History lesson: Favre could learn from final years of Namath, Unitas
In the offseason between '76 and '77 I got a phone call from Don Klosterman, general manager of the L.A. Rams. I went back a long way with Klosty. We were both in college at the same time, both on the West Coast, while he was setting passing records at Loyola and I was groveling in the dirt at Stanford.
"What can you tell me about Joe Namath?" he asked. I knew exactly the thrust of the question. He was looking for a veteran quarterback.
"He can't play, Don," I told him. Not that I was super-intelligent. Any of the other beat guys covering the Jets could have told him the same thing.
"Well," he said, "We've got a guy at their practices," which in itself was a pretty good story, "and he said Joe Willie's throwing as well as he ever did."
"He'll always look like that in practice because his arm is still OK, but he can't face a rush," I said. Namath was going to be 34 the next season, not terribly old as quarterbacks go, but his legs were used up, shot.
"The guy said he can still throw the hell out of the ball," Klosterman insisted.
"Fine," I said. "Sign him." Which he did. For free. There was a weird loophole in the bargaining agreement in those days and the Jets, under the stewardship of Al Ward, lost their two biggest stars, Namath and John Riggins, without getting a dime in return.
I covered Namath's debut for the Rams, a 17-6 loss to the Falcons in Fulton County Stadium. Leeman Bennett threw the hounds at him, blitzed him like crazy. In the old days you never did that with Namath because he could get the ball out to his hot receivers too quickly. And he had the courage to stay in there until the last moment and face the horns of the beast. But against the Falcon rushers he was a dead duck. He was overrun. He started three more times, the last one a loss to the Bears in cold, drizzly Soldier Field, in which he threw four interceptions for the Rams, now 2-2. That was it. Pat Haden replaced him, and 10-4 L.A. made it to the playoffs.
Namath in a Rams' uniform? It looked odd, like a picture of an attractive woman with one blue eye and one brown one. It wasn't right. I'm sure he thought he could play, and so does Brett Favre, and he probably can, after a fashion. But for whom? Vikes? Ravens? Bills? Which GM is going to be the Don Klosterman of 2008?
Gets boring down there in Hattiesburg, doesn't it, Brett? Is it fun to stare out at those acres of land? Who is there to talk football with, I mean real football? Not like the thrill of the arena, is it? The locker room. Body feels a little better now, so maybe, just maybe ... ah hell, why not? But the club is trying to move on, get a young QB ready, trying to reach the playoffs once again. No organization can progress on a maybe-I-will, maybe-I-won't commitment.
People say the numbers were outstanding last year, when you reached 38. Rating points, passes vs. picks, all that textbook stuff -- looked pretty good, didn't it? But not so good in the fourth quarter against the Giants, right? Or in overtime. It all started falling apart then, didn't it? And at age 38 going on 39, it's not going to get any better. God has a strange way of letting the years pile up on you. They don't get easier.
But someone will bite for the win-it-now, quick fix. Gosh, we're right on the brink, only one veteran quarterback away from the Super Bowl. The future? We'll worry about it later. History has a few sad lessons on this score.
John Unitas, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, was 40 when he went to the Chargers in 1973. Of course that was a slightly different situation. San Diego was trying to sell tickets. He had a bad back and it stayed bad and he was hopeless, trying to perform at a decent level.
In New York, his old Colts coach, Weeb Ewbank, shook his head sadly. "Poor guy's sleeping on a water bed every night, I hear," he said. Owner Gene Klein's promotional play so bugged Harland Svare, the coach, that he even forbade Unitas from tutoring his prized young QB, Dan Fouts. Johnny U had to meet with him on the sly, a sad farewell to a great player.
If Unitas was not the greatest ever, well, maybe Joe Montana was, at least of the modern era. He was 37 and coming off two injury years in San Francisco. He said he'd be back, better than ever. Meanwhile there was a young, future Hall of Famer, Steve Young, waiting in the wings, and waiting and waiting. He was 31. Not so young after all, I guess. So what's it gonna be, Niners?
A tap dance was what it was, and off went Montana, his heart full of hatred -- to Kansas City. Pretty good team. The Montana Chiefs made the playoffs two years under Joe. But they were thinking Super Bowl, and, well, he was OK, but not the guy to take them all the way. Did I say "OK?" Joe Montana. We're talking in legends here.
The Joe Montana Chiefs. What a weird phrase. Sounds wrong. A handsome jersey that's two sizes too tight. Uh-uh.
Randall Cunningham, aged 38, wound up with the Ravens. First relieved and then started for an injured Elvis Grbac. Say, maybe...just maybe? Sacked four times in the fourth quarter in a loss at Cleveland. Four times in a quarter? With those magic legs? Right, 38-year old legs. Pulled one out against Jacksonville, lost at Pittsburgh with an offense that scored zero in the second half. Experiment's over. Back came Grbac.
The sad litany. Bobby Layne, the Lions' greatest star, finally wrapping it up in Pittsburgh. Ken Stabler, going to the Saints at 36, throwing 17 TDs and 42 picks in New Orleans.
When Steve DeBerg, a terrific guy who lasted an amazingly long time in the NFL, was 36 he found himself as the starter on a Kansas City team that was doing well, actually. I covered one of their games, and we were chatting in the locker room after practice, and I said, "Who would have thought it? Starting quarterback on a contending team at age 36."
He smiled. "Why couldn't it have happened when I was good?" he said.
I know, you're begging for a success story, for some historical indication that maybe the Favre thing will somehow find a rainbow somewhere. Well, I can't match those years of his. That's too big a burden. But the story of the Dutchman might give you hope.
Norm Van Brocklin was 32 in 1958. Not terribly old, but not terribly respected, either, considering he would be headed for the Hall of Fame some day. Sid Gillman, the Rams coach, favored Billy Wade, a big, strong-armed kid from Vanderbilt. He also was tired of the Dutchman questioning all the calls he used to send in to games. It was time to cut the cord. Pete Rozelle, the GM, wasn't so sure. He didn't want to trade him to an NFC West team they'd have to face twice a year. Or to the Browns -- certainly not. But then Buck Shaw came through for him.
Shaw, the Silver Fox, a West Coast guy who had coached Santa Clara and the 49ers, now was in his first year with the Eagles. The Dutchman on the market? Hell yes, I want him. Perfect, said Rozelle. Philly was the doggiest team in the NFL, with the worst record in football over the last three years. So L.A. traded Van Brocklin for defensive back Jimmy Harris, guard Buck Lansford and a No.1 draft choice. Whatta steal!
Three years later the Dutchman and Shaw were drinking champagne in the Franklin Field locker room after defeating Vince Lombardi's Packers for the NFL title. Shaw retired. "I'm quitting while I'm ahead." So did Van Brocklin, although he didn't announce it until after he'd played in the Pro Bowl.
"I think I'll join the idiots and be a sportswriter," he said.
Actually he joined the idiots on the sidelines and became the first coach of the Vikings. But I don't think Favre is ready for that.