Longevity and the Diminishing Superstar

The Oracle takes a look at the changing face of the NFL and how that has changed the role of "superstar players". Will there be another John Unitas in the age of measurables and the salary cap?

I've been giving more thought to the changing face of the NFL. That subject almost never leads to a reassuring or uplifting reflection, and this is no exception.

I don't even remember what set me off, but I started thinking about the career of a professional football player and my mind started connecting fragments of thought.

I saw a few weeks ago where Terrell Davis is retiring, or at least maybe he is. Perhaps not. At any rate, he is definitely not playing this year and his name is now being bandied about as a potential Hall Of Fame candidate.

I won't pretend to have any particular love for the Broncos, but Davis never did me any specific harm. He never had the chance. Terrell Davis was but a supernova flashing across the great cosmos of Professional Football. The best years of his career took place in the years that Cleveland was without a team, and then his career was over just as it was reaching its' peak.

Even though on paper he is an 8-year veteran, realistically, Davis has been done for about three years now. He got four good seasons in. He is the Herb Score of the NFL. On the brink of becoming a legend and then struck down by injury, never to be the same.

I don't intend to diminish Davis' accomplishments. He has achieved things that only an elite few others have done. Davis ran for over 1000 yards in each of his first 4 seasons. Davis achieved a 2000 yard season in his fourth year, not to mention a Super Bowl victory or two. He has certainly racked up more accolades than others with a greater number of productive seasons have done.

So why don't I think he belongs in the Hall Of Fame? In a word, longevity.

While it is not a written rule, my sensibilities suggest that a Hall Of Famer is someone who made a sustained contribution to the game. Guys that put in their 8 - 10 years of active service, that changed the way we talk about the game and are spoken of reverently in the cities where they played. Guys like the late Johnny Unitas come conveniently to mind.

Davis was certainly poised to be a Hall Of Famer by my standards, but the show ended abruptly and prematurely. It just seems ‘right' to me that those we enshrine should have made more than a passing appearance in the game.

Then I think about the 21st Century NFL and realize that I am stuck in old school thinking again.

The men playing the game today are highly trained specialists. They are finely tuned machines. They are carefully coached and drilled to play one specific position. Aside from the linemen, interchangeability is the stuff of nostalgia:

"Move the ‘Mike' linebacker over to the ‘Sam' side? Are you mad, man? You can't do that! It's a completely different skill set. His measurables are all wrong for the ‘Sam' backer position!"

In today's game, you are a specialist. And as such, you'd better perform well for your first four years. Then sign the ‘Big Contract' with lotsa' up front money because in another year or two you will be a salary cap casualty when another specialist, a few years younger a half step faster and a buttload cheaper, comes along and takes your spot. Then you sign with someone else for a lot less and finish your career in obscurity.

Football players are rapidly becoming nothing more than cogs in the machine. Coaches are the superstars of the 21st Century NFL. Scheming and game planning are the premiums in the game today.

Look at the contract that Butch Davis was given, or the contract the Buccaneers desperately wanted to give Bill Parcells. Look at the Bucs again in what they gave up to sign John Gruden away from the Raiders. Two first round picks, two second round picks AND eight million dollars? They could have bought themselves an offense with what they gave up. How about Steve Spurrier the most offensive, if not the most offensive minded, coach in the college ranks and the contract he signed with the devil (well, Dan Snyder at least)?

Everywhere you look it is becoming less and less about the individual players and more about coaching. Good coaching (or the perception of good coaching) is the Holy Grail of today's game. Good players are being traded and released because they don't fit in with the coach's scheme. Football teams are becoming the vehicle and not the stars of the show. The NFL coach is becoming to the team what the NASCAR driver is to the car. The individual players are mere parts of the power plant. The game has become larger than the men who play it, and I am sobered by that epiphany (if only momentarily).

So getting back to the Hall Of Fame and the career of the inductee. I think I have talked myself out of my original position on Terrell Davis.

If not him then who? We are now living in a different time and I need to adjust to that. We probably won't see many more of the superstar players that spend an entire career with a team and become part of that team's and that city's history and heritage. Money and quick results rule. The former is not conducive to the latter.

If you look around the NFL today you see fewer and fewer sure-fire Hall Of Fame players, based on the historic standard set by the previous inductees. The careers and achievements of the players have all become too fleeting and too transitory. The Hall Of Fame itself may soon be an outdated concept.

I see a day when perhaps we should stop inducting players into the hall. Would we instead lower our standards to enshrine and induct players based on a phenomenal 3 years? Two extraordinary years? A single great season? One fantastic game? An immaculate reception?

At least Terrell Davis has been to the top of the mountain. He has done what few others have and perhaps ever will. He is and always will be a Bronco to the world. I think that is good enough.

Lord knows by the time he is eligible, we may not be able to do any better.

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