Sunday, August 29, 2010

Crunching the Numbers

Lists — and I'm speaking of "best of" lists here, the ones that are based on the personal preferences of the individual or group who compiled them — are meant to provoke arguments.

It's really why they exist.

If, for example, I say that I think "Citizen Kane" is the greatest movie ever made (which I do), I am sure to encounter arguments from others — from people who don't share my appreciation for the pioneers or the historical context of motion pictures, from viewers who think that any film that is devoid of "action" and/or splashy special effects (and thus must depend on dialogue) is inferior, even from folks who refuse to watch a black–and–white film (and consequently deprive themselves of many of the greatest movies ever made — talk about being color blind).

Such people might recommend some worthy alternatives for consideration. Others might not. But the point is that it's all opinion. No one is right. No one is wrong.

In almost every such debate, there are just far too many variables to consider. And the value I will give to one variable almost certainly will not be the same value that others will give to it.

Sports are particularly vulnerable to this kind of debate that no one can win.

It seems, for example, as if I have heard people debating the merits of different generations of baseball players all my life. When Hank Aaron was about to surpass Babe Ruth as all–time home run king, I heard people arguing about which one was a better home run hitter.

It was tougher in Ruth's day, I heard some say. The ballparks were bigger, and the leagues were smaller. The talent wasn't as diluted, which meant the pitching was almost always tough, no matter who you played.

Besides, the schedule was shorter. Who knows how many home runs Ruth might have hit if he had been able to play in eight more games per year?

Yes, the Aaron supporters would say, the league was smaller — and road trips were shorter. At the most, Ruth might have to travel half the length of the continent, but Aaron, who spent most of his career in Atlanta, played in a division that required him to travel to the Pacific coast frequently. That much travel is bound to take its toll, yet Aaron played in the majors for more than 20 years.

Well, this flight of fancy was inspired by a recent pair of posts on the Sports Illustrated web site.

These posts were dedicated to the best pro football players ever to wear each number, and they were divided in two lists because a single list of every jersey number from 00 to 99 was just too bulky.

Actually, it was pretty big at 00–49 and 50–99, too. Frankly, I would have preferred four lists. At least. But it wasn't my call.

Nor was it my call which players were named the best to wear their numbers. I agreed with many of the choices, but I disagreed with some.

For example:
  • At #5, Donovan McNabb was listed as the best to wear that number. He's had a great career, but how on earth can anyone take him over Paul Hornung, who didn't just play in NFL championship games but won four of them and was on the team that won the first Super Bowl?

  • At #9, I have a problem with taking Sonny Jurgensen, who had some great numbers but never won the Super Bowl, over Jim McMahon, who actually won a Super Bowl.

  • I really have issues with #12.

    Sports Illustrated picked Tom Brady over Terry Bradshaw because Brady allegedly won in a "tougher era."

    Really? Tougher than beating the Dolphins of the early '70s? Or the Raiders throughout the decade? Or the Oilers, who mounted serious challenges from within the division after Earl Campbell joined the roster? Or the Buffalo Bills when O.J. Simpson was in his prime?

    Or Dallas' Doomsday Defense in two Super Bowls?

    Or Minnesota's Purple People Eaters in one?

    In all, Bradshaw won four Super Bowls in six years. How many has Brady won?

    There were other great players who wore #12, too — Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Joe Namath. I'm sure you could get arguments in several NFL cities. But I'm convinced that Bradshaw deserves to be 12's representative in this list.

  • I live in Dallas, but I wasn't born and raised here so I don't feel any special attachment to the Cowboys, least of all Deion Sanders. And I really don't think he deserves to be listed as the greatest to wear #21. I'd rather list the runnerup, LaDainian Tomlinson, or Cliff Branch or even Jim Kiick.

    Maybe that's just personal preference, though.

  • I can live with the choice for #32 — Jim Brown — even though I'm sure it was a tough call. After all, guys like O.J., Marcus Allen and Franco Harris wore that number, too.

    But Brown was the best.

  • Now, #33 is a real generational clash. SI went with Sammy Baugh and listed Tony Dorsett as the runner–up. I hadn't been born when Baugh was playing, but I remember watching Dorsett on TV.

    I know Baugh was probably the best passer of his era, but all I've seen of him are film clips.
And in the second group ...
  • At #52, I think I would replace Ray Lewis with Mike Webster. If it's about the numbers, I'm more impressed by Webster's four Super Bowl rings — a noteworthy achievement for a man who played a position as physically demanding as center.

    And some people would tell you he was the best ever to play his position.

  • As good as Otto Graham was, I don't really think he deserves to be listed at both of the numbers he wore in the NFL — first #60 and then #14. Give #60 to Chuck Bednarik or Tommy Nobis. Or give #14 to Y.A. Tittle or Ken Anderson.

  • It had to be a close call in selecting #74.

    Sports Illustrated went with Merlin Olsen, but, really, I think I would have gone with Bob Lilly. I saw both of them play on TV when I was a child, and I thought Lilly had more of an impact. Heck, even Sports Illustrated chose him as one of the 10 most revolutionary defensive players ever.

  • Another close call at #75.

    SI went with Deacon Jones, a decent choice. But I would have preferred the runnerup, Mean Joe Greene.

    Must have been a tough choice. Howie Long also wore #75, as did Jethro Pugh and Forrest Gregg, who played an important role in the success of Green Bay's power sweep in the 1960s.

  • At #85, I'm baffled why Jack Youngblood got the nod over Nick Buoniconti.

    Sure, Youngblood was a great player. But why take him over Buoniconti, the middle linebacker for Miami's great No–Name Defense that quietly kept the Dolphins undefeated in 1972?

  • And #99 is purely a personal choice.

    Warren Sapp got the nod from SI. And that's fine. But Dan Hampton wasn't even the runnerup. Jerome Brown was.

    And Mark Gastineau wasn't even mentioned!

    I know, Gastineau never played in a Super Bowl. And Sapp and Hampton each won one. But Gastineau and his sack dance breathed new life and energy into the NFL after its strike–shortened 1982 season. Some people didn't like it. But it sure got people's attention.

    Some people thought he was a jerk. But he was never as bad as Brian Bosworth.
Well, that's the kind of argument these lists are designed to provoke.

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