What I Learned About Football This Week That I Didn't Know Last Week
Unless we're inside a team, we can't have any idea how much digital video has revolutionized the game.
I wrote a short piece in Sports Illustrated (in your mailboxes Wednesday, if you're among the chosen ones) on the spate of imaginative play-calling on offense this year, and one of the points I used as a reason was technology. That's right -- modernization of digital-video, and what it means to the research every team puts in during the week to prepare for games.
As in this: "Two mouse clicks,'' said Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz during a break in preparing to face Green Bay the other day, "and I have every two-point-conversion play the Packers have run since 2006, and I can watch them, one after the other. That's how advanced our video systems are now. You'd be a fool not to use it for research.''
Schwartz prepped for Indianapolis two weeks ago by watching every red-zone snap of the Colts since the start of 2007 -- 234 plays. He watched them in succession, without a break, just to see what habits the Colts had inside the 20. And last week, he looked at all 182 red-zone snaps of the Packers since the start of last season.
Some 25 years ago, teams would have had to splice film together to show that. Even 10 years ago, the computerization of video wasn't the same as it is now. In the last four or five years, every team has been outfitted with similar video systems, which enables them to look at every commonality on tape within minutes -- every third-and-eight-or-longer, for instance, that the opponent has run since the start of the 2006 season.
"What I like to see are plays that become a play-caller's favorites, and whether those plays would give us trouble, and how we'd defend them,'' Schwartz said. "You can get a sense if you watch play after play of one type, and it gives me a chance to start thinking what the best way is to handle it. You never want to be caught by surprise.''
I wanted to know what jumped out at him about the Packers. "Other than the numbers on their backs, what I noticed is how similar Aaron Rodgers is to Favre,'' he said. "They throw the same kind of routes. You know, that crazy handoff and then fake throw that Favre used to do? Rodgers does that. He sure doesn't play like a first-year starter.''
One other thing about SI this week: There's a good block of an NFL Midseason Report, including a profile of Albert Haynesworth by the talented Damon Hack, that I'd strongly recommend.
Good Guy of the Week
Jim Kelly, retired quarterback, Buffalo.
Kelly, who never could get the Bills over the Super Bowl hump in his Hall of Fame career, has a new mission these days -- to get every state to test for 54 potentially fatal diseases that could be diagnosed at birth. Only one state, Minnesota, tests for that many today.
He's on this mission because of the death of his son, Hunter, in 2005, from a rare brain disease called Krabbe Leukodystrophy. The disease (leukodystrophies afflict one of every 100,000 American births) could have been diagnosed at birth, but New York State did not test for the illness when Hunter was born in 1997.
"The tragedy for Hunter, and for so many children born with fatal illnesses, is that they're simply born in the wrong state,'' Kelly said the other night. "If you don't think that's something that just tears at your heart every day ...''
I've known Kelly for a long time, and I've always found him to be one of the biggest life-of-the-party guys I've covered. He was a prolific pre-curfew beer man in his Bills training-camp years, when the Buffalo players were as tight as a team could be. But when I saw him the other day, I saw he'd changed. There was a grimness to a once-carefree guy, with more lines on his face than I remembered. The grimness is not from giving up; it's a grim determination.
He's already seen governors of three states -- New York, Pennsylvania and Kansas -- and gotten each to increase dramatically the number of diseases tested for at birth. When babies are born, their heels are pricked and a blood sample taken to test for diseases. With Kelly's lobbying, New York has increased from 11 to 44 diseases tested for, Pennsylvania from 11 to 29, and Kansas from four to 29.
Parents can buy a kit to screen their children for the maximum number of diseases for less than $100, but Kelly, and his foundation, want the tests to be done for every child as a matter of course. Considering that the costs of caring for children with one of many known leukodystrophies can run from between $500,000 and $1 million per year, it seems like early-testing money would be well spent.
"I never won a Super Bowl,'' said Kelly, "and for a long time that really bothered me, obviously. But this is real. This is life. My Super Bowl victory will be to get every state to adopt universal newborn screening so we can save lives that are now being lost needlessly. When that day comes, that victory will be 10 times better than any Super Bowl.''
Because New York now tests for Krabbe, Kelly met a perfectly healthy boy, now a year and half old, who was diagnosed at birth and successfully treated. "Little Elmer,'' he said with a grin. Now his goal is to meet a lot more Elmers. If you'd like to help, or learn more about Kelly's mission, you can go to www.huntershope.org.
The Way We Were
Jeff Garcia vs. Fran Tarkenton.
No one would think of Garcia as the heir to Tarkenton, who retired in 1978 as the NFL's all-time passing yardage leader with 47,003. Garcia will never have his those numbers or Tarkenton's résumé. While Tarkenton played right away in the NFL after getting drafted by the Vikings in 1961, Garcia had to travel an arduous path to the NFL. But lately, when I watch Garcia, I see Tarkenton.
When I saw Garcia in Dallas nine days ago, I thought: That's one of the wiriest football players -- almost gaunt -- I've ever seen. I asked him what he weighed, and he said he was "barely tipping the scales at 190.'' Which means he's not 190. "Well, I'm between 185 and 190," he said. "One of the trainers said something to me about it recently, that I looked a little bit light, and I mentioned it to my wife, and she said, 'I was going to say something about that.' There's no more weight for me to lose.''
Tarkenton was listed at 6-0 and 190, Garcia at 6-1 and 190. Both are probably an inch and a few pounds less. In 246 career games, Tarkenton averaged 14.9 rushing yards per game. In 116 NFL games, Garcia has averaged 17.4. Average touchdown passes per game: Tarkenton 1.39, Garcia 1.32. Average passing yards per game: Tarkenton 191.1 (obviously in an era when teams ran more), Garcia 205.6.
The idea for Garcia is to avoid the rush as much as possible so he can live to play another day; he got whacked 13 times by the Cowboys in Week 8 despite slithering in and out of trouble much of the afternoon. It was the same with the whippet-like Tarkenton in the '60s and '70s.
"The thing I admired about Fran is how he kept plays alive,'' Garcia said. "I've seen highlights where he ran around so much to avoid the rush that he'd end up 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage. I'm a little different. I run around, but I try to stay closer to the line. Sometimes I'm right on the verge of being over the line when I throw, but when I'm forced into running, I always try to make a play with my arm when I can. So I keep it 'til the last minute.''
That was a Tarkenton trait too.
The biggest difference is probably the eras in which they played. Tarkenton was accepted as an NFLer right out of college, because scouts and GMs weren't as manic about size 45 years ago; Eddie LeBaron, at 5-9, had been a highly effective quarterback for Washington and Dallas, for instance, making the Pro Bowl four times as the shortest quarterback in football. Not so in the last 15 or 20 years. Garcia had to ride the bench in Canada (behind, coincidentally, Doug Flutie in Calgary of the CFL). Bill Walsh became Garcia's champion, telling anyone who'd listen to give the slight Garcia a shot. The 49ers finally did, and the rest is itinerant history.
Tarkenton would identify with Garcia. They both learned to make plays out of nothing. "It's how I learned to play the game,'' Garcia said. "It's always been a game of survival for me, at all levels. It's organized chaos.'' I bet Tarkenton's teammates in Minnesota and New York said that more than once about playing with Fran.