Not so many years ago, Chardon Jimmy and I would play ruthless, death-defying games of Strat-o-Matic football. It’s fair to say, I suppose, that we invested way too much of ourselves into those games because we were shallow young men. But I don’t think that was the reason. The real reason is that I’m a much better football coach than Chardon Jimmy, and he refused to admit it then, and he still refuses to admit it now.
I do realize that telling people about your personal Strat-o-Matic football games with games fits neatly into the Fantasy Football Principle, which is simply this:
— Nothing in the world matters more than MY fantasy football team.
— Nothing in the world matters less then YOUR fantasy football team.
This principle covers golf stories, fishing stories, bowling league stories, poker stories, most vacation stories and so many others. And this is why I will not tell you now about the time Chardon Jimmy beat me when Dan Fouts threw successfully into double coverage three straight times or the time Chardon Jimmy beat me when his kicker missed the game-winning field goal twice in the final minute but got a third chance because my team kept jumping offside.
But I will tell you about a 1991 Bengals-Eagles game we played because it might say something about the best sports story going, the Tim Tebow story. The Tebow story might be the only story in recents years where I literally cannot get enough. We live in the Era of Overkill, and most of the wonderful sports stories lose their joy just a few hours into their news cycle. The story (and Tebow himself) have been hyped, re-hyped, soaked, drained, lauded, scorned, celebrated, mocked, on and on and on, to the point where it’s clear that we’re not even talking about Tebow anymore. We are talking about so many other fascinating things — faith, teamwork, convention, talent, history, will and so on. We are probably talk about ourselves.
Still, I love it. My favorite Tebow moment, unquestionably, came toward the end of the Jets game a few weeks ago. You might recall — because this has been the story time and again — Tebow and the Broncos offense were all but worthless until the final moments of the game. Tebow can look helpless in ways few quarterbacks have looked back. He can’t throw from the pocket. His release takes roughly the same time it took Bob Ross to paint a landscape. He has Nerf-Football-In-The-Wind accuracy, meaning he will often hit a Starbucks with his passes but he won’t necessarily hit the Starbucks he’s aiming at (and meaning that his bad passes are SO bad, he doesn’t often get them intercepted — he’s thrown just two picks all year despite completing fewer than 50% of his passes).
But in the Jets game — like in every other game of this astonishing Tebow run — the Broncos defense played extraordinary and winning football. The Denver defense allowed just 13 points and scored seven themselves on a Pick-Six, so they gave Tebow and the offense a chance to win the game at the end.
And as we know, Tebow seems to be an entirely different quarterback at the end of games, with victory within his reach. You already know he led the Broncos on the game-winning drive — he scored the winning touchdown himself on a dazzling run — but the play that I’m thinking about happened earlier in the drive. Tebow dropped back to throw, saw an opening to his right, and took off. And his path led him directly toward Revis Island. That’s Darrelle Revis, the Jets incomparable cornerback. Now, it is true that Revis is not known for his tackling ability. He made his reputation blanketing receivers. Still, we are talking about a former AFC Defensive Player of the Year, and first-team All-Pro, an NFL superstar.
As Tebow closed in, and Revis stood his ground, you could see that a chemical reaction was about to take place. Tebow is listed at 6-foot-2, 236 pounds, and he is more or less one giant muscle. Cannonballs bounce off this guy. Revis is listed at an even 6-foot, 205 pounds and his talent is his exceptional ability to mirror a wide receiver’s movements, In a game of rock-em, sock-em robots there was never a doubt whose neck would catapult to the sky.
But, there was something else, something that I readily admit I probably imagined — but what fun is sports if you are not allowed to imagine? Tebow, as we know, is infused with the force of faith. People have many different opinions about faith and sports, a topic that fascinates me, and those opinions are available for free anywhere in America. Open your window right now and you will probably hear someone offering his or her take on Tim Tebow and his faith. But, beyond that, everybody understands where Tebow stands.And at the end of games like this he seems to deeply believes — DEEPLY believe — that he is playing for something bigger than football, something larger than himself. He seems imbued with the conviction of a Crusader.
And as he ran forward, this huge and powerful young man with something uncompromising about the way he ran, with something obsessive about the look on his face, Darrelle Revis had to make a decision. And his decision was clear: Get the heck out of the way. And he did. I’ve never seen an actual bullfight but I imagine that if you had given Darrelle Revis a red cape, it would have looked like one.
* * *
In 1991, the Philadelphia Eagles had one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. The defense was No. 1 in the NFL against the rush AND No. 1 against the pass. The Eagles gave up three yards per rush (best in the league), forced and recovers 22 fumbles (best in the league), picked off 26 passes (third-best in the league) and sacked quarterbacks on more than 10% of pass attempts (best in the league). That defensive line of Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Jerome Brown and Mike Pitts combined for 39 sacks.
Despite all this, the Eagles finished 10-6 because their offense was, to used the technical term, putrid. The Eagles played five different quarterbacks — four started games — and James Joseph led the team with 440 yards rushing. I will say that again. James Joseph LED THE TEAM with 440 yards rushing.
Chardon Jimmy didn’t care about any of that. He’s a defensive guy. That’s one of of our big disagreements, one of the reasons why our Strat-O games became so intense. He loves defense. I love offense. And after a while, he found himself playing for all the defensive gurus (for Buddy Ryan, for Bud Carson) and I was playing for all the offensive geniuses (for Bill Walsh, for Don Coryell). He played to prove defense wins championships, I played to prove offense wins championships. We had decided to play the 1991 season, and we had a draft to select teams, and he took the Eagles because he believed with that defense he could win it all.
I, meanwhile, was stuck playing with the 1991 Cincinnati Bengals, who were putrid in all ways. This was an early round matchup. Those Bengals were utterly forgettable. They went 3-13, and they earned it by being terrible in all phases of the game. They had the worst pass defense in the NFL — thanks in no small part to a complete inability to rush the passer — and they couldn’t run or pass on offense. The game was a complete mismatch, which I will readily admit played to my favor. Jim was in a no-win situation. He could win 73-0, and it wouldn’t prove anything. I could try whatever crazy stuff I wanted. There really is something freeing about knowing that you can’t win.
My first decision was to bench starting quarterback Boomer Esiason, who had a dismal season. We had a saying back then — if a player’s card was bad, we would say, “Man, I’m really going to have to coach him up.” But if a player’s card was awful, we would say: “This guy’s unplayable.” That’s how bad Boomer Esiason’s card was in 1991. Unplayable.
Instead, I played a rookie named Donald Hollas. Even now, I can’t tell you much about Donald Hollas. I know he is from Kingsville, Texas and he played at Rice and that he coaches the St. Thomas High football team in Houston, the same school where Craig Biggio coaches baseball. But I must admit I only know these spare facts because, like everyone else, I have access to Wikipedia. I knew so much less in those pre-Wikipedia days. In fact, all I knew then about Hollas was that he must have spent a lot of time running for his life because his card had numerous “must run” orders on his card — meaning that the quarterback was flushed out of the pocket and, so, must run.
Thing is, when I looked at the back of the card, I saw that Hollas wasn’t a bad runner. Hey, it was SOMETHING. On those occasions when he got flushed from the pocket, he might actually pick up yards. Esiason, conversely, had NO chance to pick up yards. So I went with Hollas.
In other words: Donald Hollas was my Tim Tebow. He couldn’t throw. You couldn’t run a typical NFL offense with him. But I had determined that my team was so bad, I would try to win by hoping that Hollas might pick up some yards running out of the pocket. What difference did it make? I had no chance anyway.
So we played. And as you probably guessed, the miraculous happened. That great Eagles defense, coached by Chardon Jimmy, had no idea what to do with Donald Hollas. As a defensive coordinator in Strat-O, you set up your defenders where you want them, and then yo call “run” or “pass.” There are different results on the cards if you are right or wrong. There are various benefits for making the right call, various drawbacks for making the wrong call. Jim decided early on (rightfully) that was not in the least concerned by the Bengals running game, so he called pass quite often. The problem, though, is that by calling pass he gave Hollas a chance to roll into a “must run.” And Hollas — bless his Kingsville heart — ran for first down after first down.
This irritated Jim to no end. And so he did what coaches tend do when their good plans are wrecked in unexpected and absurd ways: He panicked. He started calling run a lot, which did take away Hollas’ must-run ability. Trouble is this negated the Eagles pass rush — one of that Eagles’ team’s greatest traits — and allowed Hollas to complete passes. This irritated and ticked him off even more, forcing him to make even more bizarre defensive calls.
There are, of course, fairly obvious answers to all these issues, answers that Jim would figure out by the second half. We all know there is no way that Donald Hollas and the 1991 Bengals should be able to move the ball against those Eagles, and I don’t know that my team picked up 50 yards in the whole second half. But here’s the thing: By the second half, I was leading. And as I mentioned before: That Eagles offense was putrid. Jim kept benching quarterbacks, kept trying new things, and his team kept turning the ball over and in would trot Donald Hollas, whose very name was now enough to make Chardon Jimmy generally lose his mind.
Of course, I won the game and the name “Donald Hollas” is enough to send Chardon Jimmy into convulsions even today. It proved, without even the slightest doubt, that I am the better coach*.
*Yes: Jim has numerous other stories of games where his teams won against great odds, but what he does not have is a blog.
But more than that, it reminded me of something wonderful about sports. You really can win games in many different ways.
* * *
It’s so tempting to believe, in sports, like in life, that there is a right way and a wrong way, a correct way and incorrect ones. It probably isn’t so. Sure, there are principles. There are general rules. There are proven philosophies. But there are so many shades, so many complexities, so many uncertainties, so many quirks and sharp turns and unforeseeable consequences. The very best plan can fail. The very worst can succeed spectacularly. The best intentions can lead to disaster. The worst can lead to fame and fortune.
I remember when I was young reporter and I asked a particularly gruff high school football coach if he wished that he had not run a certain play toward the end of the game. “If I knew he was going to fumble,” he spat, “I wouldn’t had done it.”
The temptation is to say — and I HAVE said it to friends — that there’s no way this Tebow miracle can keep going. For it to work, the Broncos defense will have to continuously hold good teams to two touchdowns or less. For it to work, the Broncos offense will have to hold on to the ball for most of the game (turnovers = catastrophe) and, at the very least, force teams to go the long field against the defense. For it to work, that defense will have to score or get turnovers deep in the opponents territory pretty regularly. For it to work, the Broncos will have to consistently be close enough in the final minutes for Tebow and the offense to be in position to make winning plays. And, finally, most obviously, for it to work Tebow and the offense will have to keep making those winning plays.
That’s an awful lot of “For it to work” scenarios, which is why so many people think it can’t last. The feeling is that, realistically, you must have a quarterback who can complete a much higher percentage of his passes, a quarterback who is not mostly useless on third on long, a quarterback who can lead his offense to two or three touchdowns against a team that isn’t the Vikings. That sounds true.
But not everything that sounds true is true. The Broncos are a team that knows EXACTLY what it must do to win. It is a team of players who understand their strengths and weaknesses, probably as well as any group of players in the NFL. They know that Tim Tebow can’t do many of the good things the better NFL quarterbacks can do. They also know — or, anyway, they believe deeply — that if they give him a chance to win late in the fourth quarter, well, he will give more of himself to win than anyone they know.
In other words, this is something new and unexpected and incalculable. It has worked for eight weeks now. Can it work for much longer? Can it work in the playoffs against the best teams? Can it actually work once teams have adjusted, once coaches have gotten their minds around it, once players start to come to grips with what Tebow is all about? Maybe not. But maybe. I think that’s the reason why I love this story so much. The “Maybe.” Sports would not be nearly as much fun if we already knew the answer.