Monthly Archives: February 2015

Helmetless players on parade #2

As you may already know, one of my hobbies is gathering photos of early NFL players plying their trade without a helmet. I do this because (a.) they were nuts;  (b.) it serves as reminder of how far the game has come.

Back in November I posted a shot of Link Lyman, the Bears’ Hall of Fame tackle, standing bareheaded on a goal line play. Today — thanks, once again, to The New York Times — we have Redskins tackle Jim Barber (15) running around, sans headgear, against the Giants in 1939. (Barber, by the way, was a first-team all-pro that season.)12-4-39 NYT Helmetless Redskin Jim Barber

What I’m not sure of is whether Barber played without a helmet all the time or just occasionally. Some guys would shed their headgear if it was a really hot day — clearly not the case here (it was December 3) — or if the action on the field got particularly contentious.

The legendary Ernie Nevers was famous for the latter. It was his way of saying, “All righty, then. Let’s get down to business!”

A closer look at Reggie Bush, the receiver

As soon as the Lions released Reggie Bush, I wondered whether he might be headed to the Patriots – that is, if they can’t re-sign Shane Vereen. I wasn’t the only one who had such thoughts. Bush is the type of back who would fit well in New England’s system, a guy who can catch the ball out of the backfield and run it out of the spread formation.

The question with Bush — or one of them, anyway — is: Exactly how good is he as a receiver? Because that’s mostly what the Patriots would want him for. Others, like LeGarrette Blount, can do the heavy lifting in the run game.

What’s always surprised me about Bush is that he hasn’t been more exceptional as a pass catcher, given his speed and elusiveness. Granted, his 466 receptions in the 2000s are second among backs behind LaDainian Tomlinson’s 624. But in the yards-per-catch department he ranks 55th at 7.49 (minimum: 150 rushes, 150 receptions).

Of the 31 backs since the 1970 merger who have caught 400 or more passes, only Curtis Martin (6.88) and Emmitt Smith (6.26) have lower per-catch averages than Bush. And Martin (3,518 rushing attempts) and Smith (4,409) expended much more energy carrying the ball from scrimmage than Reggie (1,266) has.

Here’s another way of looking at it: When Bush was in New Orleans with Sean Payton and Drew Brees, he averaged fewer yards per reception than Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas did in the same offense. The comparison:

RUNNING BACKS AS RECEIVERS IN THE SAINTS OFFENSE

Years Running Back Rec Yds Avg TD
2011-13 Darren Sproles 232 1,981 8.5 16
2007-14 Pierre Thomas 327 2,608 8.0 12
2006-10 Reggie Bush 294 2,142 7.3 12

In other words, Sproles got more out of each catch than Bush in terms of both yards and touchdowns, and Thomas squeezed out more yards and scored a tick less often (3.7 percent of the time vs. Reggie’s 4.1).

That, to me, is why Bush has had such an underwhelming career. Forget the injuries that have caused him to miss 28 games in nine seasons. He just hasn’t done all that much to separate himself from the pack. (Which is why he’s never been to the Pro Bowl — almost an accomplishment itself in these watered-down days).

Maybe, if you analyzed it play by play, you could come up with other explanations. Maybe Bush draws more attention from defenses. Or maybe more of his receptions are in the red zone, where the yards come harder. It’s just always struck me as odd that his yards-per-catch wasn’t higher.

If Vereen (9.6-yard average on 107 receptions) leaves New England, I’m sure Bill Belichick and rest of the Patriots brain trust will take all this into account when considering possible replacements. It’s not that Bush is a bad option necessarily; it’s just that, the closer you look at him, the more he seems like an ordinary one.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

You'd think, as a receiver in the open field, Reggie Bush would make people miss more.

You’d think Reggie Bush, as a receiver in the open field, would make people miss more.

The bootlegger who bought an NFL team

NFL owners live in a fishbowl these days, just as their players and coaches do. When the Colts’ Jim Irsay runs into addiction problems or the Browns’ Jimmy Haslam has the FBI descend on his company, they’re major stories, endlessly discussed by fans and media alike.

Big Bill Dwyer

Big Bill Dwyer

It wasn’t always thus. In the early days, when the league and its owners were more below the radar, a team could be sold to somebody who’d spent 13 months in federal prison for bootlegging . . . and nobody would say a word.

William V. Dwyer was the somebody’s name. In 1930 he brought a dormant franchise that he turned into the Brooklyn Dodgers (who played their games at Ebbets Field, home of the baseball Dodgers). This is the same Big Bill Dwyer who’d been dubbed the “King of the Bootleggers” during Prohibition and presided over a huge illegal empire. How huge? Time magazine summed up his operation this way:

William V. Dwyer manufactured liquor in the U.S. He imported liquor from Canada, Cuba, Europe. He owned trucks, speedboats, 20 ships of foreign registry. He employed 800 men, a few women. He bribed Prohibition agents, put some of his own men into the Coast Guard service. In two-and-a-half years preceding January 1926, he had done a liquor business of some $50 million. Manhattan was the center of his activities.

From July 1927 to August 1928, Dwyer’s home was the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta. By this time he was already involved in pro sports as the owner of the NHL’s New York Americans. When he was paroled, he added the Dodgers to his portfolio and also got more heavily involved in horse racing, building Tropical Park Race Track outside Miami.

“Big Bill was a promoter on a vast scale,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1949. . . .

He also owned limitless quantities of alcohol and if, during the turbulent ’20s, you imbibed whisky that didn’t burn a hole in your esophagus, chances are it was Dwyer’s. At any rate, he obtained control of the idle borough franchise and brought in John Depler, a former Illinois captain, as coach.

He also brought in a vast array of talent — Father Lumpkin, Stumpy Thomason, Ollie Samson, Jack McBride from the Giants, Tex Thomas, Indian Yablock, and later [Hall of Fame quarterback] Benny Friedman and Jack Grossman. . . .

[The Dodgers’] average attendance was 17,000, but they drew as many as 28,000 one day. But Big Bill began to feel the Depression in 1933 and sold out to Chris Cagle and Shipwreck Kelly [for a reported price of “more than $25,000”].

(Cagle and Kelly were still active players — the last, in fact, to own an NFL team.)

After that, it only got worse for Dwyer. His financial difficulties forced the NHL to take over his Americans franchise in 1936, and three years later the U.S. government won a $3.7 million judgment against him for unpaid taxes. When he died in 1946, though, he was still living in an exclusive neighborhood in Rockaway Beach, so the tax suit couldn’t have totally cleaned him out.

Nowadays, of course, Dwyer wouldn’t survive the NFL’s vetting process. But in 1930, when the league was desperate for owners with deep pockets — deep enough to bankroll a team in a big market — Big Bill’s bootlegging past could be winked at.

Besides, public opinion toward such activities was a little different in those years. As actor George Raft, who walked in Dwyer’s world for a time, reminisced in his autobiography:

I knew that Owney Madden, Larry Fay, Big Bill Dwyer, Waxey Gordon and others were powerful in New York. They all wore expensive clothes, drove custom-built cars and lived in kingly suits.

To me, a Hell’s Kitchen kid with no education and no special talent, the Prohibition gangsters were no criminals. They were big men, the only heroes available in my crowded, violent little sidewalk world. When they patted me on the back and said, “Georgie, you’re an O.K. guy,” it was like an orphan getting the nod from John D. Rockefeller.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

“Bullet” Bill Dudley returns

Saw an interesting note in The Dallas Morning News the other day about DeMarco Murray’s impending free agency:

Should Murray suit up in a different uniform next year, he would become the first player since Bill Dudley to lead the NFL in rushing and start the following season with another team. Dudley moved from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Detroit Lions in 1947.

Sixty-eight years. Now that’s a long time.

It’s also a story — Dudley’s escape from the Steelers to the Lions — that’s worth telling. “Bullet Bill” is, after all, a Hall of Famer. On top of that, there was no free agency back then, and it was rare that a player muscled his way off one club and onto another, as he did.

But let’s backpedal a bit and start at the beginning. In 1947 Dudley was coming off an extraordinary season, one that saw him win the MVP award playing for a .500 team. Not only was he the league’s rushing leader, he also, well, check out his numbers:

BILL DUDLEY’S 1946

Category Details
Rushing 146 attempts* for 604 yards* (4.1 average) and 2 touchdowns
Passing 32 completions in 90 attempts for 452 yards and two TDs
Receiving 4 catches for 109 yards and 1 TD
Punt returns 27* for 385 yards* (14.3 average*)
Interceptions 10* for 242 yards* and 1 TD*
Punting 60 for a 40.2 average
Kicking 2 field goals, 12 extra points

*led league

For all-around excellence, you won’t find many seasons like it. There was only one problem: Dudley didn’t feel like he was built for such heavy use. He was only 5-10, 182 pounds, you see, and the Steelers’ single-wing attack was a punishing, grind-it-out style of football. Remember, too, that this was the era of two-way players, so he got beat up playing defense as well as offense.

To make matters worse, the team’s coach, Jock Sutherland, was a legendary taskmaster. Sutherland’s training camps were hell, and even his in-season practices could test a man’s limits. (“There will be only two kinds of men on the Pittsburgh Steeler[s] roster this fall,” Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Press wrote during camp, “– those who are in shape and those who are dead.”)

After the season, Dudley announced his retirement, but it was just a ploy to get the Steelers to trade him to a T-formation team, one that wouldn’t make him carry so much of the load. As he later explained: “I felt playing 50-to-55 minutes in just about every game did not give a man a chance to give his best. It’s detrimental physically.”

Dudley cardYou can imagine how receptive the NFL was to this kind of thinking in 1947. Self-preservation? The very idea! So the Steelers shipped him to the Lions for two backs (Bob Cifers and Paul White), the rights to another (Bob Chappuis, the 26th selection in that year’s draft, who never played for Pittsburgh) and Detroit’s No. 1 pick in ’48.

After the deal was done, Sutherland gave his version of events — and savaged Dudley in the process. “I know for a fact a few of the boys would not have returned to the squad if Bill had rejoined us this year,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When they heard the news that he had signed with the Detroit Lions, one of them remarked, ‘Well, Detroit got itself another coach.’”

During the ’46 preseason, when Sutherland was working his players to death (and putting oatmeal in the water so it wouldn’t taste as good and they wouldn’t drink as much), Dudley complained to the assistant coaches, according to Jock. “[He] went too far in his remarks to my assistants, and when I say too far I mean just that. I heard what he said to them, and I reprimanded him in front of the full squad as I would have with any other player. He didn’t like it, of course, but said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and I thought the matter was dropped.

“That night he wanted to leave the camp. There was a conference and he changed his mind. No more was said about it during the season, and he did everything asked of him, although some of the players to the end resented his bossy attitude.”

Can you imagine a coach today unloading on a former player like that? And again, this is a Hall of Famer he’s talking about. Dudley had played two full seasons in the NFL and been the league’s top rusher both years.

Besides, it’s not like Dudley didn’t have a point. The single wing did take more of a toll on you (never mind the toll extracted by Sutherland’s maniacal training methods). The Bears’ George Halas, one of the fathers of the modern T, tried to impress this on Steelers owner Art Rooney a few years later. “The single wing takes too much out of your players, Art,” he said. “You do kick the hell out of the opposition physically, but the opposition is still getting the points and beating you. Remember, the other team takes that beating once; your team takes it every week.”

To twist the knife a little more, Sutherland told the Post-Gazette, “Dudley begged to rejoin the Steelers when he heard a deal was being made for him with [struggling] Detroit. He was sorry over what happened and wanted to come back in the worst way, but I think it is better for all concerned the way things are now.”

The Steelers went 8-4 without Dudley the next season, tying for first in the Eastern Division. (The Eagles beat them in a playoff to advance to the title game.) But their success was short-lived. Sutherland died of a brain tumor the following spring, and the franchise scuffed along until the late ’50s, posting a winning record just once.

As for Dudley, he was right to dread going to Detroit. In his three years there, the Lions won just nine games (though he remained a valuable and versatile player). He tried to return to Pittsburgh as a backfield coach in 1952 — after spending two seasons with the Redskins — but Washington owner George Preston Marshall, unconvinced Bullet Bill would stay retired, wanted too much in compensation. (And sure enough, Dudley returned to the game, primarily as a kicker, after sitting out a year.)

This brings us to the final, delicious part of our story: the first-rounder the Steelers got from the Lions for Dudley. It wound up being the third pick in the ’48 draft, and they used it to select an All-American quarterback from Texas – a fella by the name of Bobby Layne. Alas, Layne didn’t want to play in Pittsburgh’s single wing any more than Dudley did. So, rather than risk losing him to the rival All-America Conference, the Steelers sent him to the Bears for a player who better fit their offense, Kansas tailback Ray Evans.

Evans showed promise as a rookie, but that was the extent of his NFL career. To the Steelers’ shock, he turned his back on a $20,000 salary and took a job with a Kansas City bank. The probable reason, the Post-Gazette reported, was that he’d recently been “married to Edith Marie Darby, daughter of Harry Darby, wealthy Kansas City industrialist and Republican National Committeeman for Kansas. It is thought his wife may have objected to his pro grid competition.”

Layne, of course, went on to lead the Lions to two titles en route to the Hall of Fame. (What might have been.) He did finish his career with the Steelers, but he was in his 30s by then and didn’t have nearly as much talent around him.

So ends the tale of The Last NFL Rushing Champ To Start The Following Season With Another Team. DeMarco Murray can’t possibly top this, can he?

Dez Bryant, historically speaking

There’s been such an explosion in receiving statistics in recent years — Calvin Johnson’s near 2,000-yard season in 2012, Randy Moss’ 23 touchdown catches in ’07, etc. — that it can be hard to keep track of them all. Take the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant, for instance. His last three seasons have been three of the best ever strung together by an NFL wideout. And yet, nobody’s called much attention to it (except maybe his agent, who’s trying to negotiate a new contract for him).

Consider: In each of those seasons, Bryant had 1,200-plus receiving yards and 12 or more touchdown grabs. You know how many other guys in pro football history have had a stretch like that? Four. And none of them, I’ll just point out, have done it four seasons in a row. So if Dez puts up similar numbers next year, he’ll be in a class by himself. Here’s the group he belongs to:

1,200 YARDS RECEIVING AND 12 TD CATCHES IN 3 CONSECUTIVE SEASONS

Years Receiver, Team 1st Year 2nd Year 3rd Year
2012-14 Dez Bryant, Cowboys 1,382/12 1,233/13 1,320/16
2000-02 Terrell Owens, 49ers 1,451/13 1,412/16 1,300/13
1999-01 Marvin Harrison, Colts 1,663/12 1,413/14 1,524/15
1993-95 Jerry Rice, 49ers 1,503/15 1,499/13 1,848/15
1989-91 Jerry Rice, 49ers 1,483/17 1,502/13 1,206/14
1964-66 Lance Alworth, Chargers (AFL) 1,235/13 1,602/14 1,383/13

Recognize anybody? Rice and Alworth, of course, are in the Hall of Fame, and Harrison and T.O. almost certainly will join them.

Rice nearly pulled it off seven years in a row (1989-91, 1,201 yards/10 touchdowns in ’92, 1993-95). He missed by just two TDs. And Alworth, let’s not forget, played when seasons were only 14 games long. (Granted, two of the seasons in question — 1964 and ’65 — were in the pre-Super Bowl AFL, which wasn’t quite up to NFL standards. But the shorter schedule balances it out, I think. He definitely belongs on the list.)

At any rate, we’re talking about a high level of production here. It’s rare enough for a wideout to have 12 TD catches three years in a row, never mind 1,200 yards. The only ones to accomplish that feat are the aforementioned five plus the Vikings’ Cris Carter (1997-99), another Canton resident. And again, nobody has done it four straight seasons, so Bryant has a shot at another first.

It’s something for the Cowboys to think about as they try to squeeze Bryant and DeMarco Murray under the salary cap. Murray is coming off a terrific season, sure, but Dez is coming off three terrific seasons — and is a year younger than DeMarco.

No one’s saying he doesn’t have some baggage. You can see his Warning Label from here. But the man delivers on the playing field — at historic levels. There’s no denying that.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Lance Alworth was the first wideout with 1,200 receiving yards and 12 TD catches three straight seasons.

Lance Alworth was the first wideout to rack up 1,200 receiving yards and 12 TD catches three straight seasons.

The passing record Lou Groza once held

When you think of Lou Groza, you think of this big guy — 6-3, 240, with a bit of a belly — booting field goals forever for the Browns. Groza happened to be a fine offensive tackle, too, protecting the blind side of Cleveland quarterbacks for more than a decade, but it’s his 264 field goals and 1,608 points that are more remembered. When he retired after the 1967 season, he held the career record in both categories. By a mile.

Lou Groza, doing what he did best.

Browns Hall of Famer Lou Groza, doing what he did best.

Anyway, you might be amused to learn that “The Toe,” as he was called, once held an NFL passing record. What record could that possibly be, you ask? Answer: For almost five years, he was the oldest player ever to throw a pass in the league.

Groza made this little piece of history in a 27-17 loss to the Vikings in 1965 – at the age of 41 years, 279 days. Patricia Heaton’s dad, Chuck, who covered the Browns for The Plain Dealer, described it this way:

The large and somewhat stunned gathering also saw Lou Groza throw a forward pass. The Toe, who on very few occasions in the past has had to resort to such desperation maneuvers, was trying to kick a 50-yard field goal.

The pass from center bounced away from Bobby Franklin, the holder. Lou recovered and, being confronted with nothing but purple [Vikings] jerseys, tried a pass. It was intended for John Brewer but wasn’t completed. So Minnesota took over.

The next season, in a similar situation, Groza threw another pass. This one was actually completed . . . for a 7-yard loss to one of his blockers, linebacker Vince Costello. Lou was now 42 years, 256 days old. This would stand as the record until 1975, when the George Blanda – a spry 43 years, 38 days – came off the bench to quarterback the Raiders to a 31-14 win over the Steelers. (He even tossed three touchdown passes, all of them longer than minus-7 yards.)

Blanda was still chucking in 1975, his final year in the NFL. In fact, in his last regular-season game, he went 1 for 3 for 11 yards (with one interception) as Oakland beat the Chiefs, 28-20. He’s still the Oldest Guy To Throw A Pass by more than three years.

In the decades since, only four other players older than Groza have cocked their arm and let one fly. Here’s that list:

THE SIX OLDEST PLAYERS TO THROW A PASS IN THE NFL

Year  Player, Team Vs Att Comp Yds TD Int Rate Age
1975  George Blanda, Raiders Chiefs   3   1   11 0 1     5.6 48-095
1998  Steve DeBerg, Falcons Dolphins 10   5   85 1 0 112.5 44-342
2007  Vinny Testaverde, Panthers Jaguars 28 13   84 0 1   38.4 44-026
2000  Warren Moon, Chiefs Chargers 31 12 130 0 1   38.4 44-008
2005  Doug Flutie, Patriots Jets   1   1     2 0 0   79.2 43-064
1966  Lou Groza, Browns Steelers   1   1    -7 0 0   79.2 42-256

The record Groza broke, by the way, was held by the Giants’ Charlie Conerly, who was 89 days past his 40th birthday when he relieved Y.A. Tittle in the 1961 title game against the Packers and hit 4 of 8 passes for 54 yards. (Not that “The Toe” wasn’t capable of a performance like that, had the center and holder just botched the snap a half-dozen more times.)

Postscript: When Bob O’Donnell and I were writing The Pro Football Chronicle in the ’80s, we came across an old story about Groza in one of the Cleveland newspapers. Instead of a head shot of him, though, the paper ran a photo of his right big toe.

Bob and I thought it would be hilarious if we could include The Toe’s toe in our book, so we tried to track the photo down. Alas, it had been lost to the ages. So Bob, not easily discouraged, phoned Groza and asked if his toe would be willing to pose for us. “We’ll send a photographer to your house,” he said.

At first, Lou was up for it. “No need to go to all that trouble,” he said. “I drive right by this photography studio every day. I’ll have the picture taken there and send it to you.” But soon he began to have second thoughts, began to think it might be “undignified” for a Hall of Fame player to have his 65-year-old toe appear in a book.

If I ever run into him in the hereafter, I’m going to make another pitch to him. I still think the world would love to see Lou Groza’s big right toe, gnarly or not.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The eternal life of a quarterback

At any other position — except maybe punter and kicker — when an NFL player hits 30, you start wondering how much longer he’s got left (or how many Pro Bowl seasons he might still have in him). But quarterbacks seem to have found the Fountain of Youth, what with all the passer-friendly rule changes and the league’s continuing effort to keep them safe.

When a QB reaches 30 these days, he’s often still on the rise — his play becoming more refined, his health no worse for the wear. Tom Brady just rallied the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory at the age of 37. The year before, Peyton Manning took the Broncos to the title game — and had one of the greatest seasons in pro football history — at the same age. And we may not have heard the last from either of them. The Patriots, remember, are still young, even if Brady isn’t (chronologically, at least).

You can’t ask for a better situation than that, not in a league that considers quarterbacks its first, second and third most important commodities. If QBs can play at a championship level well into their 30s — while everybody around them is aging more quickly — the NFL will never have a worry in the world, entertainment-wise. It might even be able to handle another round or two of expansion, which you know the owners want.

Let me show you what I mean about quarterbacks performing better as they get older. Note I didn’t say, “getting better as they get older.” It’s harder to measure that. After all, what a QB might gain over the years in terms of judgment and understanding, he might lose in arm strength and mobility. Does that make him a better player, necessarily, or just one who wins in a different way? But performance is measurable — through statistics. (And obviously, some of the improvement can be attributed to the aforementioned rule changes, which pushed the league-wide passer rating this past season to 87.1, an all-time high.)

Anyway, after crunching some numbers, I learned that not only does a quarterback’s rating tend to improve in his 30s, sometimes dramatically, he often throws more passes in his 30s than does in his 20s. The second discovery was a bit of a shock. Imagine if this was true of the average running back, receiver or pass rusher. Imagine if the NFL had across-the-board longevity like that. (Not that some the rules favoring passers don’t also help the guys doing the catching.)

Brady is a classic example. In his 20s he had a rating of 88.4 (on 3,064 pass attempts); in the 30s he has a rating of 101.5 (on 4,104 attempts) — an increase of 13.1 points. That’s tops among active quarterbacks who have thrown 1,000 or more passes on both sides of the 30 divide.

A QUARTERBACK’S 20S VS. HIS 30S (ACTIVE QBS ONLY) 

Quarterback Team(s) 20s Rate (Att) 30s Rate (Att) +/- Pts
Tom Brady Patriots 88.4 (3,064) 101.5 (4,104) +13.1
Drew Brees Chargers/Saints 89.4 (3,650) 101.2 (3,808) +11.8
Peyton Manning Colts/Broncos 93.5 (4,333) 101.2 (4,716)   +7.7
Tony Romo Cowboys 95.6 (1,857) 99.2 (2,353)   +3.6
Ben Roethlisberger Steelers 92.1 (3,313) 97.5 (1,641)   +5.4
Philip Rivers Chargers 95.3 (2,902) 96.4 (1,776)   +1.1
Matt Schaub Raiders/2 others 91.5 (1,987) 86.0 (1,204)    -5.5
Michael Vick Falcons/2 others 75.9 (1,743) 86.0 (1,204) +10.1
Eli Manning Giants 80.2 (3,332) 85.7 (2,277)   +5.5
Carson Palmer Bengals/2 others 88.4 (2,595) 84.0 (2,311)    -4.4
Matt Hasselbeck Seahawks/3 others 84.0 (1,823) 81.4 (3,251)    -2.6

So you’ve got 11 active quarterbacks who have thrown 1000+ passes in their 30s. Eight have posted a higher rating than in their 20s, three have gone the other way. And naturally, the lower your rating in the 20s, the more room there is for improvement in later years.

It’s amazing how close Brady, Brees and Manning are in their 30s, as far as their passing efficiency goes. Just three-tenths of a point separates them. And all of their ratings, of course, are over 100. That’s mind-boggling, especially when you consider how rare a 100 rating used to be (in a single season or even a game). But that’s the direction the game is going — to take nothing way from today’s quarterbacks. QBs can play forever — and play well. They might not always be worth franchise money, but they can be far more than just functional.

Compare the above list with the one below of selected Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Some saw their rating go up in their 30s, some saw it go down. It was a very mixed bag. And again, these men are in Canton (or, in the case of Brett Favre, headed there).

HALL OF FAME QBS: THEIR 20S VS. THEIR 30S

Quarterback Team(s) 20s Rate (Att) 30s Rate (Att) +/- Pts
Steve Young Bucs/49ers 81.3 (976) 101.6 (3,173) +20.3
Joe Montana 49ers/Chiefs 92.4 (2,571) 92.1 (2,820)    -0.3
Bart Starr Packers 74.6 (1,546) 86.2 (1,603) +11.6
Jim Kelly Bills 82.7 (1,742) 85.3 (3,037)   +2.6
John Elway Broncos 73.6 (3,070) 84.5 (4,180) +10.9
Dan Fouts Chargers 75.5 (2,594) 84.3 (3\010)   +8.8
Dan Marino Dolphins 88.6 (4,234) 84.1 (4,124)    -4.5
Warren Moon Oilers/Vikings 69.6 (1,191) 83.8 (4,809) +14.2
Brett Favre Packers/2 others 88.8 (3,883) 83.5 (5,522)    -5.3
Sonny Jurgensen Eagles/Redskins 79.1 (1,107) 83.3 (2,988)   +4.2
Bob Griese Dolphins 74.0 (2,014) 81.7 (1,415)   +7.7
Len Dawson Chiefs/2 others 85.6 (1,061) 80.9 (2,540)    -4.7
Terry Bradshaw Steelers 62.1 (2,019) 80.4 (1,882) +18.3
Fran Tarkenton Vikings/Giants 81.0 (3,022) 79.8 (3,455)    -1.2
Johnny Unitas Colts 79.4 (2,316) 78.2 (2,794)    -1.2
Troy Aikman Cowboys 83.6 (3,068) 77.9 (1,647)    -5.7
Joe Namath Jets/Rams 69.3 (2,605) 56.9 (1,157)  -12.6

In this group we have nine gainers and eight decliners — a totally different story. Part of the reason is that some of them played before 1978, when the NFL started outlawing defense. As a result, rule changes didn’t help them much later in their careers. The game was essentially the same (in terms of its policing, that is).

No one’s saying other factors might not have affected these quarterbacks — their supporting cast (coaches included), for instance. But it’s clear there’s never been a better time to be a QB than right now. Your star can keep shining, brightly, deep into your 30s. The Million-Dollar Question is: Who’s going to be the first QB to win a Super Bowl in his 40s? It’s bound to happen one of these days. You just know it is. (Look at how close Brett Favre came with the Vikings in 2009.)

Source: pro-football-reference.com

This is no longer the image of the NFL QB in his late 30s (the Giants' Y.A. Tittle in 1964).

This is no longer the image of the NFL quarterback in his late 30s (the Giants’ Y.A. Tittle in 1964).

DeMarco Murray’s odometer

Football folks have begun to worry about rushing attempts the way baseball people fret about pitch counts. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying these things aren’t important. It’s more a question of: How much weight do you give them?

The Cowboys' DeMarco Murray, stiff-arming all doubters.

The Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray, stiff-arming all doubters.

When evaluating the free-agent value of the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray, for instance, observers are likely to mention his 392 carries in the 2014 regular season. For one thing, it’s tied for the seventh-highest total in NFL history. For another, it isn’t particularly conducive to a back’s long-term health and productivity — especially if he’s piling postseason carries on top of it, as Murray did (44 more).

In a piece for ESPN.com, Kevin Seifert pointed to the 392 figure and added: “All six of the most recent [backs with that many attempts] fell short of 1,000 yards in the following season.” This isn’t entirely accurate. One of the six, Eric Dickerson, did rush for 1,000 yards the next season (1,288 in 12 games). And another of the six, Ricky Williams, retired after the season and didn’t return to the NFL until two years later (and only after serving a drug suspension). I’m not sure Ricky should even be part of the conversation.

Then there are Eddie George (403 carries in 2000) and Terrell Davis (392 in 1998). To me, their drop-offs weren’t the result of one workhorse season, they were the cumulative effect of years of overuse. George had 1,898 rushing attempts in his first five seasons (playoffs included) — tops in the league in that period by 147. As for Davis, he had 481 carries in 1997 and another 470 in ’98 (again, playoffs included). Those are first- and third-highest totals of all time.

My point is simply this: There are other things that should be factored into the Murray Equation. Yes, he was a busy back last season, but that hardly means his decline in imminent — or even near. With him, it’s more a matter of “How good is he?” than “How much tread does he have left on his tires?”

Consider: 70 running backs since 1960 have had more rushing attempts before their 27th birthday than Murray (928) did. For a back at this stage of his career, he’s fairly low-mileage.

Just for fun, let’s look at the backs who’ve had the most carries before turning 27 (one final time: playoffs included) — and see how many attempts they still had in them:

MOST RUSHING ATTEMPTS BEFORE 27TH BIRTHDAY

Seasons Running back Team(s) Pre-27 High Post-27
1990-04 Emmitt Smith Cowboys/Cardinals 2,286 451 2,472
1999-09 Edgerrin James Colts/Cardinals 1,972 408 1,274
1993-05 Jerome Bettis Rams/Steelers 1,893 423 1,785
1989-98 Barry Sanders Lions 1,826 365 1,327
1995-05 Curtis Martin Patriots/Jets 1,792 418 1,908

(Note: “High” = most carries in a season before turning 27.)

Interesting, no? Smith and Martin actually had more rushing attempts after their 27th birthday. Bettis, meanwhile, had almost as many and it might have been the same for Sanders if he hadn’t retired at 30 (after a 1,491-yard season). At any rate, next to these guys, Murray’s workload seems pretty modest.

Note, too, that four of them had 400-carry seasons before turning 27 — but still had plenty of gas left in the tank.

Now let’s look at the backs who had the most carries after their 27th birthday:

MOST RUSHING ATTEMPTS AFTER TURNING 27

Seasons Running back Team(s) Post-27 High Pre-27
1990-04 Emmitt Smith Cowboys/Cardinals 2,472 366 2,286
1975-87 Walter Payton Bears 2,435 427 1,583
1971-85 John Riggins Jets/Redskins 2,239 462    928
2000-11 Thomas Jones Cardinals/4 others 2,064 376    739
1977-88 Tony Dorsett Cowboys/Broncos 2,050 380 1,188
1972-84 Franco Harris Steelers/Seahawks 1,984 374 1,365
1995-05 Curtis Martin Patriots/Jets 1,908 408 1,792
1982-97 Marcus Allen Raiders/Chiefs 1,871 259 1,418
1993-05 Jerome Bettis Rams/Steelers 1,785 355 1,893
1997-08 Warrick Dunn Bucs/Falcons 1,671 297 1,134

(Note: “High” = most carries in a season after turning 27.)

Eight of the 10 in this group had more rushing attempts before they hit 27 than Murray (978) did — in many cases a lot more. So why is everybody so concerned about DeMarco’s longevity? Sure, he had some nicks earlier in his career, but nothing major. He might have some very good years ahead, just as these backs did. Heck, Payton, Riggins and Martin still had a 400-carry season in their future.

It’s something to think about as free agency approaches. There isn’t anything ominous, necessarily, about rushing the ball 392 times in a season (436 counting the playoffs). But you certainly don’t want to do it year in and year out — and it’s doubtful Murray will, no matter what team he winds up with. Coaches these days are much more aware of human limits than they used to be.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Early “analytics”

Pro football has always been a bit behind in the Numbers Racket. No joke: Recordkeeping was so slipshod in the late ’30s that the NFL didn’t even know who its all-time leading rusher was. (It just thought it did.)

But that’s a story for another day. Instead, let’s talk about a couple of early attempts to swim against the tide, to look at statistics — and the game — in a different light. The first is from the Dec. 4, 1927, Syracuse Herald. The day after a neutral-site battle between Red Grange’s New York Yankees (the “home” team) and the Providence Steam Roller, the newspaper ran this graphic:Syracuse Herald headline 12-4-27 Grange game

Syracuse Herald subhead 12-4-2712-4-27 Syracuse Herald YAC graphicHow cool is that? It’s 1927 — 1927! — and you’ve got a paper keeping track of the distance passes traveled in the air and how far receivers ran after the catch. Yards After Catch didn’t really enter the football lexicon until the 2000s, but here’s the Herald charting it in the Red Grange era. It’s a shame we don’t know who dreamed up the idea. The guy was way ahead of his time.

(This, by the way, was the year before the Steam Roller won the NFL title. “Conzelman” is Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman, their player-coach, who later coached the Chicago Cardinals to the 1947 championship.)

We move ahead to 1941 — and a box score that appeared in the Pittsburgh Press after the Giants whacked the Steelers, 37-10. Many papers back then just ran basic information (who started, who substituted, who scored, who officiated, etc.). But the Press went above and beyond. Take a look, and then we’ll discuss it.10-6-41 Steelers box Pitts Press

A couple of things jump out — the “Ball lost on downs” category, for instance. Even today’s box scores don’t include that. So it’s interesting that, in a period when stats were hard to come by, it was part of the Press’ package. But, hey, why shouldn’t it be, then or now? Fourth-down stops can be some of the biggest plays in a game.

Even more intriguing, though, is “Net yards gained, rushing, passing, intercepted passes, kick returns.” Can’t say I’ve seen that anywhere else. What it looks at, essentially, is how far a team advanced the ball — by any and all means (except fumbles, for whatever reason).

As you can see, the Giants came out ahead here, too — 433-323. But it’s debatable how useful or revealing a statistic it is. After all, a club that’s getting smoked can rack up a lot of yards returning kickoffs.

Still, you can appreciate the Press’ willingness to depart from the norm and give readers a little extra. Especially when the esteemed New York Times was casually reporting (in 1936): “[Tuffy] Leemans gained 117 in 20 tries to bring his yardage for the season to 502. At the rate he is going he bids to surpass Beattie Feathers’ league record of slightly more than 1,000.”

Slightly more than 1,000. That’s where the NFL was in those days — and change was slow in coming. But some folks, at least, were trying.

Beattie Feathers, behind the block of Bronko Nagurski (3), rushing for some of his "slightly more than 1,000 yards" in 1934.

Beattie Feathers, with Bronko Nagurski (3) leading the way, rushed for “slightly more than 1,000” yards in 1934.

The Super Bowl-winning offense

Before the season I posted a chart that looked at the 21 Super Bowl-winning offenses in the Free-Agent Era (1993-present). Almost all had a Top 10 quarterback (rating-wise), which shouldn’t surprise anybody. But it was striking how many didn’t didn’t have a running back and/or receiver who ranked that high (in terms of yards).

I bring the subject up again because the 2014 Patriots fit this same model. Tom Brady ranked fifth in the NFL in passer rating, but the Pats’ leading rusher, Jonas Gray (48th!), and leading receiver, Rob Gronkowski (15th), finished quite a bit farther down the list at their positions. This made New England the eighth NFL champion in the last 13 that didn’t have a Top 10 running back or Top 10 receiver. The details:

RECENT SUPER BOWL CHAMPS WITHOUT A TOP 10 RUSHER OR TOP 10 RECEIVER

Year Champion QB, Rating (Rank) Top Rusher, Yds (Rank) Top Receiver, Yds (Rank)
2014 Patriots Tom Brady, 97.4 (5) Jonas Gray, 412 (48) Rob Gronkowski, 1,124 (15)
2012 Ravens Joe Flacco, 87.7 (14) Ray Rice, 1,143 (11) Anquan Boldin, 921 (27)
2009 Saints Drew Brees, 109.6 (1) Pierre Thomas, 793 (T24) Marques Colston, 1,074 (18)
2008 Steelers B.Roethlisberger, 80.1 (24) Willie Parker, 791 (26) Hines Ward, 1,043 (15)
2007 Giants Eli Manning, 73.9 (25) B. Jacobs, 1,009 (T15) Plaxico Burress, 1,025 (21)
2005 Steelers B.Roethlisberger, 98.6 (3) Willie Parker, 1,202 (12) Hines Ward, 975 (22)
2003 Patriots Tom Brady, 85.9 (10) Antowain Smith, 642 (30) Deion Branch, 803 (32)
2002 Bucs Brad Johnson, 92.9 (3) Michael Pittman, 718 (32) K. Johnson, 1,088 (16)

As you can see — and as I noted in August — it’s more about Spreading the Ball Around these days. Not that it isn’t nice to have a DeMarco Murray or an Antonio Brown on your team; it just isn’t necessary. Far from it, in fact.

You can win the Super Bowl without a 500-yard rusher or a 1,000-yard wide receiver, as the Patriots just demonstrated. (Julian Edelman led their wideouts with 972.) You just need contributions from a lot of people — along, of course, with quality quarterbacking, It’s something to think about as the free-agency period approaches and owners get ready to whip out their checkbooks. More doesn’t necessarily mean more.