Barry Sanders – Better Than You Remember

Barry Sanders is the greatest running back ever to play professional football. That’s it said, done, over.

The rest of this is going to be dedicated to showing why. All too often we get caught up in the conversation regarding who is the greatest and we settle on a committee compromise of Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, a trio, designed to appease everybody and give an answer without actually committing to an informed decision.

As time passes and people’s memories haze, we’re even seeing Emmitt Smith start to enter into the conversation as his all-time rushing total acts as an all-too easy way of making his case. 27270_335537679180_1421693_n

Well this is different, we’re not going to water down the truth, Barry Sanders is the greatest running back ever to play, and he’s better than the other members of that committee.

The first thing to do is a little Barry Sanders 101. Barry Sanders grew up in Wichita Kansas, and began to develop the skills and unique running style that would become his trademark (literally). He did this by playing a game with his older brothers where the ball carrier had to make it from one end of the field to the other without being tackled. He made up for his lack of size by being simply impossible to catch.

During his senior season at North High School in Wichita, Sanders averaged a whopping 10.2 yards per carry. He was only 33 yards shy of the league rushing title when Coach Dale Burkholder, having pulled his starters, called Barry over and asked him if he wanted to stay in the game to get enough yards for the title. Barry Sanders told him without hesitation to “let the young kids play, coach”. This would be a theme throughout his career. Barry wasn’t a guy who went after the stats, he did what he could in order to win, but he didn’t care about the records, as Detroit Lions fans would first discover in 1989 and finally in 1999.

00barryDespite this great season in High School, Sanders wasn’t heavily recruited, and settled on Oklahoma St, when his beloved Oklahoma Sooners never showed an interest. He began his career as a Cowboy in the shadow of Heisman candidate and now Hall of Fame RB, Thurman Thomas. Even as the backup and kick returner, people could see the talent that he had. Whilst preparing to play OSU, Coach Barry Switzer famously saw enough of Sanders whilst watching game film to say to his coaching staff, “Guys, we’ve got a problem. You’d better hope that Thurman Thomas doesn’t get hurt. You don’t want to play against this freshman named Barry Sanders!” Despite his coaching staff looking at him like he was crazy, Switzer would be proved correct the next year. After Thomas left for the NFL, Sanders assumed the starting position, and set about re-writing the NCAA record books. In his 1988 junior season, Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards, scored 39 TDs, and set or tied 34 NCAA records in just 11 games. It was the greatest single season a college RB has ever had, arguably the greatest college season period, and it earned him the Heisman trophy.

Barry Sanders declared for the draft after that season, and held out after being drafted, eventually signing only 4 days before their first regular season game. Despite only 1 day of non-padded practice, and having rehearsed only one running play in the pre-game warm-ups, Sanders was eventually put in the game in the 3rd Quarter. On his first run from scrimmage Sanders reversed the field, and ran for 19 yards. Running a variation of just that one play, Sanders finished the day with 71 rushing yards and a TD on just 9 carries.

Barry Sanders went on to break the rookie rushing record set by fellow Lion, and fellow #20, Billy Simms. By the end of that season, he finished only 11 yards short of the league lead (having again turned down the opportunity to stay in the game to take the title from Christian Okoye), was named All-Pro, earned NFL Rookie of the Year Honours and was selected to the Pro-Bowl. Sanders was well on his way to the mesmerising figure that would baffle NFL players and coaches for his entire career. During his 5th game as a pro, Sanders gained 99 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, and made so many would-be tacklers miss that Vikings Head Coach, Jerry Burns, actually asked the officials to check his jersey – to ensure it hadn’t been sprayed with silicon so it couldn’t be grabbed.

Sanders was to be at the centre of a young team in Detroit, which Head Coach Wayne barryFontes hoped would restore the roar to the Silverdome. Things seemed to be going to plan as the Lions and Sanders found themselves in the 1991 NFC Championship game, having gone 12-4 during the regular season, and had 7 players selected to play in the Pro-Bowl.

In their first playoff game the young Lions team dismantled another young NFC team – the Dallas Cowboys – 38-6. This was the Dallas team that would go on to form a dynasty in the NFL, and that playoff game shows how far the Lions could have gone but for the want of some quality management. According to Lomas Brown, Offensive Tackle for the Detroit Lions at the time, the General Manager, Chuck Schmidt “didn’t like when players tried to use their power. He felt threatened. That’s why management ended up getting rid of so many guys on the team – Mel Gray, Bennie Blades, Jerry Ball, Chris Spielman, Brett Perriman, Willie Green, some others.” Had the Lions had better Front Office personnel, who knows where that team could have ended up, and what effect a better team would have had on Barry Sanders’ already breathtaking numbers? It’s also worth pointing out that in a Sanders/Smith meeting on the big stage Sanders had the biggest play despite the Cowboys loading up to try and take him away. The Lions passed 38 times in the game, but Sanders notched 99 yards and a touchdown on just 17 touches. Smith totalled 82 yards and no score from his 16 touches.

Barry SandersBarry Sanders had a running style all his own. Like all great running backs, everybody tried to find working comparisons, but none worked, because nobody has ever run like Barry Sanders. His style of being able to stop, change direction, and take off again, all in the same yard has never been matched, and it enabled him to break runs that nobody else could. As long as I have been watching football I have only ever seen one runner who moved like Barry Sanders, an ex Denver Bronco named Quentin Griffin (highlight video), and he wasn’t in the same ball-park in terms of talent.

The real skill he had that nobody has ever replicated was the ability to make people miss. One of my off-season projects is to go back and chart some Sanders games for PFF and I can’t even imagine the rate at which he forced missed tackles.

Former Bears LB Brian Cox once said that Barry Sanders made him miss 4 tackles on one play. Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary said “if you were able to get him running east to west, you had a chance. If he was moving north-south, forget about it. He was going to get you”. That’s one of the best linebackers ever to play essentially telling you he couldn’t stop Sanders one on one if he was coming right at him.

Teams game-planned for Sanders like no other back, because he could make plays even after everyone was convinced he had been stopped. On more than one occasion Sanders emerged from a pile of defenders, or was thrown to the ground, only to remain on his feet, spin out and break a big gain. The other backs in the discussion might have been productive, they might have been dominant, but nobody has ever run like Barry Sanders.

In 1997 Barry Sanders became only the 3rd player to rush for over 2000 yards in a season, after Eric Dickerson and OJ Simpson (Terrell Davis, Jamal Lewis, and Chris Johnson have since joined that group). After the first 2 games of the season, Sanders had only 53 yards. His final tally of 2,053 means that he gained 2000 yards in only 14 games, amassing over 100 in each of the last 14 games of the season, an NFL record. He finished the year with an average of 6.1 yards per attempt. This is second all-time only to Jim Brown’s 6.4 yards per attempt in 1963 and the yards gained that season moved him from 7th on the all-time list to 2nd, passing Marcus Allen, Franco Harris, Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett and Eric Dickerson – Hall of Famers, all. Barry Sanders added another honor to his ever expanding list that year when he was named the league’s MVP.

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Before the start of the 1999 season, Sanders retired from professional football, within touching distance of the all-time rushing record, then held by Walter Payton, and in the prime of his career. He explains in his book that it was no single thing that caused him to walk away from the game, but rather a multitude of factors all combining that led him to realise he just didn’t need it anymore. “Around the middle of my career, the game became something else, almost a burden in a lot of ways, and I stopped loving it. I lost my will”. Sanders felt betrayed by an organisation that showed no will to win, and after his 10 years in the league, the team had come full-circle, and was firmly back in rebuilding mode. Shocking the media and fans of the NFL, Sanders showed once again that the records weren’t enough to motivate him, when he walked away from becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, flipping the record to Emmit Smith in the same way as he flipped the ball to the official every time he scored a TD.

The day he retired Barry Sanders ranked 2nd on the all-time rushing list (he currently ranks 3rd). He is one of only 6 men to rush for over 2000 yards in a season, one of only 3 men to have multiple 1800 yard seasons. He holds the NFL record for most 1500 yard seasons with 5, and most consecutive 1500 yard seasons, with 4. He holds the NFL record for the most consecutive 100 yard games, most consecutive 100 yard games on the road, career TDs over 50 yards in length, most games of over 150 yards in a career, and is only two 100 yard rushing games away from the all time lead, in 73 fewer games than the holder of that record, Emmitt Smith. So why is there even a question of whether he was the greatest to ever play?

Barry SandersSanders suffers from some perceived negatives in his game, created by people looking for reasons to knock him off the spot at the top of the pyramid. These are the same people that said he was too small for the NFL, and they employ the same kind of thought process. These myths can be debunked:

Myth 1 – Barry Sanders could not run inside or at the goal line. 

This is a favourite of Barry Sanders critics. They point to his lack of TDs compared to other backs at the top of all-time lists, and the fact that his coaches took him out down at the goal line as evidence for a huge hole in his game. However, in the first 3 years of his career, Sanders scored 47 TDs, 21 of which came from within 4 yards, and 8 of which were from 1 yard out. The Lions coaching staff from 1992 onwards preferred having a bigger, power-back in on these situations, and took Sanders out of the game. He simply got shafted by a change in scheme philosophy. Does that mean that Sanders became a bad goal-line back overnight? The evidence of Sanders career, both college and pro, shows that Sanders could run as well as anybody around the goal line, but his numbers suffered because the Lions coaches preferred their own philosophy of using a heavy back in those situations. This is the same logic that sees Jamaal Charles being taken out of the game for Peyton Hillis when there is no clear evidence that he is actually better in tight quarters despite the size difference.

Myth 2 – Barry Sanders couldn’t catch.

The proponents of Walter Payton use this one a lot. ‘Barry Sanders was only a runner, he couldn’t do the other things that a RB has to be able to do, Walter Payton could do it all.’ Well, Barry Sanders finished his career with 352 catches over his 10 years – he averaged 35 catches a year. Walter Payton finished with 492 catches over his 13 years – he averaged 38 catches a year. Payton scored 15 receiving TDs, Barry Sanders scored 10. Payton averaged 9.2 yards per catch, and Sanders averaged 8.3. The statistics do indeed show that Payton edged Sanders in each category, but enough to rank one as an accomplished receiver, and the other as a guy who couldn’t catch? Of course not. We’re talking about a pretty small difference between the two. Nobody would confuse Sanders for Marshall Faulk but to suggest he was an incapable receiver is just foolish.  Similarly while Sanders may not have crushed people like Payton as a blocker, he was a capable blocking back able to pick up the blitz and do his job. At that point, who cares?

Myth 3 – Barry Sanders lost too much yardage to be the greatest. 

Another myth brought up a lot is that for every one of Barry Sanders’ great runs, he lost a ton of yardage, so much so that he is the NFL’s all-time leader in negative yardage from scrimmage. Whilst it’s true that Sanders is the all-time leader in negative yards, he averaged only 46 more lost yards a year than Payton did. Walter Payton, the man who always fell forward, who never said die. Despite the vast differences in perception between Sanders as a runner and Payton in a runner, the statistics amount to a difference in less than 3 yards a game. On the other hand Sanders overcame that to gain an average of 12 yards per game more than Payton throughout his entire career (99.8 vs 88).

Myth 4 – Barry Sanders could only run on turf, in the dome. 

This one’s the best myth of all. People will try and claim that Barry Sanders could only run on turf – ‘just look at his running style, it just wouldn’t work on grass!’ Unfortunately, these people have clearly never checked that out. During his career Sanders averaged 5.0 yards per carry both indoors and outdoors, on turf and on grass, at home and away. He was the very definition of consistency, averaging higher than 96 yards per game on any surface whether it was home or away.

Myth 5 – Barry Sanders couldn’t perform in the playoffs.

Well, whilst its true that Sanders didn’t perform outstandingly in the playoffs, he only played in 6 playoff games. The sample size just isn’t enough. That being said, the people who use this criticism rarely have a bad word to say about Payton in the same regard, yet Payton had only a lone 100 yard performance in 9 playoff games. Barry Sanders had only the one as well, but from 6 games, at a 4.2 average (as opposed to Walter Payton’s 3.5 yard per carry average. If this is a great flaw in Barry Sanders’ game, then we need to apply the same criticism to Walter Payton.

The only man to rival Barry Sanders statistically is Jim Brown, who shares some similarities to Sanders in his massive yards per carry averages, and the fact that he retired early in his career. The difference though is the eras in which they played, and how the yardage was gained. Jim Brown was a monster of a back, in an era where players weren’t as big as they are in the modern game. Brown was 232lbs at a time where linemen often weren’t any bigger, let alone linebackers. Brown could physically dominate, and could gain 6 yards just by lowering his head and charging. When Barry Sanders played, he played some of the greatest defensive players ever to step onto a field. He was running up against players like Reggie White, 300lb dominant forces. As well as players with the speed, and range of Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary. These guys are all Hall of Famers, and in White and Singletary, were players he would face twice a year within the division, yet Sanders would average 5 yards a carry against them, without being able to physically run over them.

Curtis Martin made this point in the program A Football Life (video above), claiming Brown would be different today, but Sanders would be the best back in the NFL in any era, regardless of what the players looked like.

Jim Brown also stepped onto what was already a dominant team, having been to the Championship game in 5 of the 6 seasons before they drafted him. By contrast, the Lions had failed to win more than 5 games in any of the 3 seasons before drafting Sanders. Brown has amazing statistics, but they were inflated by the opposition he faced. Sanders faced a list of the greatest defensive players to play the game, and made them all look foolish. The great Reggie White claimed that Barry Sanders was the only player he ever feared. “There was one guy since I’ve been playing that I was afraid of because he could beat us at any moment. That was Barry”.

Sanders re-wrote the record books during his college career and he re-wrote them during his professional career. He was so dangerous that teams had to invent new ways of defending against him, just to try and contain him from breaking that big run that would kill them. Despite being on some poor teams, with the franchise so mismanaged that it systematically removed its best talent during his career, Sanders racked up statistics that rival anybody’s. He retired within sight of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, and remains one of only a few backs to average 5 yards a carry every time they touched the ball.

Barry Sanders could do things nobody before or since has been able to do on a football field, and it shows in the damage he did to opposing defences throughout his career, despite being in a division with some elite units, and playing against a list of Hall of Fame defenders.

If all that still isn’t enough, just watch the videos.

Bert Bell – The Forgotten Commissioner

NFL commissioners get quite a lot of press these days. Pete Rozelle is remembered as arguably the greatest commissioner in professional sports, Paul Tagliabue oversaw the development of the NFL into the billion-dollar juggernaut it is today, and Roger Goodell is under endless scrutiny for his handling of things like player discipline and safety in today’s league.

But what about the men that went before them, and specifically the man that shaped the league as we know it, Bert Bell?

On October 11, 1959, Commissioner Bert Bell died of a heart attack in the stands of a game between the team he co-founded (The Eagles), and the team he had co-owned (The Steelers).

Bell, perhaps more than any other man, is responsible for the NFL that we know and love today, yet he remains largely forgotten in the mists of time, and his 50th anniversary went largely unnoticed as the league instead took to celebrating the AFL, inflicting those vertical striped socks that the Denver Broncos wore on us all.

By the time the upstart AFL took on the establishment of the NFL in 1960, the NFL was in excellent health, thanks largely to the work of Bell.

At the time of his appointment as Commissioner in 1946 the league was in danger of imploding. With ten strong-willed owners (think a room full of Jerry Jones clones) all vying for power and demanding that their plans be followed, the league was floundering in a money-losing stalemate. It had no direction, and was struggling simply to survive while owners fumed and railed at each other whenever they held a meeting. No league meeting was more chaotic and brutal than the annual meeting, because this was where the upcoming season’s schedule was decided.

The schedule at that time wasn’t decided the way it is today. With ten teams in the league divided into two divisions, the only requirement to a league schedule was that each team played a home and home series with every other team in their division. That accounted for 8 of the 12 games every team would play. The other 4 were up for grabs to the owner who argued the hardest and showed the most stamina in meetings. Teams wanted to play games that would net them a valuable gate receipt – games against the league glamour sides were at a premium.

Art Rooney once described the kind of staying power needed for these meetings: “The guys who snuck out to get some sleep wound up getting murdered the next season because they weren’t there to defend themselves, we’d give them all the dates we didn’t want.”

Over the 10-year span between 1937 and 1946 the Bears and Packers from the Western Division and the Giants and Redskins from the Eastern Division accounted for 19 of the 20 spots in the NFL Championship game. The league had become a tired exercise in professional football, and the teams that could win were the teams that turned a profit. The rest of the league more often than not was losing money and mounting debts. In the days where talent acquisition was simply a free for all those teams also found it increasingly hard to bid competitively on college players as they were in direct competition with every other NFL team.

Bell had had first hand experience of the pitfalls of ownership and the problems facing a struggling franchise. Early in his career he had bought the rights to the defunct Frankfort Yellow jackets and re-branded them the Philadelphia Eagles in time for the 1933 season. Under his leadership the Eagles were horrid, and Bell still accounts for one of the poorest winning percentages in NFL coaching history (Hey, I didn’t claim he was perfect!). Coming from that experience as the league’s doormat, Bell’s philosophy was that the league was like a chain, a chain that was only as strong as its weakest link, and he had experienced enough time as its weakest link to know better than anybody.

One of the first things he did when he took over as Commissioner was to take responsibility for the schedule away from the owners and begin to draw up the schedules himself, in his dining room, using cardboard, matchbooks and team-names. Think of the kind of crap Goodell takes these days for taking control of discipline, but Bell walked in and took the schedule away from the owners – the very foundation of the league and money revenue.

His plan going forward was that the weaker teams should play other weaker teams early in the season and the stronger teams should face each other. This would keep more teams in the race for longer, and also have the effect of helping out the weaker sides that had been losing fan support and crucial gate receipt dollars when their sides fell out of the race early in the season. He was aiming to make the league more competitive, and more of a spectacle for the fans.

Before he ever became league Commissioner, he had been responsible for another revolutionary change proposed whilst still owner of the Eagles – The Draft. Before Bell each NFL team had exactly the same rights to any available college player as any other team. The richer owners, the more successful teams naturally had a better chance of signing the elite players, and the divide between rich and poor within the league continued to widen. His proposal, 63 years ago, is more or less identical to what we all recognize as the NFL Draft: “At the end of each football season, we pool the names of all eligible college seniors. Then we make our selections in inverse order of the standings – that is, the lowest-ranked team picks first. We do this round after round until we have exhausted the supply of college players.”

Again, this is a fundamental shift in philosophy coming from one man. Rather than continue with a situation that could have led to a couple of rich teams owning the league in perpetuity, Bell proposed a change that would level the playing field one off-season at a time, or at least give everybody a shot at the talent.

The league’s first two scheduled title games, in 1933 and 1934, had featured the Giants and Bears, both controlled by strong owners, but Bell was a strong enough character to sell Tim Mara and George Halas on the necessity of such a plan. Bell’s vision was for the benefit of the league, and the fact that he was able to get even the most powerful owners with the most to lose to go along with it is a testament not only to the integrity of the plan, but to his standing within the league. It is also a striking demonstration that despite everything these longstanding owners did still value the NFL as a whole above everything else. They may have been prepared to bicker for days when necessary, but they were in this for the love of the game, not the pursuit of money or glory.

This was the first time the concept of parity, now a keystone of the NFL, began to be pursued, and it was Bell that started the chase. Indeed it was Bell that first coined the phrase “On any given Sunday”, referring to the competitive nature of the NFL after these changes. No Bell, no Al Pacino speech, or at least a crappier movie title for it.

The magnitude of these two revolutionary changes is impossible to overstate. Not only are they fundamental cornerstones of the league we recognize today, perhaps the only league in sports that strives to promote parity amongst its teams, but without those changes the NFL may never have made it through the next ten years. The league may not have survived the very real challenge of the upstart AAFC led by the powerhouse Cleveland Browns.

Bell not only reshaped the principles of the NFL, but he might well have saved its very existence.

The league was up against it in the battle with the new AAFC. The younger league had perhaps the country’s most recognized and respected coach in Paul Brown, and a group of owners significantly more wealthy than their NFL counterparts. The NFL had to rely on the good will it had already built up with the public. This good will was almost eroded completely in 1946 when an attempt to fix the NFL Championship game was uncovered by New York detectives. In the January 1947 meetings, the owners granted Bell the power to suspend for life any player or team official involved in a game-fixing attempt. Bell acted swiftly and suspended both of the players caught up in the scandal indefinitely. At a time when American sports was rife with corruption, Bell’s decisiveness in acting quickly and ruthlessly was instrumental in the NFL maintaining its standing in the eyes of the public. Bell knew for the league to survive the game had to be clean and beyond reproach. Public confidence in the NFL was everything. Goodell might be more draconian in his approach than the man he replaced, but he isn’t the first commissioner to act swiftly and harshly for what he perceived to be the good of the league.

As the war raged on between the NFL and the AAFC it was Bell’s earlier pursuit of parity and competition within the league that began to prove decisive. Whilst the AAFC was losing the interest of fans due to the runaway dominance of the Cleveland Browns, the NFL was enjoying spirited competition throughout. The nosedive in fan support of the AAFC ultimately led to the rival league capitulating in 1949 and the resultant ‘merger’ between the two leagues involved just 3 AAFC franchises being absorbed into the NFL: The Champion Cleveland Browns, the title game losing San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts.

Seen initially as a challenge that the NFL might not be able to survive, the AAFC ended up being simply another entity pistol whipped into shape by Bell. The NFL recorded a resounding victory that reasserted its primacy, and picked up the excellence of Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns as icing on the cake.

Bell was also instrumental in the way the NFL handled the emerging power of the TV markets, without which the NFL wouldn’t be the billion dollar corporate dynasty it is today. He came up with the unpopular, but undeniably effective blackout policy the league has employed for the better part of sixty years. This gave the league the benefit of TV money and exposure but without running the risk of losing gate receipt money as a trade.

He also created the 2-minute warning, a devise that would ensure that the TV companies would be able to air at least one commercial break per half during a game. This was the first concession to TV networks that has mutated into the modern coverage of the NFL with a commercial break every three seconds, so we might not look too kindly on old Bert for that one, but it’s important to realize that this is where the dollars come from – it’s advertising that makes the networks their money, and enables them to pay colossal sums for the NFL broadcasting rights in the first place. Bell also suggested the televising of night games, and his innovative policies surrounding TV coverage of the NFL were truly visionary for such a young technology, setting the template for the way the modern NFL works in many ways.

Bell’s reign as Commissioner of the NFL had seen him become such a shining beacon of integrity within the game, and develop such an unimpeachable powerbase that he was able to take on even the owners that had hired him. Going directly against their wishes, Bell recognized the NFL Players Association as a legitimate entity acting on the players’ behalf when it was formed. When the angry owners confronted him he simply referred them to the league’s constitution, which permitted him to act on any matter ‘in the interests of pro football’. Labor strife may not sound like a great bestowal, but the league benefits by players being looked after and protected independently.

His legacy was cemented in his lifetime and when the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1963 for the first 17 inductees, Bert Bell was the first name on the list of inductees. Of all the men the NFL had to thank for its success and prosperity by 1963, Bert Bell was the first man chosen.

In 1963 Bell was recognized as one of the men responsible for shaping the NFL, for bringing pro football into the consciousness of the American public and beyond, and he was rightly regarded as a colossus of the sport, deserved of his place at the very lead of the game’s heroes. It is now more than 50 years since he died in the stands of a game between the team he co-founded and the team he once co-owned, both franchises still active and successful, yet his name had faded from the memory of not only the average fan, but seemingly NFL reporters, and league offices as well.

The NFL owes too much to Bert Bell to allow his memory to fade into obscurity. Bert Bell may have done more for the NFL than any single other man, and deserves more than to be lost in the ether by anybody associated with the NFL, to be consigned merely to the history books.

P.S. Thanks to Pete Damilatis who alerted me to that video of Bell I hadn’t seen before.

Fines or Fairness?

I understand what the NFL is trying to do with their campaign for player safety, even if it probably isn’t for the right reasons, but they are going about it in the wrong way entirely.

Football is an inherently violent game, a high-contact sport where major collisions, impacts and injuries are sadly inevitable. You simply can’t ever prevent them without making so many changes that we are no longer playing football.

Hell, even flag football people occasionally sees people run into each other, collide heavily and get concussed, accidents happen.

The NFL wants to change the culture of head-hunting and ‘lower the aiming point’ for players looking to make a big hit on a ball-carrier. That’s fair enough, and similar things have been done in other sports, but the way to achieve that is not through draconian fines and suspensions without pay.

Ed Reed was initially suspended for this hit against the Steelers on Sunday Night Football, before the suspension was eventually quashed on appeal. Reed is still being fined $50k for the hit, and yet the NFL’s own head of officiating, the man at the sharp end of this crusade against dangerous play, Ray Anderson, couldn’t come up with an answer to the question of what Reed should have done differently.

Reed didn’t launch himself, he is clearly looking to deliver the hit with his shoulder, but Sanders ducks into the hit to brace himself for impact and Reed has no chance to react to that and change his aiming point. Helmet contact is inevitable simply because your head is sitting atop your shoulders.

Now I don’t have any problem with saying those hits are now illegal. Just because something wasn’t deliberate doesn’t mean it’s not a penalty. If you want to try and make the game safer by eliminating those hits to the head, then I’m on board, but you can’t police that policy by fining players, because these hits are accidents.

Anderson speaking on Mike and Mike on ESPN even admitted that fines aren’t working. “(Fines) are not effective, and particularly when we have a repeat offender, and Ed, unfortunately, is a repeat offender,” Anderson said. “So that it doesn’t have to be a blow-up hit, particularly with a repeat offender if it’s in the head and neck area, it’s going to be severely evaluated and disciplined. We do not have a choice, given the environment, given what we know, to give the benefit of the doubt — change is hard, change is difficult.”

Fines don’t work because Reed isn’t attempting to make an illegal hit. These plays are clumsy not malicious. If you want to change the culture of these types of hits, it’s going to take some time, and you are never going to eradicate them entirely.

The NFL needs to take a leaf out of soccer’s book. The game in the 1970s featured leg breaking tackles regularly. People would launch two-footed towards the ball, taking the ball (maybe) and then the player. Some of them were perfectly legal tackles, but players were getting badly injured, sometimes horrifically, and the game’s governing body decided to make the two-footed lunge illegal.

 

Soccer’s system of punishments comes through cards. A bad penalty results in a yellow (warning) card, and a very bad penalty (or two yellow cards) results in a red card and an ejection from the game. Two footed tackles result in immediate ejections usually, and an automatic suspension then follows.

Soccer has generally tried to remove a lot of the dangerous lunging tackles along those lines, but sometimes they still happen. Players are late to the tackle and make a bad, dangerous tackle simply because they’ve been beaten by skill or timing. The majority of them are not malicious, but they still happen. Those players still get cards, get ejected, and get suspensions. The game has determined those challenges are not to be tolerated.

But they are not fined.

Soccer understands that you can’t punish players financially for being clumsy. The NFL fines players for everything, because the perception of being proactive and strict on this kind of thing will look good the next time they are sued in court, but it’s not the way to fix the problem, and it’s inherently unfair to players who are getting screwed financially for things largely out of their control.

At times accidental and incidental helmet contact will always happen. Even in their own commercial showing the NFL teaching kids the proper ‘heads up’ tackling technique they show the kid getting tackled taking a helmet to the facemask, jacking his head backwards.

 

Check this video at 1.39 for a kid getting a face full of helmet – that’s the new safer way!

There is no viable tackling technique that can guarantee no helmet or facemask contact. It’s always going to happen, it will often be completely accidental.

If you want to outlaw Reed-style hits, fine, do what soccer does. Eject Reed if it’s bad enough. If it’s deemed bad enough after the fact suspend him with pay, make the punishment come in the form of missing playing time and not being able to help his team. Don’t take money out of his pocket – significant money at times – for a hit where you can’t even explain what you would ask him to do differently.

 

 

A Guide to DB Celebrating

You watch any game in the NFL these days you’ll find a cornerback or safety making himself look like an ass for celebrating in truly ridiculous circumstances.

This week Kyle Wilson, perennial receiver chaperone, made the first good play of his NFL career by breaking on a ball indended for Sidney Rice and batting it away. He then jumped up and gave it the old finger wag. 

While I’m a big fan of the finger wag as a celebration, Kyle Wilson is the last person on earth who has earned the right to break it out in an NFL game. But Wilson isn’t the only perpetrator of this crime, and believe it or not players are breaking it out in even more ridiculous circumstances.

But I have sympathy, I understand the desire to wag a finger or utter a well-timed ‘Hell no!’, so I’m going to give these guys an idiot-proof guide to when is not acceptable to wag the finger:

  • When You Are Considered a Draft Bust

This one’s for you Mr Wilson. Yes you made a nice play on the ball, and yes you broke up that pass, but you coughed up a touchdown in the game too, and when Jets fans look at your draft pick they think of who else they could have had instead of you. That is not the time to break out the finger wag as if you’re Deion Sanders shutting things down. You have no right to wag the finger for quite some considerable time.

  • When You Are Down By 30

Defensive backs aren’t alone in this little bit of delusion, but they’re as bad as anybody else at it. This is a team game first and foremost, and the score is a pretty major reflection on your play. You don’t get to celebrate breaking up a pass when your team is getting murdered and you’re down 30. The team you just shut down once has clearly had more than enough joy already to make that pretty insignificant. No matter how good the play was you have to suck it up and keep quiet at least until you bring the score close enough that the game means something again.

 

  • When You Catch a Break With Phantom PI

Corners are big fans of the phantom calls when they go their way. There’s either almost no contact whatsoever, or worse, there’s contact from both sides all the way through, but the DB comes off second best in the exchange, but the official sees something only they can explain, and bails our defensive back out.  This is NOT a time to finger wag! You got beat on the play, and no amount of luck at the flag for phantom pass interference suddenly makes that a good play on your behalf. The best you can get away with here is a short clap at the decision and count your lucky stars on the way back to the huddle. No finger wagging.

  • When the Ball is Over or Under Thrown

This is a classic amongst corners, especially on the deep ball. Lousy coverage, a step behind the receiver going deep, panic in their hearts, but the quarterback can’t make the throw and the ball lands a full yard out of bounds. Oh yeah, there comes the finger wag.  NO! What are you doing? You just blew your jam, got toasted on the release and were running for your life just to try and save the touchdown once the receiver catches the ball. You had nothing to do with the incompletion, no finger wag for you!

  • When a WR Drops the Ball

This is my favorite. The defensive back in question is actually beaten to the point the receiver has the ball thrown his way and lands in his hands, but the receiver in question is Greg Little, or Braylon Edwards, or any of the other paddle-handed munchkins that somehow make it to the NFL without anybody noticing they can’t actually catch a football. Killed on the play, but the ball is dropped, that’s an incompletion…ALL ME BABY, finger wag!  No, no, no, no! You got killed, you don’t get to finger wag just because the receiver you were covering happens to be even more useless than you are.

I hope this has helped shed some light on what is clearly a tricky issue for NFL defensive backs.

I’m not here to be a naysayer. I love a good finger wag, and Darrelle Revis could get away with it on pretty much every snap of the game, but most NFL defensive backs are not Darrelle Revis. Most defensive backs simply have the attitude that they are Darrelle Revis when the truth is anything but.

Take note my defensive back brethren. Finger wag that shit, but only when you actually made a good play.

Whatever Happened to Evaluate the Source?

I should preface this by saying that I have a history degree, and a masters degree in journalism.  I’m not saying that to brag (really, those weren’t tough), but rather to point out for as long as I have been being educated people have been hammering the notion of evaluating the source into my head.

Why do people fail to do that now in this world of instant information?

It seems like the need for constant content has overtaken the common sense notion of actually evaluating whether that content has any worth or merit to it at all.  It’s more important to get something up, right or wrong, than it is to be silent on an issue.

This little rant has been inspired by the twitter feed of Rotoworld’s Chris Wesseling the other day. Not because Wesseling is guilty of any of this, but because he started digging up and posting old articles that went up in the off-season surrounding Peyton Manning, and the sheer idiocy that was being posted as news and content at the time.

All of these articles contain the juicy bits of information about Manning and his potential future, but how many of them come from people you would actually listen to on the subject? Manning’s future was a medical issue, then a physical issue, then a debate in his own camp and even his own head about what team to choose. The number of people that had accurate information at every stage of that process is minimal, and likely doesn’t include anybody that provided the information for any of these articles.

I’m sure I could have called up a bunch of friends and asked their opinion on whether Manning would ever play again and how his arm would look, but since I would trust their medical expertise about as much as I would trust the guarantee on those penis-enlargement emails my spam folder gets bombarded with, why bother?

Unfortunately journalists get paid to produce column inches, so anybody that has something interesting to say to them tends to find his words filling those column inches without anybody giving a crap if the guy in question could find his own asshole without a map. Bar talk has essentially become news as long as you manage to find a writer to fire the talk at and you have a close enough vague association with someone in the story that you can be referred to as ‘a source with knowledge of’ or ‘a source close to’.

For example: Personnel men to @realfreemancbs in Feb: “Serious doubts” Manning would ever play again “or at the very least will miss most of 2012.”

OK. What personnel men? What does he know about it and why should I care what he thinks on the subject? There are plenty of personnel men in the NFL I have a pretty low opinion of on face value, and that’s before we get anywhere near whether they actually have any knowledge whatsoever of the Manning situation. Are those personnel guys just guessing, or did they actually talk to Manning? I’d say that makes a pretty big difference to the information.

How about his destination?  Two people “close” to the Manning family tell WIP’s Howard Eskin that Peyton Manning is “very likely” to be a Redskin in 2012.

Close to the Manning family? That could be their dog walker, and just because they’re close to the family doesn’t mean they’ve ever exchanged two words on the subject. But they think he’s very likely to be a Washington Redskin, so let’s not bother to evaluate any further, that’s a money quote right there!

In late January, @JasonColeYahoo reported that “people close to” Peyton Manning believed his career to be over. Oops. Another swing and a miss for Manning’s golfing buddies. As Wesseling tweets, the next day Manning said he had no plans to retire and expected to receive medical clearance soon, and Cole’s article itself pointed to Manning’s words just a week before in which he was similarly confident.

In essence all the facts pointed to taking Manning at his word, a word that was proven right on the money, but articles were run with other points of view because they made headlines. The points of view never appeared coming from anybody with any credibility, and thanks to the modern culture of ‘unnamed sources’, we were never afforded the chance to evaluate and judge any of the sources for ourselves.

I understand that at times the media needs to offer anonymity in order to secure information, but that has become far too often the accepted norm, rather than the exception. We’re not discussing matters of national security here. Nobody is leaking classified information. There aren’t redacted CIA documents and microfilms involved, this is football, it’s entertainment!

People need to get back to the days of speaking their mind and standing by whatever they say. Who gives a crap if you think Manning won’t make it back, it’s not like he wasn’t determined enough to prove people wrong already. Stand up and put your name by your quote, don’t hide behind ‘sources close to the Manning family’.

As for reporters. If you won’t allow us the chance to evaluate the source for ourselves, at least do us the favor of doing so yourself. Save me any more articles based on the opinion of someone I wouldn’t trust to recommend a lunch order.

Fixing College Football’s Exploitation

I’m sure by now most of you have seen the video of Marcus Lattimore’s gruesome knee injury in this week’s South Carolina game. Even in suffering the injury that may end his career and a chance to earn millions of dollars, he is providing a ghoulish series of content for TV, the internet and sports related shows across various platforms, yet Lattimore himself sees nothing from it.

The endless debate continues to surround college football between people who say the players get nothing out of it and those that point to the scholarship itself as a very valuable entity worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I can see both sides, but I think there are a couple of areas that the NCAA should address in the interest of fairness, equity, and simply not exploiting young men who end up with nothing despite giving their bodies to a game and making a lot of money for their institutions.

I don’t agree with those that dismiss the scholarship entirely.  It is not an insignificant thing to get for free as part of the bargain. A scholarship is valuable, and it is an expensive opportunity to be taken advantage of, but it doesn’t make up for the loss of potential millions in earnings in the case of a career-ending injury before a guy makes the NFL.  Nor in many cases does it match the money generated by the player for the university by his play on the field. It has been estimated that the average fair market value of football players to their institutions is over $120,000 a year, on average. Some values are far far higher, leaving the cost of a scholarship paling into insignificance by comparison.  Bowl games can be worth millions to the institution, and though the university scholarship would cost the player a lot, it’s not costing the college that.

Here are the two ways I would fix the current system of exploitation:

Colleges Pay for Catastrophic Injury Insurance

The NCAA is never going to sanction paying ‘amateur’ athletes for their services, and however much you disagree with that, I can see their viewpoint on the situation, but players are getting screwed by the current system.  Guys like Lattimore may end up never making it to the NFL, and however much the draft remains a crapshoot, that is a significant portion of guaranteed cash he misses out on because the college game took the opportunity from him while he gave everything he had to it.

So if colleges won’t pay players a salary, they should be forced to insure prospects against catastrophic injuries.  Those policies exist now, and top prospects often avail of them if a player returns to college for his final season rather than declaring for the draft.  They’re not cheap, but they’re currently very rare.  If the NCAA or conferences combined to deal directly with insurance companies to cover players on a far greater scale, the cost would be lessened, and insurance companies would only be paying out for the rare times players  are dealt something as severe as Lattimore’s injury.

The bottom line is that no player should be on the cusp of millions from the NFL only to have one hit leave him with nothing when the college he was playing for was riding him to massive turnovers year on year.

Merchandising Sales Held in Trust

The other area I think some players get screwed is in the case of the great college players that just aren’t NFL talents for whatever reason.

There are players that set school records, dominate at the collegiate level but just don’t translate to the NFL and within a year or two are out selling insurance having been making hundreds of thousands of dollars for their college and the NCAA over their college careers.  Those guys get nothing but their degree, which as we’ve shown before, falls well short of forming an equal bargain for these guys. Just because you didn’t have NFL caliber talent doesn’t mean you should be left with nothing if you were a great college player.

At the moment only the college and the NCAA is allowed to profit from the likeness of a player.  College players can’t charge for autographs, and as guys like A.J. Green found out, they can’t even profit by selling their own gear. Why not?

Players are directly generating a fortune in merchandising income which the NCAA or college controls and reaps the benefits of. They could expand this merchandise marketing, generate more income from these players, and then they should devote a portion of the income generated by a player’s likeness/name/success etc to a trust fund for that player. If he earns a certain amount in guaranteed NFL contracts that money goes to the usual sources, the college and NCAA, but if that player craps out of the big-leagues he gets a pay out from the fund he created from his excellence on the field at the college level.

Think of a guy like Mike Hass, former Oregon St. WR.  Over three seasons of play for the Beavers, Hass notched just under 4,000 receiving yards, topping a thousand in each of his seasons. He scored 20 touchdowns and caught 220 passes. Hass was huge for that team in his career and was one of the best receivers in the nation, but he just wasn’t NFL quality.  After bouncing around a few teams failing to catch on, and then playing in the UFL, he realized pro ball was just a dream, and he now works for Nike designing equipment.  Mike Hass got nothing except the chance to audition for NFL teams from his college career despite generating a fortune for his college program.

Sure he gets to go into the real world with a degree and a few connections, but what about a piece of the financial pie he spent three seasons sweetening with his blood, sweat and tears?

I think Hass should be entitled to at least a cut of the merchandise he pushed by his play. Some guys can use their college career as a springboard to millions in the NFL, and those guys don’t need a helping hand from the colleges that helped get them there. Some guys can’t, and the college game should be prepared to give back to the guys that currently give so much to get so little in return.

 

Getting Comfortable

It’s only October, just seven weeks into the NFL season and already this blog is slipping into the background at the bottom of my ever growing to-do list.

Luckily though I have a topic in mind that requires zero research and prep-work, but just a little bit of memory access and simply staying awake long enough to finish the post.

That topic is the new season for the Rhinos, the team I play defensive back for in the Irish American Football League (IAFL).

When I first started playing the game I was a wide receiver.  I didn’t necessarily choose that position but rather ended up there by default.  I was fast, had decent enough hands, and my first team was stacked at defensive back, so if I ever wanted to see the field it was going to be as receiver. I wound up as a receiver and did OK there, scoring a touchdown in what I think was my first game, one-handed (which seems to be a bit of a theme with me, oddly), in the back of a muddy end zone in a blowout win:

The problem is I never really had the temperament for it. I never had that supreme confidence in my own abilities that receivers have, and need to have to succeed. If I ever dropped a pass, the feeling of letting my team down stung worse than any individual failure. My hands are fine for the level I’m playing at, I can catch a ball, but as a receiver I drop more passes than I’m happy with, and that was always going to cap how well I could play on that side of the ball. I may be just as good or better than most people at this level, but I don’t like doing things I can only be ‘good’ at.

When my first team folded and I moved to the Rhinos, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to switch to defensive back, the area I felt I was probably more naturally suited to.

Skipping through a few pages in the story…we’re now entering a new season with the Rhinos. Pre-season training has begun and I’m going along to try and maintain my fitness levels during an otherwise brutal PFF/NFL regular season so that I won’t be playing catchup when the real football starts.  The PFF schedule is such an ass-kicker that the sheer weight of hours sat on my ass analyzing games means but for the weekly training sessions with the Rhinos it wouldn’t be long before I could forget about playing defensive back and start working on my lineman fundamentals.

Last season between lack of fitness and a couple of knee injuries suffered early in the pre-season I wasn’t really 100% until the very end of the season. I got beat a bit early in the season as my mind struggled to catch up to what my body was no longer prepared to do, and as soon as I was getting into my stride we crashed out of the playoffs and that was it for another year.

I think that I’m now finally getting more comfortable as a defensive back, playing both corner and safety when the need calls for it.  I always had a pretty good eye for reading the play, but it took me a while to trust what I saw and react to it immediately and instinctively.  There was too much thinking time involved.

As a safety I would hesitate half a beat and cheat myself out of some distance to the football. As a corner I would honor my zone or man a little longer than I knew I had to just to be certain it was going where I knew it was going.

If this week in training is anything to go by, I’m looking forward to the new season. I hauled in one of the best catches I’ve ever made in warm up drills, catching a ball over my shoulder one handed as I lay out for it before hitting the ground and maintaining control. I was also robbed of a one handed interception because apparently the quarterback was “sacked” before throwing it (sounds like his problem to me, he threw the ball!).

My favorite play of the day though came when we were playing Cover-3, and I abandoned my deep third at LCB to cut across the field and break up a deep post route that originated from the WR split to the far side of the field.

The only thing I want to work on going forwards is completing the play by catching the ball, rather than simply settling for breaking it up. I’ve got pretty good ball skills (and it turns out the ball is WAY easier to catch when it’s not intended for you), but there are times where I’m so intent on just getting to it that I neglect to go aggressively after it to pick it off myself. I settle for depriving a receiver of the football rather than making sure I get it myself.

So here’s to a new season in the IAFL, and here’s to increasing my tally of 4 picks from last year.  Here’s to anyone that wants to take a shot into my coverage, cos this year it just ain’t happening.

 

NFL – Your Rules Are Broken II

I’m sure many of you expect this post to be about the Monday Night Football game between the Packers and Seahawks. But it’s not. And in truth I think that has been overblown by everybody dramatically.

We’re all growing weary of poor calls by replacement officials, but in truth the real officials have blown calls too, officiated poor games, and even cost teams results as a direct result of blown calls before. Remember Ed Hochuli’s inadvertent whistle?

Monday Night Football was definitely the biggest stage for it to happen, and coming on the final play the way it did really gives people something to latch onto, but in truth this hyperbole and vitriol stems from a build up of blown calls and crappy officiating and a general frustration from fans and media alike that no deal has been done yet.

Far worse calls have been made before under the watch of the guys we’re all clamoring to get back out there.

Instead I want to focus on another of the long line of calls resulting from the NFL’s endless obsession with removing any and all common sense from the officials.

Much like the catch from A.J. Green that was ruled incomplete, check this video of one from Mike Williams.

 

Again, if you showed that video to a room full of random people and asked them if he caught the ball, what would they say? Mike Williams clearly catches the ball, takes a couple of steps and is then hit, which dislodges the ball out of bounds.

It is an obvious catch and then a fumble, but instead, the NFL’s relentless pursuit of removing any judgment from things now means that to be given a reception you need to possess the ball for roughly a fortnight, and have a signed affidavit that it has been in your family for that same length of time.

The decisions are bad enough, and my broad complaint is that the NFL has broken its own rulebook with this silly pursuit of black and white rules in a game colored by shades of gray, but this has had other knock-on effects as well.

Defenders now know that they still aren’t beaten even if a guy makes the catch, they can spend the next few seconds clawing at a clearly caught football knowing that if they manage to prise it loose, there’s every chance that the officials will call it incomplete.

The NFL needs to get the handle back on when a caught ball is caught, and exercise a little common sense, so we can all get back to admiring a great play from the receiver, not screaming at the TV at what a terrible call it was.

NFL – Your Rules are Broken

The first few weeks of the season (at least) are subject to rule from replacement officials.  It’s not like these guys are inexperienced in officiating, but like replacement players would be, they’re just not NFL ready, and some may just never be NFL capable.

Consequently there have already been some decisions more questionable than Deion Sanders’ dress sense in the first week of action.

The problem is that for years the NFL has been going out of its way to remove any possible judgment from officials by making rules more black and white, warping what should be simple plays and creating outcomes that just don’t pass the eyeball test.

Remember the Calvin Johnson ‘catch’ for a touchdown?  He caught the ball, got to his feet and on the way up lost the ball from his grip on the turf.  That was called an incomplete pass. Correctly.

I say correctly because by the letter of the law – the law as it currently stands in the NFL – that is an incomplete pass.  In order to save the embarrassment of a few plays where officials use their judgment and make a mess of it, they’ve been tweaking and tailoring the rules so that officials are now bound to make decisions as ridiculous as that even though no sane person on earth would say he didn’t catch that pass.

It happened again on Monday Night Football between the Bengals and the Ravens.  AJ Green caught the ball, secured it, got tackled, and when he hit the ground the ball came loose.

Incomplete pass.

Are you kidding me?

Take a look at this video.

Then imagine showing that to somebody and then explaining to them why he didn’t catch the football.  Is there any chance the reaction to that is anything other than uncontrolled laughter?

The sad thing is I’m not even convinced that the call was incorrect by the rules as they currently stand.  They’ve chopped and changed between the number of steps needed to having to make a ‘football move’ and back,  and at this stage I think there’s a decent chance the officials don’t have a clue what the exact black and white spec is, but the point is, who cares?

We’ve reached a stage where we’re all arguing over the small details of fine print of rules that have been devised to ensure we don’t entrust the official to use his common sense to come to the conclusion a 7-year old would come to.

NFL, when we’re at the stage where you look at that video and say ‘Incomplete Pass’, your rules are broken.

 

The 2012 Season is Upon Us

The few of you that follow this blog may have noticed that it hasn’t been updated for a while.

If you’re a fan of my content you may also have noticed that I have been AWOL from twitter and the various other outlets that my stuff usually appears in. This is because on August 4 I got married, and then took off to the sun-drenched climes of Italy for a honeymoon with my new bride.

Both the wedding and the honeymoon were great, and now I am back and about to embark on the new season of NFL action for PFF.

So what exactly does that involve for a PFF Analyst?

Though many people watch a lot of football I’m not sure there is anybody that watches as much as PFF Analysts, and I’m reasonably sure that over the course of the NFL season there isn’t a person on earth that watches more football than Ben Stockwell, our Director of Analysis.

Ben has a robotic speed to analysing games that none of us can hope to match at the moment, but we each get through our own share of games.

My work week starts as soon as the early kickoff games have ended.  When everybody else is sitting down to their second helping of NFL action of a Sunday, I’m sitting down to begin analysis on my first game of the week.  Most games require watching any given play several times, running through it again and again to make sure you’re spotting a few key things right and then working from there.

I’ll work through to mightnight or the early hours, heading to sleep only to rise again five or six hours later to start work again Monday morning.  Mondays are the toughest and longest days (as tough as a day watching football can get I guess).  I’m usually at it from first thing in the morning until another midnight finish, with food breaks in between and little else.

Beyond working on the games themselves we’ve got some content and review pieces to get written too.

All things considered it’s a good thing my wife experienced last season, because otherwise I might be expecting divorce papers to be filed by Week 16.  Thankfully she saw what a PFF season was like first hand last year, so she is well prepared – a seasoned veteran in such matters.

So I shall endeavour to keep this blog up and running now that I’m back in action, but if it falls in the wake of the PFF regular season too, I’ll resurface come January!

Let’s enjoy some NFL football!