THE PASSING OF AN ERA
Johnny Unitas was more than a symbol of the early years of pro football’s Golden Age—he was also a vivid reminder of the modern game’s shortcomings and what it has lost. For years it was said that Unitas was the only football player who was a household name along the lines of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron, and Sandy Koufax. Not excepting even the greatest of his contemporaries, such as Jim Brown, Frank Gifford, and Paul Hornung, that was probably true. Unfortunately, it’s also true today.
Pro football has become so streamlined and specialized that it’s doubtful that most high-schoolers could give you a list of 10 pro football players that didn’t include such retired greats as Joe Montana, Walter Payton, or John Elway. The qualities that made Unitas a fan favorite have slowly faded from the game. Quarterbacks can no longer take defenses apart with their minds—the plays are called, often days in advance, by a sideline brain trust, turning the quarterback into a mere snap-taker. The kind of brilliant improvisation that Unitas showed in his great victories over the Giants in both the 1958 and 1959 championship games has practically been outlawed; any quarterback who took the chances Unitas took would have been benched in favor of a more manageable quarterback long before the Big Game.
There was something else about Unitas: He was the first great pro football star to be better known than the college stars of his era. Unitas had virtually no college career and no TV exposure before establishing himself with the Baltimore Colts. It would be more than half a century before another great pro passer, Kurt Warner, would fit that description. —Allen Barra
SAVING GEORGE FROM HIMSELF
Estimates vary, but number-crunchers expect the Yankees to pony up about $55 million next season under Major League Baseball’s new luxury tax and revenue-sharing scheme—a $24 million increase over this year. Even for a fat cat like George Steinbrenner, that’s a lot of polyester blazers: The club canceled its September minor-league training camp to save some green. Herewith, a few proposals for further ways to cut costs and generate revenue.
(1) Bar David Wells from the post-game buffet. (2) Broadcast pay-per-view sparring matches on YES. This week: Orlando “Hellraiser” Hernandez battles “Hollerin’ Jorge” Posada. (3) Fire the bat boys and use pitchers instead—those guys just sit around in the dugout when they’re not starting. Bonus: Roger Clemens already has experience at handling broken bats. (4) Evict Bernie Williams from his double locker in the clubhouse, and install a wading pool and rent it out for corporate parties, like they do at the Diamondbacks’ BOB. (5) Add a carnival-style “dunk tank” in Monument Park. For $5, visitors can throw a ball at the target to send Shane Spencer tumbling. (6) Replace Challenger, the bald eagle that flies to the mound before post-season games, with a hang-gliding Andy Pettitte—same beaky nose, same beady-eyed glare. (7) Hold a “Derek Jeter Sleepover Night.” Fans at Comiskey Park paid $250 a head to camp out under the stars in June. Who knows what they’d pay to camp out with a star? —J. Yeh
ONE FOR THE BOOKS
During the labor war, the Boss was threatened with a fine for loudly complaining to The New York Times about the unfairness of revenue sharing. Curious George must have forgotten how his own organization recently shortchanged the city parks department by $206,613. An audit done by the city comptroller’s office noticed that the Yankees had overstated (that’s the polite word) the amount of one of its payments to MLB, thus improperly lowering, by a formula, the amount of money the team owed the city’s taxpayers. The Yankees told the city that it paid $73,225,809 to MLB, when MLB’s books showed it to actually be $70,940,082, a difference of more than $2 million. Based on that, red-faced Yankee officials were forced to pay up the 200K. —Andrew Aber
WINNING WITHOUT STYLE
Heading into the Giants’ game in St. Louis on Sunday, head coach Jim Fassel said his team had to “play our style of game.” Well, New York won, 26-21, but what exactly is the Giants’ “style of game”?
Under legendary coach/blowhard Bill Parcells, Big Blue was known as a defense-first team. But in Fassel’s sixth year as head coach, he has yet to put a similar stamp on his teams. Two years ago, when he took New York to the Super Bowl for the first time since the Parcells era, it looked as if he had a run-oriented system in mind. But the Giants were 15th in the NFL in rushing offense last season and look to be headed for the middle of the pack so far this season, thanks to a dinged-up Tiki Barber and a clueless Ron Dayne.
Fassel now likes to talk about playing “mistake-free.” But while Kerry Collins is by far the Giants’ most proficient signal-caller since Phil Simms, he has also been error-prone, as last year’s 23 fumbles and 16 interceptions show. Against St. Louis on Sunday, Collins threw one INT and had a fumble deep in Ram territory that fortunately went unnoticed by referee Dick Hantak, allowing the Giants to kick a crucial field goal on the next play.
Defense isn’t a likely hallmark, either. Fassel’s defenders were solid against the Rams, but they’ve lacked significant swagger this season, thanks perhaps to the departure of the blitz-happy defensive coordinator John Fox for the Carolina Panthers.
Recent NFL juggernauts have had definable styles or trademarks, so don’t the Giants need one, too? If so, when? —Brian P. Dunleavy