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Don’t let the facts get in the way of . . .

Everybody loves a good story. But you can’t love it so much — as a journalist, at least — that you don’t do your due diligence and verify, verify, verify.

One such story got some play on Twitter and elsewhere a few days ago. This was after Ikemefuna Enemkpali, the Jets’ rookie linebacker, cold-cocked starting quarterback Geno Smith and broke his jaw. NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, who’d dealt with a similar episode during his Cowboys days in the ’70s, tweeted the following: 

(Over 3,000 retweets, folks — for those of you scoring at home.)

Longley brandishes his clippings after the '74 Redskins game.

Longley brandishes his clippings after the ’74 Redskins game.

There’s only one problem: It ain’t true. For starters, nobody in 1976, not even the wily Brandt, was going to — presto chango — trade Longley for the second pick in the next draft. The kid had had a stellar small college career at Abilene Christian, sure, but he was still an unknown quantity who’d thrown just 44 passes in his two NFL seasons, completing less than half of them (19). He had, however, flashed in a 1974 Thanksgiving Day game against the Redskins, coming off the bench to throw two touchdown passes to rally the Cowboys to a memorable 24-23 win. That, and his Dallas pedigree, were what gave him some market value.

But hardly No. 2-overall-pick market value. The deal Brandt brokered actually went like this: Dallas sent Longley and its 1977 first-rounder (24th) to San Diego, and the Chargers forked over their first (14th) and second (41st) selections in the same draft. Got it? The Cowboys came away with a second-rounder and moved up 10 spots in Round 1.

The trade, then, wasn’t really Longley for Dorsett. It was Longley for a couple of the chips Brandt needed to pry the No. 2 pick away from the Seahawks. Dorsett ended up costing Dallas their young QB plus four prime selections: the first- and second-rounders acquired from San Diego and two other seconds — 30th (which came from Buffalo for defensive end Pat Toomay) and 54th (the Cowboys’ own choice) overall. That 30th choice, I’ll just remind you, would be a first-rounder today.

Peter King wrote about the Longley-Staubach scuffle in his Wednesday mailbag. And to his credit, he acknowledged:

“The details in the Cowboys story are a little fuzzy now. Brandt’s recollection differs from the memory of some Cowboy players in a Matt Mosley story for the Dallas Morning News a decade ago. Brandt recalls Longley and Staubach getting into a fight after a training-camp practice in California in 1976, Longley riding Staubach about it being time for him to retire (he was 34 in that training camp), and Staubach saying if he wanted to discuss it, they’d discuss it after practice on an adjacent field. They fought then, and later, in the team’s locker room in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Brandt recalls Longley trying to hit Staubach in the head with a folding chair — just like in the old days of professional wrestling. The players recalled the fight to Mosley, but not the chair. They say that Longley cheap-shotted Staubach when he wasn’t looking in the locker room.

This is not in dispute:

“After it happened,” Brandt said Tuesday night, “Tom Landry called. He wanted Longley traded  immediately.” Brandt, within a day, had Longley dealt to San Diego.

Not in dispute? It most certainly is in dispute — the “within a day” part, that is. Longley wasn’t traded for nearly three weeks (18 days to be exact). But “within a day” sounds so much more dramatic, doesn’t it?

On Aug. 25, 13 days after Longley jumped Staubach, The Associated Press reported:

Longley has been on the trade marts for almost a month, but Landry said, “We’ve had offers for him, but they weren’t good enough to consider. It’s possible he won’t play anywhere this year.”

Landry also added, “I never write off conciliation.”

It wasn’t until Aug. 30, when teams were beginning to set their final rosters, that the Chargers, still not sold on future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, decided they needed Longley as quarterback insurance. (In their defense, Fouts was 5-20-1 as a starter at the time and had a career passer rating of 56.)

A year later, with the legendary Dorsett rushing for over 1,000 yards as a rookie, Dallas won its second Super Bowl. By then Longley was out of the league, never to return. Brandt’s version of events make for quite a tale, but it’s only that — a Texas-sized whopper honed, no doubt, in press boxes and hospitality suites over the decades. Clint Longley slugged Roger Staubach when he had his head turned, and 24 hours later I traded the SOB for Tony Dorsett. How much more brilliant can a personnel man get?

Unfortunately for Brandt, we have the Internet now, and it’s harder to get away with these fish stories — except on websites that are either too understaffed, too overworked or too trusting to double-check basic facts.

Sigh.

(Sorry, I’m just not a print-the-legend guy. When the legend becomes fact, I begin to worry about the fate of civilization.)

Source: pro-football-reference.com, prosportstransactions.com.

The New Yorker’s careless fumble

Most fans – I would hope – are aware of James Harris’ contribution to pro football history. In 1969, as a rookie with the Bills, he became the first black quarterback to begin the season as the starter. He went on to have a decent career, too, winning 18 of 22 regular-season starts with the 1974-75 Rams and going to the Pro Bowl the first of those years. On arguably his best day, he threw for 436 yards.

James Harris during his Rams days.

James Harris during his Rams days.

When Harris retired recently as a senior personnel advisor for the Lions, The New Yorker decided to call attention to it — and to remind everybody of Shack’s (as he was called) sociological significance. Great. Wonderful. Bravo. What isn’t so great is that the author — unaware, apparently, of what was going on at Michigan State in those days — unfairly impugned an honorable, color-blind coach, Duffy Daugherty.

Here’s what Samuel G. Freedman wrote in the magazine’s Sporting Life column:

Amid the oppression of the segregated South, Harris thrived on the football field. He was an all-state quarterback on a state-championship football team in high school. In order to continue to play quarterback in college, Harris turned down a scholarship offer from Michigan State, which wanted to turn him into a tight end. At the time, there was a persistent color barrier throughout college and professional football: no matter how successful they were, black quarterbacks were forced to change position — to receiver, to running back, to defensive back — and cede their responsibilities to the white players who were believed to be smarter and better leaders. So Harris went to Grambling State University, a historically black school, to play quarterback under the legendary head coach Eddie Robinson.

My problem with this is the way Freedman lumps in Michigan State with the many programs at that time that either excluded blacks or wouldn’t in a million years have let one of them play quarterback. Daugherty was guilty of neither offense.

On the contrary, he already had a black quarterback on the roster, Jimmy Raye, who was the backup in 1965 and the starter next two years. It was in 1966, you may recall, that Michigan State played its famous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame — the “Game of the Century,” it was dubbed — and ranked second in the final polls.

That Spartans team wasn’t unusual just because it had a black QB, by the way. It also might have had the most diverse roster in major-college football. Defensive end Bubba Smith, linebacker George Webster, running back Clinton Jones, wide receiver Gene Washington, Raye — all the biggest stars were black. According to a story last fall in the Detroit Free Press, the squad “had 20 [blacks] — including 11 starters.” This was unheard of in the mid-’60s.

Daugherty on Time coverMichigan State also had a Samoan running back (Bob Apisa) and a barefooted Hawaiian kicker (Dick Kenney). Daugherty was an equal-opportunity coach in every way. (He was even one of the first, in 1960, to have a soccer-style kicker. One week he was so dissatisfied with the length of his team’s kickoffs that he recruited a Dutch kid off the soccer team and gave him the job.)

At any rate, to suggest there was some kind of “color barrier” at Michigan State is beyond ludicrous. What Texas Western, with its all-black starting five, was to the integration of college basketball in 1966, the Spartans, in my mind, were to the integration of college football: a great leap forward.

It just so happens that Raye, a longtime NFL assistant coach, has collaborated with Tom Shanahan on a book about those remarkable Spartans teams: Raye of Light. His motivation, he told the Free Press, was to “to pay homage to Duffy Daugherty, who had enough courage to be willing to coach and accept, to extend a branch to recruit black athletes in the South, to give them an opportunity to get an education and play Big Ten football. He was color-blind.”

The book’s forward is written by Tony Dungy, who followed Raye’s path as a Big Ten quarterback, pro defensive back and NFL coach. Because of Jimmy’s exploits, Dungy dreamed of playing for Michigan State. But Daugherty retired, and Tony wound up at Minnesota under Duffy’s former assistant, Cal Stoll.

“How did we arrive at the point where African-Americans would have an opportunity to coach teams in the Super Bowl?” Dungy writes. “I believe it all stems back to the Big Ten and the influence those players had on the rest of the country. This book documents the efforts of Duffy Daugherty and his staff in recruiting black players from South.”

If Daugherty wanted Harris, a sturdy 6-foot-4, to switch to tight end, there was nothing racist about it. It was just a miscalculation on the order of, oh, Joe Paterno wanting Jim Kelly and Jeff Hostetler to be linebackers. Duffy was way ahead of his time in the equal-opportunity department – and should be remembered as such. To group him with the segregationists is a crime.

Sources: pro-football-reference.com, college-football-reference.com

Michigan State's Jimmy Raye takes off and runs against Notre Dame in 1966 -- the famed 10-10 tie.

Michigan State’s Jimmy Raye takes off and runs against Notre Dame in 1966 — the famed 10-10 tie.

Punters throwing postseason TD passes

Sorry to be bringing this to your attention so late. Things get a little backed up sometimes at Pro Football Daly. Still, I hope you’ll be amused.

In the NFC title game, you may recall, Seahawks punter Jon Ryan threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to tackle-eligible Garry Gilliam — on a fake-field-goal play, no less — to kick-start Seattle’s comeback from a 16-0 deficit. Many news outlets reported, as ESPN.com did, that the TD toss “was the first by a punter in NFL postseason history.”

Oh, please. In all of NFL postseason history? All 83 years of it? You might want to do a little more research on that.

Here’s a punter throwing for the game-winning score in the 1937 title game, won by the Redskins over the Bears, 28-21. It’s Sammy Baugh, who doubled as a punter-quarterback in those multitasking days (as did many others). Baugh booted five of Washington’s seven punts that afternoon — with limited substitution, it was often a shared responsibility — and also had three touchdown passes (measuring 55, 78 and 35 yards).

And here’s another punter throwing the last of his five TD passes — then a postseason record — in the Bears’ 41-21 mauling of the Redskins in the ’43 championship game. I’m talking about Sid Luckman, who also punted three times that day.

And here’s another punter throwing a touchdown pass in the 1960 title game. That would be the Eagles’ Norm Van Brocklin, a Hall of Famer like Baugh and Luckman (and the league’s MVP that season). Van Brocklin was second in passer rating (86.5) and fifth in punting average (43.1) in ’60 to lead Philadelphia to its last NFL championship.

I could go on — YouTube has some great footage of the Packers’ Arnie Herber and the Rams’ Bob Waterfield doing the same thing — but I just wanted to make a point. Yes, Ryan might be the first punting specialist to toss a TD pass in the postseason, but he’s far from the first punter.

Danny White, for goodness sakes, did it in eight different games for the Cowboys in the ’70s and ’80s. In the 1980 playoffs against the Rams, he threw for three scores and averaged 44.5 yards a punt. That’s better than Ryan’s 42.4-yard average. In the ’42 title game, Baugh had a touchdown pass and averaged 52.5 yards a punt, including a 61-yarder on a quick kick. In the ’50 championship game, Waterfield had a TD pass and averaged 50.8 yards a punt. These guys weren’t punters by default or something. They could really boot the ball.

By my count, eight NFL players threw a touchdown pass in a postseason game — and also punted — before Ryan became the “first” to do it. Moreover, these eight accomplished the feat a total of 27 times. (I’m excluding John Elway, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, who also pulled it off — in Elway’s case, on four occasions — but can’t be considered punters. Brady, by the way, did it on a night he fired six TD passes.)

Anyway, just wanted to clarify that. Congratulations, Jon Ryan. You made a nice throw, one that helped put your club in the Super Bowl. But don’t let anybody tell you an NFL punter had never done that before. Once upon a time, punters could walk and chew gum.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Seahawks punter Jon Ryan heaves a TD pass in the NFC title game vs. the Packers.

Seahawks punter Jon Ryan lobs a TD pass in the NFC title game vs. the Packers.

Birth of The Frozen Tundra

Before there was The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field, there was “the frozen tundra” of Yankee Stadium . . . and “the frozen tundra at Wrigley Field.” Surprised? So was I.

When I started my research, I was merely trying to determine when people began referring to Lambeau as The Frozen Tundra. After all, the Cowboys are in Green Bay to reprise their Ice Bowl of 47 years ago, and I’d always heard the term had come from that famous frigid day.

Sure enough, a 2010 story in the Los Angeles Times reported: “It was coined by Steve Sabol, now president of NFL Films, and he used it in his script for the [highlight film of the] ‘Ice Bowl,’ the 1967 NFL championship game between the Packers and Dallas Cowboys.”

Sounds plausible enough. Steve was a much-underrated wordsmith (and as an added bonus, played football at the same school – Colorado College – as Lions great Dutch Clark).

There’s only one problem. In his column about the game, Arthur Daley of The New York Times typed these words:

Thus did the Packers win, 21-17, and whisk themselves from the frozen tundra of Green Bay to their destined date with the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl at more salubrious Miami a fortnight hence.

So maybe Sabol got the idea from reading Daley’s nationally syndicated column.

Except. After doing some more digging, I discovered the term was already in circulation. A few days before the game, Chuck Ward of the Wellsville Daily Reporter in New York wrote:

Somehow the game loses meaning when you talk about it being worth $30,000 or so to each and every player. But that’s about the amount of booty the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys will be butting heads for Sunday afternoon on the frozen tundra of Green Bay’s Lambeau Field.

But Ward wasn’t the first, either. In 1965, in his follow-up to the Western Conference playoff between the Packers and Colts, Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger described the winning drive thusly:

So here was Green Bay, driving through the gloom of the frozen tundra toward the Baltimore goal. With second and 10 on the Baltimore 25, Elijah Pitts, replacing the wounded [Paul] Hornung, clawed forward for four yards, putting the ball squarely in front of the goal posts.

That’s the earliest instance I’ve found of Lambeau Field being called The Frozen Tundra — late December 1965, two years before the Ice Bowl. But there are iced-over fields, obviously, in places other than Green Bay. Which raised the question: Had any of them ever been referred to as “the frozen tundra”?

As it turns out, yeah. Here’s Jack Hand of The Associated Press advancing the 1963 title game (Giants vs. Bears):

It is reasonable to assume that there will be a little violence on the frozen tundra at Wrigley Field, just as there was last December when the Green Bay Packers and the Giants met in the Yankee Stadium ice box.

Finally — speaking, as Hand was, of that “Yankee Stadium ice box” — here’s Cameron Snyder of the Baltimore Sun covering the Giants-Packers championship game a year earlier:

It wasn’t a day fittin’ for offenses and both the Packers and Giants failed to demonstrate any consistency in their attacks. The wind gusts played havoc with the passes and the frozen tundra spilled ball carriers and tacklers indiscriminately.

I’m not suggesting my research in any way settles the issue. I’m just saying that, in a few short hours, I turned up Frozen Tundras going back to 1962, five years before Sabol supposedly “coined” it.

I even came across a “frozen tundras” in a 1931 story about an upcoming Army-Notre Dame game at Yankee Stadium. This is from the Brooklyn Eagle:

When Army and Notre Dame have weather, they have nothing else but. Remember the zero gale that swept the field two years ago when Jack Elder intercepted the pass to win for Notre Dame on a run of 98 yards, with two teams slipping and slithering over frozen tundras of the big Bronx ball park?

The Frozen Tundra of Wrigley Field. The Frozen Tundra of Yankee Stadium. I still like The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field the best. Especially when John Facenda, NFL Films’ Voice of God, says it.

Arthur Daley in the Jan. 2, 1968, New York Times

Arthur Daley in the Jan. 2, 1968, New York Times

From the Dec. 27, 1967, Wellsville (N.Y.) Daily Reporter

From the Dec. 27, 1967, Wellsville (N.Y.) Daily Reporter

Jerry Izenberg in the Dec. 29, 1965, Syracuse Post-Standard

Jerry Izenberg in the Dec. 29, 1965, Syracuse Post-Standard

Jack Hand of The Associated Press, Dec. 24, 1963.

Jack Hand of The Associated Press, Dec. 24, 1963

Cameron Snyder in the Dec. 31, 1962, Baltimore Sun

Cameron Snyder in the Dec. 31, 1962, Baltimore Sun

11-28-31 Brooklyn Eagle 1 (George Currie)

George Currie in the Nov. 28, 1931, Brooklyn Eagle

George Currie in the Nov. 28, 1931, Brooklyn Eagle

Dec. 7, 1941

If you’re looking for some black humor on this Pearl Harbor Day, check out this story I unearthed a while back — specifically the lead. It showed up on commentary pages in 1991, the 50th anniversary of Japan’s attack.Fort Lauderdale guy's lead

I call attention to it because, yes, the NFL did wrap up the 1941 regular season on Dec. 7. There were three games that day — in New York, Washington and Chicago. But the Packers didn’t play in any of them. They had completed their schedule the week before and were waiting to see if there would be a playoff with the Bears to decide the West Division title. (There would, indeed. George Halas’ team beat the crosstown Cardinals on Dec. 7 to finish tied with Green Bay at 10-1.)

Let that be a cautionary tale, all you J-schoolers out there. It’s always a bad idea to reminisce about things that never happened, especially when it’s so easy to verify whether they did. Even if you don’t get caught right away, you might get exposed 23 years down the road by some curmudgeon like me. (Assuming, that is, I’m the first curmudgeon to arrive at the scene.)

OK, where was I? Right, Dec. 7, 1941. For the record, this is what the NFL scoreboard looked like at the end of the day:

Dodgers 21, Giants 7 (at the Polo Grounds)

Redskins 20, Eagles 14 (at Griffith Stadium)

Bears 34, Cardinals 24 (at Comiskey Park)

To give you a feel for what it was like at one of the games, here’s the Brooklyn Eagle’s coverage of the inter-borough Giants-Dodgers battle:Eagle Dec. 7 game 1

Eagle Dec. 7 game 2Eagle Dec. 7 game 3Eagle Dec. 7 game 4Eagle Dec. 7 game 5

Sportswriting in that period was just fabulous, wasn’t it? Now that I’ve read this, I can hardly wait to describe a player as “a dark-brown warrior from the Iowa corn belt.”

Tuffy Leemans programIt was Tuffy Leemans Day, by the way, at the Polo Grounds. The Giants’ Hall of Fame back was given a silver tray inscribed by his teammates and $1,500 in defense bonds. Two years later, the Steelers and Eagles merged into the “Steagles” — just to keep going. The Rams, meanwhile, shut down for the season and dispersed their players — the few, that is, that weren’t in the military — among the other clubs in the league.

Dec. 7, 1941. The Packers, as I recall, were off that day.

Sources: Brooklyn Eagle, pro-football-reference.com.

Bill Simmons’ alternate universe

Bill Simmons’ casual attitude toward historical accuracy — when it comes to pro football, at least — hit a new low Friday. A month ago, you may recall, I chided him for half-assing his way through a discussion of quarterbacks with the lowest career winning percentages. But now he’s just flat-out making stuff up. (Or would it be nicer to say: He’s relying too heavily on his fuzzy memories of the Patriots’ 1985 Super Bowl season?)

This is from his “Week 14 mailbag” for Grantland:

Is Ken Whisenhunt the worst coach of the last 30 years to make a Super Bowl? Let’s cross off every Super Bowl winner (yeah, even you, Barry Switzer) and everyone with a career record over .500 (a group that includes Bobby Ross, Lovie Smith and Jim Fassel). That leaves us with the following candidates.

  • Raymond Berry (’85 Pats): Benched a red-hot Steve Grogan for a coming-off-injury Tony Eason right before Super Bowl XX, which was the first time I learned to use the word “inexplicable” correctly. Two years later, he started a now-petrified Eason, a washed-up Grogan and someone named Tom Ramsey over hometown hero Doug Flutie. By the ’89 season, my dad and I had a running joke that Berry had passed away and the Patriots were propping up his corpse during games. When they finally fired him, the Pats replaced him with Rod Rust — who actually WAS dead. You can look it up. The 1990 Patriots were coached by a dead body. But Berry finished with a career record of 48-39, so unfortunately we have to cross him off. I’ll be honest — I just felt like bitching about Raymond Berry.

The truth of the matter: First of all, Berry’s benching of Grogan wasn’t “inexplicable.” It was, indeed, very explicable. Why? Because, as The Boston Globe reported, Grogan “fractured his tibia Grogan football cardas well as spraining ligaments in his left knee” in a 16-13 loss to the Jets in Week 12. This put Eason, who’d begun the season as the starter before suffering an injury himself, back in the lineup.

More from the Nov. 27, 1985, Globe:

Grogan underwent the two-hour surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital yesterday afternoon and will remain hospitalized for several days.

Upon his release, Grogan will be fitted with a hinged cast for a month.

Although [team physician Bert] Zarins said he would make no further estimates of Grogan’s possible return until after the cast is removed, it is unlikely Grogan could return this season regardless of how far the Patriots might go in the playoffs.

Grogan didn’t suit up again until the Patriots’ second playoff game six weeks later. So the quarterback change didn’t take place “right before Super Bowl XX,” as Simmons claimed. It took place well before Super Bowl XX (long enough before to allow Grogan to recover from a fractured tibia and sprained knee).

You can even question how “red-hot” Grogan was when he went down. The Patriots were certainly red hot, winning the first six games he played in (one off the bench, the next five as the starter). But they also gave up an average of just 11.8 points in those games. It was a team built around defense (sixth in the league points allowed) and running the ball (sixth in rushing yards), not throwing it.

But back to Grogan. Against the Jets, he completed 11 of 32 passes and had a rating of 50.4. Against the Dolphins, he threw three interceptions and had a rating of 36.2. That’s “red-hot”? Eason football card(Note, too: The Pats ended up facing those same clubs again in the postseason.)

For the year, Grogan’s numbers looked like this: 54.5 percent completions, 7 TD passes, 5 interceptions, 84.1 rating.

Eason’s numbers, after he reclaimed the starting job, looked like this: 63.2 percent completions, 7 TDs, 6 INTs, 87.1 rating. Then, in the playoffs, he strung together ratings of 132, 102.4 and 130.9 (while tossing 5 TD passes and zero picks) as the Patriots won three straight on the road over the Jets, Raiders and Dolphins.

Yes, the 46-10 bludgeoning by the Bears in the Super Bowl was painful to watch. Simmons, clearly, still hasn’t gotten over it. But that’s no reason to distort history and dump all over Raymond Berry — just because you “felt like bitching about” him.

Unfortunately in this day and age, The Rant often becomes The Reality. And so there will be Simmons fans walking around thinking Berry inexplicabled his way to the Super Bowl. The only thing that’s “inexplicable,” though, is The Sports Guy’s ridiculous misrepresentation of what really happened. I’d call it an affront to journalism, but it doesn’t even fall in that category. It’s more like the Friday mailbag version of A Million Little Pieces.

Sources: The Boston Globe, pro-football-reference.com.

"Bill? This is Raymond Berry calling from 1985. Is there anything I can help you with?

“Hello, Bill? This is Raymond Berry calling from 1985. Is there anything I can help you with?

Ryan Fitzpatrick is no “Little General”

Came across an interesting passage in Bill Simmons’ longer-than-your-small-intestine column Friday for Grantland. Wrote Bill:

By the way, I think we should put a bow on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s career as a starting QB.

Record as a starter: 31-54-1
Number of NFL teams that started him: 5
Number of winning seasons: 0
Most wins in one season: 6
Career: 117 touchdown passes, 101 picks, 28 lost fumbles, 185 sacks, 78.4 rating

Here’s why I brought this up. . . . Has anyone started 85 NFL games and won less than Fitzpatrick? We know Joey Harrington finished 26-50 and David Carr finished 23-56 . . . but did anyone win a lower percentage of 85 or more games than Fitzpatrick’s minus-23?

Fortunately, Grantland has one of the best editorial assistants/competitive eaters in the world: the one and only Danny Chau. Here’s what Danny found out: Only one player in football since 1920 has won less than Fitzpatrick after starting at least 85 games, a 5-foot-9 quarterback named Eddie “The Little General” LeBaron, who had a 26-52-3 record from 1952 to 1963.

Actually, if you study the information provided by The Competitive Eater (courtesy of pro-football-reference.com), you’ll see this isn’t true. Two other quarterbacks besides LeBaron started “at least 85 games” and had “a lower winning percentage” than Fitzpatrick — and two more had percentages that were nearly as bad. The list should read like this:

Years Quarterback Teams W L T Pct
1971-84 Archie Manning Saints, Oilers, Vikings 35 101 3 .263
1952-63 Eddie LeBaron Redskins, Cowboys 26 52 3 .340
1961-76 Norm Snead Redskins, Eagles, Vikings, Giants, 49ers 52 99 7 .351
2005-14 Ryan Fitzpatrick Rams, Bengals, Bills, Titans, Texans 31 54 1 .366
1987-99 Chris Miller Falcons, Rams, Broncos 34 58 0 .370
1990-2001 Jeff George Colts, Falcons, Raiders, Vikings, Redskins 46 78 0 .371

Note: The data lists LeBaron as having 85 starts but credits him with only 81 decisions.

Another way of looking at it, of course, is:

George (1990) was the first pick in the draft.

Manning (1971) and Snead (1961) were the second.

Miller (1987) was the 13th.

And LeBaron (123rd, 1950) and Fitzpatrick (250th, 2005), the two outliers, have the least explaining to do.

And another way of looking at it is to say: For goodness sakes, whatever happened to context? Eddie “The Little General” LeBaron and Ryan Fitzpatrick have almost nothing in common except

Two Redskins lineman hoist Eddie LeBaron.

Two Redskins lineman hoist Eddie LeBaron.

their position. LeBaron was one of the better quarterbacks of his era, a four-time Pro Bowler who was a magician as a ball-faker and even did some punting (averaging 40.9 yards on 171 kicks). He just had the misfortune of spending his first seven seasons with the Redskins (whose bigoted owner, George Preston Marshall, wouldn’t sign black players) and his last four with the expansion Cowboys.

Pro-football-reference.com lists LeBaron at 5-foot-9, but the Cowboys media guide in 1963, his final season, puts him at 5-7. When he retired, he was 13th in NFL/AFL history in both passing yards (13,399) and touchdown passes (104). Those totals may not seem like much today, but the ’50s and early ’60s were a much different time.

Some of LeBaron’s individual seasons were outstanding. In 1957 (86.1) and ’58 (83.3) he finished second to Colts Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas in passer rating. In ’62 he led the league (95.4). That was the year he might have played his most amazing game. In a 42-27 win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh, he threw for five touchdowns in a mere 15 attempts while rotating at QB with Don Meredith. Repeat: He threw for five TDs despite playing only about half the game. Here’s Pat Livingston writing about it in The Pittsburgh Press:

Livingston's Press lead

Can you imagine anybody calling Ryan Fitzpatrick “a brilliant old pro who happens to be one of the most underrated performers in pro football”? So again, a little context, please. Fitzpatrick and LeBaron in the same sentence? They’re not even in the same universe. Going into this season, Fitzpatrick had never had a year when his passer rating was higher than the league average.

Yup, The Little General could play. And Fitzpatrick, the Harvard grad, will appreciate this: While Eddie was with the Redskins, he got his law degree at George Washington and practiced law in Dallas — that is, when he wasn’t busy throwing five touchdown passes in half a game.

Inventing “records”

The World of Statistics — or is it Statsland? — has no rules. At least, it seems that way at times. Like today, when ESPN Stats & Info tweeted this out:

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 3.34.02 PM

Maybe we should blame it on Twitter and its hard cap of 140 characters. Because what the numbers gnomes at ESPN neglected to add was “(minimum: 30 attempts).”

On second thought, scratch that. I just added “(minimum: 30 attempts)” myself and still had 25 characters to spare.

Look, McCoy had a very nice game in the Redskins’ 20-17 upset win, hitting 25 of 30 passes (17 of them, as you can see in the graphic, within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage). This isn’t about him. It’s about the mindless need to create “records” where none really exist — all, of course, at the expense of the past (even the recent past).

I say this because there have been three Redskins quarterbacks in the 2000s alone — and a couple of others before that — who started a game, went the distance and completed a higher percentage of their passes than McCoy did. But their performances have been conveniently “disappeared” because they didn’t throw 30 passes. The specifics:

REDSKINS QBS WITH A HIGHER COMPLETION % THAN McCOY HAD VS. COWBOYS

Date Quarterback Opponent Att Comp Pct Yds TD Int Rating Result
11-18-12 Robert Griffin III Eagles 15 14 93.3 200 4 0 158.3 W, 31-6
9-24-06 Mark Brunell Texans 27 24 88.9 261 1 0 119.3 W, 31-15
12-5-04 Patrick Ramsey Giants 22 19 86.4 174 3 0 139.2 W, 31-7
10-24-65 Sonny Jurgensen Cardinals 14 12 85.7 195 3 0 158.3 W, 24-20
10-7-84 Joe Theismann Colts 20 17 85.0 267 4 1 137.5 W, 35-7
10-27-14 Colt McCoy Cowboys 30 25 83.3 299 0 1 94.3 W, 20-17

Actually, Theismann yielded in the late going to Jim Hart, but he essentially went the route. Anyway, looking at these figures, can you think of any reason why we should be genuflecting in front of McCoy’s 83.3 percent? Griffin and Jurgensen, for instance, both posted ratings of 158.3. That’s as high as the scale goes. And Brunell set a real NFL record that day by completing 22 passes in a row (most of them shorties like Colt’s).

These quarterbacks just happened to be in games where they didn’t need to put the ball in the air 30 times. Besides, it might be harder to hit a high percentage when you only throw 14 or 15 or 20 times, as some of them did, than when you throw 30. It’s just harder to stay in rhythm.

OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now. But riddle me this: When did it stop being acceptable simply to say, “Colt McCoy had a fine game, one of the best in Redskins history in terms of passing accuracy”?

As my foster uncle, Howard Beale, might say . . .

Source: pro-football-reference.com

A small bone to pick with FiveThirtyEight

Lord knows, I love stats. Love what you can learn from them. Love just playing around with them to see what turns up. And what FiveThirtyEight.com’s Neil Paine does with stats in his revisionist piece about the Greatest Show on Turf — the 1999 Rams offense — is terrific. By all means read it, if you haven’t already.

My only quibble is Paine’s overinflation of Kurt Warner’s ’99 season. “Warner ended up completing 65.1 percent of his passes,” he writes, “which at the time was the third-best single-season completion percentage by any quarterback ever.11” Third-best ever. Wow. That one caught me by surprise. Then I chased down the footnote and found out he was talking about only “quarterbacks with 450 attempts.”

I’m not sure what, in Paine’s mind, is so magical about 450 attempts — other than that it allows him to say Warner’s completion rate was “the third-best . . . ever.” After all, 450 attempts are a lot of attempts. Only three NFL quarterbacks had that many in a season before 1978, when the schedule was increased to 16 games and rule changes turned pro football into the passer’s paradise we have today. (Note: Five more had 450-plus in the bombs-away AFL.)

But that’s a minor point because, the rules being what they were, almost no quarterback back then was going to complete 65.1 percent of his passes — unless it was the Redskins’ Sammy Baugh hitting 70.3 in the talent-starved war year of 1945. Show me a QB in those days who connected on 65.1 percent, and I’ll show you an extraterrestrial.

The larger point is: Why 450 attempts? Steve Young threw 447 passes in 11 starts for the ’95 49ers and completed 66.9 percent (1.8 percent more than Warner). We’re just going to leave him out? Then there’s Joe Montana, who threw 386 passes in 13 starts for the ’89 Niners and completed 70.2 percent (5.1 percent more than Warner). We’re going to ignore that season, too, even though Joe set a record that year (since broken) with a 112.4 rating?

What I’m objecting to is the arbitrariness of “450 attempts,” which serves no real purpose except to make Warner’s season look better. And here’s the thing: Neither he nor the story of the ’99 Rams offense needs any ginning up. His numbers are perfectly capable of standing on their own, without any creative massaging. It was, by any measure, a fabulous year, among the greatest of all time. For Paine create this imaginary 450 Attempts World — in which Warner has “the third-best single-season completion percentage by any quarterback ever” — is just plain silly.

To qualify for the passing title, a QB needs to throw 224 passes (14 per scheduled game). If you make that your threshold, Warner had the 17th-best completion rate ever. The Top 5:

HIGHEST SINGLE-SEASON COMPLETION RATES THROUGH 1999

Year Quarterback, Team Att Comp Pct
1982 Ken Anderson, Bengals 309 218 70.6
1994 Steve Young, 49ers 461 324 70.3
1989 Joe Montana, 49ers 386 271 70.2
1993 Troy Aikman, Cowboys 392 271 69.1
1993 Steve Young, 49ers 462 314 68.0

Minimum: 224 passes.

(Note: The schedule was only nine games in ’82 because of a player strike.)

Again, Warner had a sensational season, especially when you consider his 41 touchdown passes, 109.2 rating and Disneyesque backstory as a former Arena Leaguer. But making the cutoff 224 attempts, the league standard, instead of 450 tones down the idolatry a little — which is what statistical research is supposed to do.

Of course, 17th doesn’t sound nearly as good as “third-best . . . ever.” But what are you gonna do? It’s one thing to ignore Frank Filchock’s 111.6 passer rating for the 1939 Redskins because it isn’t “modern” — even though, coupled with his 413 rushing yards (ninth in the league), it was one of the most amazing years in NFL history. But when you disqualify seasons by recent Hall of Famers like Steve Young, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman because they fall short of some arbitrary minimum (450 attempts – and not a pass less!), that’s when I’m going to pipe up.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Ray Rice, Roger Goodell and journalistic hyperbole

The unconscionable conduct of a handful of NFL players — Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson most visibly — “has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL’s 95-year history,” ESPN.com reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote the other day.

And they make that claim more than once in their investigative piece on embattled Roger Goodell — and how he and the league fumbled the handling of Rice’s domestic-violence case. Toward they end, they again call it “the worst crisis in NFL history,” adding, “some league sponsors, most notably Anheuser-Busch, are jittery.”

Worst crisis in NFL history. That certainly takes in a lot of territory. Also, if you’re going to use words like “biggest” and “worst,” it helps to define your terms. If by “biggest” and “worst” you mean “loudest,” you’re probably right. Nowadays, with social media and the 24-hour news cycle and nonstop sports chatter on TV and radio, everything is louder. But that doesn’t make the subject of the noise any more momentous. Our airwaves are a huge vacuum. Something has to fill it. The beast must be fed.

But if by “biggest” and “worst” you mean “most threatening to the league” — as far as its financial well-being and/or place in the sports hierarchy are concerned — the current crisis doesn’t even make the Top 5 all time, and pales in comparison to a few. You want a crisis? How about these:

● The Great Depression. When Black Thursday struck in October 1929, the NFL was in just its 10th season. Its success was by no means assured. College football was still far more popular, and baseball, of course, was king. On top of that, the pro football player wasn’t exactly considered a Shining Example of American Manhood. (More like a mercenary lout.)

Then the stock market crashed and, well, what do you think that was like? Do you suppose it might have been a bigger deal than what’s going on now with Rice, Peterson and the rest? By 1932, the league had shrunk to eight teams — three in New York, two in Chicago and one Boston, Portsmouth (Ohio) and Green Bay. Five cities, that’s it. And two had populations of less than 50,000.

In the late ’30s things began to get better for the NFL — as they did for the rest of the country — but it was touch and go for a while.

World War II. Yeah, let’s not forget that. With so many of its players in the military, the league thought about shutting down in 1943 — only the Cleveland Rams did — and some franchises were merged to keep them viable. As the war went on, teams were so hurting for manpower they suited up a few 18-year-olds and talked retired players like the Redskins’ Tiger Walton, who had been out of the game since 1934, into making a comeback. (Only 12 of 330 draft picks in 1944 played in the NFL that season.)

“If the war had lasted a little longer,” Bears Hall of Famer Sid Luckman once said, “the NFL might have gotten down to the level of semi-pro ball.”

The American Football League. Sorry, but a decade-long battle with a rival league (1960-69) — a league that mounted the most serious challenge to the NFL’s monopoly — strikes me as a much bigger crisis than L’Affaire Rice. Competition from the AFL increased salaries dramatically, forced the NFL to expand earlier than it would have (to Dallas, Minnesota, Atlanta and New Orleans) and hurt profit margins. And in the last two seasons before the merger, the AFL’s Jets and Chiefs won the Super Bowl. The horror.

Steroids. We tend forget what a stir the steroid epidemic created in the ’80s. It wasn’t just a health issue, it was a competitive fairness issue. Let’s face it, nothing riles fans quite like the idea of cheating – and it’s damaging when such a cloud hovers over a league. Once the problem came to a head, Commissioner Pete Rozelle dealt with it quickly and decisively, but only after years of whispers and denial.

Concussions. When all the votes are in, I wouldn’t be surprised if this crisis — which is far from over — turns out to be far worse for the NFL than the recent rash of misbehavior. Indeed, if anything brings down pro football, it will be the growing suspicion that the game is simply too dangerous, that the physical cost isn’t worth the financial gain. That doesn’t mean the league won’t continue to exist in some form; but it’ll be seriously diminished, and it won’t attract nearly as many of the best athletes.

One other crisis is worthy of mention, even if it doesn’t crack the Top 5. In 1946 New York police uncovered an attempt to fix the NFL championship game. This led to two Giants players being banished from the league and, naturally, much negative publicity — at a time when the rival All-America Conference was trying to gain traction. As difficult as life is for Goodell, I doubt he’d swap places with Bert Bell, the commissioner in ’46. (The AAC, after all, was a worthy adversary that gave us the Browns and 49ers.)

Anyway, that’s six crises in the NFL’s 95-year history I’d rate ahead of the one we’re now obsessing about. And I’m sure I could come up with several more if I wanted to think about it a bit longer. But I’ve got other blogs to throw on the fire, other fishy statements to fry.

So I’ll finish here: Crises aren’t bigger nowadays because the NFL is bigger; they’re actually smaller, generally, but for the same reason: because the game is so firmly established. It was in the early years that you had to worry. A crisis back then was like a baby running a temperature. The league hadn’t built up the immunities it has now.