Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Undecima

I was in Cairo airport, on a layover during my journey back from South Africa (regrettably, on Egyptair, though I escaped any adverse situations myself). I was half asleep when, in Arabic, their version of SkySports played the highlights of Real Madrid's second league game of 2016, the first they played under new coach Zinedine Zidane. The Maestro's appoitnment was seen by some as Perez taking the 'Galactico' theme one step too far going now to the man on the touchline. Others saw the Real Madrid legend finally get his shot at the top. Whatever the criticisms or optimisms felt at the time, the immediate result was positive. They won 5-0.

Five months later, Zinedine Zidane and his team stand on top of the futbol world, crowned champions of Europe for the 'Undecima' (11th) time. The five months in-between were a strange journey, that, much like the team did in the final, added up to greater than the sum of each part. Real Madrid were rarely thought of during this stretch as serious contenders, for either the league (Zidane inherited a team in reality 8 points back of Barcelona) or the Champions League. Despite injuries to, at various times, all three of their top attackers, and no real respect given from the footballing comnunity, Real Madrid ended the season just one point behind Barcelona, on a 12-game La Liga winning streak, and winning Europe's top club-team prize.

Zidane's side followed up that initial 5-0 win with a 5-1 win, both at the Bernabeu, both against bottom-half sides. Their first real test was an away match at Real Betis, which Real Madrid drew 1-1. At that point, most everyone thought that Zidane, in the end, wasn't going to provide any real change to the club. He stayed confident, the team stayed confident, and while they stayed unbeaten, the real meat of Zidane's meal at Madrid started when the Champions League kicked off again.

The Champions League has always been Madrid's ultimate goal. They won the first five times the competition was held, back when it was seen partly as an event for a feuding Europe to beat up on each other - games held with strange Government shadows that crept over everything.

They won their ninth title in Zinedine Zidane's first season at Real Madrid, a year that started with him coming over from Juventus for a then-record 75 Million Euros, and ending with a goal worth every cent of that transfer fee, a stunning left-footed volley off a high cross that curved perfectly in the top corner. It was a goal worth of a Champions League title, a goal worthy of a legend of the game, a goal worthy of Zidane. It took 12 years to get #10. It took just two more years to get #11.

Before they got there, however, the team and their manager had to survive a loss at home to Atletico Madrid, injuries at various times to Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo, turning around a 0-2 first leg loss to Wolfsburg in the Quarterfinals, and a slow, boring two-legged win over Man City. The real jewel of Zidane's run, despite how successful it was to that point, was Real Madrid's 2-1 win in the Camp Nou against Barcelona. A great game, to be sure, one that belied the inteligence of Madrid's manager.

In that game, Madrid smartly played back for the first 60-70 minutes, letting Barcelona dominate possession but get no real good chances. Then, in that last 20-30 minutes, Real Madrid opened up and attacked in wave after wave. They ran Barcelona off the pitch that last half hour. It was a reminder of how good they could be. It was also a reminder of how hard they could play for a manager they liked.

While Real's performance was qualitatively inconsistent (it was quantitatively, the best in Europe over the past 5 months) what was not was the way the players spoke about their beloved manager. Zinedine Zidane played recently enough to have shared the Real Madrid locker room with their captain Sergio Ramos, and shared a World Cup Semifinal pitch with Ronaldo. He also played long enough ago that when many of the current squad were growing up dreaming of taking the pitch in big games, he was busy winning them. He inspired his team perfectly, getting his ballyhooed expensive front-line stars to start tracking back on defense. He got his team to commit to being healthier, faster, stronger and more dependable. He brought a squad that was on the brink back together.

The Champions League Final itself was a strange game. The common refrain after it ended was that Atletico Madrid outplayed Real Madrid. For Real, though, the game went the way I expected. Real started out on the front foot, scored the first goal, and then sit back and let Atletico play a very unnartural role as the team with the ball. Atletico Madrid doesn't want to dominate possession. Real Madrid let them. Sure, they ended up giving up a tying goal, but the plan made sense - a less than great front three didn't see it through but it was understandable what Zidane was doing.

In the end, Real Madrid did to Atletico and their pugnacious manager Diego Simeone what Atletico do to others - stay behind the ball, play great defense, snap up a goal, and fight your way to a victory. It says a lot about the way Zidane got his team of talented attacking stars to play that they could win a street-fight with the team thought to have perfected that style.

Zidane, for all his attacking brilliance as a player, seems to have a more stable, defensive approach to managing. He certainly does so in his personal way of managing. Zidane was an incredibly open, calming, introspective influence from the time he took over. He often spoke about the process over the results, on the work rather than the glory. He was ready to go to work with his team, mold them into a harder working group. Mission accomplished there.

It remains to be seen where they go for here. Zidane seems entrenched in his role as manager, not only with the Undecima on his resume, but he may be the one person who could conceivably win a power struggle with Florentino Perez. Real Madrid has a transfer ban looming, but has this summer to retool the team to what Zidane actually wants to do. In his first year, he showed some tactical ability, but more than that he showed more as a manager of people. His players universally love him, shouting their support louder than the critics during the rough time when the litany of wins somehow wasn't good enough. Nothing showed this more than their restrained approach to their title.

The 2015-16 Real Madrid squad won't be remembered as one of all-time greats. The Real Madrid team that won two years likely was better - and definitely played better in their Champions League campaign. But for a man that twice got to the final as a player with Juventus and lost, he may know that the value of winning is more than playing great football. Zinedine Zidane got Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to track back, got the entitled James Rodriguez stuck to the bench, and got the most out of a team that was about to fall apart. Real Madrid won a most un-Real Madrid like title, but for a club that hails their place in Europe most of all, all that matters is the Undecima.

The Top-20 QBs: #11 - Bart Starr




#11 - Bart Starr


 

The reason Green Bay is still a franchise is because Brett Favre resurrected the team along with Mike Holmgren in the early-90's. He rescued the franchise from 20 years of nothingness. The reason the Packers deserved being rescued was because of Bart Starr building that team, along with Vince Lombardi. Bart Starr, the starting QB for the first two Super Bowl champions, the player with the pristine 9-1 record in the playoffs, the man who helped build Green Bay as America's greatest footballing outpost, was easily one of the best QBs in the history of the game even when you strip away legend, mystique and that Lambeau aura.

Bart Starr's career didn't start off with many indications of the legend he would become. It is easy to delineate Starr's career between his struggling pre-Lombardi days (1956-1958), with the post, but while Vince Lombardi's placement in Green Bay led the dynasty, let's not overstate how good Starr was.

Bart Starr's statistical record is stunning for a 1960's QB. Starr's real peak was from 1961-970, a period in which 83-35-4, with a 58.6% completion percentage, an 8.1 y/a, and a passer rating of 86.3 for that 10-year stretch. Add to that his individual great seasons during the period, with passer ratings of 97.1 in 1964, 105.0 in 1966, and 104.3 in 1968. These are numbers completely out of what with what else was going on in the league that that time. He didn't luck into these numbers, throwing a decent amount of passes for QBs of that time - and again playing the winter heaven of Green Bay. Bart Starr was a statistical marvel - one that extended upwards in the postseason.

We often fall on two disparate sides of the road when qualifying the value a playoff win-loss record brings. One side prays daily to that altar, holding up parables like Brady's 22-9 record, or Manning's 9 one-and-done's. The other looks beyond those simple stats and tries to uncover what led to those results, what drove the ultimate score - and yes those people (me included), come to the conclusion that despite the win-loss record Brady and Manning played fairly similarly in the playoffs. Where those two sides can come to a similar conclusion is in the case of Bart Starr, a calming player that can bridge both sides of that battle.



Bart Starr famously went 9-1 in the playoffs, losing his first game - a game he oddly played reasonably well in. And then he never lost a playoff game again, winning his last nine, picking up the last three NFL Championships and then the first two Super Bowls, giving him a nice ring for each finger. Moving past the hilarious coincidence that he played far better in that loss than his first two wins, Bart Starr ended his career with a 104.8 passer rating in the playoffs. In those 10 games, he completed 61.0% of his passes, with an 8.2 y/a, and 15 TDs to 3 INTs. Bart Starr was magic in the playoffs by all measures, whether you want to stop at the Wins and Losses or actually look deeper into how he actually played.

Bart Starr does often get forgotten, lost between the supernova that was Vince Lombardi's legacy on the game (the Super Bowl trophy is, after all, named for him), and contemporaries whose legacies shine slightly brighter (Unitas). Bart Starr played a large part in creating a footballing factory and legacy in Green Bay, a man whose brilliance created a 20-year crater in Wisconsin only filled by a man named Brett. Before we discuss Rodgers taking over Favre's role as the best QB to play in Green Bay, we must first realize he has still some ways to go to pass Starr for the 2nd position.

Along with Unitas and Tarkenton (who are both ahead of him on my list), Bart Starr created a type of QB-ing as well that bridged the gap between the archaic era of the 50's and the modern NFL. For some reason, things went slightly backwards in the 70's, but we can draw the throughline between Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh to Dan Marino and Joe Montana with Unitas and Starr the point in the middle. The fact he happened to also bridge the gap between the regional, small NFL era where the winning team won the simply titled NFL Championship, to the Super Bowl era where the league would grow into the outsized magnet it is now, places Starr at the crux of the league's development. Luckily for us all, he was good enough to merit that spot.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

In Amazement of the Thunder



At various points this season, the most interesting subjects surrounding the Oklahoma City Thunder was their somehow not getting better despite canning Scott Brooks, and whether or not Kevin Durant would come back after this season. Their current campaign lost in the glow of Warriors and Spurs and the glaring, crashing light that was Durant's impending Free Agency. Somewhere along this path, they realized how to play basketball again (may be an oversimplification). Everyone in the basketball community loved the Thunder, but were simultaneously disappointed. They should have been better. They should win 60+ games. They should do this and that. Then we get a game like last night, when you realize why people get disappointed, because peak Thunder is scarier than anything I've ever seen on a basketball court.

The best basketball I've seen a team play was the San Antonio Spurs in the last three games of the 2014 Finals. After two close games in San Antonio started the series at 1-1, the Spurs went to Miami, demolished LeBron in his last two home games there, then wrapped it up by blowing out the Heat a 3rd straight time, this time going on a 59-22 run in mid-game. The second best I've seen a team play was the late season 2012 Spurs, who won their last ten games (going from 40-16 to 50-16 - keeping their 50+ win seasons streak alive even in a shortened season), then won their first ten of the playoffs. Then the Thunder beat them four straight.

That was the beginning of peak Thunder. The 2012 Spurs were a better offensive version of the team that would rule the NBA two years later. The Thunder ran them off the court. Of course, that team had James Harden. This team doesn't. This team is just ale to potentially run the best team ever on the court. The Thunder at their best are an enthralling force of pure basketball skill (Kevin Durant's shooting) with marvelous physical talent (everything Westbrook does), and when it is harnessed, when it is cured perfectly, it is the most explosive scene I have ever witnessed.

That performance in Game 3 was a true shock to the system. The Thunder started strong, but the Warriors caught up and tied the game at 40. The Thunder then went on a 67-26 run. The Warriors could do nothing about it, losing player after player in transition, getting mauled on the boards. They fell victim to the Thunder playing at their best, combined with some good luck elements like Roberson hitting his shots. Still, even if Roberson misses his threes, it would have been a 58-26 run, that's pretty brutal also.

That was a performance that happens when Westbrook and Durant say 'We run this show' and team up to just constrict the life out of another team. Both players had signature moments in that first half that should be engraved in statues outside that Thunder arena. First was Westbrook muscling a Warriors big man for a 1-handed offensive rebound. The other was truly breathtaking, when Durant clean blocked Draymond and a dunk attempt, sprinted down the court, and swished a three in transition. That gave the Thunder a 59-44 lead. It was basically over at that moment.

The Thunder may lose the series, because the largest failing of this group is Westbrook and Durant not saying 'We run this show' enough, or Westrook doing too much and hurting his team, but even if they don't we should cherish these moments. Win or lose, the Thunder may be getting split apart. Durant's free agency has become less of a headline now that people have to focus on the fact the Thunder might actually win this series, but that still is a dark cloud in the future. And if that is the case, let these games be reminders of how special it was.

Given their running the Spurs off the court in 2012, it became a punchline that it was the Spurs who made the next two finals (and came a 1-in-a-100 sequence at the end of a certain Game 6 from going back to back) and not the Thunder, but games like last night's make you believe their stance that the Spurs in 2013-14 and the Warriors last year got lucky with the Thunder injured. Last year it was Durant. In 2013, it was Westbrook tearing his meniscus in the 1st round. In 2013, it was Ibaka injured and while he came back against the Spurs, he was not 100%. The Thunder are healthy, and they may never have a better chance.

In a league so dominated by the exploits of the Warriors and Spurs this year, the Thunder finally waking up and the light getting switched on could be the lasting takeaway from this season. It probably started with that embarrassing loss in Game 1 aginst the Spurs. Following that game, they won 4 of 5 against a team that was 67-15. Now, they've won 2 of 3 against a team that was 73-9. They faced two of the Top-10 best regular season teams ever, and have won 6 of 8. This is not normal. They outplayed and executed the Spurs, and now they've outplayed the Warriors famed death lineup. It just goes to show, when Durant and Westbrook decide to be on, that is the ultimate death lineup.

Sure, this may be hyperblic. and the Warriors are more than capable of winning the next three and making this whole piece irrelevant, but that is kind of the point. Instead of complaining of lost chances in past years, and inadequate coaching, and Westbrook's flaws, let's just revel in what the Thunder could be and were on a few select occassions, because I don't know if anyone was ever better on a court.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Top-20 QBs: #12 - Aaron Rodgers



#12 - Aaron Rodgers


Aaron Rodgers embodies everything a modern QB should be. He has an incredibly live arm, able to throw 40-yard passes on a straight line with no wiggle and a tight spiral. He is mobile enough to scramble for 1st downs and avoid the rush, while being able to launch those perfect throws from every angle running right or left. By all accounts, Aaron Rodgers is among the most, if not the most, gifted QBs to every play football. He has also had the best statistical start to his career of any QB, with all-time highs for career passer rating (104.1) and TD-INT ratio (257-65) and interception percentage (1.6%). Before this season that saw him have career lows in some of those stats, he also had the NFL all-time record for TD% and was 3rd all-time in completion percentage. Stack all this up, add in two MVP awards and a brilliant Super Bowl run, and the real question should be why isn't Aaron Rodgers higher.

The 2015 season took a little sheen of Rodgers' glittering resume, with a truly off season. Despite playing all 16 games, Rodgers didn't reach 4,000 yards (he got 3,821), barely completed 60% of his passes, and had a passer rating of 92.7, nearly 15 points off his prior career average. Rodgers had the excuse of injuries to his receiving core, an average o-line and running game, but he put a bit of that off performance on himself. The reason Rodgers has had the statistical brilliance he's accomplished is the same that hurt him last year: he is a modern NFL QB.

In today's game, we value efficiency a lot more than we used to. The simple tenant to this is passing is better than running, a fact at this point all teams have more or less accepted. To this, a short pass is better than a handoff, and a sack taken is better than an interception. No QB, with the exception of late-career Brady, has been so reticent to throw interceptions as Aaron Rodgers. Passer rating as a stat overvalues not throwing interceptions (in the stat, a TD is worth less than an interception - which is definitely wrong). It is also a statistic that doesn't factor in sacks at all, which again helps Rodgers look even better by this stat. But this shouldn't turn into a focused examination of passer rating, but it points out how Rodgers used his prodigious skills combined with modern passing theory to master the elements that make him so statistically incredible.



Even if you strip away all the elements of the modern NFL, Rodgers can be hailed as an all-timer based on the more ethereal (the pessimist would say 'subjective') ways of judging QB play. Aaron Rodgers is an incredibly gifted player, who harnesses so much ability in that right arm. His ability to throw on the run will etch him in NFL films clips and haunt dreams of Bears, Vikings and Lions fans for decades to come.

His story is also one of pure America. Consistently undervalued, he was not offered a D-1 scholarship coming out of high school, playing a year at Butte Community College. He was passed up in the draft by numerous teams that needed a QB only to go to a team that had the same starting QB for 13 years. He was wedged into a civic mess with Favre and Ted Thompson politicking their way through the 2008 offseason. Through all this, he worked diligently on his ability, refining his throwing montion, making him this multi-faceted hydra that would dominate the league. He got his shot, ran with it, and created a stable foundation in Green Bay only matched by those in New England and whatever team Peyton Manning was QB-ing.

Aaron Rodgers is, at his peak, probably the best physically gifted QB in the history of the NFL. He probably also has the highest floor of any QB in the history of the NFL. His only real weakness is he takes too many sacks (again, something that has no impact on his pristine passer rating - but in advanced statistics that factor it in make him something of a Top-10 all time player). So much of where Rodgers ends up in that Top-10 will depend on how his prodigous skills age. If 2015 was any indication, there may be a universe where Rodgers is not an efficient hydra, but if that was just a product of personnel losses, the NFL can return to being Aaron Rodgers' world.

The Top-20 QBs: #13 - Drew Brees




#13 - Drew Brees



Judging Drew Brees's career will be one of the more interesting challenges 15-20 years from now. He is a statistical marvel who teamed up with a coach and offensive wizard who opened up the NFL. Peyton Manning led the groundwork, and Drew Brees combined that with volume like we have never seen to put up the most voluminous period of Quarterbacking ever. Drew Brees is unlike any QB in history. He made a sprited run at Dan Marino's long-standing record for passing yards in a season in 2008, falling just 14 yards short of tying Marino's mark. No matter, he ended up smashing in three years later, compiling 5,476, and then broke the old Marino mark two more times. If not for a missed game this season, he may have done it a fourth time. It is hard to think of comparable players in other sports, players that have put up absurd numbers that don't really make sense when taken out of context. 

This is clearly the steroid era of passing statistics, though the reasons are far more above board than they were in baseball. Well, if you want to put up a Barry Bonds, it probably is Peyton Manning, a QB who was already brilliant before 2011 – the real ‘Year 0’ of the change – but if anything Brees is a Alex Rodriguez. Skeptics could say he was Sammy Sosa, a player who turned great once the game was made easier, but that is being unfair. Drew Brees has proven himself as more than a function of a system and a league that endorsed opening up the game. He is the one who led that fight to do just that, to challenge convention by throwing, and throwing, and throwing.

The criticisms of Drew Brees are readily available. He is not a ‘winner’, as while his playoff record is decent (6-5), what is more glaring is the amount of times a team QBed by Drew Brees for a meaningful portion of the season (> 12 games) failed to make the playoffs – a startling 7 times. If anything, that is the biggest detraction for Drew Brees, that even as passing statistics and efficiency – which Brees is credited with holding over 600+ attempts – correlate well with regular season success, Brees is the negative outlier. The other criticisms are context driven, such as pinging him for playing in a dome, or only succeeding once paired with Sean Payton; whoever almost all QBs are generally better at home than on the road, and we have no real evidence to say Payton is more important to the Saints passing success than Brees. The final criticism is Brees’s penchant for throwing bad picks. When viewed against the sheer amount of times he throws, it actually isn’t that bad, but Brees does throw some bad ones. He’s not perfect; no one is. But he is far closer to perfect than most.

At their peak, the Saints offense seemed wholly unstoppable. The statistics the entire offense rolled up in 2011, a season when they set the record for total yards (7,474), including an 8-game stretch to end the season, including playoffs, where they rolled up 4,203 yards (525 / game). They were the closest thing the league had seen to the Greatest Show on Turf, wholly unstoppable unless they turned the ball over. Each performance was more ridiculous than the next, as they scored 42-45-45-45 in four straight games. The final one was a Wild Card win over the Lions, where they scored six straight TDs. It was offense at a level, a robotic, peerlessly effective level, that the league had never seen. And Brees was its mastermind.





Looking beyond his exploits as a passer, Brees the Hero of the Common Man may be viewed differently in the future as well. Few QBs have been extolled for their leadership and community impact as Drew, and few deserved it so. While his story of going to New Orleans because his heart called out to him underscores the fact that no one else really seemed to want him after his shoulder injury, what he did in leading that team, in that city, from the first year onwards is remarkable. The Saints were as much a part of that cities recovery as a sports team can be, and Brees pushing that team to immediate success was the primary driver. Yet, for all that leadership plaudits he received, and the credit he got as being to go-to example for the potential of a ‘short’ QB, a couple decades from now people can easily argue Russell Wilson as the prime example of these traits.

Drew Brees is an interesting case to view historically. At best, he is the 3rd or 4th best QB of his generation, definitely behind Messers Manning and Brady, and arguably behind Aaron Rodgers – or at least where Rodgers will end up. He spans a period where his late season career and late-career dip in success for the Saints, will hurt him historically as well as Russell Wilson running around becomes our go to for the short type who fought against the system. Still, let’s never forget just how impeccable Drew Brees was in his absolute prime (2006 – 2013), and how that eight year run, and the great surrounding years as well, will always put him right there statistically, if not so much anectodally.

The Top-20 QBs: #14 - Troy Aikman





#14 - Troy Aikman



Troy Aikman is an interesting case to review when one cares about statistics. Mainly because his were not that good. Troy Aikman never threw for 3,500 yards in a season, never threw more than 23 TDs, and never had a QB rating above 100. His highest QB rating was 99.0, in a season where he threw 15 TDs in his 14 games that he started. Troy Aikman was a throwback, playing a game that seemed to leave the NFL decades earlier. He was the natural heir to Bart Starr, or even Terry Bradshaw, a player that, from a statistical perspective, was held back by how good his team was. The Cowboys were so ruthlessly efficient behind Emmitt Smith's running and their defense that they didn't need Troy Aikman to throw 40 times or for 300 yards. He just peppered in enough of those to make everyone sure he could if he needed to.

People who disliked Tom Brady liked to call him the next Troy Aikman. Over time, that became an insult to Brady, but the Tom Brady that won his first three Super Bowls probably was not even as good as the Aikman that won his three. Brady was held up by a running game and defense. Aikman was neutured because of it. However, come playoff time, the Cowboys did open it up more, and to great success.

Troy Aikman was quietly a superb playoff QB even when you look behind the glittering rings. His individual performances were great. When your team wins the Super Bowl 52-17, it is easy to obscure how well any single player played, but Aikman's 1992 playoff run should be remembered more than it is - going 61/89 for 795 yards, 8 TDs and no INTs, for a 126.4 passer rating. That is right there with Montana's best, or even Flacco's legendary 2012 run. Troy Aikman put up nice stats in his other two Super Bowl runs. Troy Aikman's playoff brilliance, in a way, retroactively makes his regular seasons more interesting, more impressive, and in a way, more depressing.



Aikman becomes almost a tragic figure because the way he played when the Cowboys opened up their passing game showed a truly remarkable player that should have done more. We can't fault the Cowboys strategy, they were ruthlessly effective in those years running Emmitt Smith 350+ times a year. They didn't need 300-yard passing games. They didn't want them. But when they wanted to really show off, it was Aikman's turn to really star.

Troy Aikman has carved out a great place in the history of the NFL. He is tied to the rebirth of a premier franchise, one that never stopped growing 'bigger' once he took over. He achieved great personal success and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. His gig with FOX is a spigot pumping out cash that is stuck in the open position. But it really could have been more. Had he been allowed to throw, or been on the Bills or 49ers, teams that embraced the pass and didn't have the one running back that could combine efficiency and volume, Aikman could have been a true legend.

It will be interesting how history remembers Troy Aikman as the decades continue. We are close enough to his career that people have first-hand memory of his playing. We are still in a 'Rings Uber Alles' world where his three championships push him up the lists of great players. We are also in a world more statistically inclined that can push the hardware aside and look at a statistical quandary of a player putting up 1980's efficiency combined with 1960's offensive splits in the 1990's. As we go on, the statistically inclined people will probably push him further back, and the people that care about rings over anything will hopefully be replaced, but neither side quite optimally views the marvel that was Troy Aikman.

In an odd way, Troy Aikman being such a complex statistical study is at odds at what he is. Aikman was a simple, sturdy leader. Who played the role of Star QB about as well as anyone. He was never known for his staid personality, but on a team of Lotharios and Eccentrics, he was laid back and normal - a Staubach-ian like disposition that was very much needed. He was a basic, central cog in an efficient Ford truck. It's just that he had the same engine and same parts to run a flashy Maserati, but then again, Ford's seem to get the job done just as well.

The Top-20 QBs: #15 - Dan Fouts



#15 - Dan Fouts




Dan Fouts was the first futuristic QB. He was the first one to routinely throw for 4,000 yards. He was the first one who led an offense that resembled what we would see today. Dan Fouts, in a way, was way ahead of his time - along with his legendary, visionary coach in Don Coryell. In many ways, Dan Fouts is the QB people think Jim Kelly was. Kelly ran the K-Gun offense, another futuristic offense with the no-huddle that scored oodles of points and gained more yards, but Kelly had more in common with the dead-ball era QBs than he did with Fouts. Dan Fouts was one of a kind.

Dan Fouts threw deep, that much we all know. He had years with Y/A numbers north of 8.0, great numbers for that time. But that belies his accuracy, often a QB with a completion percentage around 60%. These are not normal numbers for those days. The normal QB in those days either met Fouts's Y/A number, or met the completion number. No one did both. Fouts did.

Dan Fouts was more voluminous than any QB who came before him, and most that came after until Dan Marino came about. As much as we like to think of Marino's 1984 season being from a different planet, so was what Fouts did in 1980-1982. In 1982, he threw for 320 yards per game, basically matching what Marino would do two seasons later - the 9-game season hurt his overall stats. Dan Fouts was at his best in those years, but he was failed by the same issues that have failed so many great 'stats' QBs since.

In a weird way, Dan Fouts is the best example of how not winning a Super Bowl, and being clearly not one of teh Top-5 QBs of all time actually helps his standing. Do we ever hear about Fouts not winning in the playoffs? Or how Fouts was not clutch? No, instead we hear about his defense, or the cold, or other factors ruined him. We appreciate Fouts for what he was: a player way before his time.



We don't denigrate Dan for not winning a Super Bowl, nor even reaching one. We don't fault him for being the initial high-profile 'stat' maven that failed once the weather got cold and the defenses he faced got tougher. Almost hilariously, we almost credit Fouts for losing 'The Freezer Bowl' because it was so cold. Instead of saying Fouts and the Air Coryell offense went underground in the cold, we say 'man, isn't in unfortunate they had to play in the cold?!'

And this isn't to take anything away from Fouts. He represents how media should view QBs, should view athletes. Dan Fouts is a legendary player, one that flew easily into the Hall of Fame. He will be forever remembered as the first QB to make breaking the 4,000 yard barrier routine. He started the modern offense in reality. He also never won a Super Bowl, but who really cares about that? Sadly, often times too many do. Fouts escaped that criticism, Fouts escaped it all. I'm not sure why, but I'm just glad someone did.

Dan Fouts really showed that back in the day, the NFL world saw the value of a QB who threw deep, threw accurately, and put up video game numbers. They saw this as something new, something different, something out of another world. What they didn't see was a QB who couldn't handle the pressure - people viewed beyond the lazy tropes and small flaws to see an all-time great play like he did.


The Top-20 QBs: #16 - Ken Stabler



#16 - Ken Stabler


Who embodied the Raiders? Sure, the obvious answer is Al Davis. There's no real debate there; how could anyone be a better renegade than a man who successfully sued the league he was a part of. But beyond Al, on the field, it doesn't get more Silver and Black than Kenny Stabler.

There were better players on the Raiders - a franchise with a score of HOFers, including Stabler's own teammates like Jim Otto, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Willie Brown and Fred Biletnikoff, but those guys were known more for their ability than their personality. Stabler was the opposite, which made him what the Raiders should be.

There are so many Ken Stabler stories that people don't even know, which is amazing given how many stories there are about his antics and personality and championship-level partying. Ken Stabler was Joe Namath without the press, but with as much game. He was a noted partyer, drinker, and lovemaker. The stores of him in a bar the night before the game, playbook in one hand, and mug of beer in the other. The best part was 12 hours later he was leading a team that all they did was win 10+ games year after year.

Stabler may not have made the Hall of Fame (we'll get to that in a minute), but make no mistake of his deserving case. In his 10 years in Oakland (1970-1979), he went 69-26-1 as a starter, had a Y/A of 7.7, threw TDs on 6.0% of his passes; and had a QB rating of 80.2 with a completion percentage of 59.9%. Those are, given this was the 1970's, outrageous numbers.

For that decade, a decade where the Raiders made 5 AFC Championship Games and won a Super Bowl, Stabler ranked #3 in TDs (behind Tarkenton and Staubach), #1 in Y/A, #4 in passer rating (behind Staubach, Bob Griese and Bert Jones), and #1 in completion percentage. Please, don't tell me he didn't deserve a HOF spot. Maybe he wasn't as good as Staubach, Bradshaw, Griese and Tarkenton, but he absolutely needs to be in the Hall of Fame






Stabler's best season personally also happened to be the best season for the Raiders. After losing three straight AFC Championship Games in 1973, 1974 and 1975, the Raiders entered 1976 with a can't win the big one label. That year, the Raiders went 13-1 and then rolled through the playoffs. They ended the season 16-1, the second best record in teh Super Bowl era at the time. Stabler himself had a season that was basically unheard of in 1976.

In 1976, Stabler completed 66.7% of his passes (basically like if someone went 73% in 2015), with a TD% of 9.3 of his throws (2nd best all time behind Manning in '04), and a passer rating of 103.4. Having someone play the whole season and do that in the 70's was like what Marino did in 1984.

At his best he was that good. At his best he was also that infamous. Yet despite the hard partying, the great play, he was always a bit under the radar. He was not as notable a womanizer as Joe Namath, and not as notable a player as Staubach; but he was the closest anyone came to doing both at the same time. Kenny Stabler had the memorable games, the memorable personality, and the great performance. Can we get this guy in teh Hall of Fame please!

It is amazing that for a franchise with the amount of success as the Raiders, they've never had a QB make it to the Hall of Fame. Stabler should be the first, and he likely is the best QB the franchise has ever had. He was a Raider for life, a guy that Al Davis swore by; that his more talented, lettered teammates revered. Ken Stabler lived a good life, and I wish he rest in peace; or rest in action, living life and having fun like he always had.

The Top-20 QBs: #17 - Jim Kelly





#17 - Jim Kelly




Jim Kelly had a weird career, he's remembered for being innovative, the QB of the NFL's second modern offense. In a way, all current offenses are combinations of the West Coast Offense, and the no-huddle. Things have been molded and adapted, but the no-huddle influence really stemmed from Kelly and the Bills. Jim Kelly, though, is also remembered for losing, but not in a bad way. No, there is no QB who's career is remembered more fondly for failing. In that way, Jim Kelly has led a blessed life. He's the one QB who was so bad at winning the Super Bowl, people realized just how good you have to be to get there.

We must remember that despite their 'high flying' reputation, the Bills were the tallest midget, or the thinnest kid at fat camp. The NFL in the early-90's was at a new offensive valley. The 80's were a rebellion to the dead-ball era of the 70's, and the 90's was defense getting its revenge. The Bills were the best offense, but that was still a team that ran the ball more than half the time. Jim Kelly never threw for 4,000 yards. He never threw the ball 500 times in a season. Part of this was due to him missing 1-3 games in many seasons, but his numbers look more like a 'game manager' in the 2000s, but that goes to the era he played in.

We don't mentally think that the early 90's need to be looked at a little more closely when judging passing statistics, but they must. Kelly's career 60.1% completion percentage, his four year stretch with an 89.6 passer rating, these are impressive numbers. Kelly played in Buffalo, let's remember as well. Compared to his peers, Kelly was a consistent 10-30% better than the average QB, which in the NFL was a lot.



Jim Kelly got the luxury of having Andre Reed, but it was definitely more the other way around in retrospect. He also took control of an offense with a mediocre offensive line, that played in Buffalo, and made it something special. The Bills was 13, 13, 11 and 12 games in his prime, and for his career, Jim Kelly was 101-59, basically averaging 10 wins a year for a franchise that has gotten to 10 wins just twice since he left. We must also remember that Jim Kelly is missing a good 3-4 years of his career due to his playing in the USFL first.

Jim Kelly was one of the people that legitimized the USFL, along with Steve Young, and while Young outclassed him, Young also had the better versions of everything Kelly did. Young had the best WR of all time, instead of a guy who probably doesn't deserve he Hall of Fame nod he got. Young had the best offensive system, instead of the second best. Steve Young was better, but circumstance and situation elevated him and supressed Kelly.

What Jim Kelly also did was throw deep, going against the natural trend of the league to embrace the West Coast Offense and go shorter and shorter. Kelly did not rely on YAC, he relied on his own brilliant right arm, and the players around him. Of course, he never did win a Super Bowl though.

Again, Kelly, and the Buffalo Bills in general, are the one team to largely escape criticism for not winning a Super Bowl. That's what happens when you do something no one else has - get to four in a row. Jim Kelly probably should have won that first one. Obviously, if Scott Norwood hits a field goal he does. Is his legacy any worse because his kicker missed a kick? No, as it should be. He's just lucky to be the one guy where that is the case.

Jim Kelly was a great QB who ran an innovative offense, but more than that, he's a symbol and a reminder to the more analytically-inclined NFL fans. He's a reminder that the early-90's shared far more similarities to the 1970's than it does the 2000s, and he's also a reminder that there is hope that a QB can be judged not by the hardware on his fingers, but the brilliance of the footballs that spun out of them.

The Top-20 QBs: #18 - Terry Bradshaw




#18 - Terry Bradshaw




Terry Bradshaw can continue to count his rings, all four of them, and tell people and have them listen, that he is one of the best QBs of all time. He would have a point. Not because he has four Super Bowl rings, tied with Joe Montana and Tom Brady for most all time. No, but because he was actually a key cog in a Steelers machine that was surprisingly good on offense for much of their run. Yes, Bradshaw was surrounded by more talent than maybe any player ever, from coaching staff, to defense, to receivers, but Bradshaw was a more important part of that machine than people who deried him for being a 'winner' remember, and less than people who praise him.

Terry Bradshaw was plainly not a good QB for a long stretch of time, starting from his rookie season when he threw 24 INTs to just 6 TDs. No matter of converting from dead-ball era stats would change that. Up through 1974, the Steelers first Super Bowl season, Bradshaw was a plainly bad QB riding the wave of the Steel Curtain. However, something changed in 1975, not only with Bradshaw but with the team. The Steelers ranked in scoring offense from 1975-1979 fifth, fifth, seventh, fifth and first. The defense remained good, but the Steelers that won the last three Super Bowls were more than just the Steel Curtain, they were an offense as well.

If we cut out the initial growing pain of that early Bradshaw, the same player who was nearly benched for Joe Gilliam, Bradshaw looks like quite a respectable statistical marvel. He averaged 21 TDs to 17 INTs between 1975-1981, with a y/a of 7.7. These weren't the best stats of those days, but the Steelers offense was a high risk proposition, throwing deep than most teams of that era. Bradshaw had the help of two future Hall of Famers, but neither player is one of the better WRs in the Hall of Fame - yes, neither Lynn Swann or John Stallworth were ever that great. Bradshaw raised his game in those years, putting up seasons that would equal that of Staubach and Stabler, playing in a tougher environment, in a division where passing was suppressed due to weather and cookie-cutter stadiums with horrific turf fields.



I've put it off for long enough, let's just get to that playoff and Super Bowl career. Much like Troy Aikman, another QB who is both overrated and underrated by his Super Bowl rings depending on how people view those things, Terry Bradshaw did seem to raise his game in the playoffs. The Steelers threw more in the playoffs, and largely to great results. In his four Super Bowl wins, Bradshaw had passer ratings above 100, with 9 TDs and 4 INTs, In his last three Super Bowls, again in that 1975-1979 timeframe, he had a Y/A over 10. Some of that is credit to the ridiculous catches that Swann and Stallworth pulled off, but Bradshaw had some truly great performances in the playoffs.

His best may have arguably been his last, a playoff game in 1982 against Dan Fouts and the Chargers. The Steelers lost, but lost 28-31 with Bradshaw nearly out-gunning Fouts. Ol' Dan had the better game, but Bradshaw put up what would be considered a modern-day passing line, going 28-39 with 325 passes and 2 TDs. Bradshaw was the rare player who improved his stats across the board in the playoffs, with his completion percentage, yards-per-attempt, passer rating and TD-to-INT ratio all improving in January.

Therein lies the issue with Bradshaw. People who put him over try to denigrate his career for his average career passing stats (he did have an adjusted passer rating 10% above average) while shoving the Super Bowl rings aside. Those people are wrong as those playoff stats, coming in a rather sizable sample, are there. They actually happened, and Bradshaw did, by all accounts, get noticeably better in the playoffs. Of course the other side shoves away his clear issues with his overall resume and are blinded by the diamond-studded rings. Neither side is right, but neither is wrong as well.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.