A word on Peyton Manning, and a question about Charles Woodson: was he better than Deion?

Into the sunset

This year’s retirement season is brutal on the NFL, and on us as fans. Peyton Manning has retired as the league’s most statistically decorated quarterback and, in my opinion, the greatest one it has ever seen. I don’t wish to go at length into the reasons why I believe this to be the case, but let’s just put it this way: what do those who disagree have to hang their hat on? The amount of Super Bowls won by Brady and Montana. Let’s not kid ourselves: both of them are top 5 quarterbacks as well. However, the rings argument for their superiority over Manning is as overstated and simplistic as it is problematic.

In fact, it’s not so much an argument as it is an unsophisticated cliché. And if we are willing to cast aside this cliché, and agree that there is more to a player’s greatness than if or how many times he was on the winning team for the last game of the season, the question becomes this: when it comes to the quarterback position, who has ever played it at a higher level than Manning? The answer: no one.

Just how great was Charles Woodson?

Still, this offseason also forces us to say goodbye to Charles Woodson, the Raiders’ star defensive back who retires after a season in which he still played at a fairly high level. The depth of his link to Manning is really quite stunning. They are the last members of the 1998 draft class to retire. They both came into the league as high first-round picks (Manning was first overall; Woodson went fourth). Before their respective pro debuts, Woodson became the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Who was the preseason pick to win it, but wound up finishing second in the voting? Manning. Both of them came into the league with the potential to revolutionize their respective positions, and they both did.

The ways in which Manning changed the quarterback position (another reason why he’s the greatest ever) are well documented. As for Woodson, the changes to defensive back play he has ushered may be more subtle, but I’m not convinced they’re any less significant. That’s why I consider him to be the greatest defensive back I’ve ever watched.

I shall now pause to give the Deion fanatics among my friends the chance to climb back down from their living room curtains.

Just a moment…

Almost there…

And we’re back.

Yes, I’ve seen Deion play. Yes, he’s the greatest cover corner in history. So what, then, would make him inferior to Woodson? My take on the Deion-Woodson debate is that Deion’s era-specific advantages are hard to ignore. Sure, the tape suggests his pure speed is better than Woodson’s, and that his “loose man” skills are as well. His interception numbers are also gaudier.

But my thinking goes as follows: put rookie Woodson in a time machine and send him to 1988, playing in an NFL when you could get away with corners who were relatively uninterested in tackling and assuredly awful at it (as Deion was) because the bubble screen game hadn’t yet forced corners to acquire the shed-and-tackle skills of a linebacker. In those times, could Woodson have been, say, 98% of what Deion was? No question, and some, even back then, would have taken Woodson because he was a more complete player.

Put rookie Deion in 1998 and have him face what has become the NFL of today. Is he 98% of Woodson? It’s a murky proposal. Sure, in terms of man-to-man skills, we’d speak of him the way we speak of peak Darrelle Revis. But how would his disdain of zone coverage affect the perception of him by coordinators (There was a guy who could never in a million years have played for a coach like Bill Belichick)? Would his horrendous tackling and overall aversion to it not diminish his value to coaches and GMs?

How would his value compare to what it was in the late 80s-early 90s? 85%? 90%? 95%? How would he fare in the run game or against hitches, jailbreaks and bubble screens getting off blocks from the likes of Andre or Calvin Johnson? How would he do if a modern DC matched him up against a Rob Gronkowski? Is that even feasible?

And there is more. Because of his superior technical skills and overall ability, late-career Woodson was able to become a safety who wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in the run game and whom DCs could bring on a blitz with excellent results (as Dom Capers did during Woodson’s stint as a Green Bay Packer). Meanwhile, look at what happened when Deion’s skills eroded (which just so happens to coincide with Dallas letting him go): he fell off a cliff when he arrived in Washington, and instantly became a liability. I think that means something.

It’s also worth mentioning that there has been something “Tim Duncan-esque” about Woodson’s excellence. Deion was the very definition of flash (not always to his benefit) with gem quotes such as , “I don’t love the camera; the camera loves me!” Meanwhile, Woodson has pissed excellence in silence (and on several mediocre Oakland teams) for pretty much his entire career, and you had to watch him to see just how amazing he was. It reminds me of the Duncan-Kobe discussion. Have a basketball conversation with a casual fan, and he’ll probably tell you the notion that Kobe was better than Duncan is beyond debate. And he’ll be wrong.

It’s kind of the same thing with Woodson versus Deion. Sanders has the support of legions who nostalgically remember his days as a man coverage ayatollah, and the young people know him because he’s on television. Woodson only has the connoisseurs’ support, and that of those who saw him crush it on a Super Bowl team in Green Bay. Woodson’s reputation has also “suffered” from him playing at the same time as several truly legendary corners like Champ Bailey (mortal lock as a Hall-of-Famer) and Chris McAlister (who would be discussed in similar terms had he played long enough). Aside from maybe Rod Woodson, who did Deion have to compete with? Old Ronnie Lott? Dale Carter? Aeneas Williams?

Between Woodson’s incredible athletic talents, the sheer completeness of his game, and the way he reinvented himself when his physical skills began to fade, he would have been a Top two or three player at his position for his entire career in any era. His versatility allowed for the modern use of the star defensive back who gets moved all over the field to prevent top receivers from creating mismatches. Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey is a highly-touted all-around prospect in this year’s NFL draft a DB, mostly because of his ability to line up all over the field. People describe him as another Patrick Peterson; I think he’s another Woodson, and that’s why defensive coordinators salivate at the thought of having him on their team. Whatever multitude of ways Ramsey will be used as an NFL player, he’ll owe part of it to Woodson.

As for Deion, put him in today’s NFL, and he’s essentially the Washington Post or the New York Times: still great, still a reference in many ways, but not necessarily as memorable. And that’s what sets Woodson apart from Sanders, for me, despite Woodson’s fatal flaw of not being interesting enough. Heck, by the time my friends finish this post, they’ll probably have resumed thinking about Richard Sherman. For Woodson, it’ll be another day of being overlooked. It seems even his retirement can’t save him from that.

 

 

 

Entrée before the Mock Draft: the Marcus Mariota conundrum

Here we go. The NFL Draft is less than a week away. Most NFL-driven sites start popping out mock drafts months in advance, which makes no sense from a football perspective given that teams try to solve part of their needs with free agency, not to mention the fact that we have to give time for the legitimate rumours to separate themselves from the pure smokescreens. My mock draft is coming up on draft day, by the way, but until then, there are still lingering questions, namely those surrounding the number two pick.

The Titans figure to have at least a few attractive options for the pick. Are the Chargers going to press the reset button for a quarterback who doesn’t mind playing in L.A.? It’s a hell of a risky proposition, given that the quarterback in question is likely to be Marcus Mariota. There is no overstating just how much the current draft situation sucks for Mariota. I don’t think an Aaron Rodgers-esque free fall is happening. There simply aren’t enough good starting quarterbacks in the NFL for so many teams to skip on him. However, rough seasons from mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin have put teams even more on edge about taking spread option quarterbacks than they already were. Even a guy like Cam Newton, whose accuracy remains sporadic at best, doesn’t help Mariota’s cause, either.

What sucks even more is that much of the criticism aimed at these guys is unfair. Griffin hasn’t been the same athlete since the injury he suffered at the end of his rookie season, but here are a few things to consider: 1. He had already missed significant time at Baylor due to a knee injury before ever entering the NFL. 2. If you’ve paid attention to Griffin’s career so far, you’ll have seen a guy who has very much made the mistake of buying into his own hype. 3. The one offensive coordinator who’s been willing to adjust his scheme to Griffin’s strengths got a great season out of him. Hell, Skip Bayless was driving the Griffin-over-Luck bandwagon at about 175 miles/hour after their first season, and he wasn’t alone.

Something really bugs me about this entire mobile quarterbacks discussion. Yes, in most cases, fitting them into conventional pro-style offences is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. However, as goes the coaching maxim, you adjust the system to the players, not the players to the system, and it’s amazing to witness how completely these words of wisdom are lost on NFL offensive coaches. I’m not suggesting NFL coaches should grab 2011 tapes of Oregon’s offence and implement it overnight. However, it really makes me laugh to see the NFL community, change-averse as ever, claiming that the read option is dead in the NFL because coaches have figured it out. What complete and utter drivel! Defences haven’t “figured it out,” offences have stopped running it. I was in pain watching Kap, Griffin and Newton operating under centre last season, going through the motions of offences not at all suited to their skills.

To me, the Niners’ situation is the most puzzling. It’s as if they got together in their offices and had a discussion that went something like this (we’ll avoid mention names, so as to avoid embarrassing the individuals in question; look them up if you like) :

– Head coach: Alright, let’s get this started. Guys, I wanna get your take on the offence.

– Defensive coordinator: Sure thing, coach.

– Head coach: Now, I was watching tape. And it got me thinking… you know… this whole Kap running the ball thing is just working way too well!

– Linebackers coach: Aye, aye! The way we moved the ball against that unplayable Seattle defence in the playoffs…They just didn’t have a solution for Colin’s foot speed. I’m like, ‘Thank God we went to Crabtree against Sherman with the game on the line. Otherwise, this might have been the opening of a real Pandora’s Box!’

– Defensive coordinator : Plus, you have to think that DCs around the league are going to spend the offseason working on a solution to defend it. Right ? Tomlin said that the other day.

– Head coach: Good point. Where would you start?

– Defensive coordinator: No idea. But I’m sure someone will come up with something.

– Offensive coordinator: Well, in any case, we’d best not take any chances. I’m thinking we get Kap back under centre, run a regular offence. If it works, we’ll look like geniuses. Plus, as a bonus, we get the rest of the league to fool themselves into thinking you can just turn any spread QB into a dropback passer, so we weaken the opposition. If it doesn’t work, then we’ve proven our point.

– Head Coach: Sold! Let’s do this!

I’m being a tad facetious, but this spread quarterback discussion shows just how much of an ol’boy network NFL coaching is, and its consanguinity is costing potential starting quarterbacks careers. And I’ve got news for these coaches: spread quarterbacks aren’t going away. It just makes too much sense to take your best athlete and put the ball in his hands on every play, which you can do at no position except quarterback. High school and college teams are glad to take prototypical dropback passers when they get them, but such players are hard to find. Used to be, NCAA coaches would try to scheme their way past a lack of talent with a running quarterback. That’s still happening, but now, even top programs are going for these dual-threat athletes and are incorporating running plays for them. And they’re going to keep doing it because it works. We even see guys who could fit in “pro-style” offences in college, but who simply don’t play in them (see: Bortles, Blake).

For the NFL, terminally stuck in the 80s, the traditional pocket passer remains such an ideal that teams are willing to settle for mediocre ones instead of actually trying to model their offence around a spread system alum with rare skills. “Golly, Andy Dalton might not be able to throw more than 30 yards, and he might have an anti-clutch gene, but at least he goes through a West Coast read progression!” Think I’m exaggerating? The prohibitive favourite to be the first overall pick this season, Jameis Winston, threw 18 interceptions last season (many of which were down to mistakes by freshman receivers, but still…) Count ’em! 18. He had a potential sexual assault case against him dropped in supremely fishy circumstances and now faces a civil suit from the alleged victim. This is me talking about one of my Florida State boys. While I do think his off-the-field issues outside the potential sexual assault have been overstated and that recent comparisons to JaMarcus Russell are patently ridiculous, if I’m a Bucs executive and I know we’re about to pick him, I’m nervous on about 100 different levels right now. But hey, the other guy played in a spread-option offence, so there goes that debate!

The end result is a strange paradox: the league is more pass-oriented than ever, but it hasn’t had as few truly competent passers since, like, the seventies. And it’s not because there is less quarterbacking talent. It’s because more and more players are not used correctly. How many teams can say they are not at all in the market for an upgrade, or an update, at quarterback? People still talk about “the Big Four” of Rodgers, Manning, Brees and Brady at quarterback. Newsflash for all: Three of these four are older than 35, and Aaron Rodgers, while still in his prime, is 31. In the younger generation, we have Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson (one of the rare mobile QBs who’s actually allowed to use his legs) and if you can spot the other sure things, you’re a better talent scout than I am.

So as far as feeling safe with their quarterback situation, how shall we divide them? I propose the following categories, which go in descending order of quality:

  • Absolutely set for several more years barring a crucial injury: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Seattle, Atlanta
  • Pro Bowl-to-Hall-of-Fame hopefuls on their last bits of mileage (or balking at a move to L.A): New England, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Diego
  • “Not quite” guys on far too much money: Baltimore, Detroit, Dallas, Kansas City
  • Still waiting on promising young guys: Jacksonville, Oakland, Minnesota, Tennessee
  • Caught in average-to-mediocre veteran no man’s land: Chicago, New York Giants, St.Louis, Cincinnati, Arizona
  • Slightly (or not-so-slightly) freaking out about guys who should be coming of age: San Francisco, Carolina, Miami, New York Jets, Houston, Washington (In the case of the Panthers, Niners and Washington, I put 80% or more of the blame on the coaching)
  • Who the f— knows? : Philadelphia
  • Jameis Winston: Tampa Bay (Oops! That was supposed a… ahem!.. surprise!) 
  • Complete, total, unmitigated disaster: Buffalo, Cleveland

The first two categories involve guys who we know can win the Super Bowl. In fact, of those nine teams, six have quarterbacks who HAVE won a Super Bowl. But then, the second category carries guys for whom you cannot make long-term projects. (No, Ravens fans, Flacco doesn’t belong in category 1. Yes, he tends to excel in the playoffs, but he doesn’t play that way consistently enough to be a true franchise guy.)

So we have a league in which the quarterbacking is not especially healthy, but coach after coach sends quarterback after quarterback to the bust bin. So yeah, Marcus Mariota is a very big risk, but that has as much to do with the lethally inflexible coaching he’s likely to receive in the NFL as it does with his spread background. In his book Swing Your Sword, Washington State head coach Mike Leach said that the level of football at which one coaches is not really a reflection of their ability. I agree with him more every day I spend coaching and watching football. When I consider the inability to adjust to players’ strengths displayed by so many NFL coaches, I’m starting to think it might not be the quarterbacks teams ought to replace.

The Suh question

An interesting piece on Grantland asks the following: Would you want soon-to-be free agent defensive tackle Ndamokung Suh on your team?

My response: “Is that a trick question?”

To me, it deserves to be the subject of one of those silly-question Geiko ads. It ranks alongside gems of idiocy such as “Did the Lakers give up too much in the 2008 trade for Pau Gasol* ?,” or “Was it really wise for the Broncos to sign Peyton Manning to replace Tim Tebow?,” or even the ESPN First Take clanger “Would you take Tom Brady or Tebow as your quarterback with two minutes left and the game on the line?”

Yeah, but Turp! That tells us you’re passionate about your answer, not what your answer actually is! Point taken, so here goes. Yes, I would sign Ndamokung Suh, and I would do so in less time than it would take anyone to say “the best since Sapp.” For crissakes, not since Reggie White has such a dominant defensive lineman hit free agency at the peak of his powers! Sapp was almost completely over-the-hill when he went to Oakland, and though Julius Peppers arrived in Chicago with quite a bit of gas left in the tank, he was already starting to decline a bit.

That said, I have to acknowledge my bias. Yes, I struggle to hate great players at my position. Yes, I find something cathartic in watching a defensive lineman beat up on quarterbacks in a league where they are so ridiculously overprotected compared to their fellow players at other positions, in a league that so deliberately handicaps defence to favour offence. And yes, I’m the guy whose delight when he sees quarterbacks take a pounding just might be described as Joker-esque.

In other words, it’s impossible for me to hate a guy who can pull off shit like this (the whole thing’s impressive, but the tackle starting at 1:59… Oh my!) :

Or this sack of notorious don’t-give-a-shit-itis sufferer Jay Cutler (P.S.: Forget the regrettable injury and watch the play):

However, what I would now like to submit is that, while my love of Suh has an emotional component to it, so does a large part of the vitriol aimed in his direction. Not since Terrell Owens at the peak of his petulance has the league’s best player at a given position been so universally reviled. And even then, I think Suh takes the cake.

Today, Suh is not only one of the NFL’s most despised players, but also one of its most under-appreciated. Of no other player of such talent would CBS’ Pete Prisco say, in a calamity of a column, that he’s the league’s most overrated player. Is it really fair that a player who

  1. grabbed the title of best at his position during his rookie year,
  2. single-handedly alters offensive gameplans,
  3. plays with the kind of abandon that we wish all pro athletes would display,
  4. has seemingly never been anything but a model teammate, and
  5. has never said a wrong thing in the media

would have an asterisk put on his greatness by such an overwhelming amount of people in the media and in the viewing public? No, but so far, this is Suh’s legacy, and there are no signs of that changing anywhere in sight. People have just made up their minds about him.

I’m not surprised to see a guy as bright and as composed as Suh deal with his heel status by pretending he doesn’t actually have it. What impresses me a lot is to see that he hasn’t taken offence to people suggesting, both implicitly and explicitly, that his style of play diminishes his value or his greatness as a player. Do we dare put Gerald McCoy, as talented as he is, in the same conversation as Suh unless we’re trying to diminish Suh’s stock? I have my doubts. McCoy is terrific, but anyone who actually watches Suh on tape, instead of relying on the box scores, knows that his on-field dominance is so profound that the only other defensive lineman who can hope to impact games in such a way is JJ Watt**. Suh and Watt simply operate in another dimension. There are other Pro Bowl-level defensive linemen in the NFL, namely McCoy, but they belong in the “everybody else” conversation. We’re starting to see some analysts recognize that (better late than never) after Suh did a better job of harnessing his intensity this season, but it’s taking time.

But Turp! You’re conveniently leaving out that he’s such a dirty player! It’s funny how selective our memories get when it comes to these things. James Harrison caught more flack for publicly insulting Roger Goodell than for his multiple attempts at maiming opposing players. Rodney Harrison was an artist at ending seasons (see: Green, Trent) with knee-level hits, but he’s one of the best in history at his position, so we can chalk that up to intensity and to the fact that, back when Harrison played, dirty hits didn’t carry such a stigma. Bernard Pollard ended the seasons of two quarterbacks, including America’s Darling Tom Brady, but we know him as a “physical, run-stuffing safety” even though he’s the football equivalent of the fourth-line goon. And don’t even get me started on Deacon Jones. Using his patented headslap, he probably shattered more eardrums than the last 40 years of boxers and MMA fighters combined. He got away with shit 10 times worse than anything Suh would dare attempt. But the NFL Network still ranked him as the best pass rusher ever (despite the fact that it’s unclear how he projects in today’s game), and to this day, his dirty play is revered, not frowned upon.

So what’s so different about Suh? Well, the era for one. In the cartoonishly violent NFL of 12-15 years ago, he would have been a demigod. But that was then and this is now. The league now has to fake concern for player safety in the hopes of avoiding more lawsuits by former players. But I can’t help but feel there is more to it than that. I’ll concede without resistance that some of the things Suh has done (the stomp on Evan Dietrich-Smith, the kick to Matt Schaub’s groin) cannot be defended.

However, he has received penalties (and sometimes, subsequent fines) that betray the fact that officials have been instructed to flag him when in doubt. I’m in complete agreement with the analyst on this one:

And that’s just one example. The facile argument that his reputation now precedes him cannot possibly constitute a valid justification for his getting zero benefit of the doubt on the field. You can justify giving him larger fines because he has “proven” to be a “recidivist.” What you can’t do is decide that an act which would not have been considered a transgression had another player committed it suddenly becomes a transgression because it is Suh’s doing. This push is probably a 50/50 call if it’s someone other than Suh doing it, and it’s almost a guaranteed non-call if it happens to a non-quarterback. It has come to a point where Suh is now basically getting flagged for hitting too hard. Strictly speaking, many though not all of Suh’s “dirty” plays are within the rules, but given his ferocity and raw power, well… we’d best try to get him to rein it in a bit.

Another valid question pertains to where Suh’s aggressiveness (or out-of-control play, according to some) stems from. Every defensive player is told to punish ballcarriers. Few actually do it on a regular basis. They hear their coaches talk about “imposing their will,” take them with a grain of salt, and tackle players however they can. But what if you had someone with unusual ability, combined with the most pure upper-body strength of any defensive lineman since Reggie White, and who played as though he actually took the coach’s speeches 100% seriously? Would you not want that guy on your team? Would you not go out of your way to have him on your team?

Now, as for the price, well that depends. Detroit couldn’t use the franchise tag on him, which would have forced them to sign Suh to a deal that would’ve counted for nearly $27 million against the cap next season. It’s not a matter of whether he’s worth it, but giving a player such a cap-killing contract makes no sense regardless of the player’s identity. It’s a playoff-chance crippler. However, if I were advising the Lions, I would urge them not to play hardball with Suh and do everything they can to re-sign him before the start of free agency. His impact is such that a Suh-less Lions’ defence would be unrecognizable, and not in a good way. Moreover, there are lots of teams with lots of cap room who will seriously consider making a run for him. If you’re the Lions, do you really want to get into a bidding war with them, which would lead you to having to pay Suh a lot more than you’d like***?

Again, though, I’d take him on my team in a New York minute. I’ll even make a bet with you, dear readers. If he signs with my hapless Jaguars, I’m buying his jersey. Of course, he won’t, because he’s neither that stupid nor that desperate for money. If you’re going to get paid a king’s ransom wherever you go, you might as well pick a spot where you have a chance to win something. And I hope he signs with a team that’s good enough to win a Super Bowl, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year award he’s completely capably of. And that he just keeps giving the Manning-like “I just play with intensity” speech so the haters can spend even more energy spewing in a kettle of their own bile. I say this even though, quite frankly, part of me wishes he’d pull off the complete heel turn and go completely CM Punk on the NFL and its entire fanbase. Goodness knows we’ve all earned it.

* For the record, the trade was Gasol and a 2010 second-round pick going to the Lakers in exchange for 2008 and 2010 first-round picks, draft rights to Pau’s brother Marc, Javaris Crittendon, Aaron McKie and the immortal disaster zone Kwame Brown heading to Memphis. I can’t think of three more hideously one-sided trades in modern sports history. 

** My friend Gabe Flewelling, an incurable Titans homer, will be irate at me for not mentioning Albert Haynesworth. It’s true that, at his best, Haynesworth was as routinely unstoppable as Suh. His ability to take over games was quite spectacular indeed. But he also could never be bothered to give a shit unless he was playing for a contract, didn’t so much take PLAYS off as he took GAMES off, and outdid himself by taking a mammoth shit in Washington’s hands after Dan Snyder gifted him the first $100-million contract to a defensive tackle not only through his poor play but also by failing a conditioning test. I can’t take such a guy’s resume seriously, regardless of how periodically dominant he was capable of being. Even Shaq thinks Haynesworth was lazy. (Seriously! How are you a pro football player and fail a conditioning test? That’s like a high school teacher turning up for his class naked. It’s that egregious!)

*** A few hours after I published this article, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Suh had agreed to terms with the Miami Dolphins. In related news, this raises questions about the point of free agency start date if people can agree contracts before said date. Or perhaps more to the point: what legally stops Suh’s agent Jimmy Sexton for using the now public terms of the Dolphins’ offer sheet to leverage another team, or the Phins themselves for that matter, into giving him more? If the deal gets done, though, it makes the Dolphins’ defensive line a monstrous unit provided Cameron Wake doesn’t take a plunge in terms of production. Doesn’t solve their offensive problems, but hey, they’ll hunt quarterbacks like nobody’s business. 

Why I still would take Manning over Brady… and will never change my mind

Everybody respected Ivan Drago’s talent, but very few people, if any, wanted him to beat Rocky. How could they? The boxing machine from the Evil Empire could not possibly hope to find a sympathetic soul among an American audience trained to detest and fear the USSR and communism, and to find nothing more haunting than the thought of one of their own losing to one of the bad guys.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The analogy doesn’t totally work. It’s not meant to, except to this extent: could it be that the reason why so many people would say Tom Brady is a better quarterback than Peyton Manning might come down to human interest?

A good story

Hear me out. You can’t deny that, on the scale of human interest likability, the Tom Brady story ranks as highly as any in the history of professional sports. Journalists absolutely love stories like this. Of course they do. Brady is a story to which all of us can relate on some degree. He started out as a scrawny Californian. He backed up Drew Henson at Michigan (don’t repeat that sentence too often to yourself or your brain might liquefy). He showed up at the NFL Combine skinnier than an emo high schooler, and ran that slow-ass 40-yard dash with the flappy t-shirt that had us all wondering if Brady would lift off like a kite. His body wouldn’t have caught Gisele’s attention at the time, much less impress an NFL scout. The Pats nearly opted to take Tim Rattay, one of several boogeymen who haunt the nightmares of 49ers’ fans, instead. Nevertheless, he was a sixth-round pick in a draft where the only quarterback picked in the first round was Chad Pennington, and where the likes of Chris Redman and Giovanni Carmazzi went in the third.

He got to the NFL and worked his way into being worthy of a starting job. And when Drew Bledsoe forgot to get out of bounds and paid for it with a collapsed lung from Bryan Cox, Brady seized his opportunity and never looked back. He outclassed most other NFL quarterbacks (including many a roasting of Pennington’s Jets), was a member of three Super Bowl teams in four years, married the woman of his (every man’s) dreams and became the face of the NFL’s newest most likable franchise. (Stephen A. Smith goes as far as saying they have taken the nickname of America’s Team from the Dallas Cowboys.) He was not just a good-looking, polite, humble, and worthy champion. He was the NFL’s equivalent of a self-made man, the kid who started out with absolutely zero fanfare, but built his career and his reputation from scratch, maximizing his talent with grit, determination, and class. Even his name is tailor-made for marketing departments to sell. Tom Brady. Short, simple, rolls right off the tongue. This story is so American you might as well have “America The Beautiful” playing in the background during the documentary on Brady’s life.

Sure, none of it would have mattered had he been deprived of certain gifts, namely an NFL arm. The guy just so happens to have a tad more talent for throwing a pigskin around than 99.9% of us. Still, we can like Brady for no other reason than because we think we’d show the same kind of dedication to mastering our craft if we were given the same opportunities. Or something like that.

Rehash this story in your mind, then answer me this: compared to that, who the hell could possibly hope to relate to Peyton Manning? The son of one of Mississippi and New Orleans’ greatest football darlings, Manning was pretty much guaranteed at least a look in the NFL, provided he didn’t: a) suffer a career-ending injury, b) drop out of school, c) fall victim to a substance-abuse problem or d) all of the above.

How many people can say they were born and bred, pretty much from the day they were ejected out of their mother’s womb, to play quarterback in the NFL? To ask the question is to answer it. This story, in complete contrast to Brady’s, has more potential for schadenfreude than any improbable tale you or I might come up with. The trade-off of Manning’s privileged upbringing seems to be that any success he would have in the NFL was bound to be somewhat thankless. “Wow! Peyton Manning has really lived up to the hype!” Well, of course, he has! His father is Archie Manning, Big Easy folk hero and undeniable good guy! His younger brother was also a first overall pick. He fell into the quarterbacking Kool-Aid when he was a kid. How could he not have all the right stuff? Sure, he works harder than any quarterback on the planet, but hey, he can thank his genetics too.

Let’s face it: as much as (if not more than) we like to see people who “come from nothing” succeed, we sure love to see people who appear to have it all fail. Upsets aren’t just great because the little guy gets to win every once in a while, they’re great because the big guy loses. And don’t we ever love seeing the big guy get a reality check?

So, Turp, uh… What was the point of psycho-analyzing the universal appeal of David vs Goliath? My point is this: as much as we recognize Manning’s skill, work ethic, and greatness, there is still a large portion of us that takes all of it for granted.

Taking Manning for granted

Exaggerating, am I? I really don’t think so.

How many times must a Super Bowl champion, and a player who so routinely makes playing the quarterback position look as simple as playing it in the Madden games, be told that more is needed in order for us to finally admit that no one has ever played the quarterback position quite like him? But maybe his continued dominance has been the problem all along. Again, we expect it of him, and we always have. Mississippians expected it of him in high school because he was a Manning. We expected it of him in college because he is a Manning. Then we expected it of him because he was a National Champion and a Heisman Trophy finalist. Then we expected it of him because he was all those things and a first overall pick. And at every stage of his career, from college to the draft process to the NFL, there have been quite a few of us who have had the gall to tell him that it wasn’t enough.

Defensive players don’t edge top offensive players for the Heisman trophy. They just don’t. But wait… it happened to one dominant quarterback. Care to guess who? That’s right. Manning is the butt of the joke and the exception that proves the rule, having lost the 1997 Heisman to Michigan’s Charles Woodson. (Delightful irony: The year Manning lost the Heisman to Woodson was also the year voters stupidly named Karl Malone NBA MVP over Michael Jordan, for no other reason than their desire for something new. Is there a parallel with the NCAA media feeling that Manning, having won the 1996 National Championship, was yesterday’s news? Crazier ideas have been voiced. Now, awarding the Heisman to Woodson over Manning is not the crime scene that was picking Malone over Jordan. I love Woodson; I think he’s one of the best defensive backs ever to play the game. But again, defensive players NEVER win the Heisman. I always bemoan it. But they just never do.)

Then came the draft process. Sure, Manning is good, but there’s this hotshot out there called Ryan Leaf who just might have more upside. Maybe Leaf should be the first pick. Those who dared utter those words should have been forced to seek political asylum, but for Peyton Manning, it was just another getting-taken-for-granted day at the office. Then, people started asking for Super Bowls while conveniently ignoring the sheer mediocrity of the defences he was asked to compensate for.

Consider Manning’s second season (1999). The Colts finished 13-3, up from 3-13 (not too shabby, just sayin’…), but when the playoffs came around, they were unfortunate enough to stumble onto another 13-3 team, the Titans, who had Eddie George S&M-ing bad defences into admitting they didn’t deserve to live. In what universe is a 13-3 team a wild card squad, you ask? In a universe where the Jacksonville Jaguars are 14-2, but I digress (I had to put that in. I just had to!). Now, just look at this shit soufflé of a Colts defence from top to bottom: Chad Bratzke, Ellis Johnson, Cornelius Bennett (solid starters); Mike Peterson as a rookie, Tyrone Poole, Jason Belser (Passable starters); Bernard Whittington, Shawn King, Mike Barber, Chad Cota, Jeff Burris (stiffs).

Project that over the bulk of Manning’s Indy career, and while there were a few upgrades (replacing Bratzke in the role of main pass rusher with Dwight Freeney, Mike Peterson maturing into a fringe Pro Bowler), the overall level of the Colts’ defence always remained comparable to that of 1999’s meddling unit. (Even Bennett had a subpar year in ’99; only Bratzke and Johnson played at a truly high level.) Later, Peterson left for Jacksonville, and the Colts never replaced him or their lesser players at linebacker. Nor did they ever put it together in the secondary, where they seemed allergic to any cornerback over 5-9 during the whole of Tony Dungy’s tenure as head coach of the Colts. In the meantime, Manning was busy making Brandon Stokley into a 1,000-yard receiver, not to mention fooling the world into thinking that you could get away with starting guys like Blair White and Hank Baskett at wideout. But hey, he just hasn’t won enough Super Bowls.

Compounding this narrative is the infamous Super Bowl loss against the Seahawks, for which Manning routinely gets blamed. I remember Michael Wilbon on PTI saying, “I don’t wanna hear about the O-Line; Manning had a bad game.” That should have gotten Wilbon banned from getting to talk football ever again. Sure, you can blame the loss on Manning… if you accept that:

  1. Part of his job description includes catching snaps that go six feet over his head.
  2. He should be able to throw touchdown passes while blocking for himself and his running backs.
  3. He should have singlehandedly rescued Eric Decker from Sherman Island.
  4. He should have managed to rematerialize Demaryius Thomas, who was getting his ass shut down, before the game was lost. (Don’t give me the offended face and his final stats. Watch the game again. How many of his receptions were in garbage time? How many went for over 10 yards? That’s right, case closed.)
  5. He should have played both ways and singlehandedly made up for the no-show from Denver’s defence.

So yeah, Wilbon, you might think Manning had a bad game. If you had a head injury.

Meanwhile, the way he plays quarterback is both an art and a science. Words fail to do it justice. He dissects defences like no other quarterback in history. And it took him about three years to become his team’s de facto offensive coordinator. Recently, there was a pundit who talked about how Emmanuel Sanders suddenly looked like a man possessed and said that it was an important signing because he really fit Peyton Manning’s offence. It was not a bad way to phrase it at all. Peyton Manning has long been not just a quarterback, but an offence. I might be wrong, but I think this means something. It’s representative of what has always been asked of him, and of what he expects from himself. Brady deserves credit for adapting his game to what his many coordinators wanted to do, but we can’t forget that it was convenient for him to do so. 2007 aside, the effect was always that it took tons of pressure off him, while Manning assumed that pressure head-on because, again, that’s how much of a contributor he expects himself to be.

Then again, another one of Manning’s problems is that he’s about as anti-Hollywood as it gets. And trust me, I remember the young Manning; he’s far better at looking human for the media than he once was. Look back to Manning as a rookie. He’s practically looking at the camera like it’s one of those alien tripods from War of the Worlds and he fears getting get zapped into dust. Great attribute to keep one focused on getting better on the field, sucks for a league that’s trying to sell a product, and the media trying to sell heart-warming human interest stories, off it.

I’m not saying Manning never had a bad game; I’m not saying he never had a bad moment in crunch time. But every time his defence gets pounded by an Eddie George, every time his offensive line goes MIA, every Willie McGinest sack-fumble, all of it is blamed on him. He has been a monster at the position at both the micro and the macro level, yet he’s almost systematically greeted with a “yeah, but…” This would be OK, I suppose, were the NFL fanbase not so vastly more indulgent with Brady.

Pro-Brady double standards abound…

While everyone constantly asks Manning for more, they tend to look at Brady through pink-tainted glasses.

Everyone talks about the superiority of Manning’s offensive weapons for most of his career compared to Brady’s. It’s not a meritless argument. I’d take Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne any day over the likes of Troy Brown, David Patten or David Givens. However, anyone who’s watched enough football will tell you that it’s much easier to disguise your athletic shortcomings with scheme on offence than on defence. Charlie Weis, whatever appropriate criticism anyone may have of him, can really draw up and call a play. On defence, you can do certain things to confuse the offence, sure. But with defence being a game of reaction, you have much less control over what the matchups are when the ball is snapped. Whatever weaknesses your defence has, they WILL stick out like a sore thumb, especially against good coaching. Thus, while Brady does get props for getting good production out of the likes of Deion Branch, he did benefit from a superior defence that decided many of his tougher games.

Also, when did having a good supporting cast become an argument to diminish someone’s accomplishments? No one dared question Joe Montana’s spot atop the QB pyramid until Brady showed up, and Joe had the benefit of playing with a pre-salary-cap juggernaut, which, of course, included the greatest receiver of all time. Moreover, did we forget that the one year when Brady was statistically transcendent, he had Randy Moss to throw it to, not to mention the fact that they were passing as much as a run-and-shoot team? And, just to be sure, did I mention Randy Moss? Seriously, Harrison was great, so was Wayne. None of the two is Moss. Ochoquatro just be might the most talented receiver to ever play in the NFL. Give that dude to Brady along with Wes Welker as a perfect complement to his skills, and Moss destroyed the NFL and stopped just short of claiming ownership of it. Oh, so Brady only had Moss at full-strength for a year? Yeah, and he only had a season like 2007 with Moss on the field. I know this is supposed to prove he could do about as well as Manning with a superior supporting cast, and it does. But let’s not pretend he set the world alight in a similar way when Moss wasn’t there.

On another matter, everyone wants to slam Manning for so-called bad performances in playoff games, but it’s not as though Brady has been completely immaculate in the playoffs, either. Before this year, the Pats had not won the Super Bowl since 2004. This is not a coincidence. Brady has had less-than-stellar moments himself, only most of the time, his teammates didn’t take the kind of dump in his hands Manning was subjected to. Remember when Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck turned Super Bowl 2008 into a pass rush party? Well, by Wilbon’s logic and by that of Manning’s detractors, we should hold this against Brady. I don’t, but you know,  just sayin’… Nobody does. The Giants D-Line had Brady so rattled he threw two separate one-hoppers on screen plays. Then, when the Pats faced the Giants again in the Super Bowl, Brady had a game-losing overthrow intended for a wide… ass… open Wes Welker on fourth down. So while Brady-acs can’t stop talking about the horrendous interception Manning threw to Tracy Porter in the Super Bowl against the Saints, they can’t look me in the eye with a straight face and tell me Brady’s clutch overthrow didn’t damage his team’s chances to win as much as Manning’s pick. And two years ago, when Brady faced Manning with Peyton’s team being the strongest, Gisele’s husband looked as helpless as Manning would look two weeks later, only Brady got hit less. But he wasn’t brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. People conveniently forget this.

And don’t even get me started on the football gods inventing the stupid tuck rule to help the Pats weasel past the superior Raiders, or about the fact that Brady was named Super Bowl MVP against the Rams. Watch Ty Law’s game again. 7 tackles, a sack, and a pick-6, on a defence that limited the “Greatest Show on Turf” to 17 points while the Pats’ offence was stagnating? I don’t want to hear about the last drive! Giving the award to Brady is a scandal. Again, people conveniently forget this.

Also, remember when people were saying Manning was kind of a hard-ass with offensive teammates, while Brady was supposedly all smiles and his teammates loved him for it? And remember how that somewhat swayed the intangibles comparison in favour of Brady? Well, maybe the part about Brady was true when he was a second-year guy and would have been out of place to call out some of the more seasoned vets, but after that, he was every bit as much of a hard-ass as Manning was, so there goes that theory. But what chance does reality have against a myth?

Want the most egregious example of this double standard? Bill Simmons, the notable Boston homer, had the nerve to compare Brady-Manning with the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain debate. Let us not waste much time over this calamity except for one thing: Celtics fans revere Russell because he was the quintessential team player, a guy who always focused on being whatever his team needed him to be. He won 11 titles in 13 years in the 50s and 60s. So New Englanders make the easy connection: Wow! Brady really is a lot like that.

I’m even willing to grant it to them. But let us make no mistake: the buck stops there. While Manning has been a model teammate and leader who instantly turns his team into a Super Bowl contender, Wilt was a ridiculously talented but seriously misguided self-destructive coach killer who never had a clue what team dynamics are about. Any comparison with Manning is positively ludicrous. But Brady-acs love it, because it allows them to paint Brady as the intangibly perfect myth of a quarterback while Manning is concurrently the stats machine who is tangibly as close to perfection as possible, but somehow intangibly flawed.

It is a complete farce. But I am positively staggered by the number of people who seem to actually believe it.

In the end…

There is positively no doubt in my mind that we are talking about two of the best three quarterbacks ever to play the game. What decides it for me is something Simmons’ buddy Chuck Klosterman so eloquently wrote when making a case for Wilt as being superior to Russell. The beauty of sports icons being credited with possessing intangible greatness, he wrote, is that fans can make them into whatever myth they want because their imagination is not, in such cases, restricted by reality. It makes for a beautiful fantasy, but it is by no means a path to the truth. There is no comparison between the two when we pick the better human interest story, but unless we agree to look at sports through no other lens than that of the media, we cannot allow this fact to play a role in our final verdict.

So let’s get back down to earth for a second. If we agree that Manning’s statistical superiority, thanks to his mostly superior receivers, is moot, then so is Brady’s title count, for he usually had the better overall team. Therefore, it is problematic to point to Brady’s four (cue to Raiders’ fans losing their shit) Super Bowls, even as a tiebreaker, because none of them were all down to him. All that remains is what we should have been doing from the beginning, which is to look at these two players’ individual performances. Then, we should ask ourselves this question: if we forget the simpleminded notion that nothing matters in sports except for the winner of the last game of the season, in a vaccum, which of these two giants was actually better at playing the quarterback position?

It’s close. I would pick Brady over a ton of people. But I wouldn’t pick him over Manning.

In defence of Blaine Gabbert and in rejection of Tim Tebow

After Forbes magazine named Tim Tebow the most influential athlete in all of sports, which exposes the fact that they obviously restrict their scope to North America (’cause you know, I can name you five soccer players I’d pick before him), some Jacksonville lawyer named John Morgan bought advertising space to try to make Tim Tebow-to- the-Jacksonville-Jaguars happen. This took place after a petition was sent to President Obama (…unbelievable!) to “pressure” him into getting the NFL to award Tebow to the Jags. Morgan is free to buy and use advertising space as he pleases, but his sanctimonious message, as well as the petition to the President, are so preposterous that I have an inappropriate Anthony Jeselnik-type joke on the tip of my tongue.

I have criticized the previous regime of Jack Del Rio/Mike Mularkey and Gene Smith virulently, and I take none of it back, but one thing even they got right was that Tebow isn’t the answer. The new Gus Bradley/David Caldwell administration, put together by new Jags owner Shahid Khan, understands this as well. Notwithstanding the sheer imbecility of the idea that the NFL should impose a player upon one of its franchises, the very notion that Tebow should join the Jaguars by any means is almost as problematic.

The likes of Skip Bayless have said over and over again that Tebow would have dramatically improved the quarterback position for the Jaguars because the alternatives were Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. Bayless himself wandered into heresy territory when he said that Tebow would have won them eight or nine games last year. That’s comical. You could have taken Montana or Elway in their prime, put them on that 2012 Jags team, and they’d have returned to the bench and said, “no can do, coach. This is a minor league team we’ve got there.” But we shouldn’t take Bayless seriously on Tebow. A quarterback of such limited passing ability might run for a few game-winning touchdowns against teams that would eventually pick in the Top 5. Hell, Vince Young won offensive rookie of the year doing that, despite the fact that he threw more picks than touchdowns as a rookie. Tebow might have led them the Jags to, let’s be generous, four wins for the sole reason that he’s the kind of player who might somewhat compensate for the incredible crassness of his supporting cast because of his athleticism and his short yardage back disposition.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that part of the reason why I don’t want Tebow with my Jags is viscerally personal. I am a Florida State Seminole through and through. Since Tebow is a filthy heathen Florida Gator, he is responsible for many moments of frustration on my part for which I could never forgive him. It would feel about the same way as if some dude bullied me in high school, and then wound up being my son’s position coach years later. The moment Tebow winds up in Jacksonville will be the moment when I become a New York Giants fan. That being said, I’d be completely capable of putting my personal feelings aside and admit that bringing in Tebow would be a good move, were this the case. But it is not. Allow me, dear reader to elaborate on a few reasons why it would be a dreadful idea.

The problem with Tebow

Let me stomp on my personal feelings and say this: Tebow should play in the NFL. What as, you ask? From a pure footballing standpoint, Tebow would fit as a backup quarterback for a team that has option elements incorporated in its offence. The 49ers come to mind, given that they may have fooled the Chiefs into giving a second-round pick (and perhaps a third rounder next year) for Alex Smith, but they still need a viable replacement for him. It would help the Niners to have a backup who doesn’t force them to scrap parts of their gameplan if Colin Kaepernick gets injured. Tebow could help in that regard. Is he nearly the same thrower? No, but that would be why he’d be backing up.

Here’s the problem: Teams are extremely wary of signing him for such a duty because of the media and fan frenzy that comes with him. That’s why, in retrospect, the Jets’ acquisition of Tebow was such a mistake. How could anyone, including Tebow himself, not get the sense that the Jets wanted him to win their starting job, given that they were placing him behind a supremely fragile starter in Mark Sanchez? Thus, when it didn’t happen, people started getting aggravated, especially when the perception became that Rex Ryan was going out of his way to keep Tebow off the field. The popular belief is now that the Jets “sabotaged” Tebow. Such speculation would of course be dismissed as sheer nonsense were this any other player, but that’s the fanfare Tim Tebow brings with him. What really sucks for him is that I’m not sure he wants it this way. Tebow, by all accounts, is a sharp guy, and surely he understands that as much as this fanfare can help you, as it did in Denver when he was chucking dirt balls while his defence was keeping the Broncos in the game, it can hurt you.

And it’s hurting Tebow a lot right now. Every NFL coach should logically be asking himself, “could this guy help us as a backup and perhaps with some option packages we could build for him?” But with the Forbes article, and the petition to President Obama (…unbelievable!), and the Jacksonville lawyer promoting Tebow with ads, every coach is instead wondering, “Do I want every interception my starter throws to become a PR nightmare?” What this means is that, because the pressure on you as a staff and on your starting QB would be too great, not to mention the potential divisiveness of the move for locker room harmony, signing Tebow as a backup isn’t a viable option anymore. If you’re going to bring him in, it must be as a starter.

But who wants to do that? If your team is crap, you might give it a thought. But since Tebow can’t throw, what you’re guaranteeing is that while he might, maybe, keep you out of the absolute bottom of the NFL’s cellar, he is a guy you’ll instantly look to improve upon the millisecond your team has the potential to finish over .500.  Smashing! And guess who’ll be on the wrong end of that PR disaster.  Hell, Denver’s Johns, that would be Fox and Elway, caught tremendous flack for replacing Tebow with Peyton Manning.

Let me give you a moment to think about this…

PEYTON! FRICKIN’ ! MANNING!

Sure, he was coming off the surgery and we didn’t know how he’d perform. But there were lots of people who objected to it on principle. They objected to replacing the kid who can’t throw with Peyton Manning, the greatest quarterback of the past 15 years (yes, better than Brady). The guy so cerebral he picks apart defences like a serial killer dismembering a body before our very eyes. The guy who got so many experts and fans to overlook the fact that the Colts never really had a defence during the whole time he played for them. The guy who got said experts and fans to overlook the fact that the Colts O-Line, during Manning’s last few years in Indy, was comprised mostly of undrafted free agents. For 15 years, he practically single-handedly got us to take the Colts seriously.

So you have a shot at that guy, but you’d keep Tebow instead. Even your grandmother knows that makes you a complete nutter. But that’s the irrational obsession Tebow creates. No team wants any part of it, and I can’t say I blame these coaches and GMs.

Not quite the time to give up on Blaine Gabbert

OK, but do the Jags not fit to a “t” my description of a bad team Tebow might help a bit? Well, yes. But here it helps to look at the specifics of this Jags team. In a post in which I commended the Jags for taking Texas A&M OT Luke Joeckel despite the popular perception that they didn’t need him, I said that playing behind that offensive line was the quarterbacking equivalent of being sentenced to death by firing squad. The Jags haven’t had consistent pass protection since Tony Boselli was playing left tackle for them. Now that they have both Joeckel and former Top 10 pick Eugene Monroe at the tackle spots, this might change. Which brings me to my next point.

The team’s starter, Blaine Gabbert, is entering his third year in the league. The widespread belief that he should already be considered a bust is one that I meant to challenge months ago, but couldn’t find the time. Well, here goes. The Jags drafted Gabbert in the first round two years ago. He is not some talent-deprived scrub you start because you have nobody else. There’s a reason why he got drafted so early. Am I saying he’s a Pro Bowler in the making? No, but what I am saying is that the sample we have to evaluate him in the NFL is flawed and insufficient and that should the Jags give up on him now, they risk giving up on a player who can be very successful but just wound up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

First and most obviously, Gabbert will be playing for his third head coach and offensive coordinator in three years. Ouch! Look at the bulk of first-round QBs who became great, or even good. They had some kind of continuity in terms of scheme and coaching style. Peyton Manning had Tom Moore, Brady had Charlie Weis (and then all the others who worked under him), Aaron Rodgers had Mike McCarthy and co., Eli has Kevin Gilbride, the list goes on. You can’t expect any young QB, bright and talented though he may be, to excel when the staff goes table rase every year. Some young quarterbacks get less-than-ideal situations to start their career. This isn’t less-than-ideal, it’s worse-than-awful.

Then comes the issue of the supporting cast. Let’s not even waste time analyzing the sheer dreadfulness of the squad he stepped into for Jack Del Rio’s last year in the Jax. Instead, let’s just look at last season, or as I call it, Mike Mularkey’s in-and-out.  Jags fans were treated to a mix of inadequacy and bad luck that a great fiction writer wouldn’t dare come up with. I’ve already talked a little bit about the offensive line. The only reliable long term fixture there is left tackle Eugene Monroe (and even that’s pushing it). The year they drafted Monroe, they used a second-round pick on another OT, Arizona’s Eben Britton, a good player who was, however, so injury-prone that he never settled into the lineup and is now in Chicago. The result is that the right tackle position has been filled, for some time now, by a committee of journeymen who would look like revolving doors against opposing pass rushers (did I mention I LOVE the Joeckel pick?). The centre is one of my personal favourites, Brad Meester, but he’s entering his 14th season in the league, and age is catching up. Meester was always smarter than he was overpowering, but now he’s become more injury-prone as well. The guard position symbolizes the terrible personnel decisions that have plagued this team over the years. So many reserve players have played left guard that I’ve lost count, while the right guard spot is manned by Uche Nwaneri, a fringe player making 5 million a year for reasons that only the previous administration can understand. These inside guys were beaten by more stunts than bad drug dealers and were a health hazard to whomever was playing quarterback back there.

And what of the skill positions? Running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the only proven playmaker on the team, was lost for the season early, and none of his backups could come close to matching his productivity. Tight end Marcedes Lewis, whom the Jags decided to pay Rob Gronkowski money after one 10-touchdown season though his career had been uneventful until that point, can’t stretch the seam and is a relative non-factor in the passing game until the Jags get to the red zone, which doesn’t happen very often. The team also made the imbecilic decision to sign Laurent Robinson, whose resumé basically included tons of injuries and one good 3/4 of a season replacing Miles Austin in Dallas, to a 6-year, $32.5 million contract.

Timeout… Words are inadequate to describe how incredibly stupid that signing was. What did they give him that money for? So he could start his own space program? Actually, they didn’t give him all that money, because after a single season in Jacksonville, of which the highlight was a key fumble against Houston that allowed the Texans to survive a scare, the Jags released Robinson.

Now, where were we? Right, the skill positions. They drafted Justin Blackmon fifth overall. I was very happy with the pick. However, just about two days after the draft, Blackmon got busted for DUI and spent the first half of the season unable to separate from any defensive back. (Don’t get me started on the fact that he might be suspended for the first four games of the coming season). Gabbert got injured and was placed on IR in the middle of the season. It was only after Gabbert’s injury that Blackmon was nice enough to get his head out of his ass and start playing like a first rounder. If not for Cecil Shorts, who pulled off a Victor Cruz and emerged out of virtually nowhere, the Jags would not have had a single potent offensive weapon for the entire time Gabbert was quarterbacking them last year.

And then, people have the gall to say Gabbert holds onto the ball too long and takes too many sacks. How surprising! Who was he supposed to throw to? The guys wearing the different-coloured jerseys? No protection, no MoJo Drew, no Blackmon, Lewis a non-factor, Laurent Robinson is terrible; Broadway Joe would have wound up Broadway Hoe playing with this lot.

To put it more elegantly, you cannot expect a guy to succeed when the means to do so just aren’t there. This has been Blaine Gabbert’s reality so far in Jacksonville. I do not think that we can surmise, based on the problematic evidence we have up to this point, that he can’t get it done in the NFL. Is it possible that he was overrated coming out of college? Yes. Is it possible that he, as did the likes of David Carr, has picked up so many bad habits that he is now “beyond saving”? Absolutely. But two years on a team that was beyond terrible represents a sample that is both insufficient and potentially unrepresentative when it comes to judging Gabbert’s ability to be the Jags’ franchise quarterback. Here’s another thing that keeps me hopeful about Gabbert: he doesn’t compulsively turn the ball over like so many quarterback busts typically do. He’ll eat it rather than get picked. Give him protection and receivers who might get open once in a while and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a metamorphosis from Gabbert.

Fast forward to this year. They get MoJo back. They drafted Luke Joeckel to help with the offensive line. They have Cecil Shorts, and they’ll get at least 12 games out of Blackmon, which would be 12 times more than Gabbert got from him last year. And the X-Factor could be another rookie, Denard Robinson, whose playmaking skills could be used in many different ways. They are starting to put together something interesting on offence. This is why I’ll be the first person to suggest that they cut Gabbert loose if we don’t see marked improvement from him this year. But those who call him a bust right now are jumping the gun. He isn’t JaMarcus Russell. Gabbert has none of the self-destructive traits that ruined the careers of the likes of Russell and Ryan Leaf, and failing that, the Jags simply cannot afford to give up on him so early.

There are so many quarterback busts who become victims of circumstances that it amazes me that few so-called experts ever seem to pause to give this reality a second look. Not every bust at quarterback is a Russell or a Leaf; in fact, few of them are. Usually, quarterbacks who don’t work out either:

  1. Come in a little overrated and/or mentally fragile and can’t live up to the enormous expectations placed on them (see Sanchez, Mark), or…
  2. just never manage to overcome the incredibly crappy rosters they are expected to revitalize.

I’m thrilled that the new Jags administration seems determined to cut Blaine Gabbert only if he proves to belong in group 1, not group 2. If they find out that they can win with Gabbert provided they surround him with enough pieces on offence and put together a defence that can stop the other team every once in a blue moon, it makes sense that they would go that route. If that’s the case, Gabbert would be more of an answer for the Jags than Tim Tebow could ever hope to be.

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