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You can't always come back

Sanders will be fighting an uphill battle if he joins the Ravens this year

Posted: Friday August 27, 2004 2:26PM; Updated: Sunday August 29, 2004 6:31AM
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Deion's making a comeback. Maybe. I'm always suspicious. Remember Jim Brown's proposed comeback, at age 50 or something? Yeah, right, I'll make my own comeback at the same time. At least one citizen of Doylestown, Pa., takes Deion's comeback seriously, though, and that gentleman's name is...hard to read ... here it is ... Larry, that's it, and he wants to know if 1) Deion can be effective and 2) if there's any precedent for it. Last one first. There's precedent. Tommy Maddox came back after five years on the beach (old seafarers' term) and he was effective for the Steelers, or kind of effective, or at least better than he used to be.

As far as Deion's effectiveness, if he really is coming back? Uh uh. No dice. The best thing about Deion was his closing speed, his burst, and he'd lost that in the days before he retired. Where's he going to get it back from? Personally, I'm all for his return to the field for one reason. It'll take him away from the TV studio.

Comeback No. 2, although this guy hasn't really been away. Vince Testaverde as Dallas' varsity quarterback. Rob of Austin wants to know my opinion. It's not good, Rob. Vinny might be able to finish a game every now and then, but as the No. 1 guy? Afraid not. He won't be able to handle the rush. Either the Cowboys are just marking time until they can find someone else or they'll give Vince a few starts until they feel Drew Henson's ready. I cannot really believe that Bill Parcells feels that 40-year old Vince can make it for an entire season. On a happier note, glad you like the Alsatian whites. I find them, particularly the Rieslings, a good alternative to California Chardonnays, which are starting to bore me silly. Try some of those high priced Alsatian Rieslings with vineyard or proprietary names, such as Trimbach's Cuvee Ste. Emile or Clos Ste Hune, if you can afford them.

Question from a while back. Somebody wanted the name of a good nuts and bolts football book, with meaningful explanations. Shamelessly, I mentioned my own Thinking Man's Guide. Now something recently has crossed my desk (well, not actually the desk...more like the kitchen table, next to Linda's dee-licious lemon squares). And it's more of a season preview than a how-to book. It's called Brassey's Pro Football Forecast ($21.95), and it's got a lot of meaningful, non-run of the mill analysis of each team, plus a lot of intricately evolved statistics you don't see elsewhere. Much hard work went into this book. Worth a look.

Since I might be a citizen of New Zealand some day, let's get to rugby. Ever since my notation that I used to be involved with the sport, I've gotten some action from the ruggers out there. Sets of complete music and lyrics to If I Were the Marrying Kind, The Ball of Inverness, Charlotte the Harlot and I Don't Want to Join the Army. Thank you, gentlemen. They'll all be sung next Christmas.

OK, seriously now, since we're talking about a serious sport, my E-mailer of the Week Award goes to Rob Jolly, an aptly named rugger from Auckland, New Zealand. Rob, a fellow member of the front row club, identifies himself as a loose head prop, which wins him the award, out of sympathy. Loose head is a sucker's position. You get squashed. Tight head does the squashing. That's what I played, except on the few occasions when they switched me over, and I immediately regretted it. Hey, I'll bet you have a cauliflower ear, Rob, unless you're one of those blokes who wears a scrum cap.

Enough inside stuff (a diabolically clever play on words) and let's get to the question. Since he also plays guard, defensive end and linebacker, (for whom?) Rob wants to know the positions which would involve the easiest transition from rugby to football. Yes, I agree with you that No. 1 is flanker (we used to call it wing forward) to linebacker, since the skills are exactly the same. Centre to RB? Well, maybe, but rugger ball carriers aren't used to getting hit the way they'd be in football. It would be an entirely new learning experience. Fullback to KR/PR? No. The need for kicking on the run doesn't exist in football. How about prop forward to guard? That seems like a natural.

Just about the same question, except that it's on a personal level, from Adam of Sydney. He's a high school rugger and he's going to spend the next semester in Fremont, Calif., hopefully playing football. How tough will the transition be? As I mentioned before, the hitting will be the big difference. In football it's a stick with the head and shoulder. In rugby, since there are no pads, it's a grappling, twisting, bulldogging type of tackle. Try that on a football field and you'll be grabbing a lot of air. Every year our club (the Old Blues in NYC and before that the Columbia RFC) would get its share of young players, fresh from the gridiron. The first thing we had to teach them was the difference in tackling, since they were no longer protected by the shoulder pads and hat. But the first few weeks would always see their share of concussions because old habits die hard. If you get yourself fit, though, and the enthusiasm is there, you'll have fun playing football.

Question No. 2. Why aren't there more Aussie Rules footballers in the NFL? Darren Bennett, the old San Diego punter, comes to mind. Elsewhere ... well, I'm sure there are guys who could have made it, but they'd be earning a pittance in the US compared to their hero's way of life in Australia. That's the reason why a lot of super stars in other sports don't emigrate to the NFL. I know when Charley Casserly was GM of the Redskins he had an interest in the All Blacks 250-pound centre, Jonah Lomu, but he just couldn't pay him enough.

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Question No. 3 ... man, you're wearing me out, Adam, but you said such nice things that I'll keep it going. "Don't go to New Zealand. Come to the beaches here." Not really a question, but it's a legitimate No. 3. Adam, how can I tell you this? I'm not the kind of person to nurse prejudices based on country, but I'll give it to you straight. For quite a while, the sound of the Australian dialect set my teeth on edge. You see at one time I worked for an Australian. His name was Rupert Murdoch. The place was the NY Post. The office was filled with his Australian henchmen. Journalistic thugs, we called them.

Toward the end of my tour of duty, it looked like a strike was in the offing. So Murdoch imported a team of strike breakers from his San Antonio paper, again, mostly Australians. Presumably we were supposed to "teach them the ropes" so that they could scab it up while we were on strike. That's the way these people thought. More journalistic thugs. One morning I found one of them going through my mailbox.

"What the hell are you doing!"

"Oh, right, mate."

"I'll right mate you!" I hollered and went for his throat. They pulled us apart.

So for quite a while I nursed this blind prejudice. I'm over it now, thank God, and maybe someday I'll be visiting your beaches, and most definitely your wineries. But not yet.

Thus we return from Tales From the Darkside (man, these things do get long, don't they?) and into the land of light. From Robert of Rochester ... has a kind of swing to it, doesn't it? Sir Robert, Lord Rochester, wants to know why we don't see more two-pointers in the exhibition games. Because no one wants to give away tendencies or strategy, and a scout would reason, well, they're working on it, so they must be serious about it. Second question. What's a good introductory wine book? Wine for Dummies by Ed McCarthy and Mary Mulligan. Thanks for the compliment, Robert.

Stewart of LaConner, Wash., where they favor a game of vicious hitting, feels that the way to beat the heavily enforced five-yard contact rule is to set it up so that the contact on a wideout would come from a blind-siding LB, kaboom! Good-bye wideout. Sounds good, but the first time you tried it, there would be a film record, and now people would be on the lookout for it, and they'd watch for the LB and avoid him ... not too hard for a WR to do ... and thus you'd remove your guy from the play, which might be run right back in behind him. After all that is said and done, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick did exactly what you propose-in the 1991 Super Bowl. Left their LB's on the field, their big guys, against the Bills' four-wideout K-Gun, and had the big guys beat up on the little guys in the five-yard zone. In the second half, the little guys were hearing footsteps and dropping the ball.

Wes of Smyrna, Del., would like me to list the top five coaches who helped shape the history of pro football. Tough question, because when I answer something like this, I'm always reminded by my readers of the names I forgot, then I have to do a follow-up. But off the top of my head, here are seven (sorry, I can't leave any of them off the list). Clark Shaughnessy, father of the modern T-formation with man in motion, creator of modern play calling and numbering systems. George Halas for lots of reasons, but he had great skill in the area of personnel...creating a roster, with depth at certain positions. Paul Brown ... many, many innovations in modern coaching, and strategically, he first used cup blocking, which changed the way of life for QB's. Vince Lombardi ... the psychology of handling players and motivation. Strategically, the run to daylight approach, which gave the backs option reads instead of blind adherence to the hole called. Tom Landry, who first implemented (for Steve Owen) the 4-3 defense, and brought many offensive and defensive (rare for a coach to operate on both sides of the ball) innovations to Dallas. Sid Gillman, architect of the true West Coast offense, which is nothing like the attack that bears that name today. Many innovations in a mid to long-range passing system that spawned such coaches as Don Coryell, Joe Gibbs, Norv Turner, Mike Martz and Ernie Zampese. Bill Walsh ... for his creation of the Walsh System of horizontal, short-range passing that is known today under a misnomer I will not mention again. I would say that currently, Belichick is a work in progress for his defensive system involving multi-skills.

Thanks for the nice words from Greg of Calgary. I know times are tough for you right now, but half the battle is being able to laugh, at least sometimes. I went through a similar period not so long ago, under the same pressures you named, plus a few more. Unfortunately, I had a hard time finding a laugh or two, as you could. My way of coping was to act mean and nasty and crazy, a situation that changed when I met the Flaming Redhead.

Phil of Normal, Ill., writes the following: "Take this at face value. You're my second-favorite living writer, I think. First is Kurt Vonnegut." Linda and I discussed this at length. "He means he's not sure I'm No. 2," I told her. "No, she said, "he's not sure you're living." Well, others have questioned that same thing. But after that intro, I will answer any question you name, Phil. Shoot! Oh, that one. Well, obviously I can't answer that, so if you can think of any others, then ... OK, Phil's question involves the whole matter of scripted plays. How important? How valuable? And when do you get off the script?

Walsh used to script 15, but sometimes he'd get up to 17 or 18. If the situation on the field changed dramatically, i.e., quick segue from own territory or midfield to enemy goal line, the script wouldn't hold, obviously. Then he could get back to it next series, or, if the game situation dictated ... say he was leading 3-0 or 7-0 and the other team was stopped and punted and the Niners got a good runback and were in enemy territory, with a chance to be aggressive and score again quickly and put the other team in a real hole ... he could get more aggressive than what the script called for. Conversely, if he found himself in a hole early, he could get off the script before it had run its course. Actually, the script is nothing more than a guide to how to start the game.

I've asked this question to many coaches, including Walsh: "If a team comes up with an entirely different defense than what you anticipated, and you realize early on that your game plan just won't work, can you simply junk it and start winging it?" Not one of them ever answered in the affirmative.

Part two of Phil's question. Who are the great offensive play-callers, past and present? Walsh. Mike Martz. Paul Brown. Joe Gibbs. Norv Turner, when he had the horses. Lindy Infante for a while. And many many more who I'm too tired to think of right now. OK, add Coryell, please. And Landry. Enough already. There were lots of them, although many old timers don't qualify because the quarterbacks called their own plays.

A loyal reader, Mark T. of Toronto, provides me with the ultimate backfield twosome, in terms of yardage, a project I'd undertaken ... uh, seems like many years ago. Buffalo Bills, O.J. Simpson and Jim Braxton, the big, blocking fullback who was also a devastating runner on the quickies inside. In 1975 the twosome rushed for 2,649 yards (1,817 for O.J., 823 for Braxton), in 1973 the number was 2497 (O.J.'s record year of 2004 yards, plus Braxton's 494). Those two rank Nos. 1 and 2 all time, unless someone can find something better. Mark Toronto, fully caught up in this game by now, also came up with a healthy 2222 yards for the Atlanta pair of William Andrews (1,308) and Lynn Cain (914) in 1980. Stay tuned for latest reports.

Clunk! That sound you heard was the lid coming down on pro football and now we are into Olympics and other things. I fired off a question the other day on what, exactly, are the rules governing the Tour de France. I got a long, detailed reply, and thank you very much, from ... uh ... from ... well, that's the problem because somewhere in this pile of clutter, his email got lost. I am very embarrassed by this. Mr. or Ms.Tour de France e-mailer, could you do me a real favor and re-submit your reply, and I'll mention your name and print the essence of your explanation? Thanks and God be with you.

And a big New Jersey thank you to John for your comments ... that's John of Modesto, who would like to see a real national basketball team, well paid and well integrated ... whoops, wrong word ... well coordinated as to spending lots of time working together, so we won't have a repeat of the current mishmosh that's made us a laughing stock. One thing wrong, John. Your idea of well paid and the NBA's idea of well paid are two different things, and players today won't work for anything less than real big buck$$$.

Thanks, Rich ... that's Richard of Montebello, Calif., who answers my recent question by explaining that volleyball servers toss the ball with their serving hand to get better consistency, since the ball is tossed with the natural throwing hand. He also has a real gripe with the network for what he calls, and it's a great phrase, the extended personal declaration shot. I hate it, too. You know, presenting -- Anguish Up Close, except that they never know when to get off it. They follow it as long as they can, until you're screaming, "Enough already!" But the networks are great for this. How many times have you seen a football injury that draws the solemn comment, "Folks, if you're a little squeamish, we suggest that you don't look at this..." and then they replay it again and again. "See, now look the way his leg bends," etc. And finally, Richard donates what he calls an old joke, but I've never heard it. "If a synchronized swimmer drowns, does the other one have to?"

Chris of Phoenix (did you know the Redhead there?) feels he has the necessary IQ to grasp an explanation of the tie-breaking procedure in gymnastics and doesn't have to be told, as the newtork blows it off, "It's a very complicated system." Me, too.

Eric of Oakland offers another explanation for my volleyball, right hand toss question. On a float serve, stepping with your right foot, it's OK to toss the ball with your left hand. However, if you're doing a jump serve, you start with your left foot back and then take a three-step approach, starting with your left foot and ending with same. It would be awkward to throw the ball up with your left hand, with your left foot back. "Try it and you'll see," he said.

Now that's a dangerous thing to tell an idiot. I tried it in the kitchen, jump-serving a grapefruit. The grapefruit hit Linda in the side of the head. I landed on the leg of a chair and sprained my ankle. Broke the chair, too. Got any more ideas, Chris?

Joe of Dallas, who toiled as a soccer defender for four years in college, agrees with my analysis of US-Germany women's soccer, namely that the goal scorer, never the hard working defensemen, uh, defensewomen, gets all the credit. Thank you. By the way, my favorite Olympic line so far came in the announcing of women's volleyball, when a ball was hit in what is generally known as No Man's Land. "She hit it in No Woman's Land," was the comment You know something? It seemed a lot funnier when I heard it. It really isn't all that hilarious, is it? Is it, Linda? (She agrees).

Bill of Glen Carbon, Ill., offers a good, reflective analysis of the dangers of nationalism vs. individual achievement. I think I'm going to start writing less NFL football and more about other sports. The e-mailers are so much more serious ... it isn't just a wall of "Waddya, nuts, ranking the Packers only 10th?" etc. Bill adds his appreciation of the Olympics as a celebration of the world community. Yes, as far as the individual athletes are concerned. Coaches and official types are always preaching hatred for the enemy, but most of the time, the competing athletes really do like one another. Make that some of them do. For years the long jump rivalry between Ralph Boston and the Russian, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, was played up as a bitter, all consuming thing, but they used to enjoy going out together after the competition. Rival NFL players are always getting together. Part of the tradition in rugby is getting together for a party and "sing song" after the match. Remember when the NFL, in its full goofiness, passed an edict against fraternizing on the field? It's what happens when a sport is run by people who never played the game.

Thanks for your nice words, Marc of Thousands Oaks, Calif. , where the Cowboys used to train. I'm glad I wasn't alone in deploring that Andrea Joyce interview that missed the mark by such a wide margin.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.