Saturday, February 26, 2005 

Purple Reign?

This is part one of a four part look at the quarterbacks behind the modern NFL dynasties. Today we take a quick look at Terry Bradshaw and Fran Tarkenton.

Let's start with a quick quiz; match each QB with his career stats:

#1 168 51.9 27989 7.2 212 210
#2 246 57.0 47003 7.3 342 266

Of course, #2 is Fran Tarkenton, and #1 is Terry Bradshaw. Tarkenton threw for over 2500 yards 14 times, 13 of them coming in 14 game seasons. Bradshaw did that just 4 times - and needed more than 14 games in all but once. Bradshaw's injuries in 1974 and 1983 weaken his overall statistics and shorten his career, especially compared with Tarkenton, who was something of an iron man, missing just 2 games over his first 16 seasons. One or both of these QBs played in 6 out of the 7 Super Bowls from 1974 to 1980.

The knock on Tarkenton was summarized by his first coach, Norm Van Brocklin, who once said, "He will win games he should lose, and lose games he should win, but he will never win the games he has to win" (The Super Bowl, 1990, pg. 144). Tarkenton was playing with the Giants as Joe Kapp led the Vikings to a Super Bowl defeat in SB IV, but he had returned for the 1972 season. The next year, the Vikings lost to the defending champion Dolphins 24-7 in SB VIII. Tarkenton was mediocre in the game (182 yards, no TDs, one INT), but he had little help from his running game (72 yards) while the Dolphins ran for 196 yards and passed for just 73.

In Super Bowl IX, it looked like Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers stole the Dolphins playbook. Bradshaw was just 9-of-14 for 96 yards and one TD, but Pittsburgh gained 249 yards on the ground, including 158 by Super Bowl MVP Franco Harris. Tarkenton was awful, completing only 11 of 26 passes, and was intercepted 3 times, including one at the goal line late in the first half with the score 2-0 Pittsburgh. For the second straight year, Tarkenton and the Vikings never led in the game and lost again, 16-6.

Pittsburgh played Dallas the following season, and Bradshaw outplayed Roger Staubach in a 21-17 win that wasn't secured until a last second interception in the end zone. Although Bradshaw had thrown for more yards than the Steelers ground game had gained (209 to 149), Pittsburgh was still viewed as a defensive team with a great running game. The MVP had gone to Lynn Swann, who caught a 64 yard touchdown from Bradshaw and finished with 161 yards on just 4 catches. No one considered Bradshaw one of the all-time greats yet.

Tarkenton got his last shot at a super Bowl ring the following season. The Oakland Raiders had defeated the Steelers in the AFC Championship game, and had overcome their own history of frustration, having lost 6 AFL or AFC Championship games in a row since reaching Super Bowl II (The Super Bowl, 1990, pg. 185). But once again, the Vikings were overmatched on the ground (266-71) and it took a toll on Tarkenton and the passing game. Tarkenton threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, but it was already 19-7 at that point, and when his second pick was returned 75 yards for a touchdown, Oakland had its 32-14 margin of victory. You also can't blame Tarkenton for the turning point of the game. Late in the first quarter, Minnesota blocked Ray Guy's punt and recovered at the Oakland three yard line. But two plays later, Brent McClanahan fumbled and the Raiders got the ball back. Thirteen plays later, Oakland took a 3-0 lead, then their defense forced Minnesota to go three-and-out on their next two possessions while Oakland's offense scored two touchdowns to take a commanding 16-0 lead in the second quarter.

That was it for the Vikings, but the Steelers were just getting started. Terry Bradshaw built his legend in Super Bowls XIII and XIV, throwing for over 300 yards in each game and winning both MVP awards. The Steelers had become a passing team, with Bradshaw setting career highs in TD passes (28 and 26) in the 1978 and 1979 regular seasons. Franco Harris played a supporting role in both games, as the Steelers defeated the Cowboys 35-31 and the Rams 31-19 (the latter game made close only by Bradshaw's three interceptions).

For Bradshaw, the four wins could not have been more different. In the first two he was almost an after-thought, spending most of his time handing off to Franco Harris. But in the last two, he was the gun-slinger who led his team to victory in high-scoring games.

By comparison, Tarkenton never had a good enough supporting cast around him. In all three of his Super Bowls, his teams were out gained, and the rushing edge was decisive:

SB Opp Minn
VIII 196 72
IX 249 17
XI 266 71

If Tarkenton had Harris or the Dolphins Larry Csonka, along with those teams' outstanding run-blockers, Minnesota might have won a title or two. But there's no denying that Bradshaw came up big when it counted.

QB Super Bowls Won (or Lost)
Bradshaw 9, 10, 13, 14
Tarkenton 8, 9, 11
Note: MVP in bold

Note on References: All statistics taken from Pro Football Reference. Other details taken from The Super Bowl: Celebrating a Quarter-Century of America's Greatest Game, published in 1990 by the NFL and Simon & Schuster. The book includes play-by-play for the first 24 Super Bowls.


Trimming the field

This was not a good week to be an overpaid player in the NFL. Ty Law, Mushin Muhammad, Jerry Rice, Derrick Mason, Jay Fielder, etc. were cut, and Marshall Faulk had to agree to a salary reduction. So far, only Drew Bledsoe has landed on his feet, signing a three-year deal with Dallas and being named the starter. I guess it's back to the bench for Drew Henson.

I wonder if the Vikings will pursue Muhammad as a replacement for Randy Moss, or whether they will focus on Mason or Plaxico Burress. Muhammad is the oldest of the group, while Burress would give Minnesota a tall (6-5) deep threat.

Monday, February 21, 2005 

To Have And Have Not

While thinking about the four "modern" NFL dynasties (Pittsburgh 1970s, San Francisco 1980s, Dallas 1990s, and New England 2000s) recently, I was struck by the fact that the starting QB for each team was undefeated in the Super Bowl. On the flip side, you can find a HOF-caliber QB in each era who never won a Super Bowl, had equal or better statistics than his "perfect" peer, and who lost to that QB in either the Super Bowl or a Conference Championship game.

SB Name Career
4-0 Terry Bradshaw 1970-1983 Pittsburgh
0-3 Fran Tarkenton 1961-1978 Minn, NYG (67-71)

4-0 Joe Montana 1979-1994 SF, KC (93-94)
0-1 Dan Marino 1983-1999 Miami

3-0 Troy Aikman 1989-2000 Dallas
0-4 Jim Kelly 1986-1996 Buffalo

3-0 Tom Brady 2000- New England
0-0 Peyton Manning 1998- Indy

Obviously, Tom Brady's career is not over yet, but the combined Super Bowl record for these QBs is 14-0, including a 4-0 mark against the other QBs in this list (and 6-0 overall in the playoffs if you include Brady-Manning; their matchup is the only pairing of QBs from the same conference).

Over the next few weeks, I'll spend some time on each of these comparisons in more detail.

It is interesting to consider how each of these players would be viewed by history if they swapped places. What if Bradshaw had gone 2-2 in Super Bowls, or never won the Super Bowl MVP? What if Scott Norwood makes a field goal against the Giants and the Bills win Super Bowl XXV? Would Jim Kelly have won 2 or 3 more? A better defense might have led to more success for Marino and Manning. The possibilities are endless.


Changing the Channel

Ron Borges wrote in the Boston Globe yesterday that "ABC, ESPN likely to switch nights", and that he felt it could "create a ratings explosion" for the Sunday night game. He also reported that the plan for a Thursday/Saturday night package on Fox or Comcast is moving forward.

I agree with his basic points about Sunday being the biggest football day, but diluting the Sunday afternoon games late in the season could be a problem, even with the flexible scheduling that Fox and CBS agreed to. On the last few weeks of the season, we'll see games on Thursday night, two on Saturday afternoon, and one each on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday night. That's six out of sixteen games. It's going to be hard to convince your family to stay home on Sunday afternoon if you've already watched 3 or 4 games that weekend. In turn, this could also weaken the appeal of DirectTV's package. The NFL is normally very savvy about such things, but it makes you wonder.

On the other hand, if ABC can move the Sunday night game to an 8pm ET kickoff so it immediately follows the late afternoon games, that would represent a serious ratings challenge to CBS, whose "60 Minutes" is routinely delayed by late afternoon football overruns. There's currently too much of a delay before the ESPN game starts, which stops the momentum of the day.

In a related note, if Fox wins the Thursday/Saturday night package, I wonder if they'll schedule their top announcing team of Buck, Collinsworth, and Aikman on Thursday night so they can cover another game on Sunday?

Saturday, February 19, 2005 

Drew and Drew?

For the past few weeks, one hot rumor has Drew Bledsoe signing with the Cowboys once he is released by the Bills next Tuesday. While that would reunite Bledsoe with Bill Parcells, it would also put him in competition with another young QB, Drew Henson. But Parcells' track record is to try to win now, so maybe Bledsoe can win and hold the job.

Buffalo has to feel foolish - not only did they trade a first-rounder to New England to get Bledsoe, they traded away their first round pick this year (20th overall) to Dallas so they could draft J.P. Losman. If Bledsoe has anything left, Dallas might be much improved next season if they use their two first round selections wisely.


Get Well Soon

Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi walked out of the hospital yesterday, and we can only hope the long-term prognosis is good. You have to wonder how aggressively Bruschi will try to come back with the Patriots. He obviously loves to play football, but every article I've ever read about him explains how much he loves his family. After winning three Super Bowls in four years, there isn't a lot left for him to accomplish. To me, Bruschi's already a borderline Hall of Famer, on and off the field.

Sunday, February 13, 2005 

Holding the line

Today's Boston Globe says that Eric Mangini is staying with the Patriots as defensive coordinator after Belichick "sweetened" his offer. I guess money still talks. This move at least ensures some continuity on the defensive side of the ball.


Repeat After Me

History says the New England Patriots will not reach the Super Bowl next year. The Patriots became the eighth team to repeat as Super Bowl champions, and none of the previous seven returned to the big game the following season:

Team SBs Won Next Season Next SB
Green Bay 1 & 2 6-7-1 Missed Playoffs 31 (won)
Miami 7 & 8 11-3 Lost 28-26 at Oakland 1st round 17 (lost)
Pittsburgh 9 & 10 10-4 Lost 24-7 at Oakland AFC Champ. 13 (won)
Pittsburgh 13 & 14 9-7 Missed Playoffs 30 (lost)
San Francisco 23 & 24 14-2 Lost 15-13 vs. NYG NFC Champ. 29 (won)
Dallas 27 & 28 12-4 Lost 38-28 at SF NFC Champ. 30 (won)
Denver 32 & 33 Missed Playoffs None
New England 38 & 39 ???

Green Bay slid out of the playoffs when Phil Bengston took over for Vince Lombardi, and Denver lost John Elway to retirement. But of the four teams that returned to the playoffs, three reached their conference championship game. The Patriots will have to overcome the loss of both coordinators, but if they can stay healthy, they might just have another run in them next year. I was struck by how many players said they were exhausted after winning it this year. Maybe the extra playoff games (and the pressure) wears down even the great teams.

Saturday, February 12, 2005 

Money or your life

New England secondary coach Eric Mangini is suddenly a household name, and will be a defensive coordinator next season for the first time in his career. Most of the stories in the papers sum up the story this way: Cleveland and Miami are offering a lot more money than New England, but Mangini's ties to Bill Belichick may be more important.

But what about the quality of the jobs?

In New England, Mangini would inherit a very good defense, but with very little upside. The linebackers are getting older, and the secondary will likely remain patchwork if Ty Law is let go as expected. On the other hand, the defensive line is young and improving, and Mangini can lean on Belichick if times get tough. The fact that Romeo Crennel was able to escape Belichick's shadow and get a head coaching job in Cleveland is proof that if Mangini does a good job, he'll move up eventually, either in New England when Belichick decides to retire or somewhere else.

In Cleveland, Mangini would be starting from scratch, and Miami isn't much better. He would have the benefit of a top 5 draft pick (Miami #2, Cleveland #3) to help build the team. Plus, it may be easier to "improve" those defenses than in New England. There would also be a lot less pressure in the short-term, since expectations for the next year or two will be low.

This is a classic case where money shouldn't be the deciding factor, but it may be that the best job carries the biggest paycheck.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005 

Parade Day

As a Patriots fan, Sunday's outcome was certainly sweet. The Patriots simply made more plays than the Eagles. There was no "tuck rule" this year, or bad breaks involved - except for the ones that went against the Patriots. The officiating on Sunday was certainly poor - when was the last time that coaches went 3-for-3 in challenges?

I've been thinking about the key plays in the game:

McNabb throws 2 picks for the price of 1 3:06 1st Quarter. Why he tried to force the ball one play after getting a reprieve because of a penalty is a mystery to me.

Gay strips L.J. Smith 0:42 1st Quarter. This one really hurt. Philadelphia started their fourth drive of the quarter in New England territory after stopping the Patriots three-and-out. Rodney Harrison held up Smith so his teammates could strip the ball, and Eugene Wilson's recovery gave the Patriots the ball at their 38. A huge field position change when the Patriots were reeling a bit.

Brady fumbles, the defense stands 5:28-4:25 2nd Quarter. The Patriots had finally started to move the football after falling behind 7-0. But Brady's fumble threatened to undo their good work. But the Patriots defense rose to the occasion. McGinest stuffed Westbrook for a one-yard loss, then a pair of incompletions brought out Dirk Johnson for his second punt of the night. The kick was awful, just 29 yards, and a short return by Troy Brown put the ball at the Philadelphia 37. 7 plays later, Brady hit David Givens to tie the game.

Simon says, hit the QB 11:24 4th Quarter. By this point, New England had a 21-14 lead, and had stopped Philadelphia on three plays to get the ball back at midfield. Dillon was stopped a 3 yard loss on the first play, and it looked like New England might squander the field position. But Brady connected with Deion Branch for his record-typing eleventh catch down to the 31, then Corey Simon picked up a roughing the passing penalty that moved the ball to the 16 - and into field goal range. After gaining 12 yards on 4 carries, Vinatieri came out and kicked the eventual game winner.

Three championships in four years has a nice ring to it.

Sunday, February 06, 2005 

Super Sunday

I have watched every Super Bowl since stumbling upon Joe Montana taking apart Ken Anderson and the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI (hey, I was only a kid then). And I'll keep watching them the same way: I turn the TV on at kickoff time, turn it off during halftime and put the radio on, then turn the TV back on when the third quarter starts. The one exception was Super Bowl XXXVI when U2 was the halftime show. This strategy has always worked ok, though I did miss the "wardrobe malfunction" last year.

I do this because the Super Bowl has become a circus that they stop just long enough to play a football game. It has become the ultimate American sports holiday, where sports, big business, advertising, and sex appeal all come together. Take your pick of what is the most ridiculous: two weeks of hype, pre-pre-game entertainment, pre-game entertainment, the halftime "show", the commercials.

Part of what makes the NFL playoffs great is the reaction of the fans. When the home team is winning, the roar of the crowd is awesome to listen to and the celebrations are wonderful to watch. On the other hand, as Larry Bird used to say, there is nothing quite like a quiet home crowd as the visitors are pulling off a big upset. In the Super Bowl, none of that happens. There are enough fans for both sides to always make mediocre noise, unless they get bored with a lousy game.

Wouldn't you like to see tonight's game played in New England or Philadelphia? The business guys sure wouldn't (who wants to party in the northeast in the middle of winter?). I know that logistics could be a nightmare in a potential bad weather site. If the Jets could have closed out the Steelers a few weeks ago, the AFC Championship game would have been scheduled for New England on the same day that a snowstorm dumped over 2 feet of snow. The speculation was that the game would have been postponed, and if that would have been a Super Bowl, think of the ramifications.

However, the games themselves have been better than most people give them credit for. Yes, there have been 46-10 and 55-10 blowouts (thanks again Denver), but even the more recent Tampa Bay-Oakland blowout was exciting. Plus, there have been a lot of exciting finishes in the past few years, beginning with St. Louis holding on against Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV, then New England's two last second wins in XXXVI and XXXVIII.

Enjoy the game.

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