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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Quarterback Reflections

            It’s September and a man’s thoughts are turning to football. This year, I’m thinking about quarterbacks again.
            A couple of years back in this spot, I wrote a piece criticizing the tendency of sports writers to blame a quarterback for not winning championships. I pointed out that teams win championships, not quarterbacks, and that the best predictor of Super Bowl victory is having a future Hall of Fame defensive player on the team.
            Lately, I’ve been reflecting on another quarterback issue: Statistical evaluation. Ken Stabler, the great quarterback for the Raiders in the 1970s, died earlier this summer, and is now up for consideration for admission to the Pro Football Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.
            One sports writer, and I can’t recall who, wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated online, saying, in essence, that though a case could be made, Stabler’s overall statistics just weren’t good enough.

True, But Wrong

            I’ll concede the statistics, while arguing that in some cases the numbers are behind the point. And it seems to me that in sports these days (and particularly in baseball) we’re trusting the numbers too much and our own eyes too little. How do you quantify a great game or a great play that takes your breath away?
            Two Stabler stories, recalled from memory:
            In the late 1970s, the Raiders were playing New Orleans on Monday night. With about five minutes to go in the third quarter, they were trailing 28-14 on the road, when Stabler, trying to avoid a sack, threw up a wounded duck that was intercepted and run back for a touchdown to make it New Orleans 35, Oakland 14. I turned the game off, did a couple of chores, then called home a half hour later. My father answered.
            “Aren’t you watching the game?” he asked. I told him I’d turned it off, and he said the Raiders were coming back furiously. We talked briefly, and I turned the TV on again to see Stabler lead the Raiders to a 42-35 win, with four touchdown drives in the last quarter and a third.
             Then there was the game against Miami in the 1975 playoffs. Trailing 26-21 with almost no time left, and facing fourth and goal, Stabler broke out of the pocket moving to his left (he was left-handed) and threw up an absolutely terrible pass as he was being tackled.

Hey, It Worked

            Terrible, that is, in every way but one. As it sailed over the goal line, the Raiders’ Clarence Davis leaped up and took it away from two Miami defenders for the winning touchdown.
            That’s the thing about Stabler. He was a gunslinger and a gambler who took chances other quarterbacks didn’t take. It drove down his stats, but also won his team a lot of games it might otherwise have lost. John Madden, who knows a thing or two about football, has said that if he could pick one quarterback to lead the drive for a winning touchdown in the closing minutes of a game, it would be Stabler. Isn’t that more important than completion percentage or touchdown-to-interception ratio?
            My favorite Stabler story involved the 1976 playoff game where the Wild Card Raiders were playing the Baltimore Colts in Baltimore. The game was tied 31-31 in regulation, and still tied after a quarter of overtime. At the start of the second overtime, Madden turned to see Stabler looking at the stands and laughing out loud.
            “What’s so funny?” Madden demanded.
            “I was just thinkin’, coach. These fans sure got their money’s worth today.” Then he went out and threw a touchdown pass to Dave Casper to win the game.
            That, alone, should be enough to get him into the Hall.