I've long been regarded as partial to older, more experienced players.
The accompanying chart, in part, explains why. It shows the average previous NFL experience of each squad in the National Football League:
Figures show that in the last 13 years, in all NFL regular season games, the more experienced team has defeated the less experienced team about two-thirds of the time.
A glance at the chart shows that with few exceptions the teams that rely on greater experience are the winners year after year. Teams that rely constantly on rebuilding programs, on talented but less experienced players, are the league's perennial also-rans and losers.
There are exceptions. In the top 10, San Diego and Cleveland are rarely of playoff caliber, and New England, in the second 10, is usually a contender. But for the most part -- in two thirds of the cases statistically, experience will prevail.
Some might say St. Louis doesn't belong there. But until recently, they were contenders. Note that the Rams are way back in 11th place. But, compared to the teams in their division -- New Orleans, Atlanta and San Francisco -- they are way ahead, And the postseason record of the Rams has been disappointing the last few years.
Longevity by itself is not, of course, enough. If it were, all any coach would need to produce a winner is field a squad of veterans.The problem is, there just aren't that many good experienced players around. There are a few available, and the winning coach must be able to find them. A good example is Washington linebacker Mike Curtis.
Curtis was acquired by the Redskins last year as a backup to Chris Hanburger, an all-pro. We got Curtis, who had been placed on waivers, for nothing. But we felt he was the type of older, experienced player who could help us. Hanburger was injured, and Curtis played 10 of 14 games. He had a terrific year at the position -- a player we picked up for nothing.
On the other side of the coin is a player I'll not name who started for San Francisco -- the losingest team in the league -- for most of this year at receiver. Three weeks ago this rookie was cut from the squad. This was a sad series of mistakes -- unfair to the team and the player. Where was the maturity factor?
Just because a good young player makes a team at age 22, there is no guarantee he'll be good at age 23 or 25. Conversely, just because a player has turned 30, there is no reason to believe he has lost the skills he possessed five years before.
The player must be organized, prepared, motivated, disciplined and well-coached. Except for the last, there is no guesswork with a veteran. He has proved he possesses the other necessary qualities. A younger player, no matter how willing, usually has not learned these traits fully.
Frequently people wonder how can players like Jim Marshall of Minnesota, Ron McDole of Washington or Tom Mack of the Rams play another year?
They don't realize that players like this, though older, are one up on most others because they have learned how to take care of themselves. They appreciate the value of year-round conditioning. They know how to fall, how to detect an imminent blind-side hit and absorb it. Perhaps most important to a coach, they know how to play through painful but manageable bumps and bruises. They can tell a coach the Monday after a game whether they'll be ready the following Sunday. A younger player usually cannot.
Good veteran players are rarely cynical. They practice and play with enthusiasm and emotion that is passed down to the younger men. Veterans make fewer mistakes. They grasp the game plan quickly and they think in terms of the total team concept. Younger players are usually more interested in their own perforance.
A good coach will stay with the players who win for him, keep them another year. If a talented rookie comes along, he should be allowed to play on the special teams and gain experience if there is room for him. Ideally, he can be traded for a good veteran -- like a Mike Curtis.
Some think that because I'm partial to veterans, that I don't like rookies. This isn't true. I appreciate a talented young player but I believe he must earn a spot on the team, not be handed it because he was a high draft choice or got a lot of publicity in college.
Mature players take nothing for granted. They appreciate the opportunity they have to play winning football in the NFL.