The best football writer of our time
Paul Zimmerman, aka Dr. Z, is in the hospital after two strokes
Jets take a fall in the Fine 15; a new leader emerges in MVP race
Why Plaxico Burress has played his last game as a Giant
DENVILLE, N.J. -- It is Saturday morning. The best football writer of our time is sitting in a chair in room 106 of St. Clare's Hospital, looking very much like Paul Zimmerman. In fact, a little better. He's lost some weight, maybe 15 pounds, and he has the beginnings of a Hemingway beard of gray stubble. For a man who had two strokes a week ago -- one on Saturday, the next on Sunday -- his gestures and facial expressions when I speak to him are precisely the same as the last time I saw him. Dr. Z is still most definitely all there. It's the cogent speech, for now, that's not. Temporarily. But that's not going to stop him from trying.
"He still talks all day,'' says his smiling and wonderfully devoted wife, Linda, a.k.a. The Flaming Redhead from all those Zim columns on SI.com.
His storytelling is one of the reasons I asked Zim, who lives 25 minutes away from me in New Jersey, to come with me 11 days ago when I drove five-and-a-half hours to Pittsburgh for the Steelers-Bengals Thursday-nighter. How could the drive be boring with Zim as my co-pilot? An hour in, we'd drive past Matt Millen's exit, and there'd be five Z stories about Millen the crazyman linebacker. Then Allentown, with more stories of some NFLer from the area, and then Harrisburg, with a tale about Penn State, and then into Steeler country, and wine tales from connoisseur Chuck Noll, and at some point I'd coax him into his favorite Broadway Joe story from Beaver Falls, and voila! We'd be in the parking lot walking into the game.
"Come with me to Pittsburgh!'' I implored him. "We'll have a blast!'' But he said no. Twice. "I'm tired,'' he said. "It's too much.'' Odd, I thought. Zim always had some adventure in him, and he liked nothing more than a football game, with binoculars in hand, charting every play in his unique way, saying things like, "Woodley's blitzed four of the last nine pass plays. Stupid Bengals should know to keep a tight end on his side.''
Wrong place. Wrong time. Two days after that game Zim had a fender-bender in front of the house, wasn't feeling quite right, and went to the hospital to get checked out. He found out he was in the middle of a stroke. While being treated, he was hit by another one. So now he's had two of these, and soon he'll begin some aggressive rehab to work on walking and communicating.
He's already being a ridiculously tough nut. It's the oldest cliché in a very old book, but if anyone can overcome what two strokes can do to the human body and mind, it is Zim. He's already overcoming it, trying to do everything he could do just a few days ago, and refusing to slump his shoulders and give up.
I write today to tell so many of his friends and acquaintances in the league and in his reading public about him. I wasn't sure how. I thought it might be good to just tell you about him and how he's doing because I know you'd want to know. And then, because so many people who read Web sites are young, I wanted to give those readers a chance to find out what all the fuss is about. Why, you might ask, with so many interesting things happening in the football world -- the idiotic Plaxico Burress tragicomedy, teams going into the playoff home stretch, the Packers and Chargers and Saints falling out of the race with bad losses -- would I lead the column thusly? It's because you need to either learn about how well Zim captures the essence of this great game, or you need to be reminded of his brilliance because you haven't seen the breadth of it in a while.
Many of you know Dr. Z as the perfect Web site football guy -- opinionated on everything, willing to throw out applicable old stories and new anecdotes, happy to be the burr under the saddle of every NFL commissioner and executive and coach he thinks doesn't get it. You disagree? Good! Let's argue about it! Bluntly!
But those of you who know Dr. Z as a quickie Web gem need to know why I think so highly of him as a writer. Others -- Rick Telander, Austin Murphy, Mike Silver, me, Tim Layden -- took over most of his longer-form pieces and game stories in the magazine as years passed. I've picked out four passages from not so long ago to illustrate just how good he is.
"Defenses don't even have nicknames anymore. There's no more Steel Curtain, with Mean Joe and Fats, no more Fearsome Foursome with Rosey and Deacon and Merlin the Magician, no more Purple People Eaters or Doomsday Defense or Gold or Silver Rush. OK, you say there's one -- Miami's Killer Bees -- but give me another. I dare you, just one more. I can hear the snickers out there. What's wrong with Dr. Z? Put him out to pasture. Doesn't he know the game is different now? It's a speed game, it's played in space. It's a game of formations and motion, freeze frames and chalkboards. It's a game of situation substitutions: You move your pieces on the board, we move ours. Cerebral football played on synthetic grass.
"It's corporate football and I think it's dull. I hear Woody Widenhofer, the Steelers' defensive coordinator, tell me, 'We can use up to 20 different players on one series. Everybody makes a contribution. It's better than the old Steel Curtain defense,' and I want to kill him. Makes a contribution? What is this, the March of Dimes?"
"The painting hangs on the wall outside the office of Art Rooney Jr., the coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers' scouting operations. It's not the kind of thing you'd want your mother or your wife to see. It's what Attila must have looked like while he was sacking a village, or the way a Viking chieftain was with his blood lust up. Only this Viking wears No. 58 and he's dressed out in the gold and black of the Steelers, eyes flashing in a maniacal frenzy; blood flecking his nose; his mouth, minus three front teeth, bared in a hideous leer. Jack Lambert's portrait epitomizes the viciousness and cruelty of our national game. The portrait was done by Merv Corning. It was one of two he submitted to the Steelers' publicity director, Joe Gordon, for possible use as a program cover, and it was rejected immediately. Too scary. Rooney saw it. He called Corning. 'Can I buy the original?' he said. The deal was made, and Rooney hung it outside his office.
"... The kids in Pittsburgh saw another side of him, though. So did the people who'd get him to make one of his rare banquet appearances -- always unpaid. 'In the old days players would go into a place, tell a couple of locker-room stories, talk about the team, take the money and run,' he said. 'I decided I wasn't going to cheat people.' So he began to talk about drugs, and senseless vandalism, about respect and the pride that he felt when he stood at attention before a game and heard the national anthem played. The audience would stare at him. Is this a put-on or what? Then they'd applaud. At one affair someone asked him what he'd do to the drug dealers. His reply was typically blunt. 'Hang them by their feet in Market Square until the wind whistles through their bones.'"
"Somewhere inside the mind of every quarterback there's a 22-for-25 day, a day when every pass has eyes and every decision is correct. And for a showcase there's a bright, sunlit stadium with more than a half-century of tradition, a place like, well, the Rose Bowl. There are 101,063 people in the stands to watch, and about 2,000 writers and broadcasters to tell people about it, and some 130 million Americans gathered around their TV sets to see what has been called the Ultimate Game. That's where the fantasy usually stays, inside, because nobody ever goes 22 for 25 in a game like the Super Bowl, not in this high-powered era with sophisticated defenses featuring shifting zones and blitzes and mixed coverages.
"But let's say there's a quarterback who deserves this mythical kind of day, a quarterback who has spent eight years in the NFL being hammered by adversity and injury, who has heard the boos of the New York fans for as long as he can remember, a quarterback like the Giants' Phil Simms. On Sunday, Simms got even. The Giants crushed the Denver Broncos 39-20 in Super Bowl XXI, and Simms, the game's MVP, personally carved them up with the best percentage passing day in Super Bowl history -- in any NFL championship game ever, for that matter.
"You say someone must have gotten the name wrong, that Simms is a down-field passer, usually with a low percentage of completions. Well, you have a point. He was below .500 for the two postseason wins, and that's not easy when you're beating people by scores like 49-3 and 17-0. Fourteen of the ranking NFL passers had higher percentages than Simms this season. A day like 22 for 25 is for the dinkers, the dump-off artists, not the serious gunners like Simms. But there it was. The guy was simply amazing."
"Here's the thing about scouting college football players for the NFL draft. It's based on fear. Scouts cover their tracks. They hedge their bets. Their evaluations all read, 'Yes... but....' Yes, he can move the team down the field, but he doesn't have an NFL arm. If the player makes it, the scout will say, 'Well, I told you he had potential,' or if he's a bust, the scout will shake his head and say, 'See, the arm didn't hold up, just like I said.' There are more negatives than positives in most scouting reports. It's a wonder the teams can find enough people to play.
"Intangibles, the look scouts see in a player's eye or a certain feeling about him, are for late-night, third-drink talk at the hotel bar. Unless a scout feels very secure in his employment, he won't load up his reports with intangibles. It's too easy to be wrong. And that's what terrorizes the scouts -- the fear of being wrong all by themselves, the big error, the No. 1 pick that was a total bust. And on draft day 1979, a lot of scouts were wrong about Joe Montana.
"Eighty-one choices were made before the San Francisco 49ers took him near the end of the third round. A lot of teams made a mistake. Thinking back, what were the negatives on Montana when he was coming out of college? Strength of arm? Sure, he couldn't knock down buildings. So what? The Hall of Fame is filled with quarterbacks who didn't have a cannon.
"Look at the little decisions that might have changed the course of history. What if, for instance, the Pittsburgh Steelers had decided that neither Mike Kruczek nor Cliff Stoudt were the eventual successors to then 30-year-old Terry Bradshaw, and the team had drafted Montana? Instead of four Super Bowl victories by 1980, would the Steelers have gone on to win five? Six? Seven? Who knows?"
Now you see why I look up to the guy. And why I can't wait for Zim to get back to the keyboard. (If you'd like to send a Get Well note to Dr. Z, click here.)
With that, let's move on to an odd combination of football and Burressness that is Week 13 in the NFL.