Joe-Pinions: Sports

25 Jan 2011 – My Personal Top 10 NFL Quarterbacks (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 25/01/2011

Last time I started counting down my personal top 10 NFL quarterbacks.  To see which quarterbacks were ranked #10 and #9, click here.

Here are quarterbacks ranked 8th through 4th:

8.  Dan Marino

Prototypical size?  (6’4″, circa 225lbs)  Check.

Bazooka arm?  Yep, got that.

Quick release?  Possibly one of the quickest ever.

Until fairly recently, Dan Marino owned almost every statistical category for quarterbacks in the NFL.  Curiously, though, Marino’s name seems to come all too infrequently when football fans gather to discuss their personal lists of top NFL quarterbacks.

It’s all too easy to say that the reason for this is the fact that Marino played in only one Super Bowl, or the fact that his Miami Dolphins were so thoroughly demolished by the San Francisco 49ers in that one appearance.  I may be one of the few fans who would not hold these particular facts against Marino.

I mean, it’s not his fault his teams never really had a legitimate go-to receiver, in the mold of a Jerry Rice or Sterling Sharpe or even a Jay Novacek, someone on whom you could almost bet the house that he would make that key reception when you just absolutely needed one.  It’s not his fault that he never ever seemed to have a running back worth the name; in fact, the only running back on Marino’s teams whose name I can remember was Karim Abdul-Jabbar (who, sadly for Marino’s sake, was nowhere close in football ability as his near-namesake was in basketball).  It’s not his fault his Dolphins simply weren’t good enough on defense to sustain a strong-enough campaign for a Super Bowl win.  How could all these shortcomings be properly laid at his feet?

But fans do that anyway, and hold all of that against Marino.

I think about this some more, and then something Steve Young once said about his own career and experience in the NFL rushes to the forefront of my mind:  “In the NFL, perception is reality.  And if someone says ‘you’re this,’ or ‘you’re that,’ then you may as well be it.”

Conversations with my brother-in-law (a sports junkie if I ever saw one) also come to mind, specifically those times when he said that he thought Marino played to pad his stats first and foremost, and thoughts of winning were decidedly of lower priority.  I honestly don’t agree with my brother-in-law, but in Dan Marino’s case, well…  

Suffice it to say I’m just a small voice in the wilderness, and many more people tagged Marino as a mere stats machine and nothing more.

For me, I’ll always remember Dan Marino for his super-quick release and that great lively arm. When I think of Marino, I can’t help but imagine what he might have been able to do if he had Troy Aikman’s team instead of his perpetually inadequate Dolphins squads through his career.  Just thinking of Marino being able to hand off to a very good running back with the best blockers available, then throwing to three (or four, including Moose Johnston) receivers, is one of my personal favorite “what if” theoretical scenarios.

7.  Peyton Manning

If quarterbacking was a part of the game of baseball, then a quarterback’s statistics would probably be the end-all, be-all as far as measuring his merits.  It would thus be tempting to put players with the biggest numbers in the highest placings of a ranking system.

I said in the first part of this blogging mini-series that most statistics have never been all that important to me, that the numbers I cared about most were for games and championships won.  This is why Favre was only tenth on my current ranking (I’m reserving the right to change which quarterbacks are on my personal top 10 list at any time in future, of course); he may have most of the big stats, but other considerations weighed more heavily (in Favre’s case, his massive propensity for throwing interceptions just drops my esteem of him as a quarterback like a boulder in free-fall; that, and the fact that, for all his numbers, he’s only got one Super Bowl ring).

Peyton Manning might one day approach, if not actually exceed, Favre in the record books.  But will he accumulate more Super Bowl trophies along the way?

Manning is a bit of a conundrum, and probably a source of some frustration as far as his fans are concerned.  As my friend Tim wrote in his excellent analysis of Manning’s career track, during the regular season there’s no better quarterback in NFL history.  As Wikipedia’s Peyton Manning entry shows, his list of records is so long, it may deserve to be a record itself.  And he is the only person in the entire history of the NFL to be voted MVP four times.  Manning’s most ardent admirers would likely use these facts as ammunition for their argument that Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of them all.

Critics, though, would counter that the regular season is only half the picture; there is a flip side to Peyton Manning’s career.  If his excellence during the regular season is Dr. Jekyll, then Mr. Hyde would be his less than stellar record in the playoffs.  Tim did an excellent job in describing Manning’s shortcomings during the playoffs, but to me the most glaring negative in his quarterbacking CV is his postseason win percentage (47.4%).  (Thanks, Tim, for doing the stat analysis.)

That’s the objective side of things.  Subjectively speaking, you can almost feel Manning’s tightness, his personal tension, when you watch him play during the postesason.  When during the regular season he’s almost always got a quiet confidence and a killer instinct pushing him to win the game, he often looks tentative, sometimes nervous, but always tight, during a playoff game.  The body language cues are easy to read.  On a passing play, he looks jumpy, and you sometimes wonder if he’s seeing pass rushers where there aren’t any.  Especially against his greatest nemeses, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, Manning looks decidedly confused, throwing into coverage and killing drives with ill-timed interceptions.  He reacts to almost every single incompletion, but especially during a failed attempt to convert third down.  He looks more vocally critical of his teammates on the field, admonishing them about what route the receiver should have run, or which pass rusher his O-line and running back should have picked up.  Then there is the well-known Manning slouch of the shoulders, or the incredulous shrug, when the opposing defense gets the best of him.

During the playoffs, when the heat is really turned up, Manning’s demeanor is transformed.  Where during the regular season his face is like a cold, hard assassin’s who wouldn’t hesitate one bit when he’s on the attack, at playoff time it becomes something else.  It really reminds me of that scene in Star Wars Episode III:  Revenge of the Sith, when Chancellor Palpatine reveals himself as the deadly Sith Lord Darth Sidious:  It’s almost as if the intensity of playoff situations melts away the determined mask Manning wears during the regular season, and the ugly truth is exposed.

I’m convinced that Manning’s fear of losing is much greater than his passion for winning big games.

Unfortunately, that fear of losing only feeds the vicious cycle, dragging him down, affecting his performance, and fulfilling all his worst nightmares.

I have defended Manning’s lack of success in the playoffs relative to the rest of the other greats to play the position.  Like Marino, his failures come playoff time are not all his fault; sometimes, his teams lose despite his contributions (this year’s AFC Wild Card weekend loss to the Jets is a great example; head coach Jim Caldwell and the Indy defense made some critical errors in judgment and simply did not execute well at the most important parts of the endgame which sealed the team’s fate).  He can only control the offense, and how he plays.  But it’s impossible to ignore Manning’s very visible transformation in how he plays, and how he carries himself, when the chips are down; he has to do a much better job at controlling the effect his emotions have on his performance.  I don’t remember Marino shrinking away from the task of leading his team.  If anything, the always fiery Marino jacked up his own personal intensity in his pursuit of victory.

Peyton Manning is an interesting quarterback, if nothing else.  Like Jim Kelly, when he’s on, and he’s moving that Indianapolis Colts offense down the field with military precision, it’s an awesome sight.

Too bad we don’t see enough of it during the playoffs.

6.  Jeff Garcia

I can almost hear the howls of disbelief now.

Jeff Garcia?

Are you serious?

Jeff Garcia?!?

I’m deadly serious in putting Jeff Garcia on this list.

But why?

I’ve always been a Jeff Garcia fan.  Sure, a big part of why is the fact that he played for the 49ers.  So go ahead, color me biased and call me a homer, even though I don’t live in the Bay Area.

But surely, Garcia can’t belong in anybody’s top 10 list of quarterbacks.  I mean, just LOOK AT HIM.

That’s the first mistake when it comes to Jeff Garcia:  Almost everyone has underestimated him.  That’s the easiest response, just looking at him.  He may not ever be on anybody else’s short list of quarterbacks straight from Central Casting.  He doesn’t fit the image at all, and he simply doesn’t have any of the overt physical tools needed for the job.  He’s one of the smaller quarterbacks to excel in the NFL:  6’1″, circa 195 lbs soaking wet.  He doesn’t have Aikman’s rocket launcher of an arm.  He doesn’t even have matinée idol looks, as Dan Marino or Tom Brady have (hey, I don’t care for this myself, but I’m sure this counts for some people).

But there’s one thing that cannot be denied:  No less than Bill Walsh, unquestionably one of the greatest quarterback talent evaluators to have ever walked this earth, thought Garcia had “it.”

Coach Walsh first took notice of Garcia during his second stint coaching the Stanford Cardinal in the early1990s.  Walsh’s Stanford team was playing Garcia’s San Jose State Spartans, and somehow the Spartans, a school with access to fewer prize football recruits than Stanford, were giving the Cardinal all they could handle.  Garcia proved unflappable during that game despite the overwhelming odds, making throws all over the field and defusing the pass rush effectively and confidently.  He was also much more athletic than his slight stature might have suggested.  San Jose State didn’t beat Stanford that game, but Jeff Garcia made such a huge impression on Coach Walsh, he made sure to keep an eye on the young man from Gilroy, California.

When Walsh returned to the San Francisco 49ers in the late 1990s as their General Manager, one of his most interesting moves was to persuade the team to sign Garcia to a contract.  He was met with much opposition, largely because of Garcia’s more apparent physical limitations (lack of size, inadequate arm strength); Garcia’s positive attributes, particularly his excellent mobility, decision-making and on-field judgment, capability for producing excellent performance, and leadership qualities (he led the Calgary Stampeders to the Grey Cup in the CFL in 1998) apparently didn’t count for as much.  He just didn’t have the “measurables.”

Nevertheless, Garcia became a 49er in 1999, signed as Steve Young’s backup.  And the thing about this was, I loved that Garcia was a die-hard 49ers fan himself.  It was literally a dream come true for him to play quarterback for his beloved team.

Years later, this was how Bill Walsh described what attracted him to Garcia:  “They (the scouts and other talent evaluators in the NFL) missed on the one element that made Joe Montana great:  His ability to avoid and throw…  You’re looking for an instinctive athlete to play the game.”  Like his idol Montana, Jeff Garcia could “avoid and throw.”  Walsh saw that himself in that game between Stanford and San Jose State.  Indeed, Garcia was magnificent to watch in the pocket, using his blockers to best effect, shuffling this way or that to avoid the rush.  I loved watching his footwork, which was as good as anybody’s, in my opinion.  He also excelled at throwing on the run.  He may not have had a Howitzer for a throwing arm, and maybe he wasn’t built like an M1 Abrams, but Garcia was nimble, quick, agile.  He was a Honda S2000, and he could hit targets and put the ball in places where defenders weren’t and his receivers were as well as anyone.

By the end of his stay in San Francisco, Garcia was able to achieve some things that not even legends like Joe Montana and Steve Young did.  For example, he set the 49ers’ team record for most passing yards in a season (4278).  He also was the first quarterback in team history to have two consecutive seasons with at least 30 passing touchdowns (31 and 32 passing TDs in 2000 and 2001, respectively).  At the same time, he also showed that, unlike some other great quarterbacks (Brett Favre, specifically), he didn’t negate his production by throwing for only 23 INTs during that same span (10 and 12 INTs, respectively).

To me, a quarterback has to maximize production (TDs) and minimize turnovers (INTs, fumbles lost).  The higher the TD:INT ratio, the better the QB.  Garcia’s career TD/INT ratio is 161/83 (1.939); this compares quite favorably to Brett Favre’s (508/336, 1.512), Dan Marino’s (420/252, 1.666), or John Elway’s (300/226, 1.327).  What this ultimately means is that Garcia tends to end more possessions with touchdowns instead of giving the ball to the other team and giving them the chance to score.  And in football, you can only score if you have the ball.

When Garcia was with the 49ers, the team won games, and more often than not they went to the playoffs.  He became a casualty of the salary cap, Terrell Owens’ cancerous influence on the team, and an ill-advised change to a vertical style of offense that he was not equipped to execute properly (Dennis Erickson replaced one of Garcia’s staunchest supporters on the team, Steve Mariucci, in 2003), and he left the Niners at the end of 2003.  Not coincidentally, the 49ers have not been back to the playoffs since Garcia (and Mariucci) was on the team; neither have they looked or played competently on offense since his departure.

I usually don’t follow the careers of ex-49ers, but I did that for three players:  Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Jeff Garcia.  I still weep for the days when Jeff executed that evolved Walsh offense under Mariucci.  Unlike most people, I always loved Jeff and how he played quarterback.  I didn’t see the under-sized, underdog quarterback.  I could honestly say that, in many ways, Jeff reminded me of Joe Montana, in that as long as there was time left on the clock, he was always going to do what he could to try and win that game.  He didn’t always succeed, but you always knew that he was trying.

I didn’t care that he didn’t quite look the part of the prototypical NFL quarterback.  It was enough that he played better than some of the so-called greatest QBs.  The only thing that I wish Garcia did was win a Super Bowl with the 49ers.  But I have never held that against him.

5.  Rich Gannon

I can almost hear the howls of disbelief now.

Oh wait.

We’ve been through that already.

I figured I’ve already thrown your expectations for a loop once.  What’s one more time between friends, eh?

Yeah, like Jeff Garcia, Rich Gannon probably isn’t on anybody’s short lists of top NFL quarterbacks.  I tell you, though, Gannon was something else to watch on the field.

I first started watching Gannon when he was with the Kansas City Chiefs.  You see, the Chiefs came on my personal radar first when the monstrously awesome Christian Okoye was their featured running back in the late 1980s.  Then, when Montana was traded to Kansas City and Marcus Allen signed for them as a free agent, I developed a minor crush on the team.  Now I wouldn’t call them my favorite team – the 49ers have always been that, and they forever will be – , but the Chiefs were probably the most interesting team in the AFC West for me.  (Sorry to my best friend Rick, a diehard Raiders fan, and his wife Monette and my brother-in-law Andy, who are both crazy Chargers fans.)

Anyway, Gannon always impressed me with his footwork.  I love watching quarterbacks’ feet.  Even before I read and heard Bill Walsh talk about how good quarterbacking is not so much about great arms as they are about great feet, I guess I always had an instinctive, intuitive understanding of the essential importance of footwork.  I loved watching Gannon dropping back from under center, demonstrating all the various drops with great proficiency.  He could do the 3-step, the 5-step, the 7-step, the bootlegs and waggles, everything a Walsh-type quarterback should do.

Another thing that impressed me so much about Rich Gannon:  Give him a good-enough line to protect for him, and he’ll put that ball in the right receiver’s hands most of the time.  He had a gift similar to Jeff Garcia’s:  He could “avoid and throw.”

Plus he really was an accurate passer.  When he was at his peak, such as when he moved to the Oakland Raiders in 1999, it seemed as if that if the ball hit the ground, it wasn’t because his pass was off.  Incompletions were more because his receivers dropped a perfectly catchable ball.

Gannon had other subtle skills.  For example, he was a master at “looking off” the coverage, primarily the free safety.  Coverage guys, especially the safeties, are coached to watch the quarterback’s helmet to have a clue where the QB might be going on a pass play.  The logic, of course, is that a quarterback has to see where he wants to go with the ball.  Gannon almost always knew where the defense was going to be before the snap just by anticipating the coverage type through his pre-snap look, so what he would often do on longer throws down the field is he would look away from where he wanted to go; inevitably, the safeties would react appropriately and drift towards where Gannon was looking, only to Gannon throw to a void in the coverage.  Except for Tom Brady today, I can’t think of any other quarterback as proficient as Gannon on the look-off.

Then there’s the famous Gannon pump fake.  His pump fake is so convincing, even the cameraman gets faked out.

Gannon is also something of an intellectual, at least when it comes to football.  I remember one time watching him break a play or two down on TV (I think it was on ESPN), and he went over every detail of those two plays.  He talked about the protection scheme, the possible line adjustments depending on the defensive front, the QB’s drop, the receivers’ various routes, the options available to the receivers depending on the secondary’s shell (i.e., visual presentation pre-snap, which often is a clue to the type of coverage for that play), the QB’s progression of reads (who is the primary receiver, the secondary receiver, and one or two outlet receivers), and who the hot receiver was (the hot receiver is who the QB will go to immediately in the event of a dog/blitz).  He even talked about how a given play could be run out of several different formations.  I’ve searched the net for this particular clip, but unfortunately I cannot find it.  But that TV moment will live forever in my memories.

Now all quarterbacks are supposed to be able to describe all the plays in their playbooks like this for each and every play.  But Gannon amazed me when I saw that segment, and I always thought his obvious intelligence in football made him like a coach on the field.  (He’s the only quarterback in my personal top 10 who I believe can actually probably be a very good coach someday.)  And I know that not all quarterbacks were as detailed and knowledgeable as Gannon was, relying more on athletic skill to get the job done.  Gannon, though, played with skill, guts, and great intelligence.

But for all these tools in his toolbox, perhaps like no other quarterback other than Marino, Gannon had an overt rage to win.  Gannon may have been a bit more subtle at expressing his fury to win – Marino was always very demonstrative when it came to his emotions during a game – but it was no less real.  Gannon simply loved winning.

As with Jeff Garcia, I don’t hold it against Gannon that he didn’t win a Super Bowl.  He lost in one, primarily because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were coached by his old head coach, Jon Gruden.  Gruden knew Gannon as well as Gannon himself, and even ran a pre-Super Bowl practice with him as quarterback, perfectly simulating Gannon down to mimicking Gannon’s manner in playcalling, his line of scrimmage cadence, and even his audibles.  This turned Super Bowl XXXVII into something more akin to a Gannon vs. the Buccaneers, a one vs. eleven contest; the Bucs knew how Gannon would play, what he liked and what he didn’t like to do, and forced him to do things that he didn’t want to all game long.  Gannon never had a chance.

When I think of Gannon the quarterback, the final winning drive the Raiders made against a Bill Parcells-coached New York Jets defense comes to mind.  All facets of Gannon the quarterback, Gannon the leader of his team, are on full display on this drive.

Enjoy:  

4.  Drew Brees

When Drew Brees decided to leave San Diego for free agency at the end of the 2005 season, I prayed to the Football Gods for the 49ers to take a chance on him.  This was despite the fact that Brees had suffered a devastating torn labrum on his right (throwing) shoulder.  Alas, the Football Gods didn’t hear my prayers.  Either that, or they decided that New Orleans was going to need Brees a lot more.

As it turned out, in some ways Drew Brees was indeed a godsend to New Orleans.  The Crescent City suffered mightily in the late summer of 2005 because of Hurricane Katrina, and the hometown Saints were dangerously close to leaving, one reason being their home stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, suffered a considerable amount of damage in the wake of the super-hurricane.  If the Saints had marched out (to San Antonio, or Los Angeles, or some other destination), New Orleans might have died as an American city.

Okay, so perhaps that’s a bit hyperbolic for me to write.  But this is hardly an original sentiment, as I recall many people in the media saying the exact same thing at the time.

Brees’ arrival in New Orleans coincided with the beginning of a new coaching regime.  Sean Payton replaced Jim Haslett at the end of the 2005 season, and in fact was instrumental in persuading Brees to join him in Louisiana.

So what’s so special about Brees?  I see him as something like a better, more evolved version of Jeff Garcia.  Like Garcia, he’s a bit on the small side.  He’s actually an inch shorter than Garcia, but is a little heavier (circa 210 lbs).  The extra weight probably went into his throwing arm, as it is deceptively strong despite Brees’ lack of size relative to the prototypical ideal quarterback.  He’s not as lithe and agile as Garcia, but he’s not a statue quarterback; he possesses enough mobility to get out of trouble and sometimes even pick up a few yards with his legs.  Make no mistake about it, though:  Drew Brees is a pure dropback passer.

Brees is proof positive that you don’t have to be built like Troy Aikman to lead the league in passing yards.  So prolific is Brees as a passer, he became only the second quarterback in NFL history to finish the season with at least 5000 passing yards (5069 in 2008).  Not too shabby for a guy with a reconstructed shoulder, I’d say.

For me, though, Brees’ most outstanding qualities as a passer are his ability to make the correct decision most of the time as far as where to go with the ball, as well as his accuracy in his delivery.  The first quality speaks of his intelligence; he can very quickly decipher the defense’s coverage scheme, and from there it’s a simple matter of locating where the voids in the coverage are.  All that’s left is for his receivers to go to those voids (or, in the case of man-to-man coverage, to create enough separation between themselves and the coverage defenders) and make the catch.  Brees will throw that ball and put it where only his receiver can get to it most of the time.  If nobody’s open, Brees will either run to make yardage or throw the ball away.  He’s not likely to force balls into coverage.

Yeah, I prayed like crazy for Brees to become a Niner when the Chargers chose Philip Rivers over him at the end of 2005.  It didn’t come to pass, but that’s okay.  In truth, I was very happy to see Drew Brees win a Super Bowl with New Orleans.  I don’t often cheer for a player on another team, but I did for Brees.

Brees was perfect for New Orleans:  He’s a great comeback story, just like the city is and continues to be.  And I’m perfectly happy for that.

*****

Seven quarterbacks done, only three to go.

Who will the final three be?

Find out in the last installment of this blogging mini-series.

Hope to see you (and hear from you) then!

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21 Jan 2011 – My Personal Top 10 NFL Quarterbacks (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 21/01/2011

On Monday I was driving home from my parents’ house after the MLK long weekend.  Since the trip usually takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours on a good day, that usually means I’ve got quite a bit of time to form all sorts of thoughts.  Oh, sure, a good chunk of my brain power is devoted to the task of driving, but there is also a good part of my mind running on its own track.

Yesterday, that part of my mind got to thinking about quarterbacks in the NFL.  Truth be told, I think I was partially influenced to think unconsciously about the subject by a few things:  I’m reading David Harris’ hugely engrossing The Genius:  How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created a Football Dynasty, and I’m loving it; I spent a good part of last couple of weekends watching quarterbacking in the NFL from all parts of the spectrum, from the sublime (Aaron Rodgers on Saturday vs. the Falcons) to the sad (Matt Hasselbeck against Chicago, though a lot of his ineffectiveness could probably be traced to the weather); I read my friend Tim’s very interesting write-up on Peyton Manning and why he likely won’t ever be seen as the NFL’s best quarterback despite his statistical success.

Yeah, these things made me think about my personal top 10 NFL quarterbacks.

Before I put my opinions on this specific topic into this blog, I have to say a few things.  First, statistics have NEVER been that important to me.  The only stats that truly matter are games wonand championships won.  The rest are just numbers to me (though, I have to admit, there are a couple of statistical facts that are just amazing to me, and I’ll cite these when the time comes).  Secondly, this is by no means a list that attempts to answer the almost inevitable question:  Is this the same as who you think are the best NFL quarterbacks of all time?  That’s an impossible question to answer, especially since you’ll always be adding people to the list of candidates as time goes by.  Besides, it’s a question that incorporates subjective and objective criteria, so it’s virtually impossible to come up with a definitive, indisputable list.  My own list has changed so many times over the years, so I won’t even pretend to try to do that now.  Think of this list as simply my own favorites.  Finally, I’ll do my best to ignore negative biases based on the candidates’ character flaws as I see them; I’ll only be looking at them from the perspective of how I saw them perform on the field.  (This means that, as much as I think Brett Favre is loathsome as a person, he won’t automatically be disqualified from this list.  Will he even BE on this list?  Read on to find out.)

And before I go any further, let me put name five quarterbacks that didn’t quite make the cut into the top 10.  I like these guys a lot, but for whatever reason I didn’t like them enough to award them places in my personal top 10 list:

  • Kurt Warner – I always resented it when some pundits compared him to Joe Montana, but I have to give my respect to this guy.  He’s a very accurate passer and played with great courage:  He was brave to play with a broken thumb on his throwing hand for at least one full season, and he took a heck of a lot of hits playing for Mike Martz.  Plus he is undoubtedly a great leader; his teams always played their tails off for him.  I think the sole reason why I’m reluctant to fully embrace Warner is the fact that he played for the St. Louis Rams (I’m a San Francisco 49ers fan, and as such I despise all things connected to the Rams).  Warner’s biggest strike:  Three Super Bowl appearances, only one victory.
  • Bernie Kosar – He was probably the last great Cleveland Browns quarterback (until the next one comes along, whenever that is going to be).  I remember him for his unconventional throwing motion – he seemed to throw from weird angles and release points all the time, with no two throws ever being the same.  He somehow led the Browns into deep playoff runs a few times, though, and could have played in at least one Super Bowl if not for The Fumble against Elway’s Broncos in  1988.  Kosar’s outstanding quality:  His accuracy and decision-making (i.e., deciding where the ball should go depending on the coverage he’s looking at).  He held the record for most pass attempts without incurring an interception (308) until Tom Brady broke it last year.  Biggest knock against Kosar:  No rings.  Second biggest knock (on-field):  No wheels.  A statue-like quarterback if there ever was one.
  • Troy Aikman – Aikman represented the personification of one version of the “ideal” NFL quarterback:  He had a powerful arm, great size (6’4″, circa 220lbs), and excellent accuracy.  I’m reluctant to include him in my personal top 10, though, because he had the benefit of playing with some truly exceptional teammates.  You’d have to be useless in order to fail with Emmitt Smith and Daryl “Moose” Johnston (incidentally, my favorite Dallas Cowboy of all time) in the backfield, Jay Novacek as your tight end, Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper as your primary wideouts, and possibly the greatest offensive line of all time.  Oh, and he was coached by Jimmy Johnson too.  I guess it’s not fair to “penalize” Aikman for being part of such an awesome team, but hey, them’s the breaks, you know?  (And no, I’m not doing this because Aikman’s Cowboys denied the 49ers from adding to their own Super Bowl collection in the early 1990s.  Seriously.  I just think Aikman had such a great hand; he would have had to have been an imbecile to lose with such a great team.)  In his favor, though, Aikman was amazing for his great ability to throw with accuracy and touch, no matter the distance.  He earns much respect for that outstanding accuracy and throwing ability (even if he is one of those HATED Cowboys).  An Aikman trait I did NOT like:  Feet made out of lead.  He was a dropback passer, and nothing but.
  • Philip Rivers – I like Rivers a lot.  Even though he has a distinctively weird (not ugly, like any one of Kosar’s) throwing motion, he’s got excellent footwork and is very accurate.  Whatever criticisms I may have of Rivers’ throwing motion, he is able to get the ball where it needs to go.  2010 was his best year yet, and I think that if the Chargers had a better head coach (I’m sorry, but Norv Turner just has never won the really big games as a head coach), he might have the same reputation and credentials as Peyton Manning, his predecessor Drew Brees, and Tom Brady already have.  Not as mobile as I like my quarterbacks to be, but he’s got enough pocket presence to be able to avoid the rush and get out of trouble.
  • Jim Kelly – I see Kelly as both a throwback and a prototype.  As the trigger of the famous K-Gun, he was a reminder of the days when quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr called their own plays; in some ways he was also Peyton Manning before there was Peyton Manning, running that no-huddle shotgun-based offense.  When it was clicking, Buffalo’s K-Gun was awesome to watch.  Against a great defense (Parcells’ 1990 Giants team, the Dallas Cowboys of 1992-1993), though, Kelly’s weaknesses came to the fore:  He sometimes forced throws into coverage, suggesting that he had either less than ideal poise or that he had a tendency to misread coverages when the heat was really on.  He was a winner, but was never THE winner:  He led his team to four Super Bowls, but never won even one.

I should also mention Warren Moon and Roger Staubach.  Moon and Staubach were great passers in their era, but unfortunately I never saw Staubach play live, and saw too little of Moon.

And so, without further delay, in ascending order, my personal Top 10 NFL Quarterbacks (nos. 10 and 9):

10.  Brett Favre

I’ll get it out of the way:  Brett Favre is definitely NOT my favorite quarterback; even more pointedly, I think he’s garbage as a human being.

With that being said, Favre should be on anybody’s short list of top NFL quarterbacks.  For one thing, Favre has taken Dan Marino’s place on top of most of the big stats charts for NFL quarterbacks.  But of all the sterling numbers that he has put up, two records define Favre for me:  His consecutive starts streak (an astonishing 297 games) and career interceptions (336 INTs so far).  I’m fairly sure that both of these records will never be broken (only Peyton Manning, with 208, is close as far as consecutive starts are concerned, if you can call 89 regular season games “close” in NFL terms; as far as the career interceptions are concerned, no team will keep any quarterback who throws so many interceptions, so Favre will likely rule this category of ignominy forever).

Favre deserves genuine praise and admiration for his consecutive starts record.  To me, this is his single greatest achievement.  In a game where you absorb so much physical punishment, this is simply amazing.  What makes things even more amazing is that, physiologically speaking, quarterbacks are not supposed to absorb so much brutality.  Linemen hit and get hit on every single play, so they are more suited for all the collisions and impact; linebackers and running backs too are conditioned to be able to survive the game, and running backs in particular tend to have a very short life.

But quarterbacks get hit almost every single play these days.  I think the only scenario where a quarterback wouldn’t probably get hit is on a pitch out/toss running play; on a normal hand-off, he may get hit by a lineman or linebacker who gets great penetration.  And on passing plays?  The quarterback WILL get hit almost 95% of the time on every pass play called.

Favre, though, played through all that punishment.  He played hurt; he played through almost an entire season with a damaged thumb on his throwing hand.  Courage probably explained why he put up with so much punishment, but I think simple pride in the job he was doing and in the streak of consecutive games played probably gave him additional motivation.

The thing is, though, Favre is probably also one of the most overrated quarterbacks in the history of the NFL.  As I said, he owns most of the key quarterback statistical records; his incredible longevity explains why he does.  You play as long as Favre has, especially on at least a decent team with enough reliable receivers surrounding you, you could probably accumulate those kinds of numbers too.  To me, though, the statistical record that defines Favre (aside from his ironman streak) is his career interceptions record.

Favre had the reputation as a “gunslinger.”  That’s code describing quarterbacks who played with a reckless abandon, throwing passes that most other quarterbacks would never dream of trying.  While Favre’s fans love this about him, I absolutely detest it.  While it’s honestly breathtaking sometimes to see a quarterback throw a laser between three or four people in coverage and complete the pass, taking those kinds of risks are simply anathema to my own personal sensibilities.

I guess I’ve taken certain principles to heart, namely, take what the defense is giving you, and don’t ever throw the ball where the guys in the other uniform are.  Favre built part of his legend by being a gambler on the field; his audacity was both one of his strengths as well as his greatest weakness.

My logic is that a quarterback who has played as many years as Favre has (twenty and counting; I know he’s said he is now, finally, retired, but he has said that the last four seasons, so I call shens until three seasons pass and he has not returned to the NFL) should be accumulating fewer interceptions as his career progresses.  Experience should be curbing all impulses to take unnecessary risks in a game.  It’s like this:  You know from experience that touching a kettle on a lit stove will burn your fingers, but for some reason you keep doing it, thinking that maybe this time it won’t burn and hurt you.  Furthermore, it should be harder for opposing defenses to fool someone with as many games under Favre’s belt, but that’s not what’s happened in Favre’s career.  To wit, Favre’s interceptions per season have been in the double digits for every year of career bar his first year (1991, with the Falcons, when he only saw spot duty) and his magical 2009 season, when he only had seven all year.  He had a team-destroying 29 INTs in one season (2005), and he has had six seasons where his INT totals exceeded 20(!).  His record very firmly says that 2009 was the aberration; all told, he averaged 1.113 INTs/Gm and 16.8 INTs/Season.  No other so-called great quarterback has INT numbers as bad as these.

I’ll gloss over my feelings on Favre as the most annoying prima donna attention-whoring athlete.  Once I get started down that path, forever it may dominate my thoughts.  I’m sure none of you want to hear a never-ending diatribe on that particular subject.

9.  John Elway

A lot of people think Elway was the greatest quarterback the NFL has ever seen.  He certainly was blessed with a lot of the necessary physical tools:  Great size (6’3″, circa 215lbs); a strong throwing arm; excellent mobility, especially given how big he is.

For me, though, I have to admit that I’ve only seen Elway as nothing too much more than just a great athlete who plays the position of quarterback.  He’s a great physical specimen, yes.  But more than that?

I’m a bit reluctant to give him more credit than that, if only because Elway never struck me as the kind of player who elevated the rest of his team to heights they had previously never scaled.  You know how some players get the reputation that they “made their teammates better” by being on the team?  In basketball, legends like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and Steve Nash and (to a lesser extent) Chris Paul today, have that well-deserved reputation.  In the NFL, some of the quarterbacks on this list have also done that (read on to find out who).

I cannot remember anybody saying that about John Elway ever.

Sure, he led the Broncos to five Super Bowl appearances, but the team lost his first three by a combined losing score of 136-40 (including the most lopsided loss in Super Bowl history, 55-10, to the 1989 San Francisco 49ers).  It took the Bronco’s acquisition of first a top-flight head coach, Mike Shanahan, and then a great running game spearheaded by Terrell Davis for Elway to finally win his Super Bowl rings right at the end of his career.  In my opinion, I would argue that Shanahan and Davis, not Elway, were more responsible for those two Super Bowl wins than Elway was; they helped re-cast Elway’s legacy as a supremely gifted quarterback who lacked the gift of being able to push his team over the top and onto the NFL’s summit.

*****

So, that’s part 1 of 3 of this mini-series.

I’ll be posting quarterbacks number 8 through 4 next time around, so I’ll see you then!

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12 Jan 2011 – The Tragedy of Byron Scott

Posted in Basketball by txtmstrjoe on 13/01/2011

What must be on Byron Scott‘s mind these days?

If you asked him, chances are he’d tell you that all he’s focusing on is thinking of ways to improve his Cleveland Cavaliers.  He definitely would have a ton to think about, since the Cavs are unquestionably now the worst team in the NBA.

That opinion cannot have been more emphasized by the Cavaliers’ 55pt loss to the Los Angeles Lakers two nights ago.  In fact, if the Lakers scored two more points, they would have exactly doubled the Cavaliers’ entire output (Los Angeles won 112-57).

When was the last time you saw a professional basketball team lose by just two points shy of double its entire offensive output?

As the Cavs’ head coach, the buck stops at his desk.  It doesn’t matter that he’s got no superstars on his roster, a requirement for any sort of success in the NBA.  It’s a superstar-driven league.  All you’ve got now are no-name wannabes like Mo Williams and up-and-coming solid players like J.J. Hickson.  

It doesn’t matter if Anderson Varejão, one of the team’s most important players (he’s not the leading scorer, but he’s a power forward/center on a team desperately short of big men), is out for the year with a torn ankle tendon.  As the coach, Byron Scott has got to scheme around the deficiency.  Trouble is, you simply cannot teach size, as they say in basketball.

It doesn’t matter if your team’s owner, Dan Gilbert, seems to be someone who just has a ton of money and not any other real qualification for being an NBA team owner.  He signs the checks, but isn’t able to attract any people on the management and coaching side of the team who have a track record of success.  (Danny Ferry as your old GM?  Seriously?  Mike Brown, the most undeserving winner of the NBA’s Coach of the Year award?  These were his ex-GM and head coach, respectively.  No joke.)

It doesn’t matter if you thought, or hoped, LeBron James would be staying in Cleveland when you decided to sign on the dotted line as this hapless franchise’s head coach.  Why would you want to coach a player – unquestionably a superstar in talent, but an absolute muppet as a human being – who feels no compunction about destroying his coaches in public?  LeBron may be a great player if you just look at the stats, but he’s got a big fat goose egg on the stat that stands out most to people who truly understand this game:  Championships won = ZERO.

Pundits mooted Scott to have been a leading contender for the Lakers’ head coaching job when Phil Jackson finally decides enough is enough and walks away.  I don’t actually know how valid all that talk is, but what I do know for sure is that if you’re a head coaching candidate, especially if you’ve got some measure of success in your track record (a Finals appearance in 2002), you never EVER take a job for a historically-bad franchise.  This is especially true if you’re being considered, however unofficially, as a serious contender to coach one of the league’s best franchises.

When was the last time you thought of the Cleveland Cavaliers as a winning franchise?

I never have.

Now Byron Scott, who I think tragically made the wrong decision and went there to coach, will never be considered a winner ever again.

12 Jan 2011 – Random Thoughts: NFL vs. NCAA Football

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 12/01/2011

Partly because of the urging of my girlfriend – she comes from the South, after all, where football commands a quasi-religious devotion (particularly college football) – I watched Monday night’s BCS Championship game between the SEC‘s Auburn Tigers and the Oregon Ducks from the Pac-10 (which will be the Pac-12 next year).

I’ve told her in the past that I generally don’t enjoy watching the college flavor of football.  I guess I’ve been conditioned to love the NFL version a lot more.  I think the reason why this is so is the years of admiring, absorbing, and studying the Bill Walsh way of doing things; his West Coast offense has been so successful, many of its own constituent parts have been adopted by much of the NFL (though it’s very rare to see a team embrace Walsh’s system wholesale and in its entirety these days).

In contrast, the Walsh offense is relatively rare in the NCAA.

Instead, there is a great variety of offensive philosophies and systems in college football.  They are known by many esoteric names:  Run and shoot; the option, in its myriad forms (including the currently popular “spread option”); the spread (including specialized types like the “Air Raid” run by ex-Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach); and the generic and vague catch-all descriptor “pro style” offense.  These different types of football offenses are as much defined by the predominant modes of attack they employ  (passing-biased, as in the case of the run-and-shoot, or run-biased, as with the option) as the formations (or, positional deployment of skill position players on the offfensive side of the ball) these offenses typically use.

Take the spread offense as an example.  As the name suggests, the offense’s skill position players are spread out across the width of the field parallel to the line of scrimmage, which typically provokes a similar response from the defense (i.e., the defense has to deploy its players across the width of the field as well in order to ensure the offense’s skill position players are covered with adequate leverage, or position relative to an offensive player).  With its skill position players spread out horizontally, the offense has now therefore dictated terms to the defense by forcing it to declare at least some of its intentions; through the various defenders’ alignments the quarterback can usually determine the general type of coverage (man-to-man, zone, or combo), as well as whether or not any dogs/blitzes ought to be accounted for.  Knowing (or at least having a very good idea) what your opponent wants to do is a huge advantage in football, and the spread offense is designed to reveal clues of the defense’s intentions prior to the snap of the football.

Contrast the spread offense with an old-school style of offense, the triple option.  Typically, teams that run the triple option as its primary mode of attack like to have “tight” formations; where the spread offense spreads its players horizontally across the field, the triple option tends to compress its formations.  The ends of their formations line up close to the offensive tackles, usually with tight splits (i.e., distances between players on the line of scrimmage); the backs are also usually arrayed close to each other, often stacked atop one another (i.e., lining up one behind the other, perpendicular to the line of scrimmage).  Compressed formations give the offense several options, depending on how the defense deploys its players, without ever betraying its intentions:  The quarterback can hand off to one of the backs whose sole action during the typical triple option play is to dive into the line of scrimmage (advantageous if the defense has a weak interior to its defensive line and linebacker corps); he can choose to run with the ball towards either side (the side is usually pre-determined by the play call, or it may be a line of scrimmage adjustment depending on the defense’s alignment and leverage), trying to sweep around his offensive line and up the field; or he can run with the ball towards one side, then pitch the ball to another back who runs a few yards from him once the defense commits to stopping him, therefore giving the other back plenty of free space to run.  The triple option obviously can attack you in one of four ways (remember that there is always the option to pass), but the defense never knows beforehand which option the offense will use.  Where spread offenses are designed to decrease the defense’s capability to be deceptive, deception is the triple option’s most profound basic principle.

Despite the variety of offensive styles in college football, none of them capture my imagination.  As I said earlier, one of the reasons why I think this is so is the proliferation of the use of not just components of Walsh’s West Coast offense throughout the professional ranks, but evolutions of the original system itself.  Several teams run systems derived largely from Walsh’s (Mike Shanahan‘s in Washington, D.C.; Andy Reid‘s in Philadelphia; Pete Carroll‘s in Seattle; Mike McCarthy‘s in Green Bay; Gary Kubiak‘s in Houston.).

I’ve acquired a very strong bias for certain elements of Walsh’s offense.  I love a timing-based passing attack; I love precisely-run pass routes; I love the multiplicity and variety in formations and personnel groupings; I love the various quarterback drops from under center — 3-step, 5-step, 7-step, with/without hitch steps, roll-outs, sprint-outs, waggles, bootlegs — and almost despise shotgun alignments (Walsh used the shotgun – ironically a 49ers invention, by 1960s head coach Red Hickey – exactly ONCE in his entire career in the Bay Area, combining his stay in San Francisco and his two tenures at Stanford); I love the quarterbacks’ high completion percentage in a well-run Walsh offense; I even love the terminology and language of the system (it’s just so much fun to say “Red Left Slot Open, 322 Scat Denver“, “Blue Right, 22 Texas“, or “Double Wing Right, F Short, 2 Jet Flanker Drive“).

I just love the West Coast offense, and in college it’s relatively rare to find schools that run some form of it.  I can think of only two schools off the top of my head that still run it today:  The University of Washington Huskies – coached by Steve Sarkisian – and the Lane Kiffin-led University of Southern California Trojans.  UCLA under Tom Donahue and Karl Dorrell tried to run the WCO in the past with mixed results, and BYU under Norm Chow and LaVell Edwards won a national championship running the WCO in the mid-1980s.

*****

I honestly didn’t intend this to be an ode to the WCO.

It was supposed to be a semi-serious attempt to examine why I don’t like college football nearly as much as professional football.  Instead, I got sucked into revealing some of my feelings about the WCO (perhaps the way the linebackers get sucked into following a halfback’s track, leaving a void in the middle of the field when a play like “Green Right, Pass 92 Iso, X-Y Double In, Z Post” works like a charm).

But yeah, college football just isn’t my cup of tea.  For one thing, has too much shotgun for my personal taste.  The current favorite trendy offense, the spread option, is a hybrid of styles, the love child of the spread offense and the option, with some run-and-shoot DNA mixed in for variety (and vertical stretch explosiveness).  It is run predominantly with the QB in the shotgun position.  You just don’t see enough quarterbacks dropping back from under center; you don’t see the variety in launching points that the various dropback types create.  You don’t have a clock to the passing play like you do with a dropback-based passing attack (the QB’s steps, in effect, functions as the clock on which the entire play’s timing is based).  To me, shotgun is just too boring.  The QB catches the flying snap, watches the O-line set up the pocket, sidesteps away from the pass rush, and then waits for his guy to get open.  And I can’t quite see the quality of the receivers’ route running skills either.  I get the sense that, in college, it’s strictly a battle of athleticism between the receivers and the defenders; the receiver gets open primarily through superior speed and agility, and not as much from positioning per the play’s design.

I’m just rambling now.  But yeah, the 2011 National Championship game between Auburn and Oregon featured two teams that run similar offenses (forms of the spread option), but “interpreted” slightly differently due to the relative quality of their personnel.  In the end, Cam Newton’s Auburn Tigers won because they executed their version of the spread option better.  Newton did a better job than Oregon’s Darron Thomas in choosing which option (dive, run, pitch) was best on running plays, and throwing from shotgun.

I think I only saw one solitary snap from under center the entire game that I can remember (Darron Thomas took the snap under center with Oregon backed up deep in its own end zone, and running back LaMichael James was tackled in the end zone for a safety in the second quarter).

It wasn’t a good game for me to watch.

But that’s just me talking.

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8 Jan 2011 – Chasing Harbaugh Sparks Memories of Walsh

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 08/01/2011

It’s very hard to be a San Francisco 49ers fan.

Especially these days.

The last few years, the better part of a decade in fact, have seen the once-proud and mighty franchise shrouded in a Bay Area fog.  Seasons of not making the NFL playoffs, of not even posting a record above .500, became not the aberration they used to be in the halcyon days, but a year-in, year-out reality.

It used to be that the 49ers were THE model professional sports franchise.  From the time Bill Walsh became the team’s leader as head coach and de facto general manager in 1979 until the onset of the 2000s, the Niners developed a reputation for doing things with class and panache, whether it was on the football field or off it.

On the field, Coach Walsh’s so-called West Coast offense revolutionized offensive football.  The system (it is much more than just a style of offensive football; indeed, Coach Walsh always said it was a complete philosophy of how to run a football team down to the tiniest details) made several of its players Hall of Famers and granted Walsh himself that hallowed status, the ultimate honor in professional football.  Off the field, the team’s owner, Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., spared no expense in ensuring the 49ers were competitive year after year:  DeBartolo modernized his team’s headquarters and equipped it with every amenity required by both the players and the coaches; he provided his team with a chartered jet and treated everybody in the organization with dignity, respect, and class.

People in football all used to want to be associated with the 49ers.  The 49ers were a golden team, a winning organization whether or not they actually won the Super Bowl.

Then Mr. DeBartolo found himself somehow implicated in a gambling scandal in the late 1990s, and he was forced to surrender ownership rights to the team to his sister and his brother-in-law, Denise and John York, respectively.  When the Yorks took over, for whatever reason they began to purge the organization of the elements that built the 49er empire.  Perhaps they simply wanted to completely disassociate themselves from Mr. DeBartolo.

Gone went people like John McVay (a key personnel boffin and a Walsh collaborator), head coach Steve Mariucci (an indirect disciple of Bill Walsh by way of association with Mike Holmgren, one of Walsh’s top assistants in the mid-to-late 1980s, and a WCO-principled coach), and Walsh himself (a former team Vice President, General Manager, and consultant in the late 1990s-early 2000s).  The West Coast offense itself was scrapped.

2002, the last year of Mariucci’s tenure with the 49ers, was the last time the team made the playoffs.  From then on, coached by the likes of Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary, the 49ers decayed rapidly and shockingly on the field.  They quickly lost their identity, and any connection to the great teams in the 49ers’ glorious past were restricted only to the fact that they wore the same red and gold colors.  Off the field, through a series of baffling and illogical moves by the front office, the team lost much of its golden sheen and polish.

The team hired Erickson despite the fact that his preferred offensive system, the spread offense, required players with different skill sets than what the 49ers’ roster were good in, as well as a less-than-optimal playing surface at Candlestick Park.  After Erickson’s inevitable failure, they followed up with Mike Nolan, whose coaching credentials were defined mostly by his successful stint as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator.  Unfortunately, Mike Nolan was yet another step further away from the ways of Walsh and DeBartolo; by the time Mike Singletary took the helm tried his best, and failed because of his limitations as a game strategist and tactician, the quicksand of mediocrity had a firm hold on the 49ers, and the team and the hopes of its most ardent fans, the 49er Faithful, were in real danger of going under.

Enter Jim Harbaugh.

Jim Harbaugh played fifteen years in the NFL as a quarterback.  I remember him best as the Indianapolis Colts’ last quarterback before Peyton Manning was drafted.  I still have a very vivid memory of him throwing up that Hail Mary pass into the right rear corner of the end zone in 1996, trying to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXX.  That final pass fell incomplete, but that AFC Championship game was one of the best I’d seen, and it definitely left an impression on me.

Harbaugh was an NFL quarterback until the end of 2001; somewhat amazingly, even during his active playing career, he somehow found the time to be an unpaid coach’s assistant (offensive consultant) under his father, Jack Harbaugh, who was the head coach of Western Kentucky University‘s football team.  After his playing career was over, he served as the Oakland Raiders‘ quarterback coach from 2002-2003, where he handled Rich Gannon (another quarterback I admire) during Gannon’s MVP season (2002).  The University of San Diego came calling next, and in his three seasons there the school went 7-4, 11-1, and 11-1.

In late 2006, Stanford came calling.  Under Harbaugh’s tutelage, the Cardinal improved steadily over four years.  From 2007 through 2010, Stanford finished with records of 4-8, 5-7, 8-5, and 12-1.

In light of the fact that Stanford has perhaps the Pac-10’s highest academic standards, Harbaugh’s record is even more amazing.  What I mean by this is that, compared to schools like USC or Oregon, or even regional rival Cal Berkeley, Stanford is handicapped by its stringent academic requirements in its recruitment of student athletes for their football team.  In my opinion, and with all due respect to student athletes, it’s simply very difficult to find a lot of great football players who are also simultaneously able to meet Stanford’s academic standards.  My point is that it would require an exceptional coach to be able to win, and win big, at Stanford.  The 2010 season’s 12-1 record, with the only defeat coming against fellow Pac-10 school Oregon, is exceptional and is particularly hugely impressive.

Stanford’s victory in the 2011 Orange Bowl put Jim Harbaugh’s name on everyone’s lips, particularly those teams, both in college and in the pros, looking for an upgrade at head coach.  His achievements as Stanford’s head coach made him the hottest coaching prospect in recent memory.

His alma mater, Michigan, sought his services (even before firing their erstwhile head coach, Rich Rodriguez).

The Miami Dolphins chased after him with a frankly insane financial offer (rumored to be around $8 million per year, which would have made Harbaugh the highest-paid head coach in the NFL).

The Denver Broncos, through Stanford alumnus and NFL great John Elway, expressed their interest.

Stanford was also apparently prepared to match some of the salary offers put forward by Harbaugh’s suitors.

But the San Francisco 49ers were the first team Harbaugh actually met with at significant length, spending most of 5 January 2011 with new team CEO Jed York (son of John York and Denise DeBartolo York, nephew of Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.) and newly-hired 49er GM Trent Baalke.

From the time of that meeting through the following day, the so-called Harbaugh Sweepstakes dominated the Bay Area sports media coverage and arguably overshadowed some of the hype for this weekend’s first week of the 2010-2011 NFL playoffs.  Conflicting reports spread through the internet:  Harbaugh was said likely to sign with the 49ers; Harbaugh wowed by the Miami Dolphins and was likely to sign as their head coach; Harbaugh was intrigued by the possibility of staying in Stanford, especially since Andrew Luck, his quarterback, had announced his decision to stay in school and forgo the upcoming NFL Draft in the spring.  The constant stream of news snippets – which, in retrospect, were really nothing more than rumors and conjecture – had people invested in the story in a dizzy tizzy.  Nobody knew which stories were true, and which were outright lies.

Around noon on 7 January 2011, though, reports of the San Francisco 49ers having sealed the deal with Coach Harbaugh came through; a follow-up report of the team holding a 3:30PM PST press conference all but confirmed that the 49ers had won the chase for Harbaugh’s signature.

The press conference was highlighted by a few things:  Jed York let his two newest employees take all the limelight; Jim Harbaugh stated his reverence for Coach Walsh; Trent Baalke, like many good GMs, is able to answer a question he doesn’t particularly want to answer without showing his cards (a great trait, in my opinion); Harbaugh will be re-installing the West Coast offense “in the birthplace of the West Coast offense” (much to my delight, I have to say); the local Bay Area media seems to represent the 49er Faithful, asking interesting questions that seem relevant to the San Francisco 49ers and the team’s fan base.

The Harbaugh Sweepstakes were a bit exhausting for me, to be perfectly honest.  I’ve tweeted (and said to friends and family) that I really shouldn’t be so emotional about the 49ers; after all, I’m really only just a fan, nothing more (even if I probably am obsessive about the 49ers and their history to a more extreme degree than most other fans).  I don’t own the team; I cannot exert any real influence on how the team is run.  I can only cheer.  I can only criticize and evaluate and analyze.  I can only cry in anguish when the team does poorly than it should, and I can only weep in joy when the team does as well as we hope it can.

Now that Jim Harbaugh is part of the 49er family, we can say the easy part of the job is done.  The team again now have a head coach with a real sense of and a true respect for the team’s rich history and legacy and its place in football.  They have a General Manager who seems to be a good fit with the head coach; their successful collaboration over the coming years is one of the keys towards ensuring the hard part of the job likewise gets completed.  Together they will rebuild the team according to their design and vision; as Trent Baalke said himself, their mandate is to restore the winning culture at the 49ers.

Jim Harbaugh, whether by accident or by design, now has his feet set firmly on the same path as Bill Walsh’s were in 1979.  He has graduated from the college ranks at Stanford and now holds in his hands the destiny of a pro football franchise desperate to raise itself from the mire of mediocrity.

Will Jim Harbaugh be able to emulate the late, great Bill Walsh?  Will the man who has overseen several success stories in his career path as a football player and coach be able to use his Midas touch and turn the 49ers into a golden franchise again?

This 49ers fan can only hope and dream.

3 Jan 2011 – Not a good beginning to 2011

Posted in Basketball, Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 03/01/2011

Mercifully, the San Francisco 49ers can now wave farewell to yet another season defined by “what might have been.”

2010 was supposed to have been the year the Niners were supposed to break out of the doldrums and earn a spot in the NFL playoffs; it was supposed to have been the year when the NFC West was ripe for the taking, when all the other teams were all beset with major changes, a problem that they themselves were all-too-familiar with.

They entered 2010 with the same head coach they finished 2009 with; they had the same offensive and defensive coordinators and systems in place; they had the same starting quarterback in a healthy Alex Smith; they had two first round draft picks who they deemed were good enough to start on the offensive line.  They had a lot of hopes, a lot of swagger and bluster, a lot of confidence, and, finally, apparently no more excuses for not ascending back up the top of their division for the first time since Jeff Garcia, Steve Mariucci, and Bill Walsh were still associated with the organization.

By the end, though, head coach Mike Singletary was fired, as was erstwhile offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye.  Alex Smith suffered through yet another inconsistent season, though I would probably be one of the few who would be willing to defend him amongst the 49ers fanbase.  The play on the field was marked by recurring mental mistakes that underlined the severe deficiencies that existed in the coaching on all facets of the game (offense, defense, and special teams).  And off the field, the team’s ownership and management continued to make moves and declarations to the media which only further undermined the team’s dedicated and loyal base of followers.  Team president Jed York, son of owners John and Denise DeBartolo York, declared rather brazenly that the team would still win the NFC West despite a horrendous 1-6 record after their first seven games in 2010; the team finished up 6-10.  Jed York also said that the path towards improving the team would begin with an exhaustive search for a new General Manager who would then select the team’s next head coach; instead, current top personnel man Trent Baalke looks to add the title, if not just the duties, of the team’s General Manager position despite the fact that it has only been a little more than one week since Jed announced his intention to conduct that exhaustive search for the right man.

All of the team’s moves have only served to continue to erode the team’s fanbase’s confidence in the current ownership of the once-proud and great team.  Baalke is an unknown quantity as far as his credentials and qualifications to be a team’s General Manager are concerned.  He may do a good job in the future if indeed he is hired as the GM, but the fans desperately don’t want to be disappointed any more than it has already been for the last decade; this is why there is a loud clamor for a truly more exhaustive search for the team’s GM.  The fans want the team to seek out candidates with more established track records, people who have proven experience and a tangible record of success.

The 49ers have a few problems, though.  They are no longer an attractive destination as far as football people are concerned.  General manager candidates and head coaching candidates surely don’t see the 49ers as a plum spot with their miserable record from the last decade.  The Yorks are, as the San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami writes, “low-hanging fruit in NFL ownership circles.” The Yorks’ track record of decisions are perplexing and illogical if cast in the light of wanting to compete and win in the NFL; they have tended to do things as cheaply as possible.

They are proof of the wisdom of the maxim “You get what you pay for.”

Not only is the ownership of a questionable standard, but the team’s roster is also not attractive for candidates for the head coaching vacancy.  On defense, the team sorely lacks a playmaker or two in the secondary; at the very least, they need a true shutdown cornerback.  They also don’t have an effective-enough pass rush.

On offense, the problems are bigger.  The team’s roster is empty at quarterback – Alex Smith will surely not want to return even if he is asked back by the new GM and head coach; Troy Smith is long on guts but limited in terms of performance of routine quarterback tasks such as reading the secondary properly or going through a play’s progression of receivers (though this is because of his limited time with the team); David Carr is well past his sell-by date and should be jettisoned; and Nate Davis is a completely unknown quantity other than to say he’s got a strong arm and is a tremendous athlete.  No head coach in his right mind wants to take over a team with huge questions at quarterback.  Another problem for the 49ers stems from their deficiencies in the coaching of the offense over the last couple of years.  This team simply has no real identity or effective system in place on offense.  Therefore, it’s much more difficult to evaluate the talent level of the players on the roster since you don’t really know what the offense is supposed to look like.  Most effective football offenses are clearly defined by a real philosophy founded on strategic concepts and tactics that are known to work on the field.  With the 49ers, with such an anemic offense that tried its hardest to appear multiple and diversified but was actually predictable and one-dimensional (are they a smashmouth team, or are they a spread offense team?  It changed from series to series, but without any sustained success), you can’t tell what your players are actually good at doing together.

Finally, one of the team’s biggest problems is the stadium they play in.  Candlestick Park may be long on nostalgia as the home of a five-time Super Bowl Champion, but it’s also very old and outdated, with a shortage on the huge revenue generating corporate luxury boxes and other modern money-making perks most teams now have.  The 49ers’ stadium conundrum is at the crux of the team’s nightmare Catch 22:  What comes first, a good team that can generate funding for footing the bill for a new stadium, or a new stadium that can attract corporate backing and renewed support from the fanbase which can then fund the development of a stronger on-field product?

All this is, of course, a bit of a simplified version of the team’s myriad problems.  It offers no solutions, either.

2011 looks to be just the beginning of even more blood-letting as far as lovers of the San Francisco 49ers are concerned.

*****

2011 has been unkind to the Los Angeles Lakers so far, as well.  They got destroyed by the lowly Memphis Grizzlies, 104-85, at home at Staples Center in their first game of 2011.

The Lakers are struggling.

The defending champions have been hit in the mouth, and now they are reeling in the middle of the ring.

It’s a given that every team they play are going to give its best effort against them; the Lakers’ big problem is that they themselves seem unable or unwilling to summon the same kind of effort and commitment each and every night to defend their championship.

With each passing listless loss, they keep shrinking their margin for error; they probably now cannot contend for earning the best record in the western conference – never mind the entire NBA – and therefore enjoy homecourt advantage in the playoffs.  San Antonio and Dallas are playing great ball, and the other teams in the west are gaining confidence with each Lakers loss they see.

To me, the Lakers’ problems have everything to do with a distinct lack of effort from the entire team to defense as well as sloppy execution of their offense.  Defensively, the guards on both the starting unit and the bench crew allow far too many points.  They get beat into the lane on penetration plays (especially when Andrew Bynum is not on the floor – just watch how fearless the other teams always are when Bynum is on the bench, then compare how they play when he is on the floor); they get lost on picks and allow jumpshots; they leave their guys open for uncontested threes.  Offensively, they have been pathetic in their execution.  They throw way too many errant passes and lose the ball way too often, and Kobe Bryant in particular seems to indulge in really bad shot selection.

The Lakers have the league’s best 1-2-3 frontline in Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom.  The thing with forwards and centers is that they depend on the guards to feed them the ball for them to score, other than on put-backs of course.  The Lakers, though, and specifically Kobe Bryant, have shown an alarming tendency to forget about their big guys and not run the offense through them for significant stretches in most games.  When the guards freelance and launch long jumper after long jumper and miss, the other team’s transition game comes into play, and the Lakers get torched.  The team has shown that, so far this year, they have been massively impatient on offense and simply ignore their biggest matchup advantages.

The offense has to run through their bigs every single time down the floor.

To not do so is stupid, in my opinion.

*****

I hope the Lakers can recover sufficiently and learn how to play and win like the champions they are supposed to be.

Otherwise, this sports fan’s 2011 will be very miserable indeed.

 

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