Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fourth And Long: Ray Guy, HOF Class Of 2014

Appeared on in August 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

He is an entrenched stereotype, fuel for jock-sarcasm, the butt of football jokes and the jester in the locker room. What could change everything? What would it take to earn the ultimate sign of respect from his peers? What would give football’s clown his day?

We have the long overdue answer. Drum roll…

Be a first round pick. Get elected to seven Pro Bowl teams. Earn first-team All-Pro honors six times. Win three Super Bowls. Be a member of the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade team and 75th Anniversary team. Execute your job 619 consecutive times without failure (in this case, a blocked kick). Have the trophy for best college player at your position named after you. 

That resume belongs to Ray Guy. The question, Jeopardy fans, is “What does it take for a punter to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame?” Now we know – finally. The credentials seem overwhelming, but it took an endorsement by the Hall of Fame’s Seniors Committee, 28 years after Guy’s retirement, to finally unlock Canton’s doors. Why? Because Guy was “just a punter.”

When he strides through the Hall’s doors on August 2, 2014, Guy, my uncle, will become the first exclusive punter to be enshrined. Think about that. Not the uncle part. That was a joke, unfortunately. In the first 60 years of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s existence, the NFL never saw fit to bestow its highest individual honor on a player who exclusively made his living by dropping a ball on his foot and launching it into the heavens (or, in modern terms, Jerry Jones’ ego-matching big screen).     
NFL…that’s a disgraceful record. If you have ever played sports, at damn near any level, among the first lessons you learn is to respect your teammates and the value of individual roles within the whole. A point guard distributes the basketball and a center rebounds. Leadoff batters take a lot of pitches; batters hit behind runners with less than two outs. A tackle blocks, a wide receiver catches, a quarterback throws and, despite the NFL’s latent acknowledgement, a punter punts.

This is a bit personal, not because I finally share a surname with a Hall of Famer, but because in a punter I see legitimate, ignored and serially mocked value. A good punter can neutralize a dynamic return man, control field position and consistently put a lot of demoralizing green between the opponent’s offense and the end zone. Punters are the equivalent of a three-point specialist in the NBA or a late inning defensive replacement in MLB – all key cogs to a winning formula.

Fine, they don’t always meet your image of a gridiron hero. Save for Todd Sauerbrun, look like they spend more time in yoga poses or within arms reach of a beer than they do under a bar stuffed on both ends with iron. They are quirky. Their shoes don’t always match. They’ve worn watches on the field (Reggie Roby’s legacy). They don’t run 4.3 40-yard dashes, blow up running backs in the hole or somersault defenders at the goal line. Being a man of average build, marginal athleticism and endearing idiosyncrasies, I can appreciate that. But that doesn’t mean punters aren’t part of the team. It doesn’t mean they aren’t football players. They are. My proof? Ray Guy’s bust.    

The Future for Griffin, Gruden, Snyder & the “R” Word

Appeared on in June 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

I’m obsessed with OTAs. Football players in shorts, stars nursing faux hamstring injuries and coaches obsessing over calisthenics and pigskin-level position drills five months before week one gets me juiced. These are critical times in a football team’s life. Nail it in June, or else.

My sarcasm cup overflows. While it is good to see players between the lines and someone other than Mike Shanahan at ‘Skins press conferences, it’s June, man. June. OTAs just aren’t that compelling and don’t produce a treasure trove of burning hot issues that beg for coverage. I can feel Peyton Manning shaking a disappointed head at my disrespect for a properly executed route tree in the spring. Forgive my simple football mind, Sheriff Manning. And pardon me reader for not breaking down a knee brace-less but still arm-sleeved Robert Griffin III’s altered footwork and arm angle, Chuckie (Jon Gruden) crashing Little Chuckie’s (Jay’s) practice or a riveting punter battle.   

Instead I’m pulling out my crystal ball, tarot cards, ouija board and Magic 8-ball and offering incremental look-aheads for the most compelling people and the most fascinating issue gripping the capital city’s professional football team. I tend to run long, so let’s jump in. Forgive my pessimism, in advance. 

Robert Griffin III

Six months from present…

How was the turkey? Dry? Gravy lumpy? Pumpkin pie soggy? I agree. At least the yeast rolls and mashed potatoes were money. Oh, and the beer – the one consistent joy this fall – was and remains cold. 

Sounds like Turkey Day dinner – uneven and disappointing - was something of culinary synonym for RGIII’s season. He had his moments with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, but ‘Skins fans and fantasy owners were left wanting. Only playing 12 games didn’t help. So it goes with the crash test dummy quarterback. Kirk Cousins played well but not often enough, all in all, to establish himself as a legitimate resource or lose the romantic mysticism swirling around The Backup Quarterback. 

A year from present…

Another offseason brings another round of misplaced marketing pitches and peculiar headlines. Why, Robert, can’t you be satisfied with silence? Boring is okay. In fact, it’s recommended. Think about it, big guy. For confirmation, give AFC Champion Andrew Luck a call. I’m certain he’s available (assuming there’s a phone in his personal film room). 

The upcoming season, Griffin’s fourth, is a career fulcrum. Will he earn a lucrative extension to his rookie deal, or not? Adidas says yes. RGII isn’t sure but he’d love the opportunity to add special clauses to the contract addressing unallowable plays, parental access to the locker room and mandatory father-coach post-game chats. Yikes.

Five years from present…

Can we just admit it’s over? It was periodically fun, frustrating and disappointing; however, it – the Robert Griffin III experience - was always compelling. Sound familiar? We’ve done this before, D.C. Alexander Ovechkin proved to be more scorer than winner, Bryce Harper hasn’t quite become the clone of Mickey Mantle and RGIII is more Michael Vick than Steve Young. So the verdict is in, okay? Only delusional fools dismiss seven seasons of data. Don’t be a delusional fool.

Of course he’s still “only” 29 – prime vintage for quarterbacks. But RGIII has been ridden hard and put away wet, bruised and broken too many times. His crutch, his ejection handle – that fabulous athleticism – is fading fast. Now he has to win games from the pocket. Confident? Me either. Ah what could have been…

Rebuttal: Robert Griffin III is a force of positive energy and determination. I sense a battle between the blindingly bright-lighted quarterback and the gloomy fog beseeching Washington, D.C. sports. What force – good or ill – will win this struggle? I’m betting on the gloom (my head) but rooting for the inspiring quarterback (my heart).

Jay Gruden

Six months from present…

I like this guy. Funny. Quirky. Goofy but serious. Equal parts football grunt and pigskin intellectual. His predecessor was an arrogant curmudgeon, and Gruden might become that after a few more years of accepting checks from Daniel Snyder, but for now football in D.C. is fun again – if not sufficiently successful.

A year from present…

Well, if nothing else, Jay learned to get along with Robert and the entourage residing on the quarterback’s coattails. If he had any shot at longevity, endearing himself to Team Griffin was Job number-1. As Shanahan learned, in this and most NFL towns, the starting quarterback has more clout than the head coach. But besides all that, the reality vault reveals that Gruden won seven games, three more than 2013. And what’s this? He has a first round pick to deploy next year!!! That’s enough for Snyder to justify a cheesy marketing campaign that alludes to a Super Bowl run. Stop the presses…please.

Five years from present…

If your team is searching for a head coach, pray Jay Gruden is on the short list. After three years and one playoff appearance in Washington, Gruden was controversially whacked by an owner searching for, well, something unapparent to rational minds. Not surprisingly he re-established his good name while doing the offensive coordinator thing again; but with stronger ownership and less organizational drama, he should be a fine coach. Gruden exited D.C. a martyr and with the expectation of NFL re-birth and success. His time is now. The prophecy is about to unfold.

Rebuttal: Why would Gruden last? No one has under Snyder. Joe Gibbs is the only coach under Snyder that authored his departure. However, if Gruden can get the most out of the team’s significant offensive assets, create a strong bond with Griffin and, above all else, consistently field a winner, he might be afforded a leash as long as the one somehow enjoyed by Vinny Cerrato.

Daniel Snyder

Six months from present…

Has anyone seen Daniel Snyder? The interviews with national newspapers, defiant emails and any other direct contact with the nickname controversy have ended. This, of course, is a welcomed development. Maybe those high-priced consultants he hired over the summer were worth the coin. The ‘Skins have never been a smooth running operation during Snyder’s ownership, but the organization has been semi-competent only when the owner disappears from public view. The truth can be brutal.

A year from present…

Snyder’s steaming. The name thing just won’t go away. He’s thinking, “What is wrong with these people? Why are they thinking for themselves? I’ve given them the answer: the name is a sign of respect and rich football tradition. There’s only one thing to do: go on the offensive. Call the press. Call the president. Poke a senator. Reinvigorate the Original Americans Foundation. Create a new foundation, if necessary. Bruce…schedule a press conference and get Goodell on the phone.” Uh-oh…

Five years from present…

Snyder’s been the owner for 20 mostly miserable years. Here’s the pathetic statistical summary: three division titles and playoff wins; nine head coaches; zero NFC or Super Bowl championships; and countless embarrassing moments, including finally falling on his sword and changing the team’s name. 

Wins, losses and bad contracts aside, letting the “R” word slip through his fingers and into oblivion must have bothered Snyder most. In the end, it didn’t matter what we thought; change was advanced by his sponsors (his financial foundation). Papa John’s was the first to bail and passive-aggressive pressure from the league increasing. But losing FedEx, the brand on his football mansion, and not finding another suitor was too difficult for even Snyder to ignore.

Rebuttal: What, defend Snyder? You want me to come up with a scenario where he advances the organization’s cause during any significant increment of time? You’re talking crazy. Shut your mouth. Just read.

The Name

Six months from now…

I used to read a Care Bears book to my daughter years ago. Its lesson – written around the metaphor of trouble bubbles - was to address your problems honestly and proactively. Don’t let them linger, ferment and swell into something massive, ominous and precarious. Pop your trouble bubbles early, it advised. Snyder never encountered this sage advice of Care Bears, or he simply ignored it, because the nickname trouble bubble floated over the franchise all season. Someone hand the man a needle.

A year from present…

It might be starting to sink in. No matter what Snyder, Bruce Allen or any former ‘Skin says, this issue will plague the organization and increasingly impact operations until someone gets a clue and figures out that it’s just not worth the fight. Players are starting to speak out, media members are abandoning the name with greater frequency and the fan base is starting to fracture. Call them Washington Pride or the Federals. I’m sure a deal could be struck with the junior hockey team using the former name or any rights the USFL might still have the latter. Adorn them in some radical, red, white and blue threads and new-school helmet. The “R” word isn’t even organic to Washington; it was inherited from Boston. Whatever. Just pick something. Call them anything but…

Five years from present…

I already gave it away. The “R” word was laid to rest two years ago. And guess what happened? Nothing. The NFL rolled on and the team kept playing games in a packed house. In fact, it was such a non-event the only open question is why on earth it took so long? Mr. Snyder, care to clarify?

Rebuttal: There is no counterpoint. A name change is inevitable. I know it. You know it. In time, Snyder and all those blinded by nostalgia and misled by emotion will too.

That’s how I see the future for Robert, Jay, Dan and the “R” word. Rationale dissenting arguments or wild, baseless expressions of outrage are welcome. 

Donald Sterling Unveils A Model For Change

Appeared on in May 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Los Angeles Clippers owners Donald Sterling committed his latest, and perhaps “greatest” deplorable act. His team united, reacted with strength and conducted themselves with a level of dignity undeserved by their owner. Politicians spoke eloquently for the people. Luminaries expressed outrage. The NBA’s new commission, facing his first significant test, issued a heavy-handed but completely justified verdict. Sterling is now exiled, banned from the game of basketball for life, a consequence befitting his hate. His fellow owners have been challenged to evict their colleague from the fraternity, a decision that seems inevitable and appropriate.

And just like that, days after his leaked tape-recorded message demonstrated the power of the information superhighway, Donald Sterling is out of sight. Before he is out of mind, or at least below sports’ headlines, his words demand consideration beyond Los Angeles, the Clippers and the NBA. This wasn’t Sterling’s first foray into the offensive - not even close. His recently recorded and virally broadcasted prejudices simply shined a light so bright on Sterling’s thoughts and belief-system that the dark-hearted owner could no longer be ignored for convenience. Sterling’s girlfriend’s covert work just confirmed what we already knew. It shoved our noses into the stench of doing business with Donald Sterling. 

But yet we did. Willingly. Knowingly. For over three decades. Players…African American players…signed to play with the Clippers. Doc Rivers, an African American coach that could have nudged his way into just about any NBA job, agreed to work for Sterling. Corporate sponsors soaked up real estate at…well…Staples Center in Los Angeles and booked marketing campaigns with Sterling’s biggest stars. Fans bought tickets. Clippers stock soared like the Dow Jones since 2009. The NBA was enjoying a boon from a playoff season featuring parody normally reserved for the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. Five seeds are struggling with 12’s everywhere! Ignoring Sterling’s past was going so well, until…

Until he stepped from behind the curtain and into the spotlight…and, suddenly, we were all terribly offended and demanded nothing short of the complete eradication of this vile human. I feel guilty for not being more educated about Sterling, for not researching Elgin Baylor’s claims from years ago, for thinking of the Clippers as the Cubs of the NBA (lovable, endearing losers) and for purchasing a mess of Danny Manning rookie cards.  Had I attended Clippers games, bought jerseys and over-priced area beers, I’d be sick. Good thing I never did. Or did I? Or am I still?

Roughly 2,500 miles from the NBA’s ground zero, ‘Skins owner Daniel Snyder continues to use, market and profit from a racially insensitive nickname. It’s a state of being that’s eerily Clippers-like, prior to “Sterling On Tape.” Snyder’s vehement support of his team’s antiquated handle isn’t perfectly analogous to Sterling’s now obvious racism, but there are parallels – troubling parallels - between the owners, the respective professional sports leagues, players and fans. I have no reason to believe ‘Skins owner Daniel Snyder harbors the hate Sterling exposed, but I have every reason to believe – considering his defiance of those challenging his precious team nickname – that he is similarly insensitive. He is also, like Sterling, arrogant, proud, insulated, disconnected and prone to confounding missteps.

Snyder contends his franchise’s name, one he will “never” change, is a symbol of pride and tradition. Is it, Mr. Snyder? Is that really how fans of the team feel? Saying it…over and over and with increased agitation doesn’t make it true. I would argue that a growing faction of football fans, many of them ‘Skins loyalists, would label the name somewhere between uncomfortable and disgusting. The population that is dwindling includes those using the word in conversation, signing the fight song, wearing team gear or brandishing their cars with ‘Skins adornments without a trace of conscience. That group might already be the minority, no matter what Daniel Snyder says.

For a long time I was lazy about this issue. I ignored the original protestors at Super Bowl XXVI and the slow ground swell since. It was easier that way. It is just football, right? Why does a football team – my team - have to be a catalyst for social growth? Am I really going to have to replace my “Sunday best” attire and tuck away memorabilia? Why can’t I just sink into my couch and mindlessly enjoy the games on Sundays? They are games, I said. They are just games. I’ll block out the noise, refuse to consider the valid but uncomfortable points being made by a muted minority and continue on with my enjoyable relationship with the NFL and the Washington football club.

In 2008, I came to my senses and argued for a name change. But the opinions of fringe sportswriters don’t register with capitalistic cats like Sterling and Snyder and economic juggernauts like the NBA and NFL. What does matter is the business model: television deals, advertisements, apparel sales, corporate sponsorships and the fabulous players that drive the economic machines. If the voices start influencing those financial lifelines and if players express their intolerance of intolerable acts, the men in the plush luxury suites with exotic girlfriends/estranged spouses and massive belt buckles and/or the leagues’ governing entities pay attention.

On the verge of fan-mutiny during the 2009 season, Snyder whacked lame duck head coach Jim Zorn and, more importantly, finally delivered the severed professional head of Vinny Cerrato, his front office puppet, to bloodthirsty fans. Similarly, in 2013, with an angry franchise quarterback and an embarrassingly empty stadium in a late-season home loss to the Chiefs, Snyder rid his organization of Team Shanahan and reset with Little Chucky. The trend: when his financial foundation is threatened, Snyder acts. If an issue isn’t a clear and present financial danger, say…like…a name change, you get commentary from “Defiant Dan” and a heaping serving of the status quo. 

Sterling’s egregious words engendered fan outrage, compelled corporate sponsors to flee and inspired Clippers players to consider boycotting games. The situation threatened to overwhelm the NBA playoffs and the league as a whole. The NBA acted, predictably, with swift and maximum force. The “R” word hasn’t become that problematic for the NFL or Daniel Snyder - yet. The stadium remains packed and accessorized with the FedEx label. No major sponsors, to my knowledge, have jettisoned the team or the league. Players have neither vocalized concern with the name nor refused Snyder’s lucrative free agent overtures. Robert Griffin III and DeSean Jackson jerseys are flying off the shelves. Problem? What problem?

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Maybe a little like life with Donald Sterling before the tape recording? Occasional lawsuits, dissenting editorials and political commentary are minor annoyances. They get swatted like flies, rebutted by defiant letters and brushed over by passive commissioners. Until the outrage swells, unites and demands change, until the economic pressure makes the billionaires sweat, they won’t act and the name will remain like Donald Sterling, circa March 2014: a minor inconvenience.

Donald Sterling is bigger than the Clippers, Los Angeles and the NBA. Donald Sterling is a challenge: to Robert Griffin III, to me, to those attending ‘Skins games and anyone feeding the NFL machine. Believe the ‘Skins should change the name? Attack the wallet with overwhelming force or risk being latently offended. 

Points Over Pints: The Best Left-Handed Quarterbacks

Appeared on in January 2015

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

We’ll begin at an obvious location and with a good friend and dutiful manager of precious inventory: my beer fridge. What do we have here? This is the biggest decision of the day. A pale ale, a pilsner, a weizenbock, a quadrupel ale…now that would get me to the happy place quickly…and a stout. The stout it is. What is this? Milk Stout from Left Hand Brewing Company, another stellar Colorado brewery committed to world happiness. Yes, in this column creating quality beer is synonymous with promoting world happiness. Get with the program.

Left Hand has such a great story. Dick Doore, the brewery’s co-founder, started as a humble homebrewer, a truly noble hobby (and you better believe I’m going to use the data point as justification for retaining the buckets, carboys and racking canes in my overfilled garage). The company is committed to reducing its earthly footprint and to charitable work in the community. According to its website, the brewery’s name is derived from Chief Niwot – a name that means “left hand” in the Arapahoe language, a tribe that wintered in the local area.

Slapped on the stem of my bottle of Milk Stout is another trademark: a label featuring a left handprint. Lefties: coveted commodities in baseball, disrespected patrons of golf, marginalized kids in composition class. What about lefty quarterbacks? There have been a few…and still fewer good ones. Who would be my top six of all time? Why six? Come on, we are talking beer here, and beer’s prime numbers are six, 12 and 24. A list of 12 would get dry quickly; a list of 24 might not be possible. Why quarterbacks? Because Left HAND Brewing started this. What, do you want left-footed kickers? Okay. Morten Andersen. Sebastian Janikowski. David Akers. John Kasay. Riveting, huh? Right, quarterbacks it is…

6. Bobby Douglass

There are probably more than five left-handed quarterbacks who were better than Bobby Douglass, but I want him in my six-pack. His skills and flaws speak to me.

Douglass was 6’4”, 225 lbs - a massive specimen for his time - ran like the wind and possessed a bionic left arm. Measurables weren’t his issue; harnessing his skills, particularly that cannon arm, was.

Douglass was the Little League pitcher you hated to face – fast…and hopelessly wild. His best completion percentage in any season where he attempted more than 100 passes was 48 percent. Even on the curve, that’s hideous. As compensation, Douglass often ran wild. He always managed to compile more passing than rushing yards but the margin was sometimes very thin. So he wasn’t former Oklahoma “quarterback Jamelle Holieway (a guy who often did out-rush his passing yards), but his statistics do resemble a wishbone quarterback’s during the heyday of Southwest and Big 8 Conferences.   

One more Bobby Douglass stat (I can’t get enough of this guy): during his rookie year in 1969, his sack percentage was 20 percent. By comparison, Peyton Manning’s lifetime sack percentage is 3.1 percent. First rule of successful quarterback play: remain vertical. There’s a “ladies of the night” joke in there somewhere that I’ll just let go.

Douglass’ size and story reminded me of another, modern-day 6’4”, roughly 225-pound quarterback who struggles with accuracy and probably runs a little too much: Colin Kaepernick. Before the Kaepernick critics get too emboldened, his accuracy issues aren’t anything like Douglass’. Kaepernick’s career completion percentage is just over 60 percent. His career sack percentage? 8.7 percent. So relax frustrated 49ers fans. Fill a glass with something from Left Hand Brewing and appreciate your right-hander under center.

5. Mark Brunell

I’m getting an image (what is in this Milk Stout?). Mark Brunell and I are cruising through Longmont, Colorado. Parched like cowboys after a rodeo we swing into Left Hand Brewing for a refreshing elixir. Brunell, unfamiliar with craft beers, asks for my recommendation. “Ahhh, you are in good hands, my friend. I know beers like you know the cover-2 defense and exotic blitz packages.”

I lock eyes with the bartender and request a pint of Sawtooth Ale for my left-handed wingman. An approving expression is returned as he retrieves a glass and gives the tap handle a hearty tug.

Sawtooth is a Left Hand benchmark. It is well balanced and full of character. There are no overly complex flavors or bizarre adjuncts to contemplate. It simply delivers what it promises without excessive fanfare. Its focus is substance over style.  

The same can be said for Brunell. Traded from Green Bay to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, Brunell was instrumental in establishing the team’s foundation. He was mobile, smart and adept from the pocket. He played his way onto three Pro Bowl teams, won five playoff games and led the Jags to the 1996 AFC Championship Game. Brunell was a class act, a winner. “Bartender, another round of Sawtooth’s, please.” 

4. Michael Vick

Every year I get excited for the fall and the influx of pumpkin ales during October (beer month!). And every year I’m disappointed. Why do I force it? It’s just not a style to my liking. I have no doubt that the skilled brewers at Left Hand could come up with superior pumpkin-flavored offering, but I doubt it would etch an unforgettable memory in my mind or leave me longing next fall’s batch. 

It’s the same with Michael Vick. The allure is obvious – wicked fast, cannon arm and a flair for the dramatic. Nearly every fall for the last dozen-plus years (with the exception of those he spent in prison for dog fighting), I have eagerly anticipated him doing the impossible and revolutionizing the quarterback position. In Atlanta, the highlights were frequent. In Philadelphia there were moments where Vick appeared close to becoming the unstoppable duel-threat his skills portended – but it fizzled quickly. Even with the New York Jets this past season, I was intrigued when he took over for an ineffective Geno “Pick Six” Smith.

Why? What is my obsession with Michael Vick? Yes he can run around and make electric plays that are backyard classics delivered in HD TV and before 75,000 fans. Yes he plays with courageous abandon. Yes he has rushed for more yards than any quarterback in NFL history. But he has never consistently done the boring stuff that it takes to win consistently and when the weather outside is frightful. His career completion percentage is 56 percent and he has only one season over 60 percent. He led the NFL in fumbles – twice. His career high for passing touchdowns in a season? 21. That is so…1972.

Vick is what he is: overrated. He is my pumpkin ale of quarterbacks. I’m certain he’s thrilled.

3. Boomer Esiason

If Left Hand Brewing were to craft “Boomer Ale”, it would have to be an IPA stuffed fabulously pungent hops. The nose would singe stray and overgrown cilia. Seconds after the first swallow the consumer’s face would draw inward and his eyes would water as the palate processed the awesome overload of bitterness.

Some poor soul has to spend their career playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, teams seemingly condemned to second-class NFL citizenship, so that others can enjoy careers with the league’s blueblood franchises. Esiason, embittered soul that he must have been, carried that professional cross.

A four-time Pro Bowler and one-time All Pro, Esiason and his Cincinnati teammates nearly overcame their Bengals karma and defeated Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII. With just over three minutes remaining, though, all parties returned to their assigned roles. Montana orchestrated a 92-yard drive and threw a game-winning touchdown pass to John Taylor; Cincinnati, meanwhile, chewed on a bitter but familiar bridesmaid pill.

All other things equal, I wonder how different things would have been for Esiason had he swapped professional existences with Montana or Phil Simms (the quarterback with that other team in New York). Or what if Esiason, a product of the University of Maryland, had been the guy to come off the bench for Washington when Joe Theismann’s career abruptly ended in 1985? Would there have been a Doug Williams story? Or Mark Rypien?

Alas, not all flowers are roses; some are hops. Not all quarterbacks are Joe Montana; some are Boomer Esiason.

2. Ken Stabler

I have very faint memories of watching Ken Stabler. He mostly lurks in random clips, appears on YouTube shorts and enters conversations about the old times with highly respected NFL fans sporting grayer beards than my own. I see flashes of his long, 1970s-style hair spilling out from the bottom his helmet and his scruffy, pirate-like beard, the perfect adornment for an Oakland Raider. Just flashes. Magical flashes. And stories. Legendary stories.

This has allowed Stabler to maintain mystic qualities in my mind. He is bigger than his actual measurements and likely more accomplished than he actually was. With a nickname like “The Snake”, can you blame me? What football-obsessed ten-year-old doesn’t immediately love a player named after a serpent, the rumored earthly symbol of the devil himself? I wonder sometimes why he isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I suppose that debate is best left to older minds more capable of separating fact from fantasy…or over-analyzing a resume.

What no one will debate is Stabler’s grit or his guts or his propensity to just win football games, baby. As a starter, Stabler won 96, lost 49 and tied one. He authored the “Sea of Hands” – a desperation touchdown pass to Clarence Davis to beat the Miami Dolphins in 1974 - and the “Holy Roller” – a last-gasp forward-fumble that Dave Casper recovered in the end zone to beat the San Diego Chargers in 1978 – two of the NFL’s most iconic endings and improbable wins for the Raiders. When they name your comebacks and change the rules to prevent them from happening again, you’re just good, no matter the jury’s age.

1. Steve Young

No reason to get cute and attempt some sort of self-righteous diatribe to avoid the obvious. The room is blue. Everyone knows it. I could try and convince you that it is red.  I could whip myself into a passionate rage, speak in tongues, pull rabbits out of my hat, catch bullets in my mouth and speak with the spirits of Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix, but you still wouldn’t buy my argument. With all due respect to those other southpaws, this isn’t even a contest. Steve Young is far and away the best left-handed quarterback in NFL history.

Of course it wasn’t always touchdown passes and Super Bowls. Young played two years in the USFL where he was…okay. He played two years in Tampa Bay where he was…less than okay. A trade (career salvation) shipped him to San Francisco where he sat behind Joe Montana for nearly five seasons. Finally, at the age of 30, he became the entrenched starter for the 49ers and he…was…spectacular. It was an uncommon journey (one that might not happen in today’s grow up quick or be discarded NFL) but his career accolades say it all: seven Pro Bowls, three All Pro selections, two NFL MVP awards, Super Bowl Champion, Super Bowl MVP, Pro Football Hall of Fame (2005). 

Oh, and just one more thing. During the 1994 season, Young completed over 70 percent of his passes, won the league’s MVP award and led the 49ers to the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl victory. It was his greatest season as a pro and the year he finally escaped Joe Montana’s shadow. It was also the year Left Hand Brewing Company opened for business.  

As D.C.’s Other Stars Rise, Robert Griffin III Hits Rock Bottom

Appeared on in June 2015

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Sports fans know the story better than a pack of 12-year-old girls knows a Taylor Swift hit song. Robert Griffin III was good – like, generational and change-the-league good. Then he wrecked his knee, shot too many commercials, tweeted too many workouts, sold too many submarines, drank too much Gatorade, passive aggressively tweaked too many coaches, created one too many personal logos, influenced – directly or indirectly via his dad – too many game plans and ultimately accepted too little blame for losing football and crappy quarterback play.

In other words, Griffin’s delivered too much bullsh!t and not enough winning.  Before we knew it, this guy, the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (remember him?)…

…regressed so significantly that former Washington tight end and current analyst Chris Cooley said the quarterback’s atrocious play made evaluating the offense impossible last year. Don’t believe Cooley? Monday Morning Quarterback weighed in with this damning piece. If pictures speak a thousand words, at least 800 of those describing these MMQB stills are FCC non-compliant.   

But as you were once ordered to ignore the un-wizardly man behind the curtain, pay no attention to the mounds of concrete evidence indicating Griffin’s tenure in Washington is likely to end before President Obama’s. It is early summer and in this post-OTAs/pre-training camp time, blinding, reality-distorting optimism abounds. Griffin looks great. His 2016 contract option was picked up. The team didn’t draft a young quarterback to threaten his job. He feels better physically. He’s more confident. Praise is being heaped on him. His wife gave birth to their first child. Cue the Lego them song. Everything is awesome (with Griffin); everything is cool when you’re part of a team.

Parsing fact and fiction with Griffin has always been a challenge. Other than becoming a father (which undoubtedly is awesome), only time and real NFL games with live NFL defenses intent on destroying him will provide proof of progress. Until then it’s just more Griffin rhetoric. This is edition four of his summertime pep rally. 

Complicating Griffin’s latest and perhaps final attempt to regain his rookie form is the overwhelming success of his D.C. professional contemporaries. Three years ago Griffin owned the nation’s capital. His popularity now is plummeting like a second-term president’s. Alex Ovechkin has been as advertised and just wrapped up his sixth 50-goal season. John Wall was gotten better every season and is now among the NBA’s elite point guards. And then there’s the amazing ascension of Bryce Harper, the toast of Washington and hands-down the NL MVP thus far in 2015.

Compared to Ovechkin, Wall and Harper, Griffin is the football equivalent of the Bobby Jindal and Martin O’Malley presidential campaigns: inconsequential. The expectation of Griffin two years ago was that he’d miraculously return from knee surgery and lead a deep playoff run. Now it’s assumed that he will fall on his face and be pulled for either Kirk Cousins or Colt McCoy by week 5…if he’s healthy that long.

Griffin has hit rock bottom. The buzz has turned negative. The pundits have picked over his carcass. Fans are now either apathetic about the once great hype/hope machine or are assuming one last great catastrophic failure. And maybe that’s exactly what Griffin needed: for everyone to stop believing so he could finally lose the audience for his self-promotion and blind faith.  

The only way Griffin recaptures the fervor of 2012 and gets mentioned in the same sentence as Ovechkin, Wall or Harper again is if he develops NFL quarterback skills: the stuff that produces tangible results, can be replicated weekly and sustained over an entire season. If Griffin pulls it off he’ll be one of the greatest reclamation stories in league history and the hype and praise he receives will be legitimately earned. It’s all about football now, as it should have been (but wasn’t) all along. 

The Doomed Reprogramming Of Robert Griffin III

Appeared on in August 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Robert Griffin III was a comet scorching across the football sky in 2012. His unprecedented combination of running and passing could have made hybrids cool. Why no auto manufacturer signed him for an ad campaign I’ll never know (goodness knows he would have been willing). Griffin’s talent was so overwhelming and his success so intoxicating that former head coach Mike Shanahan literally pushed his quarterback until he broke down on the field like a Thoroughbred collapsing on the front stretch at Churchill Downs. The fallout cost Shanahan his job, robbed Griffin of his athleticism in 2013, put his career in peril and shoved everyone’s nose into this unfortunate fact: regular forays by quarterbacks into the teeth of NFL defenses isn’t sustainable.

With that lesson hard-learned in D.C., Jay Gruden was tapped as head coach and entrusted with this task: reconfigure Griffin’s game with a heavy emphasis on pocket-dwelling and just a dash of designed runs. In other words, keep him upright and give him a fair shot at health and a puncher’s chance of a career longer than the average running back.  It is absolutely the right thing to do, no matter how good Griffin is when he’s in hero/crash-test-dummy mode. The problem is converting a quarterback that has always relied on his legs to buy time, to stay out of trouble and to rescue the team from bad plays, into a defense-diagnosing dynamo and a pocket-dominant passer is unprecedented. Kordell Stewart never got close. Michael Vick never found the magic balance. Randall Cunningham had some pocket success late in his career, but he was throwing to Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Jeff George was decent with Moss and Carter. Steve Young always had pocket ability; running was his Plan B. And what of popular Griffin critic Donovan McNabb? Despite spending over a decade under Andy Reid’s tutelage, McNabb never figured out how to stand in the pocket and consistently deliver accurate balls. When you can’t do that in the NFL, and injuries and age rob you of athleticism, you end up unemployed, grumpy and largely forgotten by age 35.

This evidence isn’t presented to foretell only a gloomy future for Griffin. There is hope. He is but 24 years old and is, by all accounts, willing and committed to being a little more Peyton Manning and a little less Vick. A gory web of knee scars and a close relationship with the country’s most renowned orthopedic surgeon will inspire new thought processes and change. But Griffin is attempting an arduous reboot that has broken the will of many men and the early returns from ‘Skins training camp have been discouraging. That’s to be expected to some extent. NFL quarterback is a terribly complex position and Griffin, in addition to relearning how to play behind center, is adjusting to a new coach and a new system. Give the kid time. I hear Axl Rose’s gravely voice imploring, “All we need is just a little patience.” 

Is it all we need, my leather-clad, tattooed crooner?

Ponder this “patience is overrated” data. Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly played in the Super Bowl after their second, fourth and fifth seasons, respectively. Joe Montana was a third-year pro when he and Dwight Clark hooked up for “The Catch” the NFC Championship Game and the 49ers beat Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI. Troy Aikman earned his first ring after his fourth season.   

And what about the elite quarterbacks – Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady – in the game today? Manning has been dominant since his second season. Rodgers made Green Bay’s transition from Brett Favre seamless, if not latent. Brady stepped in for an injured Drew Bledsoe early in his second season and led the Patriots to a championship. Brees is the only one where there is a discernable career progression or hint of a learning curve. But was that more Brees just “getting it” and going from good to great or the product of Sean Payton rescuing Brees from the stifling offensive philosophy of Marty Schottenheimer?  My money is on Payton, the Marty-ball antidote. 

This evidence suggests that great quarterbacks aren’t developed, they just are or they are not, almost immediately. It also indicates that you don’t learn to be a pocket passer at the NFL level; it is a skill set you arrive with on draft day, hone for a year or two and dominate with for the next decade. Griffin is attempting to rewire his football instincts and learn new skills at the highest level of his profession. For his entire life, his reaction to pocket traffic has been to avert his eyes from the developing pass patterns, focus on the rushers and look for an escape. Now, after two ACL injuries, he’s being asked to trust his receivers, the protection and the scheme, and to bravely deliver seeds down the field fractions of a second before the pocket collapses. Instead of running read-option and “call it, run it” plays, he will be expected, presumably, to diagnose defenses pre-snap, alter plays at the line and, counter to his impulse to run, rifle through his progressions. Scrambling, an ability that enabled him to win him a Heisman Trophy and the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, should only occur if everything else fails. Sounds simple, eh? Like flipping a switch? Is your Robert Griffin III glass still half full?

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that Griffin is going to go the way of Tim Couch, David Carr, Akili Smith and so many other quarterback busts. Griffin can play quarterback in the NFL. He has all the mental and physical tools. What I am saying is that by asking Griffin to play differently and to limit the usage of his X-factor athleticism, you are lowering his ceiling. It is like ripping the burly V-8 out of a Boss 302 Mustang and dropping in a polite six-cylinder. It increases the chances of the car staying on the road, but the fun-factor plummets.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer and that it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a competent writer.  But (as if to offer some flicker of hope), he did say that competent writers could become good writers if they are prepared to work their derrieres off. His prognosis for aspiring scribes is eerily prophetic for quarterbacks. Griffin’s shot at greatness was predicated on the constant threat his athleticism presented. In 2012 defenses played him on their heels. Last year, absent that electric burst, they played him on their toes and downhill. The results were dramatically different. Now Griffin is attempting to adjust to his injuries and the violence of NFL football by playing more from the pocket. It is a place where he currently performs competently. One day, he may even be good. But he almost certainly will never be a great pocket passer. And when you trade three first round picks for a player, you’re seeking greatness. 

The Greatest Football Writers Of All Time

Appeared on in January 2015

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

This is equal parts impossible task and fabulous challenge. The best football writers ever? How can this possibly be confined to one column? That’s insane. A book could be written about the greatest purveyors of gridiron prose. In fact, the late great writer and historian David Halberstam did just that – sort of - in his 1999 book “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century”, a sport non-specific bible of narrative geniuses.

Where to start? Where to stop? This monumental undertaking required structure. Parameters. It needed to be condensed into an executable formula, an E = mc² for football writers. The magic equation started with an obvious element: credentials. Did the writer have a reasonably decorated resume? No hacks here, not even close (although this was far from just a beauty pageant).

The next component was passion. Could you consistently feel the scribe’s passion in their work? Did the words jump off the page, grab you by the throat and not let go, even if you attempted to tap out, until the last word had been read? Vanilla is not an available flavor. It’s similar to identifying good music; you don’t just hear it, you feel it in your bones. When the sound or words are authentic, it is unmistakable.

Lastly, homage needed to be paid to writers past and present. Considering how much football and coverage of the game has changed over the years, it seemed completely necessary to include past greats and provide a crumb trail to modern times. So a couple entrants are vintage; others are still active. There are no-brainers and a couple that provided considerable inspiration for this writer.

Okay, the launch cycle has started. Just three more administrative points and the succulent main course of narrative mastery will be served. First, most of the writers have covered various sports. When you talk all-time greats, it is rare to find a writer whose career was dedicated solely to one particular sports genre. Second, I didn’t even try to rank them. They are just there…placed on a spectacular, roughly chronological continuum. Great is just great. It is a fraternity of brothers with equal standing. And lastly, an admission: dubious selections and obvious omissions are inevitable. The candidate list is too long and the variables are too great. I have my own experiences and biases, as do you, the reader. If this list inspires an equal number of affirmative nods and expressions of outrage, it’s a success. My sincere hope is that you will be left doing the same thing I did at the beginning of this assignment: pondering the great writers whose pieces established sports’ place in pop culture and helped create the deep connection we have with the game of football. 

The Godfather: Grantland Rice

If the sports writing crime family had a godfather, it would be Grantland Rice. He kind of started it all, you know? Who can compete with a World War I veteran and the guy credited with naming the 1924 Notre Dame backfield “The Four Horsemen”? 1924! Rice’s name appears on literary awards and scholarships and a now defunct college bowl game. Not bad, eh?

The one chink in Rice’s armor was his majestic phraseology, a style Deadspin took to task. A test of good product – be it a song, art or a work of literature – is how it ages. Rice’s profound metaphors and decorated analogies (for example his usage of scripture to coin his famous Four Horsemen nickname) would likely fall flat today. The great Grantland Rice wrote largely in time before television, when the reader often lacked a visual of the event or the players involved. The unknown created a void that allowed Rice to paint extravagant pictures, ones perhaps more grand than the reality itself. If Shakespeare had a brother that went into sports writing, Grantland Rice could have played the part.

But that’s a nit. Rice’s work was superb in its time and contains a complexity and elegance rarely seen today. He enhanced the games he covered and his influence on the field of sports writing is virtually unrivaled. Perhaps the most obvious testament to the extent of Rice’s reach was ESPN’s decision to use his name for, a website started in 2011, 67 years after the legendary writer’s death.

The Capital’s Institution: Shirley Povich

Shirley Povich is best known for his coverage of baseball, but during his 75-year career at The Washington Post, his gridiron musings were significant. Povich was over a decade into his remarkable run in the nation’s capital when the ‘Skins moved south from Boston and established roots in Washington in 1937. He covered Sammy Baugh, Sonny Jurgensen, John Riggins, Art Monk, Darrell Green, the arrival of Vince Lombardi in 1969 and his death a year later. Povich sat in the press boxes for ‘Skins game at Griffith Stadium, RFK Stadium and Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (now FedEx Field) and he saw all five of Washington’s pro football championships (’37, ’42, ’82, ’87 and ’91).

Povich was also persistent in his criticism of Washington’s failure to integrate its roster (the ‘Skins were the last NFL to do so) and of then owner George Preston Marshall. In a piece published in The Washington Post on October 31, 1960, Povich took a not-so-subtle shot at the ‘Skins’ when he described a Jim Brown touchdown. Wrote Povich, “From 25 yards out, Brown was served the ball by Milt Plum on a pitch-out and he integrated the Redskins’ goal line with more than deliberate speed, perhaps exceeding the famous Supreme Court decree. Brown fled the 25 yards like a man in an uncommon hurry and the Redskins’ goal line, at least, became interracial.” In a 2011 piece, Washingtonian magazine credited Povich with writing this upon learning of the ‘Skins’ integration in 1962: “It could be the beginning of better football for Washington fans and is certainly the beginning of a more dignified football situation here.”

During his career Povich won the Grantland Rice Award (1964), the Red Smith Award (1983) and was elected to the National Sportswriters Hall of Fame (1984). Impressive, but what I remember most about the Washington icon - and human institution – is a single word often used to describe him: gentleman. Povich conducted himself with a level of class that is sometimes lacking in writer-athlete interactions these days. And did he ever have the look? When I close my eyes and think of Povich, three images appear: a fedora, a perfectly tailored suit and a typewriter. As for exits, no one did it better than Povich. He “retired” from The Washington Post in 1973, but never stopped writing. His last piece was published on June 5, 1998…the day after he died. Shirley Povich, the consummate sports writer…to the end. 

The Outlaw: Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson once said, “Journalism, to me, is just another drug – a free ride to scenes I’d probably miss if I stayed straight. But I’m neither a chemist nor an editor; all I do is take the pill or the assignment and see what happens.”

Truth is, Thompson didn’t take too many sports assignments. He earned his journalistic chops with novels such as “Hell’s Angels” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and through his unique political works during the late 60s and early 70s. Compared to the volume and significance of the football pieces produced by the other writers on this list, Thompson doesn’t seem to belong. He’s the overweight 5’3” kid on the basketball team or the super-skinny guy trying to play on the offensive line.

Despite a deep love of professional football – one that created an odd chemistry during a car ride with Richard Nixon, a guy he otherwise considered the antichrist – Thompson only dabbled in sports writing as time permitted or as bills necessitated it. In his February 15, 1973 piece for Rolling Stone titled “Fear and Loathing from the Super Bowl”, Thompson wrote, “There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bulls—t, but because sports writing was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for.” Perhaps Thompson’s most acclaimed sports work, his June 1970 piece for Scanlan’s titled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” was about a horse race, not football.

So what in the world is Thompson doing in the middle of these football-writing icons?

Every list needs an outlaw whose presence proves artful expression can’t be constrained by any success formula, known or unknown. Thompson drank, did copious amounts of mind-bending substances, loved to shoot guns and rip down the highway on a motorcycle…sometimes all at the same time. He kept vampire hours, called the president and political leaders names that would now have the NSA and CIA in a stir and is credited with creating “Gonzo journalism”, a style not for the prim and proper. He didn’t write about situations from the periphery, he immersed himself into his work to the point where he became a character in the story itself.

The extent of Thompson’s debauchery was reveled in a letter he wrote to Greg Jackson of ABC News on Christmas Day, 1973. Concerning a recently nixed NFL assignment, Thompson wrote, “My only gig for the past 3 months has been a long and psychically complicated “pro football” story – which unexpectedly terminated last week when the Oakland Raiders management suddenly informed me that I was barred – because of my “personal involvement in the drug scene” – form any contact with the team in public or private.” Expelled the Raiders of the 1970s! Is there any better street cred?

Thompson would likely scoff at his inclusion among the best sports writers. I can almost hear him declaring it “an insane, drug-infused conclusion reached by a try-hard little pr-ck writer hell bent on siphoning off a piece of my well-earned infamy and as of yet unrealized fortune.” Despite his assumed posthumous protest, Thompson’s genius is unavoidable and his place among these other writers is entirely appropriate. He started his career as a sports writer in the 1950s and ended it as a Page 2 columnist for ESPN in the early 2000s. In a 1968 letter to U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff, Thompson offered this tender compliment (a rarity for Thompson): “…I feel a little better for knowing you’re around.” Likewise, this list is better with HST around.

The Blue Blood: Frank Deford

I blame my parents for this one – specifically, my mother. My folks ensured that I maintained a subscription to Sports Illustrated throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Early on, it was a cheap babysitter and a better option than Atari. As a teenager, it was safer than a girlfriend or a mysteriously happened-upon case of beer. Well played, mom and dad.

The weekly issues acquainted my then young and highly absorbent brain with the fabulous works of Frank Deford, an SI writer since 1962. I learned sometime later that my mother decided it was time for my earthly existence to begin on the same calendar day as Deford’s mom did: December 16. He arrived a few years before me but we are birthday brothers nonetheless. I have one last parent-drive connection with Deford: Towson University. My folks sent me to the Baltimore school with the hope that I would emerge with a diploma and a clear path off their financial books and out from under their roof. I did and the experience revealed that Deford was a native of Baltimore and attended high school just a short drive from my alma mater. 

That’s pretty much where the similarities (and my apparent stalking of Deford) end. Deford graduated from and has taught at Princeton University. He has written over a dozen books, received the Red Smith Award (2012), is a six-time sports writer of the year, owns an Emmy Award and, not to be confined to print, has appeared on television and radio throughout his career.

If you’ve ever been a fan of any sort, ever rooted with a child’s zeal for a particular NFL team or player wearing your team’s colors, you simply must read Deford’s SI piece “The Greatest That Ever Was” on legendary Baltimore Colts QB Johnny Unitas – his boyhood hero. In this excerpt, Deford captured the feeling of his native city, one still processing the loss of starting QB George Shaw and adjusting to the idea of some obscure backup leading a team littered with talents such as Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry and Art Donovan: “Of course, no matter who John Constantine Unitas had played football for, it would’ve been Katie-bar-the-door. But perhaps never has greatness found such a fitting address. It wasn’t only that Baltimore had such an inferiority complex, an awareness that all that the stuck-up outlanders knew of our fair city was that we had crabs and white marbled steps in profusion and a dandy red-light district, the Block.” Give it a read in its entirety, please.   

Prolific. Decorated. Influential. Relentless. As Hunter S. Thompson might say, that’s Deford’s career “in a nut.” Somewhere in my parents’ attic is a dusty SI from the early 1980s that introduced me to greatness. Thanks mom and dad. Thanks Frank Deford.

The Pigskin Purest: Peter King

Peter King is the purest selection in that he is virtually all football, all the time. King started at Sports Illustrated in 1989 and regularly appears on television and radio. In 2013, he started his own website, an information superhighway spin-off of his SI column Monday Morning Quarterback.

King is not one to wow you with his mastery of the English language like Grantland Rice. His career is but a fraction of the length of Shirley Povich’s. His writing is nothing like the establishment-challenging epic’s of Hunter S. Thompson and his resume lacks the accolades of Frank Deford’s. King’s prose doesn’t immediately grab you, but he’s always there to provide sound, thoughtful points written in an understandable, entertaining manner. His knowledge of football cannot be questioned and his connections in pro football are substantial. To call him football’s E.F. Hutton – the brokerage firm with the dated “When E.F. Hutton talks…” ad campaign – is so corny that it could be mistaken for a slight. It’s not; it is a compliment of the highest order. When Peter King expresses an opinion on pro football, I listen.

Honorable Mentions

Red Smith: Smith began writing for the New York Herald Tribune in 1945 and later moved to the New York Times. This excerpt from Smith’s November 1947 piece, “The Most Important Thing”, on that season’s Yale-Harvard football game brilliantly captured the spirit of competition and the thrill of the victors: “As the last whistle blew, a great passel of Yales swarmed onto the field to hug the combatants to their bosoms and even from the press box you could see grins as broad as Kate Smith upon the soiled faces of the belligerents.”  Smith went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 and, in what is perhaps an even greater acknowledgement of his talent, had his work referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel Across the River and into the Trees. I’m impressed.

Paul Zimmerman: Zimmerman is best know for his work at Sports Illustrated, where he was a long-time colleague of Deford and King, and for authoring “The Thinking Man’s Guide To Pro Football” in 1971 and “The New Thinking Man’s Guide To Pro Football” in 1987, bibles of sorts for any self-respecting football enthusiast. His weekly NFL prognostications, written under his “Dr. Z” handle, were must-reads. A recent NFL Films piece on Zimmerman’s career and his recent health challenges urges us to seize every moment, for time slips quickly through our hourglasses. Consider us all under doctor’s orders…Dr. Z’s orders.   

Christine Brennan: There have been two occasions in my career where Christine Brennan and I have written pieces on the same topic at virtually the same time (albeit for very different outlets). After reading her versions, I was sent scrambling back to the keys, tail between my legs, pondering what had gone wrong. The humble pie was bitter but there is no shame in finishing behind Brennan. Her career spans three decades and includes stops at Miami Herald, The Washington Post and USA Today (her current gig). In a field dominated by male writers, Brennan has made gender – often the elephant in the sports journalism room - a moot point. Her talent carries the column.

George Plimpton: Plimpton once said, “I have never been convinced there’s anything inherently wrong in having fun.” His life is a testament to his belief in those words. Plimpton pitched against major league stars in an exhibition game in the 1950s, played golf against Arnold Palmer in the 1960s, boxed Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson, competed as an “amateur” piano player at the Apollo Theater, played goalie for Boston Bruins in a preseason NHL game and attended the 1961 Detroit Lions’ preseason camp as a backup quarterback…and he wrote extensively about all his unbelievable submersions. That last stint – his brief foray into NFL football with the Lions – produced the book “Paper Lion”, perhaps his most significant sports-related work during his incredible life. 

Dick Schaap: Despite his death over 13 years ago, I still wake up on Sunday’s mornings expecting to see Dick Schaap skillfully moderating ESPN’s show “The Sports Reporters” while still finding room amidst the powerful personalities to offer his own sage wisdom. Schaap, while known more as a sports media personality and author than a football writer, co-authored “Instant Replay” with Jerry Kramer in the late sixties and wrote “Bo Knows Bo” – one of my personal favorites - in 1990 with Bo Jackson. 

Michael Wilbon: I grew up not far from Washington D.C. As a teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I couldn’t wait for my dad to come home from work and flip the day’s worn, folded sports page from The Washington Post in my direction. It was a period that saw Michael Wilbon rise to prominence, first at my ‘hometown” paper and eventually on a national level. A native Chicagoan, Wilbon was the long-time unbiased and brutally honest conscience at The Washington Post for a blind homer (me). I loved his biting prose and passionate criticisms. He didn’t tell me what I, the hometown fan, wanted to hear; he preached what he thought I needed to hear. As Drew Magary expressed in a Deadspin piece, it’s not a universally acclaimed style, but I’m a long-time fan of Wilbon’s tough love.

Howard Balzer: In his nearly four decades of covering pro football, Howard Balzer has written for The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, USA Today and The Sports Xchange. He owns an Emmy Award and has received multiple honors from the Pro Football Writers Of America. Balzer covered the NFL Draft for ESPN before Mel Kiper Jr. and his prodigious locks became synonymous with the event and decades before Todd McShay nudged his way into the Draft fraternity. Balzer, whose early work was very much ahead of its time, is still getting it done today for FOX Sports. His latest piece for FOX Sports Midwest, a status check on the perilous state of the St. Louis Rams, opens with this ominous lede: “Disaster is around the corner. The sky is falling. Panic is in the air.” Here’s a teaser: he’s not talking about the team’s quarterback depth chart. Give it a read