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Commissioner for a day

Move over Tagliabue, Z's taking over and there's going to be big changes

Posted: Friday December 17, 2004 1:21PM; Updated: Friday December 17, 2004 5:39PM
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We have a clear E-mailer of the Week Award winner, so let's not waste time on window dressing. Put on a clean shirt, fasten your tie and step up, Mark Henrickson of Madison, Wisc., to claim your prize.

Picking up on my boast that if I were NFL Commissioner I would change plenty, Mr. Henrickson sent both the Flaming Redhead and I into deep thought by calling me on it. OK, he said, let's hear what you would change. Mr. Henricksen says he would clean up the force-out rule right away. You're out of bounds? Pass is incomplete. Next case.

OK, in listing the top 1,000 changes I would make, the force-out rule came in at No. 785. No, I would go a lot deeper than that. I'd get rid of all artificial surfaces. I'd make sure all NFL sponsored products were made in the USA. For all the phony flag waving the league does, all the NFL-sponsored clothing I've come across is made in places like Honduras or the Philippines, none in the U.S. To paraphrase the slogan of the British firm of Marks & Spencer ("British Goods mean British Jobs"), American goods mean American jobs.

And then I'd completely re-do the way they compile the statistics and get them in a form that made sense ... and then I'd ... oh, just so many things I'd do. So I posed the question to the only person in our house gifted with clarity of thought, my redheaded wife, and she said the following:

"No. 1, lower the ticket prices and make them available to normal fans. It's turned into a corporate, elitist game, and I find that disgusting."

Thanks to Greg of Minneapolis for your praise. Here's what he wrote: "I have to say I feel sorry for the players' wives if the Raiders really are the team of 13-year periods."

Now if this were the Fox TV pregame show, James Brown, the moderator, would say in that prissy way of his, "Well, I'm sure not going there," or ... " not touching this one," or any of that other Pollyanna junk he's known for. I think it's funny.

Jim, a Jets fan from Reno, agrees with me that the play of Bryan Thomas has been exceptional -- so good, Jim feels, that Pro Bowler John Abraham is expendable if his contract demands are too exorbitant. I called Donnie Henderson, the Jets' defensive coordinator, and asked him if it would make any sense to play Thomas in the base defense, when Abraham returns from his knee injury, and use Abraham as a situational pass rusher. Henderson's answer was a biblical one. Thomas, it's true, was one of the Apostles, but Abraham was the founding father of Judaism. Therefore ... OK, OK ... Henderson, in not saying, "that's ridiculous," told me something. "An interesting idea," is what he called it. Therefore I think you and I are on to something, and if the money demand is simply too ambitious, they're prepared to let Abraham walk. (No, not on water.)

Brian of Pipersville, Pa., wonders if there's a chance the league might modify the interference calls in the end zone. Boy, I just don't know what they want in the way of interference, what's called and what's not. They've got the officiating completely screwed up by now. Even worse are those chintzy little roughing-the-passer calls. I don't see any clear direction.

On the heels of that, David of Big Springs, Texas, says he sees a "high number of tacky calls against the defense." Do I agree? Yes, except that "tacky" isn't a word I use. I'd substitute "crummy," "inconsistent," or something stronger. It's gotten to the point now where an official -- if he has the guts to defy the current fad and actually let some downfield contact go, or even a shot to the QB -- he does it with a heroic kind of defiance. Kind of a Patrick Henry thing, or the bold statement of one who knows that he has doomed himself to the gallows.

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Part two from Big Dave, I mean Dave from Big: Why did the old Landry Cowboys do that up-down maneuver on offense before they snapped the ball? To block the defense's recognition for an instant. It was one of the reasons people didn't like the Cowboys, those little chippy things they used to do. Thanks for the compliment. Do you really have a 19th & McDowell in Big Spring? That's not Fair.

We'll cash the trifecta with one more officiating question. Jorge of San Jose, Calif., says he got into an argument regarding illegal forward passes beyond the line. Does the ball over the line make it illegal, or the body, or part of the body, or what? I called the NFL Officiating Office. Everything has to be over, the ball plus both feet. "Even if just the back foot is still behind it, then the play's OK," I was told. And thank you, Jorge, for the nice thing you wrote.

Owen of Brooklyn is obviously someone well versed in the history of the game. He mentions Ben Schwartzwalder at Syracuse as running the best Winged T, with Jim Brown and then Ernie Davis as his tailbacks and Jim Ridlon on the wing. (I had mentioned this formation last week). Since you were so kind to write what you did about my work, Owen, I'll tell you a Schwartzwalder story ... not that I really need any excuse to go down memory lane.

As a young writer, I covered Syracuse at Navy when Larry Csonka was the Orange fullback. He came into this game with a bad ankle, yet the coach had him returning kickoffs. Afterward, I asked Schwartzwalder about it. I made sure to ask him when he was through with his little press conference. It was while he was walking back to the team bus. I wanted to get him alone. He stopped walking, stared deeply into my eyes, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Son, you're young and there are still many things you don't understand about this game. Sometimes things are more complicated than they seem." I said, "Yes sir," thanked him, and watched him depart. Then it dawned on me: Hey, I still don't know why he had Csonka running back kicks.

Andrew of Melbourne, Australia, is a Browns fan, as I once was, except that was in the AAFC era and my heroes were Otto Graham and Bill Willis and Marion Motley. It isn't as easy now. Andrew is upset that by keeping the 2-11 Niners at No. 32 in the rankings I'm denying him the chance to see the Dec. 26 meeting of 3-10 Cleveland and 2-11 Miami in the Dump Bowl as the deciding factor for who goes to last place. Cheer up, mate. Four things could happen to bring about your dream. San Diego slaughters Cleveland on Sunday, which is possible. Miami gets killed by New England Monday night. Again possible, but I don't think it will happen. The Niners jump off the dump truck with a win over Washington. Possible, I guess. And No. 4 is that, swayed by your enthusiasm, I declare ahead of time that Browns-Dolphins is as you wish it to be.

I've got two Jersey problems, and both complainants are right. Bob of Richmond, whom I'm sure is a former South Jersey resident, says I was dead wrong when I wrote that the state is rabidly pro-Giant. Not in the south, (that's South Jersey), they're not. It's all Iggles down there. You're right, I'm wrong. I should have known better. I apologize, and tell all the folks along the Black Horse Pike to forgive me. (Did I ever tell you about the game we played in Swedesboro, and how I fell asleep on the beach that afternoon and nearly blew the kickoff?)

Equally upset is Jim of Wayne, as in Fountains of Wayne, N.J. I know all about Wayne, Jim. I took a bad-boy drivers class there to wipe some points off the license. No, that feeble attempt at friendship won't work? Sorry. Earlier this week I mentioned that we change with the times. Sometimes with the News or Star-Ledger. He suggests that I leave all Jersey references off those stupid puns that I seem to lean on so heavily. I wish to apologize. In other words, I'm sorry. It won't happen again right away. Roll the tape back, delete and substitute the following: "Sometimes with the News or Bergen Record." Wait a minute, that won't work ... ."with the News or Staten Island Advance." How's that?

Richy of Glasgow -- "Glasgee," we call it -- keying on my stat of the Browns' 17 yards of offense last week, pored through the record book and found the record of fewest yards for both teams in a game, 30 by the Cards and Lions in 1940. That's all you have to do, mention a year like that and "Ding!" the bell goes off. Story time! "Did you ever stop to think that maybe they've had enough stories for a while?" the Flaming Redhead says. OK, just this one last one.

The year after they played in that horrendous affair the Lions drafted, from Georgetown, a guard with one of my favorite names, Augustino Lio. Augie, who was from Passaic, N.J., had been a hero of the great Georgetown team that played Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. He became a rookie starter for the Lions in '41. Eventually he became the sports editor of the Passaic Herald, and I used to pester him all the time for stories of the old days. This was my favorite:

"After my rookie year, I'm a hero back in Passaic. Then a couple of guys came over to me and said, 'Augie, you know, every now and then we like to make a little wager. So how are the Lions gonna be next year?' I told them we had a young team on the rise and I thought we'd really do well. Bet 'em early before everyone catches on and the price goes up.

"So next season we go 0-11. I'm afraid to show my face in the neighborhood. I'd only go out late at night. One night one of those guys, someone who owned a little cigar store, caught up to me. He grabbed me by the shirt. 'Hey Augie?' he said. 'You're a football player? You're crap!' I agreed with him. What could I do?"

John of Hopkinton, Mass., thinks it's about time we let bygones be bygones, such as the Steelers' win over the Pats, and evaluate the teams on their current strength, which would place New England at No. 1 and the Steelers at No. 2. Sorry, John, no can do. They were beaten fair and square. You'll get another chance at 'em, unless the Colts screw things up for you.

Phil of Lincoln, Ill., wonders which defense is easier to set up, a 3-4 or a 4-3? Well, you remember Bum Phillips' famous line, when they asked him why he played a 3-4. "Because I have more linebackers than defensive linemen." I think it's tougher to build a 3-4 because mistakes generally are made trying to fit someone in as an end. A 3-4 end can't just be a rusher, he's a hybrid E-T type who must be sound against the run. Hugh Douglas in Jacksonville, Patrick Kerney in Atlanta when they played the 3-4 ... uh uh, they didn't work. Linebackers and tackles and the rest of it can be found, but those 3-4 ends are special.

Andrew of Ashland, Mass., sees many reasons why there is no logical parallel between the Charlie Weis situation and the one in '78 involving Chuck Fairbanks, which I wrote about this week. I agree with you. The situations are different. I just threw that one in there because of the historical significance. This is what I think will happen: Bill Belichick has seen this coming and has prepared for it. He'll take over some of the offense himself, just as he did with the quarterback coaching when Dick Rehbein died. It's going to hurt the team, no question, but it won't be the disaster the Fairbanks thing was.

Finally from Howard of Ruther Glen, Va. ... and by the way, did you know that one of the world's great wine growing regions is Rutherglen in Australia? I remember I was once trying to do a piece, asking some wine experts what the greatest single bottle (married bottle?) they ever tasted was, and Hugh Johnson, the British wine writer, said it was a 1947 Rutherglen Red, a blend. Where were we? We're talking about what? Oh, football. Howard wants to know how come that nasty Alex Gibbs Denver cut block system is not getting ripped in Atlanta, where he currently coaches. Well, I don't see it happening the way it did with the Broncos. Either Alex is concerned about someday being denied a ticket to heaven, or coach Mora doesn't like it or the players won't do it. And thanks for not ripping my stupid jokes, as some folks do.

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.