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OLB: Overrated Linebacker

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So many complimentary Z-mails this week that I smelled a rat. "No, no," Andrew said, "that's just the way they came in." And then he added, "Say, you think I can hold a tenspot till payday?"

I should have known. When I pleaded poverty, I feared a follow-up rush of ripperoos, but since the mail was already in the bag, it was too late. So here comes a very soft response to some nice sentiments.

And no, Andrew did not really hit me up for cash. Just being funny. ("What you think is funny," the Flaming Redhead adds).

Did not get one letter that said I was taking an unfair shot at Ray Lewis this week. I should have mentioned, but I didn't want to belabor the point, that when Stuart Scott asked Mike Ditka, on the ESPN pregame show, "Is Ray Lewis the greatest in history?" I was straining to try to send a telepathic message to Mike ... please Mike, please say, "Not the best but the noisiest." But no, he said Dick Butkus, who also would be my choice.

Joe of San Antonio counts tackles and matches them against the numbers that appear in the paper. He says he'll come up with two or three for Ray, and then guess what, the listed figure is something like five tackles, six assists. This is true, not only for Ray but many defensive super stars (more prevalent among linebackers, for some reason). Brian Urlacher, for instance, or Derrick Brooks. And it's especially true when it's a home team stats crew doing the tallying. Just check, for instance, how many more "assists" the home team has, cumulatively, than the visitors.

Every now and then at a game I'll get a seat in the press box near the stats crew. I enjoy watching them work, especially how they record tackles and assists. I'll see them give an assist to somebody who arrives late and merely falls on the pile, and once I got so steamed about this that I started heckling them. "That wasn't an assisted tackle ... the play was long over," and I cut it out when I saw, forming on their lips, the magic word, "Security!"

Thanks, Matt of Columbia, Md., and you, too, Joe, for the thoughtfulness, and Matt brings up another Baltimore Lewis, Jamal this time. Should we really be glorifying guys who are about to plead guilty (at this writing) to federal drug offenses? I don't know how the league will handle this, since the alleged offenses occurred before he entered the NFL. It could hand out a suspension, which would be in keeping with past policy. To ban him entirely would be to open up a legal can of worms, and don't forget, Paul Tagliabue, the commissioner, is a corporate lawyer.

Lewis' defense lawyer could point out all the past instances of players suffering convictions and still being allowed to play. And then, how do you determine which offenses are punishable by total exclusion, as opposed to fine or four-game or one-year suspension? A user gets suspended but a trafficker is gone? How about those convicted of drunken driving, especially when someone is killed?

And then, of course, there are guys who did wild things when they were young, but settled down to be very good citizens, players who truly turned things around. Can you honestly look at a guy and say, "No, there's no hope. Out you go" Thorny questions to be sure, but I have to admit that I got creepy feelings when I saw the segment in which Ray Lewis, who once pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in the famous accessory to a stabbing case, is counseling Jamal on how to "put the court stuff behind you." I mean are we supposed to be inspired by this?

Thanks for the kind words to John of Oakland, who writes, "Ray Lewis was pretty darn impressive in the 2001 Super Bowl, but I don't see the same player out there any more. He's too busy yelling crap at people who probably don't even want to hear it."

I thought that the best thing about Lewis' game was his quick burst to the ball, almost like the strike of a rattlesnake. This was especially noticeable in his pass coverage, when a four-yard gain was four, period, not four-plus. Now I don't know. I don't see the burst. It's kind of like he's on cruise control, something like Duane Thomas was when he played for the Redskins at the end of his career. When the hole was there he'd gain yards, but there was no pop. I use him as an example because both he and Lewis were young when the burst abandoned them. I don't know why, and I'm sure a lot of people will disagree, people who still consider Ray the greatest.

What interested me when he was going through all his ranting and raving was the reaction of his teammates. I didn't really see anyone get into the flow of it. Mostly, they looked embarrassed, or they pretended to be turned on. I can only hark back to the dim days of yesteryear when I was a player. A noisy teammate wasn't an inspiration, just a distraction. It took me away from my game. I can't believe players have changed that much in the interim.

Keith of Olympia, Wash., stakes a claim as E-mailer of the Week, and he's a strong contender, but I'm afraid the award must go to a gentleman who sent me back through the history books. As you must be aware, this is a land in which I feel great comfort, so let's have a round of applause, please, for Greg Narvid of Hampton, Va., who asks the following: Why was Ray Nitschke, a Hall of Fame middle linebacker, selected to only one Pro Bowl? Do multiple Pro Bowl linebackers such as the Bears' Joe Fortunato (nine) and the Eagles' and Rams' Maxie Baughan (five) during the same period deserve enshrinement more than Nitschke did?

Baughan was a right linebacker, not a middle man, as Nitschke was. Fortunato also played on the outside. It was tougher to make the Pro Bowl on the inside, because only one guy would be selected to represent the NFL West and one, the East. Usually there would be one reserve LB for both inside and outside. This was the golden age of middle linebackers. It was a glamour position in the NFL. Sam Huff, Joe Schmidt, Chuck Bednarik, Tommy Nobis, and in Chicago, a great legacy, a position manned by a future Hall of Famer for 22 straight years, Bill George giving way to Dick Butkus. That's what Nitschke was up against.

Here's the roster of MLB's who were chosen to represent the NFL West during Nitschke's prime years, beginning in the 1960 season, his third in the league, when he started coming into his own.

1960 (1961 Pro Bowl) -- George backed up by Les Richter of the L.A. Rams. On his best day, Richter couldn't carry Nitschke's jock, but he got the votes.

1961 -- Schmidt backed up by Richter.

1962 -- Schmidt backed up by the Colts' Dick Szymanski because he could fill in at all positions.

1963 -- Fortunato, even though he had lined up on the outside in the title game a month earlier. But the Bears were NFL champions, and someone had to be rewarded. Nitschke certainly deserved to be the MLB, and he deserved a spot somewhere on the roster in earlier years, too. In the 16-7, 1962 Championship victory over the Giants, in the ice of Yankee Stadium , I sat in the end zone and froze and watched Nitschke have one of the finest games I've ever seen at the position. Jack Pardee of the Rams backed up Fortunato. The back-up spot usually went to a combination inside-outside guy.

1964 -- Nitschke's Pro Bowl year.

1965 -- The start of the Butkus era, which lasted for the next seven seasons. The interesting thing was that although Nitschke was a unanimous all-pro choice in 1966, Butkus was chosen over him for the Pro Bowl. Nobis was a back-up in the Pro Bowls following the '67 and '68 seasons, as Nitschke passed his 30th birthday. But even then, I thought he was better than Nobis.

No question, he got screwed for a number of years, but I've always had big arguments with Pro Bowl selections, which, basically are popularity contests. I think he's a definite Hall of Famer, and Fortunato and Baughan whom you mentioned were good players, but not in his class.

Whew, I'm worn out. Gonna take me a few minutes to get my head back into the current era. There, I've got it now. Patriots. Patriots column. First up, Keith of Olympia, with his bag of oysters, which include such gnarly ones as: How will history actually judge the Patriots of this era? I'm going to say something you're not gonna like, which is very unfair, after all the extremely nice things you wrote about me and my work. I'm hearing the rumblings now ... perfect team for the salary cap ... really fits well into the coaches' schemes ... best team in a period in which there were no really good ones. It's almost as if people had written all they were to write about the coaches' schemes and the genius at the top, etc. It's as if they were embarrassed about this corporate-type phenomenon, and slightly uncomfortable, preferring to gaze nostalgically at a roster of super stars, ah, those were the boys, my friends, instead of at role players.

Except, of course, for Tom Brady, but aside from him, can you find me one Patriot, just one, who would remotely have a chance for Hall of Fame consideration some day? My evaluation is that these guys are extremely smart, and beautifully organized into a coherent whole. Maybe someday, if they win one or two more Super Bowls, they will be hailed as pioneers of a new concept, the role of role players on a roll.

And with that we'll roll along to our next victim, uh, our next e-mailer, Steve of Idaho Falls, Idaho, who has, in addition to nice things to say, an acute memory. So does Ranjit of Boston. Both these gentlemen remember very accurately some ... how can I say this? ... some trouble I had last year with the Pats' offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, the star of the column I wrote this week.

Yes, I had been highly critical of the way Charlie handled the November game against the Colts, and I mentioned that sometimes, in an effort to impress people looking for a head coach, they out-cute themselves. And Charlie was highly critical of smart-assed writers such as yours truly who think they can outcoach coaches, putting in about one-fiftieth of the work. And that's the way we left it, until this week, when I called him to help me with the piece I was working on.

And Charlie, who never has been considered anything but a gentleman, put bygones aside and was very cooperative. Regarding head coach Belichick's policy of restricting access to his assistants, well, it all depends. Belichick was an assistant under Bill Parcells when the same policy was in effect, but I used to talk to him quite often about one thing and another, and if it were ever suggested that he was supposed to be off limits, he merely waved it away. A minor annoyance. This time there was protocol to follow. The PR man checked with the head coach to see if my interview were all right, the clearance came down, I was given my CIA-authorized photo ID, and it was all systems go.

Nice comment from Brad of Denver, and I thank you. Yes, I am a history buff, as you are, even though you were a "little boy" in the days of Mercury Morris. I was a big boy.

A question about the blitz from Quintin of London. No, I'm really not trying to be a wiseguy about London and the blitz. Honest, a gentleman from London named Quinton is interested in the profusion of blitzes we're seeing this year in the NFL. I'm afraid I don't have figures on whether or not teams are really doing more blitzing this season, and technically, coaches consider a blitz a blitz when more than four people rush the passer. If, say, three linemen rush, and one drops into coverage, but the fourth rush spot is taken by a linebacker, or perhaps a DB coming off the edge, well, to you and me it's a blitz, or maybe a zone blitz. But it isn't to a defensive coach. It's just an exotic rush scheme.

Now that we've got that cleared up, let's get to the meat of Quintin's question, and before I forget, allow me to say thanks for your words of encouragement. Why do teams do it? Good quarterbacks can beat it, and this year there were times when it was absolutely destroyed, i.e., Peyton Manning against the Packers in the first half, Brady against the Bills last weekend, etc. Ah, but what put the Pats-Bills game away? Tedy Bruschi blitzing up the middle, coming in unblocked, hitting Drew Bledsoe and forcing the fumble that resulted in a 68-yard TD.

And what broke the fourth quarter tie in the Panthers-Falcons game and set up the victory for Atlanta? Nickelback Aaron Beasley coming in, unblocked, on a blitz through the B-gap (between guard and tackle) on the left side, smacking Jake Delhomme and forcing the interception that Kevin Mathis ran in for a TD. Big risk, which could mean a certain downside, but also the possibility of a big gain.

Personally, I hate it when a team cannot get pressure with its four rushers, and the opposing club is just marching down the field, and the defense simply won't blitz, for fear of giving up something big. The slow burn. I've used that phrase before, and I hate it. It's gutless football. You've just got to take a chance and bring people in this situation, I believe. The good defensive coaches I've known spend a lot of time devising a sound blitz package, keying it to the personnel they'll be facing. Who's the weak sister along the offensive line, the person they can attack, the dummy who's slow to pick up stunts, the back who would rather run the ball than stay in and block? It's not just willy-nilly, turn loose the beasts. It's carefully thought out. If a defensive coach guesses right, based on tendencies, if he just feels that in a certain situation the quarterback will go to a deeper drop and take more time, trying to get something going downfield, he might resort to a pressure scheme that would take a bit more time, such as sending two blitzers through the same hole, in tandem. And if he hits it right, you might get a game-turning play.

And if the offensive outguesses him and calls exactly the right play to combat it, sending a receiver into an open area, well, then it looks like the situation you've described, in which the pass catcher seems to be uncovered. Oh, he's covered, all right -- by prayer.

Buddy Ryan would blitz, even though he didn't have to, because his front four was so good. Defensive coaches around the league derided his system in Philadelphia as being highly unsound because it opened up too many holes in the defense. Buddy defended it with his philosophy that he was willing to trade a big play for a horizontal quarterback. His Eagles left a trail of physically and psychologically damaged QBs around the league. The Giants, for instance, hated to play against Buddy Ryan defenses. In 10 games Ryan coached against Parcells, the score was 5-5, with the Eagles winning four straight at one point, and don't forget that the Giants had two Super Bowl championship teams in this span. Phil Simms took many lumps from Buddy's relentless rush schemes. "Neanderthal Football," Parcells called it.

Great question, Quintin. Send me more, and tell Andrew I personally request clearance for their entry.

From Chris of Ottawa, and thanks for you know what, and if I were a reader, I'd sure get tired of hearing all these thank you's: Roy Williams of the Cowboys is a big hitter, thus a target for the NFL flaggers and finers. True or false? Punishing big, and possibly late hitters and headhunters, is the ultimate in hypocrisy because the league uses these hits as promotional material. True or false? Answer to the first one is true, kind of. Big hitters get closer scrutiny. I guess you'd have to call it "profiling." Emotionally I might say that No. 2 is also true, but I don't really think it's the league that promotes this stuff as much as some of the networks. And by some I mean mostly ESPN, which is turning into the National Enquirer of pro football.

You ever watch that "Jacked Up!" thing before the Monday night game? Some poor guy gets leveled with a kill-shot, and the yahoos in the studio all yell, "Jacked Up!" I think I wrote this last year but I'll repeat it, if you don't mind. Those network commentators were born into the wrong era. They'd have been right at home in 17th or 18th Century England, enjoying a nice outing at a public hanging. And when the trap is released and the poor guy is hung, they'd all yell, "Jacked Up!"

A rip from Mac of Tuscaloosa, Ala.: "What is it with you and Michael Vick anyway?" He rips me because in Vick's first game back after his injury last year, his Falcons beat Carolina but "all you can do is complain about his passing accuracy." First of all, it was his first start but his second game back. He played in the Houston game the week before. What I wrote at the time was that Vick beat the Panthers with his legs (14 carries, 141 yards), not his arm (16 for 33, with one pick). Is that an unfair assessment?

Next I'm accused of defending Brandon Short, when he laid a cheap shot on Vick last week. I didn't say the penalty was uncalled for. I said Short "tracked him and hit him, as he was coached to do." And guys are coached to do that when I quarterback who's a feared scrambler runs a bootleg on them, or fakes one, and they don't exactly know what he's up to. I didn't make it up, I checked with a few people around the league, including Lions' GM Matt Millen, and got not one dissenting opinion.

Two questions from David of Phoenix, and thank you, Dave, for your kindness. No. 1 -- what's the difference between a reverse and an end-around? A reverse occurs when a runner starts in one direction and then hands off or pitches to a second one coming the opposite way. Idiot announcers always call this a "double reverse," which is an entirely different thing. In that maneuver, there's a repeat of the original reverse, and the runner winds up heading in the same direction in which the pay originally started. In other words the direction is reversed twice. An end around involves a receiver, either tight end or wideout, and there doesn't have to be a change in the flow of the play. It doesn't have to start in one direction and then pull an about face.

Question No. 2 -- Are officials blowing their whistle later and later after a play? Gee, it sure seems like it, doesn't it? I've got a theory about the way they're working now. Since they've been under replay scrutiny, I think they tend to hesitate a bit on their calls, trying to be more sure of them. This, I think results in the whistle being blown a trifle later. And I just know I'm going to hear from the league's officiating office on this one, telling me what nonsense it is.

Ken of Penticten, B.C., cuts to the chase, as he says. Have I ever tried any of the BC wines from the Okanagan Valley? Yes, at a comprehensive Canadian wine tasting a few years ago. Can't find my notes right now, but I found them more interesting than the Niagara district wines, which I thought showed real quality only in the ice wines made from hybrid grapes. Now a football question, and presently you will see the diabolically clever way in which this is tied to wine.

"If J.T. O'Sullivan turns into another back-up quality QB, do you think Green Bay will use the pick (second-round draft choice from New Orleans as part of the Mike McKenzie trade. O'Sullivan was a throw-in from the Saints, in the deal) gained by the trade to try to move up in the first round and select a young stud QB in the draft, and if they were ." Hold it. Hold it. We're almost in the "tilt" mode here. If he turns out to be the sleeper in the deal, why would they load up for another QB? Maybe you know more than I do. I can only take it one step at a time, in my plodding fashion.

O'Sullivan was a star for the Frankfurt Galaxy in NFL Europe this spring. He was a sixth-round draft choice in 2002 for the Saints and he taxied for two seasons, but he has potential, they say. In college, he threw 96 TD passes for ... and now we're back to the old vino. For UC Davis, the University of California at Davis, which is the country's leading school for ... for ... c'mon now, everybody ... for winemaking! I think he could slip into the role of eventual successor to Favre.

Praise from Joe of L.A., and I thank you, and he also heaps praise on FOX TV's Troy Aikman's honest and low key style. Troy is coming into his own now, I believe. He was a bit shy at first, but now he's not afraid to make his opinions known, and they are very sound, as he was as a player. I enjoy both analysts on this team, actually, Troy and Cris Collinsworth.

Another Angelino, Michael, has nice things to say, and thanks again. We're back on the track of "untracked." This is his interpretation of the misuse of this term: "Much like a train that goes off of the tracks, when a running back is said to be 'untracked,' it is because no one can stop him." As Ruthie C. once said to my buddy, Al Ginepra, "It's a nice try, but I'm afraid it won't do." I've seen untracked used, actually misused, to describe teams and players at all positions, and organizations and just about everything. No, it just joins the pantheon of butchered terms, such as "bemused," or West Coast Offense, or my most despised of all of them, "No Problem," which means anything but.