Football 101: Nos. 64-60
We continue with our roundups of the next players in the Football 101. Thanks for reading, and for those who aren’t subscribers, I hope you’ll consider joining!
No. 64: Terry Bradshaw
So, I don’t like to admit this now, but I hated Terry Bradshaw. I didn’t hate him in the relatively healthy way that fans will hate rival players. I hated him intimately and ferociously, as if he had wronged my family, as if he had framed me for a terrible crime, as if he personally ordered the destruction of the planet of Alderaan.
I hated him this much: When the Browns’ Turkey Joe Jones picked Bradshaw up, flipped him over, and pile-drove him headfirst into the turf, I cheered. It was one of the truly terrible cheap shots in the history of professional football … and I cheered. Now, I will say that I was not one of the Cleveland fans who threw snowballs at Bradshaw as they carried him off the field in a stretcher.
But this is likely because I wasn’t at the game; I was watching it on television.
Would I have been one of those people if I HAD been there?
I choose to not answer the question on the grounds that I might incriminate myself.
I do feel actual shame about the fury of my feelings toward Terry Bradshaw; I’d like to believe I don’t have that kind of hostility bottled up inside me. But, in my defense, Bradshaw naturally generated strong feelings in people, whether they were Pittsburgh fans or Cleveland fans or Dallas fans or anyone else.
Bradshaw was the consensus No. 1 pick as he came out of Louisiana Tech. There was nobody else. Bobby Layne said he had the quickest release for a quarterback he had ever seen. Chuck Noll said he had the strongest arm he’d ever seen. In those days, he was a running threat too; at 6 foot 3, 215 pounds he was as big as some linebackers and he could really move.
Trouble was that Pittsburgh had that No. 1 overall pick … and the Steelers were the biggest joke in the NFL. They had never won a playoff game. They were coming off a 1-13 season that had featured 13 consecutive losses. Nobody had any idea if new coach Chuck Noll even knew what he was doing.
We all know that franchise quarterbacks aren’t crazy about going to loser organizations.
Well … most franchise quarterbacks.
“I was so excited,” Bradshaw would say about the Steelers drafting him. “I mean all along, I wanted to go with a loser.”
Yes, Bradshaw was a different breed of cat—but we’ll come back to cats in a second. He truly wanted to play for a loser because he wanted to be a part of a miraculous turnaround. More than that, he wanted to be at the CENTER of a miraculous turnaround. Pittsburgh was perfect.
And, as we now know, Pittsburgh was ready to turn around. That 1970 draft was the beginning—only two of the 442 players taken that year would go on to the Hall of Fame. And the Steelers took both of them: Bradshaw and Mel Blount.
A year earlier, they had also taken a future Hall of Famer: Mean Joe Greene.
A year later, they took another future Hall of Famer: Jack Ham.
A year after that, they took ANOTHER future Hall of Famer: Franco Harris.
Two years after that, they took FOUR future Hall of Famers in the greatest draft in any sport ever: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
But Bradshaw didn’t know any of this at the time, and his rookie year was an epic disaster—his words, not mine. You look at the numbers now and they’re mind-numbingly terrible. He completed 38% of his passes. He threw six touchdown passes against an NFL-high 24 interceptions.
“I was totally unprepared for pro football,” Bradshaw would say. “I’d had no schooling on reading defenses. They’d blitz me, and I’d just run away.”
Those first years were rough. Everybody loved the arm; nobody loved where those passes landed as the interceptions piled up. The criticism was ferocious and personal, including too many people calling him dumb. I mentioned “cats”—it was Dallas’ Hollywood Henderson who famously said that Bradshaw couldn’t spell CAT if you spotted him the C and the A.
“Nothing in his upbringing had prepared him for suck recognition,” Ron Fimrite wrote in Sports Illustrated, “and he squirmed in the limelight, a frightened and bewildered star.”
Even when the team found success—reaching the AFC Championship Game in Bradshaw’s third year, winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 1974 and ’75—the story was told that the Steelers won IN SPITE of Bradshaw, not because of him.
It wasn’t fair at all. It’s true that in ’74 and ’75 Bradshaw was still developing … but even then he could lift his game for the biggest moments. He threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to seal the Steelers’ first Super Bowl victory over Minnesota. He threw two touchdown passes without an interception as the Steelers beat Roger Staubach and the Cowboys in their second Super Bowl win.
And then, Bradshaw really came into his own—he became the most dangerous downfield passer in the NFL. He was league MVP in ’78. He was Super Bowl MVP in both ’78 and ’79. It was a different time for quarterbacks, a time when the job was to make big plays and force the action and stretch the defense. Bradshaw was the master at such things.
This is why I hated him, why all of Cleveland hated him: He was always going to find a way to beat you. There was nothing anyone could do about it. The Steelers had famously intimidating players like Lambert and Mean Joe, but for me Bradshaw was the scariest of them all because you just knew that no matter the score, he would drop back and elude two tacklers and fire some lightning bolt downfield to Swann or Stallworth. He wrecked so many of my Sundays.
The other day, we were watching him on the FOX pregame show, and he said something typically funny and my daughter laughed … and I told her, “Don’t let him fool you. That guy’s a killer.”
No. 63: Roger Staubach
There was something that Roger Staubach used to do that seemed fundamentally different from any other quarterback of his time or maybe any time: He would drop back to throw and fire a mid-range pass downfield … and it always seemed to gain 10 or 15 more yards than you expected. Like he would throw the ball to Drew Pearson or Preston Pearson or Butch Johnson, and you would instinctively think, “Wow, that’s a nice 15-yard gain,” and the announcer would say, “that’s good for 33 yards and a first down.”
Staubach really was a breed apart as a quarterback. He played in an era when quarterbacks threw about as many interceptions as they did touchdown passes, when everybody threw downfield and it was a real accomplishment to complete 60% of your passes, when last-minute comebacks still felt a little bit miraculous rather than inevitable like they often do now.
And in that era, Staubach was the standard. I go back and forth on whether he’d be better today or if he was perfect for his time … I tend to think the latter. Making the argument for today, Staubach was an incredible athlete—Heisman Trophy winner at Navy, such a great runner that his nickname was Roger the Dodger—who would undoubtedly thrive in a run-pass option, 21st-century offense. He was also extremely accurate for his time. He threw 152 touchdown passes and 107 interceptions in the 1970s, and while that doesn’t look all that impressive today, it was FAR AND AWAY the best for any quarterback of the decade.
Staubach retired with the best quarterback rating in NFL history.
But I think he was just right for his era; he, more than anybody, made the Dallas Cowboys “America’s Team” and he had an outsized influence on making the NFL the titanic thing that it has become. He was a gambler who threw downfield with abandon—he averaged 13.5 yards per completion, significantly higher than more recent stars such as Tom Brady (11.6), Peyton Manning (11.7) or Drew Brees (11.3).
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Staubach led the Cowboys on 21 game-winning drives, and while that number pales in comparison to Brady (51), Manning (54) or Brees (53), each of Staubach’s comebacks felt supernatural and magical. Heck, Staubach invented the Hail Mary pass.
Let’s talk about that for a second. It was 1975, Dallas vs. Minnesota playoff game, Cowboys down 14-10 with 37 seconds left on the clock. Dallas had the ball at midfield. After the game, coach Tom Landry would say that he sent in the play: “It was a definite play,” Landry insisted to reporters.
But Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson would always insist that it wasn’t a play at all—“Nah that wasn’t a play in the playbook,” he would say, laughing—but something that they ad-libbed in the huddle. Staubach would drop back and he would pump left to, hopefully, draw the safety to the left side. And then, immediately, he would throw the ball right as far as he could on badly bruised ribs.
Staubach would famously say that, at his best, he could throw the ball 60 yards in the air.
Not being at his best, this ball soared about 54 yards.
But under-throwing that pass was why it worked. Pearson was able to slow down and adjust to the ball and reel it in, while defensive back Nate Wright found himself on the ground. Now, there will be those in Minnesota and elsewhere who to this day will say that Nate Wright found himself on the ground because Drew Pearson pushed him down “clear as day and night,” in the words of Vikings coach Bud Grant.
But no offensive pass interference was called.*
*If you watch the play, you will notice that as Pearson catches the ball an orange object comes flying into the picture, and no matter how many times you watch it, you will think it’s a penalty flag. Pearson himself thought that when the play happened. But then he saw that it was an actual orange someone had thrown from the stands. “At first I thought it was a flag,” Pearson said. “Then I realized, flags don’t roll.”
After the game, someone asked Staubach what he was thinking as he threw the pass.
“I closed my eyes,” he said, “and said a Hail Mary.”
No. 62: Calvin Johnson
“We tried everything,” cornerback Ronde Barber said. “You still can’t stop the guy.”
“They tell you he’s 6-foot-5 and runs a 4.3 [40-yard dash],” Richard Sherman said. “And then you go out there, and he’s faster than you think, quicker than you think, taller and stronger than you think.”
“It’s like he’s a created player on ‘Madden’ when you put his overall at 99,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said.
“You could have two guys on him,” cornerback Tracy Porter said. “You can have three guys on him. As you have seen, you can even have four guys on him. And he’ll come down with the ball.”
“I never faced a guy like that,” Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes said.
Megatron’s career, alas, was too short—he retired at 30. But the awe with which opponents talk about him tells the story even more than his extraordinary numbers. At his peak—from, say, 2011 to 2013—he was the most unstoppable receiver I ever saw.
No. 61: LaDainian Tomlinson
Do you remember in the early to mid-2000s when running backs started breaking the touchdown record pretty much every year? It was a little bit strange. In 1983, Washington’s John Riggins famously set the record with 24 touchdowns. Riggins broke O.J. Simpson’s record of 23, and Simpson broke Gale Sayer’s record of 22 and Sayers broke Lenny Moore’s record of 20.
It took 25 years for all that to happen—and the NFL added two games to the season during that quarter century.
But then in 1995, Emmitt Smith scored 25 touchdowns.
In 2000, Marshall Faulk scored 26 touchdowns.
In 2003, Priest Holmes scored 27 touchdowns.
In 2005, Shaun Alexander scored 28 touchdowns.
And you wondered when this game of musical chairs would end.
Well, LaDainian Tomlinson ended it—probably forever.
Tomlinson probably should have won the Heisman Trophy his senior year at TCU. That was 2000 and it was the heyday of the Heisman voters needing to give the trophy to the quarterback of whoever happened to be America’s best team. So that year the Heisman came down to Florida State’s Chris Weinke and Oklahoma’s Josh Heupel even though, I mean, come on. No offense to anyone, but you’re telling me someone could watch Chris Weinke, Josh Heupel and LaDainian Tomlinson play football and think, “Yeah, I’ve got Tomlinson third on that list.”*
*Tomlinson actually finished fourth in the Heisman voting that year, because he was also behind Drew Brees—who somehow also finished behind those other two.
Tomlinson was taken fifth overall in the NFL draft—and he immediately proved something remarkable that nobody could have known about him. Yes, they could see that he was fast enough to break away, they could see that he was strong enough to break tackles, they could see that he was a fantastic receiver out of the backfield, they could see that he had a beautiful rhythm as a runner and set up blocks like an artist.
What they could not have known was that he was also indestructible.
In each of his first two seasons, Tomlinson led the NFL in touches. And, somehow, he only got stronger. In season three, 2003, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry, caught 100 passes and picked up 2,370 yards from scrimmage, which beat out Priest Holmes for the NFL lead. In 2004, he led the NFL with 18 touchdowns, and the next year he scored 20.
Then came his crescendo season, 2006. He ran for 1,815 yards (5.2 yards per carry), caught 56 passes, and led the Chargers to a remarkable 14-2 record.
Most of all, he scored 31 touchdowns. That’s the record. Maybe someday it will get broken, particularly if the NFL keeps adding games. But he basically averaged two touchdowns per game. And I don’t think that will ever happen again.*
*You probably remember how that season ended for the Chargers—with them up on the New England Patriots by eight points late and free safety Marlon McRee forgetting to just go down after he picked off what could have been the clinching interception. What you might not remember is that LaDainian Tomlinson was typically unstoppable in that game, picking up 187 yards from scrimmage and scoring two touchdowns. including what could have (should have?) been the game-winner midway through the fourth quarter.
What separates Tomlinson from other incredible running backs, in my view, was his all-purpose talents—the guy did everything well. He ran inside. He ran outside. He was the best screen receiver imaginable but he could also catch the ball downfield. He was a good pass blocker. and he played in 127 of 128 games from 2001 through 2008, even though he was the most targeted guy on the field.
No. 60: Drew Brees
The first time I saw Drew Brees play, he was a sophomore at Purdue. It was the 1998 Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Kansas State vs. Purdue, and there was a whole backstory to the game. Kansas State had come heartbreakingly close to qualifying for the national championship game and putting an exclamation point on the greatest turnaround in college football history.
But they ended up losing the Big 12 championship game to Texas A&M in overtime, leading coach Bill Snyder to compare his feeling to the way he felt after the death of his father. Because of the way bowls shuffled in 1998, the Wildcats found themselves stuck going to a relatively minor bowl against a so-so Purdue team. It was a no-win situation. The Wildcats were 14-point favorites, but their hearts were already broken.
And this was especially true because, already, people were beginning to see the special talents of Purdue’s quarterback Drew Brees. He was short—listed at 6-foot, maybe not quite that tall—and he didn’t have a bazooka for an arm. But from the start, he could just put the ball wherever he wanted. Even as a sophomore in college, he seemed to understand the geometry of passing better than anyone; he threw Kuznets curves that eluded the fingertips of leaping linebackers and dropped softly into the arms of crossing receivers.
With 1:24 left in the game, and Kansas State leading 33-30, Purdue got the ball at its own 20. And Brees—who had not been all that good in the game up to that point—threw two incomplete passes to bring up third and 10. And then he just lit up—an 11-yard pass for a first down, a 19-yard pass for a first down, a pass interference penalty, an 11-yard scramble for a first down and a 24-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Jones to win the game.
“I can’t comprehend what happened,” Brees said after the game.
In so many ways, everything that Drew Brees would become was there in that one drive he put together as a sophomore at Purdue. Over 20 NFL seasons, he completed 7,142 passes (most ever) for more than 80,000 yards and 571 touchdowns. The numbers are staggering, and he put them all together without ever being physically impressive. He was never close to being the biggest, the strongest or the fastest. He rarely LOOKED the part. The San Diego Chargers famously gave up on him after only four full seasons.
But he’s probably the most accurate passer in the history of the game—his 67.7% completion percentage is the best ever for a quarterback with more than 2,000 attempts—and he was the point guard for a New Orleans Saints offense that annually threw more passes for more yards than just about any team. Brees led the NFL in passing yards an incredible seven times, which, as football historian Brad Oremland sneakily points out, is more than Dan Marino and John Elway combined (and you can throw in Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman too).*
*Marino led the NFL in passing yards five times, and Elway once. Bradshaw, Staubach, Montana and Aikman never did.
As a tennis fan, I’ve come to think of Brees as the Andy Murray of his time. Murray is one of the greatest players in tennis history in my view, but he had the misfortune (or fortune, depending on how you look at it) of playing in the era of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Brees was named All-Pro one time in his career because he had the misfortune (or fortune, depending on how you look at it) of playing in the era of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.