Hot Tuna

Control freak Bill Parcells will burn out in his third year at Dallas. Plus: Pennington's the MVP, not Gannon.

Published January 3, 2003 8:23PM (EST)

"Kee-ripes," lamented W.W. (Pudge) Heffelfinger in his 1954 book "This Was Football." "How different modern football is from the old days when the coach wouldn't dare make a decision without first consulting the team captain."

Team captain? How quaint. In the current National Football League, the most important function of a captain is knowing when to drop the Gatorade bucket on the coach. And most of all, I wonder what Pudge would have thought about how we've elevated the profession of coaching.

Heffelfinger was Walter Camp's first All-America selection back in 1892 and the game's first professional -- $500 for a game between the Allegheny Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. He wouldn't have known what to make of a game where coaches have come to dominate everything from player drafts to strategy. Or a game where the serial hiring of Bill Parcells is as big a story as the playoffs.

In the early years of the game -- we're talking around the time when Teddy Roosevelt was president -- coaches were far from the venerated figures we know today. They were, on occasion, forcibly ejected from the field by players when they became too dictatorial. Pudge lovingly describes one incident where the players lifted a coach off the practice field and wouldn't let him return until he quit trying to tell the players what to do. Often coaches were told not to stand on the sidelines with the team during the game. Many sat in the stands, and still others were -- lowest of low -- banished to the press box. If they had comments or suggestions for the players, they were told to bring them to the locker room at halftime.

Within the century, coaches went from drawing up an occasional play to calling them all. Coaches who could produce winning teams like Bill Parcells (who turned three successive losing teams, the Giants, Patriots and Jets, into winners) achieved the superstar free agent status that team owners succeeded in denying the players.

How did this happen? The best answer is to find the money. This means we can pinpoint the early 1920s, when football began to change from a sporting contest organized for the enjoyment of college athletics and spectators to a moneymaking proposition for the universities -- and later, of course, for the owners of professional teams. A century after Pudge Heffelfinger learned to play football on the rough sandlots of Connecticut mill towns, football has all but ceased to exist outside of an organized structure. Travel the country and you'll see a few pickup games of basketball and baseball, but outside of a high school field, where do kids still play football?

It is not even clear that they would know how to have a game without coaches to direct them. The game has gotten so complex that no one but the coaches truly understand it. The head coach has evolved from a man who carried a bucket and helped the captain to a man who coaches coaches, a swarm of coordinators and assistants and quarterback coaches and line coaches and receiver coaches from whom consensus must be drawn before a singe play can be allowed. Forget Pudge Heffelfinger -- Vince Lombardi wouldn't recognize this game.

In the biggest game of his life, the 1967 "Ice Bowl" NFL Championship against Dallas, with the ball on the 1 yard line and 13 seconds to play, Lombardi was asked by his captain, the quarterback Bart Starr, what the wanted. "Score a touchdown," the greatest coach in NFL history replied.

What Lombardi meant was: "I've already done my part of the job, now you do yours. You know better than I do what has to be done." (And Starr did. He called his own number and won the game on a quarterback sneak.)

Compare the Lombardi-Starr moment with that of the head coach of Alabama a couple of years ago who, when asked why his team lost the biggest game of the year on a boneheaded last-minute pass play, replied, "I didn't know we were calling a pass." He had delegated a decision on which his job might depend -- not to the quarterback (heaven forbid), but to a subcoach.

The only alternative to such chaos seems to be coaches like Parcells, who are too much in control, so much so that their players often appear as automatons. There may be a law to the modern game, something to the effect that the better the coach, the duller his team.

There may be a second law: The more in control the coach becomes, the faster he burns out. Bill Parcells has now burned out three times. Let's see how long he lasts with Jerry Jones breathing down his neck. I'll give him midway through his third season.

I've always wondered why the NFL doesn't give two MVP awards, one for the NFC and one for the AFC, rather like baseball gives one to a National and one to an American League player. If it did, Brett Favre's No. 2 vote in this year's MVP balloting might make some sense, though I really think at this point in his career there are at least three or four quarterbacks in his own division who are as good or better. (And I don't think that with 16 interceptions and a 6.64 yards per pass average, he had a particularly good season.)

Let that pass. Now, if you pick the AFC winner on the basis of career achievement, it's going to be Oakland's Rich Gannon. The third place finish for Tennessee's Steve McNair is a vote for McNair's athletic ability, not for his effectiveness as a quarterback. He is a very good runner, but by the NFL's passer rating method he was the 17th best passer in the league this season, and by my own method, which rates passers by the two most important stats -- yards per throw and interception percentage -- he was 20th. (For those of you who have written to ask me for the formula, it's simple: The worth of every interception is figured at 50 yards, so you multiply the interceptions times 50, subtract that number from gross yards passing, then divide by the number of pass attempts. The result, year-in, year-out, correlates with winning slightly better than the NFL's system and it's far simpler.)

If he hadn't missed three games due to injuries, my choice for league MVP might have been Priest Holmes of Kansas City, who probably would have finished with about 1,850 yards and 5.2 yards per rush (to the Dolphins' Ricky Williams' 4.8) and 23 or 24 rushing touchdowns (he finished with 21). Holmes was also an outstanding receiver, scoring three more touchdowns on receptions.

But Holmes missed the all-important season finale with the Raiders, and in any event, I have a natural inclination toward quarterbacks over running backs; I really think teams win with passing more often than with running.

My top two MVP candidates would have been Gannon and the Jets' Chad Pennington. Pennington didn't finish anywhere in the top three, which is probably indicative of old football writers' prejudice against young, relatively unknown quarterbacks. But I don't think any quarterback in the NFL performed as well as Chad Pennington this year.

Let's check out some numbers: Gannon threw for far more yards, 4,689, to 3,120, but as readers of this column know, I've never been a huge fan of choosing quarterbacks by their total numbers. If that's the way to do it, Bart Starr would never have made an All-Pro team, let alone have won five championship rings. I've always been in favor of the passer with quality numbers rather than the one with mere quantities. Gannon had four more touchdown passes than Pennington, 26 to 22, but also had four more interceptions, so Pennington is slightly higher in TD to interception ratio. Pennington's pass completion percentage was also slightly higher, 68.9 to Gannon's 67.6 -- in fact, Pennington's was the 7th highest in league history. For the record, I don't put a lot of stock in pass completion percentage, but I do put a lot of stock in yards per throw, and again, Pennington edged out Gannon 7.82 to 7.59.

So, by my reckoning, Chad Pennington was the better passer for the 2002 season. Are there mitigating circumstances that would favor Gannon? How about team support? The Jets' Curtis Martin is regarded as one of the better running backs in the AFC, and I suppose he is, but he averaged a rather unimpressive 4.2 yards per rush this season to Charlie Garner's 5.3. Anyway, the Raiders as a team averaged 4.3 yards per rush to the Jets' 4.0 and had 1,762 yards rushing to the Jets 1,618, so it can't be said that Pennington had more help from his running game.

Help from his defense? The Jets' defense gave up 336 points to Oakland's 304, so which quarterback was performing under greater pressure? It might be said with some justification that the Jets have a better receiving corps than the Raiders, who rely primarily on Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, whose average age practically equals that of the average pro football Hall of Famer. OK, but who thought the Jets' receivers were better back when Vinnie Testaverde was throwing to them in the first three games of the season?

Rich Gannon is a perfect example of a great NFL quarterback who was passed over for years because he didn't fit the bill of an NFL scouting report (not big enough, doesn't throw well enough, etc.). If pressed, I'd probably vote for him for the Hall of Fame, but he was not a better quarterback in the year 2002 than Chad Pennington.

By Allen Barra

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

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