Deadspin has a nice tribute to Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z, Paul Zimmerman, the long-time NFL writer who was stricken by a pair of strokes last November.
Zimmerman always wrote to increase understanding, which is one of the two nobler goals of sports writing, and he didn't blow smoke up the superstars. One way to appreciate Dr. Z is to harken back on one of his more memorable pieces, from S.I.'s 1989 NFL preview, which had Randall Cunningham on the cover with the words, The Ultimate Weapon. It was one of those end-of-decade pieces, envisioning how football might look in the 1990s. It might be fun to wonder, two decades on, how prescient he was.
Dr. Z's predictions:
"The defensive emphasis in the years ahead will shift to big people who can run — 'tweener types, 220-pound linebacker-strong safety combinations and 250-pound linebacker-defensive ends." Partially right. There are plenty of NFL stars who could fit that loose description. Off the 2008 All-Pro team alone, one could pick out the Miami Dolphins' All-Pro linebacker Joey Porter (started his college career on offence and then moved to defensive line), the Arizona Cardinals' 230-lb. strong safety, Adrian Wilson and the Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (who plays in the tackle box on a majority of plays). The Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, who was a college safety, could also fit in ther.
"Offensive coaches will give some thought to the emergence of this new monster and then come up with one of their own, thereby fortifying the most neglected position in football, tight end. They'll convert college linebackers and quick defensive ends." In 1988 and '89, no tight ends were among the top 20 NFL receivers in yards gained (yes, it's still strange the NFL ranks players by receptions instead of yardage). In 2007, three tight ends were among the top 20. In 2008, then-Kansas City Chief Tony Gonzalez was 12th and Dallas' Jason Witten was 25th.
"Players on both sides of the ball will be taller but lighter, because an effective anti-steroid policy will be implemented, preferably in consort with the Players Association (more on that later." Swing and a miss. Chalk this up to wishful thinking.
"Teams will load up on running backs, carrying as many as seven regulars, as more and more good runners come out of college. Teams will attack in waves, with three sets of running backs, to ensure that the offense always has fresh legs in the game. The heavy-duty 1,500-yard back could become obsolete." Forty-two NFL running backs had at least 100 carries in 1989, in a 28-team league. Forty-nine toted the synthetic leatherskin at least 100 times in 2008, in a 32-team league, about the same average per team. There might be more good running backs, but only so man coaches are willing to use regularly.
"With the emergence of mobile, more athletic quarterbacks from the colleges, NFL teams may put an extra passer in the back-field, much the way the Dolphins sometimes used backup quarterback Crash Jensen with (Dan) Marino in the mid-'80s." Talk about prescient. The evolutionary process has not been as quick as one might like. However, between the emergence of the Wildcat formation, the Miami Dolphins drafting a dual-threat quarterback such as Pat White of West Virginia, he might have been on to something.
(Kissing Suzy Kolber, of course, did this way better last summer.)
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