Joe-Pinions: Sports

10 Feb 2011 – Some Thoughts on Roster Moves in Sports

Posted in General Sports by txtmstrjoe on 10/02/2011

Some sports fans absolutely LOVE talking and/or thinking about their favorite teams’ roster moves.  Someone on local (Los Angeles) sports talk radio – I think it was Matt “Money” Smith, if I remember correctly – recently suggested that this is largely a consequence of the proliferation of fantasy sports, where fans can act and think like how they imagine their favorite teams’ general managers and personnel people operate.

I think Matt Smith was right on the money with that one.  *Ahem.

I don’t see the point of fantasy sports, and I don’t usually get too interested in thinking about my teams’ rosters too much.  I don’t delve into statistics to track how they are playing (I find most stats to be boring, to be perfectly honest); I’m much more interested in how my team is playing, with a particular focus on trying to understand the tactics and strategies in operation.

That’s not to say that I’m not interested in my teams’ rosters.  Of course I am.  But I tend to look beyond the stats as far as gauging the extent of the players’ contributions to the team’s goals.  Stats can sometimes be misleading, and they often don’t give you a comprehensive-enough perspective anyway.

When it comes to thinking about my team’s rosters, it’s never with the point of view that a player’s stats are the end-all, be-all.  I’ve always thought that statistics are nearly useless if they are just cited without understanding the context in which all those numbers were generated.  And the only way to understand the context of statistics is to watch the games and to understand what it is you’re seeing.

Let’s look at basketball, for example.  For the last couple of years now, Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum has been a favorite subject of many a trade rumor.  Last year, a lot of fans were seduced by the prospect of the Lakers trading Bynum for then-Toronto Raptors leading man Chris Bosh.  The arguments in favor of going ahead with that trade scenario were primarily driven by the statistical facts that Bosh was averaging around 24 points per game and collecting circa 11 rebounds a game; in contrast, Bynum was only scoring 15ppg and grabbing 8.3 rebounds per game.

Because many of my friends are also Lakers fans, I know for a fact that there were plenty of fans who desperately wanted to see this trade go through.  And nearly all of them wanted it to happen because they saw the numbers, and they thought those seven extra points and 2.5 rebounds more per game would only help the Lakers.  I was probably in the minority amongst Lakers fans regarding that Bynum for Bosh trade scenario.

Looking at just the numbers, of course you do the trade, right?  What are you waiting for, Mitch Kupchak (Lakers GM)?  Seal the deal already!

Of course, the Lakers didn’t trade away their young center, even though he did (and still does) have a bit of a history of being injury-prone (though I think this is overstated in arguments regarding whether or not he should be a Laker).  I’m sure that mere statistics aren’t the only reason why they didn’t go through with the trade scenario that many thought was a veritable slam dunk in the Lakers’ favor.

Consider these thoughts on this specific case, though:

  • Andrew Bynum is a true center; Chris Bosh is a power forward.  Although these two players may seem similar because of their heights (Bynum is listed at 7’0″, Bosh at 6’11”), the way they play the game and their roles on the court cannot be more different.  Bynum is a pure low-post offensive player, playing with his back to the basket very effectively; Bosh likes to face up and pop a medium-range jumpshot as well as occasionally cut to the basket.  Defensively speaking, Bynum stays in the paint, clogs the middle and is the last line of defense.  He is expected either to block shots on help defense or to alter them.  Blocked shots and misses are essentially the same thing if your team gets the rebound, and more often than not that’s what happens when Bynum is on the floor (he may not grab the board, but one of his teammates will).  The net result is the same:  The Lakers earn possession.  He is supremely effective in this role, and you’d see this if you watch Lakers games regularly.  When Bynum is on the bench, the other team INSTANTLY attacks the interior fearlessly.  They don’t do that when Bynum is on the floor.  Bynum also plays against the other team’s biggest player.  Bosh, on the other hand, has totally different defensive responsibilities.  Due to his lack of mass, he often doesn’t play in the low post, unless he’s up against a player whose height and weight are similar or inferior to his.  If he were to play against bigger players, there would be no way for him to hold position.  So if Bosh had indeed become a Laker, who would have taken Bynum’s place on defense?  And in terms of offense, adding another tall jumpshooter would not have helped the team much since the Lakers don’t really need yet another player who only took jumpshots (they have Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, all their guards, and even Pau Gasol living off of Js from mid-range to 3-point range).  They need a credible threat at the low block and in the paint on both sides of the ball, and Bynum fills this need much more capably than Bosh ever could.
  • Bosh was the number one banana at Toronto, while Bynum is either option# 3 or 4 for the Lakers.  Translation:  Bosh scores more points per game simply because he got the lion’s share of touches on his old team.  As a center, Bynum only gets touches if his teammates give him the ball and the team systematically runs the offense with him as the focal point.  Of course, this doesn’t happen too often.  Why?  Do you seriously think that Bynum will get more touches as long as both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are his teammates and are both on the floor with him?  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not saying Bynum should get more touches; Bryant and Gasol are the Lakers’ two best offensive players and as such the team should run their offense through them primarily.  The point is this:  Bosh on the Lakers would come nowhere near his 24.0ppg.  I’d wager that he would even score LESS than Bynum’s averages.  Why?  Like most players, he scores better with more touches because he stays in rhythm better.  If Bosh had gone to the Lakers, he would not see anything close to the number of touches as he did in Toronto because he would have become the third option on offense.  Not only would the volume of his shots have gone down, but I’d bet his shooting percentage would have decreased as well (due to a disrupted offensive rhythm from the decrease in touches).  Bynum, on the other other hand, would score more with more touches simply because he operates close to the basket, so he has a higher percentage shot available to him at most times AND he will be fouled many times as a last resort by the opposition.

Numbers, then, don’t tell the whole story.  They never have, and they never will.  Citing stats is only really useful if you demonstrate the hows and the whys behind the numbers.

So how do these thoughts relate to making trades?

First of all, I think all personnel moves have to be considered in the context of the team’s overall strategic goals and philosophies.  This is the macroscopic perspective.  If your team’s philosophy is defined by playing a certain style of offense, you have to acquire players most suited to that style.  For example, the Indianapolis Colts are definitely a pass-first team on offense, so their personnel moves tend to be geared towards acquiring good receivers in the skill positions and good pass blockers for their offensive line.  They also don’t try to get another good quarterback since they have a great one who is also largely bulletproof and healthy already playing for them.  The same is true on defense.  In basketball, the Boston Celtics play a very physical and rugged style of defense.  So what do they do?  They stock up on big thick bodies (Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal) to clog the paint; their guards are quick yet also physical, able to stick to their counterparts as well as bang with them.

Not only should personnel moves be in accordance with your team’s philosophies and strategic goals, they must also do one of two things:  Player acquisitions must either eliminate or shore up a weakness, or they must accentuate and enhance areas of strength.  The best roster moves of all accomplish both of these ideal goals.  This is the more microscopic level of looking at things.  Let’s look at the Los Angeles Lakers closely.  In my opinion, they have two glaring weaknesses right now:  They are getting very little consistent production from their guards on offense as well as getting shredded by the opposing guards on defense.  Also, Ron Artest continues to be completely out of sync on offense.  Of these two, the bigger weakness by far is the atrocious guard play on both sides of the ball.  The Lakers thought they had addressed this weakness by jettisoning the useless Jordan Farmar and with their acquisition of Steve Blake; unfortunately, this is just a band-aid, and not a very good one at that.  They need corrective surgery, not just a patch.  Blake gets into spells of bad decision-making far too often to make him a reliable option and backup to Derek Fisher.  Fisher himself is a big liability now (at least during the regular season):  He’s too slow and gets destroyed by quick guards.  Shannon Brown is maddeningly inconsistent and absolutely unreliable as well.  He may have a penchant for making spectacular plays, but he also makes big mistakes on offense and on defense far too often.  The Lakers’ pathetic guard play on defense is evident even in their best player, Kobe Bryant.  Kobe’s got so many miles in those legs, he simply sacrifices defense in favor of offense.  This is the correct choice, of course, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Lakers sorely need much better defense from their guards.

In terms of their strengths, the Lakers have the most skilled front court in the NBA.  Gasol, Bynum, and Odom are all long and tall and mobile, very good on offense and quite solid on defense most nights.  It is an advantage that few teams, if any, have.  In my opinion, it is hugely illogical to cede this unique advantage by trading away one of these three bigs; actually, it’s downright asinine to even consider breaking up this dimension of the Lakers.

In an ideal world (without egos, salary considerations, and other imperatives of reality), what I would do to improve the Lakers would be to get a better complement of guards and get one more big lively body.  Shannon Brown is too inconsistent, so he’d be gone.  I’d be more patient with Steve Blake, but I want another guard who can defend and shoot a reliable jumpshot in there as well.  Lots of pundits are high on Kirk Hinrich, so I guess that’s one candidate.  Fisher I’d keep, but use him almost exclusively during the playoffs, when the game slows down and his lack of foot speed and his vast leadership and experience are assets.  But the ideal guard is someone like Deron Williams.  As far as getting another big body, I’m intrigued with both Kevin Love and with Marc Gasol.  Pau’s younger brother is physical and is solid on defense and in rebounding; Kevin Love is a rebounding monster (rebounding is like defense, in that effort and attitude and technique go a long way, and Love has all these in truckloads) and can shoot outside.  These guys would complement the team’s core, address the team’s biggest weaknesses and add even more muscle to their strongest attributes.

The absolute worst thing to have happen is for a roster move to totally disrupt your team’s current constitution.  This is the almost inevitable consequence of a trade or a draft choice that most people who only see things in terms of statistics never understand.  You float the idea that Carmelo Anthony could be had for Andrew Bynum, and a lot of (in my opinion, really stupid) fans start drooling because they can only see Anthony’s mind-boggling offensive numbers.  Do they ever think about whether or not Anthony would get the same number of shots if he played alongside Kobe and Pau?  (He won’t.)  Do they ever consider whether or not ‘Melo would thrive in the triangle offense?  (Who knows?  The triangle requires a bit of brain power to run properly, and ‘Melo has never struck me as someone with a high basketball IQ.)  Don’t they understand the impact that trade would have on the Lakers’ defense?  (Of course not.  Nobody thinks about, much less understands, defense, and nobody who isn’t knowledgeable understands Bynum’s impact on this part of the game.)  Do they even think about whether or not ‘Melo would be content to always be in Kobe’s shadow?  (That’s beyond the scope of most fans, I think.)  Can two guys who want to be the alpha dog on the team ever co-exist?  (In most cases, the answer is a resounding no.)

There’s a reason why there are so few Jerry Wests and Scott Piolis and Ron Dennises in sports:  It takes so much brain power, vision (macro- and micro-level both), understanding, wisdom, experience, and foresight to be a good manager.  Fantasy sports may make you think it’s a simple matter of looking at stats; gauging performance in sports in reality is based on far far more than just statistics.  The numbers are just components of a larger, far more intricate puzzle.  This essential truth is 100% true.

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8 Feb 2011 – History Shows You NEVER Trade a Good Big Man Away

Posted in Basketball by txtmstrjoe on 08/02/2011

Lakerland is afflicted with a high trade fever today, and the team’s fans are dizzy and delusional.

Almost annually, Lakers center Andrew Bynum’s name is tossed around as part of a hot trade rumor.  The last couple of years, it was Bynum for tough-as-wet-tissue-paper Chris Bosh.  This year, the hot rumor is for a Bynum for Carmelo Anthony trade, straight-up.

Like most Bynum-related trades, this one is, in my opinion, stupid at the core.

And I don’t say that just because Bynum is a favorite of mine (I say that in the interest of transparency).

As a sports fan, I have some deeply-ingrained beliefs about how to succeed in sports.  These beliefs help define certain philosophies that I have and depend on when it comes to understanding the things that happen in sports.

When it comes to basketball, one of my key philosophies is that you never ever trade or lose good big men who can really play the game, especially effective bona fide centers.  Why?  It’s very simple.  Big men with true ability are the hardest players to find.

You can even argue that a good big man is the most valuable commodity in basketball.

Now this last point might not sound logical or reasonable to people who admire transcendent players like Kobe Bryant or Dwayne Wade; some people might even say that pure scorers such as Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant are themselves more valuable than a good big man.

Consider this irrefutable fact:  You simply cannot teach or develop height.  You’re either a big man, or you aren’t.

You can improve your ball-handling skills; you can develop your shooting, improve your effective range, or learn new low post moves.  You can acquire better and more effective defensive techniques.  The point is, you can improve how you play the game.

But size and length?  You either have that, or you don’t.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again:  Bynum is often mentioned when other teams want a trading partner because he  is a valuable asset to a team.  He is long, he is tall, he is big yet mobile, he has good defensive instincts and a very good interior offensive game.  He can even shoot free throws reasonably well.  About the only complaint I will make about his game is that he could improve on his rebounding.

I won’t even comment about his history of being injured.  Unlike most people, I haven’t forgotten how he got hurt the first two times in his career.  Both of his first two major knee injuries happened as a result of accidents with teammates; in consecutive years, both Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant crashed into Bynum’s legs and directly caused his knee injuries.

If those weren’t clear-cut cases of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, I don’t know what else could be.  If you blame Bynum for being in the paint, being ready to rebound a teammate’s miss, then getting hurt in the process, then I have absolutely nothing to say to you.  I can’t reason with people who simply don’t want to acknowledge the hand of simple fate being the reason why Bynum got hurt those two first two times.

(And who’s to say definitively that the subsequent problems with the meniscus tear and the achilles tendon inflammation weren’t somehow caused or related to those first two injuries?)

While Bynum has indeed been afflicted with various injuries throughout his career, are those incidents of being injured more significant than his positive contribution whenever he is able to play?

The only argument that makes some sense when you look at things through these particular lenses is that Bynum is relatively poor value money-wise.  The return for investment is arguably not large enough (yet).

But consider the penalties for cutting Bynum out:

NBA history shows that whenever teams lose a good, effective big man, whether by trade or through free agency, most of the time it results in a disaster.  In the 1970s, the Milwaukee Bucks traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for six players from the Lakers, and the Bucks were definitely the big losers in that trade.  The San Francisco Warriors lost out when they dealt Wilt Chamberlain away to the Lakers in the 1960s, and in the 1990s the Orlando Magic were thrust into mediocrity when Shaquille O’Neal left through free agency and signed with the Lakers.  The Lakers themselves felt the sting of losing Shaq when they traded him to the Miami Heat in 2004.  The 1980s Houston Rockets once boasted the fabled “Twin Towers,” Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, dominating the Magic Johnson-led Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference Championship; a couple of years later, when Sampson was traded away due to mounting injuries, Houston found itself lost in the wilderness.  Moses Malone, considered by some to be a great big man, was traded several times in his career, and each time the team he left was worse off afterwards.

The precedent is clear:  If your team has a good big man and you lose him, your team will suffer for it.

Carmelo Anthony may be one of the NBA’s premier scorers, but is he enough to compensate for the loss of interior power and size and Bynum’s sheer defensive presence?  Can the points he could potentially score offset the dramatic drop-off in defense?

I guarantee you his numbers will slip if he joins Kobe; there is only one basketball, and with three scorers who need to handle the ball – Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Carmelo – to score, imagine the potential for destruction to the Lakers’ chemistry.

‘Melo to the Lakers for Bynum will hurt the Lakers another way as well:  If Bynum goes to Denver, he will certainly become that team’s offensive focus in the low post.  With Nene and Chris Anderson as his low-post tag team partners and great shooters surrounding them, do you think the Lakers would look forward to facing the Nuggets with their former center leading the low post attack?  Do you think Pau Gasol has the muscle to stop a bigger, stronger, longer Bynum in the paint?

You strengthen the Nuggets whilst losing out on the most important element in your own game, namely, defense.

That makes for an intelligent trade, doesn’t it?

7 Feb 2011 – Super Bowl XLV: A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 07/02/2011

Super Bowl XLV in the “Dallas Palace” is all done with.  The confetti has fallen, and the game’s heroes and goats have been named.

Not surprisingly, the big hero of the game was the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers.  He accounted for more than half of Green Bay’s points (three touchdowns = 18 pts out of 31 total) and the lion’s share of yardage gained (304 out of 338 offensive yards) by virtue of a strong performance in the passing game, nullifying the Packers’ glaring lack of a reliable ground attack and bucking one of football’s staple ideas (i.e., you need a productive running game to win).  In the course of it, Rodgers showed his considerable powers as a quarterback:  He was cool and completely under control throughout the game; his decision-making was superb, knowing when to attack the coverage and when to take what the defense gave him, when to take a sack as well as when to just throw the ball away; and he was accurate in his ball placement.  About the only criticism I’d make of Rodgers based on his performance last night was that he seems to need to develop a little bit of touch on some of his throws.  All of the passes designated as drops by his receivers were catchable as Rodgers hit them (the receivers) in their hands, but my dad observed (correctly, in my opinion) that if the balls were thrown just a little bit softer, the receivers would have had an easier time catching them.  That’s a small quibble in the grand scheme of things, and it’s not something that is impossible to learn.

If Aaron Rodgers was the game’s hero, then Super Bowl XLV’s biggest goat was probably the Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  Roethlisberger didn’t have an awful game, per se; to me, he had a fairly good game, throwing for 263 yards (25/40) and 2 TDs, and running for an additional 31 yards.  He amazed me (yet again) with how he scrambled away from pressure in the pocket and ran for positive yards a couple of times, and I couldn’t help but admire how a man this big (6’5″, ~ 260lbs – though some local wags on the sports talk shows have actually put him at around 270lbs!) can move that well.  

However, Big Ben did throw two interceptions during the Super Bowl.  The first came as a result of extreme pressure in the pocket whilst standing in his team’s own end zone; Packers safety Nick Collins intercepted Roethlisberger’s first big errant throw (apparently a Packers D-lineman hit Roethlisberger’s throwing arm during his delivery) and returned it for a touchdown, giving the Packers a 14-0 lead (after the converted extra point, of course).  Roethlisberger’s second interception came during Pittsburgh’s final desperation drive for the winning score, ending the game’s competitive phase.

In contrast, Aaron Rodgers did not turn the ball over at all during the season’s biggest game.

Roethlisberger’s two interceptions were not Pittsburgh’s only turnovers (they also lost a fumble when Packerslinebacker Clay Matthews jarred the ball loose from Rashard Mendenhall’s clutches at the start of the fourth quarter), but he did account for two of the Steelers’ three.  Ultimately, turnovers of any kind are not just statistical facts; what they are are lost possessions.  In football, you can only score if you’ve got the ball, so the team that has the most turnovers usually loses the game (since they lose possession of the ball, and thus opportunities to score).

Where Aaron Rodgers played with poise, control, and accuracy, Big Ben just made two critical mistakes too many.  Considering the final points gap between the two teams was just six points (i.e., one touchdown’s worth), only one of Roethlisberger’s critical errors made all the difference.  Nick Collins’ “pick six” (interception returned for a touchdown) in the waning stages of the first quarter ultimately proved to be the nail in the Steelers’ coffin.

4 Feb 2011 – My Personal Top 10 NFL Quarterbacks (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 02/02/2011

And so here we are, the final three quarterbacks in this, my first-ever top 10 list of NFL quarterbacks.

To read about #s 10 and 9, click here; for #s 8 through 4, click here.

If you don’t care to read about the preceding seven quarterbacks linked above, here is the rundown:

10.  Brett Favre

9.  John Elway

8.  Dan Marino

7.  Peyton Manning

6.  Jeff Garcia

5.  Rich Gannon

4.  Drew Brees

So now, we come to

3.  Steve Young

I’ll say this about Steve Young:  Without a doubt in my mind or the slightest bit of hesitation in saying so, I think Steve Young was a better quarterback in most respects but two than either the number one or the number two quarterback on this list.  Young was a more accurate passer, had the superior arm, and was the much better athlete overall than both guys that outrank him on this list.  Young was so athletic that he could conceivably have played as a tailback, especially in his early years.  Who can forget that iconic improvised run he ripped off against a mighty Minnesota Vikings defense in 1989?  Young never really lost a step even in the latter stages of his career, where simple survival instincts curbed his propensity to scramble out of the pocket and run for yardage as he used to do.

So if Steve Young was the better quarterback than both the #1 guy and the #2 guy, why is he only third on this list?

My answer could best be summed up by bringing up an automotive analogy:  Steve Young is like the Lamborghini Diablo, while the number one quarterback on my list is the Lamborghini Countach.  The Diablo may be the superior car by every measure, but the Countach is, has been, and will likely always be my all-time favorite supercar.

(It’s quite interesting that the Countach and my number one quarterback were more or less contemporaneous, while Steve Young also started his ascendancy at around the same time the Diablo began its production run.  It’s an awesome and intriguing confluence of two contexts that are completely unrelated otherwise.)

Young may have been the better quarterback, but he falls short compared to either the #1 guy or the #2 guy on this list in one specific way:  Steve Young won only one Super Bowl.

Given all his physical gifts as well as the fact that he had a very good team around him during the early part of his peak years (the early 1990s), he still only managed to win just one.  Of course, I have to say that he’s just one man on an entire team, and the entire team bears responsibility for its performance and results on the field.  But unquestionably, the two men who outrank him on this list won more than just one Super Bowl.  Given that criterion, it’s a fair ranking.

I don’t mean to denigrate Steve Young, even though I’d be the first to admit this mini essay on him probably feels like it’s too critical of him.  He is unquestionably one of the all-time greats to play quarterback in the NFL.  And he’s a San Francisco 49er, one of my guys, and one of my own personal all-time favorites, so how can I possibly disrespect him in any way?

I do have to confess that, for a brief time, I felt bad because Steve became the 49ers’ starting quarterback.  When Joe Montana was traded to Kansas City, Young took over.  My loyalty and love for the 49ers were never shaken, but I will admit that I paid closer attention to the Chiefs when Montana became their starting quarterback.  The Chiefs never became the team I supported, much less loved, but Montana was my guy.

I suppose I resented Young for taking over for Joe.  Per many accounts, including Steve Young’s own, this was a very common sentiment amongst many San Francisco 49ers fans.  Montana was the city’s and the team’s fan base’s favorite, so perhaps it was only natural that we saw Steve as a usurper, the Claudius to Montana’s Old Hamlet.

In truth, this was a really unfair tag to hang onto Steve, a purely emotional and largely irrational reaction to a practical personnel move that the 49ers had to make.  Montana was older, with a body on the edge of breaking down completely, and his time as a top-flight quarterback was almost up.  I understood, even back then, that while my heart said the Niners should keep Joe as the starter, logic said it was Young’s time to take over.  It wasn’t Steve Young’s fault that many 49ers fans had such a strong emotional attachment to Montana, but that’s part of what four Super Bowl trophies will buy you.

Young recognized all that, of course, and I’m sure he tried his best to emulate Montana’s success, or even surpass it if he could.  Unfortunately for him, he found that his road to surpassing Montana’s achievements were blocked first by a Dallas Cowboys juggernaut engineered and captained by Jimmy Johnson in the early 1990s, then by a Mike Holmgren-led Green Bay Packers renaissance keyed by a young Brett Favre on the ascendancy.

Perhaps unfairly, I associate Steve Young more strongly with the playoff defeats to the Cowboys and the Packers than for the one Super Bowl win he led the 49ers to.

I never resented Steve Young, though, for those failures.  The truth is, the 49ers lost not because of his play.  Perhaps the only “bad” thing I would say about Young regarding those team failures is that, unlike the #1 or #2 quarterbacks on this list, Young’s superlative performances didn’t seem to elevate his teammates.  Young’s own personal star may have been burning bright, but somehow that brilliance wasn’t enough to kindle the fire within his teammates.

I mean, sure, Young always had Jerry Rice as a faithful tag team partner.  But other than Rice, who else raised his play as a result of playing with Young, especially at crunch time?  Other than Terrell Owens’ miraculous catch against Green Bay during the 1998 Wild Card weekend matchup against the Packers, I simply cannot remember another 49er rising to Young’s own heights to help him win the day for the 49ers, especially come playoff time.

To me, that’s the biggest single difference between Young and the two quarterbacks who come ahead of him on this list.  So although Young himself is, to me, the greatest individual ever to play quarterback, he’s not my all-time greatest quarterback (there is a difference).  When it comes down to it, one loses to seven, and that’s the tally of Super Bowl wins won by Young and those won by quarterbacks #1 and 2 on this list combined.

2.  Tom Brady

Honestly, now, who knew ten years or so ago that Tom Brady would ever be in a discussion about all-time great NFL quarterbacks?

He was drafted in the sixth round, the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.  You can probably argue that he turned out to have the best career amongst all the players in that draft, even if it ended today.  Scanning the list of players drafted ahead of him, there haven’t been too many who have had as profound an effect (positively speaking) on the teams that drafted them than Brady has had on the Patriots.  In fact, only John Abraham (drafted by the Jets, and now with the Falcons), Brian Urlacher (Chicago Bears), Sebastian Janikowski (Raiders), and, to a lesser extent, Shaun Alexander (Seahawks), Chad Clifton (Packers), and fellow 6th rounder Marc Bulger (Saints, but made his career with the Rams) have had any kind of extended success over their careers, and none of them approach Brady in stature today.

Tom Brady shows just how much of a crap shoot the NFL Draft really is.  Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, and nobody in their wildest dreams could ever have projected the 199th overall pick in any draft, much less a quarterback, to ever be considered a potential Hall of Famer with three Super Bowl wins.  It’s an impossible thing, Brady’s career, but through hard work, excellent coaching, and a great organization behind him, it’s happened.

I can easily imagine that Brady was drafted where he was on the basis of his “measurables.”  I can very easily see how Brady’s passes didn’t look to have a tight-enough spiral, or that his long legs led to slower strides on his dropback.  He doesn’t have an Adonis-like physique.  I’m sure his 40 yd dash times were on the slow side.

Brady is proof positive that arm strength and mobility, while desirable, are overrated as attributes in an ideal quarterback.

Today, Brady has more than adequate arm strength.  But back in 2001, when he first took over from Drew Bledsoe as the New England Patriots’ starting quarterback due to Bledsoe’s injury, Brady threw more wobbly ducks than tight spirals, especially on his longer throws.  But over the course of his career, through a lot of gym work and other technique improvements, his arm strength has improved impressively.

As far as mobility is concerned, Brady does have some.  Though he’s nothing like Steve Young (or Vince Young, for that matter) and he doesn’t run for yardage, Brady does know how to throw on the run.  He will never be mistaken for Elway or Montana or Garcia as far as actual mobility goes , but Brady’s feet are not so leaden as he couldn’t execute this part of the passing game.

There used to be a time when the Patriots ran more of what Bill Walsh used to call “action passes” – waggles, bootlegs, and sprint-outs/roll-outs – in their passing game, and Brady demonstrated a proficiency for this facet of the game.  While he never looked lithe and agile when he threw on the run, Brady’ accuracy didn’t seem affected by not having his feet planted while throwing.

For me, Brady is all about the intangibles.  Brady’s “measurables” aren’t all that impressive.  But when you watch him in action, you always come away with the feeling that this guy is really good at what he does.  It’s not about the passing yards he accumulates, or the touchdowns through the air (though he is very accomplished as far as those things are concerned):  Brady just knows how to lead his team to the end zone.  He does this so well, you can bank on the Patriots having scored more points than whoever they’re playing.  Brady knows how to lead his teams to victory.

Three things about Brady impress me:  1)  His accuracy; 2) his intelligence; and 3) his poise.  Of all the quarterbacks in the NFL today, I think only Drew Brees is more accurate over any distance.  Like Brees, he can place that ball where only his receiver can get to it.  This helps cut down on tipped passes and interceptions.  The long and short of it is he doesn’t hurt his own offense by inadverdently helping the opposing defense.

In terms of intelligence, it’s tempting to say that Peyton Manning is superior to Brady.  Manning, after all, essentially calls his own plays.  But Brady has the same freedom as Manning as far as being able to audible out of a called play and go to a new one at the line of scrimmage, and it looks to me that Brady is better at getting out of a jam than Manning is (you can fool Manning after the snap, as New England does almost routinely; Brady doesn’t seem to fall prey to these kinds of tricks as often as Manning does).  Not only that, but New England’s offense also looks to be more complex, with more variety to their personnel packages and formations than Indianapolis’ offense.  What this means is Brady has a thicker playbook to study and master.  A quarterback has to know not just what he has to do on every single play; he also has to know what everybody else does on that play too, including all the adjustments built into a play’s design.

And Brady’s poise?  Off the charts, in my book.  You never see the man rattled.  It’s like watching a robot wearing that #12 New England jersey.  You never see him react to bad plays.  Even when you see him throw a rare interception, you don’t see a Manning-esque slump or shrug.  If he and a receiver have some miscommunication (which is actually a rare thing, so far as I can tell), you don’t ever see him chew his teammate out with rage like Marino did.  If you blitz him, you never see him worried; he just slips away from the pressure and completes the hot throw.

A cold fish, this man Brady is, eh?

But when he makes a key touchdown throw, you see another side to Brady:  You see his love for the game, his love for his teammates, his love for winning and succeeding at his craft.  It’s a bit like Favre in his younger days:  Brady rushes to the end zone and hugs his teammate who scored, slapping his helmet in joy, sometimes even wrestling and tackling him to the ground.  That enthusiasm may get masked on the way to the end zone, but when the team scores, it gets out and parties all the way to the sideline.

And the guy apparently just knows how to win!  He won far more than he lost whilst he was a Michigan Wolverine (20-5 as a starter over two full years; also, apparently he was once seventh on the QB depth chart at Michigan!), and he has led the Patriots to the top of the NFL mountain thrice.  He led his team to an undefeated regular season in the 2007, an achievement sullied only by the fact that the Giants upset the Patriots in one of the most memorable Super Bowls ever.  (As I recall, it wasn’t Brady’s failings that led to the Patriots’ downfall; full credit should go to the Giants, whose defense harried and dominated the New England offense all game long and whose offense made the key plays at the most critical time of the game.  In other words, they won that Super Bowl the way New England won their three Super Bowls in the Brady era.)

Though his career is still ongoing, I already have lots of Brady memories.  I remember the aforementioned wobbly balls he used to throw when he first took over from Bledsoe.  Those were ugly passes, but they still found their target more often than not.  I remember the famous “Tuck Rule” AFC Divisional Playoff game in 2002 (Patriots vs. Raiders), when Brady lost the ball off of a cat blitz (a cornerback blitz) and the Raiders took possession of the apparent fumble.  After some deliberation, the officials changed the ruling from a fumble to an incomplete forward pass, therefore awarding the ball to the Patriots and further fueling their charge towards their first Super Bowl victory.  I remember those AFC playoff games the Patriots played against the Indianapolis Colts, and how Brady always seemed so unhurried and relaxed, while Manning always looked tense and uptight.  Manning back then was always favored to outduel the former sixth round draft choice, but it was always Brady who wound up winning at the end.  And I always picture Brady licking his index and middle fingers on his throwing hand as he looks at his sideline, listening to the play call come in through the speaker in his helmet, his face always composed and unperturbed.

To me, the enduring impression I get of Tom Brady is just how cool and calm and unfazed he always seems to be when the stakes are highest.  Even as a second-year player playing in his first-ever Super Bowl, he looked so composed and totally in control, devoid of the overt jitters that most men in his position would most likely display.  That’s probably the key to his success, the reason why he has achieved so much in the NFL.

And he’s not done yet.


So now we’ve finally come to the number 1 quarterback on my top 10.

To some readers, this was probably an obvious conclusion; I left some clues along the way.

To many readers, it may be a very acceptable and logical choice.  At the very least, this quarterback probably would make many people’s lists of top NFL quarterbacks, and in many of those lists he would come out as the best of the lot as well.

For me, though, I doubt there will be anybody to knock him off this particular pedestal.  To this day he remains my all-time favorite player.  I love it that he also played for my favorite team.

I give you MY number 1 NFL quarterback,

1.  Joe Montana

In some ways, Joe Montana is really just an ordinary Joe.

He’s no physical specimen like Elway or Aikman was.  Montana is 6’2″, and when he was a 49er, weighed only about 192 lbs (he said as much the other day in an interview on the Dan Patrick Show).  In a game played by massive men, some of whom weigh almost twice as much as he does, Montana is a veritable lightweight.  It’s like Montana is a Smart Car on a road filled with SUVs and tractor trailers.

He certainly didn’t look like much of a football player.  Teammate Dwight Clark told the story of when he first met Montana.  To paraphrase, they met in 1979, at a bar near the 49ers’ team headquarters.  Clark thought Montana was probably one of the 49ers, “probably a kicker” from the looks of him.  Another former teammate, Matt Millen, said in an interview with NFL Films, “First time I saw him I wanted to take him home to dinner,” commenting on just how slight Montana’s physique was.  The funniest comment on Montana’s physique, though, had all to do with the nickname his 49ers teammates gave him:  Bird Legs.

Whatever the realities of Montana’s apparent physical inadequacies, Bill Walsh had no doubts whatsoever that Montana was his guy, his quarterback.  He appreciated more than anybody else Montana’s strengths as a quarterback, instead of his weaknesses.  When most scouts dismissed him for his perceived lack of physical strength, Walsh saw Montana’s accuracy in his passing.  “He’s too small,” many scouts probably said; that didn’t matter to Walsh, who loved Montana’s quick and nimble feet, which enabled him to get out of trouble and to put pressure on the defense as a mobile and accurate passer and as a legitimate running threat.  Montana’s “bird legs” “got him out of a lot of trouble,” Jerry Rice once quipped.

Montana didn’t enter the NFL as the superstar quarterback he eventually became.  He was Steve DeBerg‘s backup, and he served his apprenticeship by going into games on a series-to-series basis as Bill Walsh saw fit.  He was a situational substitute, a changeup Walsh went to in order to throw a monkeywrench in the opponent’s game plan.  All the while, he was building up his experience, learning the myriad intricacies and subtleties of Walsh’s West Coast Offense, paying his dues.  In the course of all this he was also developing and sharpening what was probably his most under-appreciated attribute:  His hunger to win, to succeed, that desire to somehow get things done no matter what the odds.

Walsh always recognized that in Montana.  He said years later after both he and Montana were both retired from the game that that was one of Joe’s outstanding qualities.  In his college playing days with Notre Dame, Montana became famous for that indomitable fighting spirit.  The performance that perhaps best exemplified this was the 1979 Cotton Bowl Classic, his final game for the Fighting Irish.  Montana was suffering from the flu that day, and by halftime Notre Dame had fallen behind against the University of Houston, 20-12.  Worse, Montana was by then suffering from hypothermia.  During the halftime break Notre Dame’s medical staff fed Montana chicken soup in an effort to elevate his body temperature.  Montana did not play at the beginning of the second half, and Notre Dame fell behind.  With only 7:37 left in the game, Montana returned and led the Fighting Irish to a famous comeback victory, 35-34.  The so-called “Chicken Soup Game” demonstrated Montana’s fortitude and his ability to overcome his physical shortcomings.

Throughout his career Montana relied on these things to get to where he wanted himself and his team to go.  More than once he suffered career-threatening injuries.  For example, in mid-September 1986, he suffered a crushing back injury that required surgery and moved doctors to recommend that he retired from the NFL.  He returned to the 49ers by early November, astounding his doctors and galvanizing his team as he led them to yet another NFC West division championship.

Montana suffered an even more devastating injury during the preseason in 1991, when he damaged his right elbow; this injury put him out of the entire 1991 season as well as most of the 1992 season as well.  This injury finally put his 49ers tenure to an end and opened the door for Steve Young to take over.

Montana, though, still had enough fire in his belly to want to prove that he could still play, and do so at a high level.  The 49ers traded him to the Kansas City Chiefs in April 1993, and he (along with Marcus Allen) had a profoundly positive effect on the team immediately.  The Chiefs went as far as the AFC Championship game that year, but they lost to the Buffalo Bills.  Montana led the Chiefs back to the playoffs the following year, but lost to the Miami Dolphins during wildcard weekend.

His two years with the Chiefs extinguished Montana’s competitive fires, and he announced his retirement on April 18, 1995.

In the wake of Montana’s dignified exit from the game was a list of great moments and performances:  “The Catch,” which launched the 49ers into their reign as the NFL’s team of the Eighties; Super Bowl XVI, the team’s first championship victory (and the first of Montana’s three Super Bowl MVP awards); Super Bowl XIX, when he outdueled the mighty Dan Marino; his amazing recovery from his devastating back injury in 1986; the intense quarterback controversy that eventually ensued when Bill Walsh traded for Steve Young just prior to the 1987 season (this was Walsh buying some insurance against the probability that Montana’s career might be shortened by the injuries he was incurring); his ultra-rare post-game speech to his teammates at the end of their 1988 playoff game versus the Minnessota Vikings, during which he told his team that there would be no let-down going into their game against the Bears the following week (Roger Craig later quipped that since Montana was not a vocal type of leader, “when he spoke, it was like E.F. Hutton speaking; you just shut up and listen”); his cool (pun not intended) performance against the brutally powerful Chicago Bears at a frozen Soldier Field during the 1988 NFC Championship game (with the wind chill factored in, the game was played in sub-zero temperatures); the 92 yd, championship-clinching final drive in Super Bowl XXIII, punctuated by his touchdown-scoring pass to John Taylor (The play call – by the way, Bill Walsh’s final one for the 49ers – was Red Right F Left, 20 Halfback Curl X Up, in case you were interested.  The amazing thing about this iconic play was that Roger Craig and Tom Rathman actually lined up in the wrong spots on the field, which could have been an absolute disaster for the 49ers if the Bengals had blitzed Montana.  Sometimes things just work out for you.); Super Bowl XXIV, when Montana threw for five touchdowns and earned his third Super Bowl MVP award (most so far in NFL history); and my favorite Montana stat, the only one I care to remember:  He threw 122 passes for 83 completions (68%), 11 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions in his four Super Bowl appearances.

Plus all the regular season heroics which are too many to mention.

Then there was how Joe played the game.  He played with a grace uncommon amongst quarterbacks.  He had great footwork and truly mastered every single type of dropback required for Walsh’s offense.  He was one of the absolute best of throwing on the run.  Like Tom Brady decades after, Montana never ever looked to have his feathers ruffled, always cool under pressure.  Joe always accepted the blame for when things went sour on the field – an interception because the receiver ran the wrong route, or a botched center-to-quarterback exchange on the snap – even when he was not the one at fault.  This willingness to take responsibility for problems that weren’t even of his own making made Joe beloved and a favorite teammate amongst all who put on that red 49ers uniform.  In all its aspects – technical, functional, even emotional and psychological – Montana made the art of quarterbacking look easy, and that was a huge part of why he is at the top of my list of best NFL quarterbacks ever.

Montana seemed to play at his peak when the heat was turned up to the max, when the stakes were highest.  He was once asked about whether or not he felt pressure or if he got nervous.  He thought about the question, then said that, yes, he did feel pressure, he did feel nervous.  He was then asked if that was a strength or a weakness; Montana replied that he thought it was a great strength, for if nothing else it showed that a player who got nervous and felt pressure truly cared about the job he was doing.  What this exhange showed to me is just how great Montana was at controlling his emotions and his responses to them during times of great stress.  Like Brady (who idolized him – as an aside, Brady has said that he always felt a great disappointment that his hometown 49ers didn’t draft him; he so wanted to be like his idol Joe Montana), nothing seems to faze Montana.  No wonder he was sometimes called “Joe Cool.”

Ex-49ers lineman Randy Cross once said, “Joe Montana is like a great racehorse.  A great racehorse somehow knows when it’s the Kentucky Derby.  I don’t care if you’ve had Joe locked up in an isolation cell for ten days prior, but if you put him on the field for a very important game, you know Joe’s going to perform.”

Randy Cross’ comment is what defines Joe Montana’s greatness.  He wasn’t always the greatest quarterback, especially if you only use statistics to measure performance.  The thing about Montana is that he was always at his absolute best when his team needed him to be.  I don’t ever recall him throwing a game-ending interception, especially during a close game in the playoffs.  Indeed, his heroics stick to my mind and prompted me to dig into and study this sport’s history to levels some might say are excessive and obssessive; who else would bother to know what Red Left Slot, Sprint Right Option is (the play call for “The Catch”), or how to run 22 Halfback Texas from several different formations?  Watching Montana run these plays, and many many others, inspired me to love quarterback play as much as I do.

Watching Montana play made me love the game of football the way I do.



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