September 2, 2014

Cleveland, the ’64 King

When Cleveland Was King

LeBron James and Johnny Manziel are giving Cleveland hope that it will finally win its first major sports championship since 1964. The smarter money at this point is on LeBron and the Cavaliers as they have a talented roster even before the addition of Kevin Love and, basketball being what it is; only a few great players are necessary to take a team from the lottery to a championship.

Mr. Manziel has a far tougher row to hoe. Even when he’s eventually named the Browns’ starting quarterback he still needs about 20 other great players around him before little number 2 makes Cleveland number 1.

Whoever does take the next title for Cleveland (oh yeah, there’s also a rumor out there that the Indians are still in the playoff race) they will supplant the 1964 Browns as the last Cleveland team to have a parade, hoist the hardware and make General Moses smile.

But what about those ’64 Brownies? How good were they?

Very.

The 1964 Cleveland Browns went 10-3-1, coached by Blanton Collier who, in his eight seasons as an NFL head coach from 1963 to 1970, all with the Browns, never had a losing season and made the playoffs five times.

On the field the Browns were led on offense by Jim Brown who topped the NFL with 1,446 yards, averaging better than 100 yards per game in the 14-game season. Brown’s 1,446 yards were nearly 300 better than his closest competition, Green Bay Packers fullback Jim Taylor. Brown also led the league in total yards from scrimmage by more than 200 yards and was tied for third that year in rushing touchdowns with seven.

He also attempted one pass and completed it, good for 13 yards and a touchdown.

Mostly thanks to Jim Brown, Cleveland was second in total offense in ’64, but was also helped by a capable quarterback named Frank Ryan who started all 14 games and threw 25 TD passes, good enough for tops in the league.

When you have the NFL’s best running back and also the league-leader in TD passes you’re probably going to be good even if your defense is terrible, but the ’64 Browns’ defense was far from terrible, ranking fifth in the league in fewest points allowed.

The ’64 Browns had All-Pros on defense in cornerback Bernie Parrish, linebacker Jim Houston, defensive end Bill Glass, kicker Lou Groza and, back on offense, guard Gene Hickerson, tackle Dick Schafrath, split end Paul Warfield, and, of course, Jim Brown in the backfield.

Other than a 23-7 loss to the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers on October 10 of that season (Jim Brown only carried the ball eight times) the ’64 Cleveland Browns handled the opposition with little shame though they did turn the ball over with alarming frequency, including a six-turnover victory against the Dallas Cowboys. Strangely, the only game in 1964 that the Browns did not turn over the ball was a 28-21 loss to the Packers on November 22.

The Browns won the Eastern Division by a game over the St. Louis Cardinals, the only other team in the East with a winning record that year and earned a spot in the NFL Championship Game against the mighty Baltimore Colts who were easily champions of the West with a 12-2 record under second year coach Don Shula and league MVP Johnny Unitas at quarterback.

The game was played in Cleveland Municipal Stadium on December 27, 1964 in 34-degree weather with mud, wind and animus. The Colts were heavy favorites.

Browns 27, Colts 0.

The game was scoreless at halftime but then in the second half Ryan connected with receiver Gary Collins for three TDs and Jim Brown, though he never scored, muddled through with 114 yards on 27 carries and also caught three passes for 37 yards.

On defense, the Browns held Unitas to just 95 yards passing and intercepted him twice.

Browns 27, Colts 0.

The Browns were awarded rings for winning the title and Jim Brown’s was later stolen and has recently been up for auction, something Mr. Brown is trying to stop.

Thirty-one years after the 1964 title game the Browns decided to move, to of all places, Baltimore, which had lost the Colts to Indianapolis a decade before.

One of the stipulations of that controversial move was that the Browns themselves actually would not move, only the coaches and players would go as the team became the Baltimore Ravens while the Cleveland Browns, the team records, trophies, etc., remained in Cleveland, dormant, until the Browns were reincarnated, as an expansion team, in 1999.

One of the things the Browns were forced to leave behind when they bolted for Baltimore was their trophy for winning the 1964 NFL title. The thing of it is, though, there really was no trophy for Cleveland to keep.

In those days the NFL used to hand out the Ed Thorp Trophy, which was named for an NFL official. But that trophy was, like hockey’s Stanley Cup, handed off to a new champion each year so the next year the Browns had to give it to the Packers who still have it because after the 1966 season, in which the Packers were champs again, teams got a new trophy every year which is now, of course, the Lombardi Trophy.

The 1964 Cleveland Browns didn’t get a trophy to keep until 2004 when the NFL commissioned a brand new trophy to present to an old champion.

Cleveland still has that trophy. And is still looking for another one.

Superstars Leave, Children Believe

March 12, 2014

Superstars Leave, Children Believe

Only God, and probably Ditka, know if the Chicago Bears will be better in 2014 than they were in 2013 but we all have knowledge that the Monsters of Merriment will be a bit younger and, at least to start, a tad less conspicuous.

The Bears have said goodbye to Devin Hester, the perennial All-Pro kick returner, future Hall of Famer and the closest thing to Bruce Lee the NFL has ever seen.  Hester is the greatest return man ever but he’s 31 which is like Abe Vigoda in special teams years and it long ago became apparent that when it comes to doing anything besides returning kicks Hester is really, really good at returning kicks.  So, the Bears thanked him for his broken records and Hester, in a very classy way, thanked Chicagoans for all their money and support and he is now standing at the goal line of free agency waiting for some new team to form a wedge and bring him in.

A couple of days ago, after being told by the Bears to pack up and hand in his key card, Hester referred to himself as the best all-around player in the NFL.  Hester also considers Keanu Reeves to be Hollywood’s most versatile actor.

It cannot be denied that Hester has been one of the most fun players to watch in the NFL over the last seven years and is one of the most exciting players in league history.  Bears fans of a certain age and alcohol dependency will likely rank Walter Payton as the greatest Bear of them all but Hester is neck-and-neck with Gale Sayers as the most entertaining guy to ever wear the orange, blue and blood.

When boys grow up they want to be Devin Hester.  There is nothing more electrifying than watching a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown.  Seeing the blocking form in front of a returner, watching him dart back and forth before finding a crack of daylight and accelerating toward green is a thrill matched only by donuts and Schlitz with the woman you love.

You will be missed, Devin.

Hester is leaving Chicago and he might be hitching a ride with Julius Peppers.  The Bears are not bringing back the Pro Bowl defensive end, a move that will save them $9.8 million against this year’s salary cap and at least that much money in Q-tips.

Just as important as Peppers’ salary is his age, 34, which is the age most pass rush specialists consider switching to a different position called “guy who doesn’t play in the NFL anymore.”

Some other germane numbers in the Peppers discussion are 7.5, the relatively low number of sacks he registered last season, and 30, which was what the Bears ranked on defense in 2013.  Peppers is a good guy, a legendary player, and probably still has gas in the tank but he’s expensive, he’s elderly and the Bears’ defense was as solid as the U.S. speedskating team in Sochi so things probably can’t get worse without him.

Everyone in Chicago, in between cursing the latest snowstorm and sucking down a French fry, believes Hester, Peppers and other ex-Bears or soon to be ex-Bears will end up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a reunion with former Bears coach Lovie Smith.  If so they’ll be following the lead of a defecting Bear whose departure could end up being the one that truly stings: Josh McCown.

McCown had the best job in the world last year.  He was a backup quarterback who played great and when you do that everyone loves you, except for the starting quarterback.  McCown was terrific in place of Jay Cutler in 2013 throwing 13 touchdowns against just one interception and throwing for 1,829 yards while seeing action in eight games.

But almost immediately after the Bears’ season ended the team announced a long term deal with Cutler, committing to a younger guy with a better arm and, from almost all perspectives, a brighter future.  Still, McCown said he wanted to come back but at age 34, he’ll be 35 in July, he knows that this is likely his last chance to cash in so he took more money, two years $10 million, from Tampa and also received a promise that he is now the starter.

More money, a better job, a warmer city.  Well done, Josh.

If Cutler is healthy and the Bears’ offense plays as well as it did in 2013 and there’s every reason to believe it could actually be better with one more year of studying Marc Trestman’s playbook, no one in Cook County will even remember Josh McCown.  But Cutler has only played all 16 games one time in his five seasons in Chicago (OK, OK, he’s played 15 games twice) but he played just 11 games last season and 10 in 2011.  There were those who believed, and still profess, that the Bears should have let Cutler go and saved on his new $18 million a year salary.  They could have given McCown about $5 million a year, what he’s getting in Tampa, and the Bears would have had that much more money to rebuild the defense.

It makes sense.  We’ll find out if the Bears made the right move or not this coming season.  Or it could all become apparent on one afternoon when the Bucs visit Chicago.

The Bears are not just saying goodbye (they are also not bringing back punter Adam Podlesh, running back Michael Bush and a few others) but are also bringing in some new guys, now that they have the locker space.  They have signed defensive end Lamarr Houston from the Raiders, safety Ryan Mundy who was with the Giants, linebacker-special teamer Jordan Senn of the Panthers and safety M.D. Jennings, formerly of the Packers.

Take two puffs of your cigarette if you’ve heard of any of these guys.

Just kidding. These gentlemen are not All-Pros but are all solid players who are getting a lot of good press and there’s no doubt the Bears need help in all the areas they specialize in.  The Bears seem determined not to break the bank in free agency but to be sensible by bringing in solid players while looking to build primarily through the draft, which is how they should be doing it.

But wouldn’t Darrelle Revis have been nice?

Mr. Revis was let go by the Buccaneers because he’s making more money than Sandra Bullock and he was not available for long, quickly signing with the New England Patriots who needed him after losing their top cornerback, Aqib Talib (who also used to play for Tampa), to the Broncos who have also added former Cowboys Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Ware. (Though Denver has lost receiver Eric Decker to the Jets.)

This is why the Broncos and Patriots are always good: they have great quarterbacks and they do not mess around.  When they want a guy they either go get him or say mean things about him.  –TK

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

March 13, 2014

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

The University of Alabama wins all the time now.   On any given fall Saturday predicting the Crimson Tide will win a football game is about the safest bet in all of sports.  This past season, Alabama actually lost twice and did not play for the national championship but it took one of the craziest plays in college football history, in a loss to Auburn, to stop them and Florida State’s eventual national title almost doesn’t feel whole because the Seminoles didn’t have to fight through Nick Saban’s bunch to get it.

That’s not fair but for many of that’s just how it feels.

But there was a blip in time not so very long ago when Alabama was not a juggernaut.  A decade ago Alabama had fallen far from its Bear Bryant-Gene Stallings’ perch and had not yet brought in the southern St. Nick and was actually just another college football team that won some, lost some, and did not attract much attention outside of Dixie.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer is a reminder of those days and a study of the obsession that many sports fans have, the good and the bad and the bad of it.  The book is written by ‘Bama fan Warren St. John who spent the 1999 season diving deeper into his lifelong love than ever before.

During the ‘99 season Alabama actually had, by most metrics, a quality season but as we quickly learn in Rammer Jammer, if we were not aware already, winning for Alabama fans is not winning unless they win it all.  Everything.  In convincing fashion, loudly and unapologetically.

St. John already knew this from the time he got his photo taken with Bear Bryant as a kid in 1982 until he was a grown man living in New York in the 1990s, still living and dying with every ‘Bama game even while 1,100 miles away.  But even he did not realize how engrossed in, how defined by, some people allow themselves to be by the outcome of a football game until he spent the better part of four months driving from game to game throughout the Southeast, tailgating with ‘Bama diehards, jousting with fans other schools and generally marveling at the relentless spectacle of college football Saturdays.

In short, think of spending a very hot and sunny day next to a very loud person.  If you have enough sunscreen and fluids and that person is interesting, that day is just great.  If you’re getting sunburned and that loudmouth has no idea what they’re speaking of, it’s a sentence in misery.  When Alabama wins, St. John’s days are the former.  When they lose, or don’t win in the most convincing fashion, they’re the latter not solely because of his feelings for Alabama – the very point of his book is to study his own behavior and that of others – but because so many Crimson Tide fans are inconsolable and, worse, unbearable if you even so much as suggest that losing a football game is not so bad. There really, really are worse things in the world.  No, traitor, there aren’t.  This is what St. John encounters time and time again.

How do you explain obsession?  Why is it that the result of young men playing a game defines so much else?  Why do we let this happen?  Why do we this to ourselves?

St. John asks these questions over and over again and his smartly researched effort, not just examined by his own empirical efforts but by citing numerous studies on sports fans throughout the world, spends 275 lively and entertaining pages searching for the answer just as Alabama spends the 1999 season battling for victories while head coach Mike DuBose struggles to keep his job.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer causes us to cringe at times when considering the behavior of fans, especially how they so quickly turn on those they once supported.  And at some junctures, Rammer Jammer makes us very ashamed of ourselves when we realize it isn’t just Alabama fans who are, at times, boorish, unfair, prejudiced and makers of mountains out of molehills, but all of us who have ever spent three hours screaming at the TV or in the bleachers because God and the guys wearing the uniforms we like better are not giving us the results we desire.

Unsurprisingly, the opinion here is that books about football are best enjoyed by those who love football.  But just as obvious is the conviction that nearly every one appreciates good writing.   Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer is a smart, passionate and a very honest book that’s very well written and refreshingly sincere.  If you love sports and have a particular unwavering affection for a team then Rammer Jammer is a long, candid, humorous look into the mirror.  Sometimes it’s a funhouse mirror, but it’s still your own reflection.

If you don’t like sports, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer serves as a glimpse into the inner workings of those goofy people you know who shout at the TV, wear faded t-shirts and never stop hoping that the next Saturday just might be the best one yet.  And it may make you decide to spend more time sitting next to them. — TK

Bob Dylan and Bernie Taupin Walk Into A Bar

 

Times Are Changin’… Give a little thought to this conjured scenario. Bob Dylan and Bernie Taupin are both private, reclusive types who have managed to share many of their thoughts, visions and talents with the world. Such endeavors require the proper introspection. Therefore a logical spot to take in and digress on the world is the window booth at Manuel’s Tavern, located at the corner of North and North Highland Avenues in Atlanta, Georgia. Dylan, having played Atlanta the first time some fifty years ago at near-by Emory University, may recall the legendary watering hole which has long attracted journalists, politicians, poets, cops and other thirsty types. Taupin, whose songwriting partner, Elton John, has a penthouse apartment in the Buckhead community, a half dozen miles north of the tavern, would enjoy the earthy charm of Manuel’s. The place is genuine and time-tested, unlike the spacious shopping palaces and pricey restaurants found in Elton’s corner of town. The tavern’s window booth, where Manuel Maloof himself used to host friends while pontificating, complaining and looking after customers is the ideal place to consider all things global and local. It’s quite easy to visualize Messrs Dylan and Taupin there.

Near the window booth is a large photo of the revered Atlanta Constitution Editor Ralph McGill, whose courageous opinions implored the South and the nation as a whole to fully embrace its ideas of liberty and justice for all. McGill, Dylan would inform Taupin, was a close friend of the poet and historian Carl Sandberg. Visits to Sandberg’s home in Flat Rock, North Carolina provided McGill with great reassurance. According to Leonard Ray Teel, in his book, Ralph Emerson McGill, Voice Of The Southern Conscience, McGill “felt a healing power in the ancient poet.” Teel also noted that In McGill, Sandberg “recognized a kindred spirit trying to lead a later generation into social change.” McGill and Sandberg, admired and heralded the world over, stood in awe of one another. Dylan could understand that. On the same concert tour that brought him to Atlanta in 1964, he stopped by Flat Rock to talk with Sandberg and present him with a copy of his new album, The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Taupin, a native of Sleaford, Lincolnshire, England, but now a full-time resident of Santa Ynez, California, has a deep devotion to the stories of America, be they documented or apocryphal. The novels and the films on the silver screen vie with the history books when telling a great nation’s story and Taupin is hip to the legends, the lies and what’s fact. In a recent entry on his blog, rather than hawking The Diving Board, his latest collaboration with Elton John, he takes politicos from both sides of the aisle to task, feeling sad and disgusted with the lying that goes with leadership. Taupin is a keen observer with an admitted “curmudgeonly nature,” which has to make him feel at home in Manuel’s booth.

Separate The Good From The Bad… Manuel Maloof was on the right side of history as the change that McGill, Sandberg and Dylan championed began to take place. Not only was he a bartender-philosopher personified, he was also among the most influential Democrats in the state of Georgia. His tavern has photographs of those who stopped by while seeking the Presidency of the United States: McGovern, Carter, Clinton and Gore. Maloof died in 2004, four years before Barack Obama signaled another change. It would’ve been fascinating to hear him speak on the election and performance of President Obama. He’d offer praise, but he wouldn’t mince his words if the president disappointed him either. One afternoon in the late ’80s, he and I were discussing civil rights leader and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. Nearing the end of his second term as Mayor, Young was a visionary but often negligent with his mayoral duties. “I love Andy Young,” Maloof said one afternoon, “but it would be great if he’d could just travel around the world as Mayor and let me run the city.” Maloof was angry over the pervasive crime in Atlanta. He talked of how one young man tried to steal the ring off his finger at a downtown transit (MARTA) station. Maloof, nearing 60 at the time, stood his ground and walked away with his ring, but that didn’t make him any happier with what was happening in his hometown.

A regular walking by Dylan and Taupin’s booth could stop and explain a little about Manuel’s Tavern and the role it played in the city’s history. Dylan and Taupin, both quick studies, wouldn’t need too much briefing, but they might ask about the Atlanta sports scene. They’d likely find it puzzling that Atlanta for so long has paid more attention to the professional and collegiate football teams, even in mediocre years, than to the Atlanta Braves, who since 1991 have won 600 more games than they’ve lost, accumulating 15 division titles and sending new members to Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Maloof was sure proud of the Braves and he might have made Braves fans of Dylan and Taupin too.

It would be a tougher sell with the Atlanta Falcons, the National Football League team that began play in 1966. Much of their history has been similar to tragic car wrecks people recall when passing dangerous intersections. In the same 23 year period of the Braves’ excellence, the Falcons are three games under .500 (182-185) with 36 of those wins coming between 2010 and 2012. In the season just completed, the Falcons went 4-12, a record that ranks among the worst in their tragicomic history.

Twenty Pounds Of Headlines… Give the Falcons credit: they’ve provided Atlanta sportswriters with reams of fascinating copy. Local playwrights wish they had such material to work with. While compiling a 134-229 record in their first quarter century of play, the Falcons, naturally, filled its rosters with, ahem, colorful players. In ’88, they lost their Special Teams Captain, David Croudip, when a “cocaine cocktail” killed him. That was tragic but somewhat predictable, given the lack of control management had over the team. Two years later, Aundray Bruce, the NFL’s top draft choice* from ’88, pulled a pellet gun on a pizza delivery guy. Neither Bruce nor teammate Marcus Cotton had money to pay for the pizza, so what can poor NFL players who’ve squandered their riches do? It’s simple: scare the hell out of the guy delivering the pizza. Charges were filed. Bruce was arrested on misdemeanor charges and released on a $1,050.00 bond. The delivery guy said Bruce “seemed to think it was pretty funny… pretty much laughing all through it.” Bruce may have thought it was funny like the two paternity suits pending against him or his failure to make payments on two mortgages totaling $912,000. When your life is such a mess, you laugh at all the wrong things.

Nearly a decade later, on January 17, 1999, the Falcons defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game and found themselves Super Bowl-bound for the first time in their 33 seasons. This was a very well-balanced and exciting Atlanta Falcons team. It appeared they had a good chance of beating the Denver Broncos in Miami to become NFL Champions. Things began happily enough on the morning of January 30, 1999, the day before the Super Bowl. Falcons safety Eugene Robinson was honored by Athletes in Action, the sports ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Robinson was presented with the Bart Starr Award for “high moral character.” For one who takes his football and faith seriously, what else could go wrong? Plenty. Less than twelve hours later, Robinson was arrested on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami. The charge: soliciting an undercover police officer for oral sex. Robinson’s to-do list for the day had to be a hoot: Go to Christian group meeting. Win award for high moral character. Have lunch. Spend time with the missus by the pool. Have dinner. Go to Biscayne Boulevard for some pregame fellatio.

By the way, the Falcons lost 34-19. Robinson played as if he had been serviced multiple times on Biscayne Boulevard, getting beat by Rod Smith on an 80-yard touchdown reception.

Now I’ve Seen This Chain Gang… The NFL is often referred to as the National Felons League. Some believe the appellation is unfair; others believe it’s acknowledgement of reality. Between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, at least 31 NFL players were arrested. Some of the charges were the standard DUIs, “criminal mischief,” and assault, with the two worst offenses being “attempted murder” and “first degree murder.” No Atlanta Falcon in memory has been charged with murder, at least not murdering a human being, but Michael Vick, the team’s star quarterback did serve most of two years (’07-’09) in Federal Prison for promoting and financing an interstate dog-fighting operation. Canine executions were part of the event.

Not long before the dog stories broke, Vick’s behavior was viewed as erratic and offensive. Struggling through a tough season, Vick gave fans the “bird,” in fact a “double-bird,” as he walked off the field (Two middle fingers up…. way up).

Bob Dylan wrote of dogs running free. Robert Louis Stevenson once observed that dogs “will be in heaven long before any of us.” All this was lost on Michael Vick. In The New York Times, Juliet Macur reported on Jim Gorant’s book, The Lost Dogs, a collection of sordid and true stories of Vick and his “Bad Newz Kennels.”

Once he (Vick) and a friend grabbed the paws of a little red dog and held it over their heads, like a jump rope, slamming the animal on the ground again and again until it was lifeless.

The most disappointed of Vick’s supporters was Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He had gleaned an entirely different impression of his star quarterback. Vick had even come to the owner’s home for dinner and played video games with Blank’s children. One could feel bad for Blank, a nice man dealing with an embarrassing story. One felt worse for the dogs, but there was still support in Atlanta for Michael Vick. After all, he was an exciting quarterback capable of engineering the most spectacular plays. He didn’t play the game by the book; on the field, he wrote his own book. Thus, once a free man, he’d write additional chapters. Many NFL teams with no shame would hustle to sign him up.

During the 2009 season, Vick was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, but they used him sparingly as a back-up to Donovan McNabb, a great player and a fine gentleman. Yet McNabb was past his prime and by the next season, Vick was named the Eagles’ starting quarterback. And there were others besides PETA members unhappy with Vick’s return to glory. Bernie Taupin, in his blog, questioned how Vick, “a guy who has racked up some of the most heinous cruelties you could possibly inflict on an innocent creature be idolized, lionized and treated like the second coming of Christ?” Taupin, an avowed football fan, had difficulty fathoming the lack of values in the NFL, noting, “When it comes to football, the agonizing deaths and stifled whimpers of the dogs he tortured, electrocuted, hung and drowned are swept conveniently under the rug.”

When Vick and the Eagles came to play the Falcons in the Georgia Dome on December 7, 2009, the response of Vick supporters would have disgusted Taupin all the more. Of course, Vick was relishing the moment, according to the Associated Press:

“It was as loud as it gets in the Dome,” said Vick, who teared up on the bus ride over to the stadium. “I heard the chants all through the stadium and it sent chills down my spine. They were just letting me know that people still appreciate what I’ve done.”

OK, whatever, but Vick was right in assuming thousands of Atlanta fans had his back. A couple of years before, a local minister used his pulpit to reprove an Atlanta sportswriter, a member of the church, for being critical of Vick in his columns. He saw no good in a black sportswriter bringing down an accomplished black athlete, a hero to many in our town. Making this more amazing is that the sportswriter was the one often condemned by hothead whites on the sports talk shows whenever the subject of race was raised. It’s little wonder some topics go wanting for civil discussion in this town.

The Band Is Playing “Dixie,” A Man Got His Hand Outstretched… But football trumps all down South. Consider the ongoing matter with the Atlanta Falcons and their owner, Arthur Blank. The poor Falcons have had to play in the Georgia Dome, opened in ’92 and built by Georgia taxpayers at a cost of $214 million. The Georgia Dome is hardly a classic structure, but 70,000 fans often pack the place for NFL games. Concerts by Paul McCartney, U2 and the Rolling Stones were held there in the ’90s, and major college football games are also played in the Dome, with few expressing irritation over the ambiance. Still, Blank has been talking for years about needing a new stadium so his Falcons could be more competitive — a word in this caffeinated society that’s used to make taxpayers man-up. In doing so, more plush suites will be available to the swells attending the game, likely at a cost to taxpayers somewhere. Given all that, in the way Atlanta’s power elite view things, the Georgia Dome, just 21 years old, is worthy of the wrecking ball. Arthur Blank, Falcons owner and respected philanthropist, will get his way.

Give Arthur Blank credit. He, with some help from the NFL, agreed to pay for most of the new Falcons’ nest, which will go up in the same vicinity as the Georgia Dome. It will be part of the Georgia World Congress Center and host the same annual events — and more — as held at the Dome. So what’s not to like? For one, Blank’s plea for funds — some $200 million — from the tax collected by Atlanta hotels and motels, kept clean and comfy by employees eking out a living in a metro area that has been slow to rebound from the Great Recession. Yet new Falcons stadium boosters point out, as Blank did in the December 22 AJC, that “84% of the tax is being paid by people who don’t live in this state.” Talk about Southern hospitality; Welcome to Atlanta, now bend over.

By state law, revenues from the hotel-motel tax cannot be used by the City of Atlanta for basic infrastructure, public safety, libraries, schools, etc.; you know, frou-frou stuff. The revenues can only be “used for a variety of projects that will help promote the city as a tourist destination for meetings or conventions, historic and cultural travel and other types of attractions,” according to an Atlanta Falcons website. While it is fair to say that such tax allocations can help create jobs and enhance the city’s quality of life, the claim falls on deaf ears among tens of thousands of city taxpayers. Here we go again, they think, another subsidy for a professional sports team owner - in this case, Blank, who’s listed by Forbes  as being worth $1.7 billion. Forbes also reported that the expected revenues at the Falcons’ new nest raised the team valuation to $933 million, not bad for a team that has for most of its history been an embarrassment to its hometown. In addition to that, Forbes noted Blank’s own net worth climbed by half a billion dollars from September 2010 to September 2013.

He’s A Great Humanitarian, He’s A Great Philanthropist… There’s little sense in begrudging the wealth Blank has attained through his co-founding of Home Depot and the investments he’s made. It isn’t a day at the beach to visit Home Depot, but the stores have served a need in the marketplace. Blank worked hard and worked smart in developing that big box chain. In his field, he did a lot of things better than others, so more power to him. Blank has also contributed money — and his own time — to charities and good causes. When you meet him, he comes across as a good guy. He has concerns on the humanitarian side that compels the philanthropist in him to sign the “Giving Pledge.” According to the “Giving Pledge” rules, a signatory promises to donate at least half of his wealth to charitable concerns, either during his lifetime or afterward.

Already Blank has made sizeable donations to education, environmental and arts organizations. He’s shown his heart to be in the right place — and his wallet tags along. That makes his determination in getting taxpayers to kick in for the new Falcons stadium more disturbing. NFL teams, with their tax exemptions, tax abatements, television contracts and revenue sharing plans, are immensely profitable. Any owner claiming to be in the red is lying or is among the world’s worst business people. But we know Blank to be a very savvy businessman — and he’s smooth. In the December 22 interview with the AJC, he was asked why he needed a hotel-motel tax to help build his new stadium. The savvy and smooth answer follows:

“The success of the franchise shouldn’t be dependent on one individual or their estate, but it should be a sustainable organization. A public-private partnership is very important. In this case, 84% of the tax is being paid by people who don’t live in the state. The stadium will impact tourism in a positive way. We think the tax is a fair level of public support.”

Oh, that explains it. Blank assumes and commands “a fair level of public support.” Never mind that said support wasn’t approved via referendum by the impacted public which has little interest in subsidizing a billionaire whose shiniest toy is a team of millionaires. But in Atlanta and the state of Georgia, that hardly matters. The political mix here is a strange hybrid that hardly serves the citizenry, so of course the Falcons get their stadium –partially paid for with the $200 million from the hotel-motel tax, which, according to the billionaire, is mostly collected from people who don’t live in Atlanta. But could the people who live here use revenue from such a tax to fund programs that would help them and their children have a cleaner, safer and more informed community? The answer is absolutely not, because we’re dealt the short hand by community leaders similar to individuals at the marketplace in Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guard”: Merchants and thieves, hungry for power.

Entertain By Picking Brains… Both the famous and the average Joe are rewarded by walking through the rooms of Manuel’s Tavern. Old black and white photographs, most of them taken before 1980, adorn the walls. The pictures capture a time in Atlanta when progress was measured by ways other than how much richer millionaires become. Not far from Manuel’s old window booth hangs a large picture of Falcons running back Jim “Cannonball” Butler evading defenders in a ’68 game versus the Detroit Lions. Despite Cannonball’s 60-yard touchdown run, the Falcons lost that day, looking bad against a mediocre team. Ailing NFL clubs loved to see the Falcons on the schedule.

What the folks who gathered at Manuel’s in those days wanted was a competitive team. Winning more than three games a year would be a good start. And there was little concern for the owner’s definition of “competitive,” especially if that meant leather chairs in suites where the well-healed could watch the owner’s team. An owner of a professional football club had already competed rather well in the marketplace, thank you, and wouldn’t seek tax dollars as defined in a “public and private partnership,” or so we thought. Another guy, gifted at turning a phrase, could join Dylan and Taupin, and enjoy the company at Manuel’s Tavern. Taking in the view from Manuel’s window booth and knowing how it’s been all the way back to the days of Genesis, when Cain slew Abel, he’d note what’s always driven the good and the bad. He’d sum it up like this:

Poor man wanna be rich,
Rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied,
Till he rules everything.

*Bruce was named by Sports Illustrated as the second biggest draft bust in modern NFL history.

From the forthcoming book, Drop Me Off on Peachtree, A History of Atlanta

 

Packers 33, Bears 28 – Agony and Epitaph

January 3, 2014

Packers 33, Bears 28 – Agony and Epitaph

Any good will Chicagoans enjoyed on Christmas was quickly destroyed when the Bears lost to the Green Bay Packers, 33-28, in the season-ender at Soldier Field, a defeat which kept the Bears out of the playoffs, put the Packers in, and made Aaron Rodgers laugh harder than Kim Jong Un watching The Killing.

We know how it happened and really don’t want to talk about it but maybe doing so will be somehow therapeutic, like hitting oneself in the face with a chunk of yellow ice.

The Bears led, 28-27, with 46 seconds to play.  The Packers had the ball on Chicago’s 48-yard line.  It was 4th-and-8.  The Packers had already converted twice on fourth down on that drive.  Rodgers goes back to pass, the Bears blitz, the season and the good grace of God are on the line and then how the hell did Randall Cobb get so wide open?

Packers 33, Bears 28.

Once again the Bears’ defense found a way to not find a way and the result was the saddest Sunday night in Chicago history.

The Bears had an 8-6 record and were in the NFC North driver’s seat.  All they had to do was win of their final two games and they were in.  Instead, they drove Mom’s Pinto straight through the doors at 7-11 and asked for a rancid Slurpee.

The defeat to the Packers came 50 years to the day after the Bears won the 1963 NFL title by defeating the New York Giants at Wrigley Field and two days before the 25th anniversary of the “Fog Bowl” playoff win over the Eagles at Soldier Field.

This means there were Bear ghosts all over the place but, painfully, none of them could play safety.

A season that had such promise ended with a kick in the crotch, a pinch on the nose and a promise to aim better in the bathroom the next time.

One year after going 10-6 with a good defense and a suspect offense the Bears, in their first year under head coach Marc Trestman, slid to 8-8 with a good offense and a defense with slower reactions than a drunken gang of sloths.

The Bears finished with 445 points this year, second most in the NFL.  They surrendered 478 points, tied for second worst in the league.  They are schizophrenic, bipolar and odd.

So, what do the Bears do?  The very thing they should have done.  They re-signed quarterback Jay Cutler.

Some Bears fans love Jay Cutler, some hate him, and all would like to borrow some money from him.  The Bears gave Cutler a new seven-year deal worth at least $50 million and are counting on him to continue to learn Trestman’s offense and become the Pro Bowl championship quarterback we have been waiting for for nearly 30 years.

Cutler is not as good as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Amy Adams but he’s good enough.  The Bears have a dynamic offense and, in Cutler and Josh McCown, two good quarterbacks.  The Bears did the right thing.  They did not waste time.  They are going head-on into their offseason with no uncertainty on offense and a determination and focus on using the draft and free agency to make the defense, seriously now, mediocre.

If Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett and the offensive line perform as well in 2014 as they did in 2013 and, seeing as it will be their second season in this offense there’s every reason to think they might get even better, then all Chicago’s defense will need to do is be OK.

Cutler is coming back, so are guard Matt Slauson and cornerback Tim Jennings but many others will likely go, especially on defense and especially because Lovie Smith now coaches the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and will likely bring in some of his old pals.

Bears defenders Chris Conte, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are likely gone, but Brian Urlacher is coming back.  Just kidding.

The Bears will look a lot different the next time they take the field.  They are heading into a brave new world of offensive football but cannot, like they did this year, completely leave their defensive roots behind.  They must think back to that ’63 team that won by hitting hard.  They must remember that ’88 team that won in a fog.   The Chicago Bears must push on through the cloud of the future and the hiss of the past.

They must win 12 regular season games.

They must win the Super Bowl.

They have two more seasons of reasonably expecting this offense to be dominant.  Two more seasons to fix the defense.

After that, the fog gets thicker.  The past grows less forgiving.  The future becomes stuck in fear.

 

 

Eagles 54, Bears 11: The Christmas Crapathon

December 22, 2013

The Chicago Bears were given an early Christmas gift by the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers on Sunday when both teams lost, opening the way for the Bears to clinch the NFC North.

All the Bears had to do was beat the Philadelphia Eagles.

Final score: Eagles 54, Bears 11.

Repeat: Eagles 54, Bears 11.

What went wrong on this unseasonably warm night in Philadelphia?

Everything.

Breaking down this defeat is like contemplating your navel lint in a dark room while getting hit over the head with a pillowcase full of nickels by Santa’s elves.

No, it’s more difficult than that.

This was a farce, a fart and not at all funny.

This was…aw hell fellas, how did this happen?

The Bears were dominated from start to finish.  This was like watching a clown lick a kitten.  This was the worst primetime offering on NBC since “The Jay Leno Show.”

Everyone can have a bad day.  Tell that to the captain of the Hindenburg.

Oh, let’s stop.  Here’s what happened: the Bears have the worst run defense in the NFL and the Eagles have the best running game in the league.  The result was Philadelphia disemboweled the Bears for 289 yards on 36 carries.  The Eagles did what you’re supposed to do against the Bears, which is run, run, run, take a sip of eggnog and run again.

Giving up 8.2 yards per carry isn’t the only reason the Bears lost – Jay Cutler wasn’t good, Matt Forte was so-so and they were outcoached – but the defense was the biggest reason.

But, disturbingly, the only thing more absent than good tackling was passion.  From the outset, the Eagles were determined to punch the Bears in the mouth and the Bears appeared dead set on lifting their jaws.

This was the second worst defeat in Bears history but might be the single most confounding.

It’s just one game, though.  All is not lost, though it certainly feels like it.

The Bears, because they have played well at stretches this season and because the NFC North is weak, can still win the division.  They can still make the playoffs.  It’s all still there for them like the last spoonful of Christmas pudding screaming, “Eat me, Tootsie-Ray!”

Sorry, that was inappropriate.

But it is all still there.  All the Bears have to do is beat the Green Bay Packers in Chicago on Sunday.  That’s it.  Beat an ordinary Packers team they’ve already beaten once.  Beat your oldest and most hated rival.  Line up and hit, feel the cold and hear the roar and a disastrous night in Philadelphia will suddenly be forgotten.

Just do it.

What’s that?  Aaron Rodgers might play?

Good.  Bring ‘em all on.  Just dig deep.

And watch the tape.  Don’t burn it.  Watch it over and over and over and over again.  Learn from your mistakes and punch those Packers in the jingle bells.

Please.

Bears 38, Browns: 31: Suddenly the Cool Winds Blow Victory

December 16, 2013

The Chicago Bears went to Cleveland on Sunday, which is something no self-respecting person should do without getting paid for it, and came away with something no self-respecting football team should deny themselves: a victory over the Browns.

With the 38-31 triumph in the cold, the Bears proved they’re the best team in the AFC North having now gone 4-0 against the Browns, Ravens, Steelers and Bengals.  The problem is the Bears play in the NFC North but the Monsters of the Maybe are also now the top team in their own division thanks to the Ravens and the Lions.

Baltimore’s 18-16 victory over the Silver-Blue Kittens in Detroit on Monday night dropped Detroit to 7-7 and so the 8-6 Bears are now alone in first place with the 7-6-1 Green Bay Packers sandwiched between Chicago and Detroit like a pickpocket on a crowded subway car.

So this is what it is: if the Bears win their final two games of the season they’re division champs and are in the playoffs for the first time in three years.

And there will be much rejoicing.

Maybe the Bears don’t deserve to be in such a fortuitous position but then again I have hairs on parts of my body that are so obstinate they might actually be self-aware and I don’t deserve that so piss on who did that and who deserves what and just appreciate the fact that in northern Illinois it suddenly looks like there’s plenty of Figgy pudding for believers and heathens all.

The Bears’ triumph over the Browns featured the return of Jay Cutler at quarterback after missing four straight games and five of the last six with various injuries and visions of Josh McCown dancing in his head.  Cutler was not great on Sunday against the Browns but he was good enough, overcoming two first half interceptions (one of which was returned for a touchdown) which weren’t entirely his fault but mostly were, to finish 22-of-31 for 265 yards and three touchdowns.

Two of those TD strikes came in the fourth quarter when the Bears outscored a scrappy Cleveland squad, 21-7, to erase a seven-point deficit and make Barkevious Mingo feel as dejected as his name is silly.  It’s far too early to say Bears coach Marc Trestman made the right move by putting Cutler back under center in place of McCown who wasn’t just capable but great during his stint as starter, but at least we can say Trestman’s move hasn’t backfired yet.

But didn’t we see McCown warming up at one point on Sunday?  Perhaps he was just trying to stay warm on a day when the wind off Lake Erie was colder than Martha Stewart’s laugh.

The Bears beat the Browns despite another kinda crappy but at least not abysmal effort by the defense which broke a streak of allowing a 100-yard rusher for six straight games.  In fact, the Bears actually for a bit, looked a little bit like those Bears D’s of the good old Lovie Smith days, or even earlier this season, as cornerback Zack Bowman notched a 43-yard interception for a score off of Jason Campbell in the third.  Bowman is a decent player but is only playing because All-Pro Charles Tillman is injured and word came down Monday that Tillman will not return this season even if the Bears go deep into the playoffs.

And probably the only way the Bears can go deep in the playoffs is if they have Tillman and injured linebacker Lance Briggs who might return for Sunday night’s game in Philadelphia.  As the Bears are presently composed it’s difficult to imagine them knocking out more than one win against some combination of the 49ers, Panthers, Seahawks, Saints and Eagles in the postseason.  With Briggs and Tillman it’s remotely conceivable, without them, call Wallace Shawn.

But let’s dwell on the positive.  The Bears got a third straight 100-yard game from running back Matt Forte and continue to get solid protection from their offensive line and outstanding contributions from wideouts Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery (who made a 45-yard TD catch that only could have been caught by two people: Alshon and Jeffery) and Earl Bennett who each caught a TD pass and tight end Martellus Bennett.  Martellus did cough up a fumble in the third quarter that the Browns returned for a TD but that’s one of the few mistakes he’s made all season.  Plus, he’s funny.

Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Man is condemned to be free.”  Sartre, it’s little known, said this to a skinny lady in a bakery and never meant for anyone else to know about it but his words apply perfectly to our Bears.  They win, they’re in.  They win, they’re in.  That’s it.  No excuses, no dawdling, no Lion-watching.  Beat the Eagles, beat the Packers and you’ll host a playoff game.

And maybe a miracle can happen.

Here’s what we hope for this coming weekend: the Bears beat the Eagles, the Packers top the Steelers and the Lions lose to the Giants.  If so, the NFC North will go to the winner of the Bears-Packers game in Chicago on the final Sunday of the season.  It would be a lot easier if the Bears had 11 or 12 wins by now and had things sewn up but it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.  This is what we want it to be, Bears V. Packers in the cold, snow and fury.  And we really, really hope Aaron Rodgers is back.  Seriously.  Be careful what we wish for, right?  We’re also hoping for a free back wax coupon for Christmas.  We want Rodgers.  We want the best.  We want to beat his ass.

But first, the Eagles.  They’re 8-6.  They’re good.  But they just lost to the Vikings, just like the Bears did a couple of weeks ago.

All eyes on Philadelphia on Sunday night.  Thank you, NFL and NBC for flexing your broadcast and marketing muscles and making this a primetime event.  Let all the world see the Chicago Bears go for their third straight win in the snow.  Let the world see what these two old rivals might or might not be made of.  Let a kid named Alshon run far and fast, arms spread wide, searching for a football in the Christmas sky.  — TK

Bears 45, Cowboys 28: A Night of Flakes, Stars and Legends

December 10, 2013

The Chicago Bears defeated the Dallas Cowboys, 45-28, at Soldier Field on Monday night proving that the only thing more fun than playing in snow is winning in snow.

The Bears dominated this battle between two contending teams with good offenses and bad defenses with the Bears scoring on their first eight possessions and it would have been nine if the clock hadn’t finally decided to hit zero and run indoors for a cup of cocoa and a snuggle with the closest fat person it could find.

The Bears won because their offense was efficient, effective and relentless, racking up 490 yards, 33 first downs, five touchdowns and relegating punter Adam Podlesh strictly to the role of holder on extra points and field goals.  Adam’s a good guy.

The reasons the Bears’ offense was more breathtaking than Scarlett Johansson in an elf costume are numerous.  One, Chicago, believe it or smoke it, has the best tandem of wide receivers in the NFL.  Read that sentence again and then look out the window to make sure pigs aren’t eating the sun.

Alshon Jeffery caught five passes for 84 yards including another amazing touchdown catch, something he does more routinely than Gene Wilder bakes cupcakes.  Jeffery is emerging not only as the Bears’ best receiver but one of the best playmakers in football.  He has big hands, big dreams, speed, and a certain adhesiveness you just can’t teach, coach or buy legally outside Utah.

On the other side there’s the old pro, Brandon Marshall, who hauled in six Josh McCown passes for 100 yards and threw a block on Sean Lee that left the Cowboys linebacker wishing he had stayed in dental school.

McCown also continues to excel in place of the injured Jay Cutler and anyone who thinks there isn’t a quarterback controversy in Chicago is also in the camp that believes Jerry Jones still has his original nose.

Cutler is due to return this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns but everyone in Chicago, Halas Hall and certain trailer parks in Texas know that the Bears would probably fare better by sticking with McCown who gutted Dallas for 348 yards, four TDs, no interceptions (though in fairness to Dallas, the Cowboys should have had two picks, one was dropped, another nullified by a penalty.  Even when the Cowboys’ D does good it does bad.) and a passer rating of 141.9.  That QB rating by McCown for Week 14 was second only to Ace Sanders, a guy who either plays receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars and threw one pass for one TD against Houston or is the star of a new action movie franchise.  Let’s hope he’s both.

Here’s the scoop, and we reserve the right to change our mind before the season ends and maybe even before this paragraph ends, the Bears are contending for a playoff spot and their quarterback is playing great and the guy who is supposed to be the starter was having a good season but he’s always been injury prone and so, dang it, stick with the hot guy and see where he takes you and if he takes you far give him the big bucks and let Cutler go.

And if he falls on his face you’re only stuck with a 34-year-old cheap QB and you’ve let a major talent get away and OK maybe it’s time to change our mind.  Put Cutler back in.

It’s not easy.  Perhaps you need to do both things.  Give Cutler the start but if he stinks it up and the game, and thus the season, is slipping away, bring in McCown because if you do it the other way Jay is not going to want to come back no matter what.

But where else would he want to go?  The Bears, and I still can’t believe these words are being typed, have just about the most promising offensive future in the league.  Great receivers, a great line, a versatile running back, a monster tight end and a coach who knows offense, understands QBs and is, perhaps, learning to never let up on the gas.

Of course it’s easier to keep the pedal to the medal when you have nothing in front of you but road kill with starry helmets.

Enough about cloudy futures, though.  Monday night was magical in Chicago. There was snow on the ground and the temperature was hovering around zero.  You could not only see your breath you could set your beer on it.  It was Bears-Cowboys outdoors in the elements on national TV.  And, at halftime, the most Beary Bear of them all was honored as Chicago finally retired Mike Ditka’s #89 jersey.  Ditka was emotional, he was sincere and he was appreciative. And it was all so perfect.

Unless you’re Tony Romo.

The Bears are now 7-6 and tied with the Detroit Lions atop the NFC North.  The Lions swept the Bears and thus own the tiebreaker but we have about as much trust in the Lions as Kim Jong-un has in unmarked aircraft.

We need to think cold thoughts, run tight routes and keep the bus rolling.  Let’s fight to Christmas.  Let’s go down swinging in the cold.  And laughing in the night.

How Explosive is the Denver Broncos Offense?

Just how explosive is the Denver Broncos offense? Does their offense remind you of the days when you played Madden on Xbox as a kid?

After eight games, Denver is 7-1 and scored at least 33 points in each of their games. Last year Denver never eclipsed the 40-point mark during their 13-3 regular season. This year Denver averages 42.8 points per game. The fewest points Denver scored this season is 33 which came against the Indianapolis Colts on October 20, their only loss of the season.

Denver demolished the Washington Redskins 45-21, including a franchise-record 31 points in the fourth quarter after trailing 21-7 halfway through the 3rd quarter.

They became just the fourth NFL team to score at least 50 points in consecutive games. Denver scored 51 points against the Dallas Cowboys on October 6. The week before Denver racked up 52 points against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Prior to this season, Denver scored 50 points just once in franchise history. Denver has scored at least 40 points in five out of their eight games played.

Denver has scored 343 points, most ever by any team eight games into a season. If Denver continues their pace, they will score nearly 700 points this season. No NFL team has scored 600 points in a season.

QB Peyton Manning has thrown 29 touchdowns to 6 interceptions with 2,919 yards passing. Could we possible witness 60 touchdown passes with 6,000 yards passing? After eight games Manning averages nearly 365 yards passing per game. Three players have contributed with at least 45 receptions and are on pace for over 90 receptions.

In Week 1 against the defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens, Manning threw 7 touchdown passes, tying an NFL record. The Broncos become the first team in NFL history with three players catching at least two touchdown passes from the same quarterback. Manning becomes the first quarterback ever with three career games of six touchdown passes.

In Week 2, Peyton played his younger brother Eli and the New York Giants. Manning became the third quarterback ever to achieve 60,000 passing yards while doing it in the fewest games played. Dan Marino and Brett Favre are the others to throw for over 60,000 yards.

Two weeks later, Denver demolished the Philadelphia Eagles 52-20. It was the most points scored in a game by the Broncos in their 54-year history. After four games in September, Manning had thrown 16 touchdown passes to zero interceptions, an NFL record to start the season for most touchdown passes thrown without an interception.

Then in Week 5, Denver Broncos stay undefeated when Matt Prater kicked the game winning 28-yard field goal as time expired in Denver’s 51-48 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. Both teams combined to score 99 points, tied for the 4th most combined points scored in an NFL game.

In that game, Peyton Manning completed 33 out of 42 passes for 414 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. It was Manning’s first interception compared to 20 touchdown passes this season. Manning’s 20 touchdown passes are the most ever through five games to start a season.

With Manning’s 414 passing yards, it is his 10th career game with at least 400 yards passing, tying him for second with Drew Brees. Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino holds the NFL record with 13 career 400-yard passing games. Also Manning moved into second place in career passing yards with 61,371, trailing Brett Favre’s 71,838 passing yards.

Overall Manning has thrown at least two touchdown passes in 10 straight games, including the final two regular season games of the 2012 season. The Broncos have scored 30+ points in 11 straight games. Denver is 18-1 in their last 19 regular season games.

The fun continues today when the Broncos play the San Diego Chargers.

 

Tim Brown and Brian Mitchell: All-Purpose Snubs?

The NFL’s top ten list in career all-purpose yards contains eight Hall of Famers. The two who are not enshrined in Canton are Tim Brown, who is fifth on the list, and Brian Mitchell, who is second.

Brown compiled 19,679 all-purpose yards during 16 seasons with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders and one final season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before retiring after the 2004 season. He was a receiver and a kick returner and made the Pro Bowl nine times. He is tied for 104th on Pro Football-Reference’s Career Approximate Value leaders list ahead of Hall of Famers Steve Largent, Marcus Allen, Jim Kelly, Franco Harris, Frank Gifford and Curtis Martin.

He played in one Super Bowl, with the Raiders after the 2002 season, and lost.

He likes cars.

What gives?

Brian Mitchell is second on the list with an eye-popping 23,316 all-purpose yards, just 230 behind the all-time leader, Jerry Rice, yet Mitchell played in only 223 career games. Rice played in 303.

Mitchell returned kicks, ran the ball, caught passes and frustrated the heck out of other teams while playing for the Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants from 1990 to 2003. He had 13 career returns for scores and 29 career TDs in all.

Mitchell even, in his final year, threw a touchdown pass.

He helped the Redskins win Super Bowl XXVI.

Should he get to wear a yellow blazer in August?

In the NFL all-purpose yardage guys are treated like solid utility players in baseball.  Coaches love them, fans appreciate them, but the only girl who will dance with them picks her nose and wears falsies.

This season the league’s leader in all-purpose yards is Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, a great player who could one day be in Canton. But look back at the all-purpose leaders over the past few years and you find, counting backwards, Randall Cobb, Darren Sproles, Danny Amendola, Fred Jackson, Leon Washington and Josh Cribbs. You have to go back to 2006 to find a genuine “superstar,” when Steven Jackson took the crown.

Numbers (don’t tell anyone) can sometimes call for further explanation. Mitchell led the season all-purpose yardage list four times in the 90s but back in that era some of the other leaders included Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas and Eric Dickerson. Running backs used to be bigger stars and carry a greater load so they ate up more of the yards. Now, in the pass-happy NFL, guys like McCoy harken back to Faulk and Thomas, players who were just as much of a threat catching as running and it would appear the future of the game belongs to those who do both.

But what about returning?

The NFL has been watering down kick and punt returns by trying to make them safer and there has even been talk of getting rid of them. Players like Chicago Bears specialist Devin Hester, who holds the league record for career kick return TDs, could be a vanishing breed. There has been serious talk, at least in Chicago, that Hester will one day be in the Hall of Fame. He has 33 career touchdowns, 19 of them on returns. Tim Brown had 105 career scores.

It’s easy to just add up numbers and make proclamations. That’s why we’re doing it.  But don’t all-purpose guys define what football really is?  Isn’t the game at its most fun when guys strap on the helmet for as many plays as possible?

Certainly, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson would have impressive return yardage if the Vikes were crazy enough to let him return kicks. Ditto, years ago, for Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders and, of course, Jerry Rice. So maybe Brown and Mitchell’s numbers don’t mean they were so great but just, perhaps, a little more expendable.

But was Walter Payton expendable?

The Bears Hall of Famer retired after the 1987 season as the league’s all-time leading rusher and has since been surpassed by Emmitt Smith, but Payton is third, one spot ahead of Smith, on the career APY list. This is, in part, because Payton had 539 career yards as a kick returner, with nearly all of them coming in his rookie year of 1975.

Payton also threw eight career touchdown passes. That’s right; eight TD passes as a running back. That’s more than Emmitt (1), Jim Brown (3), Barry Sanders (0), Tony Dorsett (0), Dickerson (1) and O.J. Simpson (1) combined.

We have taken the liberty of omitting Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen from this list because he, inconveniently from our point of view, had six career TD passes. Not as many as Walter, but in his territory.

In 1983 Payton had three TD passes, so did Allen. They were ballers who lined up and got it done. Imagine them on a team with Tim Brown and Brian Mitchell. Think of a sport worried about concussions and lawsuits coming up with ways to showcase athleticism, versatility and creativity over violence. It’s football with a rugby/basketball/hockey future. No more 300 pounders and a lot fewer broken bones. A game of all-purpose players catching, running, passing and sprinting.

A backyard league of legends.