Saturday, November 06, 2010

If Jamie Dukes Was on That Committee, We Have Grounds for the Supreme Court Appeal Right There

Last Thursday night, I found myself desperately missing Bill Belichick's company. I wanted him right there on my couch, just so I could see him display his indignation and dismay when NFL Network announced that Jerry Rice, not Jim Brown, had been the greatest player in National Football League history.

Probably the one and only trait I share with the coach of the New England Patriots is a taste for football history. Show me or him a reel of black and white film of men slogging about on a muddy field in helmets without facemasks, and we're happily preoccupied men. And that horrible moment, I needed the comfort of a withering Belichickian sneer, or a trademark deadpan sarcastic remark. I needed to know I was not alone in my disbelieving outrage.

Sports history is endless argument (so's real history), but if there is one point I felt settled beyond dispute, it was that Brown was the all-time all-timer. He was the greatest running back ever, and frankly, represented the violence at its core. Jim Brown was an offensive "skill" player defensive players feared -- a complete reversal of the game's usual psychological equation. Jim Brown WAS pro football, in all its ferocious, more than slightly inhuman glory.

Jerry Rice was for sure the greatest wide receiver ever and a magnificent football player. Number two in history? Maybe. Number four of five would be more like it. But best? Wide receivers can't be best. No matter how great, they are still dependent on the man who throws them the ball. Replace Joe Montana and Steve Young with Jim Harbaugh and Tony Eason in Rice's life, and where would he be in histry?

I was still wondering how the distinguished committee who made these ranking made this blunder until I learned that Mike Golic was on it. All became clear. A panel of talking heads who think the NFL began with Super Bowl I, and whose grasp of football present, let alone past is hazy, had made the choices. Boooo!!! And I'll bet Belichick booed, too -- in his heart.

The coach, in fact, was part of the NFL Network's television series. He introduced the segment on Sammy Baugh. Each player's film clips were accompanied by a talking head who said WHY said player was one of history's greatest. Some were mundane. Belichick's, needless to say, was outstanding.

Baugh was rated 14th, another horrible injustice. That's about seven places too low at a minimum. First great passing quarterback? Led the league in passing, interceptions as a defensive back and punting all in the same season? The one player of the past most cited as being able to be great today in a game where people are about 50 percent bigger? That's fourteenth?

Worst of all, of course, is the knowledge Baugh was ranked so low only because they couldn't find color films of his best performances. In the NFL, truth always comes in a well-beaten second to marketing. Which is why, class, Peyton Manning was rated eighth.

For the record, the segment on Manning was probably the best television of all 100 segments of the series. This was because he was presented by Ray Lewis (#18 himself) and Lewis was freakin' eloquent. He made the hair stand up on your neck talking about Manning. At the end, you were sold on the notion of Manning as an historic player.

Not so sold I'd rank him about Baugh, however, or Otto Graham (16), or for that matter, Tom Brady (21). If people argue in bars and on the Internet as to whether Brady or Manning is better today, and they do (my answer, as ever, is give me either one, please), how can HISTORY rate one of these phenoms 13 places above the other?

There was never the slightest chance NFL Network wouldn't do this (marketing!!!), but it was a terrible mistake to put active players on this list. How can you rate a body of work that isn't finished? What if Brady wins two or three more Super Bowls? What if Manning does the same, or throws 60 TD passes in a season? Those are not idle speculations, all are well within the bounds of probability. It was an injustice to both quarterbacks to treat their careers as dusty past when they're both vibrantly part of football's here and now.

(BTW, Brady's presenter was Derek Jeter, a very cool idea that failed because Jeter, as always, was hopelessly bland and dull.)

I want to be fair, especially because the 100 Greatest Players in NFL History's ratings were not. This was an excellent television program and I watched every episode devotedly. Every player on the list is a Hall of Famer, all their careers deserve to be honored by all football fans, and it gave me great pleasure to think of each star as the clips of their deeds were shown.

BUT history is supposed to be about accuracy. Accuracy is hard to establish in human affairs, so there are permissible debates, and we learn new things about old events as we go along. Revisionism, however, can only go so far. The causes of the Civil War remain open to scrutiny. Which side won is not.

A historian who will tell you Jerry Rice was a better player than Jim Brown is like a historian telling you Grant surrendered to Lee at Appomattox Court House.


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