Monday, September 26, 2016

Who's Better, Philip Rivers or Dan Fouts? Finally, We Have the Answer

Dan Fouts and Philip Rivers, the two most successful and beloved quarterbacks ever to suit up for the San Diego Chargers, are two of my favorite players in the history of the National Football League. Both deservedly enjoy their share of rabidly loyal fans. But it seems only Rivers has more than a few detractors.

These detractors came out of the woodwork on Sunday after the Chargers lost a tough game to the Indianapolis Colts on the road, with many of its offensive stars injured. In the game, Rivers, under constant pressure from rushing Colt defenders, threw a few uncharacteristic floaters that did not find their targets. It happens, well, almost never. But this is all it took for a few football plebes to say that Rivers will never be the quarterback Dan Fouts was.

This is curious, because if anyone should have doubters and detractors, it's not Rivers, it's Fouts, who's deservedly in the NFL Hall of Fame but whose gargantuan number of interceptions, low career quarterback rating and sometimes putrid playoff performances should give one pause.

Don't get me wrong. I love Dan Fouts. He's a hell of a competitor and by all accounts a quality person, just as Philip is. Fouts has earned the accolades that have come his way, he was a great player and he's also a tremendous broadcaster. 

But the overall quality of his work on the football field while leading the Chargers in the 1970's and 1980's isn't really even close to Philip's. 

Sometimes myth collides with reality, and the mythology surrounding Dan Fouts and those legendary Charger squads don't completely corroborate with the facts. A great quarterback and leader with some pretty gaudy numbers, Fouts, the leader of the almost mystical "Air Coryell" era for the Bolts under innovative and respected coach Don Coryell, was a hard-ass on the field. He was tough as nails and a great leader of men, and the fans here in San Diego loved him for it and still do. 

But Dan was far more erratic and error-prone as a starting quarterback than many want to remember. And while I don't want to take anything away from Fouts' storied reputation as a tough guy, Rivers is every bit as tough, if not tougher. A coach's kid, a good-natured warrior, Rivers never, ever leaves a football game.

Who's Tougher, Who's Smarter?

Before you start in with the Eddie-Shore-old-time-hockey argument that quarterbacks were a helluva lot tougher back in the day because there were fewer rules to protect the quarterback, well, it's a nice try, but it won't fly. When defenders hit you now, it hurts more. Period.

Training methods have improved demonstrably over the decades, and for that reason along with some evolutionary and, um, pharmaceutical reasons, players now are just scary strong and scary fast. Stronger and faster in fact than they were 30 years ago when Dan ruled Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium).

Dan was tough. No one's disputing that. But Rivers has played though some ungodly pain, including a severe rib injury he didn't tell anybody about that anyone who has ever had a severe rib injury knows is just about the most painful thing there is.

Then there's the all-important factor: who makes better decisions with those one-to-five seconds after the snap? This one's real easy: Rivers has a much, much higher overall football IQ than Fouts, and is a much more accurate passer and throws profoundly fewer interceptions. 

Rivers has better field vision, is better at check downs, and is just a smarter football player who, one day, will make a tremendous coach. 

The Super Bowl Argument's a Wash

Of course, neither Fouts not Rivers ever made it to a Super Bowl. But that means next to nothing. Both are Hall-of-Fame level players. If there was any justice in sport, both would be multiple Super Bowl winners. But neither was on a team that put it all together. Why? Simple. It's a team game.

There are plenty of great quarterbacks who never made it to the Super Bowl: Rivers, Fouts, Warren Moon, Bernie Kosar, Sonny Jurgensen, Randall Cunningham, to name a few.

And there are plenty of mediocre-at-best quarterbacks who did play in a Super Bowl: Jeff Hostettler, Rex Grossman, David Woodley, Trent Dilfer, Vince Ferragamo, and that list goes on and on, too. 

As for the only Chargers QB to actually make it to a Super Bowl, Stan Humphries was a very good player who had an accurate rocket for an arm, a big heart, and an unappreciated sense of when and when not to throw the ball downfield. He was underrated, but just to booster my point, Stan was not in Dan or Philip's league. 

Numbers Don't Lie, Cheat or Steal

If you're into stats and numbers, we've got more than you need to made a solid decision here about who is better: Fouts played 15 seasons as the starter for the Chargers and ended up with 43,040 yards passing. Impressive as hell. Rivers has spent three fewer seasons as the starter and has amassed 42,240 yards passing. He will pass Fouts sometime this year and still has several more good years in him. Fouts completed 58 percent of his passes in his career, while Rivers has completed 65 percent of his passes. Fouts had 254 touchdown passes, which is 19th on the all-time list, and has a whopping 242 interceptions, which puts him 12th on the all-time interceptions list, a dubious distinction. Doesn't make me love Fouts any less, but it's a troubling stat. 

Rivers so far has a whopping 286 touchdown passes, which is 11th all time, just four behind Johnny Unitas, who he will pass in a couple more games. And Rivers has thrown just 135 interceptions - more than 100 fewer than Dan! That stat alone should be all you really need to know, especially considering Dan's coterie of ridiculously good wide receivers.

Wait, there's more. Fouts' career QB rating is a slumpy 80.2. Rivers' career QB rating to date is 95.8, which is the 8th best of all time.

Who's the Better Playoff Quarterback?

Neither Rivers nor Fouts have been world shakers in the playoffs. But Fouts simply did not excel in the postseason, where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. You can pick several several playoff losses in the Fouts era and point right to him as one of the reasons if not the only reason the Chargers lost. But there is not a single playoff game in the Rivers era that you can point to and say Rivers was the reason the Chargers lost. Not one. In seven playoff games, Fouts is 3-4, with 12 TDs and a whopping 16 interceptions. In nine playoff games, Rivers is 4-5, with 11 TDs and just 9 interceptions.

The Bottom Line

Members of the jury, here's my summation: Dan Fouts is a tremendous football player who absolutely deserves to be in the Hall of fame. But Rivers is even better, for several easy-to-explain reasons. If Dan belongs, simple deductive reason will lead us to conclude that Philip does, too. 

For one thing, Dan Fouts was only really great for about five years. Before and after, he was mediocre. On the other hand, Rivers, even in his worst years in the league, has put up Pro Bowl numbers and even when his supporting cast is weak, he still makes very few mistakes.

Rivers has done so much more than Fouts with so much less, especially the years 2012-2013 when Rivers had the absolute worst offensive line in the league and still put up remarkable numbers while literally running for his life from hungry linebackers.

And in 2015, Rivers had an unprecedented, historic number of injuries along the O line and rarely had time to move in the pocket and he still threw for more than 4,000 yards. Now that is impressive. Who handles real adversity better? Need you ask?

Fouts had mostly great blockers during his good years, though Rivers did have some great ones, too, back when Kris Deilman, Marcus McNeil and Nick Hardwick were lining up in front of him.

Needless to say, Fouts had an insane amount of skill-position weapons, including a few Hall-of-Famers and superior wide receivers. Rivers has had a couple future Hall-of-Famers, too, in tight end Antonio Gates and All-Universe running back Ladainian Tomlinson. 

But Rivers never, ever had the wide receiving talent that Fouts had. Few if any QBs in NFL history have enjoyed that kind of ball-catching talent that Dan Fouts enjoyed. I mean, Charlie Joiner, John Jefferson and Wes Chandler all caught passes for Dan. Are you kidding me? 

Both Fouts and Rivers are great football players. Uniquely gifted. Tough. But anyone who thinks Rivers is not as good (he's actually a little better) just doesn't know very much about football. 

By every single tangible measure, and by all the intangible measures, Rivers is the better quarterback. It's close. But it's clear.

At the end of the day, and at the end of this column, I defer to legendary San Diego sportswriter Nick Canepa, who knows more about football tan I will ever know. "As much as I admire Fouts, a tremendous competitor and leader, Rivers is the better quarterback, because he's made fewer mistakes," Nick wrote. That's good enough for me. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Arnold Palmer: Long Live the King

Steve Breen - San Diego Union-Tribune
Hearing the sad news today that Arnold Palmer has died, I was immediately taken back to that poignant Sunday 12 years ago when the iconic American golfer played his final round at Augusta National.

Watching Arnie walk the 18th fairway at Augusta, his favorite golf course, back in 2004, I was reminded why this man was arguably the nation’s most beloved athlete so far past his own athletic prime: Arnie was the definitive American father figure. The adoring tributes to Arnie that we're already seeing this evening are appropriate, and moving.

Larger than life, but with a blue-collar ethic that always made him a favorite of the man on the street, Palmer, who was both icon and everyman, possessed the attributes every kid wishes for in a father. Charismatic, eternally youthful, and still competitive into his 80's, Palmer had the rare gift of true kindness. He remained humble and approachable even though he attained great wealth and living-legend status.

To his credit and my amazement, Arnie never adopted a hint of the elitism sometimes associated with his sport and with great fame.

Amid the familiar roar of his adoring seven-deep “Army” of fans, Arnie's final official round at Augusta more than a decade ago was one of those rare and transcendent sports moments that combine history and pathos.

Broadcast live on the USA Network by the CBS broadcasting crew, which to its credit knew enough to say little, and shown later that evening on every sportscast in the country, Palmer's last Masters, which rightly eclipsed any news of the actual tourny contenders that day and even to some degree Phil Mickelson's eventual epic victory that year, must have generated a variety of emotions in viewers of all ages.

Arnie's final round back in 2004 wasn’t just about golf. It was about the bittersweet and inevitable passage of time. And for me, it was also about fatherhood. I suspect I wasn’t alone in associating Arnie's final Masters with my own life, and my own dad.

It was both compelling and painful to watch Arnie accept his fate and take his characteristically classy final bow at the tournament he’s loved so much and to which he’s given so much for more than 50 years.

I remember feeling a surge of emotion as he tapped in his final putt that afternoon. Not only because he represents a decency and civility that is fast approaching extinction in our popular culture, but because Palmer was my dad’s hero, and my dad was mine. 

As Arnie slowly walked off the 18th green, I hoped the moment wouldn’t end, just as you wish your father could live forever.

“It’s not fun to know that it’s over,” Palmer said in an emotional interview with CBS just after his final round. “But it’s been a great week, and I’m happy. The fans have been, well, goodness, they have been so supportive.” After a pause, he added tearfully but with a resolved smile, “This is difficult for me. I’m a sentimental slob.”

Arnold Palmer was one of the first true stars of televised sports. With his perpetual tan, windswept charm, likability, and remarkable shot-making prowess, he popularized golf the way no other athlete ever popularized a sport, before or since. 

Now known simply as The King, Arnie, who was dubbed by GQ one of the "25 Coolest Athletes of All Time," won the Masters four times, the British Open twice, the U.S. Open once, and 92 championships in all. But his on-course record only begins to describe what he did for golf.

The most popular player in the game’s history, Palmer was as important a figure in 20th century sports as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Mickey Mantle or Johnny Unitas. But he never acted like an icon. Somehow, amid the idolatry these last six decades, he maintained a good nature.

He never passed an autograph seeker without signing the autograph and engaging in a conversation and making actual eye contact with his fans.

“He was a legend who walked among us,” Gary Player, another golf legend, once said of Palmer. "He gave of himself. If you give to the fans, they give back. A lot of athletes are aloof. But Arnold was always aware of the man in the street."

Defying age if only for fleeting moments, Palmer exhibited a little of the old magic in his final round at the Masters in 2004. On the infamous par three 12th hole, he knocked his tee shot within seven feet of the pin.

The gallery loved it, I loved it, and Arnie, as fierce a competitor as there ever was in any sport, undoubtedly got as much enjoyment out of it, if not more, than from any of the many ovations he received.

Palmer never lost that will to win. Virtually until his sad death today, Arnie, who in 2012 was named an "honorary starter" at Augusta along with his close friends and rivals Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, still felt in his eternally youthful heart that he could win a tournament, any tournament.

Each time he stepped up to the tee box he still thought he could hit a better shot than you. But he knew his body no longer did what his brain still begged it to do. And who can’t relate to that?

Palmer, whose Augusta Swan Song was one of those bittersweet, treasured TV moments that make you reflect on your own life, was a father figure for us all. But for me, he was and is even more.

My father, too, was charismatic and kind and lived his life with great passion and dignity, and though he loved a lot of things including his family, music, sports and broadcasting, his greatest lifelong passion, like Arnie's, was golf.

A television personality himself for 50 years as well as a longtime newspaper golf columnist, my dad was a voracious and good golfer (a 3 handicap) who had the great pleasure of meeting Palmer on several occasions. Arnie never disappointed my father, who sadly died in 2002, just days after playing 18 holes.

At his service, along with lots of pictures of family and friends, stood one large black-and-white photograph of my dad and Arnie on the golf course together, smiling.

When asked what his own late father would say about his remarkable 50-year run at Augusta, Palmer, who had two daughters and many grandchildren and whose caddie during his final Master’s appearance was his 16-year-old grandson, answered softly, “I guess he’d say the same thing he said the first time I won the Masters: 'You did good, boy.'” 

Precisely what every boy wants to hear from his dad, these words are a reminder that every man who is a father, even the heroes among us, is also someone’s son. Long live The King.