Friday, April 20, 2007

Let the Games Begin...

There really is nothing quite like it.

I'm talking Sawx-Yanks here.

I've been immersed in the rivalry for as long as I have followed baseball, and that brings me back to about four years old I would guess. For thirty-three of my thirty-seven years I have been through the ups and downs - the 1978 meltdown, Yaz's last game at Yankee Stadium, the mid to late 1980's when the rivalry stalled a little due to fact the Yankees didn't compete at the highest level when the Sox were going to the post-season every other year, the mid-1990's when the same was going on the other way, and of course 2004.

2004 was a very cathartic year for Red Sox fans - and at the same time it was somewhat anti-climactic. After the gut-wrenching drama (The Sox never do anything the easy way) that was the American League Championship Series between the Yanks and Sox (really, the way it needed to happen too), the World Series win over the Cardinals (which was also appropriate considering 1967) was...nice, but not momentous...well, not as momentous as the AL Championship win. That might have been why the dismantling of the Cardinals seemed almost an afterthought in that post-season.

The irony of that post-season is not lost on me either. Up until that point, the Yankees were the Beast in the East, Goliath to the Red Sox' David. They owned all the great post-season records - more World Series trophies than any other team, and more than many teams combined. The Sox? They hadn't won since 1918. The post-season record - no - the post season reputation of the Sox since? Epic collapses - 1967,1975, 1978, 1986 (and my brother is a Mets fan), 1988, 1990, 1996, 2003 (what were you thinking Grady, what were you thinking?).

But in 2004, and this must absolutely eat at George Steinbrenner, the Red Sox turned the table on their nemesis. The Yankees were just three outs away from the World Series and up three games to one over the Sox. No team in major league baseball had ever come back from down 3-1, let alone 3-1 and only three outs away from elimination. But the Sox did it, and against the pitcher universally accepted as the best closer in baseball.

Suddenly, not only were the Sox in the series, but they bequeathed their legacy upon the hated arch-rival Yanks. Suddenly the worst post-season collapse in the history of baseball was in The Bronx. There was a weird sense of relief and joy among Sox fans...even the doomsayers were looking at the nature of the rivalry with new eyes - and having trouble trying to tell fellow fans how the (Sox) world was going to end at the hands of the Cardinals. Hell - if we could beat the Yanks, the Cards would be easy.

Sure, Steinbrenner has driven up salaries around the sport. He has created a multitude of problems for small market teams trying to compete. But he has been good for the sport. He has given us a bad almost cartoonish evil villain sans any true evil. His biggest sin is that he wants to win at any cost and will try to buy a championship - but he doesn't do anything against the rules. He is the owner of the Indians in the movie Major League, or the owner of the Washington Sentinels in "The Replacements." He is the owner who lacks any real expertise, but is trying to win no matter the fiscal cost. And he is a great villain - I will miss him when he is gone.

But all of that is incidental. Tonight begins the Fair in the Fens, the Carnival by Kenmore Square. It is the only rivalry in professional American athletics that evokes a virtual post-season atmosphere for every game. Tonight and for the next three days John Updike's, "little lyric bandbox of a ballpark," will become a rocking juke joint with pilgrims from New York going to the Park with the Fenway Faithful.

With Sox-Yanks, it's not a game. It's a religion.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

HoF Case for Bledsoe, Part 2

Visitors already know where I stand on this. I acknowledge that Bledsoe is a borderline Hall of Famer, but, based on the history of the quarterbacks enshrined, I would say that he is a HoFer never the less. I hear a lot of people talk about how you can not look at these statistics in a vacuum. In that case, let's not.

I addressed in my last post a number of the statistical let's look at something else that's relevant, Hall of Famer players with whom these players played that might have made the quarterback's job easier - defense, linemen, wide receivers, running backs, etc.

Let's even take a look at some of the current quarterbacks that reports regularly call "future HoFer..."

For the purposes of this I am not going to count Vinatieri (even though his best seasons came with Brady), due to the fact that other deserving kickers have been unable to get enshrined, and until Vinatieri is actually voted in, I will not count a kicker amongst the sure-fire or even likely to make it into Canton.

Let me start by posing the following question - Name more than one sure-fire HoF player that Bledsoe played with for more than a season. The only likely candidate I can come up with for Bledsoe is Curtis Martin. The only wide receiver with a shot? Terrell Owens with whom he spent one season and seldom passed to because (this was from a Dallas newspaper) he hadn't bothered to learn the playbook. So Bledsoe played with one definite. The only other is likely Ty Law.

So let's give him two there.

Tom Brady? Four - For at least one of the Super Bowl runs he had a future HoF in running back Corey Dillon and one and a third for Ty Law, for two of them Rodney Harrison, and in all three, Richard Seymour. Remember, I am going with the players with which HoF gets mentioned.

Peyton Manning? Four, possibly five - Marvin Harrison, Edgerin James, Marshall Faulk, possibly Tarik Glenn and some have even begun to mention Reggie Wayne.

Brett Favre? One - Reggie White.

Dan Marino? One - Dwight Stephenson. And even when Stephenson was gone, Marino had go-to guys Mark Duper and Mark Clayton for multiple seasons, Bledsoe never had the same pair of starters for more than two consecutive seasons.

Troy Aikman? When all is said an done it could be as many as three - Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, and there has been talk about Larry Allen.

Dan Fouts? Only one - Kellen Winslow (and Fouts didn't have to jump right in like Bledsoe did - his first season he was able to learn under Johnny Unitas and see how things were done by veterans like Deacon Jones).

Terry Bradshaw? Eight - Lynn Swann, John Stalworth, Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Jack Hamm, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster.

Joe Montana? Two - Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott.

Warren Moon? Two - Bruce Matthews, Mike Munchak (and even Earl Campbell for a season...and talk about statistics being aided by longevity - he played in the NFL for 20 seasons not including his work in the CFL).

Jim Kelly? Two - James Lofton, Thurman Thomas.

John Elway? The only quarterback that has none listed with him, although Bob Kuchenberg and Terrell Davis have stirred up debates on it (Kuchenburg making it to the round of 17, and Davis being debated by the actual voters), so I give Elway two.

Almost all of those HoF QB's had HoFers catching their passes. The exceptions? Elway, Moon, Favre and future HoFer, Brady. Of those without a big presence catching the ball, Moon played behind two HoF pass-protectors and Elway played behind one on the verge. So only Brady, Bledsoe and Favre among the above lacked the pass catcher and/or protection that all the other quarterbacks benefited from.

Of the quarterbacks to throw for more than 3000 yards at least nine times in their careers (Bledsoe, Favre, Marino, Manning, and Moon), only Favre has done it while surrounded with less talent on the offensive side of the ball.

So, in the modern era of passing who has done more with less? Very few. You can count on one, maybe two hands tops the quarterbacks who have done more with less than Bledsoe - Favre definitely, maybe Fouts, maybe Moon, Steve Young (who also had Rice and Lott), and Elway, but you're going to be hard pressed to argue that any of the other recent Hall of Fame inductees at quarterback did more to raise mediocre talent to a championship level than Bledsoe.

His one truly talented receiver? The oft injured and and mentally impaired Terry Glenn. His most reliable target? Ben Coates who hasn't even sniffed Canton. Outside of those two, non-Pats fans would have a hard time remembering that Bledsoe's big receivers were less a list of who's who at the position than of who's that with Vincent Brisby, Ray Crittenden, Michael Timpson, and Shawn Jefferson. Even with Montana everyone remembers Gary Clark.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Case for the Hall of Fame

I know a losing battle when I take it on. I write to raise awareness regarding Genarlow Wilson - check here for the update on what's going on with Wilson - and now I'm starting a campaign for Drew Bledsoe's induction to the Hall of Fame, knowing full-well that for whatever reason, sports columnists around the country are down on him in spite of a body of work that rivals most of the quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame.

Let's start with Sports Illustrated columnist and Massachusetts resident Don Banks (with whom I often find myself in agreement) and his recent column in which he says Bledsoe is "not even close" to a Hall of Famer...

Banks primarily argues the following

consider this overview nugget that in my mind clearly defines Bledsoe's legacy: As a starting quarterback, Bledsoe saw three organizations give up on him: New England, Buffalo and Dallas. That's nearly unparalleled among Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

Twenty-six-year NFL veteran George Blanda lost starting jobs in Chicago and Houston, but his memorable stint in Oakland was primarily as a kicker and backup quarterback. The newly enshrined Warren Moon -- himself a borderline Hall of Fame candidate in the eyes of many -- saw Houston, Minnesota and Seattle replace him as a starter, but his Hall candidacy was aided immeasurably by both his six record-setting seasons in the CFL and his pioneering role as the game's first star black quarterback.

Bledsoe has no such historical niche to hang his Hall candidacy on.
So, in his own argument he points out two other HoF QB's who lost jobs to other quarterbacks. Only one of the two others, however, could be considered a casualty of the salary cap era as Bledsoe was. When Bledsoe was released from the Bills he hadn't been beaten out by JP Losman, he was more expensive and the Bills felt that Losman's scrambling ability behind their suspect offensive line gave them a better chance in spite of the fact that he was unable to outplay Bledsoe for the starter's roll. Additionally, when in New England, Belichick opted to stay with the hot-hand in Brady when Bledsoe came back from a devastating injury.

With the time missed and the nature of the injury, a coach would have to wonder about the ability of his quarterback to take a full 60 minute beating. Also not the first time in history that a future HoF QB languished on the bench behind the hot-handed back-up.

Banks other major arguments -

Bledsoe's career 57.2 completion percentage ranks behind all but one of the recent Hall of Fame quarterbacks who competed in his era, among them Steve Young (64.3), Joe Montana (63.2), Troy Aikman (61.5), Jim Kelly (60.1), Dan Marino (59.4), and Moon (58.4). Bledsoe is ahead of only John Elway (56.9). He's last in that group in quarterback rating (77.1), yards per pass attempt (6.64), and second-to-last in touchdown percentage (his 3.74 beats only Aikman's 3.50).

Bledsoe is also near the back of the pack of his peers when it comes to winning. His 98-96 career record as a starter is about as middle of the road as you can get. He went to just one Super Bowl as a starter, throwing four interceptions in New England's loss to Green Bay in that championship game a decade ago, and led a team to the playoffs as its No. 1 quarterback just four times in 14 years (going 3-4 in those games). That pales next to the postseason exploits of QBs such as Montana, Aikman, Elway, Young, Kelly and Marino.

So, he's behind in a couple of the statistical categories that Banks chooses to list, but even so is still ahead of Elway and Aikman in two of those listed. He cites the starting record of 98-96 (and a playoff record of 3-4, but is 4-4 if you count the relief appearance in 2001), but if win-loss is so relevant, then why is Joe Namath in? Namath had a losing a lot, and less than pedestrian statistics. Here's the comparison -

Namath - 77-108-3 27,663 yds.140 games.173 TD/220 INTs. 50.1 % cmplt. 65.6 rating

Bledsoe - 98-96 44,611 yds.194 games.251 TD/206 INTs. 57.2% cmplt. 77.1 rating

Sure, Namath played in a different era, but even then throwing more interceptions than touchdowns and having a losing record I can't imagine was considered a good thing.

Don't tell me that a Super Bowl ring is a prerequisite, or is playing big in the big games otherwise Warren Moon, Jim Kelly, Dan Fouts, and Fran Tarkenton wouldn't be in. Hell, Fouts and Moon never even made it to the Super Bowl - so what got them in? Impressive statistics.

What's are the major statistics that are supposed to be the tell-all for great QB's? Completion percentage and TD/INT ratio.

And yes, most of the above have better completion percentages, but Bledsoe is better than several in regards to the TD to INT ratio - including better than Aikman who seems to be universally hailed as the best QB of the 1990's. Bledsoe tossed 1.22 touchdowns for every interception. Aikman? 1.17 (165/141 in 165 games). Additionally, Bledsoe threw for more per game than Aikman (1.3 per game as opposed to 1) with what most would consider lesser talent for most of his career. Who was Bledsoe's Michael Irvin?

For all of the knocks on Bledsoe in regards to bad decision making, proportionately he gave the ball to the opponent less than Aikman. Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, who thrived in the same Ernie Zampese developed system that Bledsoe did early in his career also has a poorer ratio of TDs to INTs - 254 TD/242 INTs, or 1.05 TD's for every interception thrown.

Also, consider the following - Bledsoe is one of only five quarterbacks in the history of the NFL to throw for more than 3,000 yards in at least nine seasons (Warren Moon 9, Dan Marino 13, Brett Favre 15, and Peyton Manning 9)

Bledsoe is fifth all-time in completions. Three of the four quarterbacks ahead of him are already in the Hall, the other is Brett Favre. He's fifth in pass attempts, seventh in yards and thirteenth in TD's.

He had two defining moments - one the relief appearance in the playoff game in Pittsburgh, the other? Two come from behind wins with a quarter-inch pin sticking out of the index finger of his throwing hand to propel the Patriots into the post-season. Yes, he didn't have a great Super Bowl against the Packers in 1996, but who would have with the blocking he was (or wasn't) getting from Max Lane who was getting schooled by HoFer Reggie White?

The bottom line - either Bledsoe belongs in, or there are a whole lot of guys in the Hall who don't belong. Enjoy retirement big guy.