Sunday, January 31, 2010

Random Discussion of a Random Athlete: Jerry Rice


Normally I think I’d hold back using such a non-random athlete for the Random Discussion of a Random Athlete, but this is a special occasion. This is the playoffs (and if I was working with the Fox Network I’m sure I’d be obligated to say something like “I live for this!”). In any case, it is the point in the year where certain cold blooded, freakishly talented characters step out of anonymity and into that part of our memories that can (like my DVR) be labeled “un-erasable even at gun point by Kiefer Sutherland.”

It’s a different breed of NFL player that can make a serious play in the postseason. Certainly the most basic and most compelling reason for this is simple: everyone is watching during the playoffs. This isn’t some week three west coast game between the Cleveland Browns and Seattle Seahawks. The winner in a postseason game literally keeps an entire organization of people moving and working (or at least until the next week.) The team that fails in a playoff game sees that same organization grind to a halt in the most abrupt and sudden manner possible.

Professional sports are so unique in this way. In very few other professional working places are the performances of only a small percentage of the workforce so telling on the direction of the whole organization. The players, who are really only like 10% of a team’s total paid personnel, completely determine the course of an entire professional structure for an indefinite (but undeniably long) period of time. And they do this in a matter of hours on a weekend. Name another professional company where all of those factors are in play? It’s a horribly unpredictable and cutthroat business as professional organizations go. There is nothing to hide behind. If you screw up, everyone will know about it.

Mel Kiper Jr. had nothing on this guy

So what does all of this have to do with Jerry Rice? I guess the point of the intro was to show just how pressure filled an NFL playoff environment is. The stakes are higher in only a few other occupations (and most of those literally involve life and death). Only a small fraction of players know what it is to make even a single big play in the playoffs. It’s about as exclusive a fraternity as there is in the NFL. With this in mind, any man who can legitimately say he made plays in the playoffs in three different decades should scare the hell out of you. I guess now you know how the Raiders felt on this night in particular...

Certainly Rice is someone that we all know. He is decidedly not random. Still, he’s worth talking about because he made so many playoff plays that even the most ardent football fans lost track somewhere around 1994. And yet for most of his early life, Rice was consistently undervalued. The son of a bricklayer, the story goes that he developed good hands early in life catching bricks from his father when he helped out at work. He never really got into football until one day when he got into trouble at school. The high school principal came to get him, but Rice took off at a sprint. After a fruitless chase, the principal deemed two things: first that Rice was in deeper trouble and second that the football coach needed to see this kid.

Rice went on to have an outstanding high school career, becoming All-State. Still, not a single Division I college decided Rice was worth a scholarship (think about that for a second). Finally, an offer came in from Division I-AA school Mississippi Valley State. Rice didn’t miss the opportunity. He electrified his team and shattered opponents with his uncanny ability to make plays downfield. More than that, his nickname, ‘World,’ was a reference to his incredible hands (his teammates said he could catch ‘anything in the world.’) Even still, he didn’t receive the kind of hype you would expect someone like Jerry Rice to get.

The road trip to Houston that gave us ‘Montana to Rice’

Former 49er coach Bill Walsh was a genius. He revolutionized offensive and (as a chain reaction to his offense) defensive football. He also drafted in a way that was well ahead of his time. Yet, for all his sound rational and expert analysis, it was only by luck that he got attached to idea of drafting Rice. Had it not been for one of Walsh’s more usual habits before a game, he may never have seen the electrifying Mississippi native:
“As usual on the night before a game, I was in my hotel room watching television to learn the college scores. It was near midnight and I was beginning to doze off when I heard the sportscaster say, ‘Following this break, we have some incredible highlights of Jerry Rice and the Mississippi Valley State game.’ That caught my attention and I sat up to take a look at this ‘living legend.’”
The rest, as they say, is history. Walsh went on to make a draft day deal with the Patriots, swapping the two teams’ first round picks. Still, even in the NFL draft Rice received a lot less billing then he deserved. Taken 16th overall, Rice also was the third receiver in that class. This one’s for you Jets fans, but I can’t help but note that it was Al Toon and not Jerry Rice who was selected by the J-E-T-S Jets (it’s okay, cause that’s only a difference of like 16290 career receiving yards).

Leading the league in ‘functional speed’

After struggling initially with the increased speed of the game (which manifested itself in some uncharacteristic drops), Rice became a firmly entrenched starter in year two. He was Desean Jackson before Desean Jackson, mastering the art of getting downfield. In an offense that was built on passing horizontally (from sideline to sideline), Rice gave it an added vertical dimension. Probably the most dominant season ever by a receiver was Rice’s 1987 season, in which he caught a then record 22 touchdowns and ran for an additional score (so 23 touchdowns total). Considering that Rice only played 12 games that year (strike-shortened year) coupled with the fact that he’s a receiver (and was thus targeted for use by his own offense only a fraction of the time as most running backs who’ve scored 20 plus touchdowns) then it’s perfectly legitimate to say that his ’87 season was the most efficient by any skill player ever. This was also before any of the ridiculous pass-interference rules were put in by the league in the 21st century. And all this before he even became a superstar.

Rice first came to the forefront of the national public’s imagination during the 49ers run to Super Bowl XXIII. He made five catches in the Divisional round game against the Vikings (where San Francisco avenged the previous year’s playoff defeat in a 28-3 stomping). Of those, three went for touchdowns. Against the Bears in the NFC title game, Rice struck the early and decisive blow, catching the ball on a short comeback route before exploding on one of his customary “you guys are NOTICABLY slower than me” slalom runs through the entire Chicago secondary. In the Super Bowl that year, facing the Cincinnati Bengals, Rice smashed the record for most receiving yards in the NFL’s biggest game, compiling 11 catches for 215 yards and giving poor Bengals coach Sam Wyche a sense of paranoia.

“It’s to Rice now” Wyche was recorded as saying by NFL films before the final San Francisco touchdown with 36 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Of course, that final touchdown, which was the culmination of a trademark Joe Montana drive of 92 yards, went to John Taylor. Yet watching the replay, Rice had done enough, drawing the attention of every member of the Cincinnati coverage, allowing Taylor to slip in behind and catch one of the iconic touchdowns in Super Bowl history.

After being named Super Bowl MVP, Rice vaulted himself into the status he enjoys to this day: the best receiver of all time. Of course it helped that he won two more Super Bowls after that and ran up an insurmountable lead in about every receiver category in Super Bowl records. He has almost double the all-time receiving yards as the next closest guy. He also owns the records for most total yards all-time, touchdowns all-time and touchdowns in a single Super Bowl (three) which he did twice (Super Bowls XXIV and XXIX).

So yeah…he’s pretty good (just filling my quota here for the “Tony Gwynn memorial understatement”.) He was once the subject of a joke by then-President George H.W. Bush that he was America’s favorite TV show (Miami Rice) during one of his several trips to the White House following a championship. More than that, his longevity was perhaps the most impressive thing about him. Even after he was no longer able to get downfield so freely, Rice was still the best in terms of route-running (check out Rice helping Desean Jackson earlier this year.)

He’s scored more touchdowns than any man ever in the NFL. And all this from a guy that some 49er scouts said was too slow. Just like how college scouts said he wasn’t good enough. Luckily for him (and for us as fans) Bill Walsh wasn’t fooled:
“Some thought he lacked the really blazing speed we wanted, that he would be no better than 4.6 in the forty (yard dash). What they overlooked—as scouts also did with Dwight Clark–was his ‘functional speed,’ when running with the football.”

This was the genius of Walsh. It’s one reason why, in my opinion, the 49er dynasty of the 1980’s into the early ‘90’s is the most fascinating football team of all time. With Walsh as its architect, they assembled one of the best collections of talent in NFL history. And Jerry Rice, the kid who got good hands from catching bricks, was the best player on the team.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Greatest: Part II



Soviet Hockey (1956-1988)

As one of the most menacing forces in sports history, Soviet hockey and their all-red uniforms remain one of the most iconic images of the Cold War era (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8j9ag_FnSE). They were relentless and metronomic in the pursuit of victory. Victory, funnily enough, is the true measure of greatness in a team (duh), and almost no other team in any sport enjoyed the kind of consistent success over so many decades as the Soviet hockey machine (and make no mistake, they were machine-like in churning out gold medal performances). Spanning multiple generations, it was portrayed as the perfect symbolism for Communism’s superiority in the world of sport, as it was the system and not a select group of individuals that led to unbroken and unprecedented success. Between 1956 and 1988, the Soviets won every single Olympic gold medal in hockey save two (1960 and 1980).

Now obviously the 1980 games was the ‘Miracle on Ice’ (since as Americans who have grown up since then it’s virtually ingrained in our heads). And don’t get me wrong, no one loves a little Al Michaels “do you believe in miracles?” discussion more than I, but it’s undeniable that we grow up learning far too much about the 1980 American team than we do about the seven other gold medal Soviet teams. Certainly the reason is obvious. They’re not American, thus we care less about them. Yet for anyone who’s truly looked at those championship Soviet squads, I must say they’re worth a glance (or two or three).

The funny thing is that when I did look over Soviet hockey’s history, I was amazed first by how remarkable their talent and team structure was (and how deep the talent pool went) but perhaps more by the fact that a lot of what I thought I knew was wrong. The mythical history of Soviet hockey is largely, in this country anyway, mythical because we truly don’t know it (or maybe more that we choose not to know it, but I’ll get to that). So much of what we’re taught comes from North American movies, documentaries and TV shows that are filled with guys speaking from a North American perspective because they are (surprise!) North American.

The Soviet hockey team (as portrayed by Disney, HBO and American media)

What we’ve been expected to believe about Soviet hockey is a true lesson in propaganda. Much of it is derived from the story of the Miracle on Ice. As the story goes, the U.S hockey team (composed of college kids) was put together by coach Herb Brooks and somehow managed to shock the veteran Soviet team and win the gold medal in Lake Placid. This part is true, but this is where we go from fact and into the overly politicized and disneyized (is that a word?) half of the story.

According to the litany of movies and documentaries about the 1980 team, the Soviets are bigger and stronger (in the stereotypical form of the Russian bear, aka Ivan Drago). In reality, more than 90% weren’t any taller than 6’1”. Boris Mikhailov, who gets a fairly large mention in Disney’s ‘Miracle,’ was only 5’9” and 170 lbs. Hardly the towering behemoth that looms over Rob McClanahan at face-offs (which is the exact scene from the movie. In fact, if we’re really going to call out the movie, Mikhailov was a right-winger and not a center, but why nitpick?) That’s one of the bigger myths (that the Soviet’s were a team built on size and strength). Nothing could be further from the truth. Soviet hockey was about speed and movement. Thus it would have made very little sense if they were a bunch of 6’5” lumbering goons.

Added to this, a universal trait in Western representations of Soviet hockey is that they were machine-like and never showed emotion. That they were machine like is correct (just look at their win totals and margins of victory) but they were certainly emotional. In Mikhailov’s last game, he was carried around on the shoulders of his teammates; such was their love and respect for the unassuming assassin who came from Moscow. In a completely separate incident, Mikhailov displayed another kind of emotion altogether when he kicked Canadian Gary Bergman during a famous series of games that Canada’s pro played against the top Soviets in 1972 (known as the ‘Summit Series’). This earned him a villainous distinction among all Canadians. So if you doubt Soviet emotions, just ask any Canadian who’s above the age of 45 about Boris Mikhailov and let the obvious loathing in their expression answer your question.

Why we imagine them to be Ivan Drago look-a-likes

Hulking size and blank emotions coupled with a knack for relentlessly crushing the opposition in a completely unsportsmanlike way. Those are the traits that are portrayed to be synonymous with the Soviet team again and again. The question is then, why are Soviet hockey teams (and the 1980 one especially) portrayed this way? Part of the answer lies in the modern day decision making of film companies and their marketers. The other part is embedded in a stigma of the Cold War that remains to this day.

Blending a historically accurate story with the bureaucracy of a film marketing team will rarely allow for accuracy (especially at Disney). In other words, too many people are concerned over how to make a film universally appealing (and thus more marketable and profitable). Credibility and accuracy are many times sacrificed to make way for a certain age group that the film might not reach. As moviegoers, we are subjected to dumbed-down, abridged versions of stories because they want the film to reach a diverse audience. Thus we lose a lot of the subtlety that most stories actually possess because the movie producers and their production bureaucracy feel that their film loses some bite from its plot.

In the case of the 1980 Olympics, this basically meant portraying the Soviets as extensions of their country. They were shown to be heartless, emotionless machines that played without mercy. Furthermore, they were rigidly disciplined, and expressed no joy in their profession once so ever. More than anything, though, they were cast in the clear and obvious light as ‘the bad guys’. North American producers were more than happy to make everyone think of them as the Yankees rolled together with Duke basketball, the Dallas Cowboys, Real Madrid and Manchester United couple with a bit of Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Lakers all in the name of more money.

Really though, we were all completely ready and willing to see them in an even worse light. As audience members, a story which encompasses such patriotic symbolism gave us carte blanche to get carried away and most of us didn’t have to be told twice. It wasn’t enough to show Team USA in a heroic light (which they deservedly were, don’t get me wrong). We had to drag the Soviets down to a level where they were completely unlikeable. Thus we were shown films and documentaries where things were oversimplified. The Soviet played dirty and without any discernable passion (on top of meeting the aforementioned stereotype of size). And don’t forget that they were the living embodiment of their aggressive and malignant government.

Yet is such a black and white portrayal necessary? Are we, as the audience, doomed to only understand a story if the good guys and bad guys are spelled out in such basic terms? Apparently, we are. That’s why the story of the ‘Miracle on Ice’ has become so clogged with the political side of it. The traditional narrative shows the Soviet hockey team to be interchangeable with their state. The reality was far different.

The truth about hockey behind the Iron Curtain

In essence, Soviet hockey was the perfect blend of individual skill harnessed into a team unit. The movie ‘Miracle’ actually does a fair job in portraying this. (One reason for this was Kurt Russell played Herb Brooks superbly and a defining characteristic of Brooks was his deep understanding of the Soviet style). Since Soviet hockey originated in the game ‘bandy’ (a game similar to field hockey played on a smaller surface) their players were already adept at couple of traits which would serve them well. Together with a short passing game, Soviet bandy players knew how to manipulate space in a small area. Once they were unleashed on a hockey sized rink, the bandy skills allowed them to dominate possession of the puck and string together flowing passing movements.

Out of these primitive beginnings during the 1930’s and 40’s sprung a definitive style: constant movement and seemingly telepathic understanding of one another. Perhaps this was why Soviet hockey teams were able to establish dominance so quickly on the international scene. After barely a decade of playing the game, they won the World Championship in 1954 and became Olympic champions in 1956.

The Soviets would go onto miss at the Olympics only twice during the rest of the Soviet Union’s existence. In fact they participated in probably the greatest hockey series ever played: the 1987 Canada Cup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1987_Canada_Cup). In this, the Soviets came up short in the final, losing to the hosts. Yet when you consider that this was a Soviet team playing in the post-Vladislav Tretiak days (Tretiak was one of the best goalies of all time to the extent that he became the first player over named to the Hall of Fame without ever playing in the NHL) and also Canada’s paper-thin margin of victory, defeat becomes less of an issue.

The series included a couple of other international squads, but really it was a contest of the Canadians and Soviets. Each side compiled a litany of goal-scoring talents. The Soviets were equipped with the famous ‘KLM line’ of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov. Makarov is still their all-time leader in points. Team Canada naturally had a side chalk full of talent.

Still, even by Canadian standards it was ridiculous. On a single line they boasted Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Glenn Anderson. Let that sink in for a second. That’s not only three Hall of Famers, that’s arguably the two best players ever. Added to this, they had Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr in goal and defenseman (and also Hall of Famers) Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey. Oh, and some guy named Mark Messier too. They were without a doubt the greatest team in terms of pure talent ever assembled and all of them were at the peak of their powers (especially Gretzky).

Even still, the Soviets took Canada’s big guns the distance, force a three game series. The first two games went into OT (with the second going into double overtime) as both sides split the games. The third game was probably the best of the series though. And even though the Soviets lost, just check out the final goal and tell me this isn’t a write-off (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rg_-JwlN-o&feature=related and fast-forward to the 5:20 mark). That’s Gretzky to Lemieux! The Great One to Super Mario! That’s what it took to beat, by all accounts, an under strength Soviet team.

I think if anything its symbolic that the Soviet’s greatness was measured in defeat. After all, we only seem to remember them for their famous defeats. Undeniably though, the Soviets earned their place alongside the greatest teams of all time. More than that, they did it through well crafted team chemistry and a team mentality. It wasn’t communist, nor was it political. In fact, the revolt against Soviet authority in the 80’s followed by the mass-defections from the Soviet Union to the NHL proves they weren’t simply the machines and extensions of their state that the propaganda and Western point of views portrayed them to be. They were, quite simply, great hockey players who happened to represent our Cold War nemesis. Now that were nearly two decades removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall, can’t we just recognize a truly dominant team for who they were?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Coaching Carousel or Wheel of Death? Why NFL Owners Have the Attention Span of a Goldfish and the Patience of a Spoiled Teenager


The NFL regular season has only just ended, the playoffs are only just begun and yet already there are ‘end of the year’ coaching casualties. Of course, more are still to come. No matter how much NFL owners may protest this fact, the idea that they think only in the short term is as true as ever. This is nothing new, as all I need to do is turn on ESPN’s First Take to hear Skip Bayless spout the famous cliché ‘what have you done for me lately?’ in his typically hyper-intense way.

To me, this highlights the increasingly obvious contradiction in how NFL organizations are run with how they should be run. Try to ignore the usual BS emanating from Redskin’s owner Daniel Snyder’s mouth (among other NFL owners) about how they’re trying to build for longevity or whatever other slogan is fashionable to them in the moment. It’s all a bunch of crap.

The Al Davis Jerry Jones Syndrome

The simple fact is that far too often NFL teams will look at their record, recognize that they suck, fire their current coach, hire a new coach who is saddled with the same crappy team and then expect him work a miracle in one or two years. Statistics support this. In every year of the last decade, nearly one quarter of all NFL coaches are fired every season. In reality, how many of those were truly given a legitimate chance to succeed? In theory, every name on the ‘fired’ list could be debated on whether they were gifted proper opportunity, but there are a couple of bedrock facts to help determine this.

First in a discussion over coaching survival chances are NFL teams like the Cowboys and Raiders. Both are owned by absolutist monarchs, bent on first maximizing their own popularity and then the success of their team (in that order). This they attempt at any cost, causing many predictable problems. Jerry Jones pushed for Terrell Owens, choosing to overlook the fact that any team whose top receiver overshadows the starting quarterback will consistently fail to win a Super Bowl. Al Davis continues to believe that raw athleticism is the most important measuring stick for NFL talent (just look at the selection of Darrius Heyward-Bey ahead of nearly 80% of the other receivers taken in the whole draft.)

Essentially, those two examples (of which there are many more) prove the mentality of compulsive owners. They want to make a splash and they want everyone to know it was their genius that achieved it. Yet when these gambles fail (which, more often than not, they do) it isn’t ever their fault. Not officially, anyway. The axe will always fall on the coach. Maybe sometimes the general manager or individual coordinators will take a hit, but generally speaking the head coach gets blamed for an entire organization’s problems.

The big secret that owners are oblivious to…

I suppose I’m not so naïve as to pretend that I don’t understand that this is the responsibility of being a coach (to accept the blame both for good and bad) but I take issue with the relentlessly short-term thinking and stupid decision making of owners who will not stop making the same mistakes over and over.

Take a look at my best friend Daniel Snyder (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW-pcmIHH5Y&feature=related). His team (the Redskins) typifies everything I hate about how a team is run. There is absolutely no continuity. The roster is stocked with draft picks from many different coaches and big-money free agent signings spurred on by none other than Snyder himself. Added to that, they’ve continually switched whose calling plays for their young quarterback (Jason Campbell).

What this all adds up to is a team without an identity. Look at the Super Bowl winners from the past six years. With one exception, they’ve all had head coaches who were firmly entrenched in their organizations for no less than three years before winning the big one. And the one exception is Mike Tomlin, who, thanks to Bill Cowher retiring, became just the 3rd coach in Steelers history.

My point is not that giving a coach three years guarantees a Super Bowl. It’s that continuity wins the Super Bowl. Short term, snap decision making will never triumph over well-reasoned, long term practicality (barring massive amounts of injuries and poor officiating). If a coach is afraid to have one losing season, he will never give young players with potential to grow a chance over veterans who have a more pronounced ceiling. That kind of approach may score a playoff spot, perhaps even a division title, but never the Super Bowl.

The widespread regression that’s growing faster than Barry Bonds's steroid enhanced neck

Now it appears that instead of recognizing this fact, NFL owners are simply getting worse. The Seattle Seahawks just fired Jim Mora Jr. after giving him a grand total of one year to turnaround an increasingly decrepit Seahawks team that Mike Holmgren fled like it was infested with swing flu. Eric Mangini just escaped the axe from Cleveland Browns management (headed by a group directed by none other than Holmgren) after scraping through one year despite being saddled with a team that has made one playoff appearance in a decade. Rod Marinelli, who concluded the only winless season ever in 2008, was immediately shown the door, not even given the token chance to acquit himself after such a horrible start (as if the Lions really had a chance to make the playoffs this year anyway).

Why is this happening? Look no further than all of us, constantly commenting in our blogs or internet podcasts. Couple with the media itself, the current era lends itself to constant debate and never-ending discussion over profound subjects such as the direction of the team, or whether the players actually can win with the coach. Basically, we all make a lot of completely uninformed judgments and fire them off to every corner of the internet, while guys like Tom Jackson (who once famously decreed that the Patriots hated their coach shortly before they went on to set the NFL record for consecutive wins) bellow from the ESPN network about various things that are generally only 40% accurate.

Collectively, this creates an atmosphere that makes it impossible for NFL owners to avoid media and fan opinion. And, as the most outlandish opinions are usually the most discussed, the voice that owners will hear most are ones attached less to reason than a desire for wide-spread attention. Essentially, this all adds up to create a climate of negativity and pessimism where the glass is always half empty. Apparently, NFL owners are completely incapable of having any backbone, because more and more recently they’ve been quite content to shamelessly pander to the fans, buying into the socially constructed idea that if a coach isn’t winning within a single season (perhaps two) then he isn’t worth a dam.

In other words, the community ADD and total lack of any semblance of patience that we all display is rubbing off on those who actually have the power to influence the NFL landscape. The results are less than inspiring. It’s created a vicious cycle with no end in sight. Newly hired coaches come into certain jobs knowing they have to get results or they’ll be out right away. So instead of employing time-tested methods of building a team through the draft and organically growing chemistry, they try to forcibly create it faster than the correspondingly fast-paced media can dissect it and find what they see as irreparable problems. Once the media finds these faults, they become more sour then bad milk, besieging the owner with pleas to ‘change the team’s direction’ etc, effectively killing the coaches chance.

And this ADD coaching carousel affects all aspects of the organization. Free agent signings (see the Redskins on this subject and the Bills when they signed TO), how a team drafts (see the Raiders and Jets on this), who plays and who gets cut (the Jets Brett Farve debacle last season) and so on and so forth. It’s like watching a car that ten different people are trying to drive at once. At no point is it going in a set direction with a clear route.

Basically I stay up at night wondering how these NFL owners got so much money in the first place. How could anyone so successful in business not understand that people do their best work when they don’t have to look over their shoulder everyday to make sure they’re safe? I understand the importance of not allowing your coach to become overly content and lazy, but there’s a difference between doing that and being completely irrational. When you consider the outrageous expatiations attached to some of these teams (expectations which, in the case of the Redskins, Browns, Lions, Raiders and Seahawks are completely unfounded considering their lack of talent) it will be interesting to see if any of these teams ever wins a Super Bowl again until there are newer, more patient owners. For the sake of the poor Browns and Lions fans, I hope this isn’t true. History, however, is decidedly not on their side.