I began my endeavor into sportswriting a few years back by lampooning a couple of guys I didn’t like: alleged Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards and Cubs relief pitcher Bob Howry. Some of you may remember the former. I found them while clearing out an old hard drive this week. I had a nice little time reading them and recalling what it was like to write unencumbered by pesky minutia like logic and truth and ethics.
The bad news is that I think I was a better writer then than I am now. The good news is that, while I do now feel the need to act with some degree of integrity, inside of the boundaries of not blatantly making shit up, I do still get to say whatever I want. Lots of writers don’t get that freedom. Sure, it doesn’t always pay great, but I’ll bet I
sleep better drink less enjoy life more get better trim get less hate mail than Bob Gretz.
The Bob Howry piece, entitled “Cubs’ Bullpen Unrolls Operation: Vulture”, detailed a fictitious plan in which Howry, Chad Gaudin, and the bottom half of the Chicago bullpen would intentionally blow leads in hopes that the hitters would bail them out in the seventh and eighth innings, thus securing wins for the middle relievers, who under normal circumstances don’t accrue meaningful statistics. There’s no direct parallel for vulture wins in football. Wins and losses are loosely and unofficially attributed on stats sites only to starting quarterbacks. On Pro Football Reference, for instance, Tom Brady is credited with a record of 1-0 for the 2008 season despite having only thrown 11 passes before being crippled by HBO pop & lock sensation Bernard Pollard midway through the first quarter.
The closest thing I can come up with as a parallel is a quarterback that relies on his defense to win games for him. Kyle Boller immediately comes to mind. He’s credited as 9-7 for 2004, despite throwing for less than one touchdown pass per game. How did head coach Brian Billick manage to amass a winning record with withe such a dearth of talent at the top spot? Easy. He asked Hall of Famer Deion Sanders to come kick it with future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Having a few other Pro Bowl players around (Terrell Suggs, Chris McAlister, Adalius Thomas, and Bart Scott) didn’t hurt either.
This was old hat for Billick, who won the Super Bowl in his second year as head coach with a team that once went a month without scoring an offensive touchdown. Looking back, it’s difficult to comprehend that Billick’s background prior to his stint in Baltimore was as an offensive guru in Minnesota. Then again, if you look a little closer at what Minnesota did personnel-wise during his tenure, maybe some of the explanation is hidden just below the surface. In his seven years there, they worked through five quarterbacks: Rich Gannon, Jim McMahon, Warren Moon, Brad Johnson, and Randall Cunningham. His offensive put up gaudy numbers at times, but never developed any consistency. They also never attempted to draft a QB with anything higher than a fourth round pick.
(Look…. I tried desperately to work a Purple Rain reference in that last paragraph…. Something along the lines of Billick purifying his playbook in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. I couldn’t make it work. I told you I was getting worse at this.)
When he got his big gig in Baltimore, Billick did more of the same–Tony Banks, Stoney Case, Trent Dilfer, Elvis Grbac, and Jeff Blake–before finally coughing up a high pick on Kyle Boller. From the start he was giftwrapped a defense that included the aforementioned Lewis and McAlister along with Rod Woodson, Peter Boulware, Michael McCreary, Tony Siragusa, Rob Burnett, and Duane Starks. Those guys did a lot to mask the fact that he didn’t bother fielding a good signal caller until his ninth season (the late, great Steve McNair). The entire population of North America knew by the end of 2004 that Boller didn’t belong. Billick wasn’t blind to it. He just thought he could do it without a top flight QB. He wasn’t entirely wrong, obviously, but even with a defense captained by arguably the best middle linebacker to ever play the game, he couldn’t develop consistency. Nobody can.
All of that is longhand for this: Tyler Palko sucked. He’s sort of an inverse of Brodie Croyle: surprising vision and durability, but absolutely no physical tools, technique, or finesse. His Hail Mary touchdown completion was pure happenstance. Let’s not kid ourselves about what actually happened there…. Brian Urlacher intercepted the pass, then Chris Conte, whom my sources have confirmed was watching the movie Semi Pro immediately before taking the field, batted the ball out of Urlacher’s hands to avoid having to buy the entire stadium corn dogs.
The defense, on the other hand, did exactly what they’re supposed to do in games like this. They manhandled a pair of underachieving offensive tackles, and by mid afternoon they had severely undermined an entire state’s confidence in a backup quarterback in whom they had previously placed a wealth of faith. For established leaders like Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali, it was an assertion of prior established dominance. For rookie Justin Houston, it was a very welcome coming out party that completed his claim for a full time starting job. For the faltering Jon McGraw, it was a much needed redemption near the close of what will likely be his final season. For the unit as a whole, it was proof that their success against Pittsburgh a week earlier wasn’t a fluke.
This was a vulture win. With the starting quarterback on injured reserve, I could accept a few of those, and probably even relish in them. Herein lies the problem: Derrick Johnson isn’t Ray Lewis and Kendrick Lewis isn’t Ed Reed, but Matt Cassel is Kyle Boller. That’s not a knock on DJ and Kendrick either. They, like most of the players on their team, have the skills to do their requisite parts on a championship run. The Kansas City Chiefs, when healthy, are no more than four or five players away from having one of the best rosters in the conference. If, however, the 2012 season opens with Cassel and Palko at the top of the depth chart, it won’t matter if the front office hits a home run with the other three or four positions of need.
This season is a turning point in Todd Haley’s career. If he does not force Scott Pioli’s hand in addressing the top spot, his career ceiling is Billick’s at best. Of course, he’ll need that well of Pro Bowl and future Hall Of Fame defenders playing lights out every week to keep him from looking fully incompetent. Conversely, he could just avoid that approach altogether, get a great quarterback, and start talking to local jewelers about getting his ring finger measured.
To close this week’s review, I thought about trying to write a funny line about the Kyle Orton era. Then it occurred to me…. in the amount of time it will take you to finish this paragraph, you could have watched his career in red and gold at least twice.