Best of the Century

Most end-of-the millennium voters have been making what I think of as a couple of wrong calls. Contemplating the most recent 100 years:

• Babe Ruth was the athlete of the century, I'd say, not Muhammad Ali.

• O.J. Simpson was the football player of the century, I'm quite sure, not Jim Brown.

• The negative--if that's the right word--on front-runners Ali and Brown is that, like Michael Jordan, they were specialists.

Great athletes are by definition not specialists.

The great ones do several things very well, at least two things, as Ruth did in the century's early dawn.

A winning World Series pitcher to begin with, he jarred baseball into a drastically different direction as the first of the great long-ball hitters.

Later, Simpson excelled in two mainstream sports.

A sprinter to begin with, he was on the USC 440-yard relay team that still holds the world record.

Next, after winning the Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football, Simpson went to the NFL's bottom team, Buffalo, where he quickly established himself as the best player in pro football--as well as the first running back to gain 2,000 single-season yards.

As ballcarriers, Gale Sayers had more moves and Brown more power, but Simpson did it all faster.

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Top 11 NFL Players of the Century

In their 11-man sport, the roll call of the century's top 11 football players starts with Simpson and continues, I'd say, with passers Joe Namath, Steve Young and John Unitas, defensive players Deacon Jones, Dick Butkus and Deion Sanders, runners Jim Brown and Gale Sayers, and receivers Don Hutson and Jerry Rice.


As for Jim Thorpe, he's a legend whose greatness is now hard to verify.

As for Ali, he's the boxer of the century--he would have been too fast for Joe Louis.

But as a great athlete, Ali only proved it in the ring.

Brown as a mainstream athlete proved his greatness only as a running back.

He wasn't much blocker.

And lacrosse, Brown's other sport, doesn't count.

In basketball, which does count, Jordan didn't win his first NBA championship for five years--until he got a winning coach, Phil Jackson.

Jordan doubled as a baseball player but couldn't hit the ball, failing where the greatest active athlete, football player Deion Sanders, succeeded.

Magic Johnson, a point guard who as a rookie turned center for a day to win his first NBA championship, was the basketball player of the century.

But as an athlete, nobody is close to Babe Ruth.

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Redskins Run Themselves Down

In the NFL's game of the week, the Washington Redskins lost to the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, 24-21, for these five reasons:

• After the league's leading rusher, Stephen Davis, had hustled the Redskins into a 13-10 halftime lead, he missed the second half with a foot injury, terminating a duel that he and Redskins passer Brad Johnson had been winning against passer Peyton Manning and runner Edgerrin James of the Colts.

• Johnson was allowed to throw only four first-down passes in the first 55 minutes. He completed three of the four, one for the touchdown that kept Washington ahead for three quarters.

• Because the Redskins' new owner, Daniel M. Snyder, continues to interfere in the coaching there--reportedly learning in interviews with his offensive linemen last week that, like all offensive linemen, they like to run the ball--Washington's coaches continued to call running plays on the important downs of the second half.

• What beat them was running to nowhere with second-stringer Skip Hicks.

• Setting up Indianapolis' two winning touchdowns, the key Redskins play was a run that failed on third and three at the Colts 33.

The odds against any third-and-three run there are roughly 100 to 1.

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Kicking is a Hit-or-Miss Job

On a Miami afternoon when the field-goal kickers scored all the points for both sides, the Dolphins escaped with a 12-9 win Sunday after San Diego's John Carney blew a makable last-second kick.

That's a reminder that when football fans or media people enthuse over a kicker--any kicker--they often hear something like this from football players:

"Love him while you can, because someday he'll break your heart.''

But how could San Diego hold Dan Marino without a touchdown?

A sequence of Miami plays in the third quarter helps explain it.

The sequence began with a long sideline pass that Marino completed with his customary good timing and accuracy.

Next, on first and 10, Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson called for a run. He had proved that his team could pass, but now he wanted to prove that it could run. During NFL games, that's the way conservative coaches reason.

After the run failed, Johnson, on fourth down, got to see another punt.

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McNown, Jauron are Chicago's Future

After the Chicago Bears' top three quarterbacks went down with injuries this season in their first 13 games, they began the rotation all over again Sunday, starting rookie Cade McNown against the formidable Detroit Lions.

Said Chicago's rookie coach, Dick Jauron, "You know your first quarterback hardly ever stays healthy for the whole year, but to go through all three of them, that's been a surprise.''

What happened next was another surprise to the I-Hate-McNown club, whose president threw for all four touchdowns to upset Detroit, 28-10.

As some of us have been saying, McNown is the best quarterback drafted this year--so this time, Jauron wasn't surprised.

He had prepared McNown intelligently all season, giving his young passer at least one series of plays in every game.

They'll be heard from next year, Jauron and McNown.

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Ram Defense Raises Storm Signals

In one sense, the 12-2 St. Louis Rams were impressive Sunday, overcoming the New York Giants by a rout-type score, 31-10.

The Giants defense is one of pro football's most distinguished.

But football fans watching closely noted that the Rams scored two of their four touchdowns on interception runbacks.

And to subtract those 14 points is to conclude that their offense only prevailed by a touchdown, 17-10.

Does this mean that the Rams, who have scored more defensive touchdowns this year than the other contenders, are defensively wonderful?

Possibly not.

Throughout the season, the defensive Rams have been giving up a lot of yards, if not points--including 328 yards to the Giants Sunday.

When measuring a pair of playoff teams defensively, you compare not just point totals but also yardage totals--and on that gauge, the Rams, who breezed through a mostly soft regular-season schedule this fall, appear to be less than perfect.

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Pass-Minded, Chiefs Have Chance

In the Saturday morning game, two conservative old teams, the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers, came out throwing the ball, surprisingly, and throwing it pretty well.


The temperature was 28 degrees, and it got colder as well as windier, and still they threw, proving again that grown men can throw and catch footballs in the freezing East.


For years, that had seemed unlikely if not impossible to doctrinaire conservatives--among them the coaches of Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

Kansas City won Saturday's game, 35-19, with quarterback Elvis Grbac throwing darts to Tony Gonzalez, one of the NFL's great young tight ends, and if that means that Kansas City Coach Gunther Cunningham is ready to open things up, you give him a shot in the playoffs.

You'll learn more in the next two weeks, the last two of the regular season, when the 9-5 Chiefs play for the AFC West title against 8-6 Seattle and 7-7 Oakland.

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Walsh Can Fix the 49ers

As Carolina won a Saturday game with San Francisco, 41-24, the most obvious thing about the 49ers was that they need a new defensive backfield.

Almost everything else in 49erland seemed reasonably well tuned for 2000 with Fred Beasley settling in at fullback, Charlie Garner delivering at halfback, Jeff Garcia improving at quarterback, and the defensive front performing.

Indeed, the coach, Steve Mariucci, remarked that his man Bryant Young is playing better football this year than any other NFL defensive tackle.

But the secondary has disappeared--as it did once before in the 49ers' unprecedented 18-year run at the top.

That was at the very beginning, when they drafted three defensive backs in one year, 1981--the year that Bill Walsh coached the 49ers to their first Super Bowl championship with three rookies in the secondary.

In this more competitive era, Walsh, back now as general manager, can't make that kind of fix in one year. If he stays in charge, it may take two or three.

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Selected Short Subjects:

• Nashville reporters covering the 11-3 Tennessee Titans say it's by design that whenever possible, the offensive team "controls the clock by running, throws only as much as it needs to, and has a chance at the end.'' That is a recipe for pure conservative football, which can prevail against Atlanta, as the Titans did Sunday, 30-17. But it's harder to win playoff games conservatively.

• Perhaps hoping that a change of scenery can help, the Falcons will move their base camp next year from a Georgia town with a marvelous old Southern name, Suwanee, to one with a less masculine name, Flowery Branch.

• There's a good reason why you should think of Cincinnati's Corey Dillon as a great running back: Players who stand out on bad teams must have something--as Dillon proved again the other day when he gained 192 yards, averaging 7. Others who succeeded on bad teams in this century were Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears, who were mostly ineffectual in his time, and O.J. Simpson of the Buffalo Bills, who were worse.

• If you don't get any new toys for Christmas this week, don't worry about it. The NFL is playing Christmas eve (Dallas at New Orleans), Christmas day (Denver at Detroit), the day after Christmas (12 games) and December 27 ( New York Jets at Miami).