Friday, February 29, 2008

W.C. Heinz, 93

W.C. Heinz, one of the greatest sports writers of all time, has passed away. A craftsman of the highest order, he really changed the form of sports writing, and his magazine articles are practically flawless. “It’s like building a stone wall without mortar,” he said about his creative process. “You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they’re balanced and solid.” For some of his work, all of which has held up through the decades, check out The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, and/or What A Time It Was. Mr. Heinz was 93.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

NFL Combine: the prospects for the short player

Modern football has always loved big players because large and fast men tend to crush smaller ones, or so goes the theory, and when the National Football League’s yearly meat market called the “combine” starts tomorrow (Thursday) in Indianapolis, there will definitely be a premium on huge men with quick feet, big paws, and a “mean streak.” As the average weight of an NFL player has gone up—the bigger the better—size plays an important part of who gets selected the earliest in April’s draft, and thus receives the most money. Prospective college players will spend the next six days sprinting, bench pressing, jumping vertically, jumping broadly, and doing specific drills to test agility, and take something called the Wonderlik test to measure their intelligence. Stripped down, NFL scouts will ogle over who looks like an NFL player and measure biceps, calf muscles, and even hand size. The average weight in the NFL has grown by 10 percent since 1985 to a current average of 248 pounds with the heaviest position, offensive tackle, jumping from 281 pounds two decades ago to 318 pounds. As Michael Lewis wrote in his book The Blind Side, offensive lineman, particularly left tackles, must be big and fast to combat defensive linemen who are trying to knock the bejesus out of the quarterback.

But the influx of larger lineman has created something rather ironic: a need for super-quick—often vertically-challenged--skill position guys. The fast-and-big defensive linemen have caused panic. Desperate quarterbacks need to dump off the ball or get sacked. So NFL scouts are not exactly pursuing little people, but they also aren’t shunning them. There is even a growing tolerance for smaller receivers in a league which has never been very fond of short pass catchers.


There’s an old NFL cliche that the “league is a copycat league.” If something works, all of the teams tend to imitate it. The Super Bowl’s leading receiver was the 5’ 9” Wes Welker (11 receptions for 103 yards), the league’s most exciting player last year was the brilliant and smallish returner Devin Hester (5’11) who returned two kick returns and four punt returns for touchdowns, and added two more TDs off of pass receptions. While the Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith (5’9”) had a down year—he did have banged-up and elderly Vinny Testaverde trying to throw to him—Smith is still one of the NFL’s elite receivers.

Running Backs

While shorter running backs have always received a degree of acceptance, arguably the most entertaining running back was the really short Maurice Jones-Drew (5’7”), who ran for nine TDs, sprinted for a 96-yard kick-off return in one playoff game, and leveled tough-guy San Diego Charger linebacker Shawne Merriman in a YouTube classic gleefully celebrated by everyone with a Napoleonic complex. Jones has paved the way for smaller recruits, like Ray Rice, a 5’9” running back from Rutgers, who is a legitimate first round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. (Some scouts are saying he’s too small but, Rice ran for 24 TDs in three years, and might just be the Maurice Jones-Drew of this draft; or, as someone mentioned the other day on Sirius Satellite's NFL Radio--the best source on the radio for insight into pro football--he has similarities to Tiki Barber.)


Given the acceptance of shorter running backs and receivers, you might imagine that size would become less of an issue at quarterback, but that's not true and it probably never will be. In some cases, NFL scouts have overly-emphasized height and left excellent players off their rosters because of it. Guys like Heisman winner Troy Smith (6’0”) was a very good college QB and threw a good ball, but ended up going in the fifth round in last year’s draft, carrying on a decades long tradition, in which half-pint quarterbacks have little or no shot in the pros. Tall quarterbacks have stronger arms, can see over linemen, make their reads, and complete passes. While that is the prevailing sentiment, certain quarterbacks, given the chance, can also get the job done too in their own creative ways. A short history lesson: back in 1985 Donald Trump owned the New Jersey Generals of the upstart, and now defunct, United States Football League. The Donald approached Doug Flutie, the ultimate short QB, to sign with his team. It was an audacious move. Flutie, 5’10” in cleats, was coming out of Boston College, and he was a legend, especially to the more diminutive among football fans. But despite Flutie’s clutch plays in college, unparallel leadership, and Heisman Trophy, which is awarded to the best college player, Flutie was considered too elfish for the National Football League and he was drafted in the eleventh round--the 285th player selected. Trump took advantage of the NFL’s shocking slight, and Flutie took a step down to the USFL for three years, eventually ending up in Canada. Small quarterbacks still face the same size bias that greeted Flutie, who later in his career would prove the doubters wrong—sort of--when he returned to the NFL, make a Pro Bowl, win the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award, and lead the Bills to the 1998 and 1999 playoffs, where he was inexplicably benched for Rob Johnson, a six-foot-five perfect specimen who ended up losing the playoff game to Tennessee in what would become known as the “Music City Miracle.” Even a great clutch QB like Flutie who should have been accepted into the NFL on merit, couldn’t get past height discrimination, and his career, however successful, will always feel like a missed opportunity. Maybe, with the way modern offenses are run, small QBs should now have more of a chance to show their skills, but it is doubtful that the prototype will ever change.

Short people will have to settle for the receiver, secondary (the Indianapolis Colts’ standout defensive back Bob Sanders is 5’8”), and running back positions. Running backs are not necessarily at a disadvantage. Linemen constantly complain that Maurice Jones-Drew is difficult to see. Where the hell is that little squirt? And there is a tradition of great, shorter backs. Modern receivers can be on the short side because they are given more leeway when they go out on a pattern: by rule defenders can’t be as physical. Showing the growing influence of under six-foot receivers, Deion Branch (5’9”) was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX. As for small quarterbacks, they are not—and probably never will be--greeted with high-fives. Although in many offenses, a QB often rolls out, making it not such a disadvantage because he doesn't have to jump or get on his little-bitty tip-toes to see over the line. For example, Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Jeff Garcia, 6’1”, has taken teams to the playoffs on his, by NFL standards, small shoulders, but his stature still creates the impression that he is too small.

Football will always be a game that favors large men. Of the 209 players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, only 26 players are under 6 feet, and many of those stars competed in bygone days when people were smaller and men of the gridiron played both offense and defense making it more of an endurance sport. But Walter Payton and Barry Sanders were all under 6 feet tall, proving running back greatness doesn’t have height restrictions. We’ll have to wait to see if the newer crop of short receivers will also make it to Canton someday. Picking players, large or small, has always been an inexact science. Football, like any sport, is also about heart, which any announcer will tell you, can’t be measured.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Super Bowl: Goliath slain

The New England Patriots are still one of the greatest teams ever, but the Pats' are no longer the greatest because the New York Giants were able to do what no other team could do this year, and they did it in the most dramatic way possible, winning the Super Bowl 17 to 14 by scoring a touchdown with 35 seconds remaining in the game. This was a Super Bowl defined by defense, and the Giants' defense played brilliantly. They constantly creamed Brady (29 of 48 for 266 yards, 1 TD) and when he did have some time his receivers were covered like sleeping bags. With only 45 yards rushing, the Pats' run game was non-existent. Only when they started going to screen plays late in the game did they start moving the ball. The Pats were able to establish a lead late in the game, but their defense was tiring, and they didn't have the air of invincibility that they usually exude. On the Giants side, Eli Manning, the slouching New York QB, had two touchdown passes, and played gutty football on the final scoring drive. He wasn't great (19 of 34 for 255 yards, 2 TDs, 1 Int, 2 fumbles), but when it mattered he was able to get his team the necessary points.

While there have been bigger favorites, this game must go down as the biggest upset in Super Bowl history because the Pats were, until tonight, undefeated and ready to make their claim as the best team ever. But the New York Football Giants are the world champions.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Super Bowl: Who do you like?

People keep asking me, "Who do you like in the Super Bowl?" I have a hard time answering it. Let's face it. It's like one of those questions they ask someone after he gets knocked out and is starting to come-to: Who's the president? What's your name? It sort of borders on the demeaning. But it is also a query based on legitimate confusion. The NFL has built itself on parity, and yet the Patriots have completely ruined the grand plan. No one can quite figure out how they've done it. But they have. Remember a few years ago when everyone was complaining that there were no great teams anymore? There are no more dynasties! At its heart football is the ultimate team game and during every era, a coach is able to create the ultimate team. Halas, Lombardi, Walsh, Johnson, Belichick. Fans have a hard time realizing they are watching history until its over. The Patriots have had a perfect season in a league in which every team has a chance, except maybe the Dolphins, on a week-to-week basis. Still, people who started the football season by watching the "combines" on the NFL Network (guilty) to training camp, the regular season, and the play-offs, there is a desperation setting in about Sunday's Super Bowl. The Big Game is not always the best game, but it's rarely so one-sided as this one appears to be, and the NFL has conditioned us to expect competitive games. The Giants because they play in the NFL must have a chance, right?

A breakdown:

1. Must protect Tom Brady, and his gimpy foot.
2. Adjust to blitzes--and the Giants will have to bring them--with screens. "Wes Welker for 15 yards," might be a common call.
3. Play an average game without turnovers.

1. Bring a five-man pass rush. Pray that the announcer says, "Now entering the game, Matt Cassel!"
2. Control the game on the ground to keep it close.
3. Attack the Pats semi-weakness: lack of quickness in the linebacker corps.

Las Vegas has the Patriots at 11.5 favorites. (Tim Mara might even take those odds.) The Pats could possibly be the best team ever. They play in a much stronger conference. New England has the best QB, coach, receiver, and an equal, or better, defense to the G-Men. In The Fray can't even think of a sentimental reason to pick the New York Football Giants.

If it wasn't already obvious, In The Fray's Pick: PATRIOTS

Friday, February 01, 2008

Ethics: Sports media

Super Bowl week always has an outlandish quality to it. Journalists covering the event have to breakdown the different teams and then try and find different angles--funny features and stories that tug at heart strings--to fill our insatiable need for coverage. It's the Super Bowl! And this is an American spectacle in all its gaudy beauty, and this is a game, after all, in which many people tune-in to watch...the commercials. Sometimes the excitement of Super Bowl week leads to a desperation for stories. But product pitches are not supposed to be a part of news coverage. Yahoo Sports, which has been hiring some good reporters lately, has this interview with John Elway giving his take on Tom Brady. The reporter asks Elway some questions, but he also says, "I know you're here for Mastercard so touch on that when we're done." After the formal interview he invites Elway to chat about Mastercard because "everyone is here promoting something." Then Elway plugs Mastercard, and Sam's Club because it is a good place to get "big TVs and steaks." Call me Old School, but couldn't Yahoo have edited the commercial pitch out of the interview? Incredibly cheesy, and it puts into question the credibility of Yahoo Sports as a journalistic enterprise.