Sunday, 29 March 2020

COVID-19: OUR MODERN MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH

I've written about the Corona Virus, Covid-19, in terms of Edgar Allan Poe and the Masque Of The Red Death. Poe never conceived of Trump or Boris Johnson, but I suppose he never had to. It's up at Medium, and you can link to it, bypassing the paywall, here.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

A DARK SPELL: a poem

I wrote this poem in 1983. It had been germinating since a Christmas a few years before, but it was  listening to Eberhard Weber's 'A Dark Spell', from his 1980 album Little Movements, that helped it coalesce. Here's a link to the tune, see if you can feel how. It hasn't changed very much since then, but I also don't seem to have considered it for publication anywhere in the ensuing decades. But I am putting together a collection of poems I've written inspired by ECM records, so here it is now, for the first time....

A DARK SPELL
                                   after Eberhard Weber

between now &
closing we
both could lose

this unmeasured
sense of
freedom, which

is freedom it-
self. A fire
might die in

our faces be-
fore we reached
its flame, be-

fore we saw
each other
by its light.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

DEL SHOFNER: THE FOOTBALL OF MY YOUTH & THE HALL OF FAME

When I was a kid my first favourite pro football player was Ray Berry, the end who was Johnny Unitas' favourite target on the Colts. In fact, that may have gone right back to the 1958 championship game, which I watched with the men at my uncle's house, while the kids played elsewhere. Perhaps I knew then I was fated to be an end. It lasted long enough so that, when I was elevated to the varsity in high school, I somehow managed to get Berry's number, 82, to wear.

But by that time, 1965, my favourite receiver was someone from the AFL, Lance Alworth.
We didn't see many AFL games, especially not from San Diego, but it didn't take many views to make you a fan of Bambi. We did, however, get the Giants' games out of New York, and in that interregnum between Berry and Alworth, I became a huge fan of the Giants' Del Shofner, who died a couple of weeks ago. His death didn't receive as much attention, not even in New York, as I would have expected, but that reflects a strange phenomenon: Shofner, who was one of the two starting receivers on the NFL's official all-decade team for the Sixties, has been consistently passed over by Hall of Fame voters, just as he was by obituary writers almost everywhere except the New York Times. And this is something I find hard to understand, as I think he is the most compelling candidate at end from the pre-passing era.

Delbert Shofner was a quiet star, and perhaps that's part of why he didn't attract more attention. Listed at 6-3 185 he was what you would call lanky (his teammates called him 'Slim' or 'Blade'), and he was handsome in a very Texas way; he came from Center, Texas and you could have case him as a bit player in Hud, or Junior Bonner, and he would have fit right in. In fact, as the NFL moved to the forefront of the TV sports world, the New York ad men who were fixated on players in New York (or do you think it a coincidence that stars Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote and kicker Pat Summerall were early entries into broadcasting, with the networks centered in New York?) chose Shofner to be one of the models for the Marlboro Man cigarette ads, although his teammate Charley Conerly got more of them in the end. But though high-profile helps your HoF chances, there's more to it than that.

Shofner played halfback at Baylor, like many other future NFL receivers. As the rules dictated in the Fifties, he played both ways. He also played basketball, baseball and ran track, where he was a conference champion sprinter. In the 1957 Sugar Bowl, Baylor, 8-2 and ranked 11th in the country, upset second-ranked and undefeated Tennessee 13-7, in the final New Year's Day game. Shofner's 54 yard run set up Baylor's first score; he was named the game's MVP of the biggest upset of the year.

The Rams drafted him with the 11th pick of the first round, and as a rookie he played cornerback, starting most of the season. In 1958, he was moved to flanker (listed as a halfback, but generally playing the Z spot), and in 12 games, with Billy Wade the primary quarterback in Sid Gillman's offense, he caught 51 passes for 1,097 yards, 21.5 per catch, and 8 TDs. This was a Big Thing; Don Hutson had registered the NFL's first 1,000 yard receiving season in 1942, and only 12 others had done it before Shofner. He was voted first team All-Pro and went to the Pro Bowl.

The Rams' big star in 1958 was halfback 'Jaguar' Jon Arnett, another of my early favourites, who ran for 683 yards and had 494 more receiving, as well as 554 more on kick returns. Shofner also did the punting, averaging 41.2 yards. The Rams went 8-4, their best year under Gillman (who would go on to coach Alworth and the Chargers in the AFL), and you might argue that Shofner's success was as important to Sid's ideas than anything that went on with the Clark Shaugnessy Rams in the early Fifties. It may also have had something to do with Shofner's style. He rank with a jerky sort of sprinter's motion, a little like Crazy Legs Hirsch, which made it look like he was always going to go into a cut. He could catch over the middle, but once he's got a stop on a defender deep, he turned into an elegant catcher of the deep ball, extending arms and making over the shoulder catches which, watching on tape now, remind me of Randy Moss.

In 1959 Shofner fell 64 yards short of recording a second 1,000 yard season, but he again was first-team all-Pro. In 1960 he was held back by leg injuries and ulcers. He played only a couple of games at receiver and corner, but continued as the punter. Something about the nature of the injuries put off the Rams, or maybe it was the switch to Bob Waterfield as head coach (with ex Rams' coach Hamp Pool and end Tom Fears as his offensive assistants) but they basically gave up on him. Interestingly, in 1960, Waterfield's former co-QB on the Rams, Norm Van Brocklin, led the Eagles to the NFL title.

That title's signature moment came against the New York Giants, in the game where Chuck Bednarik put Frank Gifford out of the game with a crunching tackle. You've seen the photo, I'm sure. Gifford was forced to miss the 1961, and the Giants, under new head coach Allie Sherman, were looking to upgrade their offense. They had already traded tackle Lou Cordileone to the 49ers for QB Y.A. Tittle, and Tittle recommended they pick up Shofner. They sent two draft picks to the Rams, and Shofner and Tittle clicked immediately.

In 1961, with the season expanded to 14 games, Shofner caught 68 passes for 1,125 yards and 11 TDs. In 1962, with Gifford back at flanker and Shofner as split end (the X position) he caught fewer passes (53) for more yards (1,133) and 12 scores. And in 1963 it was 64/1181/9. The Giants went to the championship game each year, losing to the Packers in 61 and 62 and the Bears in 63—all in games with less than ideal passing conditions. It's interesting to note here than Shofner became the first player to register 1,000 yard seasons three years in a row; but many of his obits said 1961's 1,125 made him the first two ever have two 1,000 yard seasons. It's odd, because I believe Fears did it in '49 and '50 with the Rams, and Harlon Hill in '54 and '55 with the Bears. Art Powell with Oakland and Alworth would do three in a row in the AFL (Alworth would crack the barrier seven times in the Sixties) but not until Charlie Joiner in the late 70s and James Lofton in the 80s would anyone do three in a row in the NFL.

In 1964 it all fell apart for the Giants and Shofner. The team was aging; Tittle was 38, Gifford 34, Alex Webster 33; on defense Andy Robustelli was 39 and they'd traded away star MLB Sam Huff. Shofner's ulcers and leg problems returned. He played four more seasons, but managed only 21 starts and 54 catches. Homer Jones became the Giants' designated deep threat, but after Tittle's retirement, Gary Wood, Earl Morrall, Tom Kennedy and finally Fran Tarkenton couldn't make the most of what they had. Shofner retired after the 1967 season.

As I said, he was voted to the All-Decade team, but although the other first-team receiver, Charlie Taylor is in the Hall, he's barely had a look. I think a few things are to blame for that. He was always a quiet star, even in the high-profile atmosphere of New York. His three great years with the Giants resulted in no titles. And as time went on the AFL tended to provide the idea of glamour receivers from that decade, and the second-team all-decade choices from the NFL were Gary Collins and Boyd Dowler. Both were tall flankers, typical of the run-first decade, and I get the sense Shofner is lumped in with them (not that either was a slouch). But you have Alworth and another typical Texan Don Maynard (oddly, apart from being Joe Namath's favourite) in the Hall.

But the crucial factor may be the shortness of Shofner's peak. One year as a DB, a full season lost to, and his last four year curtailed greatly by, injuries. That leaves him with only five quality years. But what quality! Four 1,000 yard seasons and one over 900, at a time when that was still rare. In his three great years with the Giants he had 32 TD catches to go with 1,100 plus yards per season. And most important, he was a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro all five season. It is that first team All-Pro that stands out. Yes there were fewer teams, yes some receivers were in the AFL, but compare with some of the guys we talk about all the time.

In the last round of Hall of Fame voting, Issac Bruce was elected. Bruce had really two big years. Was never a first-team all-pro, was voted to four Pro Bowls (which nowadays means a lot less than it did). His running mate Torry Holt didn't get in: Holt has 1 All Pro and seven pro bowls, which indicates a longer run of effectiveness. In the veterans Hallaganza last season Mac Speedie was voted in (3 all pros in the AAFC and five pro bowls, two of those in the first three years the NFL had an all-star game). I like Speedie because he stood up to Paul Brown, went to Canada and had two fine years with Saskatchewan in the WIFU (think CFL). Harold Carmichael never was All-Pro, went to only four Pro Bowls. Drew Pearson (3/3) didn't get in.

I understand that Shofner's effective career was relatively short, but a 5/5 mark in All-Pro/Pro Bowl matches up pretty damn well with receivers who had longer careers, and as we've seen with guys like Terrell Davis, a short career with a very high peak no longer is a detriment like it had been. A good comparison might be Tony Boselli (3/5), Le Roy Butler (4/4), Reggie Wayne (1/6), or Bryant Young (1/4) from the latest Hall finalists. I don't have a vote, but I do have the advantage of having seen Shofner play when he did play, which I think helps me put him into context, but may also make me a little biased in his favour.

The estimate Pro Football reference site does a Hall of Fame Monitor. It's based on Bill James' work in his landmark book on baseball's Hall of Fame, originally titled The Politics Of Glory (now Whatever Happened to The Hall Of Fame). The Monitor does not measure performance per se, but rather how closely performance tallies with the things Hall voters have traditionally looked for, which means things like championships and leading the league in stat categories get extra importance. It's starting point is PFR's Approximate Value, which attempts to put a value on each player's every season.

Shofner's career AV is low at 49, less than half of Michael Irvin's 106. Yet Shofner ranks 20th in Hall of Fame monitor points with 92.25, just behind Berry (94.89), Irvin (93.31) and Andre Johnson (92.26). The good news is Shofner is ahead of Maynard, Art Monk, Andre Reed, Joiner, Fred Biletnikoff, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth (69.96), and way ahead of his contemporaries Bobby Mitchell, Bob Hayes and Tommy MacDonald, who are all in. Dowler

The bad news is the cut off (the average of those in the hall) is 107. Charlie Taylor has 102.83, Paul Warfield 100.56, and Bruce 99.81. Holt, by the way, stands at 104.27 and Wayne at 107.21, the highest totals for non-active players not in the Hall. Now I think the average is weighted a little high by Jerry Rice's 311.81 (Moss is second at 149.69), maybe we ought to use the median? BTW, Alworth is seventh at 124.84.

To me twentieth on the list ought to be good enough for the Hall, considering all those members who rank below him. I'm not so much disappointed Shofner's not in as I am by the fact that he never seemed to even enter the discussion, which seems very much short-sighted and unfair. And now he is gone. He died the day before my birthday, though it didn't become public until the next week. And when it did it transported me back to those Giants' teams, to people traveling up to Connecticut on Sundays to beat the NFL's TV blackout, and the Tittle to Shofner magic that to me bridges the gap between those early Fifties Rams and the birth of the modern passing game. He was a joy to watch, and he was a great football player. RIP.

Monday, 23 March 2020

IF YOU AIN'T CHEATIN': My new American column

My March column for the American magazine is now up. It's about cheating in baseball, specifically about the Houston Astros, and the dilemma that new technology provides regarding one of baseball's oldest, if not noblest, traditions. You can link to it here....

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

MAX VON SYDOW: THE GREATEST EMIGRANT ACTOR

I've written an appreciation of Max von Sydow. It started as just a brief mention about how important the watching of Ingmar Bergman films (and a large handful of other foreign directors) was to anyone serious about movies when I first came to them, then kept growing as I remembered just how varied and marvelous his career was, both in Europe and Hollywood. It's up at Medium, you can link to it here and bypass the pay wall....

Monday, 9 March 2020

CHARLES PORTIS: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of Charles Portis is in today's Daily Telegraph; it's also up online, and you can link to it here, though it is behind a paywall. There is no byline on Telegraph obits, and though what appears is pretty much what I wrote, for reasons of space a lot of detail was cut. And there was at least one reference that was not mine: when it calls the first movie of True Grit "corny". It may feature John Wayne having fun with himself, and some overly severe acting, but even in state it is too dark to be called corny. So here is what I originally filed, and I am grateful to the paper for sticking with Portis and eventually finding him some space....

 CHARLES PORTIS, novelist


Charles Portis, who has died aged 86, was, in the oft-repeated words of critic Ron Rosenbaum, America's 'least-known great novelist'. At least he was before his cult following of the good and the great got his five novels back into print, appropriately enough from former Penguin editor Peter Mayer's Overlook Press. Portis' literary low-profile was partly due to his low output and his reluctance to self-promote (though he was hardly a recluse, as he was often described), but mostly because his claim to fame happened to be a western, and worse, one made into a movie starring John Wayne.

Yet when True Grit appeared, Roald Dahl, in a rare book review, called it 'the best novel to come my way for a very long time...he hasn't put a foot wrong anywhere. What a writer.'
True Grit is the story of 14 year old Mattie Ross who, seeking to avenge the murder of her rancher father, hires hard-drinking deputy US Marshal Rooster Cogburn to track him down. Like all Portis' novels, it is a journey, peppered with eccentric characters, and stands its frequent comparison with one of the greatest American novels, Huckleberry Finn. Like Twain, Portis' eye for America's ingrained absurdities is presented almost as reportage. But like Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, True Grit is a recollection, with a now-elderly Mattie providing prickly, unreliable narration. Her aged Arkansas voice is pitch-perfect, which Portis once attributed to his time working on a paper in his college days, editing local reports by the Arkansas town ladies who filed in longhand.

Charles McColl Portis was born, appropriately enough for someone whose fiction was a series of quests, in El Dorado, Arkansas, 28 December 1933. His father Samuel came to El Dorado during an oil boom, where he met and married Alice Waddle. He began teaching, and his mother wrote for local papers. Portis grew up in a series of southern Arkansas towns, and after finishing high school, enlisted in the Marines and fought in the Korean War. Discharged a sergeant, he took a journalism degree from the University of Arkansas, working on the college paper, the Traveler, and the Northwest Arkansas Times. His first job was at the Memphis Commerical-Appeal, followed by two years with the Arkansas Gazette, where his work got him hired by the New York Herald-Tribune. At the Tribune his coverage of the civil rights movement across the South was so impressive that in 1963 he became their bureau chief in London.

Although he was considered one of the stars among a group of reporters at the Trib who went on to define 'new journalism', after a year in London he quit to return to a lake-side cabin in Arkansas and write fiction. Two years later, in 1966, his first novel, Norwood, was published after being serialised in The Saturday Evening Post. In it, Arkansas-born ex-Marine Norwood Pratt returns from Vietnam determined to become a famous singer, and is conned by Grady Fring the Kredit King into moving cars to New York, encountering a cast of eccentrics along the way, including Joann The Wonder Hen, a college-educated chicken.

True Grit was published two years later, its episodic journey again perfect for the Post's serialisation. After the film's success, Kim Darby (who played Mattie) and Glen Campbell were reunited alongside gridiron star Joe Namath in a friendly but flat movie version of Norwood, which was stolen by actresses Tish Sterling and Carol Lynley in smaller parts. Portis briefly tried script-doctoring in Los Angeles, but returned to Arkansas and his writing career, best summed up by his famous new journalism colleague Tom Wolfe in his usual flamboyant style: 'He made a fortune...A fishing shack! In Arkansas!...It was too goddamned perfect to be true”

It took 11 years before Portis' third novel, many people's cult favourite, The Dog Of The South appeared. Dreamy innocent Ray Midge heads south from Arkansas to track down his runaway wife, her lover Dupree, himself is being sought for writing letters threatening the president, and, most crucially, his Ford Torino car. His con-man is Dr Reo Symes, literally a snake-oil salesman, who himself is searching for the mysterious John Selmer Dix, author of inspirational self-help books for salesmen. Portis was hugely well-read, and it is not unreasonable to draw comparisons with another of America's greatest neglected novels, Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, with its panoply of hopeful, deluded Americans being taken for rides. The trick was the way Portis reported their sometimes surreal stories with straight-faced seriousness, in voices that resonated authenticity. As Portis scholar Carlos Rotella put it, 'when my 9-year-old daughter turned over a straight that beat my two pair and said “Shot by a child!” I knew that reading True Grit to my kids had been a good idea.'

Portis' next novel followed only six years later. Masters Of Atlantis (1985) begins in 1917, when an American doughboy, Lamar Jimmerman, is handed a manuscript by a London beggar. The Codex Pappus leads him to the secret Gnomon Society and an Englishman called Sir Sydney Hen with whom he creates a religion, which attracts an American con-man preacher, Austin Popper. It reads like a slapstick combination of Thomas Pynchon's V and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. Six years after that came Gringos (1991), in which another ex-Marine, Jimmy Burns, sells illegal antiquities in a dangerous Mexico almost as strange as Portis' America.

In 2010 the Coen Brothers remade True Grit, which propelled Portis back into the public eye, and in 2012 a miscellany of his shorter writing, Escape Velocity, was published. That year also saw Portis diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. In 2014, he was honoured at a Gala at the governor's mansion in Little Rock, but he was unable to attend. In a moment of pure Portis fiction, the keynote speaker, journalist Ray Reed, sent his last-minute regrets, because the headlights of his car weren't working. Portis died 17 February 2020, in a Little Rock hospice, survived by his brother Jonathan. In Gringos, Jimmy Burns muses that 'none of us, not even the high-jumper slithering over his crossbar, ever gets very far off the earth. And yet we come down hard.' He never married and leaves no survivors.

Friday, 6 March 2020

WHY DOES ANGELINA HAVE TO DIE: THE UPDATE

Portland Green and I have updated our 2012 essay on the role of women in dance film, and published it on Medium. You can use this link to by-pass the Medium paywall and read it. As the Medium teaser says: In film, female dancers get infantilised, denied sexual agency, removed from the real world. Why can they only smile, dance & sometimes die?

Monday, 2 March 2020

JOW BURROW, THE DRAFT, THE PRIMARIES & NINE INCH HANDS

I wrote this last week before the NFL combine started, and Joe Burrow came to terms with his tiny Trump-like hands and the possibly of being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. I published it at Medium, where I tend to do long form, and at my subscription football column, Friday Morning Tight End, at Patreon. You can visit either of those sites to investigate and ideally subscribe....

 
JOE BURROW, THE DRAFT, THE PRIMARIES & NINE INCH HANDS
 
The NFL Draft is a lot like an election, albeit with a limited voter base, especially if you think of quarterbacks as the top-of-the-ticket presidential candidates. Those quarterbacks spend four months building up their resumes and turning themselves into stars. Then, after the Super Bowl, the tables get turned. Only those who've crossed a certain threshold in the polls get to enter the Combine, not even if, like Michael Bloomberg, you were to offer $60 billion as collateral.  The Combine is the equivalent of the campaign 'debates'.

Like presidential 'debaters', the players at the combine will face examination and grilling from Gms,coaches and scouts who, like a gaggle of Beltway Chuck Todds, mostly follow the same mainstream script they've followed at every combine. The script is designed to somehow squeeze square-peg quarterbacks with individual characteristics, who have succeeded within systems often unique and sometimes antithetical to the mainstream paradigm for NFL offenses, into the round holes of the classic NFL dropback passer, possessed of size to see over the pass rush, arm-strength to throw over a cross bar from the knees at 60 yards, leap over tall buildings in a single bound and with hands big enough to squeeze hogs by the neck until dead. One of those may be an exaggeration. Having been built up through the college season as potential saviours to the worst NFL teams, having been allocated top spaces in the draftnik's premature orgasms of early mock drafts, they now turn into chopped liver. And no one gets picked apart harder than the so-called recently-proclaimed front-runner.

That, of course, is LSU's Joe Burrow, and if the combine were like the Democratic primary, the other QBs would form a circle and test their arm strength by playing dodgeball with Burrow, like Bernie Sanders' long lost grandson, in the middle. Burrow, like Sanders,  made his front-runner status even more interesting by suggesting a little bit of socialist revolution. The guy who at season's end was a slam-dunk to be chosen first overall by the Cincinnati Bengals expressed the belief that he still held some 'leverage' over the process.

This was seen as a shot across the bows of the notoriously tightly run SS Bengal, whose quarterdeck includes owner Mike Brown, executive VP Katie Brown Blackburn, VP Player Personnel Paul Brown and VP Troy Blackburn. They are a family business, so ever dollar is personal, and anyone who remembers when Carson Palmer tried to get out of Cincinnati will member how Paul Brown showed the flexibility of a candy cane until he got what he wanted from the Raiders from Palmer. Coincidentally, Joe Burrow's personal QB coach for the combine is Carson Palmer's brother Jordan.
Last week I went on ESPN UK's Nat Coombs Show (@thencshow) and discussed Burrow's leverage with former NFL GM Mike Tannenbaum. Mike pointed out right away that things are different now, with the rookie salary cap and the fact the drafting team keeps the player's rights for the length of his (unsigned) rookie contract: which for a first-rounder is five years. If I were an agent I'd be looking to frighten the socialist monopoly of the NFL with an anti-trust suit, but that's just me.
It was a non-quarterback, Bo Jackson, who actually sat out 1986 and played baseball rather than disappear into Tampa Bay. But Bo was a major league player; the two more relevant uses of leverage were from quarterbacks who forced trades. John Elway in 1983 also threatened to play baseball, but his time in the Yankees' farm system had already showed he had about as much chance of being a major league regular as, say, Tim Tebow. Elway's  coming out of Stanford's west-coast offense, did not want to play for the Colts and Frank Kush, a fiery coach whose success in college had been based on fierce defense and a somewhat paleolithic view of the forward pass. The Colts caved in and traded him to Denver for the fourth pick overall (tackle Chris Hinton), veteran QB Mark Herrmann and Denver's first rounder in 1984 (Ron Solt, who became a journeyman at guard).
You hear various stories about who engineered Eli Manning's refusal to go to San Diego with the first pick overall. His father Archie, or his agent Tom Condon, are usually blamed, with the reason being either a Kush-like aversion to Chargers' coach Marty Schottenheimer (who had messed up his Doug Flutie/Drew Brees duo) or a recognition that San Diego was a media deadzone. In any event, Chargers' GM AJ Smith had an advantage: the 2004 draft featured three quarterbacks all worthy going in the draft's top 10 (indeed, had he not landed Manning, Giants' GM Ernie Accorsi was supposed favouring Ben Rothliesberger (henceforth Ben) over Philip Rivers. Smith liked Rivers, so after he took Manning, the Giants took Rivers with the fourth pick. When they flipped choices, the Chargers also got a third round pick in 04 (kicker Nate Kaeding), a first in 2005 (Shawn Merriman) and an 05 fifth, which eventually became starting tackle Roman Oben. Two Super Bowl wins apart, you'd call it win/win.

As the combine opens there are two questions. The first is whether the Bengals can convince Burrow to play for them. This is not up to Mike Brown as much as it is up to coach Zac Taylor, who's a young supposed offensive guru whose job it will be to persuade Burrow that he can blossom and star in his offense, and that the team will build around him. Burrow, of course, is from Ohio: but Athens is only 40-50 miles closer to Cincinnati that it is to Cleveland or Pittsburgh (it's 75 miles from Columbus, though, where Burrow went to Ohio State.

The second, more telling question, is whether Burrow will remain the consensus top pick. After all, that undefeated national championship is now a long time in the past. And, on the first day of the combine Burrow was measured with NINE INCH HANDS!!! Not the name of a heavy metal band, nine inch hands might as well be puppy paws in NFL scouting. According to ESPN, in the past decade only three NFL starters have ever been measured with hands that small: Ryan Tannehill, Jared Goff and Chad Henne. Interestingly, Zac Taylor's hands measured nine inches at the 2007 Combine.
A passer with small hands, the theory goes, can't control the ball as well in bad conditions, is more likely to lose it on sack contact, and has questions about his overall maturity and mannish construction. By the way, Iron Mike's span (the measurement from thumb to pinkie) is a full 10 inches, though that in itself wasn't enough to get me to the combine. Also by the way, Patrick Mahomes' mitts measured out at 9 ¼ inches when he went through the combine.

It's funny when measurements begin to trump tape. I remember sitting with scouts watching an NFL Europe scrimmage. Barcelona's QB was Robert Daugherty, at 5-10 Boston University's answer to Doug Flutie. When Daugherty had a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage, the scouts started nodding and saying to each other 'that''s what happens when you're too short'. On the next possession Scotland's QB, Matt Blundin, a 6-6 guy from Virginia who was a second-round draft pick of the Chiefs, had a pass batted down. 'That's what happens when you're 6-6', I announced loudly. It got one or two smiles.
But now everyone will be considering Burrow's arm—strength, rated only average based on his college season. But why couldn't be beat out JT Barrett or Dwayne Haskins at Ohio State. What about his 2018 season? Is he a one-year wonder? And in 2019 he played on a powerhouse team with great offensive weapons. Did they make him look better than he was?

Funnily enough, the one thing that gave Burrow some leverage was being the unquestioned first choice. If that status drops at the combine, things get interesting, because as I said to Mike Tannenbaum, I see this year's draft class as something like 2004's, with Justin Herbert of Oregon and Tua Tagovailoa (henceforth 'Tua') of Alabama as the Rivers and Ben of the group.

Herbert is a big but mobile pocket passer who like Rivers played on a team which wasn't that good around him. He can look deliberate, and his decision-making was questioned, but that's what being over-manned can do to you. His arm will measure out strong, and his taking the decision to play at the Senior Bowl and showcase himself paid off: he was clearly the game's MVP and his leadership skills stood out. Tua, of course, is coming off a dislocated hip injury, and other problems with ankles, which raises some red-flags, but his is a rare talent in terms of mobility and arm strength. He was generally considered the number one prospect before his injury, and no one was downgrading him because his Bama teams were powerhouses. As a footnote, it wouldn't surprise me to see Jordan Love from Utah State move into this group with a top Combine; like Ben he comes from a second tier programme, but like Ben he has a rare combination of arm strength and pocket mobility; though he is less likely to step in quickly with the team that takes him.

So if Herbert or Tua step in front of Burrow in some team's expectations it could be a bonus for teams sitting with top five picks. If the Bengals decide a plan B would be fine with them, and other teams still covet Burrow, they could then feel free to do business.

At the very least you'd expect the swap of first round picks to cost the swapping team a another first, a second (those might be futures) and something else: and the Bengals are a team that needs a lot of something elses.

And here's where the Combine, and the post-combine draft process resembles a presidential race. Almost everybody lies. If the Bengals talk up other prospects, they may be trying to get the price up for Burrow. If they talk Burrow up, they may be trying to get the price up for Burrow. Or they may want Burrow, before during and after the Draft. Agents will float rumours, which the Hot Takz mouth clowns will be quick to spread round the twitosphere. In the end, Joe or No Joe, this soap opera will have exactly as long to run as the Bengals decide, and if Burrow does nothing to lessen his stock apart from NINE INCH HANDS, they would do well to play the game from now until April 23, two full months of reality TV. Just like a presidential race.

CLIVE CUSSLER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of the techno-thriller adventure writer Clive Cussler was published by the Guardian online
a few days ago; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It was an interesting one to write, because I had dipped into Cussler once or twice, but pulled my toe out of the water quickly. But I found it edifying to try to trace his influences: I had recognised Doc Savage right away (and have noticed some others noting that) but that led my critical eyes to Travis McGee and John D MacDonald, whom I was surprised no one else noted. McGee is a tall, bronzed hero who specialises in marine recovery, although most McGee novels don't actually involve that sort of work. But MacDonald's major best-sellers almost always did involve some bit of technology, or business, which he would explain to the reader in great detail, because the plot was often intertwined with the workings of the business. I thought this was something Cussler used to great advantage.

I would have liked to spend more time on his classic car collection, and a little on his career as an
ad man too, because his reputation as a writer was made, or at least maintained, in part by clever marketing of himself and his work as a brand, much like Warren Adler, whose obit I did for the Guardian last May (you can link to that here). I probably could have mentioned that. But I'll have to wait until my next trip to Colorado to see the cars.