Football: NFL, College, Arena and UFL. America's most popular sport, whose your team? <![CDATA[ Are the Patriots Patriotic? (Redux)]]>
The Patriots are Boston's football team, and you know how it goes with Boston sports: Endless suckitude before finally hitting it big. Yeah, before the B and B men came along and started winning, the Patriots would win one or two games a year and never, ever made the playoffs, and there's no fucking way in hell you could ever possibly imagine what an existence like that feels like. …. Wait…. Editor's message…. Well, shut my mouth and paint me red, white and blue! That hapless Patriot existence has been a big-ass lie! What do you know! Boston sports fans have been harping about past misfortunes which haven't actually been all that bad! Who would expect such a thing!

Okay, in fairness to Patriots fans, the team hasn't been the runaway success that it is now. The team history, however, gets played up to a point where everyone - including real, knowledgeable Patriots fans - believes they were the league's carpets, and that's not even close to being true. They were often underdogs, but as underdogs, they were very rarely hapless. They were more like the tough scrapper underdogs who usually had a great chance to win and could make a fight of it when they didn't. The team was one of the founding members of the AFL in November of 1959, when original owner Billy Sullivan got Boston chosen as the eighth - and final - host city for the AFL. The Patriots were founded as the Boston Patriots, and during their AFL years, they never had a true home stadium. They were always sharing: Cawley Stadium - a high school stadium - was one of their home fields, and they also had occasional access to Harvard Stadium and Fenway Park. The less-than-desirable circumstances, though, didn't keep the Patriots from accumulating an army of stars. Babe Parilli, Gino Capelletti, and Jim Nance became stars for the early Patriots as they fought their way to five winning seasons and five losing seasons from 1960-1969. They made the playoffs twice during the span and even got to the AFL Championship in 1963, which they lost to the San Diego Chargers. 

In 1971, the Patriots moved to their new home in Foxboro and rechristened themselves the New England Patriots. New name, new era, new attitude, and new chronic problem with losing! Well, actually it wasn't a new problem at all by then. The losing actually started back in 1967. The team had two losing seasons before then, but starting in 1967, it came to define the Patriots. In their first four years as an official NFL team, the Pats ran through three coaches in four years. They found a few fine players like John Hannah, Sam Cunningham, Jim Plunkett, and Darryl Stingley, but they were never quite enough to get the Pats off the ground until Chuck Fairbanks was hired to coach. His first season was 1974, and the team did improve, breaking an even record at 7-7. The next year saw a regression to 3-11, though, Plunkett was traded, and Mike Haynes and Tim Fox got drafted. After that, the Patriots finally had a breakthrough when they accumulated an 11-3 record in 1976, their best ever at the time. It set off a largely successful stretch in team history.

In 1978, Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum walloped Stingley in a preseason game. Tatum was a bit of an asshole - he never apologized for the hit until he wrote a book about it years later, which wasn't accepted by Stingley because he believed Tatum's apology stemmed more from a need for publicity than from any real sense of remorse. Tatum liked to compare his best hits to felonious assaults, so whether or not he meant it is up for grabs. 

New England started suffering from Bozo Syndrome at the turn of the decade. That is the term one sportswriter used to describe the way they kept blowing it down the stretch: They started 7-3 in 1979, only to finish 9-7, and started 6-1 the next year, a stretch that usually predicts dominance but ended with only four victories in the following nine games for a 10-6 record. The only truly bad season during the entire era, though, was 1981, and those Patriots were a very odd team. Despite being out-won by a whopping 14 games, they were outscored only by a grand total of 48 points for the entire season. A 48-point differential is something that usually belongs to a seven or eight-win team; a generally good team having an off year (which the Patriots basically were), not a walking disaster which would ordinarily pull in a mere two victories. They were the victims of a lot of bad karma. The Bills beat them in one game with a last-second touchdown pass, and they lost twice to the Baltimore Colts…. Who, notably, only won two games that whole season and were very much a true walking disaster. Other than that, they lost eight games by a touchdown or less, five by a field goal or less. For whatever it's worth, the 1981 Patriots might have been the best two-win team in history, and between from 1976 to 1989, it was their only losing season. 

The 1983 quarterback draft class is legendary for yielding John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly, but it also yielded Tony Eason for the Patriots, who takes a lot more shit than he should. In the seven years Eason played in the NFL - six with the Pats - Eason threw 61 touchdowns to 51 interceptions and finished his pro career with a respectable 79.7 QB rating. He wasn't a true starter for most of his career, but he was reliable when he did. Unfortunately, he was injured early in 1985, and so Steve Grogan stepped up to be the hero… Until Grogan was hurt late in the season and Eason was called again. Somehow, this quarterbacking seesaw managed to go 11-5 and luck its way through three straight road playoff games, including an AFC Championship against Marino's ultra-powerful Miami Dolphins. Well, their luck finally ran out in the Super Bowl, which everyone ceded to the opposing Chicago Bears. Which they were very much right to do, as the shufflin' Bears proved as the pounded the Pats 46-10, setting Super Bowl records for point differential and points scored. (Both have since been broken. In fact, they were broken within the next few years.)

While the Patriots didn't see that kind of success again in the 80's, they weren't a bad team until they went 5-11 in 1989. There was an ownership change, the team couldn't decide on a starting quarterback, their GM left for a job with the New York Jets, and their coach was fired and replaced with someone worse. Although the first truly bad era of Patriots history lasted longer, the stretch from 1989 to 1993 is considered the worst in team history by fans, who refer to them as The Patsies Years. They hired legendary New York Giants coach Bill Parcells in 1993 to sort everything out, but success didn't return until 1994, when quarterback Drew Bledsoe was drafted. New England had had very good quarterbacks before, but Bledsoe was the first for New England who was truly great. By 1994, the Patriots were in the playoffs again, but they lost to the Cleveland Browns and their first-time head coach, Bill Belichick. Ironically, Belichick's biggest gig before coaching the Browns was as the defensive coordinator for the Giants teams coached by Parcells. And that's only the second-biggest irony in this situation. You're going to want to remember Belichick's name; it's going to be very important later.

In 1996, Parcells, Bledsoe, all-time-but-somehow-understated running back Curtis Martin, and rookie receiver Terry Glenn finished 11-5. After beating the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars in the playoffs, the Patriots reached their second Super Bowl ever. In the big game, they faced the Green Bay Packers, whom all onlookers had already ceded the game to. Which they were very much right to do. While the Patriots showed some great life in the first quarter - scoring 14 points - they were only able to muster up one more touchdown in the third quarter. Although that touchdown made the score 27-21, game MVP Desmond Howard - who's primary position in the game was AS the returner - pulled in a 99-yard touchdown return, and that ultimately put the game out of reach for the Patriots. After the Super Bowl, Parcells resigned. 

After Robert Kraft bought the team, he put Pete Carroll in charge. You may recognize Carroll's name; he's the current coach of the reigning Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, and before that, he coached USC, where he installed the famed option attack that gave Trojan opponents such nightmares. While fans speak of Carroll's Patriot years like the team had fallen to its dark void nadir, they were not a bad team during these years. Carroll's worst record as Patriots coach was 1999, when he went 8-8, and that was after going 10-6 and 9-7 in the two previous years. The team let Carroll go. Here's where things get complicated: Remember Bill Belichick? The Browns coach? Yeah, after his massive failure in Cleveland, he went crawling back to Parcells, and was the defensive coordinator for New England in 1996. When Parcells went to the Jets, Belichick went with him. A day after the 1999 season, Parcells retired, and Belichick took over as coach of the Jets.

Why is this important? Because the Jets, being the Jets, were filled with drama: A bad ownership situation following the death of their owner, Leon Hess. After being the head coach of the Jets for a day, Belichick wrote his resignation note on a napkin, reemerged as head coach of the Patriots, and was given near-complete control over everything. Belichick restructured the team's entire personnel department during the offseason, but that didn't prevent most players from showing up out of shape, and as a result, the new era of Patriots history began with the team going 5-11.

That poor showing, however, didn't last very long. The Patriots weren't expected to fare much better in 2001. Not with their new method of finding players who fit Belichick's system at very low cost, and certainly not after Bledsoe went down with an injury on the second play - yes, PLAY - of the season. So Belichick had no choice but to make do with a sixth-rounder from Michigan by the name of Tom Brady. Brady proved to be really, really good - he won three of his first four starts and was happy to spread the ball out more. Brady became a quick fan favorite, and the Pats played excellent football, going 11-5 on the season. In the playoffs, the Patriots faced the Oakland Raiders in a snowstorm. The Raiders might have won, but a play which should have been ruled a fumble was called as an incomplete pass because of an obscure ruled called the Tuck Rule, and the Patriots went on to win the game. Bledsoe was given his job once more in the AFC Championship after Brady hurt his ankle, and he led a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots reached their third Super Bowl, where they faced The Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams. All watchers had already given the game to the Rams. Which they were very much right to do. The 14-2 Rams had been thoroughly dominant, and they were a 14-point favorite. The Patriots made a statement during the Super Bowl; first, instead of being introduced by the player-by-player custom, they ran out as a team. Then they ditched their regular game plan by using the blitz sparingly. This let them chip the Rams' receivers, harass star running back Marshall Faulk, and totally disrupt their precision passes. New England forced three turnovers, all of which resulted in scores. By the fourth quarter, New England was up 17-3, but you can't keep The Greatest Show on Turf down forever, and they roared back with two touchdowns of their own. With 90 seconds left, the game was 17 all, and everyone expected overtime, but Brady led a drive to the St. Louis 30, setting up a 48-yard field goal try. Adam Vinatieri made the attempt, and the Patriots walked off with one of the greatest upsets in NFL history.

There's been a lot of turnover with the Patriots since then, but Belichick is still coaching, and Brady is still their starting QB. Bledsoe was traded to the Buffalo Bills the next year to make Brady number one, over and out. Although Bledsoe is often blamed with starting the team's downward spiral, his tenure had much more good than bad, and the bad wasn't anywhere close to his fault. Brady, meanwhile, is arguably the greatest quarterback ever. The Patriots proved they weren't flukes when they won the Super Bowl again in 2003 and 2004, but 2001 might be the last year anyone LIKED them. Brady is doing the Hollywood act now, and Belichick's videos were found. (Every team does this. Sports journalist Mike Freeman covered it in his 2003 book Bloody Sundays, long before the 2007 scandal.) They're the most hated team in the league, the biggest bandwagon team in the league. In 2007, after the camera scandal broke, Belichick basically made it a point to stick his finger at the league. The Patriots went 16-0 that year - a perfect record, at least in the regular season. They also put 589 points on the board, another record which was broken last season when Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos scored over 600. They went to the Super Bowl and every account wrote them as the only perfect-record team of the 16-game era, especially when their opponents turned out to be the New York Giants, a seemingly ordinary 10-6 outfit which somehow managed to luck its way through three straight road playoff victories, including an overtime showdown for the ages against the Packers in the NFC Championship. They were very much right to do it, too. But the Giants had managed to find all the weaknesses New England had and exploit them, and they spent the game in Tom Brady's face. New England did have a 14-10 lead with under three minutes to go, but Eli Manning - Peyton's little brother - managed to lead the Giants on the drive to end all drives. At one point, on third and long, Manning escape a group of Patriots defenders who should have gotten him - hell, their hands were grabbing his shirt - and heave a hail mary to David Tyree. Hail mary really is an appropriate name for that pass, because when Manning threw it, a prayer was exactly what it was. Tyree, a journeyman receiver, somehow managed to beat three defenders to the ball and keep control of it by holding it against his helmet, like it was stuck with glue. The drive lived, and with 35 seconds left, Manning threw a pass to Plaxico Burress, and the Giants had the lead. On the ensuing Patriots drive, the Giants' line chased Tom Brady like a mouse in a maze, and New York walked off with a monumental upset, spoiling New England's bid at a perfect season. A few years later, the Giants and Patriots met in the Super Bowl again, and New York won again.

The Patriots are currently removed of the aura of invincibility they presented at the start of the millennium, but they're still plenty dangerous. They made the last two AFC Championships.

Gino Capelletti, Mike Haynes, Steve Nelson, John Hannah, Bruce Armstrong, Jim Lee Hunt, and Bob Dee are the Patriots whose numbers were retired. You'll notice that's not a list of household names. People who performed admirably as faces for the team include Jim Nance, Sam Cunningham, Steve Grogan, Stanley Morgan, Drew Bledsoe, Curtis Martin, Troy Brown, Terry Glenn, and Tom Brady. That's not the most notable bunch, but Bill Belichick could probably make them into a great team. By far the greatest coach the team ever had, Belichick has proven to be one of those rare coaches who was able to make huge but necessary changes to his entire method of operation when he needed to. When he arrived in New England, he built his teams around deceptive and stingy defenses. When his top defensive dogs aged, he became an offensive guru.

The Patriots have never really had much of a consistent marquee rival. They have a fierce divisional rivalry with the Bills, which has resulted in some wild games and finishes, but lately that rivalry has been one-sided. Since Rex Ryan was hired to coach the Jets, they haven't gotten along with the Patriots either (plus, you know, the whole Boston/New York City thing), especially after Ryan made a remark about how he wasn't there to kiss Belichick's rings. They're technically supped to have another rivalry with the Dolphins too, but the Dolphins have been in such a weird mess over the past decade that the idea of them being a rival to anyone is laughable. No, the biggest Patriots rivalry now is actually a rivalry between two particular men: Tom Brady against high-powered quarterback Peyton Manning. You could make solid cases for either one being the best of all time, and the games between the two have provided the league with some of its most exciting moments.

Back when the Patriots were unknowns, they would have been a very safe team to adopt: No one would have minded. There would have been absolutely no bandwagon stigma, and you would have been able to refer to a generally good team as yours. They won a lot in those days, but instead of being dominant, they would have been just good enough for the fans to believe they had a real shot. Now it's a different story. Now, it's the Patriots everyone hates, and they're the team everyone is out to get. Before, even people from Boston didn't care about the Patriots. Now they won't shut the hell up about them. You can give them this: The league needs a villain, and the Patriots are wearing that hat well. They even have a somewhat more menacing color scheme than they used to: Before, they had traditional red, white, and blue, with a dressed colonial on their helmets standing in three-point position. Since then, they've gone to dark blue and silver, and the colonial - nicknamed Pat Patriot - has been replaced by another logo called Flying Elvis.

The Patriots have a philosophy dedicated to teamwork and humility, or at least they used to. That may be a reason people hate them now: They've forgotten what they used to be about. They're not a particularly bad team to adopt if you want to be the bad guy and still can't fathom rooting for the Dallas Cowboys.]]> Sun, 20 Apr 2014 13:12:06 +0000
<![CDATA[ Not Your Average Winter Bills (Redux)]]>
I'm from Buffalo, New York, and when football came to my personal radar, it turned out I had been born at the right time. When I was about seven years old, the Buffalo Bills began a run on which they became one of the most dominant teams in the league, and it lasted for such a long time that onlookers were thinking the Bills were finally about to shed their history as a league doormat for good. Then they went back to being a free victory, and now I scoff whenever I hear the hip, new, young commentators talk about the "once-powerful Buffalo Bills." There's a real illusion of the team's past because the Bills have had great, huge moments of such significance that they tend to overshadow everything else. Unfortunately, that "everything else" is rife with some of the most incredible losing you can imagine.

The Bills were founded in 1959 by insurance salesman and automobile heir Ralph Wilson Jr. as a charter member of the AFL. They named themselves after the old All-America Football Conference team, which was absorbed into the old Cleveland Browns when the AAFC and the NFL merged in 1950. There was no connection between those Bills and the current Bills, but the name - after Buffalo Bill Cody - proved to have staying power, so Wilson went with it. Wilson was the part-owner of the Detroit Lions, and he even had the early Bills teams dressing in their colors. The Bills went 5-8-1 in their inaugural season, and for the first few years, things only got worse. In 1961, the Bills became the only NFL team to play - and lose - a game with a CFL team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

It wasn't long before Buffalo started stocking up on offensive talent, though, and so the 60's saw the influx of Jack Kemp, Billy Shaw, and Cookie Gilchrist and one of the most stubborn defenses in the league. In the offense-based AFL, the 1964 Bills were known as a defensive team, and they even set an impressive record when they only allowed 913 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in the year, total. That record still stands. They also registered 50 sacks, which is still the team record. They were the first AFL team to win 13 games in a single season. In the AFL Championship, they smothered the San Diego Chargers, 20-7. That success spilled over into 1965, with the Bills beating the Chargers for their second title, shutting them out in the Championship game 23-0. In 1966, the Bills returned to the AFL Championship once more, but their opponents, the Kanas City Chiefs, were just BETTER. They beat Buffalo 31-7, but that game still stands out as a seminal moment in Bills history and is the subject of many what-could-have-been conversations among old school Bills fans. The 1966 season was the first time the AFL and NFL decided to play their league Champions against each other to see, once and for all, who was better. Today the AFL-NFL World Championship Game is known to football historians as Super Bowl I, and if Buffalo had beaten Kansas City, they would have been the AFL representative. They also would have gotten totally creamed by Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, but that's not something you should try to mention to anyone in Buffalo.

The Bills had a backup quarterback named Daryle Lamonica who was very exciting and very ambitious. Unfortunately for him, Jack Kemp was a great starting quarterback, so Lamonica was shipped to the Oakland Raiders, where he became their template. This proved to be a problem for the Bills in 1968, because Kemp got hurt and their backups at the time were so bad that the team tried to convert one of its wideouts to the position. It didn't end well. The Bills dropped to the league's worst, but hey, high draft picks, you know?

The projected star in 1969 was a gimme: USC had a Heisman man by the name of OJ Simpson, and the Bills won the right to draft him first overall in 1969. It was right in time for the merger, but not enough to help the Bills. While Simpson was able to slice and cut through defenses like nothing nothing anyone had ever seen, the Bills went 3-10-1 in their first NFL season. In 1971, they finished 1-13, scored the fewest points in the league, and allowed the most points. In 1972, they went 4-9-1. Adding to everything, the team's home, War Memorial Stadium, was falling apart and Ralph Wilson started making the first of many threats to move. 1973 was a year of real change: Ralph Wilson Stadium - then called Rich Stadium - opened, and Simpson, behind a world-class offensive line nicknamed "The Electric Company" because they "turned on The Juice," slaughtered every rushing record in the book. He ran for 2003 yards, and is still the only player to ever hit the 2000 mark in 14 games. The team won more than it lost for the next few years, but they were never really, ahem, a contender. They only made the playoffs once, with a 9-5 record, losing the wild card game to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Part of this was because the Bills spent the whole decade neatly setting a record by losing to the Miami Dolphins in 20 straight games, which is still the record for consecutive losses by one team to another. The Bills were outright bad again by the late 70's, and Simpson was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 1977 where, his body just about murdered over the previous eight years, he played one more season before retiring.

Things were looking up again in 1980. The Bills beat the Dolphins for the first time in 11 years and won their first-ever division title. The next year, they returned to the playoffs and won a playoff game for the first time ever in their history, against the New York Jets. In the 1983 draft, they picked Jim Kelly, who quickly bolted to play for the Houston Gamblers of the USFL instead. The Bills stank up the league through the mid-80's, but the joke was on Jim Kelly when the USFL collapsed and he was forced to return to Buffalo. In 1986, the Bills hired former CFL coach Marv Levy and general manager Bill Polian, who got right to work and stockpiled talent like Bruce Smith; Andre Reed; Thurman Thomas; Ray Bentley; and Cornelius Bennett, a linebacker who evoked favorable comparisons to Lawrence Taylor. 1987 was a coming out party. The Bills were good; not Good, but GOOD, for the first time ever. They went 12-4 and earned their first trip to the AFC Championship, where the Cincinnati Bengals overwhelmed them with a new offensive form called the no-huddle.

Levy tried to discourage use of the no-huddle, but then the league wasn't buying, he developed a very unique way of throwing a hissy fit: He installed a revolutionary version of it with the Bills called the K-Gun. Jim Kelly called his own plays, and is the most recent NFL quarterback to do that to such a complete level. The Bills rode the K-Gun to the Super Bowl in 1990, clobbering the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 in the AFC Championship. They went 13-3, which made them the first AFC team to win 13 games in one season. They were unstoppable.... Then, in the Super Bowl, the New York Giants slowed them down. They hogged the time of possession, and put together a gameplan so brilliant that the plan is in the Hall of Fame. During the media junket, Lawrence Taylor confessed that the Giants tricked the Bills into buying into their own hype. The Giants played at their absolute peak level while the Bills played like the season was already over, and yet, the game was STILL the closest Super Bowl in history. The Giants won. The final score was 20-19, and the outcome wasn't sealed until the kick that would have won the game for the Bills flew wide right with eight seconds left in the game. Although the Bills had been favored, it's becoming chic for NFL historians to write cute little revisions trumping how the Bills stood no chance. Anyone with a brain shouldn't be buying that bullshit. The Bills should have dropped 17 on the Giants in the first quarter and cruised through the game.

The Bills weren't discouraged, though. They returned to the Super Bowl every year for the next three years.... And lost them all. The second and third Super Bowls - against Washington and the Dallas Cowboys, respectively - were honest blowouts. The third, however, saw the finest hour in Bills history in the wild card game. Against the Houston Oilers, with Kelly and Thomas out, the Oilers jumped out to a 28-3 halftime lead, which went to 35-3 early in the third quarter. The Bills then went on a 28-point binge while holding Houston to just a field goal afterward. In the fourth quarter, Buffalo took the lead, and they earn the victory in overtime, thus capping The Miracle Comeback, the largest in NFL history. The fourth, against Dallas again, saw the Bills carrying a halftime lead. But after a third quarter fumble, their haunted history got into their heads, and then they just tanked. The Super Bowl teams were out of gas after that, aging. Kelly retired in 1997.

In 1998, fleet, speedy Doug Flutie was signed, and the Bills continued to terrorize defenses for a couple more years. Unfortunately, they made a trade for another quarterback - the Jacksonville Jaguars' Rob Johnson - that same year. Flutie had the keys in 1998 and 1999, taking the Bills to 10 and 11 wins in those years. Flutie was much older, though, and the Bills needed a franchise guy, and Johnson impressed in a few games. So rumor has it that Ralph Wilson told then-coach Wade Phillips to start Johnson in the 1999 playoffs against the Tennessee Titans. The Bills were leading that game 16-15 after a field goal with 16 seconds left, and on the ensuing kickoff, the Titans scored a touchdown that featured a lateral play. That was called the Music City Miracle, but even though science and math have proven that it was totally legit, Buffalo still thinks of it as The Forward Lateral. That's the most recent playoff game the Bills have played in.

The Bills had a chance to turn their historical fortunes around for good in 2001. There was a serious quarterback controversy between Johnson and Flutie. Flutie was dynamic and could win, but old. Johnson was young and showed flashes of greatness, but he was mostly terrible, had a glass jaw, and good at absorbing sacks. The Bills took Johnson. After going 3-13 in 2001, the Bills traded for former New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who gets a far worse rap for his Bills years than he deserves. In 2002, he took the Bills to an 8-8 record with the league's number two offense. The next year, instead of capitalizing on that strength, then-coach Gregg Williams stupidly decided to try shifting to a run and defense oriented plan. Receiver Peerless Price left the team because he wanted a chance to be a number one receiver, and couldn't do that with the great Eric Moulds on the other side. Tight end Jay Riemersma - a receiving tight end - was released for blocking tight end Mark Campbell. Receiving fullback Larry Centers was released for blocking tight end Sam Gash. That's over 100 receptions that were cut. 2002 rookie receiver Josh Reed had a great debut year, but no one could have seen his bad sophomore year coming. The 2003 Bills won six games, but a year later, Bledsoe managed to salvage the little receiving talent he still had to lead the Bills to a 9-7 record in 2004, the last time they surpassed seven wins. Everything afterward has been a messy retread. The Bills have the longest active streaks without either a winning record or a playoff appearance.

A few years ago, the Toronto Series was instated, and it's a source of fan embarrassment. The Bills are basically forced to surrender one home game a year to play in the Toronto Skydome. The official excuse is to expand the fanbase, but the fan theory is that Roger Goodell is trying to test the international waters for expansion. The games haven't been selling out, and the reception there is so bad that the league has resorted to giving out tickets literally by thousands. The Bills have won just one game in Toronto, a 2011 match where they beat up always-hapless Washington 23-0. It's no exaggeration to say half the spectators in Toronto show up to root for the other team, so no one - including the Bills players, who have been vocal in their opposition to playing in Toronto - is fooled into thinking it's a home game. The 2013 game against the Atlanta Falcons was a special embarrassment: The Bills choked away a 14-point first quarter lead, gave up a couple of late leads, and blew a couple of surefire touchdowns against a Falcons team worse than they were. Atlanta won in overtime, and their players said it felt almost like a home game for them. The team president is saying he's giving serious thought to axing the series after that.

The Bills, like many other teams, have a Wall of Fame. Among the names on it are OJ Simpson, Jack Kemp, Marv Levy, Kent Hull, Darryl Talley, Joe Ferguson, Steve Tasker, and Bill Polian. Only one number - 12, for Jim Kelly - has been officially retired. Kelly is considered an all-time quarterbacking great, although not quite in the same tier as Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, and Peyton Manning. The numbers of OJ Simpson, Thurman Thomas, and Bruce Smith aren't officially retired, but they're all out of circulation. Simpson still stands out for a very horrible and peculiar reason: He was the face of the Bills, and he never spoke badly of the team or fans. Cleveland sports fans have The Decision, where NBA star LeBron James used a national TV special to say he was leaving his team. That was probably unimaginably embarrassing to Cleveland, but the thing is this: NO ONE DIED. Hell, Cleveland is starting to look like it might embrace James if he decides to return and finish what he started there. OJ Simpson proved to be a true scumbag in private, when a murder arrest in 1994 revealed his true character. While John Law says OJ didn't do it, the public at large thinks he did, and that Simpson got off easy when the race card was played. When Simpson later committed a robbery and was given a disproportionate sentence for that, it was the law making up for what it didn't do years earlier. Buffalo believes to the letter that Simpson is guilty, and a number of petitions have been circulated to have his name removed from the Wall of Fame. The Wall, though, celebrates how good a person played football, and in that respect, Simpson deserves to be up there.

The main rivalry focus has shifted in the last decade. Where most fans of my generation grew up hating the Dolphins, the Dolphins are regularly mired in messes even more absurd than Buffalo's. It's hard to think Miami once played through a whole season completely undefeated, won two Super Bowls, won 20 straight against Buffalo, and that during the years with Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, Bills/Dolphins was a marquee NFL game. Now the hate is reserved for the New England Patriots, who have always had a wild rivalry with the Bills, but one that got almost as one-sided as the 70's Bills/Dolphins after Tom Brady became their quarterback. Since 2001, the Bills have only won two games against the Patriots: A 31-0 blowout in 2003, which the Patriots nevertheless wrote off on their way to their second Super Bowl victory, and a hell of a game in 2011 in which the Bills came back from a 21-0 deficit to win. The Patriots wrote that loss off on the way to a Super Bowl appearance that year, too. There's also a rivalry with the New York Jets, which was the biggest in the Namath era.

The Bills have an intensely loyal fanbase, but their stability has run out. Although the team claims to have made a deal that will keep them in Buffalo for the next decade, anyone with half a brain regarding practical economics knows the Bills are going to bolt soon. The city keeps discussing a new stadium which it can't possibly afford, the team already lent itself to Toronto for extra money, and the Bills are always at the forefront of any and all talks regarding a new Los Angeles team. Ralph Wilson's heirs have already admitted there's no way they can afford to keep the team in Buffalo after taxes. It's a case where the team and city need to leave each other in order to save themselves, but the people don't want to accept that because the Bills are the final hanging thread connecting today to Buffalo's days as a true power. That being said, Ralph Wilson Stadium is highly renowned for its tailgating experience, and the people in Buffalo do know how to grill good meat, so anyone who wants to enjoy great tailgating with some of the best, friendliest, and most knowledgeable fans in the NFL better come to Buffalo and do that while there's still time. Ralph Wilson is the team's only owner, and he's in his 90's.

There are a few good reasons to adopt the Bills if you're looking for a team. If you don't mind the fact that they'll be gone in a few years, then by all means. If you're adopting them for civic reasons, though, you'll have to find someone else. Even though the Bills are the only NFL team in New York (the Jets and Giants are both based in New Jersey), there actually a pretty good chance you'll be better off adopting the Jacksonville Jaguars, and that's just pathetic.]]> Sun, 2 Mar 2014 13:58:28 +0000
<![CDATA[ Lights Out]]>
This year didn't leave me with a particular rooting interest. The game was between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, billed as the War Between Brothers. Said brothers would be the Harbaugh brothers, as in Niners coach Jim and Ravens coach John. Now, I like both of these teams a lot. I gave a slight edge to the Niners because their defense is younger and faster, their quarterback is quickly becoming the defining prototype of the new, mobile quarterback, and running back Frank Gore is one of the league's best. Hell, he saved my fantasy team a few times. But the team I was ROOTING for was the Ravens, because I was sickened by the way the media was treating Ray Lewis. 

Sometime after the 2000 season Super Bowl - which the Ravens won - Lewis and his posse got into some kind of nightclub scuffle in Atlanta which resulted in Lewis's crew killing two people. Now, whether or not Lewis himself had anything to do with their deaths is a truth which may well be lost to the birds for all eternity. Lewis claimed to have left before the killings took place, and sometime during the ensuing trial he apparently turned rat and tipped John Law off on his budies. Since then, Lewis did get his act together. He found religion and became an important pillar of the Baltimore community. Although we shouldn't be letting him off the hook for having six kids between four women, we can at least be a bit kinder on him since he decided not to play the deadbeat about it. He supports all those kids. Of course, the media latched on to the "did he or didn't he" angle and immediately cast Lewis as the villain, ignoring what he did after that experience, calling him an evangelist loudmouth, focusing on the angle of him being a rat, and generally making the public think he's guilty by hook or by crook. 

Seeing that fiasco, I couldn't help but get the feeling that if that very same story had been the story of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, the Atlanta killings barely would have been whispered in a long story about the great quest for redemptive life turnaround and the ultimate triumph of Joe Flacco. Why the difference? Lewis is a black linebacker. Flacco is a white quarterback. Flacco plays football's field general, the ultimate cool leader. Lewis's job on the field is to hit whoever has the ball. (He had seven tackles during the game.) No doubt the differences between offense and defense in football lent to the perception and story, but I'm quite certain there were racial politics in play here. 

Also, my hometown of Buffalo is more like Baltimore than San Francisco. Buffalo and Baltimore are both violent, crime-ridden hell holes which show up regularly on statistics reports. Both experienced their greatest glories during the industrial boom and were poor by the millennium. 

And so the game took off, and the Niners promptly looked like they were going to perform the nastiest tank job since the 2002 Oakland Raiders got their asses kicked all over the field by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There were some very unusual plays, though, which looked like they would have made the game memorable no matter what the outcome. At one point, the Ravens tried for a fake field goal. The fake looked for a minute like it would work, but the Ravens were stopped a yard short of the first down. On another play, Joe Flacco launched a 56-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones, who caught the ball on the ground in front of two Niner backs who apparently forgot that in the NFL, the play isn't over until contact is made. All one of them had to do was put a hand on Jones. Unfortunately for San Francisco, Jones DID remember that, and so the defenders seemed a bit surprised when Jones jumped right up and burned them while launching himself into the endzone. 

Mostly, San Francisco seemed to be doing themselves in with penalties. Vernon Davis had a 20-yard reception called back because of an illegal formation penalty on the opening drive. On their following drive, the Niners kicked a field goal to respond to Baltimore's previous touchdown, but that was the last sign of competence from them for most of the following half. Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick also heaved an interception to Ed Reed. The San Francisco 49ers had played in five previous Super Bowls with two different quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young. Of all that, this was the first time any Niner quarterback ever threw an interception in the Super Bowl. 

I missed Beyonce's performance, so I can't write about that. I was enjoying some of the commercial spots, though. The Superstition Bud Light commercial with Stevie Wonder and a pair of Voodoo Dolls was great, and the Joe Montana Stain commercial for Tide was also very cute. 

The second half began with Jones scoring a return touchdown on the opening kickoff, reeling the score up to 28-6 and signifying an official blowout. Then the Superdome went dark. What followed was a torturous 34-minute blackout in which the CBS studio guys showed us how useless they really are. They didn't offer anything useful or informative about the game; all they did was give us a few updates about when play would start again. They ran ads to the maximum limit, and yet they didn't give us any insight on what was happening - didn't even try - and they didn't give us any analysis on anything that happened previously. They repeated box phrases, kept giving us updates about the restart time, and were generally vapid as hell. 

Meanwhile, down on the sideline, Ravens coach John Harhaugh was visibly flipping out. It wasn't like we could hear anything he said, but I'm sure a seasoned lip reader could interpret a streak of curses which could put New Orleans Voodoo Priest to shame. (Note: That's actually a very inaccurate view of the Voodoo religion, but I like it because it just fits.) After 34 excrutiating minutes of Bill Cowher and James Brown saying jack shit despite them making sounds with their mouths, the game finally got back under way.

The lights may have been out, but the San Francisco 49ers clearly had some sort of fire lit under their asses in the meantime. Kaepernick suddenly became the threat he had been after replacing Alex Smith, and on one drive, he scored a touchdown by making a 15-yard run himself; it was the longest touchdown run by a quarterback in Super Bowl history. Niners receiver Randy Moss - possibly the most physically gifted receiver in NFL history - hauled in a 32-yarder, and Gore gutted the Baltimore defense for 21 on another play. The Niners started to look like the old Bill Walsh teams as they began hacking away at the Ravens, and the score started to crawl close. 28-13. After that, Gore ran for a six-yard touchdown which cut the acore to 28-20, and the Niners were suddenly back in the game. David Akers missed a field goal, but even that went San Francisco's way because Baltimore's Chykie Brown was penalized for running into Akers. Second chance time for Akers, and he redeemed himself. Now it was 28-23, and what looked impossible before was now looking not only possible, but in fact quite likely with momentum clearly swung in San Francisco's direction. 

The Ravens finally responded again with a 77-yard drive during which Anquan caught two passes for 39 yards, but they had to settle for a field goal. The Ravens in fact would not score another touchdown after the Jones kickoff return, and they scored only twice more. With the score 31-23 now, the Niners put another touchdown on the board in just five plays. They also went for the two, but the score stayed at 31-29 after Baltimore broke it up. Baltimore would eventually put up another field goal and take an intentional safety with four seconds left, setting the final to 34-31, Baltimore. 

It began with a blowout but ended with a thriller. Ultimately, it was probably Jacoby Jones's 108-yard kickoff return touchdown that did the Niners in. Still, driving back the way they did doesn't leave San Francisco a lot to be ashamed of. Even so, before this game, the Super Bowl win/loss record for the San Francisco 49ers stood at an incredible 5-0. If they had prevailed, that record would be 6-0, so I can't help but get the feeling they were due for a loss. ]]> Wed, 6 Feb 2013 16:17:41 +0000
<![CDATA[Superbowl XLVII Quick Tip by woopak_the_thrill]]>
I have to say that the game became one of the best championship games I’ve seen. What a nail-biter! The Ravens led by as much as 22 points in the first half, and with the 49ers coming really close within 2 points, (after a power outage) the second half was filled with suspense and drama that I thought that whoever won certainly deserved it. Great game! Pizza, chicken wings and dessert made it even better! Congratulations to the Baltimore Ravens!


]]> Mon, 4 Feb 2013 04:00:51 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Debate is Over: Tom Brady is the Greatest Quarterback in NFL History]]> The Debate is Over: Tom Brady is the Greatest Quarterback in NFL History

Sean Glennon has written a well-organized, cogent argument why Tom Brady is the best quarterback in NFL History.  He does this by comparing the statistics, both regular season and post-season, as well as the long term success of other candidates’ respective teams versus Tom Brady.  He also uses more subjective measures such as talent around the quarterback and championship wins.  He uses all of this data and more to show that Tom Brady stacks up as the best ever.

The chapters a broken down comparing Tom Brady to other great quarterbacks, interspersed with breakdowns of each of Brady’s seasons and his team’s accomplishments.

What this book doesn’t do is trash the achievements of other quarterbacks.  All the quarterbacks presented in this book are rightfully considered the greatest that ever played the game.  You don’t hear the author trashing the achievements of Peyton Manning, for example.  In fact, the author lauds the achievements of the other great quarterbacks to which he compares Brady.

Glennon does such a great job of making his arguments I won’t rehash them here, but I will make a few points on a couple of items in the book.

Peyton Manning

Tom Brady v Payton Manning is the first chapter of the book that directly compares Brady to another great quarterback, and Joe Montana v Tom Brady is the last one.  That was brilliant placement of those two chapters as Manning would be the current day quarterback to most likely get some strong arguments in his favor, and Joe Montana, of course, many incorrectly consider the best ever.

The Peyton Manning chapter is very similar to some of the arguments I have made to why Tom Brady really is a better quarterback than Manning and I’ll just throw in a few comments here to say that I agree.  First, championships do and should matter in this evaluation.  It’s not the only thing, but it is one thing that should be looked at.  At least the player’s and his team’s accomplishments in post-season play should be strongly considered.  And despite all the great talent the Colts have had, for whatever reason, they really slump in the playoffs and Manning doesn’t always perform that well when he gets there. 

Second, Manning has had the luxury of a strong running game (Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James) most of his career, and a Hall of Fame bound receiver in Marvin Harrison and an elite receiver in Reggie  Wayne.  His entire career has been spent with superior offensive talent.

Brady, on the other hand, has taken average receivers and offensive talent and led them to three Super Bowls.  But for a dropped pass that would have undoubtedly been a game winning touchdown by the woebegone Reche Caldwell, Brady would have lead a group of below average receivers to a Super Bowl.

And what happens when Brady gets an elite receiving corps?  19-0, 50 touchdown passes and a bevy of other offensive records.  Granted the Patriots lost in the Super Bowl that year, but the achievement is one that is still phenomenal. This was followed by another Super Bowl appearance after the 2011 season. 

Glennon does a nice job of making these points, and more. 

Joe Montana

I think the chapter on Joe Montana is the one that really brings to light how Brady is better than Joe Montana.  Yes, the one thing Montana has over Brady is four Super Bowl wins, and 4-0 at that, while Brady is 3-2.  But I have never heard anyone argue that Terry Bradshaw is the equal of Joe Montana and he is 4-0 in Super Bowls too.

But when one looks over the long-term success of the Montana’s teams and many of the statistics, Montana clearly doesn’t stack up to Brady.  And Montana had what some consider the best receiver ever to play the game in Jerry Rice most of his career, a strong running game, and a stout defense that usually ranked at the top of the league.  Being one of the most talent laden teams of that era the 49’ers probably should have made it to more than four Super Bowls, but they didn’t.

Now in the current salary cap era, no offense to a lot of Brady’s former teammates, the Patriots have never assembled great offensive talent around Brady for much of his tenure at quarterback.  When they have the results speak for themselves (now they just need to fix the defense).

Ben Roethlisberger

Big Ben is not given his own chapter but I hear a lot of people try to make the claim that Roethlisberger is a Hall of Fame quarterback.  He probably is based just on his team having won two Super Bowls but they have also failed to make the playoffs frequently as well.  And Roethlisberger played poorly in two of the three Super Bowl appearances (a win against the Seahawks and a loss against Green Bay).

The Steelers won Super Bowl XL despite Roethlisberger’s poor play.  He has the distinction of being the quarterback on a winning Super Bowl team with the worst passer rating, an abysmal 22.6.  He threw two interceptions, one on a terrible pass that set up the Seahawks for an easy touchdown.  I suspect the poor play of Big Ben is the reason the Steelers finally went to a trick play and had former college quarterback Antwaan Randle-El throw a touchdown pass to Hines Ward. 

I’m not pointing this out to denigrate the accomplishments of Big Ben, but he is no Tom Brady.


Now I will quote from the last words of the book.  This is not a spoiler because you already know the book’s conclusion:

“And the reality is the greatest quarterback in NFL history is not Peyton Manning, not Bart Starr, not John Elway nor Dan Marino.  It’s not Sammy Baugh or Otto Graham.  And no, it’s not even Joe Montana.”

When you sit down and honestly and fairly review and compare the careers of the best who ever played, you can only reach one conclusion: The greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL is Tom Brady.  Pure and simple.”

]]> Mon, 19 Nov 2012 21:00:08 +0000
<![CDATA[ What is everything and the only thing]]> Paterno, and with Maraniss' highly-honored biography of Lombardi on my ready-to-read shelf, I felt the pairing unavoidable and perhaps worthwhile.

The similarities between the two men was sometimes striking:
  • They came from the same place, Brooklyn, and their paths even crossed briefly, when the high school coached by Lombardi beat the high school team featuring Paterno at back.
  • They came from similar roots:  large families of recent Italian immigrants.  Lombardi's parents had come from Italy, but adopted their new country and culture whole, insisting on English being spoken in the home.   Even so, both Paterno and Lombardi valued and cherished their heritage.
  • Perhaps because of that heritage, both men hated discrimination in any form, and were among the first to welcome and encourage African-American players into their largely white communities in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
  • They shared similar interests, both reading widely in literature and history, both putting the lie to the "dumb jock" image of players and coaches, and maintaining their wide range of interests throughout their lives. 
  • Both languished long years before reaching the pinnacle they were both so ambitious and certain they were capable of reaching.  Paterno's long years as an assistant at Penn State were matched by Lombardi's long journey from Catholic high school head coach to college assistant (at Fordham and then West Point) to NFL assistant (leading the New York Giants offense while Tom Landry lead the defense, certainly the strongest assistant coaching pair in NFL history).

But both did finally achieve their dreams, and found them perhaps both more and less than they hoped.  It is easy to say they were driven to win (Lombardi, famous for the quote that winning is not just everything but the only thing, didn't originate it, and Maraniss devotes a brief but interesting chapter to the history of the phrase) but that drive alone neither accounts for their success, and for their inability to enjoy it beyond the moment.  While Paterno found his career continuing beyond the peak of his success driven by some single-minded pursuit or perhaps because having driven so long for it that he was incapable of another path of mind, Lombardi found his health consumed by his devotion to his ambition, and by his stubborn refusal to seek treatment for internal illness that took him as a relatively young man after attempting to recreate his success with the Washington Redskins.

As a young football fan when Lombardi went to the Redskins after his brilliant years of success in Green Bay (five championships in nine years), I remembered before reading that he had not lasted long with the Redskins and hadn't been able to recreate his success there, but I didn't know why and assumed he had faded in failure.  In fact, he had only one season with the Redskins, taking the down and out franchise to its first winning season in many years, when he was cut down by colon cancer.  In a way, by placing this end in context, Maraniss while humanizing the legend has enhanced it in my mind; he hadn't been a failure, he had died before he could achieve the success he certainly would have given time!

But Maraniss, writing in a more classic biographical style than Joe Posnanski in his Paterno book, certainly makes no effort to gloss over the inadequacies of Lombardi the man.  While beloved by the community and (if begrudgingly and sometimes after the fact) his players, he was not a great husband and father.  While he was a faithful husband to wife Marie, he was often so absorbed in his work he failed to attend to her needs and desires, especially as his job path took him hop-scotching around the northeast and then to the frigid hinterlands of Green Bay.  Similarly, his relationships with son Vincent and daughter Susan were alternately distant or strained, as neither met his expectations or were able to find his attention long enough to register as much as his players, coaches, and fans.

I am rating the Lombardi biography one star less than the Paterno one, not because it is not as well written and researched (it is, despite the difference in style), but because the subject was not so recently an open wound in my life and those who follow football and current events.  Writing from a further emotional distance, Maraniss had the time to give a considered and balanced approach to Lombardi that lacks just a bit of the immediacy of Posnanski's first-draft study of the recently-passed Paterno, while at the same time providing more depth and breadth. 

In the end, Lombardi's life, while cut short, was not as tragic as Paterno's rapid and utter fall from legend.  In fact, Maraniss makes the point briefly in the epilogue that perhaps Lombardi was better served to leave a world early that was on the brink of finding him either irrelevant or bypassed by events, the "win-at-all-costs" symbol of a rigid conservatism being dashed to pieces by the turbulence of the late 1960s.  While Lombardi was not a rigid conservative (he was in fact a Kennedy Democrat), his fame and legendary status had put him on a pedestal in a place not of his own choosing.

Perhaps this position, so much like Paterno's, was their greatest similarity, their greatest weakness, and in the end their greatest mystery. ]]> Sun, 9 Sep 2012 03:29:08 +0000
<![CDATA[ Bittersweet: The Life of Walter Payton]]>
Payton grew up poor in a racially segregated Colombia, Mississippi. While Payton never experienced firsthand violence growing up, it was a segregated community with all the racial prejudice against blacks that implies. African Americans were treated as inferior and lived in a specific section of town. His father was a hard worker and decent man but an alcoholic who didn't seem to have a great deal of influence in Payton's life. But his mother was a hard worker who was the family disciplinarian and real glue that held them together. This segregated community and overt racism of his childhood is probably what gave Payton a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life, out to prove that he was inferior to nobody.

As schools were integrated and Payton went on to play high school football, he of course became the darling of the town, as great athletes often are, and was one of the most sought after football prospects. He ended up, through some shenanigans by the coach, heading to Jackson State in Mississippi near his hometown for his college football career.

There he had a career that landed him as the fourth overall pick in the 1975 National Football League draft by the Chicago Bears, where he had a Hall of Fame career, setting the then NFL record for rushing yards (16,726 yards). He won a Super Bowl ring when the Chicago Bears won Super XX over the New England Patriots.
This isn't a biography, however, only about Payton's nearly unmatched professional football career. It's about the man who lived it. And there we find the darker side of Walter Payton.

Walter lived a happy but sheltered childhood and his sheltered life at Jackson State probably did not prepare him to live in the real world, especially the one outside of football. There he met his future wife Connie who eventually moved to Chicago with him.

What was Payton's real personality like? Fun loving; happy go lucky, and a prankster. Kind hearted to strangers, children, and those who were in need. He was quite a compassionate human being. But he was also childish, jealous, petulant, and someone who always wanted to have things his way.

What do we find out about Walter Payton in this biography?

First, while he was great teammate and superb player he was also a bit petulant when things didn't go his way. He wanted the ball and to be the superstar, but also had a quiet way of going about it. In one of the more telling moments, he hid in a broom closet after the Bears won Super Bowl XX because he didn't score a touchdown. What should have been one of the happiest moments in his life turned out to be one of the most bittersweet as he cried in anger and refused to come out to talk to the press after the Super Bowl win, without some cajoling. Coach Mike Ditka says it is one of his biggest regrets that he didn't make sure Walter got the ball for a score in the blowout win.

Second, during his playing career Payton abused the painkiller Darvon, often popping them like candy. He continued to abuse painkillers after his playing career, possibly as self-medication for depression. Darvon is very hard on the liver and while Pearlman does not draw a direct line to his drug abuse and the live disease that ultimately killed him, he certainly implies it.

Third, Walter Payton struggled badly with loneliness and being out of the spotlight once his playing days were over. He reportedly contemplated suicide, maybe on more than one occasion, and suffered from depression.

Fourth, Payton was a philanderer and liked women. He clearly had fell out of love with his wife Connie and didn't really live with her for most of his post-football life. In fact, he fathered a child with another woman and had another long-term relationship with a flight attendant.

This lead to another bittersweet moment in Walter Payton's life. Against his wishes his girlfriend showed up at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, unbeknownst to his estranged wife Connie. In public, Payton, and probably more so Connie, put on the façade of the happy couple. Payton was angry that his girlfriend showed up and she was literally just a few rows back from his wife and children during his induction speech.

So once again, what should have been one of the happiest moments in Walter Payton's life instead turned into a nerve wracking, bittersweet experience.

A fifth aspect of Walter Payton that is apparent, even if Pearlman doesn't say this directly, is he was probably a manic depressive. If the behaviors exhibited in the biography are accurate, one moment he is manic and happy go lucky, being out public, and trying to make a living on his up and down again business interests. And at other times he is darkly depressed, not wanting to be out in public, and even contemplating suicide.

Pearlman also points out all of Walter Payton's good traits. Even though he trusted very few people, he cared about people and went out of his way to make people around him feel good and he was very charitable to those in need. He was also a great teammate who led by example on the field and was real locker room leader, even when the Bears had dreadfully inadequate talent around him. The persona that surrounded Payton as a caring, hardworking, class act was a real part of Walter Payton too.

Jeff Pearlman has been unfairly castigated by many of Walter Payton friends, family, and fans for this biography because he dares tell the real story of Walter Payton. Mike Ditka said he wanted to spit on him and has no respect for him. Others claim the biography is not truthful and essentially fiction. And Connie Payton and his children also claim the biography is mostly untrue.

I think the veracity of this book is hard to question for one very simple reason. Nearly all of Pearlman's sources are identified by name. Only two sources are not - his longtime girlfriend who showed up at his Hall of Fame induction and the woman with whom he has a child (which he never acknowledged). Otherwise, former agents, players, long-time personal assistant, family members, coaches, and other acquaintances who Pearlman interviewed are all there, speaking through the author. I have yet to see any of these people come out and refute what they said to Pearlman. I know that the truth might be painful for many, but Pearlman has done a service to the memory of Walter Payton.]]> Sun, 20 May 2012 22:20:30 +0000
<![CDATA[ Know Thy Enemy]]>
I still believe Rex Ryan is an obnoxious, undisciplined, loud mouth jerk, and fully understand why the Baltimore Ravens did not hire him as a head a coach after he had been their defensive coordinator. A coach who lets the inmates run the asylum (one of Bill Parcels favorite sayings), and who shows no self-discipline himself, will have an obnoxious undisciplined team that can't win the big game. I don't think Ryan will ever win a Super Bowl. His teams will always choke on their bravado. And they can't seem to keep their mouths shut when they should.

That aside, this autobiography of Rex Ryan was somewhat interesting. Everybody knows he grew up in a coaching family. His father Buddy Ryan, probably the progenitor of the bounty game that has caught up with the New Orleans Saints, is famous for his 46 defense and the 1985 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears where his defensive team may have been the best ever, and for being an obnoxious cretin.

Well, Rex Ryan is kind of lovable in his own way unlike his father.

Herein he tells his life story of wanting to be a coach and growing up being taught to be so by his father. His relationship with his mother, an educator, was quite interesting. Ryan reveals he is dyslectic and that hampered his academic career, but of course not his football one. His poor mother never realized this problem and blamed herself for his struggles as a youngster in the classroom. This was probably the most revealing part of the book.

Ryan of course relays all his playing and coaching history and actually throws some begrudging respect to Bill Belichick, his coaching better, and Tom Brady.
Now if he'd grow up just a tad, he might actually be a decent coach himself.

This book was interesting enough and Ryan clearly loves football and being a head coach. His tenure as the Jets head coach is front and center, as one would expect. As a result you don't see much new that you didn't see on HBO's Hard Knocks featuring the Jets, but it was interesting nonetheless.

But as seen in the 2011 NFL season the Jets are less than that the sum of their parts. Yes, I know they went to the AFC Championship game twice riding on the emotions of an emotional coach. But did they win? Did they go over the top? No. The squabbling teammates and lack of discipline in 2011 is a reflection of the coach. I don't see much changing.

As a disclaimer I am a New England Patriots fan so take that for what it's worth. But I thought his father was a jerk, and Rex is just the happy go lucky dumb son of one.

Despite that, for football fans this is definitely worth the read.]]> Sat, 19 May 2012 04:33:33 +0000
<![CDATA[ How 'Bout Dem Cowboys!]]>

In Boys will be Boys, Pearlman leaves his comfort zone covering America's pastime and goes into the more random and brutal territory of America's game. Instead of covering a single Super Bowl-winning season in the fairly long but storied history of America's so-called Team or the history in its entirety, Pearlman covers the great dynasty years of the 1990's. In The Bad Guys Won, Pearlman referred to the 1986 Mets as the last rock star team in baseball. But the days of rock star football teams apparently never went away or simply lasted longer. The 1990's Dallas dynasty played hard, partied harder, and learned the hard way that the good times couldn't roll forever.

Boys will be Boys picks up at the end of the Tom Landry era. Jerry Jones had only recently entered the picture as an Arkansas oil man who decided he wanted to buy the Dallas Cowboys. The unusual condition that he had to meet was to fire Landry, who of course was the heart, soul, face, and in fact the very living being of the team. The many things that happened in the subsequent years became legendary. First the Cowboys pull off "the trade" with the Minnesota Vikings. The most lopsided trade in NFL history, this trade sent the only good player with Dallas – Herschel Walker – and two or three draft picks to Minnesota for a total of 13 players, seven of whom were draft picks, and one of whom turned into Emmitt Smith. Pearlman explains that this trade was possible because the GM of the Vikes was a business guy and not a football guy.

The coach of the Cowboys during the time of the transition was Miami University coach Jimmy Johnson. The relationship between Jones and Johnson was portrayed as two old college roommates coming together once again for a shot at gridiron greatness. The truth, of course, was a lot different. Jones and Johnson, through most of their partnership, merely tolerated each other in the best of times. They never saw eye-to-eye on a lot of subjects, and neither of them could tolerate getting walked all over by the other. Johnson and Jones was a clash of giant egos. As much as they hated each other, however, they would not have been able to turn the Cowboys into the COWBOYS without one another. This was of course definitively proven once Jones fired Johnson and hired Barry Switzer in his place.

The most fun in Boys will be Boys comes in reading about the team itself and the various personalities who formed it: The reserved Troy Aikman, the egotistical Emmitt Smith, the crazy Charles Haley, the magnetic Deion Sanders, the sex-addicted Michael Irvin, and just cut and paste your favorite here. Even the most faceless and useless players on this Dallas team are brought to colorful life. Larry Brown, who caught the two game-winning interceptions in Super Bowl XXX just because he was standing in the right place at the right time, is even covered with a certain amount of depth. Reading about these players with their flaws and their vices might make Bills and Steelers fans feel worse about their teams losing those Super Bowls. After awhile, the question becomes "How did these animals manage to win anything at all?" Pearlman's descriptions of the Super Bowls themselves shows the Cowboys won the first very decisively; the second was tougher and could easily have slipped away; and in the third, the Pittsburgh Steelers were pushing down the field in their final drive in what would have been a monumental upset had Neil O'Donnell not gift-wrapped a last-minute interception to Brown.

A turning point is reached when Johnson is fired and Switzer and Neon Deion are hired. Johnson wasn't afraid to give out third degrees when they were necessary, and so his players were always driven and knew they always had to answer to him. Switzer was a party man hired because he was an old friend of Jerry Jones. The effect becomes noticeable immediately; if someone didn't like a practice time, he could just ask Jones to tell Switzer to move it. Switzer clearly won games because he inherited Johnson's team. Even in the week leading up to Super Bowl XXX, Switzer partied harder than anyone and his team was woefully underprepared to meet the Steelers. It also becomes painfully clear that Switzer didn't have Johnson's eye for scouting talent.

The most interesting parts of the book are in the pre-dynasty and post-dynasty days, when the dynasty was getting started and then waning down. It's interesting to see just how a team can build itself up so well only a few years after a one-win season only to end up crashing so quickly because the owner was too nosy and didn't like the head coach who really made it all possible. It's not as if the middle of the book isn't readable, though. Pearlman is able to gently tell us when the team mentality changed and the players – especially Emmitt Smith – began to really buy into their own hype. In the end, it was ego which really brough the Dallas Cowboys dynasty to a crashing halt.

Boys will be Boys manages to find that balance between football, business, and vices. Even though it covers about a decade with the emphasis on the three Super Bowls in four years, it regularly switches between the players and businessmen who made the Cowboys dynasty possible. Pearlman has a writing style which I can only describe as street-level. It's well-written, but it takes a sarcastic tone in many places. It's readable for anyone at just about any reading level. It's one of the best football books available, and it shouldn't be missed even if you're one of those people who wonders how these guys have the gall to call themselves America's Team.]]> Wed, 14 Mar 2012 21:45:31 +0000
<![CDATA[ Luv Ya Blue]]>
That original team from Houston is inextricably linked to the Titans because they played such a huge role in the history of the AFL. When Lamar Hunt decided he was going to undercut the NFL and form the AFL, in fact, team owner Bud Adams was one of the first people he called. In 1960, Adams set up his AFL team: The Houston Oilers. The Oilers were an immediate success in he AFL, winning the first two AFL Championship games and playing in the third, which they lost to their cross-state rivals, Hunt's Dallas Texans. During their initial AFL years, the Houston Oilers Jeppesen Stadium first, then Rice Stadium, before moving to their permanent home in the Astrodome, making them the first professional football team to play in a domed stadium. You now know who to blame.

The Oilers scored a major victory over the NFL when they managed to lure LSU running back Billy Cannon, who had won the Heisman along with All-America honors, joining other offensive stars like George Blanda, Charlie Hennigan, Charlie Tolar, and Bob Talamini. After those first titles, the Oilers proceeded to win their division in 1967, but began a tumble in 1969, which was their last year as an AFL team. They began 3-1, but stumbled to go 6-6-1.

The trend continued when the Oilers spent the first few years of their existence in the NFL bottoming out. their best season being a four-win year in 1971, accented by a pair of one-win seasons the following two years. In 1974, Hall of Fame coach Sid Gilman managed to crack the .500 mark again, but it was the next year the Oilers got their new coach Bum Phillips, who would spend the next six years guiding talented players like Elvin Bethea and Billy Johnson. Under Phillips, the Oilers had their first winning season in the 70's in 1975, stumbled the next year, and returned to winning in 1977. Then in 1978, one of the defining Oilers players of all time arrived when University of Texas football legend Earl Campbell donned the columbia blue uniforms of Houston. They went to the AFC Championship that year, but were beat by the Pittsburgh Steelers, denying them entry to their first Super Bowl.

The 80's saw a bunch more lean years in the early goings and one of those uber-annoying coach carousels. No one could seem to have any luck with the Oilers, but they did do something in 1984 that improved them substantially for the next decade when they won a bidding war for Warren Moon, a CFL legend who had set nearly every significant passing record in the league while leading the Edmonton Eskimos to five straight Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982. Although the Oilers continued to flounder under another bad coach - Hugh Campbell this time - and the aging Earl Campbell was traded, sunnier days were on the horizon when the Oilers fired Hugh Campbell and replaced him with Jerry Glanville, who had them back in the playoffs by 1987. Glanville was a good coach, but he wasn't great, and so the Oilers let him go after the 1989 season and replaced him with Jack Pardee, who transformed the Oilers into a a real contender in the early 90's.

Bud Adams was seen as an instigator of his team's many misfortunes because he has a tendency to try to manage the team instead of just sitting on his ass, writing checks, and watching football. In 1993, he displayed this tendency at its worst and most arrogant. By 1993, the Oilers had made six playoff appearances, losing three times in the Wild Card round and three times in the Divisionals. And Adams, fed up, decided that if the Oilers didn't make the Super Bowl in 1993, he would break the team. The Oilers went 12-4 that year, which was their best record in Texas, but lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Kansas City Chiefs. After that, Adams held a fire sale and traded Moon to the Minnesota Vikings. Moon was the heart and soul of the Oilers, and without him, they fell to 2-14 the next year and, despite a couple of respectable outings the next two years, never went back to the playoffs during their tenure in Houston. They did make a smart move in the 1995 draft, however, by drafting a quarterback named Steve McNair, who would soon prove to be a worthy successor to Moon.

Around that time, Adams also began throwing a hissy about a new stadium with the little bells and whistles of other new NFL venues that, you know, generated (more) revenue. Houston's Mayor said no right off the bat and doing that thing owners always do, which is threatening to move if they don't get a new one. Houston wanted to keep the Oilers, mind you, but it wasn't ten years ago when they invested $67 million for improvements to the Astrodome, and with the city still trying to recover from the oil crash of the 80's, they weren't up to giving more money to Adams. Adams, for all his faults as an owner, managed to sense this and began shopping the team around. At the end of the 1995 season, Adams said the Oilers would be headed to Nashville for the 1998 season, and no, that's not a typo. It was certainly nice of Adams to apparently give Houston a little time to see if they could drum up enough support to keep the Oilers around, and the city tried. They promised $144 million for the stadium and another $70 million in ticket sales, but at that point the Dallas Cowboys had emerged as a dynasty and support for the Oilers in Houston was almost gone. 1996 was decent enough on the gridiron; the Oilers had gone 8-8, but they did it while averaging a paltry 20,000 per game in attendance, and the games were so quiet that it was possible to hear on-field conversations in the grandstand. Meanwhile, the team's radio network, once statewide and competitive with the mighty Cowboys, had been reduced to the Houston flagship station and a few places in Tennessee. They were actually cutting off games early in football-crazed Texas for - get this! - preseason basketball. Adams, the city of Houston, and the NFL all agreed that they didn't want this to go on for another season. A rally to save the Oilers drew only 65 people, and so everyone came to an agreement to let the Oilers go a year early.

The arly Tennessee years began with a small problem: The new stadium being built for the Oilers wouldn't be ready until 1999. The largest stadium in Nashville then was Vanderbilt Stadium on the university campus, and it only seated 41,000 people and didn't sell alcohol. Adams rejected it, and instead pulled a very dumb move when he announced that the newly-renamed Tennessee Oilers would spend the next two years BASED in Nashville, but PLAYING in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis. The NFL accepted this, but the good folk in both Memphis and Nashville didn't. The two cities were rivals rather than friends, and while Memphis had applied for an NFL team several times, the people there couldn't be bothered about a team that would be leaving for Nashville in two more years. The people of Nashville weren't happy about the idea driving over 200 miles down the road to watch "their" team play in person especially not with Interstate 40 going through a major reconstruction near Memphis which made a five-hour commute out of a route which was ordinarily three hours long by itself. In 1997, the Oilers spent the year playing in front of small crowds of 27,000 people on their best days, in front of fans who were either indifferent or there to cheer on the other team. (Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium could hold 62,000.) Adams was stubborn, proud, and bull-headed about it, though, and so he announced that the Oilers would return to the Liberty Bowl the next season no matter what. But in the last game of the 1997 season, the Oilers did manage to draw a crowd that would have been too large for Vanderbilt Stadium when 50,677 fans showed up to see them. Or, more accurately, the crowd showed up to see the Pittsburgh Steelers. By one estimate, three-fourths of the crowd were there boosting the popular Steelers. Adams was finally embarrassed enough to scrap the plans for Memphis and let them play at Vanderbilt.

During the 1998 season, Bud Adams decided to listen to his fan requests and change the team name to coincide with the opening of the new stadium and to better connect with the fans in Nashville. In 1999, the former Houston Oilers and former Tennessee Oilers were rechristened with identity they still have today and ran onto the gridiron for the first time as the Tennessee Titans. The people of Nashville appreciated the connection and have responded by selling out every Titans game in Nashville to this day. The team responded with the best season in its history in either Houston or Nashville, going 13-3 and winning the AFC Championship. Although they lost the ensuing Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams, it was one of those rare instances in which the losing team had nothing at all to be ashamed of. The teams were very evenly matched, and played like it. In the end, it seems like the Rams just wanted it more. Over the next few years, the Titans were one of the most dangerous teams in the league, and they took a division title while Steve McNair won an MVP, and in 2002 they went to the AFC Championship. They floundered until 2007 from there, and even let McNair go in 2006. In 2007 they went 10-6, followed by a 13-3 year in 2008, falling into average-ness the next few seasons. Along the way, they drafted Vince Young as their future quarterback, who had his moments and made the Pro Bowl but wasn't quite the franchise guy they were looking for. Between their current running back Chris Johnson and their current quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and their 9-7 record in 2011, things are looking upward for the Titans, if not straight up.

The legacy of the Tennessee Titans is one of a lot of heartbreak and frustration. Some years ago, an Oilers diehard by the name of John Pirkle took it upon himself to write a detailed chronological history of the team, and his book, Oiler Blues, was subtitled "The Story of Pro Football's Most Frustrating Team." As a person who watched and cheered the Buffalo Bills growing up, I know a lot about frustration, and I can authoritatively say Pirkle has every right to call them that. Despite the early AFL successes, the legacy of this team is rife with brief periods of success interspersed with periods of not only futility, but total dysfunction. In their first 27 years in professional football, the Oilers had a whopping three stretches where they had five head coaches in six years. Even in good years, the team was never good at closing. In one year in the 80's, the team's fortunes for the postseason once rested on a single play known as Stagger Lee, a risky maneuver depending on mismatches which the team had never used. It backfired and the team ended up being embarrassed. In the 1991 playoffs, the Oilers were leading in the Divisionals with two minutes left in the game when they fell victim to one of John Elway's final-minute heroics. The next year's Wild Card round was even worse; Houston ran up a 35-3 lead early in the third quarter which they proceeded to totally squander, losing to an injury-riddled Buffalo Bills team which had been forced into fielding its backup quarterback, running back, and several defensive players. Known as The Comeback in football parlance, Houston nicknamed that terrible loss The Choke, and Pirkle writes - without the slightest hint of irony, cynicism, or sarcasm - that it was the cause of several broken television sets and at least one suicide.

In 1999, the Oilers were the Titans but they did manage to extract their revenge over Buffalo for The Comeback. In the Divisionals, the Titans and Bills battled it out, and Buffalo managed a touchdown with 16 seconds left to take a 16-15 lead. On the ensuing kickoff return, Frank Wycheck, who had received the ball, tossed a lateral to Kevin Dyson which Dyson ran in to score the winning touchdown. A review was called to see if the lateral was directed forward, but evidence was inconclusive, so the play stood. The play is known as the Music City Miracle in football parlance, although we in Buffalo refer to it as The Forward Lateral. The Titans went on to win the AFC Championship that season, putting them into the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams and their mighty Greatest Show on Turf offense. Tennessee was ready for them, though, and what came of the situation was arguable the greatest Super Bowl ever played. In a game that absolutely lived up to its hype, the Rams would drive deep into Tennessee's territory on every possession, only to be forced to take the field goal by the Titans' top-ranked defense. They didn't manage a touchdown until the third quarter, when they took a 16-0 lead. After that, the Titans managed to score a touchdown of their own, after which they went for two points but failed the conversion. Even so, it sparked them into a rally, and the Titans tied the game with just over two minutes left. Next time the Rams had the ball, Kurt Warner threw a 73-yard touchdown to make it 23-16, and the Titans got the ball back with 1:48 left in the game. On their drive, St. Louis was penalized for some dumb moves, and Titans quarterback Steve McNair sparkled and shined as he passed, ran, shifted, and escaped the Rams defense time after time. Tennessee was at the St. Louis ten-yard line with six seconds left, time enough for one last play. And that play, a slant pass to Kevin Dyson, was executed perfectly. Dyson made the catch and was charging those final few steps into the endzone when he was tackled by Mike Jones and, trying to get the ball over the goal line, he was brought down one yard short of the tying touchdown. Time expired, and the Rams won.

In 2002, the Titans were back in the AFC Championship, but lost to the Raiders. This is pretty much the team's history, whether Houston or Tennessee: Missed opportunity. Granted, they've been much better as a whole since the move to Nashville. The team's coach during that Super Bowl run, Jeff Fisher, actually enjoyed a kind of stability with the team never granted to any of its other coaches. He took over the reins in 1994 and stayed with the Titans until 2010. In a bit of irony, he was just hired as the new coach of the St. Louis Rams.

The league isn't playing any weird games with this team's history and mascots. Those early AFL titles won as the Houston Oilers still belong to the team as the Tennessee Titans. The team's Hall of Famers - Elvin Bethea, George Blanda, Earl Campbell, Ken Houston, Bruce Matthews, Warren Moon, and Mike Munchak - are all equal parts Oilers and Titans lore. Their retired numbers as the Oilers are still retired as the Titans. And when NFL football returned to Houston in 2002, the Houston Texans came into the league totally out of the blue. They are exactly what they are: A new team, and Houston has embraced them as just that, cutting all ties to the Oilers and appreciating their new team for the future of professional football in Houston the Texans will create.

As for Tennessee fans, they seem content with what they have too. Nashville is known as one of the great cities to see if you like music. It's not a bad place to be if you're into football, either.]]> Sat, 10 Mar 2012 16:48:50 +0000
<![CDATA[ Barbeque Football]]>
Hunt was not the kind of guy who easily accepted the word "no" when he really wanted something. So he did something about it: He picked up the phone and started calling some of his rich buddies who also wanted to put NFL teams in their cities but were turned down, including his fellow Texan and oil man Bud Adams. Soon he had a group of eight rich people who were angry about not getting their share of the football pie. This group was referred to as the Foolish Club, because they were taking an outrageous chance. And the outrageous chance they were taking was starting up their own professional football league: The American Football League, which became a force that brought the established and hopelessly shortsighted NFL to its knees.

Hunt got that team in Dallas. The Dallas Texans were one of the greatest successes of the original AFL. To coach the team, Hunt originally had his heart set on University of Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkenson or New York Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry. They both said no, so Hunt settled on an unknown assistant coach from the University of Miami, Hank Stram. Hunt hired Stram just because Stram really wanted the job. It was a smart move on his part, as Stram went on to win 124 games for the team from 1960 to 1974. He's still the winningest coach in the team's history.

Unfortunately, the appearance of the AFL had also tossed the NFL into a complete panic, and the senior league was faced with a choice: Expand or die. League leaders went with the former option, and when news of an AFL team in Dallas got to them, they decided it was time to place that NFL team in Dallas after all. By 1963, Dallas's AFL team was still relatively unknown because the league was also unknown. Although they managed to compile a 25-17 record during their time in Dallas - winning the AFL Championship in 1962, even - while the Cotton Bowl-sharing Cowboys went 9-28-3 in that same time, the Cowboys were better-monied and therefore more popular. So Hunt began looking for a new horizon, flipping through Miami, Seattle, and Atlanta before settling on New Orleans because he wanted a place he could get to from Dallas fairly easily. New Orleans was okay with it, but Tulane University wasn't because it didn't want its popular college football team competing with the pros. So Roe Bartle, the Mayor of Kansas City, persuaded him to move to the midwest, where the Dallas Texans transformed into the Kansas City Chiefs. He actually wanted to keep the Texans nickname as a tribute to his team's lineage, pointing out that the NBA's Minneapolis Lakers kept their nickname when they went west. But naturally that logic wasn't going to fly in this case.

Like many AFL teams, a lot of great prospects ditched the Chiefs to play in the NFL. The Chiefs drafted running back Gale Sayers, who went running into the Hall of Fame as a Chicago Bear instead. Despite this, the Chiefs were able to build a great team, and in 1966 they won the AFL Championship again, beating Buffalo. With the merger on the horizon, the season didn't end there. Instead, it propelled Kansas City into the first-ever AFL-NFL World Championship Game, which we know today as the Super Bowl. The Chiefs were clobbered by Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, but they returned to the Super Bowl in 1969 to face the Minnesota Vikings. It was the fourth Super Bowl ever played, and at this point people were still looking down their noses at the AFL, claiming it inferior, and the NFL had a 2-1 advantage in the previous Super Bowls. Yes, Super Bowl III was fresh on everyone's minds, with Joe Namath's guarantee and his New York Jets subsequently beating the Baltimore Colts, but for all the hype about that game putting the AFL on the NFL's level, Michael McCambridge writes a very different story in America's Game, his most excellent tale of the history of the NFL. He writes - and his sources confirm - that people were still making fun of the AFL. Namath and the Jets the previous year were seen as a big-time fluke, a once-in-a-lifetime upset resulting from the senior league getting a little too cocky with all their talent. It was almost completely written off, and when preseason exhibitions between the AFL and NFL started going full-time the following season, the results gave the AFL's few boosters little to go on. Those early interleague preseason games didn't count in the standings, but to the teams, there was pride on the line, and the NFL spent the preseason that year kicking the AFL's asses all over the gridiron. And Kansas City's Super Bowl opponents that year, the Minnesota Vikings, were hailed as one of the best teams the NFL had ever seen, just like the previous year. The Vikes went in heavily favored and, with the pride of their league now on the line, were expected to totally mop the floor with the Chiefs. But when it was the Chiefs who did all the mopping in a 23-7 victory, the NFL had now dropped to 2-2 in these big-time title games against the junior, inferior league, and it was now forced to admit the juniors could compete at their level after all.

The Chiefs couldn't build that success into a long-term dynasty, though. To date, that 1969 Super Bowl title is that last Kansas City has won, and it's in fact the last Super Bowl they even appeared in. The Chiefs won 87 games, more than any team in the AFL. In 1971, the team fielded a squad with 11 Pro Bowlers, and both Hunt and Stram considered them the best team they ever had. By 1974, though, the Chiefs had fallen, and Stram was fired in 1974 after going 5-9. A year later, Len Dawson, Kansas City's stable rock and fearless leader at quarterback, retired and the Chiefs suffered a fall to the dregs of the NFL as five coaches compiled an overall record of 81-121-1 from 1975 to 1988. The list of failed Chiefs coaches during the time included Marv Levy from 1978 to 1982, a notable hire since Levy would later prove to be a Hall of Fame coach. Just not in Kansas City. The 1983 draft is noted for the number of great quarterbacks who showed up in the league. Kansas City picked a quarterback: Todd Blackledge! If you've never heard of him, it might have something to do with the fact that Blackledge was out of football by 1989, having a TD/INT ratio of 29-38, a 60.2 career quarterback rating, and 5286 total passing yards. The other quarterbacks taken in 1983 include John Elway (Hall of Famer who, to be fair, was taken first and therefore off the table by the time Kansas City was up with the seventh pick), Jim Kelly (Hall of Fame), Ken O'Brien (went to the Pro Bowl), Dan Marino (Hall of Fame), and Tony Eason (no major accolades, but dependable enough in the games he started, putting up respectable numbers and taking the New England Patriots to their first Super Bowl).

In 1989 Marty Schottenheimer was hired as coach. They went 8-7-1, their first winning season since the 70's, save for a fluke year in 1986 when they made the playoffs. In 1990 they went 11-5, their best since the 16-game season was started. The Chiefs actually did extremely well in the 90's - during the course of the decade, they were one of only three teams to win over 100 games, and only the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills won more games than Kansas City. Although they traded for Joe Montana early in the 90's, the Chiefs constantly lost games they needed to win, and they spent the decade choking in the playoffs. They never got to the Super Bowl, and they went to the AFC Championship only once, in 1993, where they were decisively beat by Buffalo. Schottenheimer left in 1999 and was replaced by Gunther Cunningham, the defensive coach. Their star linebacker and defensive end Derrick Thomas also was killed in a tragedy, and the defense simply collapsed after that. The team's next two seasons were respectable, but not great.

In 2001, the Chiefs brought Dick Vermeil out of retirement. Vermeil was supposed to have the team ready for the Super Bowl in three years, and he would coach for five. Quarterback Elvis Grbac voided his contract, so Vermeil replaced him with a player he really liked from his days coaching the St. Louis Rams: Trent Green, who would go to the Pro Bowl. Priest Holmes was installed as the primary running back, and the offensive line proved to be one of the best in the league. Kansas City's offense emerged as a tidal wave of points. In 2003, Kansas City was favored to return to the Super Bowl after going 13-3. Then they made Yours Truly look like a genius. They happened to swamp bad opponents with a lot of points that year, but no one noticed they were giving up a ton of points to the league's most hapless offenses too, and so I said they would lose to Indianapolis in the Divisionals. If by some chance they managed to beat the Colts, they would surely get stomped by 14-2 New England and their devastating defense, before the Patriots won the Super Bowl. That's exactly what happened. The Chiefs did bad the following year before rebounding and going 10-6 in 2005. Despite losing Holmes, the Chiefs went 10-6, but the Chiefs missed the playoffs, and Vermeil left.

In 2007, the Chiefs started 4-3 but lost every other game during the season under new coach Herman Edwards. The next season they did even worse, and had to IMPROVE to another 4-12 season after that. After winning their division with a 10-6 record the next year, they fell back to 7-9 in 2011.

The Chiefs have one of the loudest and most loyal fanbases in the NFL. Their stadium, Arrowhead Stadium (awesome name, by the way), sells out regularly, and the Chiefs draw better on average than any other NFL team except the Washington Redskins. The fans are among the most vocal, and they employ some of the most unique and distinctive chants in the league. They use The War Chant and the Tomahawk Chop during games and have a unique cover of "Rock and Roll Part 2." From 1963 to 2008, the Chiefs also had a live band among their fans, but due to stadium renovations in 2009, they didn't return. Instead, they use a drumline in their parking lot now, and Arrowhead is ranked among Lambeau Field in Green Bay and Ralph Wilson in Buffalo as one of the league's best stadiums to tailgate.

The Chiefs have had 14 Hall of Famers, including ownership and coaches. Based significantly on their contributions with Kansas City, the Chiefs' Canton players include Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanan, Emmitt Thomas, Len Dawson, and Derrick Thomas. Based on contributions primarily to other teams, Hall of Fame Chiefs also include Marcus Allen (running back for the Raiders), Warren Moon (quarterback for the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans)), and Joe Montana (quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers). Montana is particularly notable, because he's widely considered the greatest quarterback of all time, and he was never expected to play anywhere outside of San Francisco. The Chiefs have an odd list of coaches because most of these coaches are headed into Canton, if they're not in it already, but few of them will be there as Chiefs. Hank Stram is the only Hall of Fame coach in Canton based on his work in Kansas City. Marty Schottenheimer spent his longest coaching tenure in Kansas City, but beyond him is Marv Levy, who got into Canton based on his work in Buffalo; Dick Vermeil, who is considered great based on his resume with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Chiefs' rivalry with the Oakland Raiders is considered one of the premier rivalries in the AFC. They hate the Raiders even more than the rest of the league, and they also have very strong divisional rivalries with the Chargers and Broncos. Their signature games include their Super Bowls, Joe Montana's game against the Niners, Montana's final game against John Elway's Broncos, and a game in 2003 which the Chiefs actually lost. It was against the Cincinnati Bengals, coming off years of futility and finally coming out as relevant again. The Chiefs were 9-0 at the time, and the Bengals were 4-5, and Bengals receiver Chad Johnson guaranteed a victory which Cincy made good on. It was big because it announced to the league that the Bengals were, win or lose, finished being the NFL's doormats and wouldn't take any more of anyone else's shit. The Chiefs were seen as unbeatable at the time and saw Johnson's guarantee as another mindless Namath wannabe boast. Johnson later personally apologized to the Chiefs in private, explaining he was just trying to get the Bengals fired up. The Chiefs understood.

Making a journey out to Arrowhead Stadium requires that you drop into one of Kansas City's famous barbeque joints to see how they do barbeque in the famously barbeque-obsessed city. All fans who pick the Kansas City Chiefs would be wise to remember that.]]> Fri, 9 Mar 2012 17:53:12 +0000
<![CDATA[ Better than Your SUV]]>
The Broncos were there in the AFL right from the very beginning. In 1959, Bob Howsam owned a minor league baseball team, but the NFL was on his radar and he decided an NFL team owner would soon be the thing to be. George Halas, the Chicago Bears owner who was old school in every possible sense of the word, said no. So Howsam, along with four other people, got together and created a whole league meant to rival and supplant the NFL. That league, the AFL, began play the following year, and the Denver team was given the name "Broncos" through a fan naming contest.

The early, AFL Broncos played in some memorable games, in cluding a weird 38-38 tie with the Buffalo Bills. On August 5, 1967, they played a preseason game against the Detroit Lions, and that day they became the first AFL team to ever beat an NFL team when they beat the Lions 13-7. Okay, to be fair, they were the Lions, but still. They were also the team that fielded the first black kicker (Gene Mingo) and the first modern-era black quarterback (Marlin Briscoe), and the first receiver to reel in 100 passes in a single season (Lionel Taylor). In spite of those positives, though, the Broncos were the worst team in the 10-year history of the AFL. Their overall record was 39-97-4 during the ten years of the AFL's existence as an independent league. They're the only team that never reached the AFL Championship. Or have a winning season in the AFL.

The Broncos are the only team in the AFC West to have never moved or change their nickname, but they came close in 1965. A local ownership group dropped in that year and began to rebuild the team, signing superstar Floyd Little in 1967 and hiring Lou Saban to coach that same year, Saban having come off back-to-back titles in 1964 and 1965 when he was coaching the Buffalo Bills. Those were seen as instrumental in keeping the team in Denver, since previous draft picks to Denver had a bad habit of running off to the NFL the second the opportunity arose. (The Broncos originally drafted Dick Butkus, the legendary Chicago Bears linebacker and still one of the franchise faces.) In order to help keep the team in Denver, Broncos players went from door to door trying to solicit funds from fans who were, fortunately, very enthusiastic about the team's future. They even rode buses to some of the neighboring states of Colorado in order to solicit. Unfortunately, despite Saban's coaching, Little regularly out-rushing every running back in either the AFL or NFL, and defensive end Rich Jackson beating up everyone in sight, Saban couldn't succeed in Denver, and the team finished last in all five years of his tenure.

It wasn't until 1973 that Denver fans were finally rewarded for their patience and loyalty with a winning season. But despite winning in 1973 and in the following few years - with the exception of Floyd Little's final season in 1975, when they went 6-8 - the playoffs dodged the Broncos until 1977. That year, coach Red Miller, the "Orange Crush" defense, and quarterback Craig Morton led the Broncos to a 12-2 miracle season, beating the injury-bruised Pittsburgh Steelers and defending champion Oakland Raiders in the playoffs, which catapulted them into their first Super Bowl. They got beat pretty handily by the Dallas Cowboys, but that season is seen as the official emergence from the basement as the Broncos spent the next 30 years entertaining Denver with some of the best, most consistent football in the NFL.

By 1983, the Broncos had been in existence for 23 years. They had used 24 starting quarterbacks in the time span. Can you guess how many they would spend the next 16 years starting in a full-time capacity? One! NFL nuts now know that I'm going to bring up the greatest, most prolific player to don the orange: John Elway. But the saga of Elway's arrival in Denver involved quite a bit of that fun game known as football politics. See, John Elway is not a dummy. Unlike a lot of professional athletes who are pampered and groomed the second their talent begins to sprout, Elway chose not to willy-nilly his education on some easy, useless degree in a school that uses its athletics to impress everyone. He went to one of the best schools on the planet, Stanford, where he studied economics and graduated with a Bachelor's. Saving that, Elway was also a gifted athlete who, by the 1983 draft, had spent two summers playing in the New York Yankees farm system. He was picked first overall that year by the Baltimore Colts, who by then were at their nadir as the worst team in the league and in no threat of immediate improvement. They were coached by Frank Kush, known as a harsh taskmaster, and so he pressured Colts owner Robert Irsay into a trade. Off he went to Denver for quarterback Mark Hermann and the rights to two other players, including Denver's first-round pick in 1984. (This would look like Denver getting away with murder, but that first-round pick, offensive guard Ron Solt, did end up having a solid career which included a Pro Bowl invitation.)

Under Elway and coach Dan Reeves, the Broncos turned into one of the AFC's most dominant teams. In 1986, 1987, and 1989, the won the AFC Championship. The 1986 AFC Championship was one of the great AFC Championships ever played, and one of Elway's signature games. With just over five minutes left to play and Denver down 20-13, Elway led a drive so awesome that talk about it requires use of the qualifier "The" so everyone will know what it is. Elway scored the game-tying touchdown with 39 seconds left and the Broncos won in overtime. In the Super Bowl, they started off with a 10-7 first-quarter lead against the New York Giants. The Giants did most of the scoring from that point on, though, and no furious Elway fourth-quarter comeback en route to a 39-20 New York blowout. The next season, Denver beat Cleveland for the AFC Championship again, and went to the Super Bowl to face the Washington Redskins. Racing off to a 10-0 first-quarter lead this time, Denver didn't want a repeat of the previous year. And they didn't get one. Washington scored every point after the first quarter, putting 42 up for a 42-10 blowout. But if there's such a thing as a signature Super Bowl loss, Denver's 1989 appearance was it. They beat Cleveland for the AFC Championship again, but found the mighty San Francisco 49ers waiting for them in the big game. The Niners that year fielded one of the greatest NFL teams in history. They went 14-2, with those two losses coming on a combined five points. They led the league in yards from scrimmage with 6268, 442 points scored, and 253 points allowed. Their stars were fully emerged, with Joe Montana receiving what was then the highest quarterback rating in history with a shiny 112.4, good enough for MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. A lot of San Francisco's players had career years, and even backup quarterback Steve Young shined in Montana's absence, throwing for 1001 yards and eight touchdowns. Guess how this Super Bowl went. Denver never led, losing an out-of-control game 55-10. It's considered one of the worst Super Bowls in history, and Denver became the second team to lose four Super Bowls. (The Minnesota Vikings were the first.)

Part of the problem was that despite Elway's reputation as an all-awesome quarterback and comeback kid, he played like a headless dodo in most of his Super Bowl appearances. In 1991 the Broncos returned to the AFC Championship but lost a close 10-7 matchup against the Buffalo Bills. The team got rid of Dan Reeves in 1992, thinking they did all the damage they possibly could with him, although his bad relationship with Elway probably helped. Wade Phillips was installed. Phillips is one of the league's old boys, a guy who seems to keep getting hired despite having no real discernible talent. Phillips lived up to that reputation as Denver's coach, running for 9-7 and 7-9 in the two seasons he was there before being fired and replaced with Mike Shanahan.

Under Shanahan, zone blocking and Terrell Davis emerged. Also, a tradition emerged in which the offensive line didn't talk with the media. It came to an end because the insufferably corporatized league decided to enact a 2007 rule which required all players to make themselves available to the media. In 1997, the Broncos won their first 13 games. They returned to the Super Bowl, and while Elway continued to play like a headless dodo, Davis shouldered the Broncos and ran for three touchdowns as Denver, finally, came out on the high end of a thrilling, hard-fought 31-24 victory against the heavily favored Green Bay Packers. The next season, the Broncos returned to the Super Bowl to face Dan Reeves's newest team, the Atlanta Falcons. This time, Elway finally defeated his old Super Bowl yuks, defended Denver's title, and won the Super Bowl MVP in what was the final game of his spectacular football career.

Davis looked like the further keystone to success from there, but he was also a running back, and NFL running backs have notoriously short careers. He was one of the greats while playing, but injuries kept him from fulfilling his true potential.

Denver has since become one of the league's oddest teams. They've had only three losing seasons since Elway's retirement - 1999, 2007, and 2010. For what it's worth, they've been riding the best quarterback carousel of bad quarterbacks the league has probably seen. First there was Brian Griese - Bob's kid - who compiled a 34-30 record from 1999 to 2002. In 2003, the Broncos plucked Jake Plummer from the Arizona Cardinals, and his record as quarterback was an excellent 49-26 in Denver. In 2005, Plummer took them to the AFC Championship, which they lost to Pittsburgh. The next season, Denver picked up quarterback Jay Cutler in the draft. Although Cutler currently owns the team record for single-season passing yards, a late-season collapse cost them the division title and the Broncos, for some reason, swapped Cutler to Chicago one-on-one for their starting quarterback, Kyle Orton. Orton did well, but the team waffled over his future, and in 2010 they drafted Tim Tebow in the first round of the draft.

In 2011, fan pressure eventually forced the team to play Tebow. The team started 1-5 that year, and Tebow became their magic man. Seriously. That's the only way to describe the way they managed to make an 8-8 season into a divisional title despite Tebow's very obvious inability to play quarterback. Tebow is a lot of things, but an NFL quarterback just isn't one of them. At best, so far he's an intangible player: He leads and wins despite the lack of any obvious ability to do the job well. He even managed to beat the Steelers in the playoffs. His religious faith has been the subject of a lot of controversy. Even Kurt Warner, who has been criticized for his own outward, prevalent displays of faith, suggested Tebow tone it down. The hype hit an apex when, in that playoff game, Tebow threw for 316 yards in a game that got a 31.6 TV rating. Tebow's favorite Bible passage is John 3:16, so the more religious factions among us began mistaking his performance for an actual miracle from God. I never thought I'd be so thankful to see the New England Patriots win a playoff game, but they steamrolled Denver the next week, thus shushing the miracle talk. I can only imagine the ensuing religious mania that would have resulted from Denver winning again, reaching or even winning the Super Bowl.

Denver is probably the only team in the league distinguished by their city's altitude. The stadium, Mile High Stadium, is in fact accurately named because it sits perched in the Rocky Mountain heights, 5280 feet - exactly one mile - above sea level. After the name, the stadium displays several different references to its altitude, including a mural just outside the visiting team's locker room. You have to admire this unique method of the Broncos trying to get an edge. Everyone knows such altitudes are hard enough to play in, and the constant reminders probably provide a psychological edge as well.

Denver has fielded seven Hall of Famers, great for an AFL team: Willie Brown, John Elway, Gary Zimmerman, Floyd Little, Shannon Sharpe, Tony Dorsett, and Jerry Rice. Zimmerman, Little, Sharpe, and Elway are in based significantly on their contributions to Denver. Brown was a Raider for most of his career, while Dorsett and Rice are among the most recognized faces of their former teams, the Cowboys and 49ers respectively. Rice, though, is noteworthy because he was the greatest wide receiver who ever played in the NFL. Little made some very strong contributions to Denver, but Sharpe - primarily a Bronco for his career - is the best and most prolific tight end in NFL history, and Elway is in the conversation for quarterbacks.

When the Broncos appeared, their uniforms drew more attention than their play. Their original colors were an ugly combination of brown and yellow, and their socks featured giant vertical stripes. Those eyesore were mercifully put down two years later for a combination of royal blue and orange, with a logo of a bucking bronco emerging from a D. In 1997, the Broncos changed the designs again to darker blue and orange, and orange will soon take over as the primary jersey color. The team's fan base is reputed to be among the most knowledgeable and devoted, proving once again that sports fans out west are just as fervent and nutty about their teams as the more prominently-covered fans in the east.

The Broncos didn't start out as NFL royalty. They worked their way into it after a lot of blood, sweat, and tears were shed. They gave Denver a kind of name it didn't have a few decades ago. And people like and pay attention to the Broncos. For that, I'm giving them my highest rating among the AFC teams.]]> Thu, 8 Mar 2012 18:40:40 +0000
<![CDATA[Brett Favre Quick Tip by BaronSamedi3]]> Wed, 7 Mar 2012 13:32:00 +0000 <![CDATA[ The Bad News Birds]]>
In 1965, the economy in Atlanta had finally recovered enough from the damage it took in the Civil War for the city to begin remaking itself as a modern metropolis. (Seriously. It really did take that long.) The city wanted to dance and sing from the Appalachian mountaintops about how awesome it was soon going to be, and major league sports teams are of course the proper way to go about doing that. So they built Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in order to attract Major League Baseball. The ploy worked; they managed to capture the attention of the Milwaukee Braves, who had won the World Series eight years prior and had a heavy-hitting outfielder named Hank Aaron. Soon after the Braves made Atlanta their new, permanent home in 1966, the league picked on on the brand-new trend in American sports: This thing called football. The famed Greatest Game Ever Played NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants had only been played recently, back in 1958, and the upstart American Football League was still a league of its own. Atlanta actually applied for a team in both leagues. Ownership groups could barely figure out what was what, but the AFL struck first and offered a team on June 7, 1965. The NFL, which had been going very slowly on matters concerned with Atlanta, was suddenly spurred into action by this and made Atlanta an NFL offer that very same month. Forced to make a choice between the two, Atlanta took the richer and more historic NFL, and the AFL took its franchise offer to Miami, where Atlanta's would-be team was turned into the Miami Dolphins, who had a lot more success than Atlanta. People made individual submissions for naming the team, and a schoolteacher named Julia Elliott was singled as the winning selection from many who had chosen the name "Falcons" because of her description: The Falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight. It never drops its prey. It is deadly and has a great sporting tradition."

Former Lombardi lackey Norb Hecker was Atlanta's first head coach. Over his tenure, he won four games, and was fired after staring the 1968 season 0-3. Norm Van Brocklin took over, leading the Falcons to their first winning season in 1971 and going 9-5 in 1973 but otherwise receiving mixed results. His coaching record 37-49-3. (Meanwhile, the AFL team Atlanta ditched went to the Super Bowl in 1971, 1972, and 1973, winning those last two and famously never, ever losing a single game in 1972.) The Falcons were very spotty during the 70's. A winning season here, an abysmal season there. A good running back whose team couldn't defend, a good defense whose team couldn't attack. In 1977, the Falcons had defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville, who installed a defense he called the Grits Blitz. This defense allowed a paltry 129 points, a record for a 14-game season. They also set the all-time mark for fewest points per game at 9.2, a mark that not even the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens surpassed. Trouble was, the offense wasn't putting many more points per game on the board than that. They averaged less than 13 and the team finish 7-7. They made their first playoff appearance in 1978, beat the Philadelphia Eagles, but lost to the Dallas Cowboys despite knocking out Roger Staubach and entering halftime with a 20-13 lead.

The 80's began with promise as the Falcons went 12-4 in 1980. They even won the division, beating the up-and-coming San Francisco 49ers. They met Dallas again in the Divisional playoffs, at one point holding a 20-point lead. The Cowboys managed to rally, though, and Dallas quarterback Danny White threw the game-winning touchdown to Drew Pearson with less than a minute to play. This was one of the most devestating losses in Atlanta sports history, and the fans and team took the decade to recover. Their only winning record was 5-4 during the 1982 strike season. In 1989, the Falcons drafted the greatest player in team history: Deion Sanders. He became their most identifiable players, a franchise face, loud and flashy enough to call attention to himself despite playing one of the most inconspicuous positions in football (cornerback). Despite a contract dispute, he created a name for himself as a cornerback and a return specialist and one of the most deviously brilliant players ever.

Sanders shined in both baseball and football. He was a much better football player than a baseball player, but he played both well, and is the only pro sports player to play in both the Super Bowl and World Series. He is the only player to hit a home run and score a touchdown in the same week. In four games playing in the 1992 World Series, Sanders hit .533 with four runs, eight hits, two doubles, and an RBI. In 1994 and 1995, he won the Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, respectively.

In 1991, the Falcons finally made the playoffs again, this time with Jerry Glanville coaching. The team included notable players like Sanders, Andre Rison, Tim McKyer, and quarterback James Kenny, a talented and brash player who had worn out his welcome in Miami the previous year, but who became just the guy the Falcons needed. The team had a backup quarterback that year too named Brett Favre. You might have heard of him in a recent sexual organ picture scandal. Atlanta traded him to Green Bay that year, where I guess he languished in obscurity. The result was one of those wonderful quarterback carousels that's so popular with floundering teams, which the Falcons became until they hired Dan Reeves to coach in 1997, when they managed to go a respectable 7-9. In 1998, Atlanta hit paydirt. The Falcons went 14-2, stunning the entire league with an aggressive defense and a balanced offense led by Pro Bowlers Jamal Anderson, a running back, and Chris Chandler, a quarterback. Ordinarily, a 14-2 team can write its own ticket, but the Falcons didn't even have the league's best record! That distinction went to the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings, and so the Falcons were the first 14-2 team to not receive home field advantage. Minnesota had the league MVP in Randall Cunningham, and a deadly trio of receivers, and so they looked like the team of destiny that year. Atlanta was the heavy underdog, and no one thought they would win. But the two teams engaged in one of the greatest NFC Championship games ever played, and Atlanta gutted out an incredible 30-27 victory in overtime.

Atlanta's Super Bowl against Denver ended with a 34-19 Denver victory which wasn't that close; Atlanta scored two late touchdowns to save their dignity, and one of them was on a kickoff return touchdown.

The team kept failing to build, though, and the Falcons spiraled to 5-11 and 4-12 the next couple of years. In the 2001 draft, they used the first pick to take Michael Vick. I won't begrudge them for this, since back then no one knew about Vick's inhumane and illegal little side hobby. No, back then we knew instead that he had failed to inform a woman that he had genital herpes before having sex with her, while visiting various clinics using the alias "Ron Mexico" seeking treatments, which meant that HE knew he had it. Vick was the most physically gifted running back the NFL had seen since Barry Sanders, but due to some kind of tragic screwup, he somehow got to be installed as Atlanta's quarterback. All joking aside, he did have the hardest throwing arm I've ever seen, but that proved detrimental because good quarterbacking isn't about how hard the player can throw the ball; it's about whether or not he can throw the ball to the position that allows the receivers to make the catches easily. Vick kept putting way too much juice on his throws, launching rockets over the middle when simple lobs would have been enough, and generally just throwing in a manner which would take anyone's head off, which made it very difficult for his receivers to be effective. People wonder why Vick's Falcons weren't as effective as they could have been; I wonder how the Falcons managed to make the playoffs with Vick as many times as they did. (Twice from 2001 to 2006.) Then came the dogfighting fiasco.

In 2008, Mike Smith was hired to coach and Matt Ryan was drafted, and the team has been on a tear ever since. It's safe to say they have another Super Bowl in their future, but that has to be taken with a grain of salt. The Falcons play in one of the shittiest and most inconsistent divisions in football, the NFC South. Their divisional rivals include such storied, historically unstoppable dynamos as the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Really, the only reason the NFC South is as competitive and unpredictable as it is is because the four teams in are are usually inconsistent at best; it's very rare that a real power like the 2002 Bucs or 2009 Saints or the 1998 Falcons for that matter emerges from it. The four teams have one Super Bowl appearance each, all recent; the Falcons were first in 1998 (loss, as I've covered), followed by the Buccaneers in 2002 (win), the Panthers in 2003 (loss) and the high-flying Saints of 2009 (win).

The truth is, I can barely rate the Falcons. A team founded in 1966 shouldn't have been irrelevant for so long, and when they reached relevance, they shouldn't have been so static. The biggest rivalry anywhere is with the equally historically irrelevant Saints; there's a reason this rivalry is almost completely under the radar despite the fact that both teams have finally reached a sustained level of on-field excellence. There's too much about them that feels generic; from the basic nickname being a raptor to the red, black, white, and silver uniforms to the fact they play in a dome. They had very few identifiable players whom people outside of NFL circles would ever identify as Falcons. Steve Bartkowski and Jessie Tuggle are among their best-known players, but they're unknown outside of Atlanta. They got rid of Michael Vick, which to be fair was for a damn good reason. But Vick is now back in the league helming the Philadelphia Eagles, where he'll probably retire and where he's also actively making one of the most spectacular redemption bids I've ever seen.

The Falcons have fielded four Hall of Famers. Eric Dickerson, one of the league's greatest running backs, played his final year of professional football for the Falcons in 1993 as a backup. Defensive end Chris Doleman played for Atlanta in his prime, but only for two years, 1994 and 1995. And wide receiver Tommy McDonald played in their second year, 1967, by which time McDonald was in the retirement-dodging phase of his career. Only one of their players in Canton was put there on considerable contributions to Atlanta, but he's a big one: Deion Sanders. An awesome player with a big personality to boot, Sanders eventually played for five teams; Atlanta had him for his first five years before San Francisco picked him up for 1994, after which he did another five-year tenure in Dallas before playing his last year in Washington in 2000. He returned to play for the Baltimore Ravens in 2004 and 2005. But he'll forever be branded as a Falcon.... And also a Cowboy.

There isn't much to remember the Falcons by. Their signature game is probably the 1998 NFC Championship, with their upset of the Green Bay Packers in the 2002 playoffs up there too. People know they were in the 1998 Super Bowl, but that's remembered more for Denver than Atlanta.

With all apologies to Falcons fans, I wouldn't choose this team if I was getting into football. Maybe I'm just not steeped enough in their history, but I can simply find nothing at all about them that appeals to me. And I think raptors are cool.]]> Tue, 6 Mar 2012 16:33:44 +0000
<![CDATA[ Paul Brown's Mad Revenge on Ohio]]>
How badly did Brown want his revenge? Well, first of all, the Bengals were created for the AFL, even though Brown was one of the upstart league's numerous detractors. It helped him make the decision that the merger was on the horizon, and so he would eventually be granted passage back to the established NFL, but still, that's a lot of hate. As a helmet design, Brown turned down a striped motif which would have been very similar to Cincinnati's current, iconic helmet design in favor of a solid orange helmet with the word "Bengals" written in large black font. Their uniform designs used solid shirts with orange and white striping on the sleeves with white pants, only black instead of brown. It was modeled after Cleveland's uniforms, and was the team's outfit until 1981. Brown even coached the team himself until 1975, and continued to run it until his death in 1991. His son Mike still owns and operates the Bengals.

After the merger, the Bengals were placed in the same division as the Browns, and that was a vat of instant rivalry brew if ever one existed. It was largely personal, too; Modell and Brown still couldn't get along. The Bengals went 3-11 in their first season, and won twelve games over the next two seasons to close out the 60's. In 1970, they made the playoffs for the first time, but lost their first playoff game 17-0 to the Baltimore Colts, who won the Super Bowl that year. Brown continued to coach the Bengals through the first half of the 70's, going a good 40-32 in the span before the evolution of football finally got the better of his pride and he moved to General Manager and majority owner. The Bengals had two more coaches through the decade and put on some respectable performances, led by quarterback Ken Anderson, one of the most underrated quarterbacks ever and the longest-tenured Bengal at 16 seasons with Cincinnati. A four-time Pro Bowler, Anderson took the Bengals to the playoffs four times, won three division titles, and won the AFC Championship in 1981.

In the 80's, Brown began getting the better of Modell. They won the AFC Championship twice, in 1981 and 1988, but lost the Super Bowl both times to the San Francisco 49ers, who were helmed by Bill Walsh and Joe Montana in both years. Both had close scores; the 1981 game ended 26-21, with the Bengals scoring that 21st point with a touchdown with 20 seconds left in the game and trying an onside kick which the Niners recovered. While Cincinnati mounted a late-game comeback and scored 14 in the fourth, San Francisco had already caused too much damage for them to really do a whole lot other than try to salvage a little bit of dignity. The 1988 game, on the other hand, was a heartbreaker for the Bengals and still widely regarded as one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played. The Bengals had gone 12-4 that season under coach Sam Wyche, quarterback Boomer Esiason, and running back Ickey Woods. Cincinnati had the superior record, and Esiason won the MVP, but the offensive power of Walsh and Montana placed the Vegas line firmly in San Fran's favor. But Cincy gave them a hell of a fight. The game proved to be a defensive struggle, and when the Bengals used a field goal to break a 13-13 tie with 3:20 left in the game, the final result seemed set - especially when the Niners got pushed back to their own 92-yard line by a penalty on the ensuing kickoff. At that point, Joe Montana morphed into JOE MONTANA. He marched his offense down the field with an efficiency that would have made Henry Ford proud, throwing the winning touchdown to John Taylor with only 39 seconds left in the game, a record for latest game-winning touchdown pass until the 2007 Super Bowl, when Eli Manning of the New York Giants put the dagger in the New England Patriots' perfect season hopes by throwing a touchdown to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left on the clock. And unlike New England, who always have hope when Tom Brady has the ball, Cincy basically had no shot left after that. Boomer Esiason had been dominated all game.

The Bengals formed an identity later in the 80's based on offensive trickery through Wyche, Esiason, and Woods. It was easily their best decade, and offensive guard Anthony Munoz anchored the line and became one of the greatest offensive linemen the league had ever seen. Munoz is one of only two Bengals in the Hall of Fame, and the only one to have spent his entire career in Cincinnati. Ickey Woods triggered a dance craze called the Ickey Shuffle, his touchdown celebration, and fans invented the "Who Dey" cheer.

After that, man, did things EVER go south in the 90's. After making the playoffs in 1990, Paul Brown died in 1991 and Mike Brown proved that football acumen apparently isn't genetic. Wyche went 3-13 in 1991, and what happened to his coaching job after that is disputed; Mike Brown says Wyche quit, Wyche insists he was fired. David Shula - Don's boy - was given the head coach job the next year, and was fired in 1996 having accumulated a 19-52 record. Then Bruce Coslet took over and went 21-39 before getting fired in 2000. Dick LeBeau took over in 2000, and also sucked. All three were hires from the inside of the organization. The Bengals did manage to go 8-8 twice in the decade and keep alive their image as a high-powered offensive team, but for the most part they were the face of football futility.

The team identity of the 90's was that of the Bungles: Awful. The Bengals kept getting high draft picks, which kept proving to be monumental busts. Running back Ki-Jana Carter, defensive tackle Dan Wilkenson, quarterback Akili Smith, and quarterback David Klinger were all drafted and touted as the team silver bullet. But as far as silver bullets go, they shot the Bengals in the foot. To be fair, Wilkenson turned out to be a decent enough player, although not the keystone the Bengals were looking for. The other three were just bad. The personnel office did make a couple of smart picks, though: Linebacker Takeo Spikes was a fast and strong linebacker who eventually went to the Pro Bowl as a Buffalo Bill, earning All-Pro honors as well. And in the second round of the 1997 draft, the Bengals stole Corey Dillon out from under every other teams' noses. Dillon at his peak was exactly the keystone the Bengals needed, but they kept failing to build and despite holding many of Cincy's rushing records, Dillon bolted for New England in 2004, where he won the Super Bowl he so badly coveted. He retired in 2006 and is hopefully being considered for enshrinement in Canton.

In 2002, the Bengals vowed to get their asses in gear and give Cincinnati a team worth cheering for. Did they succeed? Well... Yes and no. Despite the departures of Spikes and Dillon, personnel started making better decisions, hiring Marvin Lewis to coach in 2002, after Lewis had coordinated the spectacular Baltimore Ravens defense in 2000. A year later, they drafted quarterback Carson Palmer with the first pick of the draft, and unlike other franchise silver bullets, Palmer turned out to be worth the hype. The most gifted quarterback to play for Cincy, Palmer holds many of the team's single-season passing records now. Rudi Johnson supplanted Dillon as the team running back, the colorful Chad Johnson emerged at receiver, and the Bengals got to be worth watching again. They went 8-8 in 2003 and 2004 - not great, but teams stopped looking past Cincy. In 2005 they went 11-5, won the division, made the playoffs, and Palmer's knee got shattered. He did manage to rehabilitate it, though, and was back in action next year. He was injured again in 2008 and needed Tommy John surgery. Although he did recover again, in 2010 the team slipped to 4-12 and the frustrated Palmer went on strike after the team refused to trade him. Mike Brown held Palmer to his contract commitment but in October 2011, traded him to Oakland anyway for a couple of draft picks. Under Palmer, the Bengals went to a few 8-8 records, two playoff appearances, and no playoff victories. Quarterback Andy Dalton took over in Cincy, and took the Bengals to a 9-7 record and Wild Card spot.

Believe it or not, Cincinnati was the first team in the NFL to adopt the no-huddle as its primary offensive weapon. You can credit Sam Wyche for that - he got the Bengals to the Super Bowl in 1988 with it. The no-huddle is a rapid-fire offense in which the team executing it gets to the line of scrimmage within only a few seconds of the last play. This prevents the opposing defense from substituting situational players or regrouping to go over tactics, and it requires a quarterback to call his own plays. By 1988, the Bengals were rivals of the up-and-coming Buffalo Bills for AFC supremacy, and that year Cincy had beaten Buffalo using the no-huddle in both the preseason and regular season. For the 1988 AFC Championship, in which the Bengals and Bills faced each other a third time, Bills coach Marv Levy was so fed up with the no-huddle that he threatened to fake injuries. Before the game, an NFL official told Wyche that he would be penalized for using the no-huddle, and Wyche immediately got on the phone with the commissioner to make sure himself. Sure enough, the commissioner promised he wouldn't be penalized for running the no-huddle, and the Bengals won the game 21-10. Levy didn't fake any injuries. Instead, he installed his own version of the no-huddle the next season, called the K-Gun, which became Buffalo's signature during the next ten years.

The team's Browns-wannabes uniforms were finally ditched in 1981, by the way. Although they held on to the white pants and black jerseys, the solid orange and white trim was replaced by a trim of orange with black tiger stripes. The silly block lettering helmets were also replaced by the bold orange and black helmet striping which is now Cincinnati's signature. In 2004, the team created a new uniform which put a bit more emphasis on the tiger striping, the black jerseys having orange sleeves and the white ones with black sleeves and orange shoulders. They also began rotating black pants and introduced an orange alternate jersey which makes the players look like pumpkins.

Bill Walsh worked as an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1968 to 1975, under the tutelage of Paul Brown. It was there that he developed his signature coaching style, the west coast offense. Virgil Carter was the first player to ever use the west coast offense, and in 1971 he led the league in pass completion percentage. Ken Anderson thrived under it. The zone blitz, which is the primary form of defense against the west coast offense, came from Dick LeBeau, who was the team's defensive coordinator in the 80's and 90's. As the zone blitz wasn't seen until the 90's, it didn't do a whole lot of good stopping the San Francisco 49ers, Joe Montana, and the west coast offense Bill Walsh installed as head coach of the Niners in those two Super Bowls.

The current Bengals are known as a misfit island, and one with some serious behavioral problems. A lot of their players have been arrested for some serious crimes. Adam Jones and Cedric Benson have been among them, and many of the ones who haven't broken any laws have created controversies. Corey Dillon hated playing for Cincinnati and was vocal about his displeasure and once said he'd rather flip burgers than play for the Bengals. Chad Johnson was regularly fined for outrageous touchdown celebrations, and one year he requested to have the name on his jersey read Ocho Cinco, in honor of his number 85. When the NFL refused to do that, Johnson made them comply anyway by legally changing his name to Chad Ochocinco!

It seems like things have evened out in Cincinnati so far, which is a lot better than what happened in the 90's. It seems like things are perpetually looking up there. Marvin Lewis has proved he can coach a mess, and Andy Dalton showed signs of real stability and leadership in his rookie year. The Bengals are gonna be very interesting to watch.]]> Mon, 5 Mar 2012 19:14:52 +0000
<![CDATA[ Welcome to the Dawg Pound]]>
As I mentioned in my review of the San Diego Chargers, I have virtually no sympathy for sports fans in cities who claim to monopolize the sports market on bad luck and suffering. Even the Yankees can't win it all every year (PS: I'm saying that as a Yankees diehard myself), but the lengths some of these cities go to to try to make themselves look like sports hard luck cases is ridiculous. Liking pro sports in my hometown of Buffalo, New York comes with an innate hatred of Boston between the Bruins, Patriots, and Red Sox (although most basketball fans here do cheer for the Celtics), and part of the reason for that is because Boston fans claim to be the greatest underdogs on the planet when they're really only basing that on a World Series drought which, in fairness to them, was truly terrible. But they were making that claim while the Celtics and Bruins were winning lots of titles, and despite their lack of hardware, the Patriots and Red Sox were very competitive most of the time. You would think I would escape that when I lived in Chicago, but nope! Their baseball teams have suffered even worse droughts than the Red Sox, but they had the Bears, Blackhawks, and Bulls to watch while waiting for the White Sox to pull through in 2005, and yet Chicagoans whine constantly about having loser teams. Philadelphia and Seattle have legitimate gripes, but their teams have still had some fantastic successes. In my official capacity as a Buffalo native, I'll cede ground to San Diego and Atlanta, but that's about it. Cleveland complains a lot because of its recent history, but between the two pro teams its fielded, it has a whopping NINE TITLES in football alone. I'm stretching a little bit here, since one is the old Rams title, and four were Browns victories in the old AAFC which the NFL, in all its football-respecting history, refuses to recognize. (In case you can't tell, I'm pretty adamant about the fact that it should recognize them.)

The Browns are the butt of a great many jokes about the NFL these days. But if we look at Browns history the NFL's way, we discover one of the dominating football machines in the history of the entire sport. The Browns were formed in 1946 as a charter member of the All-America Football Conference, a league meant to compete with the NFL which came dangerously close to supplanting it. The AAFC actually had considerably better attendance than the NFL, and the players were just as good. But the existence of the Browns hurt the upstart league because the Browns were so dominant that everyone already knew the outcome of whatever game they were in. So it was the AAFC that was absorbed into the NFL, admitting the Browns as well as the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts while the Buffalo Bills, Brooklyn-New York Yankees, Chicago Hornets, and Los Angeles Dons folded.

The first head coach of the Browns was Paul Brown of Ohio State, such a legendary figure of Ohio sports that when the fans were asked to submit possible team names, the most popular submission was Brown's name. Brown hated the name and threw his support behind the name Panthers, but a businessman already held the rights to that name, after an earlier Cleveland sports team. So the name was finally changed to the Browns, although there are different stories on just how they came to that decision. From the beginning, Brown said that he wanted his team to steamroll over everyone else and see to it that when people thought about football, they automatically associated it with the Cleveland Browns. He made good on that vision, too. He created the most extensive recruitment network ever seen in football at the time through his connections to Ohio State and the Navy, where he had once coached a base football team. Through that, he put together a team capable of mopping the floor with any other football team on the planet, which included quarterback Otto Graham, kicker Lou Groza, wide receivers Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie, fullback Marion Motley, and nose guard Bill Willis. He made his players refrain from vices, including alcohol and sex, on the nights preceding games. The efforts paid off big time; the AAFC existed for four years before the NFL absorbed it, and the Browns won the league title in all of them. During those four years, they only lost four games, and they regularly issued challenges to NFL teams, who turned them down every time.

As with the AFL years later, the AAFC was seen as an inferior league. So when the Browns took the field as an NFL team for the first time against the Philadelphia Eagles, they were determined to prove themselves the best football team in the sport. The Eagles had a strong defense, but the Browns tore it up for 487 total yards in a 35-10 blowout. They went 10-2 overall in the regular season in that 1950 year, beat the New York Giants in the playoffs, then took their first NFL title against Cleveland's former team, the Los Angeles Rams. The following season the Browns and Rams played in the title game again, and when the Browns came up on the losing end this time, it was their first-ever loss in a title game. By that time, they had already won five title games in five years of existence. The Browns returned to the NFL Championship the next two seasons and lost them too, but by the beginning of 1954, they were acknowledged as the most powerful team in the league. They won another Championship that year too. Nine years of existence, nine Conference Championships, six League Championships.

After 1955, Otto Graham retired. In his nine years in the league, he had played in nine Championship games and won seven of them. Today's football prettyboy, Tom Brady, couldn't carry Graham's jockstrap, and the fact that the Browns immediately floundered is proof of that. The Patriots went 11-5 in the season Brady missed; Graham's absence resulted in a quarterback carousel which took the Browns to a 5-7 record, during which the Browns must have been flat out abused by teams looking for revenge. What is a coach to do in that situation?

He drafts the greatest damn football player ever put upon god's green Earth, that's what. Ladies and gents, in the 1957 draft, out of Syracuse University, the Cleveland Browns present... Jim Brown! Combining the speed of a Ferrari with the sheer, punishing power of a Panzer, Jim Brown made linebackers quiver and melt in fear knowing that once the ball was in his hands, they were gonna be charged with finding some way to stop him. Brown was a running back and is widely considered the greatest football player of all time. Notice I didn't say greatest RUNNING BACK of all time, nor did I say ONE OF THE GREATEST football players of all time. Want to know how good Jim Brown was? Let me put it this way: He rushed for 12,312 yards, career, and received for an additional 2499 on 262 receptions. He rushed for 106 touchdowns and scored an extra 20 from passes. His yards-per-rush average was an ungodly 5.2, still unsurpassed. He was an eight-time rushing champion, nine-time Pro-Bowler, three-time MVP, three-time UPI NFL MVP, and eight-time first-team All-Pro selection. In 1964, he led the Browns to their eighth - and to date, latest - title, along with a Conference Championship in 1965. Those are jaw-dropping numbers no matter what the era, but Brown accomplished all of this in the span of a nine-year NFL career which he walked away from when he was 29 years old! Plus he's in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame to boot, which is cool because lacrosse is awesome!

Art Modell bought the team in 1961, and immediately engaged in a power struggle with Paul Brown. While the team was still formidable, they were also beatable by this time because Brown's iron-grip coaching style had become antiquated and it wasn't working on the younger players. The Browns performed decently in the standings in 1961 and 1962, Modell's first couple of years, but Modell finally had to fire Brown - at that point, still the only coach the team ever had - after the 1962 season. Hewas replaced a week later with longtime assistant Blanton Collier, who took the Browns to Conference Titles in 1964 and 1965, winning the NFL Championship in 1964. They generally remained a great team throughout the rest of the 1960's, making the playoffs in 1967, 1968, and 1969. In those last two years, they even won their Conference Championships, only to lose the NFL Championship which, by those years, was the ticket to the newly-created AFL-NFL World Championship Game, which was what we now call the Super Bowl. In 1970, the Browns moved to the post-merger American Football Conference, a result of the AFL/NFL merger. They also performed inconsistently that year, going 7-7, good enough to finish a single game behind a new team called the Cincinnati Bengals which was led by, well, Paul Brown.

The Browns saw their first real signs of ineptitude when they went 4-10 in 1974 and 3-11 in 1975. The rest of the decade saw them improve a little bit, and the team even left the 70's with a few winning records in the latter half, but no one was afraid of them anymore. In 1980, the Browns rebounded with an 11-5 record, winning their new nickname, the Kardiac Kids with a bunch of fourth-quarter comeback victories. But the season ended on the famed Red Right 88 play, a common mention in talk of Cleveland sports curses. In 1985, the Browns drafted quarterback Bernie Kosar and fought their way back into the NFL elite, and they went to the AFC Championship in 1986, 1987, and 1989 only to lose to the Denver Broncos each time. In 1991, the Browns gave Bill Belichick his first head coaching gig, and they royally sucked under him.

In 1994, the Browns' stadium-mates, the Cleveland Indians, moved out of Cleveland Municipal and into a field specifically for them, Jacobs Field. Modell didn't need a long time to realize and acknowledge how much revenue he lost by their move. He needed tax money to refurbish the stadium, and of course he asked for it since cities rarely turn down NFL teams and owners are all about free money. On November 6, 1995, Modell announced that he signed a deal to take the team to Baltimore. The next day, voters overwhelmingly approved giving Modell the money he needed to re-outfit Cleveland Municipal. The city filed an injunction to keep the team in the city until at least 1998, and fans and ticket holders filed over 100 lawsuits as well. Hats and shirts bearing the phrase "Muck Fodell" appeared all over the place, and even Congress got involved with the matter. Comic and Cleveland native Drew Carey held a protest, and Cleveland fans even followed the team to Pittsburgh to hold a protest there, where they were joined by swaths of Steelers fans. ABC covered the game but not the protest, and virtually every sponsor the Browns had yanked support. Extensive talks between the team, league, and two cities resulted in a legal settlement which allowed the city of Cleveland to keep the rights to the name, colors, and history of the Cleveland Browns in the event that another team was placed there, and that they would automatically be placed in the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals due to longstanding rivalries. The old Browns now exist as the Baltimore Ravens, and they officially have no history before 1996.

Cleveland got that new team in 1999, but the official NFL record states the Browns had suspended operations during those football-less years. As this was an entirely new team starting from scratch, the old name and history of the mighty Cleveland Browns was demolished for a team many onlookers dismiss as a gang of fakers, a fact that really must have pissed old-time Clevelanders off when the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000. The NFL gave the team a special expansion draft, in which the Browns had the first overall selection, a fantastic quarterback who flourished in college football's SEC but who bombed big-time in the NFL, staying in Cleveland for four years before being relegated to practice squads for other teams, last in Jacksonville in 2007. The team was awful even by expansion standards for the initial years. Butch Davis was hired to coach in 2001, and he made them competitive, even going 9-7 in 2002 and winning a Wild Card spot. Subsequent years saw the losses continue to pile up, and although the Browns saw a brief respite in 2007 with a 10-6 record with six Pro Bowl players and an exciting offense, they failed to build on that momentum. As of 2011, there's little reason for optimism in Cleveland.

The Browns have a unique color combination: Brown and orange, two colors no other team in the NFL uses. They wear the only logo-less helmet in the NFL, orange with a brown and white stripe down the middle. Most of their uniforms have been combinations of these various colors. They've used a number of different promotional logos throughout the years, though, including a small elf-like creature called "Brownie Elf" and a brown B inside a white football. The popularity of a certain section of fans known as the "Dawg Pound" in Cleveland Browns Stadium has led to a brown and orange dog being used sometimes, but the solid helmet remains their most identifiable mark. As for their fans, you KNOW these people are devoted with the way they forced the NFL to expand back into Cleveland three years after leaving it. The Dawg Pound moniker was adopted after cornerback Hanford Dixon called the defense by that name in the 80's. A prominent sports fan organization called Browns Backers Worldwide is one of the largest in the United States, with a branch in every major city. They also have sizable branches in Egypt, Australia, Japan, Sri Lanka, and even the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The two largest international fan clubs are in the Israeli city of Alon Shvut (129 members) and Niagara Falls, Ontario (310), the latter being a bit surprising because the city is the twin city of Buffalo, another NFL city.

Cleveland's rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers is one of the oldest and biggest in the NFL, so when Steelers fans joined Browns fans in support of keeping the Browns in Cleveland, it was a HUGE deal. The Browns dominated it during the first half of the league's existence, and the Steelers took over the second half. Dur to their mutual agreement that the Browns never should have left Cleveland, they've both turned a lot of hatred toward the Baltimore Ravens as a result. Personal animosity between Paul Brown and Art Modell also resulted in The Battle of Ohio, a divisional rivalry between Brown's newer Cincinnati Bengals and Modell's Browns.

16 Hall of Famers have been Browns. Paul Brown is unquestionably one of the greatest coaches ever, and his favorite offensive weapon, Otto Graham, is one of the greatest quarterbacks. Jim Brown is considered in many circles to be the greatest NFL player ever, a position which is extremely difficult to argue. The team has had a great mix of offensive and defensive players play for them.

Ordinarily, a team this awesome would get the straight-up perfect score from me. But I have to knock off a couple of points because of their move and these weird replacement players who, more often than not, have played like real, honest-to-god replacement players. Hopefully the new Browns can undergo a long-term turnaround similar to the one their archrivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, experienced in the 70's. But until that happens, it's painful to say the fans of this once-incredible team better get used to NFL irrelevance.]]> Sat, 3 Mar 2012 16:30:17 +0000
<![CDATA[ Quoth the Ravens...]]>
Anyway. A team that wasn't the Ravens also existed in Baltimore. Founded in 1953, the Baltimore Colts won the 1958 NFL Championship, one of the most important games in NFL history and the first nationally televised title game. They went back and won it again the following year, and during the era they fielded Johnny Unitas, possibly the greatest quarterback of all time. The Colts were immediately ranked among the NFL elite, and they proceeded to dominate through the 1960's, visiting the Championship in 1964 (they lost to Cleveland) and 1968 (defeating Cleveland, but losing the newly-created Super Bowl to the newly-formed New York Jets). In 1970, they returned to the Super Bowl and beat the Dallas Cowboys. In 1972, they were initiated into the frustrating world of football irrelevance and, despite a great pure passer named Bert Jones at quarterback, kept piling on losses. They won AFC East titles in 1976 and 1977, but everything went downhill from there. The Colts never compiled another winning season in Baltimore. In fact, they hit rock bottom in 1981, when they went 2-14 and let opponents pile up a record 533 points against them, and in the strike-shorted 1982 season, they went 0-8-1. In 1983 they said they were going to draft John Elway, but Elway was traded upon saying he would never play for the Colts. In 1984, the Colts famously moved to Indianapolis by throwing all their gear into a fleet of Mayflower trucks in the dead of night.

Baltimore was back in the hunt for a new team by 1995, and Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell brought them his team, a classic NFL franchise which had won a total of eight titles; four in the pre-AAFC merger and the other four after the merger. Modell couldn't get a new stadium in Cleveland. Cleveland put up a hell of a fight to keep them, though, and so the NFL struck a very unique deal with Cleveland which allowed the city to hold the team name, colors, and history of the Browns. I'll go into more detail in my impending reviews of the Colts and Browns. But all you need to know for the purposes of the Ravens is that despite a new name, new colors, and a history dating only back to 1996, the Ravens were treated like an old team that moved because they weren't given an expansion draft. Their name is an allusion to The Raven, a classic American poem written by Baltimore native Edgar Allen Poe. Since the Browns were royally sucking at the time of the move, they did experience those typical new team bumps despite not really being a new team. (Don't you just love NFL politics?)

The Ravens went 4-12 in 1996. But there was a highlight that year: It was the rookie season of a young linebacker named Ray Lewis, who is still in the league, still the face and identity of the Ravens, and now firmly established as one of the very few linebackers in NFL history who might be better than Lawrence Taylor. The Ravens gradually improved over the next couple of seasons. In 1997, they went 6-9-1, and 6-10 the following year before breaking with an even 8-8 in 1999, with the help of quarterback Tony Banks and wide receiver Qadry Ismail.

In 2000, the Baltimore Ravens broke through and defined themselves forever. This team had no real offense; Tony Banks alternated duties with Trent Dilfer, and running back Jamal Lewis put up strong numbers, and the team still had Ismail and tight end Shannon Sharpe. But the Ravens struggled on offense, at one going going five straight games without scoring a single offensive touchdown. So their defense picked up the slack! The 2000 Ravens defense, nicknamed "Ravenous," is rightly considered one of the greatest defenses in league history. They allowed only 165 points against them, which is a record for a 16-game season. They shut out four teams and only allowed five of their opponents to score more than ten points. In a Super Bowl that was never really in doubt, the Ravens played against the New York Giants, and never let the Giants advance beyond their 29-yard line. The Giants turned the ball over five times. The only points the Giants were able to score in the game came on a kickoff return touchdown in the third quarter, as the Ravens stomped them to a final score of 34-7.

That whole season pretty much characterizes the Ravens. They've been extremely powerful on defense, and with players like Lewis, Sam Adams, Rod Woodson, Ed Reed, Peter Boulware, and Terrell Suggs, their defense has been their calling card and one of the NFL's premier attractions. On offense, they can't seem to be especially good even when they've got all the right pieces in place. Look at their quarterbacks: Aside from Banks and Dilfer - both terrible - they've also started Elvis Grbac, Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright, and Joe Flacco. That's not exactly the top catches of the NFL Quarterback Club. The one A-list quarterback they did have was Steve McNair, who was playing out the end of his career by the time he was signed in 2006. He did provide a huge boost on offense, throwing for 3050 yards and 16 touchdowns while guiding the Ravens to a spectacular 13-3 record, but was injured the following season and only started six games. A year later, he retired. Jamal Lewis joined the 2000-yard rushing club in 2003 when he ran for 2066 yards, but even so, the Ravens have been pretty bad on offense.

Being almost completely unable to score points puts a team at a disadvantage, and so despite their all-word defense, the Ravens have had a few bad seasons. In 2002, they went 7-9 after going 10-6 in 2001. In 2005, they went 6-10. In 2007, they went 5-11. They had good seasons and playoff appearances in between, though. In their first year with McNair, they went 13-3, a team best. In 2010 and 2011, they went 12-4. They even went to the AFC Championship in 2011, but lost to New England in the last minute when the field goal attempt that would have sent the game into overtime was missed.

As a new entity, the Ravens have had three Hall of Famers on their roster, none of whom are in it as Ravens. Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, and Deion Sanders, who was playing a brief post-retirement stint with the team in 2004 and 2005. Mike Singletary, the legendary Chicago Bears linebacker, coached Baltimore's linebackers in 2003 and 2004.

The Ravens play in the AFC North, which means the slug it out with their fellow defensive brothers-in-arms, the Pittsburgh Steelers, twice a season, along with the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens and Steelers are clearly above and beyond the competition in the division, even though the Bengals managed to take a couple of titles and even the Browns have managed to field a good team a couple of times. But due to the weird moving circumstances, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Indianapolis all have a reserve share of hate saved up for each other. Indianapolis doesn't even play in the same division as Baltimore and Cleveland, but it did instigate the move of the Colts, and that still strikes a raw nerve in the collective of Baltimore football fans. The same situation exists between Cleveland and Baltimore. Both moves are fairly recent on the NFL history timeline, the Colts having left Baltimore in the 80's and the Browns having left Cleveland in the 90's.

One thing the Ravens have been great about is that they've been very differential to Baltimore's football past. The Ravens Ring of Honor honors a lot of Colt greats who are now in the Hall of Fame: Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Art Donovan, Raymond Berry, and John Mackey are among them. The number 19, which Unitas wore, was only worn once - by Scott Mitchell in 1999 - before the organization decided to never let any more players wear it, even though 19 is not officially retired.

As the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens have an awesome history behind them. As the Baltimore Ravens, the Baltimore Ravens have an awesome history behind them. For such a new team, the Ravens already have an impressive history and roster behind them.]]> Fri, 2 Mar 2012 16:41:51 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Other Pirate Team]]>
The days of the Bucs have pretty much been all bad. They only have three players in Canton, and only one of them - Lee Roy Selmon - is universally recognized as a Buccaneer. One of the other two, Randall McDaniel, spent only his last two seasons with Tampa Bay, and the other was Steve Young. Yeah, THAT Steve Young.

Now that the inevitable speak about the infamous losing streak is out of the way, lets revisit the bad old days (and to be perfectly honest, this whole essay is going to be almost entirely about bad days because that's just the existence of the Buccaneers). Their first coach was former USC coach John McKay, a college football legend whose guiding hand with the Trojans had taken the team to four national championships and an incredible nine AAWU/Pac-8 championships. One very telling detail of McKay was that he hated the NFL and had said no three times in the past to NFL head coaching positions. What convinced him to give it a go in Tampa Bay was the challenge of building this new team up from scratch. And, you know, $3 million written into his contract. Now, I'm one of thse people who thinks it should be an obvious fact of life that collegiate athletics are different from big-time professional athletics, but far too many people seem to think they're the exact same. McKay's records show that he seems to have believed that, at least to an extent. The 1976 Bucs are rightly regarded as one of the worst gridiron teams ever fielded. Track down some Youtube videos and watch the incompetence. Missed tackles, fumbled snaps, and an inability to score any points resulted in the Bucs scoring a putrid 125 points for the season and being shut out four times and giving up 412. Their point-per-game average was 15. When McKay was once asked about the execution of the offensive line, McKay's famed response was "I'm in favor of it." Another great McKay-ism was "We can't win at home, we can't win on the road, so we were going to petition the league for a neutral site."

If it's even possible, the next season started off even worse. The team was shut out SIX times! It took until the last two games of that season for the Bucs to finally salvage a little dignity and win. 1978 saw them go 5-11, but rookie quarterback Doug Williams showed a flash of potential and for the first time, the Bucs played football. In 1979, the Bucs won their first five games and, in the last game of the season - which took place in a downpour which would have given Noah nervous jitters - clinched a 10-6 record with a 3-0 victory which gave them the division title. They rode the momentum into the NFC Championship, but lost to the Los Angeles Rams. They made the playoffs the next two years too.

In 1982, Doug Williams was making $120,000 per season as the starting quarterback, which was less than a lot of backups. Williams got pissed off and asked for a raise to $600,000, which given his position and past performances and market value, was actually quite reasonable. But despite McKay stepping up to bat for Williams, Williams was never offered more than $400,000, and so he bolted to the USFL, played the next two seasons with the Oklahoma Outlaws, and finally returned to the NFL and won the Super Bowl with Washington. The Bucs, meanwhile, spent the next 13 seasons losing ten games or more per year. Their fans became paper bag-wearers, and the team earned a new nickname: The Yuks. Since their cheap-ass owner was kepping the payroll among the lowest in the league, good players had little incentive to play for Tampa, and their free agents had little incentive to stay. Bo Jackson openly stated he would never play for them Bucs, but in a galactic misstep, they drafted him as the first draft pick anyway, and the NFL draft doesn't allow takebacks, so they were stuck when he decided to play baseball for the Kansas City Royals (in Bo's defense, the Royals were a great team back then).

Personnel missteps plagued the team. At one point, they were starting all-star Vinny Testaverde and had Steve Young backing him up. Young was traded to San Francisco, and we all KNOW how that turned out. Testaverde was allowed to walk away in free agency after his contract was finished. They also traded away draft picks who were eventually turned into Dan Hampton and Irving Fryar. In coaching, McKay stepped down after 1984 and Leeman Bennett was brought in to replace him after guiding the Atlanta Falcons to their first playoff win. In two years, Bennett won four games. After that, it was Ray Perkins, a former head coach for Alabama who compiled a four-year record of 32-15-1 and three bowl game victories. He brought discipline, but he also brought the three-a-day, which left his team totally drained for, you know, actual games. Richard Williamson was also tried after a period of being the team's offensive coordinator. Sam Wyche gave the fans some real optimism, because Wyche had brought the Cincinnati Bengals to the brink of victory in the Super Bowl before Joe Montana last a last-minute drive which won the game at the last second. He didn't work out, either.

Wyche wasn't a complete write-off, though. He did bring in three players - Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, and John Lynch - who became the core of the defense which finally brought sunnay days back to the Tampa Bay area. In 1994, owner Hugh Culverhouse died of lung cancer, and his son forced his pop's legion of estate trustees to sell the team. Among the interested owners were Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (a truly fantastic owner, no matter what you may think of him) and Orioles owner Peter Angelos (a skeevy, snakish asshole of an owner who publicly said he would take the Bucs to Baltimore, which didn't have a team at the time). Both were outbid by current owner Malcolm Glazer, who had a serious commitment to a winning team. Glazer did everything he could to turn over a new leaf: He convinced the taxpayers to buy a new stadium. Then he changed the uniforms. Lots of teams change uniforms, but it's extremely rare they do it in the way the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did. Usually, uniform changes are subtle and focus a lot of the logo. In the rare instances that the primary colors are affected, it's usually just to add a new color for a slight accent. But the Bucs went all out, changing the orange and yellow creamsicle look and the feather-capped pirate with the knife in his teeth logo to deep red and pewter, with a badass new logo of a red Jolly Roger with a football sitting at the point where the swords cross. As far as uniform changes go, it was unusually extreme; the only major pro sports team I can think of which also tried to remake its look to such a degree is the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, who turned a blue and gold look to red, black, and gray in 1995. And it really didn't take for them. The new look was accepted more than loved, and the team returned to the blue and gold in 2006, and reintroduced the classic old logo two years after that.

Glazer's best move, however, was his first hire as head coach: Tony Dungy. Since it was Dungy's first stint as a coach, he went through the usual growing pains, bt there was more to his 6-10 first-year record than just the numbers. The team started 1-8 that season and went 5-2 down the stretch. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin developed the team's trademark Tampa 2 defensive scheme, which became a blueprint widely copied by the rest of the league. In 1997, the Bucs went 10-6 and were back in the playoffs after a 15-year absence. The defense dominated the league, but Dungy couldn't put together a competent offense, so the team still struggled a little, going 8-8 and 9-7 before Dungy was fired and replaced by Jon Gruden. Don't feel too bad for Dungy, though; he was hired by the Indianapolis Colts, where he commanded one of the most dominating offenses in the league and won the Super Bowl in 2006, beating the Bears. He's retired now, and no matter what people say about his weaknesses, he's still considered a man of great character around the league, and his players were always fiercely loyal to him.

The Bucs weren't happy with the selection of coaches that followed Dungy. Steve Spurrier, Bill Parcells, and Marvin Lewis were the candidates. Spurrier went to Washington and Parcells just let the opportunity go. Lewis looked like the certain hire, but Glazer was so pissed about getting yet another defensive guy that they overruled the GM's decision and tried to hire Jon Gruden. But Gruden was still under contract with the Oakland Raiders. Eventually, the Raiders just released Gruden so the Bucs could sign him. It cost the Bucs four draft picks and $8 million, and the league was so displeased that it put an edict on trading players for coaches. The move did prove a smart short-term one, though, as Gruden retooled the offense got the Bucs to the Super Bowl. In an incredible scene of poetic justice, they met Gruden's ex-team, the Raiders, there. Oakland's replacement coach was Bill Callahan, their own offensive coordinator and a royal dunderhead as a head coach. When Gruden left, he didn't bother to change the playbook, so the Super Bowl that year was a contest between two teams in which one coach had designed both playbooks. Gruden used what he knew about Oakland's plays against Callahan. Callahan never called a rushing play. Gruden's Bucs won a blowout, 48-21.

Gruden couldn't keep up the momentum, though. The next season started off well with the team going 4-0, but on Monday Night Football, they played a game against their own last coach. Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts were outgunned for most of the game, but they launched a 21-point comeback with about four minutes left and stunned the Bucs. It was all downhill from there. The Buccaneers have been having unpredictable, wavering seasons since then. Gruden is gone, Lynch is gone, Sapp is gone, and all-star fullback Mike Alstott is gone. It's tough to predict them now.

I know the Glazer family is serious about keeping the Bucs in contention, but the team is only constant in its unpredictability now. You have to at least respect the Glazers for their commitment. But hey, the Bucs are at least easy to root for, and they have some good-looking cheerleaders.]]> Wed, 29 Feb 2012 19:28:56 +0000
<![CDATA[ The 12th Team]]>
Okay, it's actually not all. But the Seahawks are one of the NFL's newer and more nondescript teams. They were formed in 1976 and, playing as they do in the northwest, are easily the most isolated team in the league. The closest team to them is their big-name former divisional rival, the San Francisco 49ers, is way down in California's Bay Area, around a thousand miles south. Washington state - where Seattle is located, if there are any foreigners or people who are bad with American geography reading this - is surrounded to the south by Oregon, east by Idaho, and north by the Canadian province of British Columbia. There are no professional football teams nearby unless you count the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League up in Vancouver, which - with all respect to the CFL - I personally don't because international football games between NFL and CFL teams aren't played and the leagues use very different rules.

Still though, Seattle did emerge as a major port city and manufacturing center by the mid-20th century, and in 1976 the NFL decided to take a chance and place a team there despite problems with a leaky population. It proved to be a good gamble; in the 90's, Seattle broke out as a major center of software development and indie music, and the Emerald City became a go-to destination for the emerging creative class. The name "Seahawks" was a result of one of those naming contests that seem so popular with newly-created professional sports teams. Seahawk is another word for osprey, which is a kind of raptor. The team's first head coach was Jack Patera, an assistant coach from the Minnesota Vikings, and in the expansion draft they alternated selections with the other new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Mention the Seahawks and one of the first reactions outside of them being the NFC's 2005 Super Bowl team is, "Yeah, they're that team that switched conferences!" You can blame division realignment for that. It actually happened twice: They began play in the NFC West, moved to the AFC, and then back to the NFC West in 2002 as a result of the Houston Texans being formed.

The may have been overshadowed by Steeler Nation during their 2005 run to the Super Bowl, but Seahawks fans, while nondescript, are known leaguewide as one of the better fanbases. Their signature is being so damn LOUD that opposing teams frequently get distracted and make boneheaded penalties. The raucousness of the fans at any given game has resulted in the team retiring number 12 in honor of the fans, their 12th Man, in 1984. Since then fans have been able to buy number 12 Seahawks jerseys with the name "Fan" on the back.

In play, the Seahawks have done well enough to earn a solid "eh" all-time record of 257-276, including playoffs. They've reached the playoffs eleven times and won their division seven times and their conference once, in 2005. When the team began, they started their first draft by trading an eighth-round pick to the Houston Oilers for wide receiver Steve Largent, whom the Oilers had literally just drafted. By that I mean Largent was in the 1976 draft and played in four preseason games for the Oilers before he was slated to be cut. Seattle swept in and sent him to seven Pro Bowls, eight All-Pro selections, the 80's All-Decade team, and eventually Canton in 1995. He spent all 13 years of his career with Seattle. His chemistry with quarterback Jim Zorn was undeniable, but those two didn't translate to a whole lot of success for the Seahawks. And in 1977, the smarts that got Largent on the team turned into a severe case of the stupids when Seattle traded their first-round draft pick to Dallas for another first-round draft pick and three second-rounders. The Cowboys turned that draft pick into Tony Dorsett. Despite that hiccup, the Seahawks had their first winning season in 1978, when they went 9-7, and in 1979 an appearance on Monday Night Football brought them to national attention when they beat the Atlanta Falcons after trailing them by 14 points.

After consecutive winning seasons to close out the 70's, the Seahawks sucked up the league for the first couple of years in the 80's. In 1983 they hired Chuck Knox as head coach, and he took them to their first playoff appearance, and the team broke out when they went to the AFC Championship, which they lost to the Los Angeles Raiders. The next year, the Seahawks won twelve games, beat the Raiders in the playoffs, and that was it for playoff success for the next 21 years, even though they took their first division title in 1988 despite selective notorious draft bomb Brian Bosworth the previous year and watching him get run over by Bo Jackson in a very famous Monday Night Football game.

The next few years were painful, as Knox left after the 1991 season. 1992 was a 2-14 fiasco in which they put only 140 stinking points on the scoreboard. They ran through one of those painful quarterback carousels, playing no-names like Dan McGwire, Stan Gelbaugh, Kelly Stouffer, and Rick Mirer. The team hit an absolute low point in 1996 when owner Ken Behring announced his plans to move the Seahawks to... Los Angeles! Actually it was Anaheim, but it doesn't change the fact that Behring was a relentless scuzzball about the whole thing. Instead of taking the usual way out and just bitching about the stadium, Behring talked about concern about the team's safety in the name of earthquakes. Not only did seismologists side against Behring, but he was, you know, planning to take the team to CALIFORNIA! One of the most - if not THE most - earthquake-prone spot in the country! The disturbing aspect of it is that Behring came dangerously close to succeeding; he had gotten the team's operations into Anaheim without any trouble before the legal eagles called him on not honoring the Kingdome lease. So Behring sold the team and Paul Allen took over. More mediocrity also took over, and Vinny Testaverde's "phantom touchdown," which resulted in the league officially apologizing to the Seahawks and instating instant replay, happened.

In 1999, the Seahawks hired former Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren, who finally started doing things right. Holmgren made a trade for his former backup quarterback in Green Bay, Matt Hasselbeck, who made his mark as the best quarterback in the team's history. In 2000 he also drafted running back Shawn Alexander, who went on to a great deal of success, just missing the 10,000 yard mark in an eight-year career spent in Seattle for his first seven years and Washington for his last year. In 2003, the Seahawks won a Wild Card spot in the playoffs and announced themselves as a force to be reckoned with. In 2005, they won their conference. In 2009 Holmgren left and was replace by Jim Mora. They've had successes and failures, and when they make the playoffs these days, it seems like they're always being kicked out by the Bears.

There isn't much more to say after that. This team's identity is created in its loud fans. They've been good, they've been bad, they've had a lying snake of an owner. They have plenty of time to create an image the national public can relate to.]]> Mon, 27 Feb 2012 16:30:12 +0000
<![CDATA[ Cardiac Cats Rule]]>
In 1987, the NBA decided the city of Charlotte, North Carolina would receive a basketball team. It made sense; North Carolina is big-time basketball territory, as well as territorial war between the University of North Carolina and Duke University, and to a lesser extent North Carolina State and one or two others. So the bigwhigs decided it was time to try to the ultimate big-time prize: An NFL team. In 1993, the league voted unanimously to give the 29th NFL team to the city Charlotte. In a stunning move which absolutely needs to be seen more often in this country nowadays, Richardson Sports announced it would finance the stadium through permanent seat licenses, club seats, and luxury seats, and in one hell of a show of support, everything was sold out in less than a day. That allowed the stadium to be built without siphoning money from taxpayers.

Like the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Panthers didn't waste any time getting anywhere. They ended their first season with a 7-9 record under first coach Dom Capers, which is incredible for a first-year team. Their second year, they powered to a 12-4 record and landed in the NFC Championship, having beat the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs, who had won the Super Bowl the previous year. They fell to Green Bay, but the season was considered a rousing success which the team could build on. Unfortunately, the Capers era ended two years later, Capers having compiled an ultimate record of 31-35 including playoffs. They didn't build on that magical 12-4 season; after that, the Panthers began stumbling, first back to 7-9 and then to 4-12.

Super Bowl aside, it seems like the Panthers have always been faced with a mound they just can't seem to get over. George Seifert, who led the San Francisco 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl title in the place of Bill Walsh, got the job after Capers. His three-year tenure took the Panthers to records of 8-8 and 7-9 before the team bottomed out in its worst season ever, ending 1-15. Of course, it's also worth pointing out that in San Francisco, Seifert had the talents of Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Deion Sanders. But in the NFL, a losing record is a losing record, and so Seifert was treated the same way any coach who took a team to a 1-15 record would be treated: Given a ten-year contract extension for $30 million with a signing bonus for $5 million! HA! No, actually he was fired and replaced with John Fox, coming off a stint as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants.

Another coach, another one of those damn 7-9 records, although that 2002 7-9 record probably looked like a relief to Panthers fans after the previous year's fiasco. 2003 turned into a truly special season, though, as a few things developed and the Panthers had the beginnings of a real team identity: The first was the emergence of their first great starting quarterback, Jake Delhomme. Delhomme won the job after a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback in the first game of the season in which starting quarterback Rodney Peete was pulled. Although quarterback Kerry Collins made the Pro Bowl with the Panthers in their previous magic year, it was Delhomme who became one of the best understated quarterbacks in the league, went to the Pro Bowl two years after the Super Bowl, led the damn team to the damn Super Bowl in the first place, and currently holds pretty much every significant passing record for the team's existence as it stands. The Panthers also forged their identity as the Cardiac Cats, a reference to the number of close games they won in overtimes.

When Fox's contract was done in 2010, he had proved a coach of average skill. He had taken the Panthers to two division titles and one conference title, going 12-4 once, 11-5 twice, 8-8 twice, 7-9 three times, and finished his last season at 2-14 for an overall record of 78-74, including playoffs. He wasn't fired; his contract just expired after 2010, and the Panthers opted not to renew it, hiring Ron Rivera to take the spot. Last year was Rivera's first season, and he took the team to a 6-10 record. But what really made waves for the team last year was the emergence of a rookie quarterback named Cam Newton, who started rewriting the quarterback record book in Charlotte en route to making the Pro Bowl and setting NFL records for most yards by a rookie quarterback (4051) and most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (14). He was the rookie of the year, and the Panthers were the most exciting bad team in the league. With the awesome Steve Smith at wideout and Jeremy Shockey at tight end to throw to and a Pro Bowl runner in DeAngelo Williams, it's scary to think of how high Newton can fly when he's settled into his position.

An assessment of the Carolina Panthers reveals an all-time roster which would already be very strong on both sides of the ball. The team is young and doesn't yet have any Hall of Famers, but they've had plenty of Pro Bowl talent. On offense, they had three quarterbacks play extremely well: Kerry Collins, Steve Beuerlein, Jake Delhomme, and now Cam Newton. They've been able to dump the ball in the directions of various great receivers like Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad (who, when he went to the Super Bowl in 2003, caught the longest touchdown reception in Super Bowl history at 85 yards), Wesley Walls, and Jeremy Shockey. They've had the aid of DeAngelo Williams and the great Stephen Davis running the football. On defense, they've had the services of great players like Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins and a ton of great linebackers like Jon Beason and Dan Morgan. Even their special teams are loaded between specialist Michael Bates, kicker John Kasay, and punter Todd Sauerbrun. The problem is, many of these people either weren't on the team at the same time or didn't play their best at the same time.

The Panthers are the kiddies of the NFC South, and so they regularly have feuds with the New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Atlanta Falcons. This is not exactly a list of great, storied territorial disputes here, but they serve to get the fanbase riled up well and good. They have rivalries with the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, and Arizona Cardinals outside their division, though. They also have a couple of signature games in their short life: One is their first playoff victory over Dallas, and the second is a divisional playoff matchup against the St. Louis Rams in the 2003 season which took two overtime periods to settle. And this was well before today's halfassed overtime rules, when overtimes were still decided by sudden death.

The Panthers so far, with the varied talent they've had and their early successes, look like they may become one of the great teams of NFL history. Then again, they have plenty of evidence against that, too.]]> Sun, 19 Feb 2012 14:47:16 +0000
<![CDATA[ Roaring to Go]]>
That incident alone would make the Jaguars a strong contender to become the NFL's next great renegade island, like the Raiders, Saints, or Bengals. They're based in Jacksonville, Florida, and be honest: Did anyone realize there was a city called Jacksonville until the Jaguars were placed there?

Turns out Jacksonville had been trying to lure the NFL into town since 1979, when they tried to bring the Colts in from their original home in Baltimore. Colts owner Robert Irsay landed a helicopter in the stadium in the midst of thousands of fans who were there to urge him to move the team there. As we all know by now, that didn't pan out, but the NFL announced in 1992 that it would be expanding for the 1993 season. Since 1989 Jacksonville had been driving a campaign called Touchdown! Jacksonville, and it won a franchise over St. Louis, Baltimore, and Memphis and joined Charlotte as the other city to get a team. (Charlotte's team is the Carolina Panthers.) It was an unusual choice, since Florida already had strong fanbases for the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and some of the best college football the country has to offer.

One unique distinction the Jaguars have is that their first-ever head coach is now a two-time Super Bowl winner, including the current champion: Tom Coughlin. Jaguars then-owner Wayne Weaver picked his coach on intensity, and he probably couldn't have picked a more intense candidate. Coughlin has the same kind of steely glare as Clint Eastwood, so all he probably had to do was go into Weaver's office and stare for ten seconds before Weaver nervously told him "You're hired!" In the 1995 draft, Jacksonville grabbed quarterback Steve Beuerlein, a natural move since a new team would need a good quarterback, but Beuerlein eventually ended up losing his job to third stringer Mark Brunell, who led the Jags for those first few years of existence. They also grabbed running back James Stewart and wide receiver Jimmy Smith, who became synonymous with the team for a long time; he won Super Bowls in his first two years with the Dallas Cowboys, but left his mark in the NFL as a Jaguar, going to five Pro Bowls and winning two All-Pro selections.

Notable is the fact that almost, if not the entire existence of the Jaguars has been during the salary cap era. They were still an expansion team, and their first year did include the usual expansion troubles. They went 4-12. But their next season was a breakout season for both the team and the idea of NFL parity. The Jags went 9-7 after starting out 3-6, clinched the fifth seed in the playoffs, and shocked the Buffalo Bills - in Buffalo no less, and in the final game for Hall of Fame Bills quarterback Jim Kelly - 30-27 for their first playoff victory. Afterward, they faced the Denver Broncos and beat them too! This put them into the AFC Championship, where Jacksonville's Cinderella season chimed twelve as the team lost to the New England Patriots.

A large part of Jacksonville's identity is actually built on the amazing successes they had in those early years. Most expansion teams team to be free victories, but the Jaguars played great football. After the Miracle season, Jacksonville went 11-5 the next two years, even winning their division in 1998. In 1999 the Jaguars went above and beyond anything anyone could ever expect of a team only five years old: They won their second division title (also their latest), finished the regular season with the league's best record at an incredible 14-2, and returned to the AFC Championship. Unfortunately, the team they faced in the AFC Championship was the Tennessee Titans, the team both of Jacksonville's losses had come against. Tennessee just had Jacksonville's number that year, and the result was no different in the AFC Championship that year as the Jags lost 33-14 to Tennessee.

The team fell into disrepair in the 21st century because it ran headlong into salary cap problems. Unable to keep a whole lot of talent, the team began slipping, and even Tom Coughlin eventually admitted the team had more talent in their 4-12 first season than it had by then. Coughlin was fired in 2002 with a record of 68-60 and having drafted some of the young team's luminary talents: Fred Taylor, Donovin Darius, Marcus Stroud, and David Gerrard. 2002 was also the end for quarterback Mark Brunell, who resumed life as an NFL backup for other teams.

Enter Del Rio, and the team has had some fantastic years under him. Some of them should have resulted in, at the very least, division titles, but they were another team that had the misfortune of playing in the AFC South and having to face Peyton Manning twice a year. The Jaguars went 9-7 in 2004 and an awesome 12-4 in 2005, with that second year resulting in a Wild Card spot which they lost to defending champion New England. Those years introduced some f the other great players in the Jaguars' short history like Gerrard, who emerged to become the team's great passing leader; and running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Unfortunately, the team began to decline after going 11-5 in 2007, and they've been rebuilding for the last few years. They have a new owner in Shahid Khan now, and they also cut Gerrard and named Luke McCown as the starter. I don't see how the latter can possibly be a smart move. During the season they fired Jack Del Rio, and last month they hired a new coach, Mike Mularkey, to replace him. Mularkey's previous experience as head coach was in 2004 and 2005 with the Buffalo Bills. He led the Bills to their best record - their only winning record - of the decade by going 9-7 in 2004, but went 5-11 in 2005 before stepping down after the season. To be fair, Mularkey may well turn into a great coach. In 2005, he had a quarterback controversy between JP Losman and Kelly Holcomb and a series of problems with defensive personnel. When he quit, he cited disagreements with the direction the organization was taking when he did. Basically, he had stability in his good season and a lack of it in his bad season.

The current situation in Jacksonville is looking far more unstable than stable at the moment. Not only is there a change of ownership going on, but the NFL recently decided to name a handful of candidates up for a city swap, and the Jaguars were among those candidates. The team has trouble drawing fans; a couple of years ago, they were publicly implying the would draft Tim Tebow - who, notably, is a product of Florida's legendary college football system - with the hope that he would be a role-player. In football parlance, that carried the heavy idea the team would do it just to draw fans because when a team is in a rebuilding phase, it uses big draft picks as cornerstones who can lead the team, NOT be role-players.

17 years in the NFL has brought the Jaguars to an all-time record of 142-137, including playoffs. If new owner Khan knows what he's doing, the team may have another few years of glorious seasons ahead. If he doesn't, that may well be the end of the team's tenure in Jacksonville. But the team may well be moving no matter what. Khan is singing the old song about wanting to keep the team there, but every owner who ever moved a team has done that. The Jaguars may well end up turning into the Rams or the Cardinals - eternal nomads. So if my proverbial fan picks them, he better be doing it because he admires the team and not just out of geographical convenience.]]> Sun, 12 Feb 2012 15:18:05 +0000
<![CDATA[ An American's point of view]]>  
Don’t tell me Obama didn’t have a hand in this. He’s shown again how he’s leading this great country of ours down so that we can’t fight four full-blown wars for freedon and oil at the same time. Under his so-called leadership the U.S. can’t even keep up with North Korea when it comes to regimented, boring stadium productions. And the gap will only grow.]]> Mon, 6 Feb 2012 04:38:10 +0000
<![CDATA[ Da Monsters]]>
The Bears are not, however, a permanent resident of Chicago. They began life in 1919 as the Decatur Staleys in Decatur, Illinois, a small city in central Illinois, southwest of the great Chicagoland area. They were started by the AE Staley food starch company, which is how they got that old name. The company hired George Halas and Edward Sternaman in 1920 to run the team, and turned over full control in 1921, when they relocated to Chicago and became the Chicago Staleys. Halas wasn't the founder, although the official team and league records say he is. In 1920, the team paid a $100 franchise fee to become a charter member of the NFL. In 1922, Halas was given some nice new digs at Wrigley Field, and in return he promised to name the team after the baseball team that played there, the Cubs. But Halas also took note of the fact that football players seemed to generally be larger than baseball players, and in that spirit, he decided that if his hosts were Cubs, his bigger players should be called Bears!

From there, the Bears immediately ranked among the league's elite. They were competitive, and in 1925 they made headlines when they signed football's first true superstar: Red Grange, AKA The Galloping Ghost. With Grange on the payroll, Halas then took the Bears on a 17-game barnstorming trip across an American landscape that scoffed at the idea that professional football was played at a higher level than college football. (The Bears went 11-4-2 in those 17 games.) That trip impressed a lot of people and provided a serious financial boon to teams in a debt-ridden league.

Although Grange wasn't around for the last few years of the 20's, he returned in 1929 and was joined by his new teammate, Bronko Nagurski, as they led the Bears to four Championship games and two titles. Inthe late 1930's, Halas visited University of Chicago football coach Clark Shaughnessy to figure out a new way to approach the offense and the position of quarterback. What they came up with was the t-formation, many of whose key innovations are still in extremely widespread use today, even though the pure t-formation is now obsolete. To run the T, Halas drafted Columbia quarterback Sid Luckman and turned the T into a high-powered, time-wasting scoring machine which defeated the Washington Redskins in the 1940 Championship game 73-0 and opened the path for the Bears's first dynasty, from 1940 to 1946, when the Bears went to five Championships and won four of them. After those years, the Bears middled for the next few decades, but they still managed to capture their conference in 1956 and win the title in 1963. Then came the absolute nadir of Bears history: The 1970's.

In the 1970's, the Bears were atrocious. They fielded players like Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers at the same time, drafting Walter Payton in 1975, and still totally sucking. In the 80's, things were still looking low, but by then the Bears had started rebuilding. GM Jim Finks was finding A-grade talent while Bill Tobin exercised his knack for grabbing overlooked talent in the draft, and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan created a revolutionary new defense called the 46, or the Bear. In 1982, legendary Bears tight end Mike Ditka was hired as coach, and a mean, snarling Bears team emerged and took back the NFL.

The 1985 Bears still hold a special place in the hearts of Chicagoans. They are the only Bears team to ever win the Super Bowl. They cut through their first 12 opponents, beating them all by a combined score of 456 to 198, including one memorable three-game stretch in which they outscored their opponents 104-3. They handed the Dallas Cowboys the worst loss in their history, smashing them 44-0. They lost only one game all season, to the Miami Dolphins. In the playoffs, they shut out the New York Giants 21-0. In the NFC Championship, they shut out the Los Angeles Rams 24-0. (One of the Rams coaches later admitted that the 1985 NFC Championship was the only game he ever went into knowing he had no chance.) In the Super Bowl, they rolled up 46 points against the New England Patriots, which was at that point a record for points scored and margin of victory. Although the Patriots drew first blood in the form of a field goal, the only other points they scored in that game came from a face-save touchdown late in the fourth quarter. During the 1985 fiasco, the Bears also found time to record a rap record called "The Super Bowl Shuffle" and turn some of their players like Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Jim McMahon, and William "Refrigerator" Perry into national pitchmen. They are still widely regarded as the finest single-season team in NFL history. (And frankly, they still should have been even if the 2007 Patriots had closed their perfect season. They were an overrated team with a shitload of defensive holes which good teams had been exploiting all season, and are actually not even the best team to ever LOSE the Super Bowl.)

The Bears dominated through to the 90's, but dropped off again, having only occasional good seasons. With Dave Wannstedt as head coach, the Bears had a couple of 9-7 seasons, and Dick Jauron brought them to a 13-3 year amidst a bunch of terrible years. In 2004, current Bears coach Lovie Smith was hired. His current record as Chicago's head coach is 63-49, good for third place in the all-time Bears coach pantheon. Under his tenure, the Bears have ended the divisional reign of the Green Bay Packers, and won three division titles and one NFC Championship.

The Bears have notched over 700 wins in their history, a feat which only they have achieved. They hold the NFL record for the number of Hall of Famers fielded, at 27. Their all-time roster includes some of the NFL's great luminaries: Red Grange, Mike Ditka, Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton, and Mike Singletary. The current team is led by linebackers Brian Urlacher - who will go into the Hall once he hangs up his cleats - and Lance Briggs, who is also a strong candidate for that honor. Their current kick returner, Devin Hester, is unquestionably the greatest special teams player since Buffalo played the amazing Steve Tasker (who should be in the Hall of Fame), and very likely the greatest special teams player in history. He holds the NFL record for return touchdowns, and has a number of good years left.

Despite the offensive innovations the Bears are historically responsible for, they're known primarily as a smash-mouth, run-and-defense-first team. The 27 Hall of Famers from Chicago only include one quarterback, Sid Luckman, who isn't likely to draw breathless comparisons to Otto Graham or Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas or any of the other transcendent quarterbacks from anyone other than Bears fans. After Luckman, their greatest, most iconic quarterback is Jim McMahon, who pretty much lucked into that position and is more of a right place right time quarterback than anything else. He was the 1985 team quarterback, and he was gutsy, but he ultimately became an unremarkable journeyman who played for six other teams. Quarterbacks for the Bears are in fact so collectively bad that if you visit Chicago and suggest there is a curse on Bears quarterbacks, no one will laugh. They've never had a 4000-yard quarterback. Their current quarterback, Jay Cutler, was expected to be a keystone after being a standout in Denver, but he's been pretty sporadic. (He's also wrongfully perceived as a wimp because he sat out the 2010 NFC Championship after a very nasty knee injury. Because Bears fans apparently think he wanted to watch the most important game of his life, which would have taken him to his ultimate goal, from the sideline.) Their 2006 Super Bowl run was directed under center by Rex Grossman, an otherwise excellent thrower who can't seem to grasp the concept of game management. When Cutler was injured last season, he was replaced by Caleb Hanie, possibly the worst quarterback I've ever seen. Yes, worse even than Trent Dilfer.

The true greats of the Bears have shined on defense. Dick Butkus is mentioned alongside Lawrence Taylor as one of the league's golden name linebackers, and Mike Singletary is a top ten name too. Richard Dent is in the Hall of Fame at defensive end. Bill George played alongside Butkus, Bulldog Turner helped anchor the 40's dynasty, and even Red Grange and Sid Luckman stood out as cornerbacks. Bears running backs read like the roster of an NFL legends team: Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, George McAfee, Gale Sayers, and Walter Payton. Particularly those last two, both of whom are frequently evoked in running back conversations beginning with the words "the next..." Sayers was known as the light speed demon, and is now known as the only guy in the league willing to try to denounce Devin Hester. Payton was known as the all-around workhorse back who would do a bit of everything - including rack up the all-time record for rushing yardage, which he held until Emmitt Smith broke it in 2002.

The Bears are rivals with the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, and Detroit Lions. They have the most hate for the Packers, who live in northern Wisconsin. The two teams are first and second in the number of league titles won. The Packers have more titles (13 as opposed to nine) but the Bears have more overall victories and lead the all-time series between the two. The Bears also have an established rivalry with the Arizona Cardinals, with whom they shared their city until 1960, and this rivalry decided quite a few of the NFL's early title contests. Naturally, it's very cooled these days, although it can come back every now and then. The most notable recent game between the Bears and Cardinals was in a 2006 Monday Night Football game in which Arizona ran up a 23-0 halftime lead, only to lose the game in spite of preventing the Bears from scoring any touchdowns on offense. The meltdown resulted in Arizona's coach giving one of the most humorously indecipherable speeches ever heard - the now-famous "They're Who We Thought They Were!" speech.

The Bears are also a constant staple of pop culture. The most notable form of this has been the classic TV movie Brian's Song, a very popular drama chronicling the friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Piccolo helped Sayers rehabilitate after a devastating knee injury, and the two became friends and stayed friends as Piccolo later lost a battle to lung cancer. The movie was originally released in 1971 and starred Billy Dee Williams and James Caan. In 2001, the movie was remade with Mekhi Phifer and Sean Maher. In the 1980's and 90's, Bears fandom became a staple of Saturday Night Live, as Bill Swerski's Superfans became a recurring sketch which introduced the phrase "Da Bears!" to the world outside Chicagoland. The sketch featured George Wendt, a Chicago native, as host of a talk program in which Mike Ditka could do no wrong. The sketch usually showed the show's cast members eating sausage and drinking beer, and one of them having a Bears-induced heart attack. Wendt reprised his role just before the 2006 Super Bowl, in which the Bears played against the Indianapolis Colts. There are many TV shows which are based in Chicago, and on many of these shows the Bears are the household favorite. The classic sitcom That 70's Show also makes a lot of Bears references, since the characters live in Wisconsin and cheer for the Packers. Brian Urlacher once made an appearance on Entourage, and Mike Ditka's fiery, blunt personality has made him a popular media favorite.

The Bears can or did at one point lay claim to a lot of NFL records. Walter Payton was once the all-time NFL rushing leader. He was surpassed in 2002 by Emmitt Smith, and Lions fans contend that Barry Sanders (third all-time rushing) could have broken it a lot sooner and blown it completely out of proportion had he played his remaining good years. (I believe that myself.) George Halas holds coaching records for most seasons coached with a ridiculous 40, which resulted in his record 324 career victories as coach. Return specialist Devin Hester holds the record for return touchdowns, with 18 and counting. The Bears have over 700 wins as a team, which is unsurpassed, and nine titles, a record surpassed only by Green Bay. The 1940 title game set the records for biggest blowout, most points, and widest margin or victory.

Though the Bears struggled last season - finishing 8-8, third in their division - the sight of their navy and orange uniforms and iconic C logo is always welcome among Chicagoans who love their team and appreciate the sense of history and tradition they hold. While the winters in Chicago are notoriously difficult, you'll always find people at Soldier Field, bearing down themselves in what is called Bear Weather coming off the harsh Lake Michigan environment, ready to watch their team smash and grind any unlucky opponent that has the misfortune to play against them this week. They are one of the league's truly great teams, and if my hypothetical no-team fan likes trench football, he won't find any team where that mentality has been better exhibited than with the Monsters of the Midway.]]> Sat, 7 Jan 2012 16:55:13 +0000
<![CDATA[ Tex Mex]]>
In 1998, the NFL began expanding again, and that year the league meekly placed a team back in Cleveland after some idiot's eye for "area potential" took the original Browns out of one of the most fervently devoted markets in the NFL and to an area with more population, which for some reason most team owners believe will run hand in hand with more fans and therefore more money. The second expansion team that year was awarded to Los Angeles. Seriously, Los Angeles, long as they could piece together a working ownership squad quickly. When NFL executives visited Los Angeles later, they were shocked - SHOCKED! - to learn that the big city which had two great, classic NFL teams totally screw it over just a few years earlier wasn't keen on the idea of giving out more tax money to the NFL. And you now know why each and every team owner threat to move the team to Los Angeles is completely hollow. (Now, if an owner wises up and begins threatening to move to San Antonio, Austin, Portland, or maybe Louisville, he might actually be serious.) In came an ownership group from Houston, and the rest is history.

The Texans launched their inaugural season in 2002 with coach Dom Capers, who had coached the Carolina Panthers to the NFC Championship in just their second year of existence, and quarterback David Carr. They managed to beat their interstate rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, in that first game 19-10. Although the Texans ultimately finished 4-12 in 2002 and Carr was sacked 76 times (yes, that's seventy-six, and it's a record), they did manage to send two players to the Pro Bowl. Having done better than most expansion teams, the season was deemed a success. By 2004 people were confident that Houston was fielding enough honest-to-god talent to at least be competitive with any other team in the league. But in 2005, Capers was fired after slogging the Texans to a 2-14 record.

The one thing that 2-14 record did guarantee Houston was the first pick in the 2006 draft, which is now known as one of the most famous and weirdest draft debacles since people discovered draft beer made them drunk. The 2006 draft was already expected to reel in the league's strongest gang of talent since the vaunted 1983 draft yielded Dan Marino, John Elway, and Jim Kelly. The Texans had their pick between three surefire hits: USC quarterback Matt Leinart, USC running back Reggie Bush, or Texas quarterback Vince Young. Going against conventional thinking and every law of logic in the space/time continuum, Houston took North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams instead. It was a move that pissed off a lot of people, but the Texans eventually laughed best because Williams has proven to not only be a very good, solid player who made two Pro Bowls, but the other projected talent from that draft royally stank up the league: Bush proved effective as a slot player capable of performing a handful of tasks, but was a lousy featured back because he was too easily knocked down, while Young and Leinart were both mechanically terrible and too shocked at the NFL's pace. To be fair, Bush and Young do have their moments, and they've both received Pro Bowl invitations, and Young was on the cover of Madden. But there are reasons their original teams didn't hold onto them. Leinart got to the league and just plain sucked... And is, somewhat ironically, now a backup for the Texans.

In 2006, the gears began to really churn for Houston. They went 6-10, a record which would have been 8-8 if not for a pair of inexcusable defensive lapses against the Bills and Titans. People took note of the fact that Houston had more talent now, and they might have started winning their division if not for the fact that they played in the AFC South, where they were doomed to facing Indianapolis - and their all world quarterback, Peyton Manning - twice a year. (Apparently, Indianapolis, Indiana is a southern city. Who Knew?) In 2007 and 2008, the Texans broke even, and finally tipped the scales in 2009, going 9-7. 2010 saw them recede and go 6-10, but this last season, without having to worry about Peyton Manning, Houston finally broke through, won their division at 10-6, and as I write this, are currently preparing for their first playoff game.

The team's name is an allusion to Texas's first professional football team, the Dallas Texans of the American Football League. The NFL moved in with a team of its own, the Cowboys, and the Dallas Texans moved out of the state and formed their identity as the Kansas City Chiefs. The owner of the Texans, Bob McNair, had to make a deal with Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt to use Texans as the team nickname, and even then it had to beat out four other selections: Bobcats, Stallions, Toros, and Apollos. The logo, an abstract bull's head, is split in a way meant to be deferral to the famed Lone Star flag of Texas.

If there's an identity to be attached to the Houston Texans at this point in their life, it's being a rising potential star. This team is very good in all of the primary aspects of football, and they seem in prime position to compete with Indianapolis for the AFC South with players like quarterback Matt Schaub, wideout Andre Johnson, and a handful of Pro Bowlers on defense like Jason Babin, Brian Cushing, and the aforementioned Mario Williams. Coach Gary Kubiak - the team's second head coach - has an overall winning record. And once Peyton Manning retires, I don't see a whole lot to stop Houston from taking a chokehold on the AFC South for a few years.

Being the newest NFL team, the Houston Texans are a team my Hypothetical New NFL Fan Without a Team will select if he wants to get in on the ground floor and grow with his team in his knowledge and passion for the sport. They're getting good now; only an idiot could deny that. But they're still new enough to avoid having a bandwagon stigma.]]> Mon, 2 Jan 2012 14:38:57 +0000
<![CDATA[College Football Quick Tip by BaronSamedi3]]> Fri, 23 Dec 2011 00:30:08 +0000 <![CDATA[ America's Game Ain't Baseball]]>
Americans live in Footballworld. I myself live in Footballtown number four. (Buffalo, New York - four AFC titles in a row! Not even the mighty Patriots of today's era have matched that!) Football is the sport that defines the American psyche, a violent, primal, crush-everything-in-its-path mentality without which our beloved country wouldn't be at the top of the civilized world. (Or as hated, but lots of people think the grass is always greener on the other side.) One who attempts to understand the culture of the United States must learn how the game of American football works. It'll explain a lot.

It should be no surprise that football is the number one sport in the US. The only surprising thing about it is that baseball was at the top for so long. Baseball, America's pastime, and its players, the noblest of all our professional jocks. It's what America aspires to be, but football, as is pretty much the entire theme of Michael MacCambridge's America's Game, is what America is. No doubt Americans, as well as any foreigners familiar with our national metaphor for war, can see exactly why this is. It's as George Carlin noted in his famous routine, in football the quarterback, also known as the field general, leads his troops across a gridiron into enemy territory. He attacks from the air using shotguns and bombs and maintaining a ground attack which punches holes in the enemy's forward defense. In baseball, the object is to go home and be safe.

The business of football is an interesting subject even during the offseason, with league negotiations, trades, and drafts. (Look at what the New Orleans Saints went through this past season. Everyone was listening as they looked for new places to play home games.) MacCambridge builds on the business aspect of football and gives us the full behind-the-scenes story of the country's passion and its development from World War II to today.

People argue that pro football entered the spotlight with the classic first overtime game of December 28, 1958, with Johnny Unitas leading his Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants and their star running back Frank Gifford and defeating them at Yankee Stadium with 45 million people tuned in to the televised game. But MacCambridge begins his fascinating look at football's evolution in 1945 with one of the sport's most storied franchises, the Rams, winning their first title in Cleveland before packing up and moving to Los Angeles. These were old times indeed: They took place before the NFL had a commissioner and before the Cleveland Browns even existed, let alone as part of the NFL. These were the times when Browns coach Paul Brown was considered a revolutionary, and with a record of 80-8-2 over nine seasons, few would argue his disciplinarian methods. This was even before the times of facemasks and logos, when helmets were made of leather.

Few hear about the AAFC, the All-American Football Conference, because the teams which survived the AAFC's merger with the NFL never had their legitimacy questioned. But that's where the Cleveland Browns, as well as a handfull of other teams, started out and where the Browns - one of the dominantly featured teams in America's Game - nearly destroyed the league because their dominance meant a lack of competition. Some of the most interesting sections of America's Game occur when the NFL is at war with other emerging leagues. The AFL, of course, is where the bulk of the wars with other leagues is focused since it brought a new style and personality to the game which the more grounded and tradition-based NFL was unprepared for. The AAFC is prominent in the first few chapters before Bert Bell's emergence as the commissioner, and the defunct USFL of the 1980s is mentioned and its impact on the NFL noted when the USFL teams begin signing coveted college draftees to exhorbitant contracts. Unfortunately, the indirectly competing Arena Football League (of which Yours Truly has become a fan) is not mentioned, probably because the league mostly consists of ex-NFL players who got sick of warming benches. The joke known as the XFL, which presented itself as a true football league and a potential contender to the NFLs throne, also isn't mentioned.

America's Game tells its story by focusing on six of the franchises which have become synonymous with football the Cleveland/Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, the Dallas Cowboys, the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, and the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders. This is an excellent approach to the modern history of football because it allows us to see the story not only through the eyes of NFL commissioners Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle, and Paul Tagliabue, but also football men like Dan Reeves, the Rams owner who moved the team from Cleveland to Los Angeles; Paul Brown, legendary Browns coach whom the team is named after; innovator Tex Schramm of the Cowboys; Raiders owner Al Davis, who seems to think the rest of the league is against him (which would explain a few things about the team) and Lamar Hunt, the Foolish Clubber who was inspired to begin a whole league out of a simple desire to see a football team in Dallas.

Along the way, we even get to see the inventions of helmet logos, facemasks, and plastic helmets. (Well, okay, not so much the last one.) America's Game gets into minute details like that at times. MacCambridge mentions a sketch from In Living Color in 1992 made specifically to compete with the Super Bowl halftime show, which prompted the NFL to start grabbing big-name acts like Aerosmith and U2. On the subject of the Super Bowl, by the way, we learn that it was created without the league's primary audiences in mind, and that Pete Rozelle openly hated the term "Super Bowl" because he thought the word super was unsophisticated.

Michael MacCambridge writes in a style which really makes you feel all the trials and tribulations of the people in charge. While they are presented as businessmen, they are equally represented as fans, and so you actually feel bad for Art Modell, who is written as a Clevelander without choice when he takes the Browns to Baltimore. Everyone is written in a way which doesn't make you hate them as owners - that fan-against-owner mentality - but you sympathize with them as you are reminded that they too are football fans who got into the leagure because they love the game. My one complaint about the writing is that some of the strictly business sections can bore you. MacCambridge spends a bit too much time talking about the impact of certain presidents' interests in football too.

Some of my favorite anecdotes from the book:

-The Minnesota Vikings, convinced they were a powerful running back away from a Super Bowl, coveted Cowboys running back Herschel Walker so much they traded a total of 13 players - seven draft picks (three in the first and second rounds, one in the third) and five players - for him.

-Johnny Unitas going to a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Baltimore Ravens and rooting against the Colts.

-Paul Brown playing any of his roles: Saying to his first group of players that he wants people to think of the Cleveland Browns whenever football is mentioned; Paul Brown drilling his players like a hardened drill sergeant, even telling them not to have sex the nights before games; Paul Brown eventually returning to the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals years after the Browns fire him.

-The Ice Bowl, and Vince Lombardi showing a contempt for the AFL only to tell a columnist before Super Bowl III that Joe Namath was perfectly capable of defeating the Colts.

-Paul Tagliabue telling the Rams that any given team could win the Super Bowl in any given season, an idea that was absurd to the Rams. They had gone 4-12 the previous season, and were expected to go 8-8 before their starting quarterback went down in the preseason, but they went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl.

America's Game is full of fun little anecdotes like these which add up to tell an amazing story of how an underdog game evolved intto one of the most popular sports in the world. If you have any love for football, don't miss America's Game. (And in light of the upcoming Super Bowl, go Steelers!)]]> Wed, 21 Dec 2011 00:37:56 +0000
<![CDATA[Super Bowl XLIV 2010 Quick Tip by kfontenot]]> Mon, 12 Dec 2011 16:08:34 +0000 <![CDATA[College Football Quick Tip by kfontenot]]> Mon, 12 Dec 2011 16:06:08 +0000 <![CDATA[Brett Favre Quick Tip by kfontenot]]> Mon, 12 Dec 2011 16:05:30 +0000 <![CDATA[Detroit Lions Quick Tip by kfontenot]]> Mon, 12 Dec 2011 16:04:57 +0000 <![CDATA[Arizona Cardinals Quick Tip by kfontenot]]> Mon, 12 Dec 2011 16:04:24 +0000 <![CDATA[Dallas Cowboys Quick Tip by kfontenot]]> Mon, 12 Dec 2011 16:03:06 +0000 <![CDATA[Green Bay Packers Quick Tip by kfontenot]]> Mon, 12 Dec 2011 16:01:28 +0000 <![CDATA[New England Patriots Quick Tip by kfontenot]]> Mon, 12 Dec 2011 16:00:14 +0000 <![CDATA[Terrell Owens Quick Tip by kfontenot]]> Mon, 12 Dec 2011 15:59:41 +0000 <![CDATA[Terrell Owens Quick Tip by BaronSamedi3]]> Sun, 4 Dec 2011 15:26:51 +0000 <![CDATA[ Are the Patriots Patriotic?]]>
The Patriots are the great public enemy of the football world right now. They play under a whip-cracking coach. Their star quarterback has turned from likeable underdog to guy at the bar who the single men want to punch in the face. Tom Brady has earned the venom of much of the public because he got where he is having never paid a single real due in his entire life, and because he perpetuates an image of an ideal in Americana which most people could never possibly hope to live up to, and which was finally starting to die until he came along. They're known for running up scores constantly, for no reason, keeping their starters in blowouts, and basically daring the other team to stop them. Their egos blew out of control during the 2007 postseason - it was widely reported that their Super Bowl opponents arrived in black suits to symbolize New England's funeral, and Giants wideout Plaxico Burress guaranteed a victory. What wasn't reported was that a Pats player I can't remember told the Giants they were welcome to be guests at their victory party, and most of the players appeared to be treating the buildup to the game as a vacation. When you look at it like that, it's no wonder the Giants were able to take them off guard.

One thing you have to remember about the Belichick/Brady Patriots, though, is that they got where they are by extolling some great virtues. They eschewed individual ego, so much so that in the 2001 Super Bowl, when they beat the highly favored St. Louis Rams, the Patriots refused to have their starting lines introduced player by player, as is the normal custom. Instead, they chose to run out as a team, as one. It was the Rams who spent the buildup talking about the overnight birth of a dynasty. (Come to think of it, they were technically right.) But the Pats hit The Greatest Show on Turf in the mouth, shutting down Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk. They've gotten even the angriest, most loudmouthed and poorly behaved players - Corey Dillon and Randy Moss are probably the best known, and now Chad Ochocinco - to tone it down for a common object.

No, things aren't quite as bad for New England as they were in the bad old days. Wait.... Editor message.... The Patriots didn't have any real bad old days? Are you sure?

Yep. The New England Patriots, who are talked about in the pre-Brady days as if they were the Detroit Lions of the AFC, don't have a whole lot to truly be ashamed of. When people think of bad times for the Patriots, they tend to look at 1989-1993, when the team had some seriously bad seasons and their best record was 6-10. Or their 5-11 2000 season. But here's the thing: That 5-11 record in 2000 was one of just two seasons in which New England had a losing record between 1994 and 2001, the year they began their mighty dynasty. In 1996, they went to the damn Super Bowl! Yeah, they were beat pretty handily by the Packers, but they got there. Before then, the only real bad period in the history of the New England Patriots since their founding in 1959 went from 1967 to 1975. From 1960 to 1966, the team only had two losing seasons, and they went to the AFL Championship in 1963. (They lost to the San Diego Chargers.) From 1976 to 1988, they endured one losing season, a very unique debacle in 1981 in which they went 2-14. And even during that year, the Patriots lost mostly because of some kind of evil karma. They lost five games by three points or less, another three by less than a touchdown, and had a point differential of just 48. For what it's worth, they may have been the best 2-14 team in history. The between-the-lines fine print says the 1981 Patriots were merely a decent team having an off year, not the hopless disaster 2-14 teams usually are.

Probably the reason early Pats history is so ignored is because the pre-dynasty Pats weren't regular Super Bowl contenders. They were good, definite spoilers, sometimes challengers. In 1985, they made it to the Super Bowl, but that was a slight anomaly. They did well like they usually did that season, then managed to luck their way through three road games in the playoffs before going to the Super Bowl and getting slaughtered by the Bears. 1985 was the year the Bears got to have all the fun, and they fielded a dynamo of a team that went 15-1 in the regular season, posted two shutouts in the playoffs, and set what was then a record for points scored in the Super Bowl. Mostly the Patriots became known for collapsing in the stretch. In 1996 they went back to the Super Bowl, where they played better than in 1985 and kept it close until a kickoff return touchdown and two touchdown passes from Brett Favre sealed it for Green Bay.

Part of the reason for New England's success is that they have had a revolving door of great quarterbacks which could only come from absurdly good, supernatural luck. Their first real long-term starter was Babe Parilli, the team's main quarterback from 1961 to 1967. He went to three Pro Bowls. Soon after, from 1971 to 1975, the played the understated Jim Plunkett, who is best known for his post-comeback work with the Raiders, leading them to two Super Bowl titles. Steve Grogan came in 1975, a solid, tough player who was the team's go-to guy from 1975 to 1983, and made regular if sporadic starts for them until 1990. From 1983 to 1989, Tony Eason rode a ridiculous quarterback carousel with Grogan and others, including Doug Flutie, and put up some respectable statistics while leading the team to their first Super Bowl. Although these guys were very solid and dependable, in 1993 the Patriots picked up their first true standout, Drew Bledsoe, a Pro Bowl regular who by many accounts deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. In 2000, they lucked out by picking a fifth-rounder out of Michigan named Tom Brady.

Most fans of Boston sports tend to look at themselves as underdogs. Seriously. I don't know how that works, because I haven't known a lot of Boston sports fans who are especially diehard through the bad times. The only team that can be even remotely considered underdog is the Red Sox. Other then that, I saw Boston fans abandon the Celtics - the most dominant, winningest team in NBA history - when they were bad, the Bruins when they were bad, and the Patriots weren't beloved when they were good most of the time. It took them being absolutely dominant for people to start paying attention. Ironically, supporting the Patriots in the past would have granted fans underdog status. Now the only Patriots fans - I'm sorry, I don't want to insult real Pats fans, so I'll rephrase that by saying the only visible Patriots fans - are frontrunners and secondary fans who don't actually give a shit.

How many famous games have the Patriots been involved in that didn't come in the last decade? Well, there was the Super Bowl against the Bears, but that wasn't because of anything the Patriots did. Everyone remembers the 1985 season because of the Bears, most people reading this probably don't even know they beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl until they read this. The Super Bowl against the Packers is, again, remembered for the Pack, not the Pats. All of their subsequent Super Bowls have been decided by a collective total of twelve points, and they've played plenty of memorable games outside of the Super Bowl as well. The Tuck Rule, their legendary showdowns against the Indianapolis Colts, the last ten years are filled with fantastic games, but they all happened during the Brady Bunch era.

The Patriots have some very strong divisional rivalries with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. The Bills were their big foe for most of their history, but lately the Jets have taken that role. Of course, due to the team's invisibility, no one would ever know that. They also have a serious rivalry with the Indianapolis Colts, which is more between Tom Brady and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning than between the teams themselves.

The Patriots of the past are so understated that no one remembers who their greatest running back was. Their all-time leading rusher was Sam Cunningham, who rushed for 5453 yards from 1973 to 1982. They were also the team that drafted Curtis Martin, a possible all-time great running back who started with the Pats but made himself with the New York Jets. People also forget they were, in the past, called the Boston Patriots and for a brief time called the Bay State Patriots. Also, no one cared when former owner James Orthwein threatened to move the team to St. Louis in 1992 before selling it to current owner Robert Kraft. Also, there are only three Patriots in Canton - guard John Hannah, linebacker Nick Buoniconti, and cornerback Mike Haynes.

Pat Patriot represented the New England Patriots in the past, a cool image of a 1770's-era minuteman about to hike a football. Now they're represented by a flying Elvis. It's ironic that in the post 9-11 world, the New England Patriots would rise to true prominance wearing uniforms that hate America. The team used to wear a very fitting red, white, and blue. Now they've darkened the color scheme and added an ugly silver accent.

It's possible the rise of the Patriots is just due to timing. Everyone loves an underdog, and when the Patriots won that first Super Bowl against the Rams, the country was fresh off 9-11. How did one possibly root against them at the time? They were called the Patriots, for god's sake! And back then, they really were the lovable underdog team everyone wanted to see upset the great hype machine. They always had been. But success apparently changed them. It's funny how the team the entire country once embraced for inspiration in the awful shadow of 9-11 has somehow managed to squander all the goodwill.]]> Thu, 24 Nov 2011 16:09:05 +0000
<![CDATA[ Lions Without Pride]]>
The superstition surrounding the Lions has everything to do with a quarterback named Bobby Layne, who played for the Lions from 1950 to 1958 and led them to titles in 1952, 1953, and 1957. That's three of the four titles the Lions have won since their inception in 1929, when they were formed as the Portsmouth Spartans. (The fourth was their earliest, which they won in 1935.) In 1958, Layne was traded to the Steelers, and his response was to say the Lions would not win for 50 years. Although the quote is widely disputed as being a hoax, that doesn't change the fact that for the last 50 years, the Lions have been playing some of the most godawful football in the NFL. They accumulated the worst winning percentage in NFL history, had only 16 winning seasons (most of which were barely that), nine playoff appearances, three division titles, and one single playoff victory in 1991, when they went 12-4 and went to the NFC Championship game. They are one of only four teams in the NFL to never go to the Super Bowl, a very special humiliation because the other three teams that never got to the Super Bowl are the Cleveland Browns (who are allowed to carry the name, colors, and history of the old Cleveland Browns despite being an expansion team that started in 1999; the old Browns are now the Baltimore Ravens, who visited and won a Super Bowl in 2000), the Jacksonville Jaguars (who were founded in 1995... And STILL won two division titles, made six playoff appearances, and went to two AFC Championship games in that time), and the Houston Texans (who were founded in 2002 and have yet to make the playoffs).

Still not enough? Despite the losing, in 1989 the Lions drafted a running back named Barry Sanders. In an incredible NFL career which lasted for nine years, Sanders rushed for over 15,000 yards, went to the Pro Bowl every season, made the very exclusive 2000-yard club in 1997, led the NFL in rushing four times, and was the MVP in 1997. He was one season away from winning the all-time record for yards rushed, and could have blown the record out completely in three more years. He is widely considered the greatest running back of all time, an opinion I hold myself. But, sick of losing and drained of the fight which had allowed him to accomplish so much, Sanders up and retired just before the 1999 season began. Gave money back to the Lions to do it too. Didn't explain himself for many years. And if that doesn't cut it, I'm sure all you math whizzes reading this are well aware that Layne was traded in 1958, which meant his curse was supposed to expire in 2008. The Lions became the only team in NFL history to run the table in reverse that season. They went 0-16, which is difficult to do even if you're trying. Some NFL pundits believe a perfect season - 16-0 plus a Super Bowl victory - is easier, and you can ask the New England Patriots about that.

The city of Detroit has been symbolic of the times folks face on the Rust Belt, and the Lions have been symbolic of Detroit. Hit an apex, then a crash. The team's shape has been so dire that even the most diehard fans of the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, and Minnesota Vikings find it very difficult to root against them. There is genuine sympathy for the poor fans who are born with the light blue and silver of the Detroit Lions thrust on them. There has to be sympathy for the employees of the organization too - Lions marketing has to try to keep selling optimism, hope, and the future on the fans because it's not like they can sell them on the present. Or the past after 1958.

I hate to give the Lions such a low rating, but objectivity calls. Understand that I actually like the Lions quite a bit, even though they play in the same division as my other favorite team, the Chicago Bears (who will probably supplant the Buffalo Bills at the top very soon). The saga of the Lions has the sympathy of a lot of fans of Rust Belt teams, which mostly seem to be bleeding at any given moment. But even the other really bad teams in the any-given-game NFL can have their moments in the sun. Not only are the Lions bad, but the league seems intent on completely ignoring them. You don't see them on the nationally televised Sunday night games. Their appearances on Monday Night Football are so rare you'd think the league and the networks have some kind of edict against them. Their game on Monday night a few weeks back was the first in many years. (And you have to give them credit for making the most of it - they royally walloped the Bears.)

The Lions do get the distinction of being the showcased team for the NFL's Thanksgiving Day football games. They actually share it with the Dallas Cowboys, but it's the Lions who were the first team featured on Thanksgiving, and when people talk about watching Thanksgiving football, it's the Lions they automatically think of first. Feel free to insert your own joke about giving thanks that your team isn't the Detroit Lions.

Before the curse, the Lions had a winning tradition. I wouldn't quite call it rich, because the 1940's were a marked downside for them. But the bottom line is, they won games quite regularly, and their four NFL titles is pretty respectable, although that number is good for only the third most titles in their division and looks somewhat putrid compared to Green Bay's 13 titles and Chicago's nine. And the title-less Vikes weren't formed until the 1960's.

The Lions were first formed in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Portsmouth Spartans in 1929. Portsmouth was a small market - at the team's formation, Portsmouth was only a little bigger than the league's smallest market, which was Green Bay. They immediately made waves by twice beating a nearby independent team called the Ironton Tanks, and Portsmouth liked them enough to build them a field called Universal Stadium with their own money. They would have been a good highlight reel team back then if NFL teams were being given highlight reels at the time. There was one game, called the Iron Man game, in which the team's coach refused to use substitutes. The Spartans won 19-0 against the defending champion Packers. Also in 1932, the Spartans tied for first in the league with the Bears, and the tiebreaking game was put into Chicago Stadium after Wrigley Field got snowed out. It only allowed an 80-yard field. The Bears won, and ended up the league champions that year.

The good times didn't last, though. The team was hit hard by the depression and so, to save the Spartans, a Detroit radio executive named George Richards bought the team and put them into Detroit, a city which at the time was on the up and up. As a nod to the city's beloved baseball team, the Tigers, Richards named the team after another big cat: The Lion. The King of the Jungle! It was also Richards's radio connections that allowed the Lions to play the first-ever Thanksgiving game in Detroit, perhaps the greatest Lions tradition. (And one the NFL is seriously thinking of stopping, which makes them certified assholes.) Although the decade of the 1940's saw the Lions win a grand total of just 35 games, those early years were rife with success before Bobby Layne was traded. The Lions have 16 Hall of Fame players to show for that too, including Layne, Sanders, and Dick "Night Train" Lane.

Unfortunately, a lot of their other distinctions have to do with losing. They hired Matt Millen as the team President and CEO in 2001, a move which, to say the least, was a monumental blunder. The last decade has been especially unkind to Lions fans as the team set the records for most road losses in a row and most games lost in a single season (their infamous 0-16 season in 2008). Their best record was 7-9. I'm not trying to put too much of a point on it, but the Lions of the Millennial decade were even more futile than those awful Bengals teams of the previous decade. 2011 saw the Lions begin 5-0, which they haven't done since 1956.

Currently the only Lions fans are true, honest to god diehards. At this time, there's no other way to do it. Although I expect there to be plenty of bandwagon room once Bobby Layne fades away completely, right now it's only the true fans on board with the Lions. At least they have another color combo I'm very fond of: The Lions wear a shade of light blue called honolulu blue with silver and a few slivers of black. For a few years, they wore black alternate jerseys, but thankfully those ugly things were shelved after a few years.

The Lions have a storied history which is too overshadowed by losing to really offer more than the Thanksgiving game and Barry Sanders. Therefore, I have to rate negative. But you can bet those four titles will be flashed in front of your face once this pride is able to restore its once-mighty roar.]]> Mon, 21 Nov 2011 19:04:52 +0000
<![CDATA[ America's REAL Team]]>
Green Bay is the smallest market anywhere in North America to have a major league professional sports franchise. It's located at the head of a small sub-basin on Lake Superior, also called Green Bay, and has a population which didn't hit the six-digit mark until the 2000 census. The city defines flyover Americana as it sits tucked into its little niche in northern Wisconsin, known only to knowledgeable Wisconsinites who have a real passion for their state and aren't just hipsters who are in Milwaukee because they got roughed up by Chicago or whitebread college students hanging out in Madison. Most people have no desire to know what or where this Green Bay is or, if they do, have no reason to visit. It probably has its pleasantries and attractions, but it mostly sits on Lake Superior, content with its corner of the world. Except....

Green Bay has one nationally known attraction. And if you're an NFL fan, Green Bay forces this attraction on you whether you like it or not. From September to December - and in many cases, January the following year - the citizens of Green Bay unleash their army of yellow and green-clad gladiators on the rest of the country. Little Green Bay has an NFL team, and this NFL team isn't just a forget-me-not bone thrown to appease people in a small market and be brought up in discussions of how unfair pro sports can be to smaller markets. They don't exist as cannon fodder for the glamor city teams to keep creaming them, allowing them to fatten already obscene winning percentages. If anything it's the other way around - Green Bay's team, the Packers, is going to take your favorite team and stomp, grind, tenderize, and process them into sausages. If your favorite team is a big city team, they're going to get stomped by the Packers. If your favorite team is a small market team, they're going to get stomped by the Packers.

The Packers have the titles to prove it, too. The puny little city is the one staring down the NFL mountain at every other team trying to catch up to them at the summit. They've won 13 so far, including four Super Bowls, more than any other team in the NFL. As if to rub the point in, the two teams who are most closely trailing the Packers in titles are the Chicago Bears - playing in the third-largest city in America - with nine, and representing America's largest major metropolis, the New York Giants have seven. They're not a case like, say, the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs either, who did all their damage in the past and are now lucky to steal wins from infighting rivals. The Pack's titles have a good spread between them, and title 13 came just last season. Granted, they had a quarter-century of down years after Lombardi, but you can't feel too bad for them in that period now knowing that dark tunnel opened at the beginning of Brett Favre's era.

How important have the Packers been? The Super Bowl trophy is named after Vince Lombardi, who coached their 1960's dynasty. Their stadium, Lambeau Field, is named after the team's founder and first coach, Curly Lambeau, and even McDonald's and Wal-Mart aren't greedy enough to try to buy the rights to that name. How popular are the Packers? Well,the waiting list for a Packers game is literally decades long. Literally every game played at Lambeau Field has been sold out since 1960. That says everything. The Packers consistently rank among the top teams on the NFL's popularity list, and so every season NFL fans are going to be seeing nationally televised Sunday night and Monday night games featuring the Pack. Packers fans are known as cheeseheads and, in honor of the moniker - which was actually bestowed on them in 1987 by some Chicago White Sox fans who were at a Milwaukee Brewers game - can frequently be seen wearing foam hats shaped like hunks of cheese.

The Packers are collectively owned by fans who buy shares of stock in the team, and this is a large part of the reason they still live in Green Bay. They are the only professional sports team in North America that does this. While the team is run by an executive committee of seven members, the fans buy stock in the team for $200, and there are currently about 112,000 people who can claim an ownership stake in the Packers, representing them through over 4 million shares. The stock shares include voting rights! The team really seems to go out of its way to appeal to its fanbase: Every year they hold an intra-squad scrimmage called Family Night which regularly sells over 60,000 seats at Lambeau. In an old tradition dating back to about 1957, young kids can take their bikes up to the locker room and ask their favorite players to ride them to the practice field.

Even the team's name is a last vestige of small-town America. When Curly Lambeau began building his team, he solicited funding from his employer, the Indian Packing Company, on the condition that the team be named after it. Early accounts call them the Indians, but they had adopted the name Packers before their first game. They were called the Bays and the Blues back then sometimes, but at some point the name Packers just stuck.

The Packers were founded in 1919, playing a year independently before the National Football League was even founded in 1920. That makes them the third-oldest team in the league, just behind the Chicago Bears and (believe it or not) the Arizona Cardinals. You can bet your ass they've built up a sturdy all-time roster, and they have 21 names in the Hall of Fame to show it: Don Hutson at wideout, Ray Nitschke at linebacker, and Reggie White at defensive end are guys NFL pundits often place on their all-time teams, placing Hutson opposite Jerry Rice, Nietschke with Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor, and White with Bruce Smith and Joe Greene. Actually, that may be understating White - he's considered the best to ever play his position, period. On a tier ranked ever-so-slightly lower, the Packers played Bart Starr at quarterback and Paul Hornung at running back. (No, I'm not forgetting Brett Favre. He's not in the Hall of Fame just yet.) Vince Lombardi is talked about as the greatest coach in NFL history. They named the championship trophy after him... And he's not even the team's winningest coach! That's actually Lambeau, with 202 victories under his belt. The team has played in many memorable games, including the legendary Ice Bowl in 1967, the 1998 Super Bowl (which they lost) and the 2008 NFC Championship (which they also lost). They have a series of storied rivalries with their NFC North divisional opponents. Their rivalries with the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings are fierce but fairly one-sided and mellow. The rivalry that really gets Packer blood boiling is with their foes just south of the Wisconsin border, the Chicago Bears. The Bears lead the all-time series and have won more games than any other NFL team, but the Packers have more titles. Despite the history between the two teams, they've only met twice in the postseason, including last year's NFC Championship. The record is tied at 1-1 apiece.

Lambeau Field is reputed to have some of the best tailgating in the NFL. Packers fans have a wonderful tradition of grilling bratwurst sausages at games instead of hot dogs. They're a weathered bunch too - playing in a place nicknamed the Frozen Tundra, they would have to be. A good snapshot would be the Ice Bowl, in which Lambeau Field's newly-installed heating system failed, exposing the players to the -34 degree weather and snow. Michael McCambridge, author of America's Game (a history of the NFL), describes a few telling details of the game: An announcer telling the TV audience that he was going to take another bite of his coffee, one player saying they must be crazy to be there while another points out that the fans had paid to be there, and the fact that the famous sneak play which won the game at the last second was the result of Lombardi just wanting to finish the game and get the hell out of Lambeau.

The Packers today are the defending champions of the NFL. As I write this, they're 9-0 having just come off a 37-16 drubbing of the Minnesota Vikings. They're led by a quarterback named Aaron Rodgers, whose arm is apparently a laser-guided rocket launcher, and a powerful linebacker named Clay Matthews. Their defense has been a disappointment but leads the league in takeaways, and Rodgers has been giving defensive coordinators nightmares. The offense in general is otherworldly.

The Pack is an Americana holdout, a representative of all the people who get overlooked because they don't live in glamor centers. Let the overblown, egotistical, high-payroll, insufferable Dallas Cowboys have their little ESPN-bestowed nickname. America's REAL team is the one fighting the Frozen Tundra on Lake Superior, in northern Wisconsin every year.]]> Tue, 15 Nov 2011 15:59:48 +0000
<![CDATA[ Hail to the Redskins? I'd Prefer Not]]>
(Noted: A Sports Illustrated poll surveyed American Indians and found that 75 percent of them don't have a problem with teams named after them. The results of the poll were criticized by activist groups for SI's refusal to give them certain polling information like how participants were recruited, were they were located, if certain groups were more represented than others, and how the questions were asked. In 2004, the University of Pennsylvania's Annenburg Public Policy Center surveyed American Indians across 48 states on the same subject, setting out very exacting wording for the questions. The results were indeed different: 91 percent were okay with it.)

This issue isn't the only racial issue which got the Washington Redskins into hot water. The NFL, like Major League Baseball, started out as an integrated league. But it was Redskins owner George Preston Marshall who, upon forming the Redskins in 1932, openly banned black players from his team and pressured other owners to ban black players from the league. In 1933, the other owners followed suit, and the NFL stayed segregated until 1945. Even then, as his team underwent one hell of a decline, Marshall held out on integration. He didn't allow the team to be integrated until 17 years later, in 1962, and only under the threat of federal intervention. It was the first time in history the government had to force the integration of a sports franchise.

Today the Redskins are trying to be the New York Yankees of the NFL - a glamor team with a massive payroll which is trying to win by buying all the best players. The blame for this can be largely laid at the feet of current owner Daniel Snyder and his lackey and former general manager Vinny Cerrato. Snyder bought the team in 1999, and the team actually did pretty well that year, winning a playoff appearance with a 10-6 record. Sadly, though, the Redskins have only been in the playoffs three times during Snyder's tenure, which kind of makes them the New York Mets of the NFL. It isn't as if Snyder hasn't been trying - he's been bringing old veterans like Bruce Smith and Deion Sanders, and at one point he even hired Joe Gibbs to coach. While not exactly successful, the Redskins did actually improve in the Gibbs II years.

Speaking of Joe Gibbs, he's one reason why Redskins fans still hang on to their team despite all the embarrassment. Gibbs is a Hall of Fame coach and an offensive mastermind whose first go-round with the team is really something to behold. He was signed in 1981 as head coach and took the team to its first Super Bowl victory in 1982. During his stint, he won Super Bowls in 1987 and 1991, and made it to the Super Bowl in 1983 but lost to the Los Angeles Raiders. He is the only coach to win the Super Bowl with three different quarterbacks. The 1982 victory and 1983 run were directed under center by Joe Theismann, who was well on his way to a spot in Canton before a very nasty collision with Lawrence Taylor ended his playing career. In 1987, Doug Williams led the Redskins, and they partially made up for their old racial crimes when Williams became the first - and still the only - black quarterback to win the Super Bowl. In 1991, it was Mark Rypien anchoring football's most important position.

If you like good quarterbacking, it's important to note the Redskins were the team that completely revolutionized the position and turned it into what it is today. Passing wasn't always such an integral part of football; in fact, it was only legalized in 1906, after 18 on-field deaths and and 159 serious injuries in 1905. Basically, it was legalized for safety concerns. Even after it was legalized, it was used sparingly only as a surprise attack which would hopefully throw the other team off its guard. But in 1937, the Redskins drafted quarterback Sammy Baugh, who was the perfect piece to carry out their revolutionary new offense: Instead of passing as a surprise, the Redskins under Baugh used the pass as an attack, their primary method of gaining yards. Under Baugh, the team won its first two titles (1937, 1942) and generally performed very strongly for the time Baugh was in Washington, making the title game in 1940, 1943, and 1945. On the worse end of things, the 1940 game remains the biggest blowout in NFL history: Washington was beat by the Chicago Bears 73-0. The game came a week after the Redskins won a close, 7-0 game against Chicago. At one point, with the Bears up 7-0, Baugh threw a surefire touchdown pass to receiver Charlie Moore which Moore dropped. When asked if the outcome would have been different had Moore scored the touchdown, Baugh responded with one of the all-time great quips in football history: "Sure. The final score would have been 73-7."

The Redskins have certainly been a very successful NFL team, but they surprisingly haven't been as successful as one would expect. The five titles I mentioned in this article are the only five they've ever won, and they were won over two separate ten-year periods throughout their history. The first was the Sammy Baugh era, where they were regular visitors in the championship from 1936 to 1945. After 1945, they didn't even make the playoffs again until 1971. They did get to the Super Bowl in 1972, only to fall to the perfect season Miami Dolphins. Gibbs guided them to four Super Bowl appearances and three victories from 1982 to 1991. After that, the team kind of imploded.

The Redskins, in spite of everything, are on the NFL's A-list. They have the highest payroll, and are second in profitability only to the Dallas Cowboys. (I await the jumping of social critics onto this fact.) They were the first NFL team to have their own fight song, and their fan base stretches far and wide. The Redskins have also been one of the league's ambassador teams and have played a handful of regular season games overseas in order to promote the league. I occasionally read blogs written by Europeans who are fans of American sports, and one of the most impressive I've seen is written by a Redskins diehard who lives in England.

The Redskins play in one of the most storied divisions in the NFL: The NFC East. This division also contains some very serious football luminaries: The division's new kid on the block is none other than so-called America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, who are Washington's great blood rival. The New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles also see the Redskins twice every season, and none of those teams like each other very much.

One thing the Redskins can always boast is one of the coolest color combinations in all of professional sports: They take the gridiron wearing a deep shade of red called burgundy, with gold accents. This combination has become so identifiable and iconic that the team is actually nicknamed The Burgundy and Gold. I believe colors are more important to a team's popularity than one would expect. Sure, if you live in an area that is strictly aligned with a certain team, you're going to follow them no matter what. But what about all those fans in the middling states who just pick the team that resonates with them the most? Teams compete for fans in those areas, and if you want fans to rock your team's colors, they can't look like idiots.

Things aren't looking up for the current crop of Redskins, even despite Mike Shanahan, their new coach who guided the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl titles. And truthfully, I wanted to like the Redskins more than I did. I kept them as a dark horse candidate to replace the Bills when they leave Buffalo, but doing the research for this article put me off for good. Still, they're saved from the absolute depth by the fact that they antagonize the Dallas Cowboys, which is always worth a few points with me.]]> Sat, 5 Nov 2011 20:53:36 +0000
<![CDATA[ Black, Gold, and the Good Kind of Terrible]]>
Right, so those memories date back some 40 years, all the way back to the early 1970's. That's just fine, but the problem I have is the fact that the team is now 78 YEARS OLD! So, what happened in the first 37?

In a word, losing. Lots and lots of losing. Before Noll and Bradshaw brought the Steelers to the pinnacle of the NFL in the 1970's, the Pittsburgh Steelers had all of one playoff appearance, ever. (1947.) They were founded by Art Rooney in 1933, making the Rooney family one of the oldest controlling families in the NFL. In those early years, Rooney ran the team from the first floor of the Fort Pitt Hotel, and the team's black and gold color combination was inspired by the city flag of Pittsburgh, which is a vertical gold stripe on the inside of two black vertical stripes. Their first name was a copycat of Pittsburgh's baseball team, the Pirates. Pittsburgh's first game was against the New York Giants, and in a precursor of what was to ensue over the next several decades, the team fell 23-2.

Bad luck and a bad eye for football talent plagued the Pirates. They went after a highly regarded quarterbacking prospect from the University of Colorado in 1937 named Byron White, who had something a lot of professional football players back then didn't: An option. While the Pirates offered the galactically large sum of $15,000 to White, he chose to pursue said option, which was a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University. The 1930's saw the Pirates go after sought coaches like Bears great Red Grange, Hunk Anderson of Notre Dame, and Jock Sutherland from the University of Pittsburgh. Throughout the 1930's, the Pirates never finished above .500 or above second place in the NFL.

In 1940, Rooney decided he didn't want to piggyback the name of the city's baseball team anymore, and after running a contest in the newspaper, the team had a new name which paid homage to the Steel City's nickname sake industry: The Steelers. Like many new teams who open a grand new era featuring a new name or new uniforms or a new attitude, the Steelers fell on their faces and went 2-7-2, scoring a grand total of 60 points for the year. During the World War II years, the Steelers combined to from the Phil-Pitt Steagles, which by then was just the second winning record in Steelers history and the first in the history of the Philadelphia Eagles. In 1944 they did something similar, merging with the Chicago Cardinals and becoming known as Card-Pitt. Or as people referred to them, the Carpets, which probably sums up everything you need to know about that team during its winless 1944 campaign. In 1947, the Steelers tied the Eagles for first place in their division, going 8-4 and making the playoffs for the first time, only to lose a tiebreaking game 21-0.

In 1955, the Steelers drafted a young quarterback named Johnny Unitas. You might have heard of him; he's regularly brought into discussions about the greatest quarterback ever. He was also cut by the Steelers in training camp, with Rooney saying he was too stupid to be an NFL quarterback. Although the decade did see them pick up legendary Detroit Lion Bobby Layne and play in Pitt Stadium for the first time. They posted a few winning records, but never made it back into the playoffs. The early 1960's showed some promise for the Steelers, but by the late 60's it was SOS - same old Steelers. In 1969, the Steelers bottomed out, winning a single game against a Chicago Bears team that had also won all of one game that year. The record gave the Steelers first pick in the draft, which they used to select a Louisiana quarterback named Terry Bradshaw.

The history of the Steelers from there is embossed in the platinum of six Vince Lombardi Trophies. In 1972 the Steelers broke out of their perpetual suckitude, won their division at 11-3, and got beat in the playoffs by the Miami Dolphins, who had their perfect season that year. In 1974, the Steelers created the core of their famed "Steel Curtain" and completed their turnaround, defeating the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl. After following that moment with Super Bowl triumphs in 1975, 1978, 1979, 2005, and 2008 - more Super Bowl wins than any other team in the NFL. They made it to the Super Bowl in 1995 and 2010 too, but lost. Even so, the Steelers underwent one of the greatest long-term turnarounds in American sports, turning from a sad sack team into the lords of the NFL.

Despite this turnaround, though, the NFL royalty of today's Pittsburgh Steelers did learn a few things from the bad old days: The main lesson was to never, ever be intimidated. While the old Steelers lost a lot, they always did play their hearts out, taking everything they had to their opponents of the week. Steeler football has always emphasized the run and the defense. Franco Harris is one of the greatest runners in NFL history, and the Steel Curtain is still regarded as one of the greatest defenses. Those defenses were led by Mean Joe Greene, one of the game's all-time meanest players on the gridiron, but also one of its nicest off it - he made the original Super Bowl Coke commercial in 1980.

In nearly every respect, the Steelers are a popular team because they are a powerful reflection of working-class, blue-collar Americans. They play hard football but come off as the types of Joes who would buy you a beer after the game. It says a lot about the team's character that its best quarterbacks are Bradshaw (career quarterback rating of 70.9, 27,989 career passing yards, 212 touchdowns as opposed to a whopping 210 interceptions… Although those are better numbers than Joe Namath's) and Roethlisberger (I don't know his numbers, but his immobility and mechanics alone are horrific and probably wouldn't work on any other team). No, these guys make their name on defense and hitting their opponents in the nose and jaw.

The fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are among the most diehard in a league not known for breeding tons of diehards. We all speak of our favorite team's nation, but the truth is, there is only one: Steelers Nation. It's the blue-collar character that prevails in much of America, and so the Steelers have attracted an enormous fanbase of people who forgo flash and cash. One of the coolest fan traditions in the country is that Steelers fans go to games and wave yellow towels called Terrible Towels, which were first given out in support of the team in 1975. There are more sports bars devoted to the Steelers than for any other team in the United States, and the fans are absolutely everywhere. When the Steelers went to the Super Bowl in 2005, one Steelers fan was seen waving a Terrible Towel atop the Space Needle in a taunt to their opponents, the Seattle Seahawks. No matter where your team plays and no matter what time or in what weather, there will always be a legion of folks clad in black and gold.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a favorite to win it all this season again, and it won't be the worst thing in the world if they do. Their fans may act crazy at games, but given the history of the team, I'd say they've earned it.]]> Thu, 3 Nov 2011 18:32:46 +0000
<![CDATA[ The New Jersey Jets]]>  

Joe Namath is overrated. 


Yeah, I know that statement is blasphemous to those who grew up watching Broadway Joe deftly thumb his nose at the NFL's staunch old guard during the merger days. I also know Namath was the first quarterback to throw for 4000 yards in a single season. It's said that Namath had a style of play well beyond his years, but I'm only 30 - born long after Namath retired - so I won't dispute the Baby Boomers on that. I will, however, point out some inarguable numbers: 50.1 percent career passer, 65.5 QB rating, 173 career touchdowns against a whopping 220 career interceptions (for you math whizzes, that's a difference of 47), 27,663 passing yards, and a record 62-63-4. Namath is in the Hall of Fame, but his  numbers aren't that different from those of Archie Manning, who doesn't and a chance.


Its also been said that Namath was erratic and injury-prone, something that even my mother - a Long Island native and a Jets fan since their inception - will admit. As I said, Namath does have a 4000-yard season career highlight, which was extremely significant when you consider that he did that during a 14-game season and the feat wasn't repeated until Dan Fouts of the San Diego Chargers had 16 games to do it. Aside from that, there is of course Super Bowl III, in which the Jets beat the highly favored Baltimore Colts and validated the AFL against the NFL, which was long thought superior. Namath played flawlessly, but understand that Super Bowl III is THE reason he's in the Hall of Fame. Namath guaranteed a win and made good. Namath doesn't win Super Bowl III, he never gets into Canton. 


If the Buffalo Bills' four consecutive Super Bowl losses define their legacy, Super Bowl III and Broadway Joe define the Jets. The difference is that the Jets scored in their only shot at the big game, and people just forget about the rest. While people talk about the Bills as if they were a historic dynamo, they forget the rest of the Jets' history completely. It's almost as if discussing Jets history requires the Namath years, then a post-Hitler-Germany-like blackout before waking up in the present day saying "Whoa! What happened?!" 


No one even brings up the Jets' early 80's defensive line, nicknamed the New York Sack Exchange. 


Jets fans are naturally prone to forgetting a lot of the bad history, like their draft passing up of a young Pittsburgh quarterback named Dan Marino, who went on to have a career haunting them as the keystone of their archrivals, the Miami Dolphins. There was the Blair Thomas bomb, a blown deal which would have netted them Brett Favre (who of course eventually wound up there anyway - once his years in Green Bay were over), the awful year with Rich Kotite coaching, and the sucky fact of life that they have to share their home stadium with a more storied and higher-regarded team in the same league. 


It wasn't until Bill Parcells that the Jets finally came to play with a slightly more consistent respectability. Since then, no, the Jets haven't been a great team, but they've been competitive, especially in the Herman Edwards years. 


The return to respectability gives those poor folks saddled with the New York Jets something to really cheer about. The Jets haven't been back to the Super Bowl since they won it in 1969, but they've been to the AFC Championship some four or five times since the mid-90's. Jets fans are brunt with some very nasty burdens. First, pretty much everyone - myself included - gives them shit for being housed in New Jersey. Now, if they were somewhere on Long Island, I could understand them calling themselves a New York team. Lots of teams, after all, play in suburbs instead of proper cities. But New Jersey isn't just a suburb; it's a whole other state which contains nearly everything about the Jets' identity, from their taxpayer bills to their fans. 


Despite being the largest city in the country, New York City just isn't much of a football market, and its denizens tend to look to football as the baseball offseason, at least when they're not watching the Knicks. New York City has always been a baseball city first and everything else second - except for the aforementioned Knicks, maybe - and so the Jets fight for attention from two other sports during their season. 


Even worse is that they have to fight multiple competition from multiple teams in those other sports. Even in their own league, the NFL, they have to endure being second banana to the older and more successful New York Giants. Since the NFL season overlaps with the final vestiges of the baseball season, they also have to steal fans from the New York Yankees and New York Mets. The Yankees make the playoffs almost every season, while the Mets are usually capable of putting up a fight down to the wire even though they don't make the playoffs nearly as often. In the NBA, they have to find a way to get fans to pay for tickets in lieu of New York City's NBA representative, the Knickerbockers, as well as the New Jersey Nets, who pretend to represent New York City right now (and at one time actually did; they began as the New York Nets and in a couple of seasons will return to New York City as the Brooklyn Nets). And since New York City is a northeastern metro area with a storied hockey history, the largely forgotten NHL does have a sizable following between the New York Islanders, New York Rangers (whose fans, by the way, are considered among the best and most knowledgeable in the league) and the New Jersey Devils, another team that pretends to be from New York City. 


How understated are the Jets? Well, for eight years (1998-2006) they fielded the running back who is now fourth all-time in rushing yards. To be fair, this player didn't do the New York City sparkle and flash thing to get attention, but he also rushed for a whopping 14,101 yards, went to five Pro Bowls, was the NFL Rushing Champion in 2004, a five time All-Pro selection, and the 2005 Bart Starr Man of the Year…. And you probably don't know who I'm talking about. I'm talking about Curtis Martin, who should be receiving Canton honors pretty soon. His numbers and accolades (he had a 4.0 yard-per-carry average and scored 90 touchdowns) certainly warrant more merit than Joe Namath's do. 


You have to feel for Jets fans. I don't know what's worse: Being historically bad or being historically bad without anyone knowing it. And by "knowing it," I mean the team, for better or worse, is completely out of the spotlight. 

]]> Sat, 1 Oct 2011 19:23:06 +0000
<![CDATA[ Not Your Average Winter Bills]]>
Yes, I'm giving the Bills credit for their recent good draft, awesome new uniforms, and fast start. In fact, that's why I'm giving them a rating of -2 instead of the full -5. But my time left as a Bills fan is likely extremely limited. Saving a last-minute miracle, the Bills are going to bolt once Ralph Wilson's clock runs out; Wilson is the owner of the Buffalo Bills and he's the only owner the team has ever had. He's also well into his 90's and his family is stuck paying some exorbitant death taxes once he takes his final breath. The Bills are going away and the entire city of Buffalo knows it, even if they don't care to acknowledge it. The only reason they're still around, in fact, is because Wilson has exhibited an incredible loyalty to the greater Buffalo area which hasn't wavered no matter what circumstances he was under. Wilson promised that the team would play in Buffalo for as long as he was alive, and he's kept that promise. At the expense of profit potential, he's kept the Bills in Buffalo. Once his heart explodes, though, I am - in all likelihood - done with the Buffalo Bills. I'm afraid my loyalty contract with the team expires when he does. I've already begun detaching myself just to save the trouble.

The kicker is the Toronto series, the concoction of several deluded minds in both Buffalo and Toronto. What happened was the Bills needed funds, so they leased the team to the Skydome in Toronto (no, I don't give a shit that the sign has the words "Rogers Centre" plastered across it now) for one "home" game every season. The delusion I mentioned stems from the fact that people from both organizations tend to labor under the idea that there are many devoted Bills fans in Toronto. This has never been the case; barring the obvious allusion to turf invasion, Buffalo and Toronto, despite being only a 90-minute car ride from each other, don't get along. They are hardcore rivals in the professional sports world; in the NHL, the Buffalo Sabres have been playing the scrappy, petulant, rebellious underdog to the storied 13-time Stanley Cup-winning Toronto Maple Leafs. In the National Lacrosse League - which has an enormous underground following in Canada and the northeastern United States - every season renews a massive territorial pissing contest between the Buffalo Bandits (who have won four league titles) and the Toronto Rock (five titles). Buffalonian loyalties in MLB lean heavily toward the New York Yankees, with a little bit of breathing room for the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets; the only Toronto Blue Jays fans in these two cities live in Toronto. Buffalo's NBA love is mostly for the Boston Celtics, while Torontonians make due with the Toronto Raptors.

The NFL, for its part, is busy trying to tell everyone who will listen that an NFL presence in Buffalo is imperative to its operations because it wants to expand into Canada. I'm calling bullshit because any respectable NFL fan remembers the hissy fits thrown by Baltimore and Cleveland when their teams were moved. Buffalo's fans lean toward the insane kind of devotion shown by Browns, Eagles, Steelers, or Packers fans, which means the league is probably just making a futile attempt to save itself a similar fiasco in Buffalo. More to the point, Canadians are happy with their own football league, which plays an exciting brand of gridiron football more reliant on skill and finesse than physicality. Canada was actually playing gridiron football long before the United States ever caught on, and our game is based on their rules. We may make fun of the CFL, but Canada was doing it first, and they don't want our league trying to infect their sports heritage. The Bills are subjected to a rain of thunderous booing in these Canadian "home" games, and the team is 0-2 in the Great White North so far.

As a football team, the identity of the Buffalo Bills is based mainly on OJ Simpson and dominance in the 1990's. Those two things have the habit of nullifying a mostly unspectacular legacy. Yes, OJ Simpson proved to be a sorry excuse of a human being and yes, the Bills lost four straight Super Bowls (the only four they've ever been to). While the Bills have been bad for the last decade, though, the decade has been more reflective of their historical luck in general. The thing with losing the Super Bowl is you have to get to the Super Bowl in order to lose it, and so NFL watchers' concentration on those losses have turned them into a kind of reverse Boston Red Sox: Everyone thinks the Bills were a much better team than their all-time record indicates. Now only longtime Bills faithful remember those ugly years under Kay Stephenson and Hank Bullough (combined years: 1983-1986, combined record: 14-43). The 70's teams led by Joe Ferguson and OJ Simpson were pretty good, but they also have the dubious record of most losses by one team to another - 20 straight beatings at the hands of the Miami Dolphins, and you now know why those two teams hate each other. The Bills won AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, but never got beyond the first playoff rounds again until 1988, their first visit to a conference title game (and a loss, to Cincinnati). They haven't gotten to the conference championship since their last Super Bowl appearance. They haven't actually gotten out of the first round since then, even!

The Bills do have a handful of unique distinctions. The big one would of course be their Super Bowl streak. Buffalo was the first team to go to the Super Bowl four straight times. So far, they're also the last team to do that. The first Super Bowl against the New York Giants is the closest Super Bowl ever played; Buffalo lost by a single point when, with only eight seconds left in the game, they tried kicking a field goal which missed. A title during those years would have been nice, but the team - and the city of Buffalo - seem happy with their achievement. (Running back Thurman Thomas is apparently good friends with Hall of Famers Warren Moon and Barry Sanders, who reportedly both tell him they would have gladly sacrificed a limb to so much as play in a Super Bowl, which neither of them ever did.) OJ Simpson was the first running back to ever rush for over 2000 yards in a single season, and he's still the only one who did it in 14 games. In a 1993 playoff game, the Bills fell behind by 32 points in the second half and came back to win, an incident known as The Miracle Comeback because no other team won after a deficit like that before (the city of Houston, whose Oilers were the losers, call it The Choke). On the other end, there's the losing streak against the Dolphins and the Music City Miracle (or as we know it in Buffalo, The Forward Lateral).

Can anyone name a Hall of Fame Bill who wasn't on the Super Bowl teams or named OJ Simpson? I didn't think so, so here they are: Billy Shaw, a guard; Joe DeLamielleure, also a guard; and Ralph Wilson, the owner. That says a lot about the makeup and character of the team, and it ain't wonderful. In the last decade, the only Hall of Famer in a Bills uniform was Drew Bledsoe, who is a borderline candidate at best, although he should get in. Aside from safety Jairus Byrd and receiver Eric Moulds and Bledsoe - who only appeared once each, not counting the two injury replacements - the only Pro Bowl Bills have been guards, tackles…. And Brian Moorman, a damned punter!

Ralph Wilson is known around the league and the city of Buffalo as a bit of a cheapskate. Salary dumps have become common lately, and the salaries usually being dumped are those of the few players drafted who could actually play football. Nate Clements is probably the most notable, and Lee Evans - whose recent trade to Baltimore was another tipping point for me - was a hard blow too. Personnel has failed on every level, grabbing bombs like Aaron Maybin and Mike Williams; taking shiny toys like Willis McGahee and CJ Spiller in the draft instead of going for necessary components of a good team; and hiring personnel from the Good Ol' Boys network, which resulted in bombs like Mike Mularkey, Chan Gailey, and Dick Jauron (who, by the way, won the job over the infinitely more qualified Mike Sherman). One of the team's General Managers over the last decade was their Hall of Fame coach, Marv Levy, and he was succeeded by Buddy Nix, an inside-the-organization hire.

The Bills have some great rivalries to their history. The Dolphins are the biggest, although the New England Patriots are contending hard for that title. Even during their bad seasons, the Bills had a rivalry with the New York Jets which heated up mostly because Buffalo seems to posses a unique ownership edge when it comes to the Jets: The Bills are ahead in the all-time series and always seem to win the Jets games, even when they're having bad years while the Jets are doing well. An unusual rivalry is against the Raiders, and the series is close to even between them. This rivalry began when Buffalo picked Jack Kemp as their quarterback and exiled Daryl Lamonica to Oakland only to watch him become a star (Kemp, for his worth, was a great quarterback himself, though) and the rivalry climaxed in the 1991 playoffs, when the Raiders were stomped by the Bills 51-3 in the AFC Conference Championship, sending the Bills to their first Super Bowl. It was the worst loss in the Raiders' storied history.

There are two kinds of football teams: Teams which are liked enough but existing in cities which people move to at a fast rate, and teams which picked up loyal followers going back generations. The Bills are one of the latter, and people often favorably compare their devoted fanbase to fans of other such generational teams like the Chiefs, Packers, and Steelers. Fans remain devoted despite the team hitting its all-time nadir in the last decade. Unfortunately, it's a prominent (and apparently sound) theory in Buffalo that Ralph Wilson is purposely tanking the Buffalo Bills in order to make a move easier, and it seems apparent Buffalo isn't going to be birthing any new, rabidly devoted Bills fans in a few more years. They say some team alumni are trying to buy the Bills to keep them in Buffalo, but I have my very serious doubts. Until then, though, I'm going to enjoy the team and the best tailgating stadium in the league.]]> Tue, 20 Sep 2011 22:37:16 +0000
<![CDATA[ Pathetically Bad Pat Tillman Documentary]]>

Anyone reading this review probably knows who Pat Tillman is.  Pat Tillman was a unique, free spirited professional football player who walked away from a multimillion dollar contract to join the Army after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  His story has been well told in all types of mediums since his death in Afghanistan.

A&E usually produces fine quality biographies.  I was frankly stunned at just how awful this one was.  It really tells the bare bones sketch of Tillman’s life, and worse yet in a very amateurish fashion. 

This documentary relies almost entirely on photos or pre-existing short snippets of video of Tillman in the storytelling.  Worse, it shows the same photos and clips over and over and over again.  Imagine someone telling you their life story with three pages of a photo album, and they flip back and show the same photos over again, and over again, and over again.  The video montage here is pathetic.

Further, there were no interviews with any family members or people Tillman knew in the Army.  Instead we have a just a few high school friends repeatedly telling us what a great guy Pat is. Gee, thanks for the information.

The only redeeming quality is that, from everything I’ve read to date, it got the facts of Tillman’s life down correctly.

For anyone interested in Pat Tillman’s life, I strongly recommend other sources.

]]> Sun, 24 Jul 2011 01:36:33 +0000
<![CDATA[ Michael Oher in His Own Words]]>
Michael Oher may be the most well known offensive lineman in the history of the National Football League after the movie, The Blind Side, based on the best selling book of the same name by Michael Lewis. The Blind Side tells of an inner city Memphis kid who grew up virtually homeless but rose to become the first round pick of the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League.

Anyone who read or saw The Blind Side knows the basics of Oher's story. He grew up in drug infested neighborhoods in Memphis with an indifferent mother addicted to crack cocaine, who often left her many kids to fend for themselves and was at times homeless.

Oher grew up often not knowing where his next meal was coming from or even where he would sleep. In an out of foster care, sometimes homeless, always destitute in if not the basics, direction and care, his character and work ethic, along with a lot of help from some very generous people, eventually landed him at a private school in well to do part of Memphis.

The amazing aspect of Oher's success beyond people like the Tuohy family who took him into their home and made him part of their family, is his work ethic and perseverance through severe disadvantages.

Yes, Oher got lucky that there were enough people to help him along the way achieve his dreams. But it takes more than being huge and athletic to take those opportunities and turn them into success. While there are many, many, better off, less disadvantaged athletes that never graduate from college or achieve any level true success in professional sports, Oher graduated and had had success as a pro. Regardless of talent and background, that takes a lot of hard work. And despite the unbelievable disadvantages, Oher took the opportunities in front of him and made a success of his life.

In this book Michael talks about his life growing up, his love for his siblings and his adopted family, the Tuohys, but he also has a message. And that message is to those in similar circumstances not to give up, work hard, and take the opportunities afford and make the best of them. While not all kids in Oher's situation will be quite as lucky, and probably not have quite the perseverance, Oher's success creates a model and gives hope to others.

And another amazing thing about Oher is how self aware he is. He notes that the life of a professional football player is short, so he doesn't live lavishly and plans to save and have a plan for the future. He understands that he doesn't know everything about football and the professional game and understands he has to continue to learn and improve. It's a rather refreshing perspective.

This book is readable, interesting, and while it will not really tell much that is not basically known about Oher's life and success, it is his message of hope and perseverance that makes it a worthwhile read.]]> Tue, 12 Apr 2011 16:07:39 +0000
<![CDATA[ A Rather Tepid Biography of a Football Icon]]> This is not a particularly well written or well organized book. But it is about an icon and provides good detail of the life of George Halas.

As any avid professional football fan knows, George Halas is one of the original founders, players, and coaches of the National Football League. A Chicago native, he built and sustained one of the most gloried franchises in NFL history. It is rather a shame this book did tell the story with a little more panache.]]> Sun, 3 Apr 2011 23:19:40 +0000
<![CDATA[ Tom Brady on the Couch]]> This is undoubtedly one of the oddest biographies I have ever read.  And one of the most intriguing.

Author Charles Pierce tries to uncover what makes Tom Brady tic.  What makes him such a consummate team player and leader on the field?  What made a player drafted in the sixth round, whom nobody but maybe Bill Belichick and Scott Piloli, thought would ever amount to much in the pros, become a Hall of Fame bound quarterback, one of the best to have ever played?

There are a lot of things.

First, Brady was never the most gifted athlete and he had to work for everything through high school and college.  In fact, he was barely recruited and his father put together a video package and he ultimately ended up at the University of Michigan.  He persevered despite not even being a full time starter, even as a senior, despite that he was a winner.

Second, in the pros his work ethic is infectious to his teammates.  He is the first to arrive and the last to leave.  His hard work put him in a position to take over for Drew Bledsoe when he was hurt during the 2001 regular season and progress.  He became the team leader that despite his talents Beldsoe never really was. 

Third, he is a team first player.  He truly buys in to the Patriots’ modern day credo, there is no “I” in team.  He doesn’t care about stats, he cares about wins.  But that has propelled him to put up unbelievable stats. 

And he his simply a nice person.  He gives credit where credit is due.  He doesn’t do a lot of endorsements.  And when he had the opportunity to do one for a credit card company he refused to do it unless his offensive linemen, his protectors, were involved.  He wanted them to shine to.

Don’t believe Tom Brady is a really good guy in a sport fraught with me first, selfish, athletes with an undertone of criminality?  Read Charlie Weiss’s book about his near death experience and how Brady helped him and his wife out in their time of greatest need.  Read Tedy Bruschi’s book that has a few anecdotes about what Brady’s friendship means.  Or simply read this book about to hear what his family, friends, and teammates have all said about his leadership skills.  There is a reason his teammates and coaches have the utmost confidence in him.

The oddest aspect of this book is Brady himself did not participate in it and it really takes somewhat of a psychologist’s approach at times in examining its subject.  From the influence of his Catholic upbringing, the impact of his athletic older sisters who sometimes outshined him in his youth, to his perseverance in the face of sports adversity, you learn the inner workings of one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

This is a recommended read.]]> Sun, 27 Mar 2011 23:22:28 +0000
<![CDATA[ The 1970's Oakland Raiders: Tales from the Dark Side]]>

Love them or hate them, the 1970s Oakland Raiders under John Madden were certainly an entertaining cast of misfits in the guise of one the best professional football teams of their era.  Here, Peter Richmond tells the story of this cast of characters, and characters they were.

The distinctive personality of this team that set it apart from all others of the 1970s was the perception that this was a group of outlaws and rebels who thumbed their noses at convention.  Add to this the fact many were castoffs from other teams for behavioral or other issues, and you had a truly volatile band of misfits.  But somehow the affable John Madden, who was the perfect coach for this team, was able to take this group of irrepressible “adults” and mold them into a feared, championship football team.  Having read this account of the 1970s Raiders, I almost liken John Madden to Santa Clause trapped on the island for misfit toys, trying to using his magic to make them whole.

Many of the players on these teams are ones most football fans will remember in perpetuity.   You had Jack “The Assassin” Tatum, Gene Atkinson, Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas, and Willie Brown, aka The Soul Patrol, one of the  most feared set of defensive backs in the league who relished huge hits, clothesline tackles, and knocking their opponents out of games.  They also had characters like quarterback Ken Stabler, the bad southern Alabama boy, carouser and partier extraordinaire, linebackers Phil Villapiano and Ted Hendricks, and the truly crazy John Matuszak, along with the rest of the team full of similar head cases, creating a volatile mix of testosterone, craziness, and child like desire to have fun, on the field and off.

This was a hard-partying team and not an insignificant part of the book talks about Raiders’ training camps that were part hard-partying and hard-practicing and all the pranks the players pulled while preparing for the season.  It was a fun-loving and wild group of men who John Madden somehow molded into winners. Partially he did it by letting them have their fun and treating them like men, but making sure that they practiced and played hard.  While they might have been a wild, fun-loving bunch, they also loved football and wanted to win.

This book is clearly told from an unabashed Oakland Raiders fan’s perspective, which really worked well in this case.  The author revels in the outlaw persona of this team, which went all the way up to the owner Al Davis, who also flouted convention and thumbed his nose at the powers that be in the National Football League.

And while they only won one Super Bowl in this era, a 32-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI after the 1976 season, they were always in the mix.  They built up a strong rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the author draws a clear contrast with.  Had they not had one of the greatest football teams of all time as their nemesis, the Oakland Raiders may have been the team of the 1970s.    

The author starts the book with the “Immaculate Reception,” one of the most famous plays in NFL history.  With the Steelers desperately trying to stage a comeback in the 1972 playoffs against Oakland, down 7-6 with 22 seconds left in the game and hardly a prayer, Bradshaw threw a pass that careened off a receiver and was picked up off his shoe tops by running back Franco Harris who ran it in for the go-ahead score.  At that time, if an offensive player touched the ball while it was in the air, another offensive player could not catch it.  Argument ensues to this day whether they ball bounced off “Frenchy” Fuqua, the Pittsburgh running back, or Jack Tatum, who nailed him just as the ball arrived.

The author marks this as the beginning of the rise the Oakland Raiders whose “rebel image, their defiant owner, had stamped them as an enemy of civilized football.”  He contrasts the “staid, old-world NFL Rooney’s franchise” with the “rebels of Al Davis, a man who bowed to no higher power.”  He also throws words around like “benevolent” versus “demonic” and the “dark side.”  That was the Oakland Raiders image, and they came to revel in it.

While this book chronicles the Oakland Raider’s seasons of the 1970s, it as much about the unusual character of the team as it is their exploits on the field.  The author conducted extensive interviews with players from that era and has crafted a well done and very interesting read, really a must read for Oakland Raiders fans, but one that all football fans can enjoy.  The only real drawback to the book is the author only had a very short and not very illuminating interview with Al Davis, who did seem very cooperative.  But his perspective can be rather easily gleaned from his own actions and public pronouncements, so this has little impact on the completeness of this work.

]]> Sun, 27 Mar 2011 20:46:21 +0000
<![CDATA[ Too Basic for the Avid Football Fan]]> For avid football fans this book is pretty much useless.   It’s too basic and really not that interesting.  Almost everything in the book the avid fan will already know.

There are some decent chapters in the book.  Chapter 4 on running backs, especially the differences in skill sets and what makes one running back better suited to a team’s scheme than another was well done. 

Chapter 6, with it’s explanation of zone blocking schemes was well done as well and should help the average fan understand the differences in line technique.

And Chapter 8’s explanation of the differences between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense were nicely done.

Otherwise, if you know your football, there is not much here for you.]]> Fri, 11 Mar 2011 17:43:12 +0000
<![CDATA[ Louisiana's Team]]> I've always been a New Orleans Saints fan.  When I was a young kid, the names of Dalton Hilliard and Reuben Mayes passed over my lips dozens of times.  I pretended to be Bobby Hebert and Morten Andersen in my backyard on countless occasions as well.  I wanted to be a part of the Dome Patrol with Pat Swilling.  I also wanted to run roughshod over defenders like Craig "Ironhead" Heyward. 

As the years went by, a few other teams in the league attracted my attention, but it was primarily for individual players and not the team as a whole.  Who didn't like Walter Payton when he set records with the Chicago Bears?  I couldn't help but respect him and other football greats like Joe Montana (SF 49ers), Marcus Allen (Oakland/LA Raiders), and Barry Sanders (Detroit Lions).

In fact, the only team that I considered myself to be a true fan of other than the Saints was the Houston Oilers.  Granted, they were never that much better than the Saints, but they had ties to the Fleur-de-lis via Bum Phillips, Earl Campbell, and a few others over the years.  Also, they regularly faced the hated Dallas Cowboys, so that made me cheer them on even more.

When it comes down to loyalty, though, mine has always rested with the Saints.  Despite years of futility with just a few seasons of success here and there (but never a Super Bowl and, for a long time, not even a playoff win or appearance), I lived and died with the Saints.

It wasn't until the last few seasons (especially post-Hurricane Katrina), that I began to honestly believe the Saints could win it all.  The team was starting to have consistent success on the field.  Quarterback Drew Brees ran the offense with scary efficiency, and instead of having to rely on one or two targets, he could now literally pick from a multitude of players, all of which were lethal in their own regard.  Marques Colston's uncanny ability to pull in a pass within the zip code area amazed me.  Reggie Bush's flailing dives into the endzone were fun to watch.  Big Jeremy Shockey, despite injuries, always managed to remain a threat to opposing defenses.

On the opposite end of the field, the Saints' defense was starting to develop a brutal, punishing line that sent plenty of quarterbacks scurrying for safety and firing off poor passes.  When the ball went into the air, players like Darren Sharper and Tracy Porter would snipe it away from would-be receivers. 

When the 2009 season started, my hopes were high that the Saints would finally win the big one.....and they did. 

I honestly didn't know how to react when the clock ticked off the last few seconds and the Saints became the NFL's Super Bowl champions.  Never in my life, from my high school to my university had a team I cheered for ever won a championship.  A few came close, such as the McNeese State Cowboys going to (and losing) their national championship in football and the Houston Astros getting swept in the World Series, but none of them ever put me in the position of actually supporting a championship team.

To this day, I still can't believe that the Saints actually won it all.  I can remember my brother (who has lived in New Orleans for over twenty years) calling me and screaming out, "We won the Super Bowl!!," while his friends at the local bar screamed out behind him.  I can remember flipping on the local news and seeing the long line at the local Academy Sporting Goods store winding into the parking lot and onto the street as fans waited to be one of the first to buy the new Saints Championship shirt and cap.  I can even remember all of the black and gold draped all over southwestern Louisiana in stores, homes, and schools.  It was amazing!

Now, with their first season as a defending champion nearing its end, the Saints are currently in the running for a wild card spot in the playoffs.  If the Atlanta Falcons trip up in their last few games (which is unlikely given their remaining schedule) and the Saints beat them when they face each other for the second time this season, chances are high that the Saints could repeat as champions.

Hopefully I can find out what that feels like.

Who Dat?!?!

]]> Wed, 15 Dec 2010 15:48:35 +0000