Oil rises to the top and so does cream. Talent, raw talent, lifts an athlete to the pinnacle of sport, to the pro ranks where the surplus of excellence creates unnerving confusion. Once there, however, a different sort of force takes over. How well an athlete realizes his potential depends, to a great extent, on circumstances beyond his control.
Call it luck for want of a more concrete definition. There is little doubt in the minds of those who follow the whimsical turns of sports that luck is two-faced; it can play cruel tricks even on those with rare talent.
Even the players themselves acknowledge it. "Better to be lucky than good," they can be heard muttering after winning one against the odds.
Bert Jones has talent to spare and the maturity to deal with pro football's inherent confusion. But life lately has dealt him a double portion of bad luck. No two ways about it, the Baltimore quarterback is an example of an athlete with incredible promise who is thwarted by the warp of fate.
Instead of leading the Colts to the playoffs this season -- as he had done in '75, '76 and '77 -- he spent much of this season and last on the sideline, nursing one shoulder injury after another and watching his promising team unravel without his leadership.
Without Jones, the Colts are hobbled. With him they are never out of a game; without him they are never in one. Robert Irsay, the clear-thinking owner of the Colts, acted decisively to end the Baltimore string of ill fortune. He did not hire a fairy godmother to watch over Bert Jones; he did not distribute worry beads to Colt fans to tide them over another disappointing injury to Jones. No, Irsay fired the coach.
Firing the coach is a solution that pops frequently into Irsay's stiletto-sharp mind. The first time he fired Ted Marchibroda was in 1976, but he was forced to reinstate the coach when the players, led by Jones, revolted. The Colts won 11, lost 3, that season before being humbled by the Steelers in the playoffs.
Now, I ask you, if everything in pro football hinges on luck and confusion, why is Irsay blindly stirring already muddy water with a stick and adding considerably to the confusion that exists in Baltimore where fans are impatiently stamping their feet for a winner. Do the Colts need a new coach, or does their ace quarterback need a change of luck?
Bert Jones is not a fragile person; he is 6 feet 3 inches and 212 pounds, strong-armed and sturdy-legged. Football is a violent sport he has played all his life. In 1975, when he popped some ribs and missed a few games, it was dismissed as a zig that should have been a zag. The price paid by a willful quarterback determined to run for the first down when his receivers are covered.
Now he is tarnished by his own bad luck. Injury-prone is a fearful label to carry. It is his right shoulder that has been mangled, healed and mangled again. A quarterback's Achille's heel is his arm.
Rumors are being chewed like a cow's cud in Baltimore: will the new coach be George Idzik of the Jets? Mike McCormack of Cincinnati? or Don Shula? John Unitas? Further, how long will it take the present Colts -- Jones included -- to unscramble the confusion created by a new coach with a new system?
I think Irsay's solution to the current problem in Baltimore was dead wrong. Instead of firing the coach, he should have traded his quarterback. Yes! There's the solution. Trade Jones to a good strong team -- Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington -- and change his luck.
Bert Jones belongs in the Super Bowl. Robert Irsay belongs in Baltimore. If you can't fire the owner, the next best thing to fight a case of bad luck is to move the quarterback. And Jones is due some good luck.