Tom Brady Still not Top 5?

2015-02-10_16-21-05With a sixth Super Bowl appearance and a fourth victory Tom Brady capped off a strange season in the best way possible.

Last summer I wrote a piece for ESPN Insider that made the case that Brady was in decline. The headline of the piece was ‘Tom Brady is no longer a top-5 QB’ and while that isn’t the headline I would have run with (I knew it would piss people off, and it wasn’t the point I wanted to lean on), I did know that’s the point they wanted to make and felt I could defend it.

People accused the article of being nothing but clickbait, and while there is certainly an element of that (isn’t every article put up done so with the aim of getting people to read it?), I felt that the numbers, and more importantly the tape, showed a player on the decline. At Brady’s age that is inevitable at some point, and getting out in front of it could only make for a good piece.

Needless to say it blew up. It consumed the NFL world for a while, appearing all over ESPN and anywhere else that covered the league. Anybody who talks football likely had to address it at some point during that week. For that I apologise! It was not met with much agreement. “Idiotic ESPN report claims Tom Brady…” began one of my favorite response pieces.

The start of the season looked like it was vindicating the article and the logic behind it. The offensive line – a perennial strength on New England – was performing terribly in the wake of the departure of longtime OL coach Dante Scarnecchia. Brady looked uncomfortable, was struggling under the constant waves of pressure, and was beginning to miss routine passes even when he was kept clean. Clearly it wasn’t all his fault, but the Tom Brady of September was not a Top 5 QB. The Tom Brady of September was playing like crap.

After the Chiefs game I broke down his struggles further in my Analysis Notebook feature on PFF.

Little did I know that Chiefs game was about to make the turnaround in the Patriots season. From that moment on the entire team picked itself up, dusted itself off, and set about what it needed to do to become a force this season and win a Super Bowl. Brady had become visibly irked dealing with the questions about his play and there were even people talking about benching him before long for Jimmy Garoppolo after he hadn’t played late in the game against Kansas City.

I actually referenced that in the article:

“I also believe that he has more than enough talent and ability left to succeed this season and is quite clearly the Patriots’ best chance to win games. Those people mentioning a quarterback controversy are crazy”.

What I never saw coming was the totality of his turnaround following this game. I had left the door open for an uptick in form but if I’m honest I didn’t see him playing back at a truly elite level during the 2014 season. He might not continue to struggle as badly as he had been, but he wouldn’t return to the vintage Brady of old. But that’s exactly what he did over the next month.

A month, and about a thousand tweets on my timeline dragging up the old ESPN article, later I was forced to address the whole thing again with this Analysis Notebook.

The opening line pretty much summed up the turnaround:

“Tom Brady is not a Top 5 QB in the NFL. Right now he is No. 1.”

This interactive chart (which I can’t seem to get working – click on the image) showed the kind of turnaround we were talking about from the first month of the season to the second.


Even that piece though threw a lot of the credit on a healthy Rob Gronkowski and probably did Brady a disservice for how complete his reversal in fortunes had been. Having a healthy Gronkowski on the field will help anybody out, but Brady was playing a lot, lot better. He still wasn’t perfect, and there were still missed throws, poor reads etc, but we were clearly looking at a guy who was back on the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks after slipping off it earlier in the season.

What about the next few months though? Brady’s play remained elite for another month but quietly began to slip a little in the final month of the season and even into the playoffs.


Then we come to the Super Bowl, and perhaps the most interesting game of his season. The Patriots came into that game with the perfect game plan to defeat the Seahawks. Seattle is so good at what they do on defense, and so perfectly tailored to shutting down a regular NFL offense that the only way to attack them is in excruciatingly small increments – death by a thousand papercuts. I thought the Broncos had a chance to do that the year before, but the way that game began put them on the back foot immediately and they never got into the swing of it.

The Patriots on the other hand immediately came to play using exactly that method. They had to be patient and happy with a four yard pass every down. Drives were going to take a long time to generate any points, and there may be no better quarterback in football at remaining patient and taking those ‘nothing’ plays every single snap. The way the game ended and Brady’s performance in the fourth quarter though conveniently allows people to forget entirely about his ugly interceptions earlier in the game. Those weren’t Brady losing patience, but simply awful decisions. He has not done well under pressure for some time now, which was one of the key points in the original ESPN article, and the Patriots were fantastic at ensuring he didn’t have to deal with much of it during the Super Bowl and for much of the season. Brady had the ball out of his hands on average in 2.39 seconds this season, quicker than everybody except Peyton Manning. In the Super Bowl that figure was even quicker – averaging 2.24 seconds, 1.45 seconds per play faster than Russell Wilson on the other side.

When he did get pressure though Brady made some big mistakes. All too often we define a player’s performance by the result at the end. This game essentially came down to a huge play by Malcolm Butler, an undrafted cornerback on the Patriots defense. One play that had nothing to do with Brady will be used by people who want to argue his greatest of all time legacy whichever way it went. If Butler got beat on the play Brady would have lost his last three Super Bowl appearances and would be more than a decade from his last touch of the Lombardi Trophy. Butler makes the play and people want to claim there isn’t even a discussion about who is the greatest ever – it has to be Brady. The greatness we define players by can be contorted by such arbitrary things.

In fact if you look at the knife edge that Brady’s entire career has navigated in terms of success and failure you can swing the results massively by altering just a few plays that he didn’t have anything to do with. A missed kick here or there and he loses rings and a freak catch here or there and he finds more in his collection.

We have to look at the player by what he did, not by the outcome of the game. Brady’s performance in this game was a mixed bag, but still showed his greatness. He made some huge mistakes, but he was executing one of the toughest game plans to succeed with against one of the league’s most imposing defenses. Brady was asked to make the right decision and not screw things up 51 times with the ball in his hands, and while he didn’t quite hit that perfection, he did make the right call most of the time, and was money in the fourth quarter when the game was in danger of slipping away.

Photograph: David J. Phillip/AFP

Photograph: David J. Phillip/AFP

The bottom line here is that performance, form and legacy are all fluid concepts. Every word written about Tom Brady or any other quarterback is just a snapshot in time until he has hung up his cleats for good. A year ago his play looked like it was on the way down. His performance was slipping and he entered the season playing poorly. After week four he played for two months of the season as the best quarterback in the game before ending it with another two months of good if not mind-blowing play. Even in the Super Bowl we saw the very best of him along with the very worst at different points, but we also got to witness the culmination of one of the greatest comeback stories in sports.

Tom Brady came back from a point of being written off by many all the way to winning another Super Bowl, one which cements his legacy as the greatest to ever play in the eyes of many.

I for one certainly did not think he had that kind of play left in him. I though we might see him improve, and we could see the Patriots in the playoffs and contending yet again, but I didn’t think they or he had what it took for that final push to the summit.

It’s been a while since I addressed the whole Brady saga, and given the twitter messages that still appear on my timeline, it’s probably about time I addressed once more, hopefully for good.

Was Brady a top 5 QB entering the 2014 season? I’m not so sure. Was he by the end of the season? Absolutely, and that was enough to hoist another Lombardi Trophy, which is all that really matters.

Super Bowl XLVIII Preview

Sometimes timing is everything.

Offense is waging a battle of timing against defense on every snap in the NFL and who wins that battle determines the play’s success or failure.
This Super Bowl between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos isn’t going to be about individual matchups, nicknames, trash talking, Omaha calls or any of that stuff – it’s going to be about timing.

Peyton Manning is the master of controlling timing. No offensive line gave up less pressure than the Broncos this season. They gave up four fewer total pressures than the next best unit and had the best Pass Blocking Efficiency of any of them given how many snaps they were asked to pass protect.  Manning was only sacked or knocked down 38 times in the regular season and  has only  hit the turf once so far in the playoffs, but it’s sure not because Denver has the league’s best offensive line. It is because Manning is the master of timing on offense.

No quarterback had the ball in his hands less on average than Manning did this year. Opposing pass-rushers had just 2.36 seconds to get to Manning on most plays. That’s not a lot of time to beat a man and close distance, but it becomes even harder because of his pocket presence. When he feels pressure developing he knows instantly where to go with the football to prevent disaster.

Manning can be looking downfield, sense pressure developing and in an instant flick his eyes to the right and dump the ball off to the running back in the flat. While most quarterbacks would have taken pressure and been hurried on the play, increasing the chance of a poor play for the offense, Manning has prevented it ever becoming an issue. Even if you beat your man quickly he has the ability to neutralize it by simply going to his dump-off targets. A minimal gain is better than rolling the dice against pressure.
He picked the Patriots apart doing exactly this. They were completely unable to knock him out of his rhythm and disrupt the timing of that Denver offense so despite the game ending 26-16 and it being a low-scoring affair for much of it, Manning put up 400 passing yards. He was hurried on just 5 of 43 passing attempts.

The Seahawks have the kind of pass-rush that can generate serious pressure. The bulk of the New England rush comes from Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the edge. If they are shut down, there is nobody else they can rely on to pick up the slack, and neither is exactly a pass-rushing stud. The Seahawks are able to deploy multiple players that pose a legitimate problem for blockers. Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Clinton McDonald, Bruce Irvin and even Brandon Mebane can all bring pressure in varying ways so whatever happens Manning is likely to have to contend with a lot more broken pockets than he saw against the Patriots. But Seattle also has the crucial second part of the equation – a physical, dominant secondary.

For all the weapons Denver has, they are a timing offense. If you get physical with their receivers you can mess with that timing. Once you’ve done that you introduce an element of hesitation into Manning’s play that only helps the pass-rush and compounds the problems. Seattle has the ability on defense to mess with timing from both sides.

In theory a guy like Demaryius Thomas should be the perfect kind of receiver to withstand the physical assault from the Seahawks defensive backs. He is 6’3, 229lbs and one of the most impressive physical specimens at his position, but when Washington got physical with him in week eight this season he shrank from the fight. He caught seven passes for 75 yards and a touchdown that day, but he was also bullied off routes and the Redskins intercepted Manning twice on passes intended for Thomas – the only time this season he has thrown three picks in a game and two intended for Thomas. DeAngelo Hall was the player that beat him physically that day, and nobody will confuse Hall for Richard Sherman when it comes to physicality any time soon.

Manning’s offense has come off the tracks in the past when teams turned the game into a physical battle. The league may have changed since Colts were beaten up in the 2003 AFC Championship game, but Manning will think he’s staring straight at those ’03 Patriots when he looks across the line at the Seattle Seahawks come Super Bowl Sunday.
At times the Denver offense has looked virtually unstoppable, but there is formula for stopping them, only so few teams have the required ingredients to make it happen.
The Seahawks have the perfect set of ingredients to derail Manning express and pave the way for the unfair headlines people are just waiting to write – another Peyton Manning choke job on the biggest stage.

“I don’t want to talk” Should be an Acceptable Answer

One of the biggest stories this week has been the cooperation or lack thereof from Marshawn Lynch at the various media day functions. He appeared for six minutes on Tuesday, giving a brief interview to Deion Sanders before disappearing again. Apparently it is expected that players appear for an hour minimum at these things, and so the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) launched a rather self-important sounding attack on this perceived violation.

Today he showed up for a similar time frame, remarked that he was “Just here so I don’t get fined, boss”, mumbled answers to a few more questions and took off again.

Lynch is clearly massively uncomfortable speaking to the media. He racked up a huge fine for not talking to them all season long in Seattle and seems to be doing just enough to avoid an even bigger financial penalty during the Super Bowl media circus.

My question though is why we feel we have the right to this access?

I understand that there is a contractual media obligation in place, but this goes deeper than that.

There has always been a slightly strange, sanctimonious and pompous element to journalism that I’ve never really been down with. Don’t get me wrong, I love journalism – I have a masters degree in it – but I don’t quite see that the very fabric of society crumbles around us if journalists are denied just a little bit of access. To listen to some talk, that’s exactly how serious this all is.

This whole right of constant access thing isn’t a worldwide constant either. I’m not just talking about the third world where freedom of the press is restricted by power-crazed despots. In the UK there is no such constant access to sports stars. Journalists covering the Premier League don’t get to wander into the dressing room after the game and quiz players. Hell, they may never get to quiz certain players. If a guy wants to avoid the spotlight he can avoid the spotlight.Teams are required to supply the manager and a player for post-game comments to the TV and a press conference, but that’s about it.

ONE player.

And you know what? The world keeps turning. Journalists deal with it.

Alex Ferguson was constantly falling out with various journalists and banning them wholesale from his press conferences or refusing to turn up to talk after matches. He spent nigh on a decade sending someone else in his place to post-game TV spots because he refused to appear on the BBC.

I can’t even imagine the unholy sh*tstorm that would come down if Bill Belichick tried that in the US.

When I was studying journalism somebody once told me that journalism is about telling stories. If you can’t tell the story without hearing Lynch deliver some bland nothing answer to some bland nothing question in front of a herd of reporters then maybe the story itself needs a bit of work.

We shouldn’t have the automatic right to access to people that want to remain private or are hugely uncomfortable speaking in public. That doesn’t mean that stories about intensely private people are never told, it just means we have to work a little harder to get them. When we do, they tend to be worth the extra effort.

Mike Silver managed to pen the best piece of the week on Lynch because he spoke to him quietly and individually before this mess happened. He was able to tell the story of Lynch because he made the effort to get the story and do it in a way that made Lynch comfortable enough to open up.

Shoving a microphone in the guy’s face and asking him the first benign question that pops into your head in front of dozens of other people is unlikely to yield the same results.

I said earlier today that I might have sympathy with anyone who was unable to ask him a question if I could be convinced that anybody there actually had anything interesting to ask the guy.

The whole media week before the Super Bowl has become a circus, and though I’m sure some very meaningful questions filter their way through to players and coaches at some point in the middle of the whole thing, the best things I’ve read this week had absolutely nothing to do with those Q&A sessions.

We shouldn’t be demanding that a guy answer questions for an hour a day just to satisfy our peculiar sense of entitlement to limitless access.

Sit back, allow the guy to be quiet and private if he wants to be, and work on telling us a story.


Tackling: The Rugby Ideal and the NFL’s Catch 22

The NFL has a problem when it comes to tackling. For years players have been launching themselves face first at opponents to knock them to the ground and make the tackle, notching a stat on the unofficial tally and doing untold damage to their brains and the brains of those they’re hitting.

Steve Senne • Associated Press

Steve Senne • Associated Press

Adding pads and a solid helmet to football players seemed to encourage the practice of players using their bodies as projectiles, aiming not to wrap up and take an opponent to the ground, but to intercept him and detonate on contact, blowing him up with a big hit. Even of the phraseology of big hits consists of explosive, munitions metaphors. This was fine until it became apparent that this practice was slowly but inevitably scrambling the brains of the participants, with hit building on hit to slowly corrode brain function as a strong link between football and CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) was proven.

The NFL’s response has been to fine players mercilessly for contact straying near the helmet of the recipients of these hits or for the player delivering the hit leading with the crown of his helmet. Their theoretical goal is to try and change the aiming point of these shots. They can also point to this practice as a serious attempt to change the culture of reckless brain-damaging hits that had been allowed to flourish and was celebrated for decades. In a time when the NFL is forced to pay $765m as part of a settlement in a concussions lawsuit brought by 4500 former players covering their back legally speaking is not an insignificant sidebar to any motive.

The problem is that it won’t work. The fining system is already being derided because the hits it picks up tend to be sheer accidents of physics. If you tackle somebody using the textbook football technique coached at every level, helmet contact is inevitable to one if not both of the players involved.

It might just about work when you’re dealing with 9-year olds who weight about as much as my shoes – the inertia simply isn’t there – but when you’re talking about 250lb men running at eye-watering speeds, the kind of whip-lash force that generates is unsurmountable.

The NFL’s own video promoting ‘heads up tackling’ shows a kid getting a face full of helmet (1:39 in this video)

The technique taught at a fundamental level dictates that the head will be involved in hits – you cannot avoid that anatomically with that kind of tackle. That led me to wonder, why does the NFL teach tackling that way?

As someone who came to football after first playing rugby the fundamental rugby tackle always seemed like a more efficient and safer way to tackle to me anyway. I’ve been taught both methods and I feel far more comfortable tackling rugby style. The chances of me getting a face full of impact are far less, and as someone who isn’t wild about being hit in the head, I consider that a plus.

Take a look at this video:

The approach to the tackle is much the same as a football tackle, but instead of going in heads up (but face first!) and square, rugby players lead with a shoulder, wrap the arms around the ball-carrier and drive through that point of contact. The head goes to the side of the player not straight into him or directly in front crossing your fingers that the contact isn’t hard enough to make both heads snap forward together.

The side on tackle from that video shows the key difference between rugby and football. Rugby tackles have actually developed to protect the head from injury but at the cost of something else – ground given up in the tackle. While rugby players in that side on tackle place their head away from potential contact football teaches the opposite, to get your head across the player to again get as much body as possible directly in the runner’s path.

This is the fundamental ethos, and the poison pill at the heart of the football tackle – it has been designed to halt momentum, because in football yardage is everything.

In rugby it rarely matters too much if you lose a yard or two in bringing your man to the ground. As long as one guy can make the tackle without drawing in too much support around him, the loss of the extra yard or two won’t make much difference. Runners often receiving the ball well back from the gain line (a rough equivalent to football’s line of scrimmage) because laterals are the only legal passes in rugby also means that the defender is working with more yardage to begin with.

The same isn’t true in football. Linebackers can’t afford to surrender an additional two or three yards every tackle they make. It’s not the end of the world on 1st and 10, but on 2nd and 5 it’s a problem, 3rd and short it’s game over. In order to ensure you stop a guy dead at the point of contact you need to hit him square, and when you hit somebody square then head contact is absolutely inevitable.

There is no avoiding that.

The NFL can fine people all they want, but at some point they need to realise they are battling against anatomy and physics. Their own fundamental ‘safe’ tackling technique leads directly to plenty of hits that have drawn fines for helmet contact. You can try and change a defender’s aiming point, but to do anything more you need to fundamentally change the nature of tackling in football, which in turn chops the legs out from under the game as it has evolved.

The difference between rugby and football is that in rugby it is just about possible to do everything by the book, fundamentally sound and get away without suffering a series of concussions in a player’s career. Concussions in rugby tend to come only on accidentally mis-timed hits or with sloppy technique leading to a head ending up where it shouldn’t be – in the path of something hard. In the NFL if you execute everything 100% according to the book, if you hit like a Heads Up poster boy and block like an offensive line coach’s wet dream every week, you will get concussed before too long. Even if you don’t the series of sub-concussive blows you receive every play has been shown to damage the brain regardless of concussions.

Football has become an inherently hazardous game to play. Fixing NFL tackling isn’t as simple as asking players to try and wrap up when they tackle. That certainly helps, and for certain positions I think tackling rugby-style is the smart play most of the time, but the NFL’s tackling problem is far more fundamental than that.

The game has evolved to require a tackling technique that inevitably contributes to brain injuries, and I honestly don’t know if you can fix that.

Doctors, Team allowed KO’d player to play on

In a lot of ways I think the NFL could learn a great deal from rugby, especially when it comes to player safety through sound fundamental tackling and hitting techniques. Rugby has gone out of its way to remove some of the more reckless and dangerous aspects of play from the game, and the development of the sport through the decades has resulted in far fewer catastrophic injuries than pro football despite an equally violent nature.

During the final British and Irish Lions test match against Australia though rugby’s stance on concussions and head trauma became at best a joke, and at worst a disgraceful disaster.

Whether you believe their motives to be pure or not there is little doubt that the NFL is doing almost everything in its power to treat head injuries and concussions seriously. If a player is knocked out, much like Stevan Ridley in the playoffs this January, there is no chance they would make it back onto the field anymore. In fact, there is a good chance they wouldn’t make it near the field the next week either.


In theory rugby has added some concussion safeguards too. They remain unenforced and ignored.

After being called up during the week and inserted into the starting lineup, Australia flanker George Smith was involved in a collision within the first five minutes of the game, clashing heads with Lions hooker Richard Hibbard and dropping to the ground – out cold.

Smith was eventually roused by the medical staff and helped off the field, barely able to support his own weight as he wobbled his way from foot to foot. Everything to this point was a perfect parallel with Ridley’s knock out, right down to the fact it was the man running with the ball and initiating contact that came off worse.

From this point though rugby disgraced itself. Smith was allowed back onto the field just a few minutes later, and played on. For the Australian medical staff to allow that is almost beyond belief given their knowledge of the dangers. For the team to allow it is also highly questionable, and lastly referee Roman Poitre, who stopped the game immediately at the time of the hit because he saw Smith knocked out cold, should be asked serious questions.

It became worse during the game as Smith was allowed to take breaks as he became woozy again, ostensibly as a blood substitution (rugby mandates any bleeding player be replaced until that blood flow is staunched). The risk that Smith was exposed to by multiple parties there is enormous. Whatever the damage of one concussive blow to the head, getting another while still reeling from the effects of the first compounds the damage to a virtually catastrophic level.

To make matters worse, there was no outcry. The commentary made no mention of the risk, and directed virtually no attention to the fact that minutes before Smith had been out cold on the floor and then unable to walk without assistance. The reports after the game were buried in ignorant attitudes from the past with no place in the modern world with the way they treated the whole episode. Instead of lambasting people for letting Smith play on, the Australian media heralded him for heroically and bravely playing on.

But almost four years after his last Test appearance, Smith defied the odds to make a miraculous return to the field.

It was brave, gutsy and proof of his determination.

Another word for that would be stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t blame Smith. Players will always want to go back out and play on, especially if the hit happened just minutes into the game, but that is precisely why they need to be protected from themselves. The NFL has taken matters well out of the players hands, and rugby has done likewise in theory.

This was a complete and total breakdown of the system the IRB has put in place, showing its painful fragility compared to that of the NFL, and the lack of attention the incident has drawn only highlights how buried in the dark ages rugby remains when it comes to brain injury and concussive trauma.

I am a massive rugby fan, and there are many ways that rugby outstrips the NFL, but on that day I was ashamed by how far behind the sport is in one critical area of player safety.

How to save youth football

Football is a dangerous game, and dangerous in a way that is far more frightening than it used to be.

As somebody that plays the game at an amateur level, it’s easy to employ a level of cognitive dissonance when it comes to physical injuries to most parts of your body. Ankle, knee, shoulder injuries are all common in football, but until you damage something badly it’s very easy to push the risk to the back of your mind and play as if you’re invincible.

Players in the NFL are much the same – nobody plays with the fear of getting hurt.

Now however the risk has become deeper with every new study that comes along linking football with brain trauma and brain injuries. The effect that can have is devastating, and you hear more and more from players who don’t regret their time playing, but wouldn’t be keen on their own children playing the game we all love.

That’s a frightening attitude when you think about it. “It’s too late for me, but I don’t want to risk my children, that’s how dangerous this game is”.

As the NFL pushes for ever greater expansion of the game outside of the USA, one of the big areas they want to focus on is the game at the youth level. If the NFL wants to ensure there is enough local support for a London franchise one of the best ways of achieving that is by increasing the number of young people playing the game at the grass roots level.

But youth football as a concept terrifies me now given what we’re learning about the damage the cumulative effect of hits can have on the brain – even an accumulation of sub-concussive hits to the head.

I think there is a solution though. Take the pads off.

The NFL’s own ‘heads up’ campaign is a joke at best and in reality it’s freaking dangerous. I’ve raised this before but their own video promoting the safety of the ‘heads up’ tackle shows a kid’s head being jacked back as he takes a face full of helmet. If that’s the NFL looking after the next generation then we’re on our own folks, and it’s time to find another way.

For years I coached kids rugby at a school here in Ireland, and despite being a similarly violent and concussive game, there were very few head injuries when you teach kids from the beginning proper form tackling and how to play the game before you suit them up in armour, give them a false sense of invincibility, and let them throw themselves around like a wrecking ball.

00000753606-9207536-640-360000000whitescrumcap[1]Taking the pads off all youth football wouldn’t prevent the game from being played as it’s supposed to be played, but would help to teach sound fundamentals and protect kids before they get introduced at a later stage in development. All rugby players were kitted up with for years is a gum shield. In recent years more kids have been using soft scrum caps, and a layer of soft pads worn under the jersey to take the edge off the worst impacts.

0000000gilbert_synergie12_pads11I’m not trying to turn football into flag football, believe me. I’ve been talked into playing flag football a few times and hated it. It takes the game of football and removes all the fun of the contact and tackling. This isn’t like that. We’re keeping the tackling, keeping the physicality, keeping the contact, all that’s changing is that kids wouldn’t be kitted up with hard shelled pads and helmets, which in truth probably do more harm than good at this point.

There may be no way of walking the NFL or college football back from where it is in terms of protective gear, but there’s no reason that needs to extend all of the way down. When we’re talking about our kids, the most precious resource we have do we really want to expose them to potentially devastating brain trauma before they’re old enough to have a clue what that means? Take the traditional pads away and take a leaf out of the book of rugby.


Football exists in this form elsewhere already, and it’s kind of awesome:

Manning vs Leaf – Revisited

Manning v Leaf.6Look what I found!

When sifting through some old football stuff I came across a 1998 ESPN The Magazine Draft Preview edition. There is some stuff in there that is mildly interesting in a general sense looking back at the perceived wisdom before that year’s Draft, but of course the thing that captivated my interest most of all was what the Magazine though about the Manning vs. Leaf debate at the time – before the benefit of hindsight.

Frankly it’s staggering. The red flags surrounding Leaf jump off the page, even in an article that doesn’t in the slightest set out to bring him down.

Leaf readily admits to not working out at all for two months following his Bowl appearance, touring the banquet circuit, schmoozing and partying, and balooning up to 260+lbs. This in stark contrast to Manning who presumably never left the gym in that period. Manning v Leaf.8Despite all of this, people were still more captivated by Leaf’s penchant for the unconventional, perhaps led down that path by the success Brett Favre was having in the NFL at the time. The unorthodox but spectacular was more appealing than the guy who just delivered the ball to the open guy play after play. People wanted excitement in their QB.

In an ESPN SportZone poll asking who the best player in the upcoming draft was, 64% of people answered Leaf compared to just 36% that plumped for Manning from over 45,000 respondents. That’s a colossal goof by everybody, not just the insiders evaluating the two quarterbacks. Leaf was seen by many as the better prospect, not just by a select few lunatics or people that didn’t correctly do their homework in the lead up to the Draft.

Manning v Leaf.7The article sets out to make the distinction between the two players as one between preppy, perfect Manning and maverick, uncontrollable Leaf, but it seems far too ready to dismiss the obvious issues Leaf had as simply a wild-child attitude, rather than a serious impediment to his future success.

The interview with Leaf actually takes place in a jacuzzi, with the reporter vividly describing the belly Leaf had developed despite losing around 15lbs from his peak girth after the college season. The idea that any top prospect today could balloon to more than 20lbs out of shape is practically beyond belief, yet this seemed to be barely given any significance in the article, rather portrayed simply as a colourful anecdote.

A coach who nailed Leaf perfectly was described as “one curmudgeon offensive coordinator”, while the article concludes by lauding Leaf’s “don’t give a crap attitude”, before actually claiming he would be the player striding up to a podium in Canton in 2018 rather than Manning (whoops!).

Anyway, Rather than relay everything to you, I’ve scanned the entire article and will post the images below. Enjoy the read, and let it serve as a reminder this week of just how wrong everybody can get it.

Manning v Leaf.1

Manning v Leaf.2

Manning v Leaf.3

Manning v Leaf.4

Manning v Leaf.5

Roger Goodell – The $29.5m Man

Sometimes the amount of money thrown around in the form of bonuses really is  PH2006080800953unconscionably sickening. It emerged this week that Roger Goodell was cashing in take-home pay around $29.5m this year, just a season after symbolically reducing his wage to $1 until the new CBA was hammered out and the NFL lockout was lifted.

That is almost a three-fold increase on his last pay-check from the league and is comprised largely of a ‘performance-tied bonus’ of $22.3m.  Thanks to his new five-year contract he can expect to rake in upwards of $20m per season with bonuses being a major part of that take home wage packet.

I can see no justification whatsoever for such a completely ludicrous sum of money, no matter how much the owners want to dress it up and claim that Goodell has done a sterling job at the head of the league. Let’s face it, at this point the NFL’s success is practically unstoppable. Anyone at the helm would have to be a spectacular incompetent to somehow pick out rocks into which to steer the $9bn juggernaut, so the sheer size and financial might of the institution itself should not automatically lead to a massive take-home slice for its commissioner, especially when his actual performance is far more in question than that.

His real impact in the CBA negotiations is debatable, but at the very least he was unable to prevent the farce that was replacement officials, not to mention the drawn out mess that was the lockout in the first place.


For the incessant crusade on player safety under Goodell’s stewardship the NFL still has to be forced kicking and screaming to contribute more to retired players – the players who sacrificed their bodies, their minds and their health to this game long before anybody was making multi-millions of dollars and who now find themselves struggling just to pay the terrific toll that took on them.

This is the part that I have the biggest issue with. Almost everybody in today’s NFL is well compensated. This has not been the case for the majority of the league’s history, and now that the league actually has the wealth and financial might to do something about it, they choose instead to just throw symbolic money at a figurehead.

In the new CBA, the NFL agreed to up the money it spends and contribute something in the region of $62m per year to the Legacy Fund that would go towards helping these retired players from the pre-riches era. For a $9bn industry built on the blood, sweat, tears and broken bodies of these thousands of men that seems like an incredibly crappy allocation of resources when Goodell’s bonuses are taken into consideration. The NFL could still pay Goodell almost $10m a season – hardly an insult to any top executive – and add over 30% to the Legacy Fund contributions with the extra $20m they’re saving on the deal. Would anybody have a problem with that? 892999

Even if the league plan on dialing back his bonus in the future years of his contract we could still be looking at around $60m over the course of his five-year deal that could be going towards players who are struggling to walk, who can’t afford the hospital bills needed just to dull the pain they’re now suffering after years of being battered on the gridiron.

Am I really the only person who sees that as a better place to spend money than on Roger Goodell’s personal trust fund?

During the economic boom times the world developed an attitude towards frivolous spending, especially when it came to top executives. Bonuses were handed out automatically simply by being attached to a company with colossal turnover. Nobody ever actually found a way to tie those ‘performance related bonuses’ to performance in any real and quantifiable way, and so they just became expected and demanded. This attitude got the world into a hole that it is still struggling to climb out of, and yet many industries seem to have learned nothing from the whole process.

Roger Goodell sits atop one of the most successful enterprises in the world – a $9bn sports conglomerate that continues to conquer all in its path and expand relentlessly – but he has done little to earn a $22.3m bonus that could be more fairly spent on the thousands of players that played this game before the notion of million-dollar pay-days ever entered anybody’s minds.

Today even players that will have a short career have a chance to set themselves up financially for life with a stint in the NFL. Signing bonuses can routinely reach into seven-figures and the average NFL player earned $1.9m in 2012, with the veteran minimum of at least $595,000.

In the 1950s the average salary was just $6,000. Even adjusted for inflation that is only around $50,000 in today’s money, for a job many players would have for just a couple of seasons before injury or the business side forced them into the real-world. I’m not saying that’s a terrible wage, but put it this way – would you accept never being able to walk again without a limp for a $50k wage in the next three years? I sure as hell wouldn’t.


It wasn’t until 1970 that the owners agreed to a minimum salary at all, and at just $9,000, that was at a similar level of money adjusted for inflation – a little over $50,000 per year, significant chunks of which would be gone in agent fees and taxes before the player ever got a chance to cash those checks.

I don’t want to dwell on the point – this isn’t a history lesson and we all know that the league was built on a foundation of players that were never fairly compensated for what they went through. The more we learn today about the catastrophic effects of head trauma from playing in the NFL the more criminal the neglect of these players seems to be. The NFL has been going since the 1920s, and there are a good 70-years worth of players to whom it owes a huge debt before the players started earning serious money across the board. But instead of making a serious effort to redress that wrong and spend some of the war-chest on the men that built the empire, the NFL would rather hand out a meaningless bonus to Roger Goodell, its Commissioner.

Am I the only really the only person who sees that as a crappy, and grossly unfair, allocation of resources?

Breaking the Game

I used to really enjoy soccer, possibly more than any other sport. I would watch full games, root for my team (Liverpool FC) and one of my best sporting moments as a fan is still that Champions League final comeback win against AC Milan late into the evening.

The game has been losing what made it great in recent years though, despite the technical skill and ability of the players actually improving. These days I struggle to even watch a full game, and there is more in a broadcast that irritates me than enthrals me. 

I still love the game. I play a weekly pickup game in the local park (or at least did until the weather rendered the surface a bog), and I watch the weekly highlights on Match of the Day, but things have crept into the game that have been eating away at its soul, and the world governing body, FIFA, actually seems to be more inclined to protect these things and undermine the game than it is to stamp them out.

There was an understandable drive to try and make the game safer starting in the 1990s. Most sports underwent the same shift in dynamic as the entire sporting world decided that games probably shouldn’t be as dangerous as they were. Leg breaks used to be relatively routine and they often came from reckless, dangerous and occasionally malicious tackles. These were deemed unacceptable, and rightly so. But the game never stopped this slide of the rules. We went from not being able to go through players from behind to take the ball to now not being able to leave one’s feet at all, even if you get the ball 100% fairly, because with both feet in the air you are deemed by the rules to have no control over your actions.

This is frankly bullshit. I speak as a man with limited soccer skills, but the one thing I have perfected is a lunging slide tackle, often taking flight with both feet off the ground. In years of pulling off this move I think I have mis-timed it to the point of missing the ball and hitting the man twice, and never badly enough to injure the person. To say you can’t control this move enough to perform it safely or accurately is ridiculous. Players need to be able to go after the football without the fear that they can get sent off even if they get to it first if the other player then comes off worse from the exchange after it’s gone.

Football isn’t a non-contact sport, and the ball is the target. If you get to it before any contact is made with the opposition, you’ve made the tackle and what happens after is as much the other player’s fault as it is yours. Just because he had possession to begin the move doesn’t make him suddenly the victim in the process.

FIFA needs to allow tackling back into the game, and that’s before we go anywhere near the diving epidemic that is another rant for another time.

The Pottsville Maroons: A Forgotten Icon

History has a way of forgetting things if people don’t remain vigilant. On a Monday Night Football game in the 2004 season Al Michaels and John Madden were shown a caption depicting the three teams in NFL history to have given up the most safeties in a season. Top of the list was the Pottsville Maroons. At that point neither Madden nor Michaels had the slightest idea who the Maroons were – and neither did most of the football world – but by the end of the broadcast, they had managed to show a map of the US labelling Pottsville, and to run off a little bit of information about the former juggernaut team of the 20s. Within an hour of the game, the website had collapsed due to the volume of traffic it received.

Now the story of the Pottsville Maroons and their stolen 1925 Championship is known by more people, but still not enough, so here’s a little refresher course.

As far as most football fans are concerned, the only things to have come out of the 1920s NFL were Red Grange, George Halas, and the Green Bay Packers, everything else just gets lost in a blur of black and white grainy video and odd looking footage. That decade left the NFL so much more however, but now the NFL has forgotten its pioneers. Not just men who endured pain unimaginable to players today, men who were treated for any injury with fingers of whiskey, who were fighting just to stay out of the death sentence that was the coal mines in the 1920s, but also teams and accomplishments that made the NFL what it is today.

The Pottsville Maroons are a forgotten icon, a team from the anthracite leagues that took on the NFL and won, and in doing so became the most dominant team ever assembled. After blitzing the NFL, the Maroons took on the invincible Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and a College All Star team, and emerged victorious, giving the NFL legitimacy that it had never had before. This is a team that earned the right to be remembered, and recognised for what it achieved.


So why did such a great team, one that the Galloping Ghost himself deemed the greatest the game had ever known, pass into football obscurity?

They got screwed, that’s how.

In 1925, the Maroons entered the NFL on the back of a 1924 season spent dominating the Anthracite League, and with a roster full of new talent. They began to dominate the NFL in the same way, annihilating their first 7 opponents by a combined score of 179-6, eventually compiling a 10-2 record by the season’s end, including a 21-7 victory over the Chicago Cardinals, in what was viewed as the Championship game. Fresh from their success, they challenged the legendary Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, and won.  In that era the professional game was seen as the poor little sibling to college football, and most experts believed that the professional players that could beat Notre Dame had not yet been born.

Pottsville was then suspended and stripped of its NFL Championship for violating the territory of another team during the Notre Dame game.

Pottsville MaroonsThe game against the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, and their assembled college all-star side was termed the ‘Greatest Football Game Ever Seen’, and the victory gave the NFL a respect and legitimacy that it was never able to achieve before the Maroons came along. The professional game had long been seen as an exercise in ‘paid punting’, and it wasn’t until the Maroons showed up in 1925 with an expansive, balanced, offense that people really began to pay any attention to it. The Maroons had dashed the idea that the college game was superior to the pros, pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sporting history, and started the NFL on its journey to become America’s game. And how did the league repay them? By suspending them and taking away their title. “They won the championship in 1925 but were robbed of the honour by some misguided judgement,” said Red Grange years later.

3301106-1The Pottsville Maroons weren’t just dominant in 1925, they were innovators too. They were the first team to insist that players lived in the town during the season, so that they could attend regular practices, and so could develop a bigger and more diverse playbook. While the Maroons were doing this, the rest of the league’s players would travel for miles to meet up with their teams on game day and just ad-lib things as they went. They were also one of the first teams to fully exploit the forward pass, as well as the first to develop what we now know as the screen pass. While the rest of the league was executing the same line plunge every play, the Maroons were attacking people through the air, and racking up the scores. In 1925 alone the Maroons outscored their opponents by a combined figure of 333-52. In their 12 games in the 1925 NFL season, the Maroons only conceded points in 6 of them, and only conceded more than 7 points on just 1 occasion, their loss to Frankford, which they later avenged with a 49-0 trampling. By the start of week 5, the Maroons had yet to allow a single rushing first down!

This wasn’t just a good team, this was a team known as “the perfect football machine”.

There was no Super Bowl back in the 1920s, or even a playoff structure. Rather the NFL Champions came from essentially league play. When the Maroons crushed the Chicago Cardinals 21-6 late in the season, the national press hailed the Maroons as Champions, as did the town of Pottsville itself. As far as everybody was concerned, the NFL Championship had been decided in emphatic fashion by the Maroons victory. When the Maroons took on the Four Horsemen though their bitter local rivals, the Frankfort Yellowjackets, saw a chance to screw over Pottsville. They complained to the NFL commissioner, Joe Carr, that the game had violated their territory. Joe Carr himself was not a fan of the Maroons, having had previous altercations with their owner, Doc Striegel, and upheld the complaint. This all happened before the game itself, but Striegel had received permission from acting commissioner Jerry Corcoran via telephone before signing the contract to play the Four Horsemen, and so refused to back out of the game, and the check that would keep the team solvent.PottsvilleMaroonsTrophy

Since he had received permission when he signed the contract, Striegel wanted the NFL to guarantee his cut of the contract if he pulled out, and when that guarantee wasn’t forthcoming, he decided to play the game. The NFL was never able to provide written evidence of the rule that the Maroons supposedly broke, and if the guilt was debatable, the punishment itself was disproportionate and draconian.

When the New England Patriots were found guilty of breaking an NFL rule in the Spygate saga – and gaining a competitive advantage by doing so – they were fined, and docked a draft pick. The Maroons were found guilty of simply playing a game in another team’s territory – a game that actually brought national publicity to the struggling league, catapulting their national profile ahead – and they were suspended as a franchise and stripped of their Championship.

Not only that, but in order to demote them in the league standings, it was arranged for the Chicago Cardinals to play 2 quick games against disbanded teams before the official end of the NFL season. The league actually went out of its way to rig the end of the season just to shaft the team and ensure they wouldn’t win the league they just dominated.

So hastily arranged were these games, that the two teams were unable to field full sides, let alone full-strength sides, and actually resorted to fielding High School kids – also against the NFL rules. When that news broke, the offending parties were all issued fines, and one of the games being stricken from the record, but nobody was banished from the league and no iron fist came slamming down. The Cardinals and Maroons finished the season tied in record, but because the Maroons had been suspended from the league, they were not eligible to be named Champion. Thus the same Chicago Cardinals that had only weeks ago been trounced by the Maroons, were given the title of NFL Champions.

Such was the injustice of the chain of events, the Chicago Cardinals to their credit refused to accept the Championship, saying that they could not accept a title that had not been won fairly on the field of play. John ‘Blood’ McNally, legendary Packers player and Hall of Famer, agreed with the stance saying “Championships are won on the field and Pottsville won it there in 1925.  The Cardinals were defeated in an honest contest by Pottsville and should not claim a championship they did not win.  I support the Maroons as the true champs of 1925.” After the fact, even commissioner Carr softened his stance on the issue, realising that the punishment for the Maroons for playing an exhibition game that brought great publicity to the league should not outweigh the punishment the Cardinals received for manipulating the standings by playing games against High School kids. Since the Cardinals would not accept the 1925 Championship, it was never officially awarded to anybody, and has remained removed from its true home of Pottsville for over 80 years. When the Cardinals were bought by Charles Bidwell in 1933, he claimed ownership of the stolen championship, kicking off what many claim to be a curse on the franchise ever since.

lfThe NFL in 1925 was a league struggling just to maintain a foothold on the cliff, and as such it came down on the Maroons far too harshly, trying to maintain its authority, and crack down on teams that were harming the league. It is now almost 90 years later, and everybody can see this for what it is – bullshit – yet nobody will admit their mistake, and restore the 1925 Championship to the town that earned it on the field, and assembled one of the greatest teams ever to step on the gridiron. The NFL last addressed the issue as recently as 2003, but the league voted 30-2 to let sleeping dogs lie and maintain the injustice as long as it remained buried in the past. The smallest town in the NFL at the time won a league championship in their first year of trying, and were robbed by politics. Even if the NFL will never recognise the Pottsville Maroons as the 1925 champions, I think it’s worth tipping our hats to the 1925 NFL Champions, and a team of revolutionary pioneers that deserve rememberence.

For more on the Pottsville Maroons check out David Fleming’s book here !