Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Hanging On Too Long

The sports world was abuzz last week with rumors that quarterback Bret Favre was considering a comeback. What that reflects, more than anything, is how little real news there is from the football world this time of year. Favre was quick to dismiss the rumors, but not before sports radio hosts and football columnists worked themselves into a frenzy.

Part of the excitement stems from the belief that Favre could still perform at a high level. But the sad reality is that too many great players couldn’t force themselves to walk away from the game, continuing to play long after it was clear that there was nothing left in the tank.

Who were the players who had the hardest time letting go? I’ll offer my top-five.

5. Red Grange -- The Galloping Ghost arrived with a splash in 1925, giving pro football a much needed injection of credibility when he walked off the University of Illinois campus and joined the Chicago Bears. He was such a big star that he decide to form his own league the following year. Grange was a success, but his league was not. He returned to the NFL the following season, and in the fourth game back shredded his knee. Grange refused to have surgery, even though he could barely walk. He limped through the rest of the 1927 season then sat out a year, hoping that rest would solve the problem. It didn’t. He returned in 1929 but had lost both his speed and his ability to make cuts. The Bears turned their running game over to Bronko Nagurski, but Grange stuck around to back him up and played defensive back. Grange was still a big box-office draw, but he was a mere shadow of the player who dominated the college ranks. He played just 13 NFL games before blowing out his knee, then hung around for seven more years.

4. Mike Webster
– Over the last few years, Webster has become the poster boy for the debilitating physical ailments that NFL players suffer when their careers are over. The Hall of Fame center was a key member of the Steelers team that dominated the seventies, winning four Super Bowls in six years. Webster continued playing long after his teammates from that era had retired. The Steelers released him after the 1987 season, and he signed on as an assistant line coach with Kansas City. After just a few weeks, he talked the Chiefs into letting him come out of retirement and play, and he spent two more years in the trenches. By his early forties he was showing signs of dementia and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. He had suffered seizures and was taking a cocktail of medication for anxiety and depression. Webster died at the age of fifty, having spent his last few years living out of his truck and sleeping at an Amtrak station in Pittsburgh. Who knows if his post-football life would have been better if he had retired sooner, but looking back, you have to think it might have helped.

3. Joe Namath – He suffered his first knee injury during his senior season at Alabama, and by the time he was 27 Namath had endured 83 knee surgeries. (I’m exaggerating, but not by much). When he was healthy he was one of the greatest passers the game had ever seen. He became the first player to surpass 4000 passing yards in a season, and let the Jets to a shocking upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III. The bum knees sidelined him for the better part of four seasons, and when he returned he struggled. From 1974-1976, he threw 39 touchdown passes and was intercepted 66 times. The Jets were forced to cut him loose, and he spent one last season with the LA Rams trying to recapture the magic. It didn’t happen.

2. Franco Harris
-- Harris was a great running back for a long time, but he stuck around at the end in pursuit of Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record. Brown, who had retired at age 29, was so outraged by that idea that he threatened to come out of retirement to keep Harris from passing him. Brown was 48 at the time.

Brown challenged the 34-year old Harris to race him in a 40-yard dash, and Harris agreed. The event generated a lot of interest and was televised nationally the weekend before the Super Bowl. Brown pulled up midway through the race with a sore hamstring, but still managed a time of 5.72 seconds. Harris finished in 5.16, enough to win the race but a dreadfully slow time for someone hoping to show he could still be productive in the NFL. Although Harris won the race, Brown proved his point.

Clearly out of steam, Harris was released by the Steelers and spent half a season with Seattle before calling it quits. In the end, he fell 192 yards shy of Brown’s rushing mark. Walter Payton passed them both by the end of the 1984 season, and eight other players have passed Harris in the two decades since he retired.

1. Johnny Unitas
- I’m hard on Unitas , I guess, and that’s a reflection of my age. If I’d have seen him rally the Colts to victory in the 1958 NFL Championship game or watched him dominate the early sixties with his passing prowess, maybe I’d be a little more sympathetic. But my earliest memory of Unitas – and one of my earliest memories of the NFL – is seeing him at the tail end of his career with the San Diego Chargers. He’d clinched his place in the Hall of Fame six or eight years earlier, and he’d struggled for years with a chronically sore elbow. I’m not sure why he was still playing. As great as he was for all of those years, he was no longer an effective quarterback at age 36. The Colts benched him at 38, and rather than cut him, they traded Unitas to the Chargers just before his 40th birthday.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Trouble With Sports Journalism

Veteran sportswriter Pat Jordan wrote a fascinating piece for Slate, describing how the relationship between athletes and journalists has changed. Thirty years ago, when Sports Illustrated wanted him to write a piece on an athlete like Catfish Hunter, he'd spend a few days talking to his subject and following him around. Now, players work hard to keep writers at a distance.

This has become the curse of modern sports journalism. Writers and fans alike no longer get to know the object of their affections in a way they did years ago. Athletes see us as their adversaries, not as allies in their achievements. They are as much celebrities as rock stars and Hollywood actors are. They live insular lives behind a wall of publicists, agents, and lawyers. They don't interact with fans or writers. They mingle only with other celebrities at Vegas boxing matches, South Beach nightclubs, and celebrity golf events, all behind red-velvet VIP ropes. We can only gawk at them as if at an exotic, endangered species at a zoo.

That's one of the reasons why magazines are dying, because the quality of the articles is declining. It's not that writers can no longer write, but as Jordan puts it, "magazine writers are forced to churn out inconsequential puff pieces to satisfy those stars' publicists, or else the publicists will withhold their other clients from that magazine."

Friday, July 04, 2008

When Bill Gates Reviews Your Software Spec

Bill Gates retired from Microsoft last week, leaving behind the company that he helped to found so he can devote himself full time to his charitable foundation. Gates was a fascinating character, in part because while he became the world's most powerful businessman, he was still first and foremost a great programmer.

There are a lot of great stories out there to illustrate this, but I was reminded of this blog post from a former Microsoft programmer. Joel Spolsky described what it was like to walk into a code review and see that Gates had decided to sit in. Spolsky wrote a 500 page spec for a new macro language in Microsoft Excel (which would eventually be released as Visual Basic for Applications), and the next day. Not only was he surprised to see Gates, but to see that the boss had come prepared.

He sat down and exchanged witty banter with an executive I did not know that made no sense to me. A few people laughed.

Bill turned to me.

I noticed that there were comments in the margins of my spec. He had read the first page!
He had read the first page of my spec and written little notes in the margin!

Considering that we only got him the spec about 24 hours earlier, he must have read it the night before. He was asking questions. I was answering them. They were pretty easy, but I can't for the life of me remember what they were, because I couldn't stop noticing that he was flipping through the spec...

He was flipping through the spec! [Calm down, what are you a little girl?]


Here's a guy who's the CEO of a huge company, the richest man in the world, and still he spent his night reviewing this guy's software spec. I'm sure that that sort of relentless attention to detail wasn't the only thing that made Gates so succesful, but I'm sure it didn't hurt.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Red Grange's Notebook

One of the great things about doing football research is the treasure trove of source materials available from coaches and players. The image above shows a couple of pages from the notebook of Red Grange, which describes some of the basic concepts of the T-Formation offense. they're available from the archives of The University of Illinois, Grange's alma mater.

Great coaches from Knute Rockne and Clark Shaughnessy to Bill Walsh and George Allen have left us a rich legacy, documenting their strategies and innovations in great detail for future generations. I've got several dozens of these in my collection, and I'm always on the lookout for more.

One of my favorites comes from the college ranks. Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy wrote this book on the T-Formation in 1949, having won the National Championship three times in his first six years as head coach. It includes chapters on special teams play, run and pass defense, and even his approach to pre-game warmups. These sorts of books were intended to serve as a guide to other coaches, but they also provide an invaluable insight into football history, and into the minds of the game's great innovators.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Goodell Calls Rookie Salaries "Ridiculous"

In an appearance late last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke out on the huge salaries being given to top draft picks.  He acknowledged that it is "ridiculous" to reward untested rookies with lucrative contracts, and wants the issue addressed in contract talks.  "There's something wrong about the system," Goodell said Friday. "The money should go to people who perform."

He was asked specifically about the five-year $57.75 million contract that Michigan tackle Jake Long signed with the Miami Dolphins. "He doesn't have to play a down in the NFL and he already has his money," Goodell said during a question and answer session at the Chautauqua Institution. "Now, with the economics where they are, the consequences if you don't evaluate that player, you can lose a significant amount of money."

And that's a huge problem.  If you've read my annuals, you know that recent history suggests that half of first round draft picks don't pan out. If you commit that much of your salary cap to one guy for so long, you're bound to get into trouble, and it doesn't make any sense to be taking that kind of risk on a player whose never played a down in the NFL.  Absent some sort of limit on salaries for rookies, teams are in a bind.  They want the talented players that are only available at the top of the draft, but if they aren't willing to pay the market rate, the players simply won't sign. 

The owners don't like the current system, and neither do the veteran players.  How do you think veteran players -- guys who have been to the Pro Bowl -- feel when a new kid walks into camp making twice as much as they do?  Maybe he'll earn it and maybe he won't, but those veterans hate seeing unproven players get substantially more money based on their potential.  And they also hate the fact that the kid's bloated contract is going to force the team to cut several players loose just to stay under the salary cap.

Ultimately, that's what will drive the change... the veteran players and the union.  Their careers are very short, their contracts aren't guaranteed, and the vast majority of players are better served by a system where everyone is paid based on their performance.  Tom Brady threw 50 touchdown passes last year and led his team to 16-0 record.  This year, he'll make $5 million, less than half of what Jake Long's pro-rated contract will pay out.  That's great for Jake and his agent -- God bless 'em -- but it's just ridiculous.