Thursday, August 30, 2007

2007 NFL Preview

There are several reasons that it is not uncommon to see NFL teams go from worst to first (or first to worst) in one season: (1) football is a violent game and one injury to a key player (particularly a star quarterback) can change the balance of power in a division; (2) the season is very short, so one NFL game carries the same impact in the standings as five NBA games or 10 MLB games; (3) games frequently come down to the last two minutes, so the difference between being 10-6 and 6-10 may literally be a few plays spread out over four games. The foregoing explains why Las Vegas has enough money to build bigger and bigger casinos and why it is silly to pretend to predict the exact records that each NFL team will compile during a season--it is tough enough just to figure out who will make the playoffs. With these caveats out of the way, here is how I expect the 2007 NFL season to go:

AFC East

1) New England
2) New York Jets
3) Buffalo
4) Miami

Quick Hits:

* Everyone is talking about Randy Moss but the biggest story in New England will turn out to be the signing of Adalius Thomas, a defensive player who is so versatile he is like the blank tile in Scrabble or the Queen in chess. Bill Belichick, who I like to call the "mad scientist," has surely already gone into his (film) laboratory and concocted all kinds of ways to deploy Thomas so that he wreaks havoc on opposing offenses. New England's defense faded in the second half of the Patriots' playoff loss to Indianapolis last year but with a healthy Thomas that will not be a problem now.

* The Jets won their last three games to make it to the playoffs last season but I expect them to just miss the cut this year.

* Buffalo and Miami will each likely have sub-.500 records again.

AFC West

1) San Diego
2) Denver
3) Kansas City
4) Oakland

Quick Hits:

* San Diego fired Marty Schottenheimer after he led the Chargers to an NFL-best 14-2 record but failed to even make it to the AFC Championship Game. The Chargers will still be an excellent team but look for them to win less than 14 games and to again not make it to the AFC Championship Game.

* Denver figures to be in the Wild Card hunt, as does Kansas City; Oakland's team is still a disaster area.

AFC North

1) Pittsburgh
2) Baltimore (Wild Card)
3) Cincinnati (Wild Card)
4) Cleveland

Quick Hits:

* A fully healthy Ben Roethlisberger will guide the Steelers back to the top of the division.

* Baltimore's 13-3 season seemed like a bit of an aberration but the Ravens will still earn a Wild Card berth.

* Cincinnati has a top of the line QB and just narrowly missed the playoffs last year; expect the Bengals to grab one of the Wild Card berths this year.

* Cleveland has improved its roster but is stuck in a very tough division. Look for Brady Quinn to be the starting QB by midseason; he will take his lumps but will also have some strong moments, including at least one 300 yard game.

AFC South

1) Indianapolis
2) Jacksonville
3) Tennessee
4) Houston

Quick Hits:

* Indianapolis is too well coached and has too much internal leadership to experience any kind of Super Bowl hangover.

* Jacksonville and Tennessee are each likely to contend for Wild Card berths but I expect them to come up just short again.

AFC Championship:

New England will have the best record in the conference and will beat Indianapolis at home to earn yet another trip to the Super Bowl for Bill Belichick.

NFC East

1) Dallas
2) Philadelphia
3) Washington
4) New York Giants

Quick Hits:

* While everyone focused on the Terrell Owens saga, two things escaped attention: (1) Bill Parcells' defense fell apart in the last month of the season; (2) this team was one botched kick away from making it to at least the Divisional Round of the playoffs. New Coach Wade Phillips will fix the defense and Owens, who played most of last season with a broken finger, will have one of the best seasons of his career.

* It is not clear when Donovan McNabb will be fully healthy, nor how long he will stay that way, so the Eagles will not make the playoffs.

* Washington and New York are spinning their wheels without going anywhere fast; both teams have too many holes to make it to the playoffs.

NFC West

1) Seattle
2) San Francisco (Wild Card)
3) St. Louis
4) Arizona

Quick Hits:

* San Francisco is my "sleeper" team: young and improving quarterback plus a beefed up defense equals a Wild Card berth.

* St. Louis will score a lot of points but a leaky defense will lead to a third straight season without a playoff berth.

* Arizona is at least a season away from even contending for a playoff berth.

NFC North

1) Chicago
2) Detroit
3) Green Bay
4) Minnesota

Quick Hits:

* Chicago is loaded with talent and will once again overcome Rex Grossman's occasional bad games (he also occasionally has some outstanding games, but no one seems to notice that).

* Detroit will win at least eight games but fall short of getting a Wild Card berth.

* Green Bay's season-ending four game winning streak was a mirage that will have no bearing on this year's results, while Minnesota is looking at another sub-.500 season.

NFC South:

1) New Orleans
2) Carolina (Wild Card)
3) Tampa Bay
4) Atlanta

Quick Hits:

* New Orleans is a well put together team, not a one year fluke.

* Many people thought that Carolina was going to make it to the Super Bowl last year, but the Panthers faltered after a 4-2 start. Look for Carolina to return to the playoffs this year.

* Tampa Bay has missed the playoffs in three of the four seasons since winning the Super Bowl in 2002.

* You may not have heard this, but Atlanta has some question marks regarding the quarterback position.

NFC Championship:

Dallas will defeat New Orleans.

Super Bowl:

New England will defeat Dallas.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Michael Vick Formally Pleads Guilty, Issues Public Apology

On Monday, Michael Vick formally pleaded guilty to "interstate conspiracy to violate gambling laws, animal fighting, and the purchase or transport of dogs across state lines for dogfighting." He tried to sidestep directly acknowledging that he personally bet on dogfights but that nuance--which is hardly believable anyway--means little considering Vick's central role in the entire dogfighting operation. In the words of ESPN's legal expert Lester Munson, "Vick purchased the land. Vick provided the funds to build the dogfighting venue. He was present when the scheme began in 2001, only eight weeks after he signed his enormous NFL contract. He was still involved at the end, when the police raided his compound on April 25. Without Vick, there would have been no Bad Newz Kennels. It was his money, his land, his leadership and his conspiracy." I don't think that is quite what Clinton Portis meant when he tried to dismiss Vick's guilt by saying that it did not matter because it only involved Vick's dogs and Vick's property (Portis later backed away from his misinformed statement).

Vick's sentencing hearing will take place on December 10. Federal guidelines suggest that Vick will receive 12-18 months in prison but Judge Henry Hudson pointedly told Vick on Monday that he is not bound by the guidelines: "The decision is mine." Munson explains that a judge can decide, based on the evidence in a case, to make an "upward departure" or a "downward departure" from what the guidelines indicate. Munson adds, "Vick agreed to an 'upward departure' in the sentencing calculation specifically because of 'the victimization and killing of pit bull dogs.' That is a costly admission of the killing of dogs because it can be the basis for additional time in prison." Munson expects Vick to be sentenced to 18-24 months in prison.

After Vick made his guilty plea, he took his first tentative step toward rehabilitating his public image by issuing a public apology. Vick began by saying, "For most of my life, I've been a football player, not a public speaker, so, you know, I really don't know, you know, how to say what I really want to say." Perhaps that is the reason that he has refrained from talking directly to the public on his own behalf--but I think that it was a mistake for him to wait this long to step in front of a microphone and comment about his case. Regardless of how eloquent Vick is, the simple act of publicly seeking contrition will make him a more sympathetic figure in many people's eyes (those who are 100% for him or 100% against him will not be swayed no matter what he does). In his statement, Vick apologized directly to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Atlanta Falcons Coach Bobby Petrino and his Falcons teammates, saying that he is "ashamed and totally disappointed in myself to say the least" for initially lying about his involvement in the dogfighting operation.

Vick also apologized to "all the young kids out there" for what he termed his "immature acts." Although Vick said, "I take full responsibility for my actions," one cannot escape the impression that even now he does not fully grasp the magnitude of the cruelty involved in what he did. Toilet papering someone's house is an "immature act." Drowning and electrocuting dogs while funding an illegal dogfighting operation is a felony. Vick, as noted above, has been bankrolling these felonious activities for six years. That goes beyond being "immature"; he is an adult, not a rebellious teenager.

Vick did a reasonable job of expressing the sentiments that his advisers surely told him that he must convey: he accepted responsibility for his own actions, he apologized for at first lying about his involvement, he said "Dog fighting is a terrible thing, and I did reject it," he asked for the public's forgiveness and he pledged to use his upcoming "down time" to become a better person. Some people will no doubt say that Vick did not go far enough or sound truly sincere, while others will lament that Vick is being "brought down" and "publicly humiliated." The reality is that this statement was something that Vick simply had to make to have any chance to play football again at some point--and he would have been better off if he had issued it a few months ago before an overwhelming case was assembled against him. Saying the right things is just the first, easiest step for Vick. In the upcoming weeks, months and years he must prove, by his actions, that he has truly and permanently changed his ways. He does not, contrary to what some people say, automatically "deserve a second chance"; however, he deserves the opportunity to prove that he is worthy of getting one.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Michael Vick Case Raises Uncomfortable Questions

The Michael Vick case brings to mind many questions but there are two in particular that are not receiving the attention that they deserve: (1) Why does violence against dogs engender so much more public outrage than violence against human beings? (2) Why are opinions about Vick divided so strongly along racial lines? Both of these questions quickly lead the conversation into areas that are very uncomfortable for many people but these issues are too important to ignore simply for the sake of comfort.

The Chicago Tribune's Rick Morrissey discusses the first question in his Wednesday column, writing, "Dogs are defenseless, and we humans are quick to protect the defenseless. It is one of our better qualities. But a woman in the hands of a 230-pound elite athlete is more or less defenseless, too, and I can't remember any case of domestic abuse, sexual assault or murder involving an NFL player that sparked this kind of public outrage." Morrissey goes on to list several examples of NFL players who committed crimes ranging from assault to murder, noting that--with the possible exception of O.J. Simpson--none of these athletes' misdeeds aroused the public fury that Vick's actions have. He concludes, "Let's be clear: It's not that the response to Vick's alleged crimes is overboard; it's that the response to athletes' crimes against women is underwhelming. We might want to ask ourselves why that is." This point is very important. I think that a radio commentator recently got in a lot of trouble by suggesting that Vick would have been "better off" (or words to that effect) if he had raped someone than if he had abused dogs. Obviously, that is a crude and ineffective way of expressing what Morrissey said much more eloquently and directly: taking nothing away from the grave seriousness of what Michael Vick did, it is important for our society to consider why human on human crime does not evoke the outrage that human on dog crime does. No one would be "better off" if Vick had assaulted a person but we would all be a lot better off if we came to grips with our culture's strange and inconsistent attitudes toward violence.

One thing that the Vick case has in common with Simpson's double murder trial is that this country's attitudes toward the defendant are split almost exactly along racial lines. Various polls suggest that white people tend to believe that Vick is guilty, while black people tend to believe that Vick is innocent--or, at the very least, that he is being "brought down" by the powers that be for something that is not that important. Perhaps Vick's upcoming guilty plea will narrow this gulf but, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Terence Moore suggested during a recent appearance on ESPN, it seems more likely that nothing will greatly weaken the significant support that Vick enjoys in the black community. There is no question that black people have received the short end of the stick from this country's judicial system on many occasions, both as individuals and collectively, but this should not translate into blindly supporting any and every prominent black person who is charged with heinous and felonious crimes. If Vick would have been acquitted this would in no way correct previous injustices; it would just add one more injustice to the list.

It is strange--and more that a little disturbing--that anyone would derive some kind of vicarious thrill from Vick "beating the rap" without regard to whether or not he is guilty. Vick certainly deserves legal representation and the opportunity to contest the charges against him in open court--and his tremendous personal wealth enabled him to hire the finest attorneys money can buy--but in the face of an overwhelming case against him he has decided to admit his guilt. It looks like he either received bad advice or else ignored whatever good advice was given to him, because it is not a good idea to announce one's intention to prove one's innocence and then quickly have to backtrack and make a plea agreement. Vick lied to the public, to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank--yet it is very easy to find many people who will continue to insist that Vick is somehow getting a raw deal. This is every bit as surreal as the scene more than a decade ago after Simpson was acquitted in his criminal trial, whereupon we saw TV images of black people cheering as if he had just scored an 80 yard touchdown and white people literally crying at what they perceived to be a grave miscarriage of justice. Why is it so difficult to simply look at a case based on its factual merits? Without rehashing all of the particulars of the Simpson case, let's consider Vick's situation. Four witnesses plus his three former co-defendants are all set to testify to Vick's intimate involvement in an illegal dogfighting operation; they are prepared to say under oath that he provided the bulk of the funding for this criminal endeavor and that he actively participated in its most gruesome aspects, including the killing of dogs that did not perform up to expectations. There is apparently a bounty of physical evidence that shows that the dogfighting operation took place on Vick's property. I have already written that what Vick has done to himself is "tragic" but there is a big difference between lamenting that fact and simply being in denial that Vick is about to be a convicted felon.

Vick could actually go a long way toward both helping himself and narrowing the racial divide if at some point he publicly and unequivocally admits that he was wrong and apologizes for his actions. He needs to stop issuing statements through his attorney and start speaking directly to the American people. There is a lot more at stake here than whether or not he plays in the NFL again. If Vick in any way lends credence to the idea that he has been brought down unfairly--as opposed to the reality that he brought himself down with his own actions--then he will be doing a disservice not only to himself but to our society as a whole. On the other hand, if he demonstrates true contrition he can achieve a victory far more important that any that he ever won on the football field.

Monday, August 20, 2007

It's Only a Matter of Time Before the Browns Become the Brady Bunch

Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson are no longer competing to be the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns; they are simply battling to determine who will man that position until Brady Quinn learns the offense well enough to take over. I say that not so much because Quinn racked up impressive statistics in mop-up duty versus Detroit's third stringers in Detroit's 23-20 win on Saturday night but because neither Frye nor Anderson look like competent NFL quarterbacks. Of course, that means that both of them fit right in with the Browns, who have not looked like a competent NFL franchise since the team's 1999 rebirth. Bill Walsh once said that it should only take three years to take a team from the bottom of the NFL to being a solid team. The Browns have been around long enough to have built a couple contending teams but have posted just one winning record--and 9-7 at that--in eight seasons.

It is very instructive to watch the local Cleveland broadcasts of Browns' preseason games. Bernie Kosar, a Pro Bowl quarterback who led the Browns to three AFC championship games in the 1980s, provides a lot of insight about what is happening in the games--and one of the things that becomes quickly apparent is that the Browns have no clue what they are doing. A typical play as described by Kosar sounds something like this: "The defense has eight players in the box, with man coverage outside, so what the Browns should do here is throw the ball to Braylon Edwards on the outside. The last thing that you want to do is run the ball right into the teeth of the defense--ooh, the Browns ran it up the middle and only gained one yard." Basically, before the play Kosar reads the opposing defense and whatever he says the Browns should not do is exactly what the Browns end up doing. Listening to this brings to mind two questions: (1) What exactly are the Browns' coaches teaching their players? (2) Wouldn't Bernie Kosar make a fine NFL head coach? The cerebral Kosar graduated from college in two years with a double major and then utilized his knowledge of the NFL's drafting rules to engineer things so that he could play for his beloved Browns. He obviously has an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport and during his career he proved that he has tremendous leadership qualities as well; Kosar is not just an "Xs and Os" guy but rather someone who would command respect in the locker room.

I'm a big believer in Bill Belichick, who led the Browns to the franchise's most recent playoff victory, a 20-13 win over New England on January 1, 1995 (New England was then coached by Belichick's mentor Bill Parcells, who has had a notable lack of success without Belichick at his side while Belichick has surpassed him in career Super Bowl wins). Belichick's success in New England has established him as a certain Hall of Famer and his "coaching tree" is probably second only to Bill Walsh's and includes head coaches Eric Mangini, Charlie Weis, Nick Saban, Kirk Ferentz, and Pat Hill, plus numerous NFL executives, coordinators and assistant coaches. Watching the Browns the past two years, though, I wonder if in hiring Romeo Crennel the Browns tethered their hopes to the one withered twig on the Belichick tree. Crennel was an excellent defensive coordinator for Belichick but maybe there is a reason that he has never been a head coach before (Belichick, Ferentz, Mangini and Saban ascended to head coaching jobs at a very young age). Look at the inept way that Crennel has handled the quarterback situation this year. Who ever heard of flipping a coin to decide who starts? Crennel says that he did that because during the season either guy will have to be ready to play at a moment's notice. That may be true but the bigger issue is that one of them needs to be learning how to prepare during the week to be a successful starter. Pick one guy, put your weight behind him and give him every chance to keep the job; if he can't get it done, then give the other guy a similar opportunity. The sad part is that it is not like the choice is between two Pro Bowl level players. Face it, this is not Tom Landry using Roger Staubach and Craig Morton on alternating series--and Landry wisely abandoned the platooning approach almost immediately because it just does not work. You cannot have two starting quarterbacks. For the good of the team--not to mention each quarterback--there has to be a pecking order.

The muddled quarterback situation is just the latest example of what is wrong with the Browns. It's not just the losing that is bothersome but the fact that the team looks so disorganized. This may sound crazy, but I knew that the Browns were going to be bad last year after watching them warm up before the opening game of the season against New Orleans. They looked lackadaisical as they went through their pre-game drills, with Braylon Edwards nonchalantly dropping several passes. As the saying goes, you practice how you play and, sure enough, that is how the Browns played for most of the season: lackadaisical, disorganized and nonchalant. Braylon Edwards dropped passes in practice and then, not surprisingly, he dropped passes during games. Jerry Rice used to run every practice reception to the end zone, even the short plays; that is how you condition your mind and your body, that is how you prepare to win. Kellen Winslow seems to have that mindset, as does Kamerion Wimbley, but the team as a whole surely does not and the proof is in the pudding every Sunday.

If the Browns played hard and played smart but lost because their opponents simply have more talent then that would be easier to accept--but the Browns do not demonstrate the focus and discipline that are necessary to win football games. That is why Quinn already looks like a better quarterback prospect than Frye or Anderson. Quinn went 13-20 for 155 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions against Detroit and several of his incompletions came when he spiked the ball to stop the clock. Yes, he was playing with and against third stringers but the one thing that can definitely be said about him is that he looked poised. Quinn knew what he was supposed to be doing and the team executed crisply with him in command; there were no silly penalties, no wasted timeouts and no confusion. He drove the Browns 92 yards for a touchdown in the last two minutes with no timeouts; Anderson and Frye can barely get the right personnel groups on the field, struggle to make the correct reads and frequently turn the ball over.

In general, the best thing for young quarterbacks is to serve a bit of an apprenticeship before they are cast into the fire. The last thing that the Browns want to do is expose Quinn to the kind of physical punishment that Tim Couch received in 1999--but this situation is a lot different. The overall talent on the team is much better now than it was in 1999. Quinn has been described as a quick study, which was hardly the case with Couch. I did not expect Quinn to be this sharp in his first NFL action and now would be as good a time as any to see how he reacts to being given more responsibility. No quarterback is going to play the whole game in the preseason, so this is a good time to give Quinn some repetitions playing with and against starting level players, as opposed to waiting to provide Quinn this kind of opportunity until the team is in a desperate situation in the regular season. If Crennel insists on having a starting quarterback "rotation" on the Browns then Quinn should be included in that group as soon as possible. If Crennel cannot decide who to demote between Frye and Anderson then he could always flip a coin.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Michael Vick: Pride Goeth Before the Fall

It is written in Proverbs that pride goeth before the fall (actually, it is written "Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before the fall," but this passage is seldom quoted correctly); this is certainly an apt description of what has happened to Michael Vick, who is starring in a modern day version of an ancient Greek tragedy. Greek heroes were often undone by their own character flaws, a primary one being hubris (overbearing pride). Rightly or wrongly, in modern American society, successful athletes are heroes--and Michael Vick's hubris has set him up for an epic fall.

"On Friday morning, the last two of Michael Vick's co-defendants in a federal dogfighting case--Quanis Phillips and Purnell Peace--pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture," begins Lester Munson's latest article about Vick's case; it should be titled, "Requiem for a Fallen Superstar." Their voices are now added to those of four cooperating witnesses plus Tony Taylor, a co-defendant who had already agreed to testify against Vick. Munson writes, "The seven witnesses can describe the alleged dogfighting scheme from its inception in 2001, less than eight weeks after Vick signed his first NFL contract, to its demise three months ago when police raided Vick's compound in rural Surry County. The seven witnesses allegedly can describe Vick building the dogfighting facility, buying dogs, breeding dogs, training dogs, betting on dogs, paying for everything and participating in gruesome executions of losing dogs."

Once you get past the sickening brutality--which is admittedly not easy to do--think about the fact that Vick started engaging in these activities almost immediately after he began a pro football career that could have earned him well over $100 million in salary and endorsements. Whether or not playing football should be considered heroic, with that kind of money and the status that goes with it, Vick could have had a heroic impact on the lives of many people, starting with his own family and radiating outward to his local community and beyond; he could have used that money and influence to lend support to any number of worthy causes, in addition to building a life of luxury for himself and those close to him. Instead, he decided to indulge his appetite for what can only be described as blood lust and brutality.

What does "pride" have to do with any of this? Vick surely felt proud that he could singlehandedly fund this entire operation; he felt proud when dogs that he trained won; he felt proud of being tough enough (in his own twisted perception) to kill dogs that did not win; he felt proud that he was so rich and powerful that he thought he could be above the law and do whatever he wanted without repercussions. The problem, of course, is that his pride was not the authentic, positive pride that comes from a good job well done but the foolish pride that comes from having an inflated perception of one's importance and a distorted view of what really matters.

This foolish pride seems to have extended to the disastrous way that Vick and his attorneys are handling his legal defense. Vick initially denied involvement in the dogfighting ring but he has provided no explanation for how all of these activities could have taken place at his property without his knowledge. Meanwhile, all of his co-defendants have already taken deals and lined up to testify against him. Even if Vick wants to make a deal, what can he offer to the government that it does not already have? Everyone else who is involved has already "rolled" and Vick is the biggest guy--there is nobody for him to "roll" on. Maybe at the last hour Vick and his attorneys will unveil some magic escape plan--like one of Vick's scrambling runs--but at this point it looks like he should have done one of two things a long time ago: either back up his claims of innocence with a detailed explanation of how these things happened without his knowledge or admit to making horrible lapses in judgment and pledge to fully cooperate with the government and animal rights groups to attempt to atone for his misdeeds.

Now Vick seems to be trapped. It is very hard to believe that he and his attorneys can arrange a deal that will not result in him serving at least a year in prison. Plus, since he lied to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about his actions, Vick can expect to receive a lengthy suspension from the game--possibly for life; while the dogfighting charges are horrendous, Vick's alleged involvement in illegal gambling could prove to be the most damaging infraction from the NFL's perspective. In 1963, stars Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were suspended for a year by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle because they had bet on NFL games. It is hard to believe that Vick would be suspended for less than a year if he admits to or is convicted of illegally gambling while organizing illegal dogfights and it is not at all difficult to foresee a scenario in which Goodell would impose a lifetime ban on Vick.

Calling this a tragic situation in no way diminishes the fact that Michael Vick should be held entirely responsible for the way that his own actions have brought about his downfall. The tragedy consists of the gulf between what he could have accomplished--on the field and off--and the horrible legacy that is now attached to his name. Sometimes, athletes are praised for "keeping it real" or for staying true to their backgrounds but there is nothing to be proud of when it comes to engaging in cruel and felonious activities. As Emmitt Smith has put it on several occasions, star athletes must deliver a straightforward message to their childhood friends who engage in criminal behavior: I can't go where you are going and if you persist in what you are doing then you can't go where I am going, either. That is not being soft or "selling out"; that is being smart. The sad irony for Vick is that so many members of his lowlife entourage have repaid his "loyalty" by turning on Vick as quickly as possible.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Phil Rizzuto: The Power of Persistence

Phil Rizzuto, star New York Yankees shortstop from 1941-42 and 1946-56, passed away on Monday at the age of 89. The 1950 American League MVP and 1951 World Series MVP had been the oldest living Hall of Famer. NPR reports that he played for seven World Series champions, Wikipedia claims that he played for eight World Series champions and The New York Times states that the Yankees won nine World Series during his career. According to, Rizzuto participated in nine World Series during his career, with the Yankees winning seven of them; Rizzuto was also a member of the 1954 and 1956 Yankees teams that won World Series but indicates that he did not play in those World Series.

Rizzuto was listed at just 5-6, 160, which was small even during his era. In fact, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Casey Stengel famously told Rizzuto, "Go get a shoeshine box" when Rizzuto tried out for the team as a high schooler. The Dodgers had been Rizzuto's favorite team growing up, so you can imagine how devastating that rebuke must have been to him. Ironically, Stengel became the Yankees manager in 1949 and Rizzuto had some of the finest moments of his career while playing for Stengel. Other writers have already waxed eloquently about Rizzuto's skills as a bunter, a defensive player and someone who could be counted on to deliver clutch hits even though he did not have a great batting average--but the story about his encounter with Stengel is what struck me the most.

Stengel played 14 seasons in the big leagues, won a World Series championship as a member of the 1922 New York Giants and was starting a Hall of Fame managing career when he first crossed paths with Rizzuto. So when Stengel basically told young Rizzuto to go home, those words came from an expert who had spent his adult life in pro baseball, not just some random person. Think how easy it would have been for Rizzuto to just give up his baseball dreams, to figure that if Casey Stengel doesn't think that he can cut it then he probably should consider pursuing another line of work. Instead, Rizzuto believed in his abilities, continued to work hard and ended up being a key member of one of sport's greatest dynasties.

Just like Stengel was slow to recognize Rizzuto's potential, other experts did not immediately appreciate how great Rizzuto had been until long after his career was over. Rizzuto was rejected for the Hall of Fame 15 times by the writers and 11 more times by the Veterans Committee. It took a speech by the great Ted Williams, who played against Rizzuto as a member of the Boston Red Sox, to finally garner enough support for Rizzuto's belated Hall of Fame induction in 1994.

Phil Rizzuto's life story dramatically demonstrates the power of persistence. It is easy to quit; anyone can do it at any time. The only way to discover the full extent of what you are capable of achieving is to disregard the doubters and the disbelievers and to work tirelessly to prove them wrong. Young Phil Rizzuto may not have looked the part of a major league baseball player to Casey Stengel--but Rizzuto will forever be remembered as one of the greats of the game.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tiger Stalks History

Tiger Woods is not playing against the golf course. Tiger Woods is not playing against Phil Mickelson or Rory Sabbatini or Sergio Garcia or anyone else who imagines, pretends or dreams that Woods is "beatable." Tiger Woods is playing against history--and right now it looks like he can give history a stroke a side and still win.

On Sunday afternoon, Woods held off Woody Austin and Ernie Els to win the PGA Championship, Woods' fourth PGA title and 13th career major, second all-time to Jack Nicklaus' 18. Woods won his first major at age 21, while Nicklaus was 22 when he won his first major--and Woods has picked up the pace since then, capturing his fifth major at 24 (Nicklaus was 26) and his 10th major at 29 (Nicklaus was 32). Nicklaus won his 13th major at 35, so Woods, 31, is now a full four years ahead of Nicklaus' pace. Woods' contemporaries are not even worth mentioning in this discussion; Woods has won more career majors than all of the other players in the world top ten rankings combined.

This kind of dominance is why it is at once humorous and revealing when you hear someone talking--really, it's more like hoping--about Woods being "beatable." Yes, in theory anyone is beatable but Woods never says that about his opposition because he has so much experience beating them that it would be redundant to talk about it. If Will Smith were still rapping the former "Fresh Prince" could do a remake of his I think I can Beat Mike Tyson single, changing the lyrics to focus on Sabbatini, Garcia and other golfers who talk about beating Woods but have about as much chance of doing so as Smith had of beating Tyson in the late 1980s.

Beating Woods when he has his "A" game simply does not happen. Woods has never lost a tournament when he has gone into the final round with a lead of more than one stroke and he is now 13-0 in majors when he has had at least a share of the lead going into the last round. As I mentioned last month, these kind of numbers illustrate the difference between winners and champions. All of the players on the PGA Tour are winners but Woods, like Nicklaus before him, is a champion, someone who can contend even when he is not at his best and who wins when he is on form.

Woods grabbed this PGA Championship by the throat in the second round, tying an all-time majors record by shooting a 63, coming within a putt that rolled in and out of posting a number that is every bit as magical to golf as 61 or 755 used to be--and perhaps still are--to baseball. As some commentators have noted, though, Woods' game plan these days does not frequently involve putting up devastating, record-breaking victory margins like he did a few years back. His game has evolved and matured to the point that he is perfectly content to get a small lead and nurse it to victory. Someone compared it to Dean Smith's old "four corners" offense or a football team running out the clock. Still, Woods' performance in this year's four majors was very impressive overall--a career year for just about anyone else: one first, two second place ties and a tie for 12th. His aggregate score in those events is -1 and he is the only player who made the cut in all four events to shoot under par overall.

The only possible roadblock in front of Woods is injury. If he does not suffer a serious injury then by the time he is 35 or 36 he will break Nicklaus' record while still having some prime years in front of him. Nicklaus won his last major at 46 but he had not won a major for nearly six years prior to that. If Woods passes Nicklaus at 35 he probably could still win a major or two a year until he is 40 and then perhaps win one or two more after that--which means that a previously unthinkable total of 25 major wins is not out of the question. It is also possible that Woods, a fitness fanatic, may age better than previous golfers, so unless there is some 12 or 13 year old phenom who will be hitting his stride about a decade from now Woods could transition smoothly from being the youngest golfer to reach various milestones to being the oldest golfer to stay at the top of the sport and win majors.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Economists, Engineers and the Effects of Steroids

Economists and engineers have one thing in common--they know everything; just ask any economist or engineer and he will heartily confirm that, never mind a few faulty projections, collapsing bridges or exploding space shuttles. Generally, economists and engineers are far too busy to comment on sports but now some economists have ventured over into the playground and decided to set the rest of us straight about what really is happening in the world of fun and games. For instance, apparently we were too dumb to realize it but Barry Bonds has not really gotten any bigger, performance-enhancing drugs do not actually work and Bonds' late career performance should not raise any suspicions. Yes, that was a mouthful and no, I am not making it up--someone actually wrote all of that.

The first claim is based on a statement by Mark Silva, who is erroneously referred to by Wages of Wins as a "doctor" (Silva is actually an orthotist). Silva designs and builds the custom-made arm guard that Bonds famously wears over his elbow. Silva says that he uses calipers to measure Bonds' arms and that "there’s been no significant change in the size of his arms" in the 15 years that Silva has measured the slugger. That is interesting, to say the least, since Bonds' listed weight has increased 53 pounds during that time, from 185 to 238, and some people believe that Bonds is in fact even heavier than 238. I'm no medical doctor--but then neither is Silva or the Wages of Wins author--but I will go out on a limb and say that it is physiologically impossible to gain 53 pounds without your arms increasing in size; this is even more true if the person in question is an elite athlete who quite obviously gained much of this new mass in his upper body. Maybe "significant" means one thing to Silva and something else to the rest of us. Maybe the arm guard is adjustable, maybe there is some other explanation but I'm not buying the idea that Bonds' arms are the same size that they were 15 years ago--but this kind of thinking fits in perfectly with the very credo that Wages of Wins espouses in all of its analysis: don't believe your eyes, because your eyes lie; only go by the numbers (though in this case Wages of Wins chooses to ignore the fairly obvious conclusion that one would draw about the arms of someone who has gained over 50 pounds). Their writers will earnestly say that they can crunch a few numbers and achieve a better understanding of sports than general managers and coaches who make their living in the field. I'm all for using statistical analysis as a tool to better understand sports (and anything else)--but nothing is better than the trained eye and nothing hurts the cause of statistical analysis more than the attitude of some of its adherents that they know everything there is to know about everything.

It's only one step from Mr. Silva's remarks to this quote, made by a Wages of Wins reader and cited in the aforementioned Wages of Wins article: "...please don’t show me a picture of the 1986 Bonds compared to today. We all looked at leaner than when we were 21. Bonds began bulking up well before he faced any steroid suspicions. Most players do." The wording of the quote is a bit garbled but as I understand it the writer is asserting that people tend to look leaner at 21 than they do when they get older. I'm not sure how scientific that is, how we would go about proving that or what exactly it has to do with Bonds and his usage of performance-enhancing drugs. The writer then cites Silva's arm measurements of Bonds and concludes, "Even if his head and feet have grown, who cares! Anyone who has bothered to look at the scientific literature knows that HGH has no performance-enhancing effects. This is the consensus opinion of the exercise physiology profession."

So there you have it--Bonds has not actually gotten bigger, except for possibly his head and feet, and performance-enhancing drugs don't work, so what's the big deal? But wait--there's more. This author also wants us to believe that, save for Bonds' 73 home run explosion in 2001, his "aging curve is actually worse than Aaron’s in many ways (as far as the ability to hit home runs is concerned)." This statement is demonstrably untrue. Bonds has hit a total of 73 home runs (and counting) after the age of 40, a major league record; Aaron had 42 home runs after the age of 40. Bonds also has far more most home runs after the age of 35 than any other member of the 500 Home Run Club, with his 312 (and counting) placing him well ahead of Aaron's 245. Bonds has hit more than 40% of his career home runs after the age of 35. The next closest member of the 500 Home Run Club in that category is Rafael Palmeiro (37%), who wagged his finger at Congress while denying that he cheated only to be disgraced when it was revealed that he tested positive for steroids.

Let's take a deep breath for a moment; sometimes it is hard to know how to respond to something that is so obviously incorrect from beginning to end. One thing I know going in is that there is no way to convince this writer that he is wrong because he "knows" without question that he is 100% correct. So the issue is how to discuss these subjects intelligently so that other people are not led astray by his confident certainty. Let's start with some facts about Bonds' size. Bonds was listed at 6-1, 185 in 1986 when he was a 21 year old rookie. He was listed at those exact same numbers until 1991, when his weight changed to 190. In 1992 his weight went back to 185. From 1993-96 his weight was listed at 190. So from ages 21-31 Bonds gained exactly five pounds. In 1997, Bonds was listed at 6-2, 206. I don't know how he grew an inch but that is a story for another day. He remained at 206 in 1998 and in 1999-2000 his weight increased to 210. In 2001, his weight jumped to 228, where it remained until this season, when he is now listed at 238. It should be noted that, if anything, the post 1999 numbers likely understate Bonds' size. In any case, Bonds stayed essentially the same size for more than a decade and then transformed himself fairly quickly from a lean, fast player to a huge, power-hitting machine. This change is not at all similar to how people's bodies gradually evolve from age 21 to 40+; Bonds' body actually stayed about the same size for more than half of his career.

Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the authors of Game of Shadows, based their account of Bonds' use of steroids "on more than a thousand pages of documents and interviews with more than 200 people, many of whom we spoke to repeatedly. In our reporting on the BALCO story for the San Francisco Chronicle, we obtained transcripts of the secret grand jury testimony of Barry Bonds and seven other prominent professional athletes." One is free to disregard all of this information, just like one was free to not believe the Dowd Report that linked Pete Rose to gambling--but make no mistake that you are then choosing to disregard a lot of evidence. Their research indicates that Bonds began using steroids prior to the 1999 season. These drugs not only helped to transform his body but they helped to transform all of his numbers, not just his home run totals. Four of Bonds' five best offensive seasons came after 1999--in other words, after the age of 35. Fainaru-Wada and Williams go on to note that baseball researcher Lee Sinins, using the "runs created" formula devised by Bill James, has listed the best offensive seasons in baseball history. Bonds has compiled three of these seasons, more than any player other than Babe Ruth--and all of them came well after his body changed noticeably and dramatically. Bonds was 36, 37 and 39 during those seasons; no other player on Sinins' list was older than 33. Another baseball researcher, Sean Forman of, says that from 2000-2004 Bonds had the greatest stretch of five consecutive years that any player has had in major league baseball history. Again, keep in mind that Bonds was 35 at the start of that run. Both Sinins and Forman are looking at overall offensive performance. Bonds' added strength and bat speed not only translated into more home runs but raised his complete hitting game, altering how pitchers could pitch to him and enabling him to do things that no one else in baseball history has done.

Clearly, Bonds is a special athlete. He was a great player long before 1999, but cheating has enabled him to vault from being a great player to being a transcendent player and has irrevocably tampered with baseball's record book, not only in home runs but also in slugging percentage, walks and many other categories--unless, of course, you choose to believe that he has not gotten bigger or that his increase in size is not the result of using performance-enhancing drugs.

If you still believe that Bonds has not gotten bigger, then you are an excellent candidate for the Flat Earth Society or one of those groups that believes that the moon landings were staged. For the rest of us who realize that Bonds has in fact gotten much bigger, the question is how much of that growth is attributable to performance-enhancing drugs. It is absurd to say that such drugs don't work; if that is true, then why are athletes in almost every conceivable sport using them? Do economists know more about physiology than elite athletes and the doctors/chemists who are working for them? Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs are just that--performance-enhancers; they enable users to work out longer and harder, with shorter recovery times. It should be obvious that this represents a tremendous advantage. Anyone who makes it to the major leagues is already an elite athlete. An elite athlete who uses artificial means to enable himself to train longer and harder will end up having advantages in strength and explosiveness, which directly translate into power and bat speed. Steroids will not help the average person to hit home runs but an elite athlete who already is gifted with great hand-eye coordination receives a great boost by using such substances. That is why so many athletes are cheating. Major league baseball has finally put a steroids testing program in place, albeit one that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) considers to be weak, but there is no reliable test for Human Growth Hormone (HGH). In other words, just like the cheaters were ahead of the game in the 1990s and early 2000s it is likely that they are still ahead of the game now.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Over and Out: Bonds Blasts 756, Passes Aaron

Hank Aaron's 33 year reign as the owner of the most glamorous and storied record in sports ended shortly before midnight on Tuesday as Barry Bonds launched a 3-2 Mike Bacsik pitch over the right field wall at AT&T Park. Bonds' record-breaking 756th career home run gave the San Francisco Giants a 5-4 fifth inning lead over the Washington Nationals. Fireworks went off and his hometown fans cheered as Bonds rounded the bases. When Bonds reached home plate he raised his arms to the sky in triumph and was greeted by his son Nikolai. Bonds' wife and other family members soon joined him on the field, along with Bonds' godfather, Willie Mays.

Neither Commissioner Bud Selig nor Aaron were present at the game, but a greeting from Aaron was played on the park's big Jumbotron screen. Aaron concluded his remarks by saying, "Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and I offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams." You have to give Aaron credit for taking the high road here; a cherished record has been taken from him by foul means but Aaron, the true home run king, issued a classy congratulations to Bonds. Meanwhile, Selig made sure that he was nowhere near the scene of the crime, sending emissaries to do his dirty work while he issued another one of his trademark tepid statements that congratulated Bonds while casting indirect aspersions on him at the same time; Selig did call up Bonds after the game to speak with him. The whole thing is a farce, "Kabuki theater" as ESPN's Tony Kornheiser called it. Selig needs to stand up and clean up the steroids mess that is in no small part his fault; meanwhile, unless or until he can do that, he should have been at this game and he should have congratulated Bonds in person.

After Aaron's taped remarks were played, Bonds took a microphone and thanked the crowd, his teammates, the Nationals and his family. He maintained his composure until he mentioned his deceased father Bobby, breaking down a bit as he said, "To my dad, thank you for everything." Bonds took the rest of the night off to savor the milestone moment, finishing 3-3, one triple shy of hitting for the cycle. The Nationals eventually won, 8-6.

There is no escaping the fact that this moment belongs just as much to Victor Conte's BALCO labs and Bud Selig's mismanagement as it does to Bonds. If you still don't believe that Bonds achieved this record in large part due to his use of performance-enhancing drugs, then you need to read this excerpt from Game of Shadows, the book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams that documents, in great detail, when, how and why Bonds began cheating; in addition to the dramatic visual evidence of how Bonds' entire physique has changed, Fainaru-Wade and Williams point out that Bonds' overall statistical production--not just his home run totals--increased after he started using performance-enhancing drugs and at an age when every other slugger in baseball history saw his production decline. By the way, I am so sick of hearing people say that even if Bonds used steroids it doesn't matter because steroids were not against the rules in baseball at that time. The use of steroids without a valid prescription is against the law and has been for quite some time; Bonds and anyone else who has used them without a valid prescription broke the law and should be criminally prosecuted.

Bonds has been--and remains--a remarkable athlete but this record-breaking moment feels unlike any other previous ones, including Walter Payton passing Jim Brown on the NFL's career rushing list, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar breaking Wilt Chamberlain's NBA career scoring record and Pete Rose setting the all-time baseball record for career hits. Yes, there is joy, at least in some quarters, and there is no question that this is quite an accomplishment but there is also a feeling of emptiness in the pit of one's stomach--the same feeling one gets when watching old footage of Mark McGwire's titanic home runs from 1998, when he shattered Roger Maris' single-season home run record. At the time, McGwire was celebrated but now we understand that we were watching a fraudulent event. We have just watched an equally fraudulent event, one that will be looked back on as a disgrace and a stain on baseball's record books. I don't know how or when that understanding will be reached but it will happen. More evidence will be uncovered, more depositions will be taken; perhaps in 15 or 20 years Bonds will write a tell-all book like Pete Rose did. For now, Bonds remains as defiant as ever. In the post game press conference, someone asked him how he would respond to anyone who suggests that this record is "tainted." Bonds, eyes narrowing and facial muscles tightening, stated bluntly that the record is "not tainted"--just like Pete Rose maintained for a decade and a half, with equally steely-eyed conviction, that he never bet on baseball.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Pro Football Hall of Fame Ceremony Features Two Touching Moments

The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted six new members on Saturday: Gene Hickerson, Michael Irvin, Bruce Matthews, Charlie Sanders, Thurman Thomas and Roger Wehrli. Hickerson played his entire career for the Cleveland Browns, blocking for Hall of Fame running backs Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell. Irvin was the emotional leader of the Dallas Cowboys teams that won three Super Bowls in four years in the 1990s. Matthews played 19 years as an offensive lineman, never missed a game due to injury and not only played guard, center and tackle but also was a long-snapper, the emergency quarterback and the emergency kicker. Sanders earned seven Pro Bowl selections as a tight end, more than any other Hall of Famer at that position; it is hard to understand why such a decorated player had to wait more than 20 years to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Thomas was an all-purpose running back on Buffalo teams that made it to four straight Super Bowls. Werhli was called the league's first "shut down" cornerback by Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach.

Each player's highlight films are full of heart stopping plays but what caught my eyes and ears were a couple heart rending moments during the ceremony. Hickerson became eligible for induction nearly 30 years ago but inexplicably and inexcusably was passed over for three decades. His health has deteriorated to the point that he is no longer able to deliver the acceptance speech, so his son Bob spoke on his behalf, concluding with these words: "So at this time I would ask all of you to please join me in welcoming Gene, who still is leading the way for Hall of Fame running backs Bobby Mitchell, Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly." Then, those three players guided Gene Hickerson's wheelchair on to the stage; Hickerson indeed still led the way, but now his running backs provided a timely push. It was a very touching moment but Gene Hickerson deserved to receive this honor when he was young enough and healthy enough to fully appreciate and acknowledge it. I wonder if the voters who denied him his just due for decades can sleep well at night with that image of the wheelchair-bound Hickerson in their minds; I certainly hope that it haunts them. It made me think of basketball legend Artis Gilmore. Hopefully, Gilmore will not have to wait as long to join the Hall of Fame as Hickerson did.

Irvin's speech came last. It is easy for people to mock his well documented legal troubles but, as ESPN's Tom Jackson put it after Irvin finished, Irvin spoke from the heart and laid himself bare emotionally. In case you missed it, here are the final paragraphs of his speech, words he delivered with tears pouring down his face:

You know the Bible speaks of a healing place. It's called a threshing floor. The threshing floor is where you take your greatest fear and you pray for help from your great God. I want to share something with you today. I have two sons. Michael, he's 10, and Elijah, he's 8. Michael and Elijah, could you guys stand up for me. That's my heart right there. That's my heart. When I am on that threshing floor, I pray. I say, God, I have my struggles and I made some bad decisions, but whatever you do, whatever you do, don't let me mess this up.

I say, Please, help me raise them for some young lady so that they can be a better husband than I. Help me raise them for their kids so that they could be a better father than I. And I tell you guys to always do the right thing so you can be a better role model than dad. I sat right here where you are last year and I watched the Class of 2006: Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Harry Carson, Rayfield Wright, John Madden, and the late great Reggie White represented by his wife Sara White. And I said, Wow, that's what a Hall of Famer is.

Certainly I am not that. I doubted I would ever have the chance to stand before you today. So when I returned home, I spoke with Michael and Elijah . I said, That's how you do it, son. You do it like they did it. Michael asked, he said, Dad, do you ever think we will be there? And I didn't know how to answer that. And it returned me to that threshing floor. This time I was voiceless, but my heart cried out. God, why must I go through so many peaks and valleys?

I wanted to stand in front of my boys and say, Do it like your dad, like any proud dad would want to. Why must I go through so much?

At that moment a voice came over me and said, Look up, get up, and don't ever give up. You tell everyone or anyone that has ever doubted, thought they did not measure up or wanted to quit, you tell them to look up, get up and don't ever give up.

Thank you and may God bless you.

Yes, Irvin has made mistakes but he has acknowledged them and he wants his sons to grow up to be better men than he is. Suddenly, one liners about Irvin don't seem quite so funny, do they?

Remodeling the 500 Home Run Club

On Saturday, baseball's 500 Home Run Club underwent some major remodeling. Alex Rodriguez became the Club's newest member and, at 32 years old, the youngest to reach that milestone. By comparison, Barry Bonds clobbered only 332 home runs by his 32nd birthday. Barring injury, Rodriguez seems to have an excellent chance to one day become the sport's all-time home runs leader. Of course, considering that we are talking about major league baseball it is hardly surprising that there is at least a faint shadow hovering over all of this. Jose Canseco, an admitted steroids user who believes that he has been blacklisted by the sport and is taking his revenge by revealing the truth about baseball's steroids-tainted stars, recently announced that he will have something to say about Rodriguez in his upcoming book. Is Canseco grandstanding, trying to promote his book and unfairly putting Rodriguez' name out there without substantiating anything? Yes, yes and yes. On the other hand, after the pitiful performances offered by everyone other than Canseco on Capitol Hill it is sad to say that he may be the only guy who is actually telling the truth. I hate rumors and speculation but enough of what Canseco has said has proven to be true that he cannot simply be dismissed as a disgruntled ex-player.

Frank Thomas, who is by all accounts a 100% clean player, says that he is "disappointed" by how he has performed this season but he did join the 500 Home Run Club this year and on Saturday he belted two more round trippers to raise his career total to 505, passing Hall of Famer Eddie Murray to move into 20th place on the career list. In light of Jason Giambi's admitted steroids use, I join those who have suggested that Giambi should be stripped of the 2000 American League MVP and that the honor should go to Thomas, who finished a close second in the balloting; Canseco should also be stripped of his 1988 AL MVP. No, we can't identify for sure every single player who cheated but the ones who have admitted to doing so or who have failed drug tests certainly should be punished.

Bonds upstaged Rodriguez and Thomas by breaking out of his recent slump to hit a solo home run in the second inning of the San Francisco Giants' 3-2, 15 inning loss to the San Diego Padres, tying Hank Aaron for first place on the career home run list with 755. No one can deny that Bonds is an amazing athlete but you don't know whether to laugh or cry considering the sideshow that is accompanying his march toward history. San Francisco fans will apparently cheer for him no matter what, while road fans boo him and hold up signs mocking him but bring their cameras to every game to try to get a snapshot of history. When someone is chasing the most hallowed record in all of sports and fans don't know whether to boo, cheer, take pictures or look the other way then you know that the caretakers of the game have failed miserably in their duties--which brings us to Commissioner Bud Selig. He attended the game in San Diego, witnessing Bonds' homer firsthand, which is only fitting since Bonds likely could not have accomplished this without Selig turning a blind eye to baseball's rampant illegal drug problem. Selig has been at all of Bonds' recent games, except for a brief break to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Selig laughably described his travels as "Herculean," doing his best to make it clear to everyone how grueling and distasteful a task it is to him to follow Bonds around the country and wait for him to break the record held by Selig's close friend Hank Aaron. If Selig had made a "Herculean" effort years ago to rid baseball of steroids--instead of waiting to be pressured by Congress to enact a drug testing policy that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) still considers to be inadequate--then he and the rest of us would not be in this mess. As Bonds slumped and Selig continued to accompany him on this joyless quest, one almost wondered if Bonds dragged things out a little bit just to make the Commissioner squirm.

Staying true to the end to his pattern of never taking a firm stand on anything, Selig did not preside over any official ceremony marking the tying of the record but instead issued the following tepid congratulatory statement:

Congratulations to Barry Bonds as he ties Major League Baseball's home run record. No matter what anybody thinks of the controversy surrounding this event, Mr. Bonds' achievement is noteworthy and remarkable. As I said previously, out of respect for the tradition of the game, the magnitude of the record and the fact that all citizens in this country are innocent until proven guilty, either I or a representative of my office will attend the next few games and make every attempt to observe the breaking of the all-time home run record.

I just contacted the offices of Wishy-Washy Commissioners Anonymous and they graciously translated this statement into plain English: "I have no choice but to grudgingly acknowledge that Barry Bonds has tied Hank Aaron on the career home run list. I don't want to do it and I still hope that we or the Feds get the goods on Bonds, in which case all copies of this congratulatory statement will be permanently deleted from all baseball history books. I hemmed and hawed until the last moment about going to these games, hoping that the Feds would indict Bonds or that something--anything--would prevent this from happening. Finally, I decided that I should attend the games but sit far enough away that no photographic evidence will link me to these tainted home runs. I have not decided if I will go to the next game or if I will send one of my lackeys in my place."

Watching Barry Bonds now is like watching Anakin Skywalker morph into Darth Vader: he could have been recognized for his great deeds, but instead he went down a different path, leaving open the question of what he would have become--what he could have accomplished--had he made better choices.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Ranking All-Time Quarterbacks

The 2007 NFL Fact & Record Book consists of 784 pages that are jam packed with every pro football statistic you could possibly imagine, plus a few that you may not have thought of yet. Who won the first NFL game played outside of the United States? The New York Giants beat the Ottawa Rough Riders 27-6 in Ottawa on August 12, 1950. What happened in the first regular season NFL game that went to sudden death overtime? Pittsburgh tied Denver 35-35 on September 22, 1974, after a Joe Gilliam interception, a missed Jim Turner field goal and several punts.

One of the best things about the book is that it acknowledges the existence of AFL statistics, as opposed to NBA record books that place ABA statistics in the corner as if they are unfit to be seen in proper company. Joe Namath, who spent the first five seasons of his 12 year New York Jets career in the AFL, still dominates the Jets' passing records, holding the marks for career yards (27,057), career passing touchdowns (170), single season passing yards (4007 in 1967), single game passing yards (496 on September 24, 1972) and single game passing touchdowns (six, also on September 24, 1972). Namath famously guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III and then led his Jets to an improbable 16-7 victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, the first time that an AFL team beat an NFL team in the championship game. It is perhaps not as widely known that he was the first professional quarterback to throw for more than 4000 yards in a season. Namath accomplished that feat in a 14 game season and the mark stood until 1979, when San Diego's Dan Fouts compiled 4082 yards. By that time, pro football was a very different sport: the season now lasted 16 games and several rules had been changed to open up the passing game, the most important of which liberalized how offensive linemen could block and limited downfield contact by defensive backs against wide receivers. Even with those advantages, Fouts averaged fewer yards per attempt (7.7) and fewer yards per game (255.1) than Namath did in 1967 (8.2 and 286.2 respectively). In 1980 Fouts broke Namath's yards per game record, throwing for 4715 yards in 16 games (294.7) but his 8.0 yards per attempt still did not match Namath's standard. The first passer to throw for more than 4000 yards with a better yards per attempt average than Namath's was Green Bay's Lynn Dickey, who threw for 4458 yards on 484 attempts (9.2) in 1983. Another example of how NFL offenses have opened up since the late 1970s is the 400 yard passing game, which used to be fairly rare. For a while, Sonny Jurgenson was the all-time leader with five such games and Namath ranked second with three. Now there have been 189 such performances by 101 players, led by Dan Marino's 13, seven each by Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Warren Moon and six each by Drew Bledsoe and Fouts. Or, consider this: it usually takes at least 30 touchdown passes to lead the league in that category now, but Namath tied for the NFL lead in 1972 with 19.

Clearly, Namath was ahead of his time as a proponent of the "vertical game" and that, along with his memorable Super Bowl performance, earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Fans who don't remember Namath's Super Bowl heroics and who do not realize how long he held the single season yardage record are sometimes puzzled about why Namath is a Hall of Famer. They point to his 65.46 career passer rating and his career touchdown/interception ratio of 173/220. This is a great example of why context is so important when one examines a player's statistics. The first thing that must be noted is that 49 of Namath's interceptions came in his last three seasons, when injuries reduced him to a shell of his former self; his touchdown/interception ratio for the first 10 seasons of his career was 151/171. That still may not look great to modern eyes, which brings us to the second point: prior to the aforementioned rules changes that liberated the passing game, many Pro Bowl passers had negative touchdown/interception ratios during their careers, including George Blanda (236/277), John Brodie (214/224), Y.A. Tittle (212/221), Bobby Layne (196/243), Sammy Baugh (187/203), Norm Van Brocklin (173/178), Charley Johnson (170/181), Jack Kemp (114/183) Eddie LeBaron (104/141) and Bob Waterfield (97/128).

That takes us straight to point three, which is that interceptions are the fastest way to kill a player's passer rating. Writers, broadcasters and fans act like the passer rating formula is too complicated to understand but it actually is pretty straightforward; it only takes one half of page 360 in the NFL Fact & Record Book to explain how it works. That passage notes that the most important thing to remember is that "the system is used to rate passers, not quarterbacks. Statistics do not reflect leadership, play-calling and other intangible factors that go into making a successful professional quarterback"--so Namath gets no points for saying prior to Super Bowl III, "We're going to win this game. I guarantee it." The rating is calculated by considering four factors: completion percentage, yards per attempt, percentage of touchdown passes per attempt and percentage of interceptions per attempt. It is easy to see why interceptions are death for one's passer rating; they lower a player's score in every category. A passer's performance in each category corresponds to a score between 0 and 2.375. You can only get a 2.375 in interceptions by going an entire season without throwing one, which has never been done by a player who had enough attempts to qualify for the passer rating title. The four scores are added up, divided by six and multiplied by 100; this is why the maximum passer rating is 158.3 (2.375 multiplied by four, divided by six and multiplied by 100). It is difficult to get a good passer rating with a negative touchdown/interception ratio, which is why most of the great quarterbacks of the pre-1979 time period amassed career ratings that look pedestrian to modern eyes. In fact, only one player who started his career prior to 1980 is on the list of the 20 best career passer ratings: Joe Montana (Otto Graham would make the cut if the NFL included his AAFC statistics). The top 20 passer ratings range from Steve Young (96.8) to Jake Delhomme (84.0), who just edges out Hall of Famer Roger Staubach (83.4). Brian Griese, who could not beat out Rex Grossman last year in Chicago, ranks 17th all-time (84.5); his father Bob Griese, who led the Dolphins to two Super Bowl wins, ranks 60th with a 77.1 rating. Johnny Unitas, who held virtually every passing record when he retired and is still considered by many to be the greatest quarterback of all-time, ranks 52nd with a 78.2 rating.

This does not mean that there is anything wrong with the NFL's passer rating system; it is a decent tool to evaluate a passer's efficiency compared to other passers from the same era. The problem is that it was originally intended as something that could be used to compare passers from various eras but that is no longer fair or realistic considering the dramatic rules changes that were enacted three decades ago. Prior to that time, many great quarterbacks had career ratings between 70 and 80, with Jurgenson topping the list at 82.62, just ahead of Len Dawson (82.56); Staubach inched past Jurgenson but Staubach benefited at the end of his career by playing under the new rules. In today's game, a passer rating between 70 and 80 is considered subpar.

Tennis has a different set of records for before and after the Open Era began. Major League Baseball has its Deadball era (and its Steroids era that has yet to be fully defined or even officially acknowledged). The NFL's passing records should indicate that post-1978 (when the season was expanded to 16 games, the five yard contact rule was created and offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms and open their hands while blocking) is a Liveball era.