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The Ornery American Sports Writer
Tastes Like the Real Thing?
By Chris Bellamy September 17, 2004

Want to get noticed? Be flashy, fancy, and make sure to have a cool nickname

The way Daunte Culpepper was celebrating and trash-talking after every touchdown last Sunday against the Cowboys, he must fancy himself a great quarterback. Funny, he's got the rest of the league fooled -- that is, if late-season performances, playoff appearances and Super Bowl rings mean anything.

Sure, Culpepper's statistics typically look great. Last year's leaderboard would have us believe he was the best quarterback in the NFC. Sunday's performance -- 17 for 23, 242 yards, five touchdowns -- suggests more of the same. Of course, after every single touchdown, he and his teammates celebrated as if they had just won the Super Bowl. When they took a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, I half-expected Culpepper and Randy Moss to dump a jug of Gatorade on Mike Tice. Culpepper sprinted down the sidelines in celebration, screaming "We're too smart for them! We're too smart for them!"

Right, the Vikings are so smart, they've won exactly one playoff game during Culpepper's four-year tenure. They're so smart that, down the stretch over the last two months of last season, they lost to the Chargers, Raiders, Bears and Cardinals. (Four teams -- San Diego, Oakland, Arizona and the New York Giants -- tied for the worst record in the league last year at 4-12. The Vikings lost to all four, thanks in no small part to Culpepper's inconsistency.)

Culpepper must thank his lucky stars that he has Randy Moss making him look this good. I'm not saying Culpepper's not a good quarterback -- but it's worth pointing out that just about every quarterback who's played in the quarterback-friendly Minnesota offense in the Randy Moss Era has put up absolutely blistering statistics. Not just Culpepper, but Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, Gus Frerotte and Todd Friggin' Bouman. Don't believe me? In two starts last year, Frerotte's quarterback rating was 118.1. Two years ago, in five appearances and three starts, Bouman's rating was 98.3. We're not exactly talking about Pro Bowlers here -- but they sure did put up Pro Bowl numbers.

But people still point to Culpepper's gaudy stats and his 60-yard bombs to Randy Moss, and they call him an elite quarterback. Never mind the fact that he has thus far proven completely unreliable down the stretch. Never mind that he's never taken the Vikings anywhere. The stats tell a better story, but appearances, as they say, can be deceiving. Daunte Culpepper is the NFL's Vince Carter. He's cubic zirconia.

Now, it may seem like I'm being a bit too harsh on Culpepper. After all, he's only 27 and he's certainly got talent. The problem is, he epitomizes a disturbing trend, that of style over substance. He's one of those guys who gets exorbitantly over-glorified because of massive statistics and/or a flashy style of play. A lot of blame goes to the 16-24 male demographic, which idolizes players like Culpepper, then turn around and scoff at Tom Brady, the same way they scoffed at Troy Aikman 10 years ago. They say that Michael Vick is the best quarterback in the world. (By and large, these are the same people who think that The Usual Suspects is the greatest movie ever made.) I mean, the guy's almost reached demi-god status and he's hardly done anything. It's like video games and fantasy sports have taken over as gospel.

It's a classic example of perception vs. reality. Take a look at these stats: 59.6% completion, 4,164 yards, 28 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 89.9 QB rating. Great quarterback, right?

Actually, those are the 2000 statistics of Elvis Grbac. You see what I mean when I said looks could be deceiving?

But people keep getting blinded by the surface of things. People ignore or at least downplay the greatness of guys like Brady, Aikman, Phil Simms, Jim Kelly and Warren Moon, while drooling over the guys who make better fodder for the highlight reels. This is why Joe Namath was more popular than Johnny Unitas and Roger Staubach, even though both were significantly better quarterbacks than Broadway Joe.

It's why for years there was this perpetual illusion that Jeff George was a guy worth signing. Sure, on two or three occasions (most notably 1995 with Atlanta), he put up great-looking stats. But in 12 seasons, Jeff George never did a single thing in the NFL. Still, he kept finding work.

It's why Aaron Brooks and Jake Plummer are still starting quarterbacks in this league. It's why most casual fans would still take Barry Sanders over Emmitt Smith -- simply because he was faster, flashier, more exciting.

Obviously, this applies most to the NFL and NBA (names like Carter and Stephon Marbury spring to mind). But it even applies to that least flashy of sports, baseball.

Take Ozzie Smith as a prime example. The guy was a great defensive shortstop, no question, and not a bad contact hitter, either. And he's not only a Hall-of-Famer, but a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Now take Omar Vizquel, the one player from this generation who is absolutely a better defensive shortstop than Ozzie Smith. Better career fielding percentage. Less errors. And nine Gold Gloves to show for it. Not only that, but Vizquel's offensive stats are better than Smith's across the board. See for yourself: (batting stats are per 162 games)

  GP ERRORS FLD PCT. AVG. 2B RS RBI SB OBP
Ozzie Smith 2,511 281 .978 .262 25 79 50 37 .337
Omar Vizquel 1,978 149 .983 .275 27 85 54 24 .341

But does anyone foresee Vizquel going to the Hall-of-Fame? Is he ever even mentioned in Hall of Fame consideration? Despite being, in my mind, a better player hands-down, Vizquel will probably never see the inside of Cooperstown unless he pays for a guided tour. Vizquel never did backflips and acrobatics on the infield dirt. He never had a catchy nickname. But Ozzie Smith -- he was The Wizard. And now he's in the Hall. Defensive stud? Absolutely. Impact player? You bet. But without his flash and style and pomp and circumstance, would anyone have noticed?

Copyright © 2004 by Chris Bellamy

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MUSINGS FROM NFL
WEEK ONE
• In two separate conversations with two of my friends last Friday, we all got to thinking that the Baltimore Ravens were going to be the year's biggest bust. And sure enough, they got absolutely pounded by the Browns, hardly an NFL heavyweight. Super Bowl contender, indeed. My pick for them to win the division will be forever on record, but it was midguided, and I'm abandoning it. I know it sounds like a cop-out now, but looking at the team now, with that offense (what offense?), without the Surprise Factor of last year, with games remaining against Kansas City, Philadelphia, Dallas, New England, Indianapolis and the Jets, I can't see them winning more than six games this year. So that's it. Pittsburgh's no great team, but Bill Cowher is a vastly underrated coach, and he'll lead them back to the top of the division.

• It's official: The FOX NFL Pregame Show is not only the worst pre-game show on television, it may be the stupidest show on network television. And yes, that includes Trading Spouses, The Swan, Method & Red, and old re-runs of Three's Company and The Tony Danza Show. When the show premiered, it was great -- good football analysis, and the guys were witty and entertaining. Now I can watch for an entire hour and they hardly even talk about football. I have to sit through Terry Bradshaw's once-funny, now-inane babble, idiotic "comedy" sketches from MAD TV cast members, pointless interviews (like asking Michael Strahan "boxers or briefs?"), and of course the "weather report" by Jillian Barberie, the most useless human being this side of Joan Rivers. I think the breaking point for this show came when Howie Long started appearing in John Woo movies and Radio Shack commercials. It's been all downhill since then.

• I think all potential for a storybook Kurt Warner comeback is done for. The Giants' shabby offensive line doesn't help matters, but Warner is absolutely petrified of getting a boo-boo on his thumby-wummy. Eli's starting by Week 7.

• I still can't get over the fact that the NFL used, of all people, Jessica Simpson as a part of the league's kick-off concert extravaganza. Do you think any die-hard football fan owns a Jessica Simpson CD? Anyone? Way to know your audience, guys.

• Detroit's Charles Rogers is rapidly turning into the new Yatil Green.

• Terry Donahue, the man responsible for the hiring of Dennis Erickson, got a four-year extension. Can someone explain this to me?

• I hate Mr. Wendy, don't you? In fact, I hope and pray that the man who plays him never gets another acting job as long as he lives. I mean, doesn't he just make you want to never eat at Wendy's again? Ever?

• The new pass-interference rules suck. Just let `em play, guys.

• Dennis Farina is on Law & Order now. Is anyone as excited about this as I am?

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