October 17, 2017

The Long View: Bush and Hawk Get Cut

The Green Bay Packers cut linebacker A.J. Hawk on Wednesday, the same day the Detroit Lions said goodbye to running back Reggie Bush. If this is the end for them it’s fitting that they go out together because they came into the league together, burdened with huge expectations.

Did they meet them?

Bush, a Heisman trophy winner at Southern Cal, was taken by the New Orleans Saints with the second overall pick in the 2006 draft. Hawk went to the Packers three picks later, fifth overall.

When a player is picked in the first round they’re expected to be a Pro Bowler. When they’re taken in the top five the hope, and the hype, is that they’ll end up in the Hall of Fame. Bush and Hawk have zero Pro Bowls between them and neither will make the Hall of Fame.

But are they busts?

Bush, who has been a hybrid in the NFL playing running back, receiver and returning kicks, accumulated 1,326 all-purpose yards and nine total touchdowns his rookie year and helped the Saints reach the NFC title game for the first time in franchise history (they lost to the Bears.)

Bush, despite battling injuries, contributed more than 1,000 yards in total offense in each of the next two seasons for the Saints (including three punt return TDs in 2008) and was a vital contributor in 2009 when the Saints advanced to their first and only Super Bowl, pulling off a huge upset of the Indianapolis Colts.

In 2011 Bush went to the Miami Dolphins and did something many thought he could not, rush for a thousand yards, 1,086 to be exact while also catching 43 passes for 296 yards and seven total touchdowns, numbers that he almost duplicated the next season in Miami.

Bush’s first year with Detroit in 2013 was the best of his career, statistically, with 1,512 yards from scrimmage and seven scores. This past season Bush appeared in just 11 games for Detroit with 550 total yards.

On draft day nine years ago if you had a crystal ball and saw that Reggie Bush would never win a rushing title, never make a Pro Bowl and play for three different teams you might have said he was going to be a disappointment.

But what if you looked into that very same mystical forecaster and saw that Bush would last nine seasons in a league when most players (especially small running backs) don’t last half that? And what if you were also told Bush would help a moribund franchise play in two conference title games and win one Super Bowl?

A.J. Hawk joined the Packers in 2006 and started all 16 games with 82 tackles, a number that he would never reach again.

But there are other numbers. Aaron James Hawk appeared in every game his rookie year and would do that again every year of his career except 2011 when he missed a grand total of two games.

Hawk was a starting linebacker in 136 of the 142 regular season games the Packers have played since 2006. He never had fewer than 53 tackles in a season, compiled nine career regular season interceptions and 19 sacks.

With Hawk, the Packers had the league’s second best defense in 2009 and fifth best in 2010, the year Hawk helped Green Bay win a Super Bowl, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Let’s jump in the wayback machine and break out that crystal ball again. No Pro Bowls for Hawk, never led the league in tackles, didn’t create a lot of turnovers…but nine years as a starter means something. It means a lot of things.

If you’re still not impressed with Hawk or Bush we understand.   If you’ve read this far you’re obviously the demanding type and we respect that.

So let’s see how Reggie Bush and A.J. Hawk measure up with other first rounders from 2006.

The first overall pick that year was defensive end Mario Williams who went to the Houston Texans. Williams played in two Pro Bowls for the Texans and two more since joining Buffalo in 2012 including the last two seasons and appears to still be going strong.

The third overall pick was quarterback Vince Young who went to the Titans. He was the offensive rookie of the year and appeared in two Pro Bowls. But his career came to an end with the Eagles in 2011.

Offensive Tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson went fourth overall to the Jets. He has made three Pro Bowls and is still going. Other future Pro Bowlers in the 2006 first round were Vernon Davis, Jay Cutler, Haloti Ngata, Chad Greenway, Antonio Cromartie, Tamba Hali, Davin Joseph, Jonathan Joseph, DeAngelo Williams, Marcedes Williams, Nick Mangold and Joseph Addai.

They all made at least one Pro Bowl but we confess there are a few in that group we’ve never heard of. And more importantly, perhaps, which one of those would you have rather had than Hawk or Bush? Ngata and Mangold almost certainly. The others spark a good debate.

The last player taken in the first round of 2006 was defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka who went to the Giants. Like Bush and Hawk, Kiwanuka was released this week. And like Bush and Hawk, Kiwanuka has a Super Bowl ring. Two of them.

Bush and Hawk might have a kindred spirit in Keith Van Horne, the All-American offensive lineman from Southern Cal who was taken by the Chicago Bears with the 11th overall pick in 1981. Chicagoans expected Van Horne to be a stud, a killer, an All-Pro, a legend.

He wasn’t. He was, however, a very solid football player, starting 169 games from 1981 until 1993. The Bears had great teams with Van Horne, making the playoffs seven times and winning one Super Bowl. There may have been other right tackles the Bears could have plugged in and had the same success. But the point is they didn’t need to look for another tackle because they had a good one.

Van Horne, Bush and Hawk are on the football’s Mount Rushmore of “take the long view.” All first round picks are expected to be great. Everyone wants a Lawrence Taylor, Peyton Manning, Patrick Peterson or J.J. Watt. But just because a first rounder doesn’t become a star doesn’t mean he was a bad pick. We all want winners, we all want stars and we all want it now. But patience can pay off. Availability, durability and determination cannot be measured at the combine.

Or maybe they can be and that’s really why Reggie Bush and A.J. Hawk were taken so high, and lasted so long.

The future…what can you do with it?

 

A Dolphin Christmas

 

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A Dolphin in Winter

The Internet means everything is alive.  People, places, memories, images and sounds go dormant, but they never die.  They are always out there on some avenue of cyberspace waiting to be experienced again.

This includes things that most of us never wanted to experience to begin with but now, strangely, sometimes have the urge to revisit: commercials.  And this time of year we thank Google, YouTube and melancholy pop culture buffs for Christmas commercials.

Perhaps my favorite old Christmas commercial is the one for Norelco Razors from the 1970s, which shows Santa Claus riding in a giant electric razor over pristine knolls of snow.  No one can prove the real Santa has never actually done that.

If Santa on a wild razor is my favorite Christmas commercial then a close second is one featuring an equally odd image: a Dolphin in winter.  It’s the Dan Marino Isotoner Gloves commercial from the 1980s.  The ad shows Marino, the legendary Miami Dolphin and the greatest quarterback to ever play, coming in from the snow and extolling the virtues of Isotoner Gloves as unseen teammates reach from hiding spots dropping hints and patting him on the back and cheek as Dan the Man says “This Christmas, take care of the hands that take care of you, with Isotoner Gloves.”

Were these commercials even broadcast in Miami?  Not many Dolphins fans need to worry about having gloves for winter.  But Marino, who played for the Dolphins from 1983 through 1999 and now hangs out in the Hall of Fame, was born in Pennsylvania and played college ball at Pittsburgh so he certainly appreciates owning the right weapons to combat winter’s wrath.

Plus, Dan played in one of the greatest winter games in NFL history, when his Dolphins beat the Dallas Cowboys in the notorious Leon Lett game in the snow at Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving Day in 1993.  No wait.  He didn’t.  Dan was hurt the second half of that season.  Do you remember who was under center for the aquatic mammals for that game?  Steve DeBerg.  DeBerg probably could have used some Isotoners that day.  Lett, too.

I can’t quite convey why I like the Dan Marino gloves commercial so much.  Perhaps it is indeed the incongruity of a Miami guy selling gloves that is just so funny, and charming.   It could be it’s the way he’s assaulted by greedy players from off-screen including the one who pats his cheek a little too hard (you can tell) and Dan looks a bit annoyed as we have to remember this may have happened on the 20th take of the day.  It’s just so weirdly precious that America’s memory lane includes a brief visit with the lighter side of one of the NFL’s all-time fiercest competitors.

Santa never brought a Vince Lombardi Trophy to Marino, but Dan delivered a thousand great memories to us.  Put on the gloves, let the flakes fly.  It’s a Christmas blizzard.  Dan Marino fades back to pass.  Raise your arms and watch the night sky.  Christmas memories.  Marino magic.

Book Review: Dan Marino: My Life in Football

Although Drew Brees and Tom Brady surpassed Dan Marino’s record for most pass yards in a single season this year, there are a couple big records where neither man comes close. Marino holds a 13-8 advantage over Peyton Manning for tops all-time when it comes to 400-yard passing games. Marino also shares the record for 300-yard passing games (63) with Manning and is right behind Brett Favre in a number of other categories.

“But let’s be serious,” Don Shula said. “Every defensive coach in the NFL would’ve liked me to establish a running game. Or at least try. It would have made their job easier. But Dan’s passing was the kind of strength you didn’t strategically stray from. You couldn’t. At least, not if you wanted to win” (10, Dan).

 

Pick up “Dan Marino: My Life in Football” because:

1.While Shula and others might have felt jumpy during Marino’s games, the man under center did not waver.

Asked to describe coaching Marino for 13 of the player’s 17 seasons, Shula summed it up with one word – “excitement.”

From childhood through retirement from the Dolphins, Marino wore No. 13. The quarterback can’t remember a time when he did not have his super arm.

 

“When I arrived in the league, writers wondered about the pressure of playing quarterback, before a full stadium, on national TV, with big stakes riding on each play,” Marino said. “That cracked me up. Pressure? That’s where I belonged. It’s what I loved to do. It’s what I grew up dreaming about, too, from the moment my dad took me aside as a kid and said, ‘I think if you work hard, set your mind to it, and are lucky enough to stay healthy, you can become a pretty good athlete’” (14).

2. Even when football didn’t go his way, which was rare, Marino made the best of it.

Marino excelled at the University of Pittsburgh. He led the nation with 37 TD passes as a junior. Then came a miserable senior season. The slide continued when he became the sixth quarterback taken in the famed 1983 NFL Draft.

“Strange how the lowest moments turn into the biggest blessings,” Marino said (24.) Miami was coming off a Super Bowl appearance. They had a stocked offensive line and defense. Furthermore, Shula told Marino to practice like he was starting from the first snap of training camp. It was not the norm, but Shula expected Marino to call his own plays. He would learn quickly and go on to start 145 brutal games in a row.

3. The book is packed with picture after picture of No. 13.

The man who retired with 25 passing records is captured in a multitude of photographs. The shots remind me of Michael Jordan’s “Rare Air.” Make sure to take a look at the life of another legend in this beautiful book.

Sam Miller is the founder of Sam’s Dream Blog.  A graduate of the University of Illinois, he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.

Unlucky 13

There are some people in the world who think that the number 13 is good luck.  I am not one of those people.  Week 13 of the NFL season had the Oakland Raiders traveling to Miami to take on the Miami Dolphins.  The Raiders were coming off a 25-20 win over the Chicago Bears and the Dolphins lost 20-19 to the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day.

But, in a way, I guess I was lucky.  Due to the fact that I had to do some traveling last weekend, I was unable to see what occurred on Sunday.  I had my cell phone working and I saw the score elevate from 3-0 to 6-0 to 13-0 and so on.  When the score reached 34-0, I said to my wife “I sure am glad I can’t see what’s going on!”  But, as I watched the sickening replay on game-pass on NFL.com, I saw a totally uninspired Raider team and a totally focused Dolphin team.  The Dolphins won this game in the trenches and their defense shut down Michael Bush from the beginning as he finished the game with 18 yards on ten carries.  As a team, the Raiders rushed for 46 yards.  The long run of the day was a gain of 15 on a reverse by wide receiver Louis Murphy.

If you look at the statistics for quarterback Carson Palmer, you would think he had a pretty good day as he completed 20 of 41 for 273 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that was returned for a touchdown by Miami linebacker Kevin Burnett.  Most of those yards came when the game was well out of hand.  Palmer was also sacked twice and pressured throughout the game.  Wide receiver Chaz Schilens led all receivers with six catches for 89 yards.

For the Dolphins, quarterback Matt Moore had a good game as he was never sacked and barely had any pressure applied to him from the Raider defense.  He completed 13 of 25 for 162 yards, one touchdown pass and he ran for a six-yard score.  Tight end Anthony Fasano led all receivers with four catches for 66 yards.  Running backs Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas found gaping holes in the Raider defense and combined for 173 yards on 35 carries.  Bush also scored on a one-yard run.  As a team, the Dolphins shredded the Raiders for a total of 209 yards rushing.  The Dolphins ended up winning 34-14, but it could have easily ended up being 48-0 if the Dolphins hadn’t taken it easy in the fourth quarter and allowed the Raiders to score two touchdowns.

So, what’s the problem with the Raiders?  Did they watch too much ESPN?  They were singing high praises last week and even former Denver Bronco Tom Jackson had some kind words for them.  Did it get to their heads?  Was it too hot in Miami to wear those black uniforms?  Maybe they were distracted by the arrest of linebacker Rolando McClain.  He didn’t seem too distracted.  He led the team in tackles and even had a tackle for a loss.  Maybe they were looking ahead to the game next week on the “Frozen Tundra” of Lambeau Field against the Packers.  But, if Matt Moore can stand in the pocket for 10 seconds looking for a receiver, what do you think Aaron Rodgers will do?

Now, I know that Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore weren’t active and that definitely didn’t help.  But, from what I saw on the replay, they looked totally uninspired and listless.  Defensive tackle Richard Seymour was ejected again for throwing a punch.  That wasn’t much of a punch, but I’m sure he was frustrated with the way things were going.  The Raiders were flagged 10 times for a total of 91 yards.

Of course, there is the optimistic approach.  Upsets happen every week and this time it happened to the Raiders.  Maybe they were overconfident because the Dolphins were three and eight?  Maybe Raider fans should treat the loss to Miami like a U.F.O.  We saw something, but we weren’t quite sure what it was.  Whatever it was, Hue Jackson and the rest of the coaching staff better get these players into shape and focused on the game next week.

The loss to Miami was bad, but the chances for a playoff berth also took a hit.  With a 35-32 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Broncos took over first place in the AFC West.  As I look at the schedule for next week, the Chicago Bears are heading out to play at Denver.  Not only have the Bears lost quarterback Jay Cutler, they lost running back Matt Forte last week in a 10-3 loss to Kansas City.  Their defense is still playing well, but their offense has got to find a way to score some points against Denver’s defense.  It’s not impossible to score on Denver.  The Viking offense put up 30 points against them without running back Adrian Peterson.

The odds are still pretty low that running back Darren McFadden will be back and ready to go against the Packers.  Hopefully running back Taiwan Jones can return from a hamstring injury and share some carries with Bush.  It would be nice to see Ford and Moore back this week because the Raiders certainly are going to need as many weapons as possible.  Aaron Rodgers and the high powered Green Bay offense can’t score if they aren’t on the field and I’d love to see the running game get established and take lots of time off the clock.  Next week, I’ll be back with my regular play by play format.  Until then, take it easy.

The Raider Guy

Dan, Still the Man

The Miami Dolphins are terrible.  Let’s talk about it.

For the second straight week, south Florida’s flopping fish punted away a fourth quarter lead and lost, dropping their record to 0-7 and causing people to high-five while watching “The Cove.”

For Leatherheads of my generation it’s a bit jarring that Tony Sparano’s team is, at best, the fifth most-skilled football squad in Florida because we 40-somethings grew up watching Dolphins teams that were slick, tanned and very good.  From Don Shula’s first season as head coach in Miami in 1970 through his last season in 1995 Flipper was quite proud as the aquatic mammals reached the playoffs 16 times, played in five Super Bowls, won two Lombardi Trophies, compiled the NFL’s only completely perfect season and provided young men with hundreds of bronzed, comely cheerleaders to dream about during cold Midwestern nights.

Since Shula left, the ocean’s favorite citizens have stunk like tuna left in a dirty toilet and struggled like a bottlenose with a cleat stuck in its blowhole, reaching the postseason just six times (and not since 2008) and never playing in a conference title game.  The departure of Shula, the NFL’s all-time winningest coach, certainly has contributed to Miami’s malaise but the reason the Dolphins are on my mind – besides the fact that the Chicago Bears have been in a bye week – is that Miami’s second most-famous Dolphin continues to arise in gridiron debates.

Dan Marino – the greatest quarterback ever not named Johnny Unitas – retired from the Dolphins after the 1999 season and swam off into the sunset holding nearly every possible, meaningful NFL passing record.  When Dan called it quits it seemed as if his records of 61,361 career yards and 420 touchdowns would never be equaled and possibly not even approached.  Then, along came Brett Favre who, as a Green Bay Packer, New York Jet, Minnesota Viking and cheeky monkey just kept going and going and going and eclipsed both of those marks.

One of Marino’s other seemingly unreachable records, 48 TD passes in a season (1984) also fell, first to Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts who chucked 49 TD’s in 2004 and then to Tom Brady of the New England Patriots who racked up 50 in 2007.

Now, about the only notable record Marino still holds, besides best hair even after wearing a helmet, is most yards in a single season – 5,084 in 1984.  But even that record might not last much longer.  New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees came just 15 yards short of equaling that record three years ago.  This year Brees is once again preparing to knock Dan out of the box as he’s on pace to smash Dan’s mark by throwing for 5,492 yards.  And he’s not alone.  Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is projected to throw for 5,408 yards and if Brady keeps it up he’ll throw for 5,392 yards while also growing another dimple.

Will they do it?

Rodgers is the best player in the NFL right now but he has several factors working against him.  One is that he plays in Green Bay which is known for two things: good football and ice.  Mr. Rodgers plays three of his final four games at friendly but frigid Lambeau Field a place that isn’t kind to airborne footballs in December in January.  And if it’s possible to break Marino’s mark while playing games in Arctic conditions (the only one of Green Bay’s final four games not in Wisconsin is in weather-relevant Kansas City) don’t you think Mr. Favre would have done it?  It also works against Aaron that the Packers are so good.  The Pack will almost certainly have sewn up a playoff spot, and possibly top seed in the NFC, with one or two games to go.  So as much as a gamer as Rodgers is it’s hard to imagine Mike McCarthy sending him out there to chuck it at his current rate of more than 30 times a game exposing him to injury if the games are essentially meaningless.

Brady has similar obstacles.  Of his final four games, two will be played in Foxboro, Massachusetts which is as meteorologically sinister as Green Bay.  Brady’s other two games during the season’s final quarter will be in Denver and Washington.  It’s just not easy to throw when Jack Frost and Snowzilla are nipping at your fingers.  Plus, like the Packers, the Patriots will also likely have clinched their fate before the final game though that doesn’t mean Bill Belichick will take his foot off the gas because the Patriots don’t do that, God love ‘em.  Maybe what can really do Brady in is if Wes Welker’s hands fall off.

Drew Brees has the best shot.  He’s more than halfway there already and from now through the end of the season the Saints play exactly one game outside.  As Kurt Warner apologists can attest to but won’t, it’s a little easier to rack up pinball-like pass stats when you’re in the cozy confines of a dome which is a big reason Brees – though certainly skilled and rigorous – has put up Arena-like numbers for so long.

Marino, obviously, played a great many games in Miami which isn’t weather-hell either except for the occasional hurricane.  But by my count, Dan played only 25 dome games during his 17-year career.  What would his numbers be if he had played half of his 242 career games under a roof?  What would Favre’s be?

Perhaps Brees’ best game this season came a couple of Sundays ago when he directed a nearly-perfect offensive assault on the Colts, compiling five TD’s, 325 yards and a 144.9 passer rating as the Saints prevailed by an embarrassing score of 62-7.  New Orleans’ 62 points were the most scored by an NFL team since January 15, 2000 when the Jacksonville Jaguars stampeded to a victory by the exact some score, 62-7, over…Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins.  It would prove to be Dan’s last game as his Dolphins were disemboweled in the divisional playoffs.  The Dolphins trailed 41-7 at halftime and Marino told head coach Jimmy Johnson that he wanted to go out there in the second half to give it one last shot.  He tried, but it would have taken five miracles and a thousand pairs of Isotoner gloves with stickum for Miami to rally.  And so, the greatest quarterback of the cable TV era was finished.

Brees, Brady and Rodgers might all surpass Marino this year and Dan the Man will slide further down in the record books and, one day, might be remembered as merely a gunslinger who put up gaudy numbers but never won a Super Bowl.  That would be a shame.  Football fans should consider what Marino could have done if he’d had Roger Craig, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott on his side as Joe Montana did.  Or how about if late in Dan’s career he’d been handed the gift that John Elway received in Terrell Davis?

Marino was better than Montana and Elway and cooler than Kurt Russell.  He threw hard, talked softly and made funny commercials.  Today’s players are great and we certainly don’t begrudge them for putting up pretty numbers in the current pass-happy protect the quarterback at all costs NFL.  But let’s never forget the dynamic Dolphin who could throw TD’s in his sleep and still gives defensive backs nightmares.

Marino was magnificent.  Time can’t diminish that and numbers can never change that.

 

 

Taking A Knee

The 0-4 Minnesota Vikings, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams have several options.  They can either play out the string while trying to grasp a modicum of dignity and hint of respectability, they can ask for admission into the Pac 10, or pro football’s quartet of bottom feeders might want to steal from the playbook of Morrill High School.

The Morrill Lions, from western Nebraska, have cancelled their season – and no one can blame Curtis Painter.

The Lions mercifully pulled the plug on Tuesday when its 18-member team was reduced to 12, and that 12th guy doesn’t even like football.

As reported by the “Associated Press,” Morrill’s starting quarterback broke a hand and another player fractured an ankle in last week’s game and parents were concerned that a friendly football season could quickly devolve into something immoral, if not illegal.  And so the cheerleaders (did they have more than one?), players and fans packed it in and will wait until next year.

No doubt the Morrill Lions gave it their best in going 0-5 and getting outscored 243-32.  One is reminded of T.C. Boyle’s gritty short story, “56-0,” about an overmatched college football team finishing the season in a cold, muddy and desperate scramble for pride.  But, like W.C Fields once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”

Part of Morrill’s problem was that the school was out of its league, almost literally.  Morrill played in the smallest division in Nebraska that plays 11-man football and school officials say next year they’ll probably move down to Eight-Man football which has got to be more fun anyway.  Morrill’s coaches told the “A.P.” they were saddened that more of the school’s 50 boys didn’t go out for the team but who knows? Maybe Morrill just has more fun things for a young lad to do on his weekends than get his head bashed in on every play.

Maybe Morrill just needs a little updating.  The school’s website still wishes everyone “a good summer” and the lunch menu is from last May.  But at least the Lions dined well that spring: Taco Salad, Pigs-in-a-blanket and Biscuits & Gravy are some of the offerings on the cafeteria menu. Unappetizingly, though, in the middle of the month the culinary choices are narrowed down to just one – “Cook’s Choice.”  Do you get the impression that “Cook’s Choice” consists of whatever tacos, biscuits and pigs can fit in a blender or on a slice of toast?

Morrill may feel forlorn but it isn’t alone.  In Amarillo, Texas, Arbor Christian Academy has also punted away the 2011 season after going 0-6 including last week’s 58-0 assault against Memphis.  Like Morrill, Arbor Christian now has downsizing on its mind as the school will switch to Six-Man in 2012.

The Vikings, Dolphins, Rams and Colts have looked like they’re playing with just six or eight guys this year so maybe they can jump leagues as well.  Maybe the NFL can implement a policy similar to that of European soccer leagues (“football associations”).  Imagine if promotion and relegation existed in all American sports – the Cleveland Browns, Chicago Cubs and Golden State Warriors would probably be on Morrill or Arbor Christian’s schedule by now and the New England Patriots and New York Yankees would only play each other, perhaps in a golden palace owned by Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman.

Or, maybe Morrill and Arbor Christian can get some special exemption and combine forces and play 14-man football while the other team only plays 11 but gets all the biscuits and gravy it can handle.

We can’t help wonder if those in Minnesota, Miami, St. Louis and Indianapolis almost envy these high school kids.  Between the four NFL teams they’re already 0-16 and, shudder to think, since none of these fumbling four play each other this season, each of them could actually finish 0-16 themselves.  Fans in Morrill and Amarillo will be watching.  But how will they be rooting?

 

Are You Ready for Some Two-Hand Touch Football?

Now don’t get me wrong, I applaud that the NFL is tackling the safety issues. The fact that there does not seem to be much outcry from the players about all the new rules in recent years tells me that the players are, for the most part, behind the new safety rules. However, football is a violent game and is a game where players wear pads and helmets. Hard hits and bruises are a part of football.

Which brings me to this weekend. Fourteen quarterbacks threw for more than 300 yards, including three throwing more than 400 yards and of course the ever exalted Tom Brady throwing for more than 500 yards. (A feat I have to add would not have happened if not for Miami’s disastrous play calling. Fourth and half a yard and they choose to throw rather than give to Reggie Bush? Good luck this season Miami.)

The league has created so many rules about hitting and even going so far as to ensure a dramatic decrease in the number of kickoff returns. It’s no wonder there is so much offense now. Players are afraid to tackle and make punishing, message sending hits for fear of getting fined and/or suspended. Witness San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Nedney in Sunday’s game against Seattle “fall” after hardly a hair was touched when he attempted a field goal. Penalty. In the same game a flag was thrown after what appeared to be a hard-hitting head shot. Replays said otherwise. A penalty was still issued.

If the NFL is going to continue to crack down on hard hits and create a game that discourages real tackling, which some argue compromises the game, then I think an additional “challenge” concept needs to be developed. One that allows coaches two additional challenges, just like current replay challenges, which are allowed to be used on penalties and whether or not a head shot is a head shot or a quarterback was truly roughed up.

Six games this weekend saw both quarterbacks throwing for more than 300 yards, a first in the game’s history. More touchbacks were recorded in one game at Lambeau Field than all of last year. I believe this year will be the most offensively productive year in NFL history. It would not surprise me that two or three quarterbacks reach 5,000 yards passing and even potentially knocking Dan Marino’s season record down two or three notches. I would also expect players to get tired of touchbacks, which means possible multiple touchdown returns of 105 yards or longer. Witness 49ers’ Ted Ginn Jr. returning a kickoff and punt return in the fourth quarter within a minute of each other. Are defenses mailing in kickoff returns because they expect a touchback or are they too afraid to take down players like they used to?

In recent years, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been accused of crying foul every time someone touches a hand on them. It would make perfect sense then, especially for offenses, to keep the crybaby routine up until the league intervenes because a two-hand touch game means more offense and statistics, and the NFL backs it because fans love to see high scoring games and productive offenses. The bottom line: more offense equals more money! (This was evident on Monday as two Patriot defenders simply watched Miami quarterback Chad Henne scramble towards the goal line.) I am still amazed whenever I see a punt or field goal blocked successfully since the margin of error to reach the ball without touching the kicker is so small.

Player safety should always be a primary concern. I’ll never forget seeing Steve Young unconscious on the field. And cheap shots should be penalized with fines and suspensions, if necessary. But much of football is mental and if you take away the fear factor defenses rely on so much, then football becomes a two-hand touch proposition. With referees not taking chances and calling questionable hits viewed only in real-time, more and more players will hold back which means poor tackling and high offensive output. Perhaps, this is what the NFL truly intended when it began implementing so many rules.

Warfield, Csonka, and Kiick Sign with the WFL (1974)

The Miami Dolphins had barely finished celebrating a second consecutive championship when the stunning announcement was made on March 31, 1974 that three key members of the offense, FB Larry Csonka, HB Jim Kiick, and WR Paul Warfield, had been signed by the Toronto Northmen of the newly organized World Football League. They would not play in the WFL until 1975, as each was in their final contract year with the Dolphins for the 1974 season.

It was a major coup for the new league that would sign several significant NFL players to contracts; some that would take effect in the first season (QB Virgil Carter by the Chicago Fire, RB Charlie Harraway by the Birmingham Americans, DT John Elliott by the New York Stars), others that, like the three Miami stars, would take effect in 1975 (TE Ted Kwalick and RB Calvin Hill by The Hawaiians, QB Daryle Lamonica by the Southern California Sun), and still others that would never occur at all due to the league’s demise (QB Ken Stabler by the Birmingham Americans for 1976).

Unlike most of the new league’s franchises, Toronto, owned by media executive John Bassett, had strong and stable financial backing. A joint contract was negotiated for the trio and totaled $3 million over three years, with Csonka getting $1.4 million, Warfield $900,000, and Kiick $700,000.

The team never played in Toronto, however – the introduction of legislation by the Canadian parliament that would have banned the WFL from fielding teams in Canada forced the relocation of the franchise to Memphis. Renamed the Southmen (not a popular nickname with the locals, who preferred to refer to the team as the “Grizzlies” due to the bear logo on the helmet), the club had the best record of the chaotic 1974 season at 17-3, winning the Central Division but losing to Florida in the first round of the playoffs.

The Dolphins, who had won the Super Bowl following the 1972 and 1973 seasons, went 11-3 in 1974; again winning the AFC East but losing in a thrilling divisional playoff game to Oakland. In their last season in Miami, Csonka had his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl year as he gained 749 yards rushing; Warfield caught 27 passes for 536 yards (a 19.9-yard average gain), also gaining Pro Bowl recognition, in his case for the seventh straight year; and Kiick, a reserve at this point, gained 274 rushing yards and caught 18 passes while splitting time at halfback with Benny Malone and Mercury Morris.

Joining the Southmen (or “Grizzlies”) in 1975, the Miami trio at least had the good fortune of joining a stable club coming off of a winning season. However, the health of the league as a whole wasn’t good – financially rickety during the ’74 season, the lack of a television contract made the situation even more untenable and the WFL folded on October 22 after thirteen weeks.

Kiick was the star of the season opening game, scoring three touchdowns that included the game-winner with 38 seconds remaining. He also gained 106 yards rushing in a win over The Hawaiians and ended up outgaining Csonka with 462 yards on 121 carries with nine touchdowns; he also caught 25 passes for 259 yards and another TD.

Csonka had a high of 114 yards rushing in the club’s second game but missed time due to injury during the season. He ended up gaining 421 yards on 99 rushes with one TD and caught five passes for 54 yards and a score (holdover RB Willie Spencer led the club with 581 yards on 100 carries).

Warfield caught 25 passes for 422 yards and three touchdowns, second on the team to WR Ed Marshall, who had 31 catches for 582 yards.

After the demise of the WFL, all three players returned to the NFL in 1976. Csonka spent three nondescript seasons with the New York Giants before returning to the Dolphins for one last, solid year in 1979 (837 yards rushing with 12 TDs). Kiick went to the Denver Broncos, where he gained just 114 yards rushing and caught 10 passes in 1976; he appeared in four games for the Broncos and Redskins in 1977, his last season, running the ball only once and catching two passes. Warfield returned to his original club, the Cleveland Browns, and played two seasons in which he caught 58 passes for 864 yards and eight touchdowns.

The Dolphins went 10-4 in 1975, but missed the postseason for the first time since 1969 (the year before Don Shula took over as head coach). They dropped to 6-8 in 1976 but rebounded to a 10-4 mark in 1977 and returned to the postseason in 1978. During that period, Don Nottingham, Norm Bulaich, and Leroy Harris took the place of Csonka at fullback. In Warfield’s absence, WR Nat Moore emerged as a productive receiver, along with Duriel Harris and, to a lesser extent, Freddie Solomon.

The abbreviated 1975 season in the WFL provided a footnote to the Hall of Fame careers of Csonka and Warfield, and was a last hurrah for Kiick. As gate attractions for the doomed WFL, they also provided something of a last hurrah for the league as well.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on March 31, 2010.