A Worthy Biography of Ken Stabler

512g898CtmL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_This is a different kind of biography.  The author says part of the idea of writing the book was show a different side of Ken Stabler than the womanizing, heavy drinking, partying Stabler of his youth through his NFL playing career.  He wanted to show the side of Ken Stabler that genuinely care about people, including his teammates, his kids, and even his ex-wives.

So we have three sides of Ken Stabler.

First, the rebellious, woman loving (in many ways), and partier Ken Stabler of his youth through his football career.  Stabler was not only upfront about his partying ways, he kind of bragged about it.  And he embraced the bad boy image of the Oakland Raiders.  It is hard for me to believe that Bear Bryant had two of the most iconic rebel rousing athletes of their day at the University of Alabama in both Joe Namath followed by Ken Stabler.  Both got into deep trouble with Bear Bryant because of their wayward ways and eventually rehabilitated themselves with him.  Also interesting, both love the Bear and it seems the Bear deeply cared about them too.  Stabler continued his fun loving ways with the Raiders, having a lot of fun along the way.

Second, there is the athlete Ken Stabler.  In some ways that goes hand in hand with the rebelliousness as an average athlete probably just doesn’t get away what Stabler did in college and the pros.  He was obviously and outstanding athlete who eventually won a Super Bowl ring and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Here the author makes a strong case for Stabler as a Hall of Famer.  Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? He was certainly a great leader on the football field and the right one for the Raiders.  I think he does belong partly because you couldn’t think of the NFL in the 1970’s without Stabler.  He was a gunslinger and he won a Super Bowl.  But, he also had a woeful number of interceptions.  He had a touchdown to interception ratio of of .87.  But his statistics easily stack up against other Hall of Fame quarterbacks of his error.  Terry Bradshaw, who’s career almost parallels Stabler’s, had statistics that closely mirror that of Stabler and Stabler has a better career passer rating than Bradshaw.  So yes, he belongs.

Third there is the empathic Ken Stabler who cared for his teammates, his family, his kids and his friends.  He was, by all accounts, a great father to his kids even after his divorces and even more so after he retired from football and had more time with them.  He stood up for his teammates and while it might sound odd now, was colorblind.  He exhibited traits, even at the University of Alabama, where he treated all equally regardless of race.  And in his later years he chilled out and relaxed with family and his grandkids.

Stabler had a grand life and this biography does him justice.

Snake: The Legendary Life of Ken Stabler

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Review of The Last Headbangers by Kevin Cook

Headbangers

The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s: The Era that Created Modern Sports by Kevin Cook
W. W. Norton & Company (2012)
ISBN-10: 0393345874

288 pages

The Last Headbangers is a history of the NFL in the 1970’s through the prism of the rivalry between the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Raiders, the fun loving, renegade group of misfits versus the blue collar, lunch pail Steelers with a ferocious defense.  Cook describes their battles as a biker gang versus a construction crew, a pithy and apt description.

The theme of the book is quite clear, that 1970’s football, still a throwback to the old days of banging heads and taking no prisoners on the field, morphed into a sanitized, scripted, corporate product in the 1980’s.  He brackets this metamorphosis between Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception in a 1972 playoff game against the Raiders to Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” in 1982 when the San Francisco 49’ers defeated the Dallas Cowboys to usher in a new football dynasty.  Here I’ll just quote the author.

The Last Headbangers represents two years of research on the NFL in the 1970s. While working on the book I came to believe that the league entered a pivotal era with Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception in 1972, an era in which new rules, television, aggressive marketing, a special generation of players and coaches, and a changing America combined to help pro football dominate the sports landscape. In my view the game took on its modern form in the ’70s, and what I consider “’ 70s football” ended with Dwight Clark’s 1982 touchdown grab, now known as The Catch, ushering in a more corporate, scripted, and regulated version of the sport, exemplified by the great 49ers teams of the ’80s.  (Cook, Kevin (2012-08-27). The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s–The Era that Created Modern Sports (Kindle Locations 3666-3671). Norton. Kindle Edition.)

Cook also details the rule changes that have essentially made the passing supreme and created a game where defensive players can barely look at an offensive player meanly without getting a flag thrown.  Most of these changes hamper defensive backs from touching a receiver after five yards and limit the amount of contact they can make against “defenseless” receivers – all to create a sanitized game and open up offense and scoring.

The majority of the book, however, is the inside story behind the Raiders and Steelers organization, with particular emphasis on the Immaculate Reception (or Immaculate Deception as Raiders fans call it).  It is mostly a history of these two franchises in the 1970’s.

Overall Cook does an excellent job of describing the games and these two teams throughout the 1970’s.  For many fans I am sure it will be highly entertaining as the writing is excellent and the story well told.

I thought the best aspect of the book was describing the friendship between the Raiders’ linebacker Phil Villapiano and the Steelers’ running back Franco Harris who continue to argue over the Immaculate Reception.

But for me this book ultimately disappointing for a couple of reasons.

First, I have read a copious amount of NFL history, so most of the details in the book I have read elsewhere.  Granted it is well written and likely entertaining for others, but for me it’s simply rehashing what I’ve already read.

Second, I’m not sure I buy the core premise of the Immaculate Reception and The Catch necessarily being the bookends of eras.  The rise of the passing game and rules that have sanitized professional football into a more sterile corporate image have been ongoing through decade of the 1980’s and into the 2010’s.  It’s not easy to put bookends around the trend as Cook does.  Although 1978 probably was a seminal year as that is when many of the rule changes started to move the NFL into the passing frenzy we see today.

And I won’t quibble too much about the title, although it seems a bit inaccurate.  How can the 1970’s be the era that created modern sports when the theme is that that era is over and a bygone past?  It wasn’t the era that created modern football; it was corporatization of the sport, really more so in the 1990s through today that lead to the NFL of today.

As summation, for those who have read a lot of football history and are interested in it, this is a good place to start with the caveats noted above.  For hardcore football fans, there’s not really a lot new here.

The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s–The Era that Created Modern Sports

2012 NFL Season: Week One Observations

Before launching into the games I watched a few comments on some major themes at the start of the season.

Replacement Referees: Granted watching on television you can’t see everything that goes on on the field but so far I think the replacement refs are doing okay. Granted there are some glitches but that is to be expected with officials with no NFL experience and probably have not worked together before. The blown reversed holding call on Green Bay’s punt return for touchdown is a good example of where one official was probably looking at one set of players where there was no holding/block in the back but the call was actually on another set of players. Thankfully it didn’t affect the outcome of the game. And I’ve seen regular officials make the same mistakes. It’s just magnified in this situation.

RG III and Andrew Luck: Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck will be tied at the hip for the rest of their lives. Not just their NFL careers, but their lives. I continue to see stories about the bust Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning, much to Leaf’s deteriment. These two will share the same experience. So far so good but if one game is any indiacation RG III came out of the gate with a small grasp on Rookie of the Year after his performance against the New Orleans Saints. He was phenomenal. He reminds me of a MATURE version of Michael Vick as a rookie, which should be very scary for NFC East foes. I was stunningly impressed. Okay, it’s one game I am not putting him in the Hall of Fame yet but everything points to him being the real deal, including, shall I say it again? His maturity. I did not see Andrew Luck but the Redskins putting it to a discombobulated Saints team was kind of fun to watch.

Super Bowl XLVII: No comment.


GAMES I WATCHED

New England Patriots over Tennessee Titans, 34-13

Are we going to have some kind of defense this year? Please? After this game, despite some shakiness, the defense looked rather improved from the debacle of last year. We STUFFED the run but at times struggled in pass coverage. But that has been a league wide trend this week so I am not overly worried about that.

I was really pleased to see a running game develop with Stevan Ridley but I am a bit worried about our depth at that position. I am MORE WORRIED about Nate Solder’s ability at left tackle. He missed or was late on too many blocks and he let Cameron Wimbley get a shot on Brady from behind that bloodied him up. We will miss the reliable Matt Light at left tackle this year. I pray that Solder steps it up.

The offense seemed decent but a bit shakey. Brandon Lloyd really had extremely poor technique in missing an easy touchdown bomb from Brady and there were a few other uncharacteristic drops as well. But overall we moved the ball well and finally got a little running game going.

While this was a team win with now true standouts, my MVP has to go to Ridley for making believe we might be able to run sometimes this year.

MVP: Stevan Ridley, RB


Dallas Cowboys over New York Giants, 24-17

Dallas put on a surprise showing for most in this game although I really was not that surprised by the outcome. Dallas defense was much improved over its inconsistent performance from last year and wide receiver Kevin Ogletree kind of came out of nowhere to be a force on offense. Overall it was a very efficient game for the Cowboys with mostly decent offensive line play, although the Giants Jason Pierre-Paul still looks to be the best defensive lineman in the league, and a solid running game. But really the key to the game was Tony Romo’s mobility. He was harassed often but used his feet to extend plays.

The second major factor in the game was the Giants defense was clearly sucking wind late in the third quarter and really didn’t do much to stop Dallas’s offense.

It will be interesting to see how these teams progress as the season wears on. The Giants always seem to start slow then finish strong, and Dallas has a habit of collapsing.

MVP: Kevin Ogletree, WR

San Francisco 49’ers over Green Bay Packers, 30-22

Solid defense, a decent running game, and a few big plays still equals a win in today’s NFL. And that is what the 49’ers brought to the table I this game. I keep wondering when Frank Gore will suddenly get old but he looked solid today. And the much maligned Alex Smith was hitting on his passes and even the mecruial Randy Moss got himself a touchdown pass.

The defense for the 49’ers was very solid and impressive.

Green Bay suddenly doesn’t look like the hot team everyone favors for a Super Bowl run. And frankly their defense looked pretty ragged and their running game non-existent. If they hope to the big game again, they probably are going through San Francisco (or maybe Atlanta)?

MVP: Frank Gore, RB

Denver Bronco over Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-19

Denver already had a solid defense. Now they have Payton Manning, who makes any offensive automatically better. They schooled the Steelers whose defense is growing ancient before our eyes and their offense was anemic at best. The Broncos defensive backs really shut down the Steelers recievers and I thought Tracy Porter was the best player on the field other than Manning.

The other thing that stood out to me in this game is Willis McGahee. I mean this guy is old and washed up right? I’ve never seen him play better.

After this performance the Broncos, so far, look like a force to be reckoned with. And despite the offense clicking, I thought the defense was even better!

MVP: Tracy Porter, CB

Baltimore Ravens over Cincinnati Bengals, 44-13

If you asked me right now who the best team in the NFL is it would have to be the Baltimore Ravens. Flacco played as good a game at quarterback as I have ever seen him play. He was poised, made great decisions and seemed much more calm in the pocket that is his norm. Ray Rice was running well, Torrey Smith had a few big plays, and Michael Oher at left tackle seemed to be getting off the ball faster and be more comfortable on that side of the line that he as been in the past.

And the never aging Ray Lewis? Are you kidding me? And Ed Reed (who keeps getting hurt but so what?). It’s week one but this team was clicking on all cylinders.

MVP: Joe Flacco, QB

San Diego Chargers over Oakland Raiders, 22-14

This was a very painful game to watch at times. The Raiders early on in the game constantly kept shooting themselves in the foot with stupid penalties. And then by now everyone probably knows of the fiascos in the punting game that occurred after the regular long snapper went down with an injury. I don’t think I have ever seen three botched punt attempts in one game. Two, yes. Three? Never that I can recall. And those were as good as turnovers. But the Raiders defense hung as tough as they could throughout the game. A big shout out to former Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour who had a great game in a losing cause.

I do have to say, without any vulgar references, what does Trent Dilfer have for Philip Rivers? For the past few years, hearing Dilfer talk, you’d think Rivers walks on water. Trent Dilfer is the most idiotic, worthless, know nothing announcer in the game today. I got sick of hearing him blather on senselessly throughout the game.

But back to the game! If San Diego barely escapes winning a game with a mistake prone Raiders, and Kansas City can’t do much more than they did against Atlanta, then those three teams are probably just conceding the division the Payton Manning lead Denver Broncos in the AFC West.

MVP: Antonie Cason, CB


Washington Redskins over New Orleans Saints, 40-32

Robert Griffin III had the best rookie quarterback debut I can ever remember. He really reminds me of a much, much, much more mature version of Michael Vick. He was poised in the pocket, has a rocket arm, and for the most part made good decisions. Across the board the Redskins looked better in this game than I have seen in a long, long time. The offensive line, a big question mark coming into the season, played mostly very well with a few glitches. Left tackle Trent Williams played well, of course against a rust Will Smith, and out of nowhere for most Alfred Morris, the sixth round draft pick from Florida Atlantic showed why he is the starting running back.

The Saints, meanwhile, looked as discombobulated, mistake prone, and had scads of penalties which fueled the should have been blowhout. While one can see how explosive this offense can be, this game would not have been nearly as close had it not been for a blocked punt and poor calls by the referees.

After bounty gate I am glad to see the Saints get there cumuppance. And while I am not, by far, any kind of fan of the Redskins, they suddenly look intriguting.

MVP: Robert Griffin III, QB

 

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Offensive Player: Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins
Defensive Player: Tracy Porter, CB, Denver Broncos
Offensive Lineman: Manny Ramirez, G, Denver Broncos
Special Teams: David Akers, K, San Francisco 49’ers (Tie NFL record with 63 yard field goal)
Rookie of the Week: Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins

The 1970’s Oakland Raiders: Tales from the Dark Side

Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders by Peter Richmond
Harper Collins, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0061834301

Love them or hate them, the 1970’s Oakland Raiders under John Madden were certainly an entertaining cast of misfits in the guise of one the best professional football teams of their era.  Here, Peter Richmond tells the story of this cast of characters, and characters they were.

The distinctive personality of this team that set it apart from all others of the 1970’s was the perception that this was a group of outlaws and rebels who thumbed their noses at convention.  Add to this the fact many were castoffs from other teams for behavioral or other issues, and you had a truly volatile band of misfits.  But somehow the affable John Madden, who was the perfect coach for this team, was able to take this group of irrepressible “adults” and mold them into a feared, championship football team.  Having read this account of the 1970’s Raiders, I almost liken John Madden to Santa Clause trapped on the island for misfit toys trying to using his magic to make them whole.

Many of the players on these teams are ones most football fans will remember in perpetuity.   You had Jack “The Assassin” Tatum, Gene Atkinson, Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas, and Willie Brown, aka The Soul Patrol, one of the  most feared set of defensive backs in the league who relished huge hits, clothesline tackles, and knocking their opponents out of games.  They also had characters like quarterback Ken Stabler, the bad southern Alabama boy, carouser and partier extraordinaire, linebackers Phil Villapiano and Ted Hendricks, and the truly crazy John Matuszak, along with the rest of the team full of similar head cases, creating a volatile mix of testosterone, craziness, and child like desire to have fun, on the field and off.

This was a hard partying team and not an insignificant part of the book talks about Raiders’ training camps that were part hard partying and hard practicing and all the pranks the players pulled while preparing for the season.  It was a fun loving and wild group of men who John Madden somehow molded into winners. Partially he did it by letting them have their fun and treating them like men, but making sure that they practiced and played hard.  While they might have been a wild, fun loving bunch, they also loved football and wanted to win.

This book is clearly told from an unabashed Oakland Raiders fan’s perspective, which really worked well in this case.  The author revels in the outlaw persona of this team, which went all the way up to the owner Al Davis, who also flouted convention and thumbed his nose at the powers that be in the National Football League.

And while they only won one Super Bowl in this era, a 32-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI after the 1976 season, they were always in the mix.  They built up a strong rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the author draws a clear contrast with.  Had they not had one of the greatest football teams of all time as their nemesis, the Oakland Raiders may have been the team of the 1970’s.

The author starts the book with the “Immaculate Reception,” one of the most famous plays in NFL history.  With the Steelers desperately trying to stage a comeback in the 1972 playoffs against Oakland, down 7-6 with 22 seconds left in the game and hardly a prayer, Bradshaw threw a pass that careened off a receiver and was picked up off his shoe tops by running back Franco Harris who ran it in for the go ahead score.  At that time, if an offensive player touched the ball while it was in the air, another offensive player could not catch it.  Argument ensues to this day whether they ball bounced off “Frenchy” Fuqua, the Pittsburgh running back, or Jack Tatum, who nailed him just as the ball arrived.

The author marks this as the beginning of the rise the Oakland Raiders whose “rebel image, their defiant owner, had stamped them as an enemy of civilized football.”  He contrasts the “staid, old-world NFL Rooney’s franchise” with the “rebels of Al Davis, a man who bowed to no higher power.”  He also throws words around like “benevolent” versus “demonic” and the “dark side.”  That was the Oakland Raiders image, and they came to revel in it.

While this book chronicles the Oakland Raider’s seasons of the 1970’s, it as much about the unusual character of the team as it is their exploits on the field.  The author conducted extensive interviews with players from that era and has crafted a well done and very interesting read, really a must read for Oakland Raiders fans, but one that all football fans can enjoy.  The only real drawback to the book is the author only had a very short and not very illuminating interview with Al Davis, who did seem very cooperative.  But his perspective can be rather easily gleaned from his own actions and public pronouncements, so this has little impact on the completeness of this work.

Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders

2009 NFL Season: Week 12 Thanksgiving Day Special

INTRODUCTION

After the New York Giants went 5-0 many pundits had them ranked as the best team in the NFL in their power rankings. I said then that they were at best a mediocre team. I may not always be right, but I was right about that.

The traditional football games on Thanksgiving Day featured two matchups that really were not that compelling to the average football fan. The still lowly Detroit Lions hosted the solid but struggling Green Bay Packers, while the Dallas Cowboys hosted the usually pathetic Oakland Raiders. Most thought the games would be blowouts and they certainly lived up to the tripe. Green Bay had no trouble rolling over Detroit, and Oakland proved to be no match for Dallas.

Many have wondered if the Detroit Lions should no longer be hosting a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving given their long standing lack of quality teams. A Thanksgiving Day matchup should be a marquee game between two quality teams, right?

I disagree though. The Detroit Lions have been hosting a Thanksgiving Day game since 1934. That’s 75 years of tradition for the Lions, sometimes a good team, lately not, hosting a game on this holiday. The National Football League is built on tradition and after 75 years I don’t see a reason to break that tradition now. Despite not being a great team now, presumably the Lions will be relevant again. And for me, watching any professional football game is enjoyable. And I always know I’ll see the Lions host somebody on this day and I look forward to it every year.

GAMES I WATCHED

Green Bay Packers over Detroit Lions, 34-12

As expected this game was not even close. After Green Bay fumbled the opening kickoff leading to a quick Detroit touchdown, the game was basically over. Detroit’s offense never did much else, while Matthew Stafford threw four picks.

Green Bay played an all around solid game, with Donald Driver catching seven passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. This included a 68 yard grab in the first quarter to set up Green Bay’s first touchdown. Cornerback Charles Woodson had his second sterling game with two interceptions, one that he returned for a touchdown in garbage time.

I’m not sure why the Lions started rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford who played with a separated left shoulder. I think he has the potential to be the franchise quarterback for the Lions and it just doesn’t seem worth risking further damage to his shoulder at this point in the season.

This game turned out pretty much as expected. It was a good game for Green Bay to get back to winning and try to jumpstart an attempt to make the playoffs as Wild Card team. They have a long way to go for that.

MVP: Donald Driver, WR


Dallas Cowboys over Oakland Raiders, 24-7

The NFC East used to be considered the toughest conference in the NFL. Not anymore. Right now the storied franchise of the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles are middle of the road teams, at best. The Washington Redskins are abysmal and shouldn’t even be in the conversation.

The race for the NFC East is going down the stretch and Dallas needs to keep winning with the Giants and Eagles right in the mix. Pundits have even taken to calling Tony Romo not just an average quarterback, but a bad one. And he deserves it given the way he has played this year.

In this game Dallas had no trouble putting the Raiders away. Romo had a very good outing and wide receiver Miles Austin was again fantastic. He had seven catches for 145 yards and touchdown to lead the Dallas Cowboys offense.

On the other side of the ball, the Raiders started fourth year quarterback Bruce Gradkowski over the bust of a number one overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell. Gradkowski, frankly, is never going to be a particularly good NFL quarterback, but he is gutsy and had didn’t play that badly against the Cowboys. The Raiders were just simply overmatched talent wise on the field.

Dallas, like Green Bay, really needed an easy win and to get their offense rolling after a very pedestrian performance against the Redskins last week, a game they should have lost but didn’t.

MVP: Miles Austin, WR


Denver Broncos over New York Giants, 26-6

This was the marquee matchup of the day which most thought we be a closely contested ball game. Both teams have been struggling a great deal the past month, with the Broncos losing four straight games and the Giants losing the last five out of six. Too bad it was on the NFL Network. Many football fans, as a result, didn’t have access to the game. Well, it was an interesting game but not much was missed.

I actually thought the Giants would win this game but they never bothered to show up. They were pathetic.

The Giants, on their second offensive snap of the game, had to call a timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty. They followed this up with a minus two yard run by Brandon Jacobs. That basically set the tone for the game as the Giants offense seemed to have stayed in New York.

I watched Brandon Jacobs very closely in this game because he has been struggling of late. What I noticed was disturbing. Even when he got into a good hole he didn’t have the same burst of speed and power to make a good gain like he has in the past. I don’t know if it’s because he has been injured a bit or some other ailment, but he definitely is not the same runner he has been in the past. There were holes that he got to that a Chris Johnson or an Adrian Peterson, or last years Brandon Jacobs for that matter, would have turned into a long gain. Something is missing or gone awry there.

Meanwhile a lot has been said of the struggles of the Giants offensive line. They played reasonably well at all times, more so on running plays. The announcers kept saying they were getting beat physically but they most looked confused by the Broncos tricky defensive alignments than physically dominated.

But the Broncos defense played extremely well. Elvis Dumervil had two sacks and a forced fumble, safety Brian Dawkins was a menace all over the field, and the Denver secondary, led by Champ Bailey, blanketed the Giants’ receivers. In fact the quarterback pressures could often be attributed to superior defensive back play more so than the defensive line dominating the line of scrimmage. But it was a very well played game by the Denver defense all around.

The Giants defense didn’t play terribly but again, they weren’t beaten physically as much as the Broncos just outplayed them. Case in point, if you watched Giants’ defense end Osi Umenyiora against the Bronco’s left tackle, Ryan Clady, he often got good penetration and sometimes pressure on Kyle Orton. But he was completely shut out of the game.

Meanwhile Denver’s rookie running back Knowshon Moreno played very well with a shifty, slithery style of running that netted yards when most backs would have been shut down. I have seen Denver play several times this year and I have not seen these moves by Moreno before. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t watching him at his best or that he has been injured, but now I see why people are so excited about this guy. He has a unique running style that avoids big contact and can make the most out of small openings. And of course wide receiver Brandon Marshall was making some sick one handed catches.

But frankly, at the end of the day I am not sure whether Denver looked so good because the Giants were just plain awful, or if they have come out of their funk. They certainly looked much better than they have the past few times I’ve seen them. I do know one thing, however, the Giants appear to be on the way down an out. See ya!

The MVP could really go to Dumervil, Dawkins, or Bailey. I am going with Champ Bailey because I thought it was the Denver pass coverage that was the key to their success on defense.

MVP: Champ Bailey, CB