With apologies to Hughes Means:
As I was going up the stairI saw a man who wasn't there,And then, quite strange it was to seeI looked again... and it was me!
This is a tale so spooky that the submitter of the e-mail that prompted it automatically becomes my E-mailer of the Week. A simple question from Rhonda King of Portland, Ore., created this outburst. This is the question:
"Why is the flea-flicker called the flea-flicker and who first ran it?"
Hmmm, shouldn't be that hard a matter to research, I reasoned, although somewhere in the cobwebs upstairs I had a dim recollection of once going through this. I found an entry in an old column by SI.com's own Pete McEntegart from Oct. 2006, in which he mentioned the play was originated by Red Grange's old coach at Illinois, Bob Zuppke, who introduced it when he was coaching at Oak Park High in 1910, before his days with the Illini. "The phrase was intended to evoke the quick, flicking action of a dog getting rid of fleas."
And then... oh my God... he cites his reference for this bit of information as the 1967 book, Football Lingo, written by Paul Zimmerman. It was my first book. Zander Hollander co-authored it, at least he shared top billing, although he didn't write a line. He got us the contract with E.P. Dutton and we split the advance. I went for this deal because being young, in my mid-50's or so, I didn't know any better. I've come full circle, researching my own research. Actually, McEntegart notes, my description of the play sounded more like a hook and ladder, a short pass followed by a lateral, than the pitchback-deep-pass that connoted the flea flicker.
"I'd ask Dr. Z myself," he ended it, "but frankly, the man terrifies me."
When I read that I just had to show the Redhead. "Linda! Linda! Look what he wrote about me!" She took the news calmly.
"I'm so excited I just don't know what to say," was her response.
• My second entry is another deep one. Jim of Minneapolis asks me a question I answered six or seven years ago in this column, and it produced an unexpected show of sympathy from even my most hardened e-mailers. Have I ever lost my journalistic integrity because I "became dependent on a star player for material?"
The answer is, "kind of." You try to fight it but sometimes you involuntarily protect good sources. But I did a worse thing. My first newspaper job... the Sacramento Bee. I covered the North Sac Hockey League. The best team was the Rexalls, coached by Mr. Crawford, whose son, Don, was the star. People said that behind the scenes they ran the league. At Christmas they came over to my apartment and gave me a bottle of scotch. I took it.
Shortly thereafter a young referee announced he was quitting the league because of the way the Crawfords got their way in just about everything. I didn't use the item. Our competitor, the Sacramento Union, spread it all over their lead sports page. I felt sick. I did a soul-searching and almost quit the business. My God, I had sold out for a bottle of scotch. It haunts me to this day.
This probably isn't exactly what you're talking about, but it's all very complicated. When I was the NY Post's beat writer on the Jets, for 13 years, my best friend among the players was Winston Hill, the left tackle. We were the same age, our wives played tennis together, our babies played in the playpen together.
One day he came over to me and said, "There's going to be a time when I get old and I'm not playing well. I want you to write it. It won't affect our friendship." I was almost in tears. "I'll never write that," I said in a strangled voice. And I never did.
As far as writers "pimping the super stars," as we call it. Oh, sure. Happens all the time.
• From Kyle of Seattle, and thanks for the boost -- Since teams rotate defensive linemen to keep them fresh, why don't they also rotate offensive linemen, if only for a series? Two reasons. The feeling is it takes more energy to put on a good pass rush or to fight a play at the point of attack than it does to block for a play you already know. And you can take a play off when it's far removed from you. Also, sometimes it takes offensive linemen a while to get their rhythm going, to get in the flow and work smoothly together.
• A disconnected, meandering set of scattershots from Father Lloyd of San Antonio. Are you a clergyman, sir, or the result of a shotgun wedding? Just asking...no need to get upset. First -- did I see "Tony Romo takes homeless man to the movies?" No, where's it playing? I understand Nick Nolte plays the homeless man. Secondly, "would you share your own tales of helping down on their luck types?" These deal more with getting helped than helping. And finally, a rather garbled diatribe about the Chiefs and their few remaining fans. Can't help you there, sport. Drop Carl Peterson a note. I'm sure he'd like to hear from you.
• I know everyone's just frantic to get to the "How could you?" section, concerning my rankings, but first things first. Rob of Winnipeg was hoping that I'd have devoted more of my Bills segment to Marshawn Lynch. Sorry. I got all carried away with that botched strategy at the end. Interesting night for Marshawn. He seemed to get more crazed as the verdict drew closer, and toward the end he was running like a wildman. Not easy to maintain that energy level for too long.
• OK, Rich, and it's you, Rich of L.A., that I'm looking at. We all appreciate your attempts at matching my modest efforts at the versification known as doggerel, but we have to get some things straight. Get the rhyme and the verse forms correct, and then come back and see me. You inject the name of Al Davis into your little Raiders screed without any attempts at all to match him with the verses that surround him. But maybe that's the way Al likes it.
• Jon of Miami writes a hymn to his team in Gertrude Stein fashion. It consists of the phrase, "Dolphins should be higher," repeated 13 times, plus, what I would assume is a smutty reference to the Patriots, except that I don't know what "feces" means. Is that an astrological sign? I liked the whole thing, Jon, and it's a good, comfortable way to get us into the murky waters of my rankings.
• Fuzz of Menomonee Falls, Wis , bellows a thunderous announcement of Linda's arrival from Italia of her dreams, and welcomes the potential return to sensible rankings. Which means lifting the Packers waaaay above the Bears, after the way they slaughtered them, and I would have done exactly that, except that there were others in line who didn't want to give up their places to one brash blowoutmeister. And I know you've been a contributor before, haven't you, Fuzz? What...are you paying someone off to get you in here?
• Same complaint from Donny of Naples, Fla., who wants to know, "What are you smoking?" Salmon. Atlanta's above the Pack 'cause they beat them. New Orleans is above the Pack 'cause they took a two-spot hit, even after a victory, and I don't want to get those people out-of-control mad. Above them are teams with better records. One blowout does not a season make.
Oh, getting back to Fuzz of the previous e-mail, you hit on something interesting when you asked me what I have against Vince Lombardi. When I was a high school senior, we scrimmaged his team, St. Cecilia's in Englewood, N.J. Same power sweep, pulling the two guards, same, "Ya gotta get a seal here and here." Subsequent material of a rather personal, never before published nature... well, you'll have to buy the book someday to find out.
• From Brad of Phoenix: "Finally, some love to the Cardinals! Thank you, and I will remove your photo from my dartboard." Not so fast, champ. I predicted the Cards to upset the Giants. If they, ahem, fail in this little venture, well, you might keep that photo handy for a return to the board.
• Dan of Arlington, Va., says a team can cure its QB problems by hiring Drew Bledsoe and then watch his backup take over and move on to all-pro status. I'm researching it now, getting a handle on his backups in high school and college and tracking their future. I'll report my findings to you eventually.
• Mark of Brandon Valley (S.D.) High, proposes the Boink Rule in football scoring. Award four points to a field goal that boinks off one of the uprights because it's so decidedly hard to do. Hey, I'd go for it. I'd go for any South Dakota type of loony toons that shakes 'em up in the league office.
I remember once talking to the old Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud about how hard it was to hit the goal post when you were trying to. He said he was filming a commercial that called for him to hit the upright, and he was out there all afternoon, trying, moving closer and closer, and he never nailed it. Finally they shot the thing by doing a cutaway with someone throwing the ball at the goal post.
• Elijah of Orlando (I think I saw the movie... it was on a double bill with Lawrence of Arabia) says I'm the writer most likely to have an original, intellectual thought, which makes me grip my wallet more tightly. And then he notes that although the mobile QB has been predicted as the man of the future, it always comes back to the classic dropback guy. "Why were so many people wrong?"
In 1970 Hank Stram's Chiefs won the Super Bowl, using something called the Moving Pocket, which was just kind of half rollout and everyone went into a tizzy about the mobile QB. I mentioned this in my Thinking Man's Guide, quoting Paul Brown from the 1950's, with the same prediction. It seems logical... give the guy another skill and away we go. Basically it comes as God wills it. Joe Montana and Steve Young were wonderful, mobile quarterbacks, but first, they had perfected their basic skills. The same with Fran Tarkenton. That's the bottom line. You can't get by without that, no matter how well you can scamper around.
• John S. of Mesa, Ariz., heard Brian Billick say on TV that quarterbacks hate the slant route because so much can go wrong. Then a few hours later John Madden came on and said that all short passing offenses are based on the slant. Who's wrong? Well, Billick's the only one I ever heard say that QBs hate it. None ever told me that. The two best I ever saw at it were the aforementioned Montana and Young. Maybe they liked it because it came so naturally to them. Maybe Billick just had quarterbacks who had trouble with every route.
• Dale of Edmonton, Alberta, asks me who I think is the smartest player in the NFL... and thanks for your kind words, Dale. Peyton Manning on offense, either Keith Brooking, outside LB for the Falcons, or Derrick Brooks, OLB for the Bucs, on defense.