The Greatest Weekend Ever

The NFL finally did itself proud. After a six-month miasma of malaise, mistakes and mishaps, it had a divisional playoff for the ages. The old guard, Ryan, Brady, Brees, and Ben, challenged the new, Bortles, Keenum, Mariota and Foles, and the results were magnificent.

No game could match the Minnesota Vikings nipping the New Orleans Saints at the gun on a 61-yard miracle throw during which the only player who might’ve stopped it made a decision to not attempt a tackle for fear of interference being called. Because games cannot end on a defensive penalty, had one been called, such penalty would’ve allowed the Vikings to line up and kick a chip shot field goal for the win. The Saints player was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. I’ll cut him some slack on that one.

Nobody could’ve asked for more than the Steelers’ Ben Roethelsberger gave in trying to atone for an early season loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in which he was picked off five times. In another “the last team to have the ball wins,” Ben threw for an unbelievable 468 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-42 thriller. But, inexplicably in a game where the Steelers were playing catch-up all game after falling behind 21-0, when two fourth-and-one situations in Jaguar territory screamed for the 6’5″, 250 pound Ben to quarterback sneak, he did not. (Ben is 18 for 19 successful on fourth down sneaks in his career.) Those two failed moments will gnaw in the craw of the Steeler faithful for a very long time.

In wind-whipped Philadelphia, the Eagles’ Jake Elliott kicked three field goals, none more important than the last-second, first-half, fifty-three yarder that brought Philadelphia within one going into the locker room. Nothing gives a team more momentum than scoring just before the half. Quarterback Nick Foles, a fighter if ever there’s been one, kept Philly alive with two superb long second-half drives, one with the wind and one against it. Atlanta, with Matt Ryan finding Julio Jones time and again, stayed close. In the final minute, the Falcons had the ball at the Eagles nine, first-and-goal, down 15-1. After moving to the two on fourth down, Ryan called a rollout right, looking for the tall and lithe Jones against a defender six-inches shorter. Jones slipped making a sideline cut in the end zone and fell down. The defender, as is his right once the receiver falls down. held him down for a second as Jones desperately tried to rise for the catch. Failing to regain his full balance, Jones was unable to grab Ryan’s pass as it flew through his open arms. After blowing a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons are going to spend another off-season in deep soul searching.

After giving up an early score to the Tennessee Titans, New England dispatched them with their general error free football, en route to an impressive 35-14 win and must be considered a prohibitive favorite against the Jaguars.

But, then again after last week, anything can happen.

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Wildcard Weekend

Kids playing defense learn in junior high school to bat down long fourth down passes so your offense takes the ball back at the previous line of scrimmage. A Carolina defensive back forgot that dictum in the Panthers’ wild card game with the Saints and caused his team to lose. New Orleans had fourth and two at their own forty-eight when they inexplicably chose to go for it with two minutes left, leading by 31-26. Their dynamic rushing duo of Kamara and Ingram had been held in check all game. Drew Brees tried a false count that didn’t work and then rolled out to complete a pass for a first down and the win, Carolina being out of timeouts. The defensive back 20 yards downfield picked it off and ran out of bounds at his own 32. Newton then brings his team all the way to the Saints 18-yard line when the drive runs out of steam and dies. That 20 yards lost  by the Panther blunder made all the difference in the world.

Marcus Mariota threw a touchdown pass to himself in leading the Titans to a win over the Chiefs. As strange and flukey as that pass was, what really endeared him to his teammates was a block he threw downfield after handing off to the ball carrier and leading the way around left end. You never see ten guys mob a quarterback for throwing a block. It’s clear Mariota is the true leader of that team. That block got the first down near the game’s end and sent poor Kansas City to its sixth straight postseason defeat.

If Brady isn’t the NFL MVP, Todd Gurley is. But this past weekend, Atlanta did a tune on Gurley, holding him in check as the Falcons beat the LA Rams, 26-13, to advance. Matt Ryan did a good job staying late in the pocket, completing one key pass after another. It doesn’t hurt Ryan that he has the fabulous (what other word fits?) Julio Jones on the receiving end of his throws. Jones is to Atlanta what Calvin Johnson was to the Lions a few years ago. After blowing that 28-3 lead to New England in last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons were determined not to repeat it. A last second field goal by LA at the half cut the margin to 13-10 but the Falcons responded with a back breaking nine-minute drive to start the second half to put the game away.

In what can only be described as an ugly football game, Jacksonville beat Buffalo,10-3, to advance to play the Steelers. No NFL playoff game should showcase a quarterback rushing for more yards than he gets passing. Blake Bortles did, completing only 12 of 24 passes for 87 yards, but time and again breaking out of the pocket to rack up 88 yards rushing. Go, Jags!

Next Up:

Saints at Vikings. New Orleans must get its ground game going. Drew Brees can not throw for 400 yards again. Or can he?

Titans vs. NE. Brady, Gronkowski, and Belichik. Do the math. Mariota will have to morph into  George Gipp to win.

Falcons vs. Eagles. Without Carson Wentz, I like Ryan’s experience to avoid the ugly specter of failing two years in a row.

Jaguars vs. Steelers. Tough one for Jags. Steelers got screwed on top seed by that goofy Jesse James robbery against the Patriots two weeks ago. Ben has been there, done that.

Newbie QB’s

Aaron Lipkin, Guest Blogger

There are many things, had I predicted them at the end of 2016, you’d have called me mad.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are a very real force to be reckoned with. No, really!

The Saints are in the playoffs, thanks to the best running back duo in 40 years and a suffocating defense.

The team everybody was scared of at the end of this season (49ers) was a team that started 1-10, the only win coming against the 1-8 Giants.

But nothing would have seemed less likely than the three top seeds in the NFC this year being led into the playoffs by three QB’s who all played for the 2016 (4-12) Los Angeles Rams.

Note: Nick Foles filling in for Carson Wentz is not the reason the Eagles finished first so I am not going to discuss him now.

My two primary subjects are quarterbacks Case Keenum and Jared Goff.

The 2016 Rams had easily the worst passing game in the league, a dual effort by Keenum and Goff.  Pro Football Reference has a stat named “Expected points contributed by passing offense.” The average was plus 86 points and only 5 teams had a negative score. The Rams had a -102.  Neither Goff nor Keenum threw more touchdown passes than interceptions.

Fast forward to this year and the 12-4 Vikings and the 11-4 Rams. In a year when pass defenses have improved and passing as a whole is much tougher (11 teams have negative passing scores this year), Keenum and Goff have lit up the league. Their teams sit at 5th (123 points) and 8th (117 points) respectively. The Vikings defense has proven to be once in a decade good and the Rams’ Todd Gurley is hands down All-Pro and my personal argument for league MVP.

First we’ll look at the QB that stayed in LA. Jared Goff threw 5 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last year. He threw 7 interceptions again this year, but also threw 28 touchdown passes as well.

How did this happen? Some of it was rookie growing pains. The more compelling answer is the single biggest change to the Rams this year, the exchange of coach Jeff “7-9” Fisher for the obvious ‘Coach of The Year,’ Sean McVay.

Case Keenum is a different case. This year he threw for 12 more touchdowns and 4 less interceptions than last year but Case is no rookie. This is his 6th year in the league.

He escaped Fisher but can’t thank McVay. It could be Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who also gave Sam Bradford the best year of his career last year, but there are many factors that come from switching teams.

There is no sure way to know the cause of these improvements, but it’s clearly best not to give up on your QB.

Not all are instant successes like Houston’s Deshaun Watson. It took Detroit’s Matthew Stafford a decade to become the highest paid quarterback in history.

Cleveland Dilemma (This might’ve happened)

You are the 0-15 Cleveland Browns playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are assured of a playoff spot. Nobody wants you to win, not even yourselves.

Somehow, magically, or perhaps helped along by the Steelers sitting their starters to avoid injuries, you find yourself down by two late with the ball on the Steelers ten-yard line. A chip shot field goal for the win.

The team has taken a time out to ponder the possibilities.

Last year you had drafted a quarterback out of Notre Dame, unprepared for the NFL. Hence his winless record. He has a quarterback’s rating of 59.4, 60th of all the league’s quarterbacks.

There is doubt he’ll get better.

If you lose, you’re guaranteed the first pick in the draft. The Heisman winner is quarterback Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma. His credentials are impeccable. He started as a walk-on in college and ended up an All-American.

He will surely be the first pick in the draft. That in itself is not the guarantee of success in the NFL. Indeed one need only go back and realize what a disaster a first round pick named Johnny Manziel was for these same Browns, both on and off the field, just a few short years ago.

Mayfield is no altar boy, either, having made obscene gestures at opposing fans, and once was arrested for drunkenness and fleeing police.

Manziel’s transgressions off the field and his ineffectiveness on it are so strongly ingrained in the psyche of the Browns faithful that they fear a repeat performance with Mayfield.

Winning the meaningless last game of an all losing season is not really an option to their fans who have seen their team win just one of its last 31 games. It would be an insult to them to win and miss getting the best college player available at a position where he is desperately needed. Their fans would have every right to revolt.

Playing not to win is not new to the NFL. Often in the past, teams assured of making the play-offs have rested their starters for the last game or two to avoid injuries.

Which is more egregious, purposely missing a short field goal, thus getting top pick, or is it denying your fans the best performance you have? I feel sure the fans would root for a loss.

The Cleveland coach has already been told he will be back next year. Would you as coach kick the field goal, forego Mayfield, and look for another Carson Wentz or Jared Goff hidden somewhere in the draft to be your next quarterback?

Or would you go wide right on purpose? If so, how different is that from sitting your best players to avoid pre-playoff injuries?

Keep in mind that the only other team to go winless, the 2008 Detroit Lions, drafted first and chose Matthew Stafford of Georgia, who has gone on to be the highest paid quarterback in NFL history.

So there’s that!

Football Facts

During WW II, the NFL allowed teams to merge to save on the cost of travel. In 1943, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia got together to form the Steagles. They did pretty well, finishing 5-4-1.

The following year the Steelers joined with the Chicago Cardinals, calling the team the Car-Pitts. They lost every game in the one year they were together, earning the unenviable epithet, “The Carpets,” because everybody walked all over them.

Only once has a team scored just four points in a game in the history of professional football. On November 23rd, 1923, the Chicago Cardinals lost to the Racine Legion, 10-4. The odds of that happening again have grown to 24,832 to 1.

The average length of an NFL game is 3 hours, 10 minutes, and 34 seconds, during which time only 11 minutes of actual action takes place.

Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann:

John Ralston, former Denver Broncos coach: “I finally gave up coaching for health reasons. The fans were sick of me and I was tired of them.”

Wish List:  Tom Coughlin will return to the Giants as General Manager and Bill Cowher will come out of retirement to be the head coach.

The Baltimore Ravens are named after the poet Edgar Allan Poe, who lived in Baltimore. The three Raven Mascots are named, appropriately enough, Edgar, Allan, and Poe.

The ‘G’ on the side of the Green Bay Packers’ helmet stands not for Green Bay but rather for “Greatness.”

Deion Sanders is the only person to score a touchdown in the NFL and hit a home run in MLB in the same week. He is also the only person to have played in both the World Series and the Super Bowl.

About 56% of an NFL game on television is devoted to replays.

NFL teams have an average value of one billion dollars. MLB teams are valued at half that amount.

The only scoreless game in the NFL was in 1943 when the Lions and the Giants battled to a scoreless tie.

The huddle was invented by Paul Hubbard, a legally deaf quarterback at Gallaudet University, a college for deaf students, so his teammates could understand his signals better.

Approximately 80% of Super Bowl tickets go to corporate sponsors.

During halftime of the Super Bowl, there are approximately 90 million toilet flushes. That is equivalent to 3.5 minutes of water flowing over Niagara Falls.

The Tampa Bay Bucs lost their first 26 games. Near the end of that streak, a reporter asked coach John McKay what he thought of his team’s execution. The affable McKay responded, “I am in favor of it.”

Sports Illustrated notes that two years after NFL players retire, approximately 78% of them are bankrupt.

Football Coach Lou Holtz: “Don’t tell your problems to other people. Eighty per cent of them don’t care and the other 20% are glad you have them.”

What I Like (And Don’t Like) About Football

I do like Chris Simms broadcasting college games. His father Phil may have been a better quarterback but the son beats him on the airwaves.

I do like Navy and Notre Dame standing together after a tough game, respecting each other’s Alma Mater.

I don’t like a fool of a person, listed as an assistant strength coordinator at Northwestern, behaving like a fool on the sideline in a t-shirt during a wet cold driving rain, jumping up and down simply to draw television camera coverage.

I don’t like some sleazy Miami supporter on the sideline hanging a gold chain around the neck of a defender who intercepted a pass as if it were some ancient Roman tribute during the Crusades.

I do like the idea of Aaron Rodgers getting back on the field to still make a difference this season.

I don’t like the idea of Jimbo Fisher saying his leaving FSU for Texas A & M was a “no- brainer” after the Seminoles groomed him to replace the legendary Bobby Bowden, leaving a great program in place for him. This season, however,  the ‘Noles had  to play a make-up game with cupcake Louisiana-Monroe just to get six wins to be bowl eligible for a game Fisher won’t even coach. That’s loyalty. (Not!) I am pleased though to see Willie Taggart taking over the coaching reins in Tallahassee.

I do like the Giants for firing the coach and general manager for their handling of the Eli Manning situation. It is some solace for Giant fans to know that management realized the chaos surrounding the team was caused by the head coach and dumped him.

I don’t like seeing Heisman winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma going the Johnny Manziel route in taunting opposing fans with obscene gestures. Play the game, son, play the game.

I do like the job Jimmy Garappolo did for the 49’ers in leading them to wins in his first two starts. The longtime understudy to Tom Brady deserved his day in the sun and he made the most of it. I think he’ll be a long time starter in the NFL.

I do like that Scott Frost, coach of UCF, is going back to his alma mater, Nebraska, to attempt to revive the Cornhusker program to its former greatness. At the University of Central Florida, in two years, he went from a winless team to an undefeated season. He will make the Big Ten even stronger. His welcomed calm sideline demeanor is reminiscent of former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, a member of the college HOF.

I do like to see a hard fought, clean game played by Army and Navy, watching Army win for the second year in a row after a fourteen game Middie winning streak was ended a year earlier. They play the game the old fashioned way, without any displays of self congratulatory chest thumping. The heavy snow provided a pleasant pastiche of long ago clashes of Staubach, Blanchard and Davis, et. al. A great ending to the regular college 2017 season.

Hut One, Hut Two….

Nissan Commercial

May I take a brief moment to inform you of perhaps the most boorish commercial I have ever seen.

I suspect there are many of you who have recently seen the Nissan commercial showing Heisman Trophy winners engaging in a food fight in the Heisman House, supposedly the meeting place for winners of the prestigious award, but actually a location from which more Nissan automobiles could be sold.

These men represent the best of college football over the years, rewarded for their outstanding performances as the best player in the nation for each year since 1935. Each of them competed all their careers against others nearly as good to win the award.

Byron White became a Supreme Court Justice. Bruce Smith was nominated for sainthood. General Pete Dawkins was a Rhodes Scholar.

Not all winners were as successful. O. J. Simpson’s troubles are well-documented.  But by and large, they have remained good citizens. What in the name of Knute Rockne caused them to participate in a food fight right out of “Animal House,” if not for the money?

Humiliating themselves and besmirching all that the Heisman has stood for, they should be ashamed. I understand humor. This was in no way funny. Men standing on a dinner table throwing food at each other succeeded in a John Belushi movie because he was playing who he was, a character we all knew from SNL.

These were grown men, supposedly educated, representing an elite group in a nationally recognized sport. Debased was what it was.

I am often puzzled at some commercials and their messages. People better versed than I in the public’s tastes make decisions based on extensive research. But I cannot fathom for a moment how this degradation of a fine institution such as the Heisman Award will sell Nissan automobiles. Quite to the contrary, most football fans I know would now hesitate to buy their cars based on this crude and sophomoric satire.

Previous commercials had these men placed within the collegial confines of their club poking fun at one another over miscues made during their careers. Self deprecating in nature, they were humorous in a good natured way.

But this one portrayed these grown men as buffoons, looking foolish, churlish and clueless as bedlam broke out at the dinner table, creating havoc with spaghetti and puddings flying towards each other to howls of laughter.

One wonders what the oldest living member of the club, ninety-two-year-old 1947 winner, quarterback Johnny Lujack, a paragon of class both at his alma mater, Notre Dame, and throughout a very successful broadcasting and business career, would have to say on the issue.

Hey, here’s a novel idea. Why not have these wise marketing suits do a commercial showing Heisman winners out in the neighborhoods and towns they came from, teaching young boys and girls how to throw spirals so that those kids might one day emulate these heroes on school gridirons.

I am Nobody’s Demographic

To the Network Suits, I stopped being a demographic when I moved up and out of the 18-49 group thirty-four years ago. I no longer count in the ratings. But there’s a whole bunch of us who have something to say and they’d do well to listen to us.

First of all, NETFLIX, Hulu, Amazon, Acorn and PBS are cleaning your clock in original entertainment. You still have the NFL but unless you straighten out that mess, you’re liable to lose that as well.

Maybe it is time for Commissioner Roger Goodell to move on. He has done a hell of a lot to grow the business and he has indeed been blindsided by factors outside his control, but why is it taking so long to pay the nearly one-billion in concussion pay to all those old NFL vets suffering from CTE, of whom only 10% have seen any money. And believe me I am not on Cowboys blowhard owner Jerry Jones side angling for his scalp. I need both sets of fingers to count the last time Dallas made the Super Bowl.

As a viewer, I thought end zone celebrations were not allowed but they are sneaking back in with stupid man bridges being built and players leap-frogging over each other and other foursomes doing dances that would make the Nicholas Brothers jump step in their graves. And the next receiver who signals a first down should be penalized ten yards so it becomes 1st & 20.

When was the last time you saw a quarterback acting goofy celebrating a play? They know their role is to plan and perform. The skill position guys think a ten yard gain is showtime on Broadway. Get those buffoons to stop that.

Another thing, Suits, stop trying to sell something on half the screen during injury time outs and upstairs reviews. We get it. Cars need to be sold but, come on, man!

Red Zone, streaming, highlight shows, talking heads talking over each other….all those venues are taking away from Sunday and MNF.  Enough is enough.

It is the game that is important. Not all the hoopla surrounding it. There is so much to like about professional football. At 1:00 and 4:00 every Sunday afternoon for five months, it has America’s attention like no other sport.

There have been some surprises this year to be sure. The Eagles and Vikings are running away in their divisions. The Giants and Bucs tanking is a surprise as is the emergence of the Rams in Los Angeles.

Drew Brees might bring a division crown to New Orleans in the tough NFC South while the Patriots remain the Patriots now that Kansas City seems to have tanked. And Pittsburgh will likely get in with a division title.

The stretch run will be interesting with Seattle and the Titans and Jaguars scrambling for a few more wins.

My picks for the Super Bowl are the Eagles and the Patriots with the championship returning to the city of brotherly love for the first time in 57 years.

Hut One, Hut Two…

Throwing Spirals — A Metaphor for Life

The other day I was getting out of my car when I noticed a boy carrying a football, lagging about thirty-feet behind his father.

When I got out of the car, I told the boy to throw me the ball. His father nodded it was okay to do so. The ball was too big but he threw it to me. It wobbled the ten-yard journey, non-spiraling, end over end.

I called the boy over and told him he should learn how to throw a spiral if he wanted to play football.

Maybe it would guide his life as it did mine, I thought to myself.

When I was fifteen, I was an end on my high school team. One day someone asked me to throw a ball back to a group that was practicing receiving passes. Nobody had ever seen me throw before, only catch. I returned the ball to the group, a twenty-yard spiral that never went higher than six feet off the ground. The coach stopped practice and said, “You’re my quarterback!”

I had an older brother who was a good player in high school and I had learned from him.

Throwing spirals soon became a metaphor for my life.

Nothing in life has brought me so much success as my ability to throw a spiral. High school honors, college scholarships, good jobs, leadership positions, lasting friends, and lots of great memories.

Sometimes those spirals missed their mark. So what? I kept throwing. Some times in school, courses were too hard. I kept going. Sometimes efforts failed but I kept throwing spirals.

I learned in relationships, business, athletics, dealings with problems, and managing people, you should never stop throwing spirals that are straight and true. You’ll have a high completion average the more you stress the fundamentals. Recognize the target, screen out the obstacles, keep your eye on the prize, and throw a perfect spiral that is right on target.

Sometimes you’ll get picked off. Learn from your mistakes. Never mislead your receivers. Know their strengths and weaknesses and help them succeed by providing soft spirals to them in stride.

And then congratulate them for being successful.

It is no different in all we do. Every position I’ve held was because I had thrown spirals in games and was expected to do the same in my work. That’s how I had a very successful career at IBM, and why my fellow residents elected me to be their mayor.

I determined that everything I learned from my parents to Coach Murray Warmath, was right. I used those principles to become not only a better leader, but a better follower, if that was to be my role.

From the day I threw that first spiral, I’ve never stopped trying to do my best.

I hope that kid is waiting out in the street to play catch with me, getting ready to throw spirals.

It is in that spirit that I am so very grateful this Thanksgiving and I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season.

Hut One, Hut Two….

 

Watson and Wilson and Wentz (Oh, My!)

When Dorothy warned of the carnage that “lions and tigers and bears, oh, my” could cause in “The Wizard of Oz,” she might well have been describing three modern NFL quarterbacks, so frightful are they are in inflicting damage on unsuspecting opponents.

Three guys who have paved that yellow brick road to mid-season success and established themselves as the quarterbacks to watch down the second half stretch and beyond are Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, Deshaun Watson (before he got hurt) of the Houston Texans, and Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles. They are this next decade’s Brady, Favre and Manning.

The elder member of this elite list of leaders is Wilson with one Super Bowl win in his locker already and a second one all but his except for a boneheaded play called by an assistant coach disdaining handing the ball to “The Beast,” Marshawn Lynch, three times from the half-yard line for the win instead of stupidly ordering a game ending interception, giving the Super Bowl victory to New England two years ago, arguably the dumbest call in football history.

Coming out of Clemson, Deshaun Watson has proven himself to be a player of rare talent once given the chance to quarterback the Houston Texans. After great first-half action, he has been sidelined with an ACL injury sustained during practice, shelving him for the season. But he will heal and return next year and continue his assault on opponents.

I don’t know how my Minnesota Gophers whiffed on Carson Wentz. An outstanding high school prospect, he stayed home at nearby North Dakota State and had a great college career. He may well be the best of the three at 6’5″ and 235 pounds. Staying healthy, he could be the bellwether quarterback for years to come for the Eagles ruling the tough NFL Eastern Division.

On average, the same trio is just slightly behind Brady, Brees and Rodgers in total quarterback ratings at 104.5 to 101.9. But they are younger by far and much more agile. They are, in addition, 61-19 in that key measurement of quarterback success, number of touchdown passes to interceptions. By comparison, Brees, Brady and Rodgers are 45-9.

The newbies have thrown  89 completions of 20 plus yards compared to 84 for the veterans. Those are the plays needed to sustain touchdown drives and the attendant killing of the clock. They are vital to a team’s success.

“If ever oh ever a wiz there was,” sang Dorothy, “it’s because of the wonderful things he does.”

If ever the NFL needed wizards, it is right now with all the controversies swirling around America’s favorite game. These three guys are going to be the quarterbacks determining the league’s success or failure.

My money is on their finding their fortunes in the future by leading their teams down those yellow brick roads to conference and Super Bowl championships in re-establishing the prestige and glory that once was the NFL.

Adam Vinatieri Lives On

Adam Vinatieri, who will be 45 next month, is still going strong. Last year, he made over 87% of his field goals, and didn’t miss an extra point, in his 21st NFL season.

He’s third all-time in points scored, third all-time in field goals made, and one of the greatest to ever play at his position.

A four sport star at South Dakota State, he first played professional football for the Amsterdam Admirals in Europe in 1995. A year later, he was signed as an un-drafted free agent by the New England Patriots

But for 18 inches, he might have been relegated to the margins of professional football for all time instead of being a sure bet for the NFL Hall of Fame.

Here’s what happened.

In the first three games of the 1996 season, his first with New England, he performed very poorly. In week one, he missed three out of four field goal attempts in a loss to Buffalo. Pats coach Bill Parcells began to lose confidence in him. First year kickers underperforming generally are out the door pronto. The position is so important a coach must always have a short list of other guys to go to.

In the second game, Vinatieri missed not only another field goal but an extra point as well. After three weeks, he was kicking field goals at a success rate of only 42%. In week four, the Pats played the Jacksonville Jaguars and he missed another extra point but did connect on three thirty-yard chip shot field goals. At half time, the television commentators discussed who Parcells would bring in to replace the failing Vinatieri

And then one of those strange occurrences of life intervened.

Earlier, the Jags had completed a Hail Mary effort for a touchdown at the half and now with time left for just one play and the score tied at 25-25, from the 50-yard line, quarterback Mark Brunell fired another Hail Mary for the win. The ball was caught on the half-yard line and downed there, eighteen inches shy of the score and a Jacksonville victory.

The game went into overtime and Adam kicked the winning field goal. No way any coach fires a kicker who has just made a clutch kick to win.

For the final 12 games of the 1996 season, Vinatieri would miss just two field goals in helping the Patriots get to the Super Bowl and would then go on to establish himself as one of the greatest kickers in football history.

After nearly cutting Vinatieri after four games, Parcells stated after his kicker caught return man Herschel Walker returning a kickoff, “I just don’t have a kicker. I have a football player!”

Now 21 years later, Adam Vinatieri is still kicking. This year in week 5, he hit 4-4 on field goals, including a 51-yarder in OT to beat the 49ers.

Football is a game of inches. So, sometimes, is life.

The Huddle

What Lieutenant Bill Carpenter started sixty years ago as Army’s “Lonely End” has come full circle. Most teams don’t huddle at all now. And I think from a player’s point of view, that is not good.

In 1958, Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik had Carpenter line up far away from the huddle to receive hand and/or foot signals from the quarterback telling him the play. It was a gimmick, pure and simple, although not as gimmicky as coach Tom Nugent of Maryland recruiting a gymnast to go in motion doing somersaults across the field to distract the defense.

Carpenter’s move befuddled the opponent. Nugent’s created laughter.

Carpenter went on to a distinguished military career, winning the Distinguished Service Cross by saving his company in Vietnam in directing air strikes on his own position. The gymnast has been lost forever to the forgotten files of football follies.

Teams now seldom huddle, the thought being more plays can be run, which is a fallacy in itself in that quantity alone does not equate to success. Careful scouting, planning and execution does.

The huddle was home to eleven guys, the location clearly defined by the center always hustling to set it up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The huddle was to football what the Reagan family Sunday dinner is to “Blue Bloods.”

Hand held high, the snapper’s signal to gather began the plan to direct, understand and execute.

The quarterback would stand off to the side to allow the players to whisper about their blocking assignments while he figured the best play to call, based on down, distance, field position, and time remaining.

When the quarterback stepped into the huddle, everybody listened to him issuing the play and snap count. Further information such as distance to a first down might follow. A moment of eye contact with a determined running back might portend an audible at the line of scrimmage.

“Break” would send everybody out of the cocoon of the huddle to the ball and the play, united in one cause, perfection.

Without a huddle, that moment of team camaraderie, fifty times a game, is missing. Oftentimes the quarterback would tell the running back the importance of gaining that extra couple of yards for a first down, or the receiver the role the clock might play in staying inbounds.

Without a huddle, a Byzantine system of back up quarterbacks waggling arms, or a mock up of photos of movie stars or animals on the sideline denoting the play to be run after consultation with offensive coordinators upstairs—-all during the :30 allowed before a delay of game penalty is called— leaves too much room for error just to get more plays run.

Then again, if your name is Peyton Manning, all you need do is line up your team and utter “Omaha”—which was totally bogus—but somehow had the mystical ability to totally control what the defense would do. Nobody has ever figured out how….

Hut One, Hut Two….

The Vagaries of Referees

33,000 Eagles fans have signed a petition to not allow veteran NFL official Pete Morelli to work any more Eagles games. Pete seems to hate Philadelphia as much as comedian W. C. Fields did.

“NFL Referee Pete Morelli has a clear and statistically obvious bias against the Philadelphia Eagles,” the petition reads. “Over the last four games that he has officiated that the Eagles were playing in, the Eagles were flagged a total of 40 times for 396 yards, while the Eagles opponent in those games were flagged a mere 8 times for 74 yards. This is unacceptable and puts the Philadelphia Eagles at a disadvantage. Preventing Morelli from refereeing Eagles games will result in a more trustworthy and honest NFL. This will benefit the entire league and keep all claims of conspiracy to a normal level.”

Morelli, 65, is in his 21st season with the NFL and his 15th as a referee. For some reason, it appears he is seriously pissed at the Eagles. Pack it in, Pete! The Referee’s Retirement Home beckons. Although, truth be known, Eagle fans are no walk in the park, either. One Christmas, they even booed Santa Claus.

In the 21st Century, home teams in the NFL have won 56.5% of the games played, largely because total penalties called in every year but two have favored the home team.

There is an old adage in football that the team making the fewest mistakes wins. Penalties are assessed for mistakes such as holding or offsides or pass interference. They are judgement calls made by fallible men such as Pete Morelli.

Odds makers give the home team a three-point built in advantage not because, as they say,  teams traveling will experience hardships getting to the game. They don’t really, seeing they fly first class, eat in top restaurants and stay at the best hotels.

What the odds makers know is that the penalty numbers favor home teams because refs are human and react to home crowds screaming for penalties to be called, especially deep defensive pass interference calls. Those third down calls made deep in the secondary sustain stalled drives and often turn games around. How often have we seen a Dez Bryant or an Odell Beckham or a LeSean Jackson yell foul as the ball extends just beyond their reach in an act of supplication to a referee who then reacts to screaming home crowds by making the interference call.

Officials do the best they can, the occasional outlier like Morelli being the rare exception to the rule. But in non-reviewable instances of penalties such as the pass interference calls, they are too easily influenced by home crowds because fans know those calls are game changers. Those calls are not reviewable. The referee up in the booth should be consulted on those calls after utilizing instant replay to determine if a penalty has indeed occurred.

Oh, for the simpler halcyon days of referee Red Cashion who, after untangling a mountain of men, penalized a player sneaking in one last punch, explaining to the crowd while waving his clenched fist, “He was giving him the business down there.”

Hut one, Hut two…

What’s Next for Football?

What is the future of football? Very often these days, that question is being asked.

The monster entertainment known as the NFL is a multi billion dollar endeavor that thrills millions for half the calendar year. A companion piece, college football, has hundreds of teams playing before millions more in person or on television. There are over 14,000 high schools in America, 80% of which have varsity and junior varsity teams playing ten to twelve games each. One million boys play high school football every year. Another 100,000 play in college. 1,696 play in the NFL.

The sport has become America’s national past time, leaving baseball far behind.

An alarming statistic, though, is that 3.5% fewer boys are playing high school football in the United States than 5 years ago. Forty-one states have seen a drop in participation over those five years.

The sport is threatened as never before. The inability of the NFL to deal with issues like kneeling during the anthem, or punishing domestic violence abuse, or ridiculous end zone celebrations or dealing with concussions has lessened the viewer ratings on television.

Everybody knows the problems. But what are the solutions?

The competition to reach college and the NFL is so great that men, especially linemen, will do anything to become heavier and wider and faster to get to those million dollar pay days. They are driven by strength and conditioning coaches uncaring or oblivious to the dangers to their players and their opponents that CTE will very likely ruin their future lives. Linemen are 25% heavier than a generation ago. They give and get more powerful hits every year.

They are simply too big. They did not get that way naturally—they did it on purpose. A suggestion: Limit linemen to a top weight of 230 pounds. Speed will replace girth and the result will be a more effective running game with half the men on the field having been reduced to normal weight from their gargantuan status now. Fewer concussions, the cause of CTE, will ensue.

Flag football should be the sport from Pop Warner up through middle school and only in high school would regular football be played. It is easier to teach and play for youngsters, it is much safer than tackle at those ages, it is learning a team sport early on in a child’s educational cycle, and it is much less expensive for parents. Those kids who excel at flag football can then choose to move on to the high school tackle teams.

Constant attention must be paid to the proper method of coaching tackling at the high school level and beyond, combined with helmet technology evolving into the safest helmet imaginable–leather again perhaps–at all levels.

Anyone who has ever covered punts or kickoffs has felt the crack back block—especially on reverse returns—of an opponent striking you at full speed just as you were to get your hands on the returner. You sense at the very last nano-second before contact that you are going to get hit the hardest ever, while you are totally defenseless. Many concussions ensue from these collisions.

To lessen the number of kickoff return injuries, I have advocated for awarding a point for a kickoff through the goal posts (Power Kick) after a score as an offensive alternative to lessen the number of kick off-returns. A failed Power Kick would place the ball at the thirty-five yard line instead of the twenty-five.

Perhaps also on punts, a point could be awarded for punting out of bounds inside an opponent’s five-yard line, a return perhaps to the coffin corner kick so popular years ago.

There is an area ten yards to twenty yards downfield between the hash marks where receivers running crossing routes are particularly vulnerable to direct hits by defensive backs or linebackers. Referees need to more strictly penalize helmet to helmet hits in this area.

Other suggestions are welcomed.

Hut one, Hut two…

Going to an NFL Game

I went to my first NFL game when Harry Truman was president. I recently went to my final one.

It is surely not the greatest generation’s NFL anymore. The game seemed almost an afterthought to the afternoon.

Between the dancing girls and the huge screens updating Fantasy Football scores, or cell phones in everybody’s hands, to interminable time-outs for television commercials, to a screaming Jumbotron urging the crowd to yell their collective heads off, or kiss the person next to them, the screen not showing action on the field until a nano-second before a snap, one of vintage age wears down quickly.

When last I went to a game here, I sat in a luxurious club seat, delivered thereto by elevator, attended to by courteous servers, oblivious to the outside elements, the closest thing to my man cave at home.

It felt good to be the king.

The Buccaneers versus the Giants. There is a very eerie dynamic present when the visiting team is from up North, Florida being the playground for so many fans from there. Some Bucs season ticket holders sell their tickets at twice their price for a few games to those visitors and therefore get to see the remaining five home games for free. This year, the Jets and Patriots will also visit so equal amounts of home and away fans will continue.

It is a dynamic present when the Yankees and Red Sox come to play the Rays as well.

I had never been in a stadium where cheers rang out on every play because there really was no home team as evidenced by equal seas of blue and red.

The weather was horrible, scorchingly hot up until game time and then immediately thereafter, a thunderstorm made the field all but invisible for fifteen minutes.

All those ingredients could have produced a calamitous afternoon, but did not. Relations between conflicting fans sitting together produced no incidents or arguments.

The attitude of the attendants from parking to entering to ushering to police couldn’t have been better. Everybody had fun.

Considering the weather, the game was well played, the Bucs continuing to keep the Giants winless when their kicker finally made a field goal at the gun after having missed three previously.

The Giants, after numerous injuries to wide receivers, have serious problems. After 14 seasons, it is time to begin grooming someone to take over for Eli Manning in a year or two. It’s been a great run for him and the question will always remain as to who was better, he or Peyton.

It was interesting to note the sellout crowd was the first since the Giants were in town in November of 2015. Two factors contribute to that. First, the Bucs are a much improved team and secondly, that Northern weather really drives fans down here to the Sunshine State.

I will leave game attendance to others as I return to in-home viewing from my Lazy Boy with attendant zero noise.

Four Weeks of Eligibility

When I played quarterback for the Minnesota Gophers in the 1950s, we had to play both offense and defense. After WW II, unlimited substitution was allowed as many more veterans returned to college, but for a limited time thereafter it was done away with, and we all had to play sixty minutes.

The NCAA realized the hardship this put on players so it determined that if you were hurt and missed a game you would get a one-time extension on your eligibility, two weeks for every game you missed.

(NCAA Rule 17A: Section 207: Deferred Eligibility 1958)

Hear me out: Since I broke my hand in practice during my senior year and missed two games, I now find myself with four weeks of eligibility remaining. The only caveat is the extension expires after fifty-nine years. Tick-Tock.

My legs, which Sports Illustrated pointed out in 1958 made me “not much of a running threat” have atrophied to the point that rolling out the garbage cans weekly feels like a quarterback sneak on third-and-one gone terribly wrong.

Playing safety is out as well seeing I needed so much help covering deep routes on those long ago autumn days of football.

But my arm is a different story. I can still, at 83, throw twenty-yard strikes matching a Koufax fastball, with just enough spinning spiral to reach the back of the end zone in a blur.

In 1956, when we won at Michigan Stadium in one of the greatest comebacks in Gopher football history, there were five-thousand fans cheering our arrival back at the Minneapolis airport. It was a thrill when I had been put into that game late, sternly instructed to adhere to the Hippocratic Oath of physicians and mop-up quarterbacks, i.e., “Do no harm!”

Two years later, in 1958, in one of the most spirited Little Brown Jug battles in that wonderful Minnesota-Michigan rivalry, I had the opportunity to bring the Jug back to Minneapolis again–all I needed to do was complete a late-game two-point conversion to go up by 21-20 to grab the win. Alas, my pass tipped off the hands of my receiver deep in the end zone and we lost, only a few sad fans greeting us at the airport upon our return.

I have three weeks to prepare to go back to Michigan Stadium once again to claim my own field of dreams.

I am working on my foot work to pick up blitzing linebackers or evade the backside rush should my blind side tackle miss his block. I’ll leave my cane in the locker room.

All I need is a small window of opportunity to achieve the goal I thought lost those many years ago.

So imbued am I with this redemptive opportunity, I have moved my cataract operation up by two weeks to be at my optical best, nailing that open receiver this time in that fabled football gridiron galaxy, far, far, away.

Hut one, Hut two.

Pity Poor Linemen

At the beginning of the 20th Century, officials in New York had to find a way for the exploding population of that metropolis to navigate its streets filled as they were with excrement from conveyances pulled by horses, pre-automobile.

The solution was subways and sewers, underground tunnels dug through rock and sand, block upon block, built by sand hogs as they were called. These men labored long days in dangerous conditions, many dying from the bends, an illness caused by ingesting heavy dust for long periods beneath the earth.

But the subways and sewers got built and the city grew cleaner. The sand hogs were forgotten and Wall Street types prospered.

And in the process, the streets and fields of Gotham were rid of above ground excrement, for the most part. There remain the New York Jets, of course, but men are working on that.

Stretch if you will to compare those two types of men to today’s NFL strata. The sand hogs have become the linemen and the Wall Street suits have become the owners.

Linemen labor unnoticed, save the occasional glance up at the Jumbotron after one has been found guilty of holding, seen mouthing to the nearest huddled teammate, “That call was bullshit!”

All the men wearing 50s, 60s, and 70s make half the money other numbers make, and in the process receive over one-hundred blows to the head every Sunday afternoon, dozens more than what any other team member feels.

Beginning to see the sand hog/Wall Street comparison?

For his efforts, a lineman is six to seven times more likely to suffer from CTE later in life, a debilitating illness of depression, anxiety and delusion, in some cases leading to suicide.

If the game of football were invented today, knowing what we now know through scientific study on concussions, there would be no 350 pound men playing the game. They would have to find another job. I understand San Francisco is considering subways.

But, football being what it is, let’s recognize those denizens of defense, those bastards of ball control, those masters of mayhem on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Although, truth be known, so many of them are bearded, I think they themselves may be ashamed to be seen.

To be sure, there are many fine linemen in the NFL. Some of them even have college degrees.

Twenty-five years ago, no NFL lineman weighed 300 pounds. Today 390 do. Get a grip on yourselves, guys. You’re gonna die young, fat and sad.

Get out while you can. Some of your fellow players have already made that call. Don’t have life throw a flag on you. The game, and you, will be better for your absence. Nobody ever watches you play anyway. You are the sand hogs who built the game of football but you’ve become expendable.

Those hedge funders simply can’t afford you. That billion dollar payout to old NFL veterans was a one time deal. Find another line of work, men.

The Mystifying Offense

Oftentimes, lo these many years removed from college, I search You Tube for old football films, some even in color, of those long ago halcyon days of autumnal splendor.

I have gone back as far as 1937 watching Jackie Robinson returning punts for UCLA. I’ve never seen a more smooth-striding broken field runner, seemingly saving those pigeon-toed sprints exhibited stealing bases in Brooklyn for his later journey to Cooperstown.

Having run the Split-T offense in college at Minnesota, I find especially entertaining the skill with which Coach Bud Wilkinson steamrolled all opponents en route to 47 straight wins in the 1950s at Oklahoma with that offense.

The T Formation, the Veer, the Pistol, the Shotgun, the Single Wing, the Double Wing, the Power “I”, the Pro Set, and Wildcat formations all experienced a modicum of success before being replaced by something else, just because something else might prove better. The greener grass syndrome at work!

During the 1920s and 1930s, the Single Wing offense perfected by Notre Dame and Tennessee ruled football, featuring power running with just a dash of trickery to keep defenses honest.

But then along came two guys from Michigan who combined the power of the single wing with the sleight of hand of the T formation to bedazzle and befuddle opponents. Coaches Forrest Evashevski at Iowa and Davey Nelson at Delaware ran the “Wing T” to perfection. I had the misfortune to play against Iowa and I can attest to how difficult it was to figure out what the hell happened on the snap of the ball.

Back then, players had to go both ways so I played quarterback and safety.

Offense was much easier than defense, I hasten to add.

On the snap, a safety is taught to take a step backwards, the thinking being never let anybody get behind you. But the tricky ball handling by the quarterback in the Iowa Wing T was so quick, if you took your eyes off that action, a ball carrier would come out of nowhere so fast you’d end up saving touchdowns by making game saving tackles way downfield.

Then just as you gained confidence in stopping the run, a fake into the line would freeze you in place for a nano second while a streaking receiver would run by you like a freight train passing a bum.

In one such instance that freight train was future NFL star Jim Gibbons while I painfully played the part of the bum trying to jump on board.

In another instance, All-American Rich Kreitling of Illinois resembled more the sleek 20th Century Limited racing from Chicago to New York while I got stuck somewhere around Cleveland vainly chasing him.

Twenty-five years later, I was working at IBM when I met a fellow employee who had played at Colgate. I asked if he had ever played safety against Delaware’s Wing T. His immediate answer was, “Yes, and I had nightmares every time they snapped the friggin’ ball!”

Nice tradition at the University of Iowa. On campus and rising high above Nile Kinnick Stadium is the Iowa Children’s Hospital. At the end of the first quarter all the fans rise as one and cheer the children brought to the hospital’s upper windows, waving their arms in unison, saluting the efforts of all the kids to get well.

That is college football at its very best.

Football and Boxing

With stadiums filled to capacity every weekend, it is hard to imagine football will end up like boxing, shown only on pay-tv to diehard fans who delight in violence, watching combatants uncaring about their own futures.

High schools are finding it increasingly more difficult to field teams because of parents not letting kids participate for fear of injuries, primarily concussions. Statistics show that participation in football is dropping every year in middle school, high school and Pop Warner leagues.

Years ago, boxing was a sport for the masses, drawing crowds of 70,000 or more at major league ballparks. Friday night fights televised from a packed Madison Square Garden furnished fisticuffs for years. Local Golden Glove tournaments created neighborhood heroes.

And then Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought and everything changed as they nearly killed each other with the ferocity of their blows. Mike Tyson scared everybody. Ali, especially, aging and addled, turned many off to boxing.

As the masses abandoned boxing’s brutality, many could still not get enough of the violence. The answer was pay television at exorbitant prices brought into homes or bars.

Fight fans laid out a half-a-billion bucks to watch Mayweather and McGregor fight recently for the heavyweight title. Those who wanted violence got what they paid for, a technical knockout, McGregor still standing, but unable to defend himself. Mayweather got $100 million and McGregor received a third of that.

The decline in participation for young boys playing football because of the fear of injuries closely parallels the loss of interest in boxing because of violence.

But is it reasonable to think given the huge popularity of football that it will become as limited as boxing has in appealing to just those gridiron fans who prefer violence to skill?

The 1,696 men who play in the NFL do so for the millions of dollars it will bring them despite the fact that debilitating depression, in some cases leading to suicide, awaits many of them, especially interior linemen, from the thousands of hits their heads will endure during their careers. That is their choice.

Some men have already left secure positions on teams stating their concerns about health issues down the road. Indeed, an announcer and former NFL player, Ed Cunningham of ESPN, has resigned stating he can no longer be associated with the game because of its inherent dangers.

But for many, the financial reward, as it is in boxing, is too great a temptation. And the fans still demand the game.

This resembles, does it not, the history of boxing? It was the horrific violence of Ali, Foreman, and others that turned many fans away from boxing.

Is there a singular act that may do the same to football, driving viewers towards pay television for the ever narrowing group of fans who will always prefer violence over skill?

In the Washington Post, noted columnist George Will recently pointed out:

“Football’s kinetic energy – a function of the masses and velocities of the hurtling bodies – has increased dramatically in 50 years.

On Alabama’s undefeated 1966 team, only 21 percent of the players weighed more than 200 pounds. The heaviest weighed 223; the linemen averaged 194.

Of the 114 members of Alabama’s 2016 squad, just 25 weighed less than 200 and 20 weighed more than 300.

In 1980, only three NFL players weighed 300 or more pounds. Last season, 390 weighed 300 pounds or more, and six topped 350.”

Bodies hitting ever bigger bodies.

It is up to all of us who love the game to save the game.

Parents must remain vigilant in allowing their children to play only under coaches who truly know the game and teach it correctly, especially tackling.

The NFL and NCAA and all state high school associations must more carefully adjust contact rules and provide better equipment, especially helmets to combat CTE, the result of concussions.

If we collectively negate the undue violence, we can more thoroughly enjoy what has truly become America’s “National Pastime.” Let us all work toward that goal.

Life Turns on Moments

A fourteen year-old boy doesn’t want to play on his high school junior varsity basketball team because he got a job as an usher in the town movie theater. The coach offers the uniform to the team’s manager, a boy who had never played the game. That boy goes on to play in the NBA.

Another young man is listed on the third-team as a back-up quarterback at a major university who eventually drinks a bowl of hot chicken noodle soup on his way to the NFL Hall of Fame.

Life turns on moments.

When the jayvee coach gave the uniform to the team manager, the boy was as much enthused as he was unprepared. He did not know you couldn’t dribble with two hands simultaneously. He was big so he became the back up center, firmly planting his pivot foot in such a way that a derrick could not have moved it. On a change of possession, he would beat everybody back down the floor on defense, forming a barrier of 6’4″, 190 pounds of determination.

The first shot he took went above the backboard and clanged into the iron stanchions above.

A popular kid, he did not let the laughter of well-meaning classmates bother him. They elected him class president. He practiced incessantly until two in the morning, shooting baskets by himself behind the town fire house. He would then ride his bike home where he had to get up early every day to collect the eggs from all the chickens in the coops behind the house, the family business. He became the leading scorer in Long Island high school basketball history. He received scholarship offers.

On to Hofstra for All-American status and the NBA, after which he became an iconic school administrator.

He once convinced a deranged student who had killed a teacher to hand his gun over to him to avoid further bloodshed. Staring down the barrel of the weapon, he approached the boy in a stairwell and calmly took the weapon away from him. My teammate Billy Thieben is as much a hero to me now as he was seventy-years ago.

Life turns on moments. 

When Joe Montana arrived at Notre Dame as another of the great quarterbacks from Western Pennsylvania, he was third-string. His moment came in the Cotton Bowl game in 1979 when he led a great comeback against Houston. Fighting off hypothermia on a cold windy day, he spent half-time drinking hot chicken noodle soup in the locker room.

Returning to action, he overcame a 34-12 Houston lead to win 35-34 as time expired.

The Montana legend reached its zenith in 1982 against Dallas when his last second touchdown pass (forever known simply as “The Catch”) overcame a 27-21 Cowboy lead sending the 49ers to the Super Bowl. ESPN’s Larry Schwartz called it the greatest comeback ever.

In 2006, Sports Illustrated voted him the greatest clutch quarterback in football history.

Life turns on moments.

Dick “Night Train” Lane

In 1963, Dick “Night Train” Lane was a standout in the secondary of the Detroit Lions.

That year, author George Plimpton become a member of the team during pre-season training to see what it would be like for an ordinary man to become a professional football player. His exploits, such as they were, were chronicled in “The Paper Lion,” a runaway best seller. Lane was a major personality in the book.

Lane was a killer defensive back, one of the best to ever play the game. Tough, smart and aggressive, he was a receiver’s nightmare in an era where, unlike today, the rules favored the defense.

Lane’s life was story book. He was dubbed “Night Train” because of his aversion to flying, taking trains to away games rather than fly with the team.

Discarded in a dumpster at three months of age by his parents, a prostitute and a pimp, he made the NFL Hall of Fame, setting a still standing interception record as an un-drafted rookie sixty-five years ago.

He also ran the Detroit Police Athletic League for the last two decades of his life.

Along the way, he became blues singer Dinah Washington’s sixth husband, and her business manager as well. It was her death in 1963 and her subsequent funeral that caused Lane to miss the final game of that season.

Picking on his replacement that day, Mike Ditka’s late touchdown reception made the difference as the Chicago Bears beat the Lions in a game that gave the NFL Western Division title to the Bears.

A strong minded individual, Lane stretched the rules. His hard tackles above the shoulders led to banning the practice from the game.

For years, the Lions held pre-season training at the Cranbrook School, an elite educational complex in Michigan. Mitt Romney and  Heisman winner Pete Dawkins are among its list of graduates. The Lions management had a long standing relationship with the school but it was put to the test in 1963.

The headmaster had set aside parking for the Detroit players to not interfere with school activities. One individual, however, broke the rules by parking wherever he wanted.

The school asked coach George Wilson to find the culprit. At a team meeting, Wilson asked who it was that had “a late model Cadillac convertible with a pink body and a yellow top, wire rimmed wheels, a six-foot antenna rising off the trunk, and squirrel tails flaring off both rear fenders.”

Nary a hand rose as Wilson scanned the group. He repeated the description a second time as players’ eyes slowly began to turn towards the back of the room where Lane was slouching further down in his seat. They all knew it was Lane’s car.

Just as Wilson was about to repeat the description a third time, Lane raised his hand, asking in his iconic, slow West Texas drawl, “Coach Wilson, is that car a two-door or a four-door?”

Nobody laughed harder than Wilson.

A Tragic Football Death

A 5′-6″, 136 pound high school football player was killed while participating in a “team building” Navy SEALs drill of carrying a heavy log with other teammates.

The log slipped and struck the boy in the head, causing his death.

This is another example of conflating the game of football with a war mentality. Carrying a group log as a means of building teamwork was ridiculous in its concept and devastating in its result.

The SEALs use that drill because it may help them save lives. They need that ability to help our country in a very real way. That is not the same as learning to play a high school football game.

This high school is in my home town on Long Island, New York which creates even more sorrow for me because it hits so close to home.

It is difficult enough to teach boys how to tackle and block to avoid injuries, and time spent on frivolous activity such as a log lift would be much better spent in carefully watched exercises promoting safety.

The mindset as it relates to football, especially in the era of CTE, must concentrate more on the cerebral than the physical. Teach proper techniques over and over so reaction to an opponent’s movements results in a carefully trained response that is both effective and safe.

The game of football is really not difficult. It is simply a matter of guarding your territory and denying your opponent an advantage through proper preparation and effective implementation.

In a zone pass defense, deep defenders must give receivers room to navigate and then athletically snare the pass away.

Linemen know on the snap of the ball who they are to block. The location of defenders triggers the memory of the blockers to tell them what areas they must get to in protecting the passer or opening holes for the runner.

Defenses have similar rules to follow based upon the scouting analysis of the opponent. Everything that prepares a player to act or react is based on knowledge that coaches impart to them.

Nothing builds team work like a team winning. It has nothing to do with lifting logs, or humiliating blocking drills, or vocally berating a young boy because he missed an assignment, or worse yet, wasn’t “tough enough.”

A young boy’s life is lost. That is tragic beyond belief. I feel so sorry for his parents and his family. To have had it happen as it did defies reason beyond logic and must be a lesson to all connected to the sport to very carefully review every aspect of the game of football as it relates to safety.

The responsibility of player safety is up to anyone who enjoys the game, be he or she a fan, a parent, a player, a coach, an administrator, an athletic director, a reporter, a booster, indeed anybody who looks forward to football and autumn, two things this young boy will never see again.

CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)

Football will occupy the psyche of this country from late August to the Super Bowl. It has become America’s National Pastime.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association detailed the results of 111 former NFL players examined after death, showing that 110 of them suffered from CTE, caused by sustained physical jolts. It should be noted that players studied were not a random sample but those who had shown symptoms of CTE later in their lives, and their families had given permission for the study.

On average, 130 times per NFL game, a snap is made and physical activity–hitting, blocking, running, catching, trapping, tackling, holding, grabbing, slapping, pushing, etc.–takes place. Over a 16 game schedule, all the above occurs more than 2,000 times. In an average NFL career of four years, plus high school and college, that number balloons to nearly 25,000.

The NFL has set aside nearly a billion dollars to compensate players who are suffering from CTE as a result of these physical activities over and over again. The malady cannot be detected until after death. Symptoms later in life are depression, dementia, confusion, paranoia, and suicide.

As might be expected, different positions should expect different rates of acquiring the condition.

Linemen, both offensive and defensive, are six times more likely than quarterbacks to contract CTE because linemen, both offense and defense, make up half the number of players on the field on every snap, and they are the only ones guaranteed to get hit over a hundred times a game.

Defensive backs are three times more likely to contract CTE than the wide receivers they are covering.

Linebackers are nearly twice as safe as running backs. That makes sense because ball carriers have to bruise through defensive linemen before they even reach linebackers, who, a good percentage of the time, drop back into pass coverage.

It is fine to compensate those former players who now suffer from CTE or will in the future. It is equally important that all connected to the game get on board with current scientific evidence and support changes to make the game safer at all levels. Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones does not believe constant blows to the head cause CTE.

I will be discussing new ideas for player safety as they emerge. For starters, since linemen are recipients of most of the hits, why not equip them with larger and more padded helmets and eliminate the helmet slap at every level from Pop Warner to the NFL.

I have suggested a new scoring device which will add excitement to the game while ensuring greater player safety on kick off returns with my “Power Kick” idea.

Parents would be wise to consider flag football for their children before allowing them to play tackle football. Those million dollar NFL pay days will come to very few young boys trying out the sport for the first time.

It is imperative as fans, parents, coaches and officials that we do all we can to ensure the safety of those playing and the guarded continuance of the game we love.

More of these ideas will come in future Coach’s Corners.

NFL Payroll

In a few weeks, we will all become absorbed in another NFL season of euphoria, despair, exultation, and despondency, according to how well our favorite team fares. Towards that end, the general managers had better judge their talent intelligently because they will pay their twenty-two starters a huge amount of money. What follows is an analysis of each position and what the top player earns per game.

Quarterbacks are the marque attraction and earn $1.562 million per game. The QB’s job is to complete 66% of his passes and set the offensive pace of the game. He must eschew turnovers but when they happen, walk to the bench and renew himself and his team.

Running backs make half of what quarterbacks do, earning $757,500. His report card must show he averaged five yards a carry, pass protected flawlessly when called upon, and caught most passes thrown his way.

Fullbacks make half of running back bucks at $328,000 because they are less skilled than running backs at breaking tackles and catching passes. Their value increases greatly the closer they get to the goal line so they can barrel their way in for touchdowns. There are a lot of fullbacks at home watching to see if the guy they want to replace gets hurt. It’s a tough business.

A tight end makes $625,000 for a Sunday afternoon of work. His performance plan will direct him to ferociously double team on an unsuspecting defensive tackle or fake that and occasionally slip out unnoticed to catch a short pass for a first down.

The two offensive guards and the center will clear the way for the inside running game, the guards from time to time pulling to kick out a defensive end to clear the way for a running back. The center must ensure a perfect snap every time lest the quarterback, God bless him, should get stepped on. The tackles will make three quarters of a million bucks each for their labors while the center must do with just $646,000 in pay.

On the defensive side of the ball, the ends and tackles will each make a shade over $1,000,000 for their day’s work. They must endure the constant pounding of their opponents on the offensive line making a lot less than they do and who resent them every minute for it. Linebackers, more agile than linemen, also out-earn them–by $200,000, their justification being they are there to not only defend against passes but also to cover up missed tackles by the linemen.

There are four guys playing in the secondary. They are called cornerbacks and safeties. The two cornerbacks are responsible for stopping the run and, more importantly, covering deep when the play is a run away from them. They’ll each make a million bucks every Sunday. The other two deep defensive players, the strong safety and the free safety are supposed to stop the short passing game and help stop the run. Those two safeties will average $800,000 for the day.

The safeties and cornerbacks who cover the wide receivers make about the same amount of money as the receivers and oftentimes whoever wins this battle wins the game.

Those responsible for the kicking game, i.e., the kicker, and the punter, will each stop by the bursar’s window on the way out and pocket a quarter of a million bucks each.

It is easy to see why young men aspire to play in the NFL. The rewards are huge. We’ll talk about the inherent dangers next week.

Sports Bits ‘N Pieces

On July 15th, 1941, Joe DiMaggio hit in his 56th straight game. The next night, Indians third baseman Ken Keltner robbed him of two hits by snaring hard hit balls deep behind third, nipping the Yankee Clipper at first base both times, by a half-step, ending the streak. The Heinz Company had announced they would reward Joe with a $10,000 bonus had he gotten to the company’s branded number, “57.” In today’s dollars, that bonus would equate to $171,220. The next night, Joe began a sixteen game hitting streak. I’ll bet Heinz gave their marketing people a nice bonus for guessing right. (Contributed by Dave Reese)

Southpaw Don Liddle was brought in to pitch to just one batter, Cleveland’s Vic Wertz, in the 1954 World Series. One on, one out, the Giants ahead in the eighth inning. Liddle delivered his first pitch and Wertz creamed it, sending the ball to the deepest center field in baseball, 455 feet away at the Polo Grounds. Willie Mays was off at the crack of the bat to make what everyone agrees was the greatest catch in baseball history, racing as fast as he could, catching the ball over his head like a wide receiver way up the sideline. Only one foot from the center field wall, he twisted and rifled a throw to the cut-off man, holding the runner on base. Liddle, as planned, waited on the mound for the next reliever, Marv Grissom, holding back laughter as he handed him the ball, saying, “Okay, I got my man, now go get your’s!” The lead held and the Giants swept Cleveland in four games.

In the 1989 Super Bowl, quarterback Joe Montana huddled his 49ers team against the Cincinnati Bengals with 3:04 left in a last ditch effort to take them 92 yards for a touchdown and the win. Cool Joe, in the huddle under his own goalposts, spotted John Candy in the first row of spectators beyond the end zone. He stopped calling the play, saying to his teammates, “Hey guys, check it out, John Candy’s over there in the first row.” Guard Randy Cross would say later, “Montana has to be the coolest guy ever to play the game of football.” The Notre Dame grad then calmly directed his team down the field, completing 7 of 8 passes, the final one for 10 yards and a touchdown and the win to John Taylor with 0:10 left. Joe Montana was a truly magnificent football player.

In 1954, Stan Musial became the only player to hit five home runs in one day, two of them off knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, a veteran of the D-Day Normandy invasion, the first relief pitcher to make the Hall of Fame, and the only pitcher in the history of MLB to hit a homer in his very first at bat. Fifty-six years later at a Class A minor league game in Dunedin, Florida, I saw seventy-two-year old pitching coach Wilhelm in uniform, very drawn and wan, sitting down the right-field line in the visitor’s bullpen, smoking a cigarette. He couldn’t have weighed 150 pounds. I felt very sorry for this heroic legend of the game. Twenty-one-years in MLB, he missed the big pay days that came to many unworthy of carrying his glove.

Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal Football

The 20th Century Limited pulled out of elegant Grand Central Station in New York as my brother Dave and I headed overnight to South Bend, Indiana, to see Notre Dame play Southern Cal in 1983.

Factoid: The ride left me with new found knowledge that most rural cemeteries are placed hard by railroad tracks, I guess the thought being the land is cheap and the sound of the train’s wheels and whistles will hardly wake the dearly departed.

In upstate New York, a conductor came through our car’s door, closing it and shouting, seemingly in iambic pentameter attuned to the rhythmic sound of the train’s wheels, “Schenectady, Schenectady, next stop, Schenectady!” No sooner had he exited the car than another conductor entered where the first one had appeared but a moment before, echoing the same mantra, word for word.

My brother turned to me and said, “Boy, these guys have one hell of a union!”

The Trojans, on probation for recruiting violations, had beaten the Irish five straight times and Irish coach Gerry Faust decided wearing green jerseys might snap the losing streak.

It did, with Notre Dame prevailing, 27-6, in such a lopsided win that my brother turned to me in the fourth quarter, saying, “One must surmise that if these Southern Cal players are the best they could get by cheating, they clearly don’t cheat very well, either.”

The game paled in comparison to the pep rally the night before, a tradition unparalleled at any school in the country. The convocation center was filled to the brim with cheering students, alumni and fans. I had wanted to go to a Notre Dame rally since I was a ten-year old kid listening to Notre Dame games and pretending I was the Fighting Irish quarterback in the sandlot game following.

The brothers Shea, students at the time, could have had no idea the song they wrote in 1908 beginning with “Cheer, Cheer, for Old Notre Dame” would set the standard for college fight songs forever. The band must’ve played the Notre Dame fight song ten times that night, with what sounded like a hundred trumpets, before the arrival of the team into the building “shook down the thunder from the skies.”

Players entreated the crowd to cheer as loudly the next day and the team would surely win.

It’s held that a young assistant coach at Navy implored his head coach to allow him to attend the pep rally on the night before the Midshipmen were to play the Irish because he had heard so much about it as a kid, as did I, growing up in the Northeast. He promised he’d stop by just for a moment to see what this rally fuss was all about.

He returned two hours later to his team’s hotel to find the Navy coaching staff going over final preparations for the game the next day.

The coach asked him how he enjoyed the pep rally.

Without hesitation, he answered, “I hope they beat you bastards!”

The One-Two Punch

Certainly I was no stranger to the term one-two punch by the summer of 1958.

I had read of Ruth and Gehrig batting third and clean up, respectively, during the Yankee dynasty of the 1930s.

I had witnessed the “Touchdown Twins,” Blanchard and Davis of Army, totally dominate college football in the 1940s.

Gil Hodges and Duke Snider would lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to five pennants and a World Series win during the 1950s.

And only recently had Bill Russell joined Bob Cousy on the Boston Celtics to begin changing basketball forever.

May I set the stage, though, to the greatest one-two punch I’ve ever witnessed?

It took place not on a gridiron or a diamond or a court or a boxing ring. The locale was our family run summer resort on Fire Island, New York, just off Long Island.

The few spectators who witnessed this sporting spectacular had no idea what they were about to see.

The impresario of this Madison Square Garden wannabe was my dad, a gruff fifty-five year old veteran of growing up tough in Depression-era Brooklyn. Hardened through tough times by a snappy wit, a keen eye, and an athlete’s moves, he ran the Leja Beach Casino with an iron fist curled up inside a velvet glove, seeing to both the care of the cash register and the well being of all our family members who ran its restaurant, motel, bar and general store.

Patrons would from time to time cause consternation through errant speech or action, in its vilest form causing dismissal from the island on the next boat, never to be allowed back again onto its hallowed sands.

Sometimes, though, sterner action was needed.

My older brother–a former Marine and All New York City high school running back–and I were tending bar one afternoon when a tough looking guy came through the swinging doors separating the dining room from the bar.

 

Picture Lee Marvin coming through said doors. Immediately following Marvin was my father making the baseball safe sign, in bar sign language meaning, “no more for this guy.”

Apparently he had used vile language to a teen-age cousin working at our snack bar and she had reported him to my father.

My brother told the guy as he approached the bar that he’d been cut off. The guy immediately turned to go after my father who was now about three feet behind him. Dad instinctively jumped into John Wayne mode and literally lifted the unsuspecting Marvin three feet in the air with a fake right and then a left upper-cut, the likes of which this reporter has never seen since.

By this time, quarterback that I was, I had sent my All-City running back brother over the bar to pursue the miscreant Marvin, now up, and according to the NFL rules of the time, allowed to keep running until downed for certain.

Better for him had he taken a knee.

He beat my brother to the screen door leading to the boardwalk and freedom, or so he thought. After about a ten-yard chase, my brother caught up with him and with a gigantic leap came down with his fist to the escapee’s back, creating within him an “oomph” loss of breath sound heard back on the mainland seven miles across the Great South Bay.

The Lee Marvin look-a-like was immediately mainland bound on the police boat while my brother and I went back to serving ice-cold Budweiser for .25 cents each.

Dad went back to his previous perch on the back porch to re-unite with his ever present cigar.

You didn’t want to mess around at the Casino.

Not if you wanted to hang around at the Casino.

Further Football Factoids

What was Division 1-A college football is now called “The Power Five” and is made up of 65 teams from the PAC-12, Big 12, Big 10, ACC, SEC, plus Notre Dame.

What was once Division 1-AA is now called “The Group of Five” and is made up of 63 schools from the following conferences: American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference and the Sun Belt Conference.

The chances of a “Group of 5” school making the college playoffs is next to nil. Maybe the same as Rex Ryan being named head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. A “Group of 5” school would have to run the table and then hope they had a win or two against a “Power Five” school as well.

The road to the top for the “Group of 5” is further hampered in that the “Power 5” schools like to prepare for the run to the title by playing a couple of “Group of 5” teams early in the season, commonly called “Cupcake Games” by other, more mean-spirited, members of the media.

A few years ago, “Group of 5” teams were 0-35 against ranked “Power 5” teams.

Why do “Group of 5” teams even play “Power 5” teams? Money, pure and simple.

Last year Idaho was guaranteed a million bucks to play Florida in Gainesville. When their plane landed, it sat out a horrendous two-hour Florida late summer storm in the terminal. The game was canceled, Idaho got their $1,000,000 check, re-boarded their plane and went home, healthy, wealthy, and wise. Healthy because they avoided losing 50-0, wealthy because of the check, and wise because they saved the expense of having to wash their uniforms that week.

Minnesota has hired a former “Group of 5” coach to lead the Gophers. P.J. Fleck went from 1-11 to 13-1 in four years at Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference, narrowly missed beating Wisconsin, Minnesota’s neighboring Big 10 rival, in a bowl game last year. He was the natural choice of a guy with the right credentials to move from “Group of 5” to “Power 5”. But even a 12-0 record wasn’t enough to get his team into the Top Four playoff picture. There is talk about moving from 4 to 8 teams in the College Football Playoffs. I think that’s inevitable but probably a few years away.

Top Goofy College Nicknames

  1. UC Santa Cruz-The Banana Slugs
  2. U. Of Idaho-The Vandals
  3. Webster U.-The Gorlocks
  4. Campbell University-The Fighting Camels
  5. Coe College-The Kohawks
  6. New Mexico Mining-The Pygmies
  7. NC School of The Arts-The Fighting Pickles
  8. Puerto Rico University-The Tarzan and Janes
  9. Shiner College-The Flaming Smelts

Hang tight. We are only 56 days away from the Oregon State Beavers kicking off the season at Colorado State. Ten days later the Patriots host the Chiefs to get us back into NFL land for another six glorious months!

Speeding Up Baseball

There is general consensus that baseball games are too long. All levels have tried ways of speeding things up but few have succeeded. MLB is concerned that future generations will drift away from the boredom today’s game engenders, never to return.

Football, basketball and hockey are outdistancing what was once our national pastime because of one common difference between baseball and those other sports–a ticking time clock visible to fans.

We binge on television series for hours at home but we have breaks or fridge raids where we pause the action and press resume play when we return. MLB execs say baseball viewers at home drift away from watching after just fifty-minutes and don’t return.

Even with earnest attempts, baseball has become even slower. MLB instituted an automatic intentional walk, without a pitch being thrown. That, plus a clock on shorter review time of replays, somehow still added on average eight minutes per game over last year.

College baseball is even worse. Third base coaches call the type of pitch to be thrown. Armed with stats and charts galore, they size up the situation, shift the fielders, ponder the odds, and then through a series of Byzantine arm and hand motions tell the waiting catcher what pitch to call.

Every team in this year’s college World Series used this method, extending the season well beyond the school year.

Asked what can be done to speed up the game, my executive review committee offered differing views.

One problem is too many pitches are being thrown with no resultant action. 30% of at-bats this MLB season have resulted in strike outs or walks. That’s super boring.

In the great Mazeroski 1960 World Series 10-9 ten-inning game-seven thriller, there wasn’t a single strikeout. Of the 77 total plate appearances in that game, only five walks were issued. That’s exciting baseball!

(Trivia Factoid: Prior to the mid-1970s, television networks and stations did not preserve their telecasts of sporting events, choosing instead to tape over them. As a result, the broadcasts of the first six games from 1960 are no longer known to exist. The lone exception is a black-and-white kinescope of the entire telecast of Mazeroski’s Game 7, which was discovered in a wine cellar in Bing Crosby’s former home in Hillsborough, California in December 2009. Crosby owned the Pirates in 1960.)

“Teach pitchers to better throw first pitch strikes to get ahead in the count,” was cogently suggested by my brother, himself a former college player.

Cutting the number of innings to seven was suggested by some but rejected by many.

Because the team ahead after eight innings wins 95% of the games, play only eight inning games and reduce game time by 11%, Tommy said.

Do absolutely nothing to the tradition that is baseball, Mike volunteered.

Getting rid of batting gloves and all the fidgeting that goes with them would help.

The NFL is encouraging more celebrations after scores. Maybe baseball should follow suit allowing teams to greet the batter en masse at home plate after a dinger. Retaliation by a pitcher might quickly escalate to danger, though.

Limiting visits to the mound by catchers was a favorite remedy.

Because of the size and speed of throwers and runners, perhaps expanding the diamond to greater distances from mound to home and base to base might help, suggested Dan.

Aaron thought enlarging the size of the baseball to create more home runs might work.

Eliminate the eight additional warm up pitches relievers take on the mound after having already thrown in the bullpen.

Baseball players care less how long games take. Neither do football or basketball players, but a ticking clock to get a play off or shoot the ball has given those sports a decided edge in fan support simply because something is always happening.

If baseball is successful in instituting a 20-second pitch clock in 2018, it will greatly shorten and hopefully improve the game.

It will bring MLB back in line with the NFL and the NBA and build a foundation of younger fans who want faster action.

Let’s Talk Football

With teams getting ready to report to training camp, the heat of summer will soon give way to the lively leaves of autumn and America’s true national pastime will push streaming English mysteries off our television sets for the next six months.

Let’s get down to basics. The most important players on any team are the quarterbacks and the safeties. The quarterbacks because they get points quickly and the safeties because they prevent points from being gotten quickly.

More games are won or lost at those two positions than any other combination on the field. Sure, you hear the old adage that the running game sets up the passing game. It doesn’t. The opposite is true. Seldom is there a drive longer than forty yards. Fumbles, penalties, sacks, missed blocking assignments and dropped passes all negate long scoring drives with predictable accuracy.

The skill positions make the most money because they thrill the fans more. That wasn’t always the case but 1978 changed all that. Rule changes favoring the offense turned the NFL into a Barnum and Bailey circus and put a premium of throwing the ball towards and into the end zone. Fans loved it and the networks now are able to charge forty times more for a Super Bowl commercial than they did back in the day.

Joe Namath was a quarterback who was fearless standing in the pocket. I was at Shea Stadium at a Jets-Oakland game back in the late 1960s when he got sacked mercilessly by two huge tackles who broke straight at him because of poor protection. The sack wasn’t the kind where a rusher gets a piece of the jersey and turns the quarterback around and down. They don’t hurt. The two guys who got Broadway Joe must have stretched ten-foot high, totally blocking his downfield vision.

He got clobbered, clawed, chewed up and spit out with five-hundred pounds of Oakland smothering him.

The very next play, same formation, higher down and longer distance, Namath once again took a snap under center, faded back into the same pocket and held the ball perhaps just a nano-second less than before. He released the ball a fraction of an inch higher and threw a sixty-yard touchdown pass to a streaking receiver. As soon as the ball cleared the rushers’ fingers, they clobbered him with the same ferocity as the last play. As the crowd cheered, such was the respect the Oakland players had for Namath, they helped him up and shook his hand.

The Jets went on from there to win the Super Bowl.

When Brett Favre retired, nobody had thrown more touchdown passes and had more interceptions than he. That’s why he was called “The Gunslinger.” A three time NFL MVP and Super Bowl winner, he played with a gusto and fervor seldom seen in a quarterback. Teammates and opponents loved playing with and against him. He would’ve switched positions and played pulling guard to lead the famed Green Bay sweep if it would have helped his team. Lombardi would’ve loved coaching him.

In 2001, the Giants were playing the Packers in a season ending game with New York defensive end Michael Strahan, a team player if ever there was one, needing one sack to break an NFL record held by a show boat named Mark Gastineau, who danced and pranced after every sack.

In the game’s final series, with Green Bay comfortably ahead and assured of a playoff spot, Farve rolled out and fell down at the feet of Strahan, giving the end the record. Only Favre could have gotten away with that. In the celebration, the veteran Strahan walked over to Favre leaving the field and shook his hand.

Purists may find fault with that scenario. Players clearly understand the respect shown to worthy opponents.

Vince Lombardi and Vietnam

In 1955, Fordham dropped football. I was the quarterback on the freshman football team and likely would have been a three-year starter had they not ended the sport.

Vince Lombardi, a Fordham graduate, had just finished his first year as the backfield coach of the New York Giants after serving as an assistant coach to Colonel Earl “Red” Blaik at West Point.

The Saturday after the announcement of Fordham discontinuing football, Lombardi asked me to go with him to West Point to look it over and mingle with the cadets to see if I’d like to go there.

Vince assured me he’d have no trouble securing a Congressional appointment for me, something all aspirants must procure prior to being admitted.

Everything about Coach Lombardi that day exuded confidence and leadership.

I spent the day touring the campus, the stadium, the mess hall during lunch when 2,000 cadets were all eating together, and going to a hockey game.

I was escorted by assistant coach Paul Dietzel who four years later would lead LSU and their “Chinese Bandits,” as they were called, to the national championship.

Coach Dietzel spoke of having seen the Fordham-Army freshman football game a few months before. He remarked that if I chose to come to the Academy, I’d be playing with some of the best players in the country.

There was a noticeable singleness of purpose all over the grounds. Military drilling was taking place with extreme coordination the goal. I was not new to this regimen as I had spent a year at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania after high school. Nonetheless, the entire aura of West Point was present everywhere.

We went to meet Coach Blaik in his office and I couldn’t get over his resemblance in manner and speech to his idol, General Douglas MacArthur, a true American hero of WW II.

So loyal was Blaik to MacArthur, the coach had his offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi, make the round trip each Sunday from West Point to the General’s residence at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan to narrate the previous day’s game film to MacArthur.

On our drive home, Vince asked, “Well, Jim, what do you think?”

One of the few who ever said no to Coach Lombardi, I told him after having attended military school, I wanted a traditional campus experience.

With Vince’s help, within a week, I left for the University of Minnesota, a move I’ve never regretted, where a group of great receivers enabled us to break the Gopher single game passing record at the time.

Graduation from West Point required a five year commitment on active duty as a Second Lieutenant. That stint would have landed me in the middle of the Vietnam war, leading a platoon into battle.

According to Department of Defense records, half of the men holding the rank of Second Lieutenant were killed in action serving in Vietnam.

Over the decades, I’ve often thought, but for a single word to Lombardi, I too might have joined that long list of heroic West Point graduates who so honorably served our country in battle and truly gave their last ounce of courage for our country’s well being.  I have seen the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington.  I will never forget the feeling of sorrow I felt standing and staring at those engraved names.

Sports Galore

Recently, I could have watched college and pro basketball, caged fighting, women’s softball, MLB, three NHL games, college hockey, an insufferable number of ill informed talking heads babbling incessantly, commentary on the NFL draft, lacrosse and college baseball.

All I needed was four remotes and a set of directions that would’ve driven Albert Einstein up a learning tree.

A word or two of caution: Do not venture into this new world of entertainment alone. It is far too complicated. Have a sympathetic family member either on hand or a text away to walk you through the permutations necessary for quick connections.

A second word of caution: Have a list of every password you’ve accumulated since AOL first asked you to use one a decade ago. You’ve forgotten them. Your television set hasn’t.

In this season of slow sports, may I direct your attention to some streaming entertainment activities coming out of that same box up on that wall.

I have fallen hard for series involving detective work. I recommend a beauty named “Big Little Lies” starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. Great acting in this who-killed-who-and-why adventure. Kidman steals the show.

British shows are great. Potboilers such as “Broad Church” and “Foyle’s War” are but two of many detective shows. World War II films “The Bletchley Girls” and “Home Fires” recall valiant efforts on the part of women contributing to the war effort.

Family viewers will love “Heartland,” a warm story of trials and triumphs on a Canadian ranch, and of course the incomparable “Downton Abbey,” the standard by which all series are measured for historical significance, scenery, and acting.

Whoever thought Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson could ever share a screen together while trying to solve a murder in the American South without stumbling over each other with mumbling and braggadacio? Well, they both underplay their roles to artistic success in “True Detective,” a series you’ll binge on for sure.

If you are holding off on watching “Breaking Bad,” as was I, forget it and get on board as Bryan Cranston playing Walter White playing beat-the-clock as an inventive meth pedaling high school science teacher fighting cancer. Riveting in an ingenious plot of close calls, family discord, drug use and deceit, it compares favorably to anything on television.

A side comment: Apple TV has come out with a remote that accepts verbal commands. No more will you have to play ‘click the letters’ to find a show. You simply say, for instance, “The Killing,” and your screen will display for you in a second a great Swedish mystery now in its fourth season.

So, while we all await the teeing up of the first football game of the year, chill out, as have I, and enjoy what many are calling the golden age of television.

Enjoying all this from the comfort of a lazy boy is simply frosting on the cake.

The Spike

When will the NFL learn to leave bad enough alone?

In a shortsighted move, they have legislated once again in favor of individual showmanship over team play by allowing end zone celebrations to return, unfettered.

In 1965, New York Giants receiver Frank Gifford caught a touchdown pass and flipped the ball to a kid in the stands. The next morning, the staid NFL levied a $500 fine should anyone dare repeat Gifford’s benevolent act.

A week later, a rookie Giant named Homer Jones, a mercurial receiver, the 278th player chosen in the draft, had a brainstorm of an idea. Wanting to be recognized by the crowd, he caught a long pass and realizing the financial penalty for emulating teammate Gifford’s effort, he spiked the ball upon reaching the end zone, receiving the love of the crowd, yet not the lessening of his pay check.

It was off to the races for every imaginable circus show by men poorly trained in choreography playing skill positions in the NFL.

Billy “White Shoes” Johnson waddled like Donald Duck after a punt return. Ickey Woods did the shuffle, to this day memorialized in GEICO commercials.

DeSean Jackson tip-toed across the field on the Giants one-yard-line, teasing pursuers until the second he jumped over the goal line, ending the Giants season and sending the Eagles into the playoffs, the very definition of taunting.

Terrell Owens, the “Charlie Chaplin of Touchdown Terpsichore” will always be remembered for running into the end zone, whipping out a sharpie hidden in his pads, spotting a 49ers jersey, and throwing the autographed football to her, a souvenir for the ages.

Acceptance or rejection of the liberalization of end zone celebrations is purely generational. My age group lives by the “team” concept and abhors showmanship. So does my son. Not so much with my grandson. He welcomes the frivolity.

One provision of the rules change states that the clock starts immediately upon the referee signaling touchdown. With only 40 seconds to get off the extra point, the celebration will have to be more of an extended group handshake and less of a Broadway musical closing number lest the point after touchdown be preceded by a game delay penalty.

The irony of the Homer Jones spike giving birth to such nonsense is that he is seldom remembered for being the greatest career pass receiver in average yards per catch for those with over 200 receptions, but more recalled by Giant fans for snaring a look-in pass and streaking 80 yards towards pay dirt before spiking the ball five yards short of the goal line, an errant act followed by a parade of similarly arithmetically challenged gentlemen over the years.

I must even admit that I tired quickly of the recent Victor Cruz salsa routines, and even more so when Odell Beckham snapped his picture with an I-phone.

Even as a life-long Giants fan, I just had to throw the flag on that.

Hut One, Hut Two…

The Greatest Yankee

Saying Babe Ruth wasn’t the greatest Yankee of all time is like saying Mother Teresa wasn’t the toughest nun of all time. Well, he wasn’t, and neither was she. My eighth grade teacher, Sister Maria Gonzalez, was the toughest nun ever, and Yogi Berra was arguably the greatest Yankee ever.

Sure, I know the Babe turned the game upside down with his prodigious home run records and out-sized personality, and, yeah, he was a great pitcher with another ball club (Red Sox) before coming to Yankee Stadium. Both he and Lou Gehrig, batting back-to-back for so many years, truly benefited each other all through the 1920s and beyond. And together their play saved baseball after the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919 wherein it was found the White Sox threw the Series.

Ruth’s flamboyant lifestyle cost him playing time and denied him a shot at managing the Yankees, the greatest franchise of all time, management fearing his carousing habits would rub off on his players. He died young at 53.

In addition to Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter were also all tremendous Yankees, enjoying careers that led to Cooperstown, and will for Jeter the first year he is eligible.

But nobody crafted a career of success better than Berra. Along with Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, they are considered the two greatest winners in American sports history.

Standing only 5’8″, Yogi played in 13 World Series, winning 10, the most by anybody in the history of baseball. He played catcher, the most important position on the diamond, comparable to an NFL quarterback in that he was responsible for managing pitchers in making pitching decisions every bit as much as a quarterback does in changing plays at the line of scrimmage to take advantage of defensive situations. All other defensive baseball players simply stand where they are told based on stats showing where batters are most likely to hit.

Berra was the AL MVP three times, matching DiMaggio and Mantle.

Berra made 18 straight All-Star games and was hired to manage both the Yankees and Mets after retiring as a player. In 1973, he took over the Mets after the death of Gil Hodges and got them into the World Series.

One cannot deny Ruth’s 714 career home runs, but that record was accompanied by 1,330 strikeouts. It was all or nothing for the Babe. Indeed, nearly 50% of his hits were for extra bases. And he struck out almost 20% of the time. Berra struck out only 4% of the time while hitting 358 home runs.

Ruth’s domination of the Roaring 1920s in the eyes of sports fans came about in a very strange and sorrowful way.

Ruth had been a great pitcher with the Red Sox for five years before joining the Yankees, winning 95 games in that span. Back then, pitchers always worked with a dirty baseball. Foul balls hit into the stands were returned to the pitcher. Baseballs were used until the stitches literally began to fall off, so cheap were the owners. It was heaven for cheating pitchers to use spitballs or cut the ball up with a blade to make it dance funny on the way to the plate. Advantage: Pitcher. (Ruth)

In Ruth’s first year with the Yankees, the only fatality from a pitched ball occurred. It was determined that the batter never saw the dirty ball coming and he died 12 hours after being beaned. Immediately the rules were changed, taking the ball out of play when judged unfit for use by the umpire, providing a clean white baseball to hit every at-bat. Advantage: Batter. (Ruth)

What effect did that have on hitting?

That same year, Ruth hit more home runs himself, (54)—up from 29 the previous year—and greater than the total of 14 of the other 16 major league teams. The following year he would hit 59. St. Louis Browns first-baseman George Sisler had 247 hits in 1920, 77 more than the previous year. It would take Ichiro Suzuki 84 years to break Sisler’s record. The live-ball era had begun to open the ’20s and the fans wanted more and more home runs, leading to Ruth’s outsized popularity. Ruth was in the right place at the right time and he certainly took advantage of it.

At 5’8″, Berra became the best “bad ball” hitter in baseball history because all he ever saw were pitches away since his reach was so short. He drove in over 100 runs every year. Pitches low and away became line drives up the alleys and high pitches became home runs. Dodger Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella once said of Berra, “You can’t throw it bad enough by him!”

And Yogi never forgot where he came from. At Christmas, he would go back to St. Louis and sell Christmas trees with his boyhood buddy Joe Garagiola to raise money for a local orphanage.

No team in history has had the continued greatness of six players like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and Jeter. Who was the best? A strong case can be made for each of them, as I did in a previous post.

I happen to think Yogi’s offense, defense and managing skills gets the nod over “The Bambino,” “The Iron Horse,” “Joltin’ Joe,” “The Mick,” and “Mr. November.”

Raiders Move to Vegas

The Oakland Raiders, after haphazardly hopscotching up and down the California coast for nearly six decades, are finally going to settle in the Nevada desert, playing football in front of a dedicated group of revelers in the gaming capital of the world.

They will likely be the only professional sports team in history whose home crowd will be entirely made up of people from all fifty states, bent strictly on gambling.

Gee, what could possibly go wrong with that arrangement?

Faithful all  this time, the black and silver painted Raider fans have been dealt a low blow.

Reports have the team playing in San Antonio for 2018 and 2019 before settling in the shadows of the Mirage and Bellagio gambling dens, denying even further those faithful football fans a final rooting pleasure.

In either event, Oakland will have some time to adjust to withdrawal pangs, unlike Baltimore fans.

They never saw the owner of their Colts, Robert Irsay, (literally once upon a midnight dreary) in the dark of night, cowardly back up a bevy of eighteen-wheel Mayflower moving vans and deliver the city’s franchise to Indianapolis, just another of many owners over the years who’ve betrayed their fans.

Et tu, Irsay? Et tu?

It would be thirteen more years before Cleveland Browns owner Arthur Modell would move his own team to Baltimore, leaving broken the hearts of one of the greatest fan bases the NFL ever had, “Dawg Pound” and all, on the banks of Lake Erie.

Fortunately, upon arriving in Baltimore, Modell had the good sense to honor Baltimore’s favorite son, the long dead poet Edgar Allen Poe, by re-naming the team the “Ravens.”

The Browns, even with another new team a decade later, are still losers.

Can you say Johnny Manziel?

I experienced first hand a franchise relocating when my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1957. No team in sports history ever had a more loyal fan base than those “Bums.” Perpetual losers, coiners of the phrase, “Wait ’til next year,” they finally hit baseball nirvana in 1955 when they beat the reviled Yankees in the World Series.

Two years later, through greed and avarice alone, they moved 3,000 miles away.

It took New York National League baseball years to recover until Boston’s Bill Buckner’s blunder ended one post-season famine while prolonging another.

A sense of loyalty in sports is a thing of the past. It starts in high school with kids, encouraged by parents, switching schools to find their best fit. Players in college, instead of waiting their turn, transfer to another program. Others leave after a single year–one and done it’s called—to get the big pay checks in the NBA.

And owners will continue to move at the drop of either a dollar or a sparkling new stadium paid for by wealthy casino owners or beneficent municipalities.

Hut One, Hut Two…

Ed. Note: Discussions continue as to who is the greatest Yankee of all time. My previous post on the subject reviewed the accomplishments of the six nominees, i.e., Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and Jeter. In our next Coach’s Corner, I’ll share my selection with you. You might be surprised at my pick.

Two-A-Days

The NCAA recently enacted a rule that two-a-day football practices will no longer be allowed. I am all for player safety but removing two-a-days is not the panacea.  To the contrary, it is the time you get in shape to avoid injuries during the season.

Back in the day, as summer ended, you knew that two-a-day practices were just around the corner. Dreaded more than the plague, these interminable hours made men out of boys, and tyrants out of coaches.

Every day over the next three weeks you had to be on the field by 5:30 am, ready to start hitting the moment your cleats touched grass. I don’t ever remember any of us talking to one another so angry were we to have fallen victim to this carnage.

Anybody who has ever played football will tell you the first day of practice is a breeze. You are working out the kinks of an indolent summer spent doing everything but exercising. Jogging the beach and frolicking in the ocean’s waves was not working out.

On that initial practice your body is saying to you, “Okay, today I am going to take it easy on you. Tomorrow, we’ll get serious.”

You are lulled into a false sense of comfort, saying to yourself, “This is a piece of cake.”

Twenty-four hours later, you are bent over, exhausted, vomiting, feeling chest pains heretofore experienced only by Roman soldiers at the Battle of Carthage in 149 BC. They were fortunate in that they had the solace of death.

No such luck for us after the sun had risen on this second day of pain and torture.

Today’s pampered college players, half of whom will never bother to get a degree, are coddled by multi-million dollar coaches housed in football emporiums the size and grandeur of English mansions straight out of Downton Abbey.

Back then we had half the number of coaches these staffs have today and in the process drew far fewer penalties, both on the field and off. We all graduated and respected our colleges and universities. And we never got in trouble.

There is even talk now of paying these players. Hello…they are already paid, and handsomely so. If they apply themselves academically, they’ll face a future, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a million dollars richer for having gone to college.

And they’ll not be burdened with student loans because their college costs will have already been paid.

One caveat was granted with eliminating that second practice session each day. Teams may have an additional afternoon “walk-through” but no wearing of equipment or touching is allowed.

Why don’t they just call it what it is, i.e., ball room dancing, and let the marching bands play lilting ballads to get everybody in the mood. Give me a break!

So this is where we are in college football. When I played, you had three weeks of two-a-day practices in bruising summer heat followed by a full season where everybody had to play both offense and defense.

Sixty minutes, week in, week out!

Hut one, Hut two!

Who is the Greatest Yankee of All Time?

Greatest Yankee 

Who is the greatest Yankee of all time?

Is it the incomparable, bigger-than-life Babe Ruth, an incorrigible kid from the streets of Baltimore who changed the way the game was played by hitting more home runs himself in 1920 than any other team in the entire American League, and in so doing, literally rescued the game, going down for the count after the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919? “The Bambino,” who, before becoming the greatest hitter the game had ever seen, won 95 games over five years as the best pitcher in baseball. A roustabout, his own proclivity for high living cost him a shot at what he really wanted, a big league manager’s job. He died young at 53. His home run record of 714 stood for decades before finally being passed by Hank Aaron.

Lou Gehrig, aka “The Iron Horse,” was a substitute player in 1925 when regular first-baseman Wally Pipp, complaining of an upset stomach, asked to sit out the game. So manager Miller Huggins asked the native New Yorker from the Bronx to play first base that day. And he did so for 2,130 straight games, spread over the next 14 years. Gehrig and Ruth formed the greatest one-two slugging duo in the game’s history, collectively hitting over 1,200 home runs before the illness bearing Lou’s name took his life at 37. His farewell speech at Yankee Stadium is considered one of the most poignant moments in sports history. Near death, he told the crowd, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Joe DiMaggio came up as a rookie and was a major part of four straight World Series championships. He left to serve in WW II, losing three seasons to service. He hit in 56 straight games 75 years ago and no one has come close to that yet. “Joltin’ Joe” set the standard for playing center field, so smooth was he that he never seemed hurried but always snared the fly ball at the last second or cut off runners trying to get that extra base. When the United States lost its way in the 1960s, Simon and Garfunkel asked, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” so strong was the public’s yearning to return to the happier times that the Yankee Clipper represented.

Mickey Mantle had perhaps the greatest raw talent of any Yankee who ever donned the pinstripes. When Joe retired, Mickey took over center field seamlessly, hitting with power and running down deep drives into the cavernous outfield alleys of Yankee Stadium. He hit over 500 home runs, stole bases with blazing speed, and played hurt perhaps more than he should have. Once I heard the great Bear Bryant say while sharing the broadcasting booth with fellow Alabaman Mel Allen that Mantle could start on any Tide team he had ever coached. Mantle lived too hard and died too young. When he was healthy, no one was better. Too often living the high life, “The Mick” died at 64.

Yogi Berra said he never said half the things he said. Master of the malaprop, Berra was the best bad ball hitter in the history of the game. He hit the first pinch hit home run in a World Series, and along with basketball great Bill Russell is considered the greatest winner in sports history. He had 10 World Series Championships (the most of any player in MLB history) and he managed both the Yankees and the Mets. He was an 18 time All-Star and three time AL MVP. He said his saddest moment as a player was watching Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 home run sail over the left-field wall at Forbes Field giving the Pirates the only walk-off home run world championship in MLB until that date. Yogi coined the phrase, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” as a mantra to always keep trying.

Derek Jeter struggled early, being sent down to the minors a couple of times before embarking on his long Yankee career. In an era of steroids and performance enhancing drugs, Jeter was respected for his hard play, clean living and devotion to the Yankees. Along with Willie Mays, he made one of the most memorable plays ever in post-season play when he raced across the infield, relaying a throw from deep right to nail the runner at the plate, sending New York into the 2001 World Series. He had a higher World Series batting average than Berra, Mantle, and DiMaggio, and played in more regular season games than any other Yankee. He is the all time Yankee leader in hits, stolen bases, doubles and at bats. He captained five World Championships and hit .311 lifetime in resuscitating a dying franchise.

I have taken a close look at all the players above, reviewed their individual and team accomplishments, their contributions to the game of baseball, and their lasting influence on the American public. I will share next time my further thoughts with you as I choose my “Greatest Yankee of Them All.”

A Note from Coach’s Corner

Now that football season is over, I’ll be writing Coach’s Corner less often until we tee the ball up again come late August.

First of all, thanks so much for your reading my weekly blog. It is a pleasure writing for you.

As sporting news of interest comes up over the next six months, I’ll be writing about it from time to time.

So keep an eye out still for the occasional Coach’s Corner.

Thanks,

Jim Reese

The National Faux-Pas League

For the second time in the past three years, ridiculous play selection has cost a team destined to be Super Bowl champion to be no more than a footnote to history, an errant call away from the pinnacle of football to a heartbreaking ending to a soon to be forgotten season.

In both of those instances, boneheaded play selection and/or inefficient execution has given the championship to the New England Patriots. Bear in mind, Brady, Belichick, et. al., need no help whatsoever in winning titles. They know very well how to do that by themselves.

Two years ago, in SB 49–please excuse the absence of Roman numerals as I still haven’t conquered the alphabetizing of numbers–for some totally unknown reason, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, instead of turning around on second-and-goal from the one with less than a minute to go and giving the ball to monster running-back Marshawn Lynch to barrel into the end zone for the winning touchdown, decided to throw the ball.

Not a fade route to the deep corner of the end zone where there would have been fairly secure one-on-one man coverage but rather into a melange of red, white, blue, grey and yellow uniforms on the goal line with a half dozen arms grabbing for the ball. Predictably, the ball flew into the chest of a Patriot defender three yards away. Game over, New England Patriots are Super Bowl champions.

Fast forward two years to Atlanta and New England this past Sunday. Julio Jones makes a great catch, putting the ball on the Patriots twenty-two yard line, first-and-ten, 4:47 to go in the game with the Falcons up 28-20.

Sitting up in the heavenly coaches box, Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Bill Walsh all say the same thing. Run the ball to the center of the field, make the Patriots use their three remaining time outs, and kick a chip-shot field goal at which your kicker, by the way, has been perfect all season. Your running game has averaged 5.8 yards all day so it is very possible you might even drive the ball in for a touchdown.

But let’s say Atlanta gains no yardage on three rushes. New England still would have to use their timeouts to stop the clock from winding down. This is where the offensive coordinator of Atlanta, Kyle Shanahan, soon to be head coach of the 49ers (yikes) had to prove he was the smartest guy in the room.

If Belichick does nothing else well, he is extremely adept at getting the opposing coach to do something stupid at the most critical time. Note the Seattle fiasco of two years prior described above.

So a series of plays which started with the promise of grabbing an eleven-point lead only moments before now becomes a fourth down punt fair-caught at the five-yard line after a run, pass, sack, and holding penalty had moved the ball back to nearly mid-field, negating even an attempt at a field goal.

We really should have seen Shanahan’s shenanigans coming. When his team was up by 28-9 in the third period, he was presented with a gift of a botched Patriot’s on-side kick on his opponents’ 46-yard line. With the play calling acuity of an anvil, he had Atlanta go three-and-out and punt.

Atlanta never even saw the ball in overtime. For the second time in three years, the Patriots were presented with a gift of astounding stupidity enabling them to become Super Bowl Champions.

Maybe the old adage of “it is better to be lucky than good” is true after all.

At least young Shanahan had the honesty to say he blew it, something his father never did while leaving RGIII in a playoff game when he could hardly stand.

Who Will Win the Super Bowl?

Football games are made up of three elements, offense, defense, and special teams. Atlanta is playing New England so let’s have a look at those elements as they relate to both the Falcons and the Patriots.

And, oh, yes, owners play a role, too. Let’s address that up front and be done with it. The Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank, looks like he belongs in a Woody Allen movie. In his beautifully tailored vested suits and Gable mustache, he looks like he wouldn’t be caught dead in any one of his 2,274 Home Depot stores.

His counterpart, Patriots owner Robert Kraft has donated a Super Bowl ring to Russian Premier Vladimir Putin which is presently on display amongst other gifts at the Kremlin. Go ahead, Google that nugget.

A brief comment about coaching. This will be Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s first Super Bowl rodeo. Bill Belichick has been to so many Super Bowls, he has saddle sores. Good coaching counts. Edge to Belichick. When he was assisting Bill Parcells, he got the Tuna enough wins to get him into the HOF. Parcells never even mentioned Belichick by name in his acceptance speech. When Belichick gets in, it will be as the second greatest coach to Vince Lombardi in NFL history, and strictly on his own.

Offense: If Julio Jones catches nine or more passes, the Falcons will win. That doesn’t mean if he catches fewer, the Falcons lose. It’s entirely possible he’ll catch only three but those could well be seventy-yard touchdowns. Brady threw 432 passes this season. Only two–that is not a misprint–two were intercepted and he was sacked only 15 times. Ryan was picked off only seven times of 534 thrown but had 37 sacks. Both are terrific quarterbacks, prolific and skilled at reading defenses. But Ryan has Julio and Brady doesn’t. Passing game edge goes to the Falcons. Running the ball, they were within 200 yards of each other for the entire season and both achieved 13 touchdowns rushing. Running games are a wash.

Defense: Both teams are nearly equal on defense, giving up fairly similar yardage against both the run and the pass with Atlanta giving up about thirty yards a game more against the pass than the Patriots do. Look for Brady to hit receivers over the middle more against Atlanta zone defenses for shorter gains. Look for Ryan to hit Julio Jones in stride crossing over the middle to get him deep fast. I haven’t seen many bubble or tunnel screens by either team. The Pats really shine against the run, giving up a miserly 88 yards per game while Atlanta clocks in at 104. Memo to Pats: Stop Julio Jones.

Special Teams: It gets very interesting here. Atlanta is 34 of 37 on field goals with the longest being 59 yards. New England is 27 of 32 with 53 yards the longest. That six-yard difference in kicking distance might come into play late. On PAT’s, Atlanta holds a slight edge at 98 to 94 percent success rate. Kickoff and punt returns are pretty equal. Both teams have lost ten fumbles throughout the 2016 season. Both coverage units do a great job, holding net punting to slightly over forty-one yards. Special teams are a wash with Atlanta holding that slim edge on successful long range field goal kicking.

So who is going to win? If Ryan and Jones click often enough for big gains, Atlanta wins. If the New England staff can find a way to stop that, the experience of Belichick and Brady will carry the day. My pick: New England 28 vs Atlanta 24.

1978

The NFL was in a funk in 1978.

The 1977 season ending Super Bowl was exceedingly boring, the Denver Broncos losing to the Dallas Cowboys, 27-10. It was the first and only time two defensive players were the MVP’s.

It was also the first time the Super Bowl was played in prime time, and it bombed.

The Broncos especially stunk out the Superdome with quarterback Craig Morton completing only seven passes for just 61 yards before being benched in the second half by a journeyman quarterback named Norton Weese, after throwing his 5th interception.

:30 second commercials cost $125,000 and viewership had plateaued at just under 80 million.

Retrospective reviews have dubbed it the worst Super Bowl ever.

It was only four years earlier that Joe Namath had rallied the New York Jets to beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III that football fans everywhere loved because it brought parity to pro football with the AFL win and truly made all NFL teams competitive. Fans demanded faster action.

NFL suits knew something had to be done. The answer: more passing, less running.

In spectator sports, movement has always been what sparked attention. A tennis ball during volleys and serves, a streaking puck in a hockey game, a long home run in baseball, a three-point shot in basketball, a near-goal soccer kick, thoroughbreds racing each other down the home stretch. That is what spectators want.

Nobody ever cared what the eight gigantic Mammut mastodons facing each other on the line of scrimmage ever did, except maybe their mothers. The decades old gospel of the running game opening up the passing game was turned upside down in 1978 and fans quickly came to embrace more passing and less running.

Two major rule changes took place in 1978, both resulting in increased offensive production. For the first time, offensive linemen were permitted to extend their arms forward to pass protect for the quarterback, giving the quarterback much more time to read the defense and throw accordingly. In addition, whereas defensive backs always had been able to make contact with receivers all over the field, they were now restricted to that contact taking place only from the line of scrimmage to five yards downfield.

It has been a nightmare for defensive backs ever since.

The NFL’s  four top teams in 1977 had quarterbacks who collectively threw 61 touchdown passes and 51 interceptions for the entire season. That would now be a non-acceptable one-to-one ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions.

By 2016, those numbers had climbed to 137 touchdown passes and 29 interceptions, or a better than four-to-one ratio.

So touchdown passes went up exponentially as interceptions plummeted downward. Fans embraced the change.

Because of the perfecting of angles of pursuit by defenders, broken field running became a lost art in the NFL. Conversely, yards after the catch became the measurement of note. In 1977, only three receivers had more than 1,000 yards gained. By 2016, that number had soared to 22.

As productivity increased, so too did accuracy. The 1977 quarterbacks threw at a 56% completion rate while their 2016 counterparts raised that number to 67.5%.

And while there were 111 sacks of the four best quarterbacks in 1977, better pass protection in 2016 allowed only 94 sacks even though there were two more weeks of games played.

How did all these numbers effect the bottom line for the NFL?

Let’s look at the cost per :30 second commercial over the years for the Super Bowl.

1967 $42,000

1977  $125,000

1995  $1,000,000

2017  $5,000,000 (40 times 1977)

Viewership of Super Bowl 2017 is expected to top 189,000,000 people, nearly triple what it was in 1977.

The NFL never would’ve gotten this far continuing to play “three yards and a cloud of dust” football.

Hut one, Hut two.

Alliteration Run Amuck

Steeler receiver Antonio Brown preened and primped pompously into his iPhone for 18 misguided minutes after Pittsburgh beat Kansas City to advance to the AFC championship game against those bellicose Belichick boys up Boston way.

It was in violation of league rules that Brown did what he did (live streaming from the locker room on Facebook). Moreover, it was grossly in violation of mature behavior as well. Inviting teammates to join in, they pranced prettily for the thousands of fools watching them, Brown constantly reminded us. If you are so inclined to view this travesty of overpaid narcissists acting like a cadre of clown jesters, check it out on You Tube. It will remain a dagger in the hearts of Kansas City fans forever. Down eight and ninety yards away late, quarterback Alex Smith went the distance, bringing KC within two with a score. Going for the deuce and the tie, an offensive lineman was called for holding on the successful catch. Here’s my bitch. Forever, it has been said a ref could call holding in the line on every play. This was one of those. Too close to call, don’t call it. Not with the season on the line.

Years ago, people laughed when Joe Willie Namath guaranteed that his New York Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III even though the New Yorkers were 35 point underdogs. Namath made good his boast and he has never let the world forget it.

Fast forward fifty years and when Packer receiver Jared Cook, fleeing across the field to the far sideline like a frightened fox fleeing a forest fire, fingered an Aaron Rodgers fireball but a feather off the sideline, setting up a game winning field goal. Four and six eight weeks ago, Rodgers has run the table just as he said he would and is now but a stop in Atlanta away from the Super Bowl.

In the great college championship game between Alabama and Clemson, the Tigers stabbed the Elephant in the heart when, with but :01 left, Deshaun Watsun hit Hunter Renfrow for a score. That was cutting it pretty close. But the dye had been cast much earlier. In the second half, Alabama failed to convert on third down thirteen of fifteen times so strong was the Clemson defense. No sooner had the ‘Bama defense sat down but three plays later they were back on the field again. They were pooped and ready to pop in front of the Clemson crusade deep in the fourth quarter. But had the Crimson Tide converted just one more of those third down tries, Clemson never would have ended up with the time to score with :01 left.

Which brings us to the Lane Kiffin fiasco. All season long the offensive coordinator who drove Alabama to 13-0, he ups and takes the head job at Florida Atlantic University the week before the big game. Saban says “see ya” and brings in Steve Sarkisian from Southern California to call the plays. 13 of 15 wrong calls later, goodbye title. Heavens to Bear Bryant!

Football Nirvana

That time of year including all of autumn and a whisper of winter, known commonly throughout America as football season, is roaring towards a finale that saw a game for the ages on Monday night, while a cadre of eight surviving professional teams continues to march towards the Mountain of St. Vincent, yet still a month away in Houston at Super Bowl 51.

Why is it that every Alabama player, except gargantuan interior linemen, appears to be 6′ 3″, weigh 235 pounds, run like a thoroughbred stallion, and have the tensile strength of structural steel?

But even that wasn’t enough against the vengeful Clemson Tigers.

Let’s just call it the greatest college football game ever played and let it go at that. Because it was.

When Deshaun Watson hit Hunter Renfrow in the front corner of the end zone with :01 left, it culminated a late game Clemson comeback, revenging last year’s title loss to Alabama. It was the first time in 96 tries that Alabama under Nick Saban could not hold a double digit lead entering the fourth quarter. The fact that the Tide could not convert eleven straight times on late game third-downs killed them. Watson threw for 898 yards and seven touchdowns in two title games against ‘Bama.

They should make a special Heisman for him.

The NFL weekend saw Dolphins forget how to swim, Giants reduced greatly in size, Lions de-clawed, and the driverless Raider bus go belly up.

The “Killer Bees” of Pittsburgh, a species heretofore known to be more defensive than offensive, swarmed all over those Miami mammals. Ben, Brown, and Bell were deadly poisonous, both through the air and on the ground against the Dolphins. Take notice, Kansas City, the “Bees” are a-heading your way, looking for more honey-money.

It took a ‘Hail Mary’ first-half ending, Green Bay miracle touchdown to catch the Giants, but once they did, it wasn’t pretty for the Mara-Men, 38-13 losers to the Pack. Rodgers revved up, throwing for four scores with nary a pick, giving him twenty-two touchdown passes and zero interceptions ever since he made a late-season correction, predicting his then 4-6 Packers would run the table. They have. Heading down to the “Big D” this coming weekend, I think they’ll corral the Cowboys, so good has Rodgers been playing.

After siphoning any remaining gas the Oakland bus had upon losing quarterback Derek Carr, Houston will spend this coming weekend in New England. Enjoy your short stay, Texans, and don’t let the door hit you…………

Mercifully, Matthew Stafford can finally let the entire Detroit Lions team get off his back. Comeback fourth-quarter winner a record setting eight times this year, he couldn’t beat Russell Wilson out in Seattle, losing 26-6. Seattle has quietly put together a West Coast juggernaut under Pete Carroll. But waiting in Atlanta, the “Matt Von Ryan Express,” rested and ready, lies in wait to ground the soaring Seahawks.

Hut one, hut two….

“Back to the Future” Football…and Burt Reynolds, Too!

Last Friday night, the Michigan Wolverines traveled to Miami to meet the Florida State Seminoles in the Orange Bowl, both teams nationally ranked. The game was a thriller, coming down to the end with FSU clinging to a three-point lead before Michigan blocked a point after attempt, returning it 98 yards for two points, making the score 33-32, with just :36 left on the clock. FSU then kicked off to Michigan which was unable to advance the ball, and three plays later the game was over.

In my back-to-the-future scenario, let’s move the game back to 1948. That year, the nation recovering from the perils of WW II, established power Michigan was number one in the country, coming off two straight undefeated seasons. Florida State, in just its second year of football after having served as the Florida College For Women for forty years, had bolted to a 9-1 record, beginning a climb to gridiron glory which would ultimately see18 conference championships, three Heisman Trophy winners, and three National Championships come to Tallahassee. Over the years, Michigan would go on to compile the highest winning percentage in NCAA history resulting in 935 victories, claiming eleven National Championships, while also producing three Heisman winners.

When the Michigan player picked up the blocked extra point attempt last week and started his nearly 100 yard journey to score two points, had it been 1948, he would’ve had another little trick up his jersey sleeve. Back then, it was legal to attempt a free kick, be it by placement or through the use of a “drop kick,” in which a player drops the ball and then kicks it forward towards the goalposts. That gambling gambit could be attempted from anywhere on the field. If the ball went through the uprights, his team would get credit for three points. In our DeLorean driven post WW II game, that would’ve tied the game at 33-33 and created an overtime situation. No overtime games being allowed back then, we would have had the game ending in a tie for all time or we might also have fast forwarded back again into the future and played by today’s rules of overtime until we had a winner.

The rule allowing such a kick beyond the line of scrimmage was rescinded in the early 1950s so it wouldn’t be allowed today. That’s why we had to move last week’s game back to 1948. But the drop kick itself has remained. It lay fallow in the NFL from 1941 until Doug Flutie persuaded New England coach Bill Belichick to allow him to drop kick an extra point in 2007. He made the kick, and why wouldn’t he? Flutie, the baby-faced producer of the greatest Hail Mary touchdown pass the game has ever seen, has always been Mr. Perfect. In fact, I’ve always thought Flutie the much better choice to have played Marty McFly than Michael J. Fox in “Back To The Future.”

Speaking of Florida State, I had the pleasure of informing Burt Reynolds recently that he and I had almost been college roommates. He went there and played football and had I accepted a scholarship offered to me by the Seminole coach at the time, Tom Nugent, so would I. Because of the spelling of our last names, Burt and I would have, according to the alphabetized pairing of roommates back then in the football dorm, lived and played together for four years. Burt stepped back, looking at me rather quizzically, I thought, saying “Is that so?”

Year End Odds ‘N Ends

Loyalty: In keeping true to the language of baseball, Theo Epstein, the general manager of both the Red Sox in 2004 and the Cubs in 2016, after nearly a combined two-centuries of losing, brought World Series Championships to both those beleaguered big league towns. Thereupon, he decided to funnel his charitable contributions through his aptly named, “The Foundation To Be Named Later.” I feel compelled to mention that Mr. Epstein is the only general manager to have had a grandfather and great-uncle who together wrote a screenplay for a major motion picture. Those were the brothers Epstein and their movie was the immortal “Casablanca.”

Production: Often overlooked, literally and figuratively, Drew Brees this year will reach 5,000 yards passing for the fifth time. No other quarterback in NFL history, not Peyton or Favre or Brady or Unitas or Rodgers or Graham or Van Brocklin or Rivers or Eli or Montana or Bradshaw or Marino or anybody, has ever done that more than once. Helmets off in tribute to Drew Brees!

Terry Bradshaw is an enigma wrapped up inside a puzzle. He played fourteen seasons with the Steelers and finished with a touchdown passing total to interception ratio of 212-210. Most great quarterbacks are somewhere in the two-or-three-or four-to-one ratio. Peyton Manning at 529-215 and Tom Brady at 453-152 are more the norm. Yet Bradshaw won four Super Bowls. How? When the Rooney family handed the reins over to Chuck Noll in 1969, the Paul Brown protege had the patience of a saint and the wisdom of Solomon in choosing players. Putting together runners Franco Harris and Rocky Blier, receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and a defense known as the Steel Curtain of L. C. Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and Mel Blount, all Hall-of-Famers, with Mean Joe Greene as its anchor, Bradshaw shrewdly led that team to fame.

Tim Tebow was never destined to be as successful in the NFL as he was in his Heisman days at the University of Florida. Having gained more yardage running than passing in college, he passed at a paltry 46% completion rate with the Denver Broncos. He came up in a decade of college option quarterbacks, along with Vince Young, Colin Kaepernick, Johnny Manziel, Michael Vick and RG III, none of whom blossomed as stars. In the NFL, Bradshaw notwithstanding, a quarterback must throw at a 65% completion rate with far fewer interceptions than touchdown passes. Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Andrew Luck, all pocket passers, are the quarterbacks most likely to be leading teams deep into the playoffs in the coming years.

The Von Ryan Express has run off the rails once again. Taking over a defense ranked second in the NFL in Buffalo in 2014, the Brothers Ryan managed to move the Bills to number fifteen in team defense in each of the last two seasons.

That is the very definition of firing with cause.

Happy Holidays

With all the hoopla associated with bowl games, national collegiate rankings, NFL playoff placement and attendant angst, let’s take a pleasured moment to look at a video that gives the true meaning of the love of the game.

Happy Holidays to all.

Stats Are For Winners

Often, when a coach is asked to explain why his team lost, the stock reply, “You know what? Stats are for losers,” is uttered to explain away a poor running game or a porous pass defense or an inability to score. Losing coaches generalize post-game in the press room, but an hour later will be scrutinizing the stat sheets.

Stats are everything.

Case in point: It is no mystery why Brady’s New England Patriots and Prescott’s Dallas Cowboys lead their respective conferences with a combined won-loss record of 22-4. They have together thrown for 42 touchdowns and only six interceptions. That is a ratio of (7.1 to 1), more than tripling the league standard of (2.1 to 1).

Those two quarterbacks have thrown 735 passes with only six picked off by their opponents. That’s remarkable.

Take any other tandem of NFL quarterbacks and see how they measure up: (TD’s-Int.) (Ratio).

Brady and Prescott are (42-6) (7.1 to 1). Rivers and Rodgers are (59-24) (2.4 to 1). Stafford and Cousins are (61-24) (2.5 to 1).  Big Ben and Carr are (53-29) (1.8 to 1). Winston and Manning together are (46-25) (1.8 to 1). Alex Smith and Newton are (27-14) (1.9 to 1).

That grouping of ten good quarterbacks averages (2.1) touchdowns to interceptions. Brady and Prescott are three times better than the NFL average.

What do those numbers really mean? Lots. A high ratio keeps your defense off the field and rested. It is much more favorable to have your defense off the field than your offense. It provides a lopsided time of possession in your favor, equating to ball control while lessening turnovers. It favors a strong kicking game for better field position, augmenting your team’s morale while discouraging your opponent’s.

Now, having said the above, the Giants managed on defense Sunday night to turn the above numbers upside down by picking off Prescott twice and allowing only one third down conversion in 13 Dallas attempts. In addition, the pass rush came from Prescott’s blind side, seemingly confusing the quarterback.

Dallas came in averaging 31.2 points per game with a 67% completion rate. Prescott was only 17 for 37 (46%) putting just seven points on the scoreboard Sunday night. Every team that Dallas plays from now on will employ the same defense the Giants used so successfully.

We might see the more experienced Tony Romo back on the field in the race to the Super Bowl.

Charlie Strong, fired at Texas, was immediately hired by the University of South Florida in what would seem to be a perfect fit. While turning around the Louisville football program before a short tenure with the Longhorns, he recruited heavily in Florida, the recruiting capital of football. Coupled with a program turned around over the past four years by Oregon-bound Willie Taggart, Strong inherits a 10-2 team with many returning veterans next year. Things are indeed looking up for the USF Bulls.

The Power Kick

(Coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens and his place kicker Justin Tucker stated recently that kickers should be awarded one point if they drive a kickoff through the uprights.

Coach’s Corner agrees, saying so on these pages three years ago, and repeating the idea again earlier this year. While their intent was simply to reward kickers, my proposal went much further. Please read below.)

99.3% to 94.2%.

Those were the accuracy rates for 2014 and 2015, respectively, before and after the distance for kicking points after touchdowns (PAT’s) was lengthened.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suggested eliminating the point-after-touchdown altogether because the accuracy rate had reached nearly 100%.  A poorly advised compromise ensued, leading to the success rate being lowered as shown above.

In an unrelated move, president John Mara of the New York Giants, a member of the NFL Rules Committee, suggested eliminating kick offs entirely to lessen the chance of concussions.

Coach’s Corner, however, wants to retain both PAT’s and kickoffs with a proposal that will actually enhance scoring in addition to lessening the danger of injuries at the same time.

I ask the NFL suits to take notice of my proposal for the adoption of the Power Kick.

In view of the injuries taking place on football fields all across America from Pop Warner to the NFL, I think it prudent we continue a discussion about football injuries and what can be done to lessen this very real threat to the well-being of both players and the game itself.

Participation in Pop Warner football leagues is down 10% because of a 4% concussion rate which means parents risk a 1 in 25 chance of their child sustaining a head injury.

Twenty-five high school players died between 2003 and 2012 from injuries, not including heat stroke.

In 2013, there were six deaths due to head, spine and neck injuries.

All levels of play are in agreement that most head injuries occur when players collide at high rates of speed.

The highest rates of speed and greatest number of injuries take place during kickoff returns.

In the interest of increasing player safety while adding a new scoring opportunity to the offense, I suggest the NFL Rules Committee consider the following:

A team kicking off will notify the referee that it intends to Power Kick the ball between the uprights. The referee will notify the opposing team and coach. If there is no notice to the referee, no Power Kick shall ensue and an on-side kick may be attempted.

If the kicking team chooses to Power Kick, the following will occur:

The ball is placed on a tee at the kicking team’s forty-yard line, rather than the thirty-five.

If the Power Kick is good, i.e., goes through the uprights, seventy-yards away, the kicking team is awarded one point and the receiving team takes possession on its thirty-yard line, first-and-ten.

If the Power Kick kick fails to go through the uprights, the receiving team has the option of returning the kick or downing the ball in the end zone and taking possession on its thirty-five-yard line, first-and-ten.

There can be no recovery of a Power Kick until the receiving team has touched the ball. Therefore, an unsuccessful Power Kick, untouched in the field of play, will come out to the thirty-five-yard-line.

The Power Kick may be used at any time during the game, except in overtime.

It creates the possibility of a nine-point play—-a touchdown, two-point conversion, and a one-point Power Kick.

The new rule helps the offense and presents the late game opportunity of a nine-point score to tie or win a game.

More importantly, it will decrease kick-off returns, the plays from which most injuries occur of the type that are of greatest concern to the NFL, i.e., collisions between very fast players at high speeds.

The risk-reward is positive for the kicking team when an onside kick is the only alternative in a late tied or one-point game, but even earlier in a game when a four-point deficit may be reduced to three with a successful Power Kick.

If the Power Kick were in use in the 2013 playoff game between the Ravens and the Broncos, the following scenario would’ve played out. An extra point by Baltimore tied the score at 35-35 with 31 seconds to play. Do you attempt the Power Kick to put you up by a point and let Manning start from his thirty if you make it? Or if you miss, from his thirty-five? Or do you kick deep and hopefully make him start at his twenty and play for overtime?

For purists who resist change, think of not only the two-point conversion in football, but the three-point play in basketball and the designated hitter rule in baseball.

All changes enhanced their sports through increased offensive production.

The Power Kick could also be used in college and high school as well. Colleges could use the forty-five yard line while high schools could kick-off from mid-field.

Fans will love it. Coaches will embrace it. Players will welcome it.

All one need do is look at the number of players strewn on the fields during kickoffs of NFL and college games to realize something pro-active rather than re-active must be done.

The NFL has already moved the kickoff from the thirty to the thirty-five yard line to reduce returns.

The Power Kick is the next logical move.

And the game will be safer because of it.

Football Factoids

After the interceptions, missed chip-shot field goals, questionable referee and ball placement decisions, screens, draws, and a double overtime, the old Green Bay sweep of the Vince Lombardi era propelled Ohio State into the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes, however, will not even be the best team in their own conference. That honor will go to either Penn State or Wisconsin. As division leaders, they play each other this Saturday while Ohio State gets the day off.

After a risky fourth-and-one call that barely worked on a quarterback option in the second overtime, Curtis Samuel took a handoff and headed west behind two pulling behemoths kicking out all the Michigan white shirts. Concurrently, two other Ohio State blockers were heading east to double team the Wolverine’s defensive end. A clear path north then allowed Samuel to “run to daylight,” just as the man whose name adorns the Super Bowl Trophy drew it up fifty years ago. It wasn’t fancy but it was enough to allow Ohio State coach Urban Meyer to fall to the turf exhausted while red clad thousands stormed the field singing “Sweet Caroline” in this game for the ages.

The Big Ten arguably has three of the four best teams in the country in Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan. One could argue Alabama and/or Clemson is the best. Washington is a seventh contender.

We may be only a year away from an eight-team playoff replacing the present four to determine a true college champion. Another weekend of filled 100,000 seat stadiums, and millions of at-home lazy boys tilting back and looking in, is just too lucrative to pass up.

Note to television suits: Whoever came up with the goofy idea of placing a camera on the referee’s cap should be fired. Low level shots confuse, rather than enhance, the game. When was the last time you saw a good action movie where the planes fought each other on the tarmac?

Word to my Golden Gopher friends: We must learn to close out games. Our season was a successful 8-4 and a good bowl game beckons. The four teams we lost to, all currently ranked, have a combined record of 37-11. Here’s the real kicker: In each of those four losses, we were either tied or ahead, with the ball, in the fourth quarter. That really hurts.

Game Changers: On average, NFL linemen laboring unnoticed within the burly rectangular confines of the line of scrimmage have grown both higher and wider over the last decade. They are now ten pounds heavier and one inch taller. Doesn’t seem like much but if the adage “football is a game of inches” is true, then another inch taller assists greatly in batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. And the added heft in the defensive line forces offenses to eschew the running game in favor of more productive, albeit dangerous, screen passes.

The Dreaded Eye Exam

My six-month eye exam has become bothersome. Placing my chin on a piece of plastic, I lean forward, focusing on a tiny yellow light while enduring ten minutes of having to spot smaller lights, each one flashing on the periphery for a nano-second.

Spotting these specks, I am supposed to press a clicker while a nurse hovers six inches away, monitoring my every move.

I have been taking this test for years and dread it more every time.

Except this day, I found a way to beat the boredom of it.

Before shuffling off not to Buffalo but into the margins of football history, I was a college quarterback. The very first rule pounded into me was, when passing, lock the safety in place by focusing on his eyes, fifteen-yards downfield, so he cannot react in time when you are throwing away from him deep.

Picture if you will Eli Manning finding Mario Manningham for a key first down on that final drive to glory in Super Bowl XLVI, Manning indeed locked onto the safety’s eyes so he could not get over fast enough to stop the critical sideline completion. 

Game, Giants!

In today’s test, I treated that blinking orb as if it were a safety. Depending upon where I caught the light, I clicked while shouting out the route that would have been run to get there. Upper right was a corner route, a blink to the far left was a sideline, directly over the safety was a post, while lower on my Field of Dreams the light signified a draw play. The faster the nurse ran the lights, the faster I responded. She tried to catch me napping with a light far off to the right but I immediately recognized it as the dreaded bubble screen.

She seemed to be lighting her lights faster and faster, testing my ability to keep up.

She became increasingly more engaged as the game wore on, testing my ability to recognize and name every route. She challenged me once by following up a sideline route with a light appearing quickly halfway down from the safety light, oh so wrong in her assumption that I’d miss the duplicitous drag route into vacated areas run by backs coming out of the backfield!

I was playing “Gaugin of the Gridiron” to her Nurse Ratched, a “Picasso of the Pigskin” to her Frau Blucher.

 

Even her feeble effort at switching to my other eye failed. Corner, fly, swing, hook, hitch, I was picking them off one-by-one, putting out her lights as soon as they appeared. She finally gave up and reluctantly turned on the fluorescent bulb above us, breathlessly admitting, “Coach, you’re the first person to ever beat the machine. I’ve never had anybody with your perfect peripheral vision before. I want to see you again in six months, or hopefully even sooner!”

Eat your heart out, Aaron Rodgers.