By Patrick Snow
Just like many a bad segment of talk radio, another ‘label’ book was recently released into America to get football fans arguing with each other. We have Philly-based ESPN field reporter Sal Paolantonio to thank for this latest regurgitation of what former NFL player is either overrated or underrated. I hesitate to jump into the intended fray of these books, but some people recently have commented to me on how perplexed they were at some of the assertions made about certain players and coaches. While we like to look at statistics to compare players, you also have to keep in mind what kind of impact a player/coach can have on the game and on his city. Judging players and coaches (especially those not in Northeast media markets) in a TEAM game on statistics ALONE can be very shortsighted. I’ll mainly discuss two men in the “Overrated” category that have ties to our Swampland footprint: Barry Sanders and Jeff Fisher.
It’s almost too easy to debunk the myth of Barry Sanders being overrated. In most of our lifetimes, #20 has been about the only bright spot that the Lions and their fans have enjoyed. It would take pages to list all of his feats, but I’ll mention a few numbers that might be of interest. Sanders left the game early and is still the NFL’s 3rd all-time leading rusher. He had a record 10 straight 1000-yrad rushing seasons and averaged 5 yards a carry for his career. Think 1000 yards aren’t that difficult in a 16-game schedule? Okay, Sanders is the only man in NFL history to rush for over 1500 yards 5 times. Once again, that’s THE only one. Paolantonio argues that Sanders was terrible in the Playoffs and that he actually did have great players around him like receivers Herman Moore and Brett Perriman. Do you really think defense were game planning to stop those two or Barry? The good defenses that you face in the Playoffs can stop one element of your attack if they want to bad enough. Were those two receivers, quarterbacks such as Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer, and Scott Mitchell, or the Lions defense really going to beat you? The Lions wouldn’t have sniffed the Playoffs if it weren’t for Sanders and his amazing play-making ability.
Jeff Fisher is the longest-tenured head coach with his team currently in the NFL and has over 100 wins. That does not just happen. He has led a franchise through a 3-year brutal move between cities to see them prosper from 1999-2003. They went to “salary cap jail” in ‘04-’05, but he already has them contending for a Playoff spot again after turning over an entire roster. Developing young talent is a huge strength of Fisher’s, and it’s an element of coaching that has teams like Tampa Bay, Carolina, Houston, and Jacksonville spinning their wheels right now. Paolantonio argues that Fisher has had several mediocre seasons and does not understand why he’s revered around the NFL. Once again, you have to look at the details when you analyze an 8-8 record. The Oilers/Titans went 8-8 all three season from 1996-1998 while being a lame duck in Houston, a complete vagabond in Memphis, and then playing at Vanderbilt in 1998. Playing .500 football under those circumstances says a lot about Fisher’s leadership. Once they moved into the Coliseum in 1999, the Titans went to the Super Bowl and had Playoff appearances in 4 of 5 seasons. If the organization would have fired him during the rough stretch in ‘04-’05, Fisher would have been the #1 free agent coach according to many in NFL circles.
What Mr. Paolantonio (as well as many of his Northeast national media brethren) fails to realize is that players and coaches aren’t just robots who produce stats that you then go and compare on some piece of paper. Does he really want me to believe that Brett Favre’s impact in Wisconsin and throughout the NFL is overrated? Sanders, Favre, and Fisher all made professional football relevant in their towns again or for the first time in Nashville’s case. These men were leaders and major producers who should be judged on their immense impact, not statistics alone.
* Think Phil Fulmer and Mark Richt are feeling a little pressure this weekend? Fulmer’s team is coming off an inexcusable blowout loss to Alabama where the Vols were outcoached badly, and now long-time nemesis Steve Spurrier is coming to town. Richt’s club was lucky to scrape by Vanderbilt, and they now face Florida with Auburn, Kentucky, and Georgia Tech left on the schedule. Losses will definitely see the natives getting restless in Knoxville and/or Athens.
* It’s a tough time to be a professional sports fan in Atlanta. The Braves miss the Playoffs; the Thrashers look horrible; the Hawks are the Hawks; and Falcons resemble a soap opera more than a winning football team. Their formula seems to be another week, another loss, and another player griping about the coaching staff. Bobby Petrino has to be missing the college game badly as this point.
* Can you believe college basketball season starts in less than two weeks? In our Swampland area, look for big seasons from North Carolina, Memphis, Louisville, Tennessee, Duke, and Texas. Also, it will be exciting to see new eras started at Kentucky, Arkansas, and Texas A&M as each welcomes in a new coach.