It's a Zone Blitz on a Double Reverse, and They've Got Athleticism!

The stadium scene.
Jan. 23 2001 6:45 PM

It's a Zone Blitz on a Double Reverse, and They've Got Athleticism!

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Travel Agent Note of the Week: Everyone is pointing out that the last time Jersey/A appeared in the Super Bowl, in 1991, was also the last time the game was played in Tampa. A more meaningful harmonic: 10 years ago the Giants' flight for Tampa departed Sunday while the Bills did not board their plane till late Monday. History now repeats. The Giants arrived in Tampa on Sunday while the Ravens did not land until Monday afternoon. In 1991, the Giants were better prepared in game plan and execution. Extra time at the scene helped. This year, Jersey/A has the advantage of one additional practice day in Tampa. Will history repeat on the field?

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Hall of Fame Politics: Saturday the NFL announces this year's gentlemen to be "enshrined" in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Making Canton is the apex of a football career, and the company there is pretty darned good. But the selection process is infuriatingly political. So let's have a look at Hall of Fame politics.

First, fundamental injustices of the Hall: In it are more quarterbacks and running backs (39) than offensive linemen (24), even though the typical team plays twice as many offensive linemen as running backs and quarterbacks combined. Canton also has just one kicker (Jan Stenerud), no punters (not even Ray Guy), and no special teams players. Kickers, punters, and special teams players determine about a third of what happens in football, but like OLs, they're not glamorous. Last year the Hall's selection committee did not choose a full allotment of players (there's no rule, but up to seven annually is the tradition; in 2000, five were selected), overlooking Ron Yary, one of the best offensive tackles ever. The slots went to Howie Long, Ronnie Lott, and Joe Montana—deserving, but all glamour players—plus Dan Rooney in the management category and LB Dave Wilcox in the old-timer category. Just another of the many years in which the working class of football was overlooked to emphasize the glamorous.

But then why should this be a surprise since it's the media doing the picking? Purists rue the day it was decided to hand Hall of Fame selections to a media panel, a task force composed of one sportswriter from each of the 31 NFL cities plus an extra from New Jersey (two teams) and six at-large writers. Most selectors are from print media—the few broadcast figures are from local affiliates, none of them the network booth types who carry themselves as NFL insiders. Having journalists do the picking does sometimes lead to fun: The Hall committee tabbed Al Davis in the management category partly to tweak the league front office, which intensely despises him. But having the choices made by the media assures that most selections will be glamour players, not worker bees.

As for politics, the longest-running Hall debate concerns Lynn Swann, who's been a finalist a record 14 times. Swann was a gloried player and made two of the sweetest Super Bowl catches ever, but his career total for receptions doesn't even put him in the top 100 all-time. Oft injured, Swann just didn't play enough to have a Hall of Fame career. His repeated presence as a finalist stems from the fact that his Super Bowl catches are on every highlight reel and that Swann is a good-natured person who's made many friends while working for ABC Sports. But his protracted candidacy dilutes support for former teammate John Stallworth, who has a better argument—30th in all-time receiving yards and second all-time in postseason touchdowns.

Canton selection depends heavily on lobbying—someone on the committee has to take up a player's cause and promote him. This who-you-know factor helps explain why the well-connected Howie Long was admitted in his second year of eligibility while these older greats have yet to be finalists: Roger Craig, Joe DeLamielleure, L.C. Greenwood, Joe Jacoby, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Mike Kenn, Drew Pearson, Jake Scott, and Ken Stabler.

Then there's the matter of retirement timing. Players become eligible five years after their last game, coaches one year after, and owners and managers at any time. Bill Parcells, who's already "retired" from coaching twice, made a big point of announcing two weeks ago that he was "leaving" football, hoping this would encourage selectors to vote him in immediately—he's a first-time finalist, based on "retiring" last year when he left the Jets' sideline—so that he can later take yet another coaching job and become the first Hall of Fame member ever to be an active coach. Parcells possesses keen self-advancement instincts; he knows if he says anything about coaching again, his Canton eligibility must be tabled.

Jim Kelly took Hall timing into account when he hung it up four years ago, though several teams offered him deals to keep playing. Kelly is a likely but not certain Canton man—high on the all-time passer lists and tied with Terry Bradshaw for the best QB starting record in conference championships, but he lost four straight Super Bowls despite premium teammates, and he played poorly in two. Kelly realized that by retiring when he did, he would have windows—2002 and 2003—when the only pressing QB competition is Phil Simms. After that, John Elway, Dan Marino, and Steve Young enter the Canton pipeline and will monopolize the QB slots. So Kelly clipped a year off his career to improve his Hall odds by becoming eligible before the bigger names. It was a savvy move.

Which brings us to the Buffalo Bills problem. Already the Bills have two of the 15 finalists this year, coach Marv Levy and owner Ralph Wilson Jr. Kelly becomes eligible next year along with Kent Hull, one of the best centers ever. Steve Tasker, who many think will be the first special-teamer in the Hall, comes up the following year. Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, and Thurman Thomas won't be far behind. Also out there are James Lofton, who bounced around but whose career peak was in Buffalo, and Cornelius Bennett, whom some consider Canton-class. Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, and Ralph Wilson are locks, and the rest have strong cases. Conceivably, Canton could end up with as many Bills from an 0-4 Super Bowl team as it has from the 4-0 Steelers club of the 1970s.

Levy is a case in point. He's 10th all-time in coaching wins and universally regarded as someone who truly believed sportsmanship means more than victory. So you'd think Levy would be a shoo-in, to say nothing of the fact that the Hall of Fame isn't exactly sagging under the weight of its Jewish members. Levy's Super Bowl losses alone should be no barrier. Bud Grant, the only other coach to lose four, already has been admitted to the Canton club.

But there's a nagging feeling even among Levy admirers that he didn't just lose those Super Bowls, he blew them. On the point that the farther you go in the playoffs, the more important game plans and coaching psychology become, Levy faltered badly. His game plans were notoriously generic, causing him to be seriously out-game-planned in Super Bowls against the Giants and Chesapeake Watershed Region Indigenous Persons. The week of all four numeral events, Levy held light, no-pads walk-throughs while the opposition was hitting in practice and getting into an ill temper. Purists found Levy's nonchalant approach to Super Bowl preparation inexplicable. And he never imposed Super Bowl week curfews, saying that as adults his players could be trusted to be in bed.

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