing the vomit from my mouth after the sociopathic narcissistic "press conference" ESPN held to promote LeBron James, I felt it important to throw the city of Cleveland some love. Not only because it is tiresome watching ESPN attempt to shove their anointed heroes down our throats in hope of cashing in on faux reverence, but because Cavalier fans need only look back to 1980 and owner Ted Stepien to get a smile of chagrin.
Stepien tried to buy a winner, traded away first-round draft picks back to back years that led the NBA into implementing the "Stepien Rule" that disallows teams to trade away first round picks in consecutive seasons. The moves failed so badly, fans renamed the team the "Cadavers". They can now hope the same fate for the Miami Heat.
Let us remember some great memories in Cleveland professional football history, perhaps pro footballs first great dynasty. Arthur McBride partially made his fortune in the taxicab industry. After an unsuccessful attempt to buy the Cleveland Rams in the NFL, he joined the fledgling All-American Football Conference and established the Browns in Cleveland.
His first move was to hire Paul Brown as the head coach and general manager, naming the team after him, as McBride handled the financial aspects. He would keep injured players on the payroll by saying they drove his taxicabs, thus the "taxi squad" was invented. The team dominated the AAFC, winning the leagues championship each of the four years the league existed.
After the AAFC folded in 1949, they moved to the NFL and immediately won the 1950 championship. The Browns continued win championships in 1954, 1955, and 1964. They also reached the championship games from 1951 to 1953, but lost.
The last title winning team was led by Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest football player ever. Each team was coached by Paul Brown, with the exception of the '64 squad, and many consider him the greatest coach in football history. It adds to the lore of the franchise that the faces of the franchise were named Brown.
The Rams had some success themselves, being founded in Cleveland in 1936. They stayed until 1945, winning the championship that year while led by Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield. The team did not play in 1943, due to a shortage of players because of World War II. They were the first NFL team to suspend operations without merging with another team, and the only other team in NFL history to do this was the Browns after owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore in 1996. The Rams moved to Los Angeles after the 1945 title season.
Sixteen men who primarily played with the Browns are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the fourth largest total for a franchise in NFL history. Five more members also wore Brown jerseys for a short time. The Cleveland Rams have two members enshrined.
Here are a few of the legends:
Paul Brown, Coach, Browns 1946 - 1962
Otto Graham, Quarterback, Browns 1946 - 1955
Marion Motley, Fullback, Browns 1946 - 1953
Lou "The Toe" Groza, Kicker/ Tackle, Browns 1946 - 59, 1961 - 67
Dante Lavelli, End, 1946 - 1956
Bill Willis, Guard, Browns 1946 - 1953
Frank Gatski, Center, Browns 1946 - 1956
Len Ford, End, Browns 1950 - 1957
Mike McCormick, Tackle, 1954 - 1962
Jim Brown, Fullback, Browns 1957 - 1965
Gene Hickerson, Guard, Browns 1958 - 60, 1962 - 73
Leroy Kelly, Halfback, Browns 1964 - 1973
Paul Warfield, Receiver, Browns 1964 - 69, 1976-77
Ozzie Newsome, Tight End, Browns 1978 - 1990
Dan Reeves, Owner, Rams 1941 - 1971
Bob Waterfield, Quarterback, Rams 1945 - 1952
Basketball season is over, as is the era of Lebron James in Cleveland. Football is the main game in town anyways. Not just because of the hugely successful Ohio State University dominating college football for decades, but for the Cleveland Browns helping the NFL attain their riches of today.
From the AAFC and the Paul Brown Era, to the Jim Brown Era, to the Kardiac Kids, to the new Browns trying to achieve a winning program today, the Dawg Pound is as vivacious as ever. Now that Mike Holmgren has come into town, fans are optimistic the team can revive a team stagnate in mediocrity since the late 1980's.
Time moves on, as will the memory of the betrayal of James as he "takes his talents elsewhere" instead of having the heart to attempt to build his own legacy. An image tarnished forever for the perceived easy way out. Now is the time to buckle up the proverbial chin strap, get ready for some football, and hold dearly onto the memories of the truly great Cleveland legends.
Paul and Jim Brown, Otto Graham, Bob Feller, the list is long of legends yet those are the biggest names of all time for the area in the game of football. The NFL could pay better tribute by allowing the city to host a Super Bowl. Cleveland is the only NFL city to neither host a Super Bowl game nor appear in one. With the loss of the ESPN icon, perhaps the blow can be softened by the NFL? Even if neither happens, it is a city rich in tradition one certainly can hold with pride.