Overrated, underrated

Overrated: Johnny Unitas, the 1996-2001 Yankees and John McEnroe. Underrated: Bart Starr, the 1996-2001 Yankees and Steffi Graf.

By Allen Barra

Published November 8, 2002 4:21PM (EST)

As a charter member of the original Overrated/Underrated club at American Heritage magazine, I'm delighted to see so much of the print-media world jumping on the trend. I like Overrated/Underrated lists because they're a way of emptying your notebook of all the good story ideas you didn't have a chance to write during the year.

I think every honest Overrated/Underrated list needs to acknowledge its limitations, and limitations go beyond the subjectivity of the lister. Overrated/Underrated lists ought to reflect changes in trends, attitudes and public opinion. For instance (and we argue about this kind of thing all the time at American Heritage), if you were doing an Overrated/Underrated list of Civil War generals 10 or 12 years ago, you probably would have had Robert E. Lee in the Overrated column because all you ever heard anyone talk about was his genius at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg while no one mentioned how his antiquated philosophy of warfare led to the defeat at Gettysburg. Now that that's been acknowledged by historians, Lee should probably go in the Underrated column because he learned from his mistakes at Gettysburg and developed a defensive philosophy of warfare that extended the Civil War for two more years after Gettysburg ...

Well, I digress, but you see the point. "Overrated" and "underrated" are not absolute terms; they are applicable to a particular time, place and circumstance. From someone's perspective it might even be possible that God, Willie Mays or Selma Hayek might be overrated.

Personally, I think Sports Illustrated's Overrated/Underrated list sometimes cheats. This year's Overrated list includes, incredibly, Vince Lombardi, commenting that "Lombardi was the dominant coach of the dominant sport of his generation ... but he was a man of the sixties ... the last decade when coaching was relatively simple. It seems doubtful that Lombardi would have been malleable enough to confront the modern athlete."

Now, really, have modern coaches demonstrated more "malleability" than Vince Lombardi? Or were they just born 25 years later? And what does that say about all the other coaches in and before Lombardi's era? Were they all overrated because they also weren't malleable enough?

Another unfair S.I. overrated is Joe Namath, because his post-Super Bowl career was, well, overrated. That is not to the point. Everyone knows what Namath was capable of before his knees began to give out. For two or perhaps three seasons he was clearly the best in the game and would have remained so if not for injury.

A much fairer S.I. pick for overrated is Jack Dempsey, who, considered as a fighter and not as a historical figure -- he was, after all, the most popular sports star of the 1920s, Babe Ruth not excepted, and probably the biggest gate attraction in sports history -- has needed taking down for quite some time now. Let me give you my argument instead of S.I.'s: Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight crown from an over-the-hill, overweight 37-year-old bum named Jess Willard, held it for eight years, defended it just five times, and never beat a single great fighter in his prime. Who would be underrated to Dempsey's overrated? How about Dempsey's conqueror, Gene Tunney, who whipped Dempsey twice by wide margins and retired undefeated?

Here are a few of my Overrated/Underrated choices:

Most overrated great quarterback: Johnny Unitas. Most underrated: Bart Starr. I made this point more than a year ago, but all the sentimental postmortems of Unitas' career make it necessary to reiterate a few facts. First, while Unitas was undeniably one of the three or four or five greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, he has been vastly overrated as a big-game player. The legendary 1958 and 1959 title-game victories over the New York Giants weren't merely the most famous championship games that Unitas ever won, they were the only championship games that Unitas ever won. Johnny U's entire 1960s career was one long frustrating attempt to live up to that early big-game glory. He never came close, a fact which seems to have eluded otherwise astute NFL historians such as Paul Zimmerman and Peter King.

Second, Bart Starr dominated Unitas in head-to-head matchups during the 1960s, winning 10 of 15 straight up and consistently beating the teams Unitas couldn't (for instance, the Jim Brown-led Cleveland Browns of the mid-sixties and the '67 "Fearsome Foursome" L.A. Rams). At the time, it was argued that Starr's success was due to the marked superiority of the Packers over the Colts from 1960 to 1967, but a quick glance at the record shows us that isn't true. Over that eight-year span, the Packers won just a handful more games than the Colts. The Packers won five championships in those eight years to the Colts' none, primarily because the Packers -- primarily because of Bart Starr -- were better in big games. At one point, in '65 and '66, they beat the Colts five straight times.

Most Overrated Baseball Dynasty: The 1996-2001 New York Yankees. Most Underrated: The 1996-2001 New York Yankees. This is what I mean by overrated and underrated being a matter of perspective. The basic reason that baseball nearly suffered a crippling strike this year was because of Commissioner Bud Selig's continued insistence that a "few big-market" teams had come to dominate baseball. The "few big-market teams" can all be summed up under one name: New York Yankees. Only, the Yankees of this period didn't dominate anything. Well, in 1998 they did -- they were probably the best team from Opening Day to the World Series in baseball history. But the rest of those years they were simply another good team that knew how to play better when the game was on the line.

In 1996 they won fewer games during the season than the N.L. champion Atlanta Braves, were down two games to none in the World Series, and faced annihilation in the Braves' home park. They came back to win four straight, three of them thrillers. In 1999, they again won fewer games than the Braves and swept the World Series in four games, three of which were close going into the seventh inning. In 2000, they had the ninth best record in baseball and had to defeat three teams with better records (Seattle, Oakland and the Mets) to win it all. In 2001 they again had to beat two teams with better records (again, Seattle and Oakland) and extended the World Series to the ninth inning of the seventh game, in which their opponents, the Arizona Diamondbacks, not only had the two best starting pitchers but superior hitters.

Why do the Yankees of this period qualify as underrated? Because nobody gave them credit for the quality of the baseball they were playing. Because of their payroll and because of the final results, most people came to write off the Yankees' success over those six years as inevitable when, in fact, in series after series, game after game, and tense inning after tense inning, it looked like anything but domination.

Most Overrated College Football Coach: FSU's Bobby Bowden. Most Underrated: Dennis Franchione, Alabama. Somewhere along the line, the business of football coaching got out of hand and started to be more about other things -- recruiting, public relations, contacts for Sunday TV replay shows -- and less about actually coaching a college football team. From the standpoint of sheer overwhelming talent, Florida State has probably been the nation's No. 1 team over the last 15 to 18 seasons, and Bobby Bowden is now threatening, within the next couple of seasons, to become the winningest coach in major college football history.

But does anyone remember a game in which his coaching actually made the difference? Can anyone recall a stretch of more than one season where his Seminoles were able to stand up and slug it out with other teams of near-equal talent? Doesn't it seem as though there have been an amazing number of Florida State games that come down to a kick that goes wide left or some other sort of irritating muff that great coaches are not supposed to lose games by? Why, oh why, with all of Florida State's talent and Bowden's supposed coaching genius, does a game hinge on a single kick?

Talk about a coach who can coach -- try Alabama's Dennis Franchione. He made Texas Christian University into a winner and unleashed LaDainian Tomlinson on the NFL, then inherited a scandal-ridden wreck of a program at Alabama from which he could have easily bailed. This year's Crimson Tide, deprived of a post-season opportunity by the NCAA, has come within two called-back-by-penalty touchdowns of victories over powerhouses Oklahoma and Georgia, and an unbeaten record.

Most Overrated Country for Golf: United States. Most Underrated Continent: Europe. I don't know about you, but I think the Ryder Cup team should be ashamed of itself. They have Tiger Woods on their side, and they can't beat a bunch of people from Portugal and Belgium?

Most Overrated Current Boxer: Roy Jones, Jr. Most Underrated: Oscar De La Hoya. Too often in these overrated/underrated lists people confuse "overrated" with "over-hyped." Roy Jones, Jr. is under-hyped by the general media, and overrated by the sports media. He is a very, very good boxer -- perhaps a great one, but we'll never really know because his natural weight (which seems to be about 180-190) attracts fewer good fighters than either the heavy or middleweight divisions. If he had been active, say, thirty years ago, he'd have had to fight Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, Oscar Bonavena, Ron Lyle, and Jimmy Young if he wanted to fight above 190 pounds, and then he wouldn't look so great. Also, I'm getting a little tired of him complaining that there aren't any great fighters at his weight level. Is he waiting for Bernard Hopkins to turn 40?

As for Oscar, he is over-hyped and underrated. He's fought everybody, beaten nearly everybody, and given a great show nearly every time out. What else is there?

Most Overrated Tennis Player: John McEnroe. Most Underrated: Steffi Graf. His great period was really just four years long, and he lacked the essential quality of grit: Try and recall a single important match where he made a comeback to victory. As for Steffi, I won't make the case that she was the greatest of her generation, but she was almost certainly the most unappreciated. She won 21 Grand Slam titles, second only to Margaret Court's 23, and Court played against vastly inferior opposition. In fact, though I've seldom heard TV commentators mention it, she's won more women's titles than anybody, including Martina.

Those are a few overrated/underrateds off the top of my head. Send me yours at commentsforbarra@aol.com.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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