Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Xtreme Reaction

First of all, everybody should relax. You’d think they were going to take John Unitas out of the Hall of Fame. The reaction to the launch of the XFL rivals the outcry of when baseball went on strike. The critics have been hot, the supporters a bit tepid.

It’s not the Lindbergh crossing, it’s not a man on the moon, it’s minor league football. Yes, it was heavy on television production, heavy on scantily clad women, heavy on yelling, tight shots and hand-held cameras but it’s not as if they’re invading the planet.

There is a market for spring football in the U.S.. The USFL showed that, and would have been successful if Donald Trump hadn’t killed it off by insisting on a move to the fall to go head-to-head with the NFL. The XFL is the latest incarnation of spring football. This time it’s WWF style. Well choreographed, well scripted and regrettably, not very well played. Some good camera angles, some television innovations that the NFL will eventually adopt to make their league more “fan friendly.”

If you tuned in to the XFL for football, you were disappointed. In fact, you tuned in for all of the wrong reasons. The pre-promotion promised something different, even something better. We did get something different, but certainly nothing better than what we know as professional football.

The quality of play was just above what we might see at any college stadium on a Saturday afternoon, but light years away from the level of competition in the NFL. But that’s not what the XFL is trying to do. They’re not trying to rival the NFL. Paying up to $50,000 in salary to the players is not going to attract any player capable of playing in the fall, or in Europe, or even in the Arena League. Players are in the XFL trying to get noticed. They’ve been rejected as potential players in the NFL, but want another chance. Some might prove the scouts wrong, but most will get their thrills, playing in what they’ll call a “professional” league, and be done with it.

When the USFL was launched, there was a large outcry that it would hurt the game. Stealing players from the NFL was somehow un-American. Spring football was stupid. Nobody will watch and certainly nobody would buy a ticket. That was before they played the games. Once they started, the quality of play wasn’t bad. Future NFL stars like Reggie White, Gary Clark, Jim Kelly and Steve Young were sprinkled throughout the USFL rosters. After a few weeks, it was clear, some teams were pretty good, and others were absolutely awful.

Which team in the XFL is the Washington Federals? Which is the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars? Are any?

The league can sustain itself on hype and flash for only so long. Actual football fans won’t be back if the games are similar to the Las Vegas/New York national debut. But that’s not who the XFL is trying to attract anyway. They’re looking for the wrestling fan to add another night to his or her routine. Monday Nitro, Thursday Thunder and now Saturday XFL.

The television ratings for the debut were phenomenal, but only early on. As the game raged on, the viewing public went elsewhere. Did they just tune out? Did they go somewhere else? Those are the questions researchers will be asking to see if the game attracted an entire new audience or just the passing fancy of the traditional sports fan. It was a huge entertainment package with football in the background. Is there anything the matter with that? No, but perhaps they should call it “Fressling” or “Wrasselball” instead.

Just remember, this is a league owned by the television networks and a promoter. It’s not a league that sprouted up and the television networks decided to cover it. There’s a big difference.

The product won’t satisfy people who want to see competition.

Those looking for something else will be just fine.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

My Kingdom for a Quarterback

Say the word “Quarterback” and what image comes up in your mind? Is he tall? Quick? A leader? Does he have a big arm? Is he even a he?

There is so much more to being a quarterback than just the nuts and bolts of the position in football. A quarterback has to be a Quarterback. A leader on the field and off. Fearless. Strong. Courageous. There are athletes with many of these qualities, so why are there so few real Quarterbacks?

Michael Jordan was a quarterback, so was Magic Johnson. Cal Ripken’s a Quarterback, so is Mia Hamm. None of them play football, but all have the Quarterback’s sensibilities. Awareness. Instinct and a sense for the dramatic.

The quarterback is usually the best athlete on the field. Especially in recreational and high school play, a coach takes the best athlete and says “you’re the quarterback.” Then the coach proceeds to coach the rest of the team, working on plays, getting the kids who can’t catch to at least try and trying to bring the kids who can’t play to a level where they might be able to do something. And the quarterback stands there. He’s still the fastest, throws it great and loves to play, but it’s all natural.

Too many coaches spend so much time with their deficient players trying to get them to contribute that they forget to coach their good ones. When a quarterback gets to college, most times he’s still a good athlete but ill prepared to do the rudimentary things necessary to be a Quarterback. Footwork, arm angle, defensive reads, for most, they’re foreign languages. Coaches’ sons are the exception, getting that little extra help off the field, preparing them for the next step. When a player arrives in college with most of the fundamentals, the quarterback coach (if there is one) can spend his time on the nuances of the position. If not, there’s a lot of work to be done.

Even in the NFL, quarterback coaches work on the basics every day. Chris Palmer as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars designed specific drills for the quarterbacks in practice, working on fundamental things that carry over into a game.

Add up what it takes to be a Quarterback. Make a list and you’ll find only a handful currently playing who measures up.

It’s the most important position in sports. Sam Huff said about the 1958 and ’59 NFL Championship games, “They had Unitas, we didn’t.” How can one guy determine the outcome of the game, just by walking on the field? He can if he’s a Quarterback.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

A Quarterback’s Confidence

I’ve been accused over the years of being arrogant by my detractors. I’ve never been able to figure this out. Arrogance denotes some sort of mean spirited attitude. I don’t have that. I do have confidence.

A quarterback’s confidence.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of myself as the quarterback. I actually played the position in high school, a little bit in college and in a ridiculous semi-pro league. When I used to run around in the front yard as a kid, throwing the ball into the bushes, I pretended to be the quarterback. I’ve always thought that way, and still do. I’m the quarterback of the sports team at Channel 4, given the responsibility of getting the job done while being part of the team.

I’ve always been fascinated by the mental part of the quarterback’s job. It’s one of the few jobs in sports that blends the cerebral with the physical. It’s part motivation, part inspiration. Without all facets clicking, a quarterback’s job can’t get done. No position in sports is as difficult, or as important.

When quarterbacks are in competition with each other for a starting job, it can divide a team. The Cowboys with Craig Morton and Roger Staubach, the Redskins with Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer and now with Brad Johnson and Jeff George. No matter how hard a coach and the quarterbacks themselves try to smooth things over, they can’t. The team looks to them as the leader, and they choose sides.

Former NFL quarterback Matt Robinson, now a color analyst for the Jacksonville Jaguars, was involved in a competition with Richard Todd, both vying for the starting job with the New York Jets. “We were friendly,” recalls Robinson, “but it was definitely competitive. There was always an edge there, even when you were out socially.” How do you deal with that, I wondered. “Depending on the guy, sometimes you can talk about it. Richard and I decided we’d do our best with what is always a tough situation. No bad mouthing, no sabotage.”

“That’s right,” adds current Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell. Brunell was in a similar situation in Jacksonville with Steve Beuerlein. “You try to make the best of it, and it really depends on the other guy. There can be tension, but you know it’s going to be a competition going in. Steve and I got along so it wasn’t a problem. With some other guys, it could be.”

Jaguars Head Coach Tom Coughlin admits how competing quarterbacks handle themselves in the meetings and in the locker room factors into the final decision. “It’s not one of the first things you look at, but certainly how a guy handles himself, his reaction to his teammates and his competitors factors into it.”

A quarterback can’t be a small person. He has to have a magnanimous side. He gets too much credit and knows it. He takes more blame than deserved, and he knows that too. A quarterback has to have a “selective memory.” “Oh yeah,” Brunell agreed. “You have to be able to forget every bad play that’s happened and move on. Sometimes that’s really tough.” He has to believe the next play is going for a touchdown, no matter what.

“Confidence is the word I’d use,” added Brunell. “You have to be confident in your own abilities, your teammates’ the coaches, the scheme, everything. You go into every situation confident of success, confident you can make it happen.” Robinson thinks that confidence is what can carry the other guys on offense. “When you step in that huddle, all eyes are on you. Your body language, how you call the play, even how you step into the huddle. The guys are looking at you for a cue. Some want some kind of direction, they’re looking for a leader.”

Other position players agree there’s a common thread that runs through all successful quarterbacks. “They all have different personalities,” says Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan McCardell. “But the good ones come into the huddle and can tell who’s ready to play and who’s not.” “They’re not interested in talk, about what happened beforehand, about the mouthing from the other side of the ball. When it’s time to go, they’re ready to go. You can see it. They shut everything else out and say ‘Let’s go.'”

I asked Sam Huff, the Giants Hall of Fame linebacker about the difference between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants in the ’58 NFL Championship game. “They had John Unitas, we didn’t,” Huff said immediately referring to the Colts Hall of Fame quarterback. “What about the rematch in ’59,” I probed. “They still had Unitas,” Huff barked. “You knew when he was in the game, he believed they would win which meant they believed it. You could sense it in how they came to the line of scrimmage, how they played, how they walked. They all were a reflection of Unitas.”

Pro Golfer Jim Colbert once said he plays a game with himself when he stands over an important 4-foot putt. “I ask myself, will you be more amazed if you miss it or if you make it? And I always said I’ll be absolutely shocked if I miss it,” Colbert explained. That’s a quarterback’s confidence.

Just don’t call it arrogance.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

The “Much Better Than Average But Not The Best Ever” Bowl

Atlanta: In our instant gratification society, we’re caught up in the science of the new. If it’s new, it must be better. Wrong. Enough already about Super bowl XXXIV being the best ever. Compelling, exciting, going down to the last play? No question.

Best ever?
Not close.

How can a game that had 2 missed field goals, a botched snap, a blocked field goal and a team in the red zone 5 straight times and come out without a touchdown be considered the best ever?

The final 18 minutes or so were very exciting. The Titans showed just how they like to play football. Physical, tough, grind it out, last man-standing football.
Not pretty, but effective.
They have heart.
The Ram’s have talent, heart, imagination
and a fun story.

But none of that makes it the best Super Bowl ever.

What about Super Bowl III, or even the “Blunder Bowl” Super Bowl V? Namath’s win over the Colts has its place in history, and Jim O’Brien’s kick to win the world championship for Baltimore had an exciting ending. Neither of those is new, so I guess they don’t qualify.

How about the Steelers/Cowboys 35-31 game where Jackie Smith dropped the winning pass in the end zone? Scott Norwood’s missed kick apparently doesn’t qualify because it was a miss. Try telling that to Giants fans.

Two years ago, John Elway’s first win was hailed as the best Super Bowl ever. Solid play from both the Broncos and Packers, two star quarterbacks performing on the big stage, a big offensive play to take the lead and a big defensive play to preserve it. That still qualifies as a candidate as the best Super Bowl ever.

If you want to include just NFL championship games, the ‘58 game between the Giants and Colts virtually has no peer. John Unitas marching the team down field for the tying score in regulation. Then doing the same in overtime.

Don’t be romanced by the last play, game ending on the one-yard line argument. That’s just where the Rams expected the game to end. That’s the play they gave Steve McNair and the Titans. It was up to Mike Jones and the safety to make the tackle, and Jones was up to the task. It was nice to see players making a play to decide a game instead of some player’s mistake putting one team over the top.

This game had too many mistakes, to many missed executions to be called the best ever. Very exciting, very compelling, but too many observers are caught up in the ‘if it’s happening now, it must be better’ syndrome.

Fun game to watch, a better-than-expected game than most predicted, but save the words ‘great’ and ‘best’ for the ones that deserve it.