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More than a number


A swelling bag of mail, filled with passer ranking responses. No wasted time. Get right to them.

Kelly of Belmond, Iowa, who is actually in my corner because he wrote some nice things, thinks I'm nuts to carry on so against a passer rating system that, after all, is merely a statistic. It's the same as all the others are, and doesn't represent a measure of one's ability. Sorry, but it represents a lot more than that to many people, including the ones who write the contracts, so why not try to get it right? Second part -- am I acquainted with the writer, Kurt Vonnegut? Yes. "You remind me of him sometimes," Kelly says. Just once I'd like to collect what his worst selling book netted.

Lance of Norcross, Ga., wonders how often I'd want Elias to update their statistics, assuming someone agreed with me that they needed updating. Not sure. Maybe every 10 years or so. But some, as I pointed out, have to be changed completely, such as QB kneels included in the rushing stats. Part 2 -- How do I chart QB's? Not statistically. First of all, how do they act when the stakes are highest? In other words, what are they like during a two-minute drill? Then, how good is their third-down conversion rate, and I give them a conversion if the play has carried past the first-down line and the guy fumbles the ball. Finally, how many bad passes? A bad pass can even be completed, but it's bad if the receiver has to make a circus catch when he doesn't have to, or if it puts him in a bad spot and leaves him vulnerable to a kill shot. And as far as your thanking the Redhead for sharing me with you, she has this message: "I want to know what time the bus is coming to pick him up and take him to your house for dinner. And I'll send the laundry, too."

Al of Milwaukee has lots of nice things to say, and after I've been well set up he lets me have the cobblestone right hand. How can I knock the "safety first" quarterbacks and still take shots at Brett Favre for being reckless? OK, you got me. Human beings, as you know, are a mass of contradictions. "Oh, for God's sakes," The Flaming Redhead says. OK, OK, already. Can't you take a joke? There's a difference between seldom taking a chance, taking a chance with a decent shot at success and throwing some of the downright loony interceptions Favre throws.

Chip of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., says, "Don't blame the CPAs for this. We get blamed for Enron, MCI, etc. Try the actuaries. They are the mathematics people." Fine. I'll blame the actuarial mentalities that run the Elias Bureau. They sure aren't football people.

Paul of Olympia, Wash., thinks my criticism is ridiculous. "The QB system is the most accurate, fair and comprehensive player statistic in the four major sports." Makes no difference that the standards used are outdated. They're still comparing modern passers with each other. I didn't get into the whole matter deeply enough because I didn't want to turn everyone off, but the system is flawed in one major regard. Please try to follow this because I'm being deadly serious.

Too much emphasis is placed on one factor, completion percentage. It affects all four categories. Down the field throwers are not rewarded enough. Every aspect -- completion percentage itself, interceptions, yards and TDs all reflect percentages of passes attempted. OK, I'll give them two of them -- completion percentage and interceptions, but the way to balance it would be to relate two categories to COMPLETIONS, not attempts. In other words, look at how many TDs a guy has, relative to how many passes he completes. That would eliminate pumped up rewards for lots of completed dinks. The same with yards. Give the guy who averages 13 yards a completion a higher grade than one who hits the league average of 11.3. Are you still with me, or are you just going to throw your hands up, as the Elias people do, and say, "The guy's nuts. Stay away from him?" Actually Elias' Lord Hirdt and I have a nodding acquaintance. He says nodding to me, I say nodding to him.

The maximum number of 158.3 rating points has been greeted with derision by Brandon of Vegas, Simon of Reynosa, Mexico, John of Warsaw, Ind., and Kate L. of Charlotte, N.C.. Why not put it in terms everyone understands, such as 100 being perfect? Where'd that 158.3 ever come from anyway? From actuarial tables. Voting records. Crop reports. Crimean War casualty figures. Who the hell knows where bean counters get their numbers from?

"Where do we organize the angry mob and get it changed?" John Warsaw asks. We're mobilizing right now. At the present time the quartermaster is trying to get the entire angry mob fitted with uniforms. Tiny, the 400-pounder sitting over there, is creating problems.

And thanks to you, Simon, for your kind words about my writing.

Ditto to Donald of Carrboro, N.C., who doesn't like rating points used as salary incentives; in fact he doesn't like the whole idea of cash incentives at all, especially if they're based on statistics. "I'd hate to be a QB trying to spike the ball, knowing that my completion percentage was about to drop below 60 and cost me half a million bucks," he says. Or how about the other side of it? First and goal at the other team's two-yard line. A power run is sent in. QB audibles to a pass, because a completion and a TD will do wonders for the old rating. Think it doesn't happen? I've been told it does.

From Patrick of Bridgeport, W.V. --"Football is not a statistics sport, like baseball. Is the QB rating something to pander to those seeking to quantify everything?" Certainly seems to be, doesn't it? I like the way you handle yourself, Pat. Report to the quartermaster and we'll get you fitted immediately for your Angry Mob uniform. Forty-two long, is that it?

Happy note from Doug of Huntington Beach, Calif., that his home has been spared from the flames. "Thank you for being the 'voice of reason,'" he writes. "Nice to know that in a world of insanity, we have you." You're wel, uh, welc, uh will come, how's that? Well come, that's the one.

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So effusive in his praise that he reduced me to blushing like a schoolgirl ("HA!" says Rousse Flamboyante) Jamie of Milwaukee writes, "You took this universal system of grading QBs and destroyed it! Thank you!" Ah, if only. But I promise you I will not be deterred from my appointed rounds. I will fight them in the streets, in the woods and bushes. I swear, you'll be proud of me.

Now that I've worked myself up to a crescendo of emotion, here comes a pair of gentlemen to douse the flames. My problem is that most of the time when I get all caught up with myself and use a literary reference, I screw it up. Ditto when I rely on my knowledge of military history. A few columns ago I quoted Dr. Samuel Johnson. "The law is an ass." No, says Jeff Eby of Santa Cruz, Calif. It was said by Mr. Bumble from Dickens' Pickwick Papers, and the quote actually is, "The law is a ass."

And now comes the big one, from my E-mailer of the Week, Frank Penca of Mayor's Income, Tenn. In my QB ratings column I drew a parallel between Elias using an antiquated system and Poland using cavalry units to attack German tanks in the early days of World War II. "Their efforts were supremely brave, not stupid," Mr. Penca writes, adding that they just didn't have the modern equipment Germany did.

I was in no way indicating a level of stupidity here, just the futility of having to use outmoded methods. I read about it somewhere, long ago, and saw it in a movie once: the proud Polish cavalry unit, which went back to medieval days, hurling itself hopelessly at the tanks. It left me feeling profoundly sad. Now your letter has driven me to the research library, and I found out something very interesting. It seems that it never happened. It was a product of Fascist propaganda (and Russian, since the USSR was Hitler's ally in those days) , to show how primitive the Poles were.

I'm quoting, in part, from the most concise description I could find of the incident referred to, provided by Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. The Battle of Krojanty, Sept. 1, 1939:

"During the action the Polish cavalry units met a large group of German infantry resting in the woods near Krojanty. Colonel Mastalerz decided to take the enemy by surprise and immediately ordered a cavalry charge, a tactic the Polish cavalry did not use as its main weapon."

The charge was successful and the German infantry was routed. More important, the tactic delayed the German advance long enough to allow the safe withdrawal of two Polish battalions from the area. It took the German units several hours to reorganize and push on, this time aided by armored units. According to the memoirs of Heinz Guderian, the German commander, the Polish cavalry charge impressed the Germans and caused a widespread panic among the soldiers and staff of the 20th Motorized Infantry Division, which even considered a tactical retreat at one time.

On Sept. 2, the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans Regiment, the cavalry unit which had mounted the charge, was decorated by the Polish commander and awarded his own Virtuti Militari medal for valor. On the same day, German war correspondents visited the battlefield, along with two correspondents from Italy. They were shown bodies of Polish cavalrymen who had been slain, along with their horses, also German tanks which had arrived later and were not involved in the battle. One of the Italian correspondents wrote a piece about the bravery of the Polish cavalry, which had charged the German tanks with their sabers and lances. And thus the myth was born. Soviet propaganda kept it going, even after the war, to show the stupidity of Polish commanders.

According to George Parada, in his book, Invasion of Poland, "Contrary to German propaganda, Polish cavalry brigades never charged tanks with their sabers or lances ... they were equipped with anti-tank weapons that could penetrate 26 centimeters of armor at 600 meters."

And now that I hope I've squared my previous gaffe, Mr. Penca, you could do my dear wife a favor. She is dying to know how Mayor's Income, Tenn., got its name.

Well, as long as its open season on yours truly, Jack of NYC pitches in with ... how can I constantly deny any involvement with fantasy football and yet write so much about betting systems? Aren't they both mere gimmicks that detract from the beauty of the sport? Yeah, you're right. Everybody's right. I'm plum wore out. Fantasy football to me just reminds me too much of those weekend camps to which grown men go away and pretend they're catching TD passes from Joe Montana or something. Handicapping, and its offspring, betting, involve serious, hard-eyed folks who take a more realistic view of things.

I see the word, "Lame," forming on the lips of one who's close to me, and I say, just don't say it, OK? Don't say it. I want some consideration. It was my birthday two days ago.

Ken of Santa Maria, Calif., says, "I am not buying the Patriots as the best ever," and gives me a few reasons why not. I'm not buying it, either, mainly because the ones selling it are TV networks promoting their own interests or writers whose frame of reference goes back about three or four years.

Ryan of St. Louis is upset over blackouts, which happen when you're living in a city with a bad team that can't fill its stadium. But the bad part is that he pays $350 a year for DirecTV's NFL package and the game is still blacked out. It's a bum deal, Ryan. They have an arrangement with the NFL that they won't schedule a game that has a chance of being shown on network, which would happen if they sell out in time. The arrangement doesn't include a last minute adjustment, in case of a blackout. Or I've seen cases in which a blackout was lifted but someone fell asleep at the switch and forgot to push the button. So once again, the paying customer gets screwed. A few years ago I tried to track down who was responsible for them not showing something they were supposed to. This involved a CBS game, Patriots vs. Steelers. DirecTV blamed the league, the league blamed CBS, whose president wouldn't return my call, but a spokesman said it was DirecTV's fault. And around and around you go with these people, over and over and over again. And thank you for what you wrote.

Andrew from Starkville, Miss., asks, "Is it just me, or does Tony Romo have an odd release?" Hmmm, you've given me another problem to worry about. I haven't really noticed it, but I'll study it next time, tape it, report it and have a copy on your desk, in triplicate, in time for the board meeting.