Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Top 25 Players: #21-#20

In the last installment, the value of contributions via special teams was introduced, and Frank Helps You Think It All Out returns to that debate today in spades.

My friend AK, the hearty troubadour of the Fairgrounds, used to be a student of the top jockeys at the track. The horse was the thing- the athlete in question. But horse races are won by necks and noses, so the ride was important. So while the jockey did not make the horse essentially competitive, he was necessary on the margins.

Kicking is like that. Ultimately, unlike your offensive line or linebackers, the punter is not real reflective on whether you have a good or bad football team. But it is important at the margins, on the edges. It is no accident that a real good run of good play for Tulane circa 1997-2002 was dominated also by a golden age of punting (Casey Roussel, Seth Marler and Chris Beckman) and good place-kicking (Brad Palazzo, Seth Marler).

Lastly, I write articles entitled Punt That Football! I’m the guy with a pained expression at the Linc when the home fans yell “go for it”. I believe in kicking as a weapon- take points when presented, win the field position game- so kickers have a place on this list.

But first:

21. Ruffin Hamilton, LB (1990-93)

If this list were underrated Tulane players, Hamilton would be at the very top. How many of us even remember this high football IQ, play-making linebacker?

Not many? Buried on many bad teams, unprotected by defensive linemen who could clean up blockers so he could make consistent contributions (Keith Cook had not blossomed yet), perhaps overshadowed by the charismatic Mike Staid, perhaps disappearing at times on his own merit, Hamilton toiled in some obscurity.

I missed much of his career, stationed in Germany for part of it. But the few games I saw, man, he could really play. He could cover, sack the quarterback (led the team in 1993), generate turnovers. The NFL was beginning to systematically look for playmakers on defense as the Bears 46-style of defense matured and defensive backs were “penalized” via the rule book more and more.

It was becoming harder to stop the pro offenses by just making three good plays, three good tackles. Defenses needed to make some plays to get stops: a sack, turnover, tackle an RB in the backfield, blow something up via individual effort. Linebackers who could do more than tackle, who could make “the big plays”, were coming increasingly into vogue. And Hamilton was an ideal candidate- big play rather than routine numbers- and he was invited to the Blue-Gray game, where he impressed.

He had an odd pro career, drafted sixth round by Green Bay, played a year sporadically, then three with Falcons, played in a Super Bowl. Perhaps a testament to his raw ability and IQ, there was a two year gap between his stints with the Packers and Falcons. The “good roster guy”- a guy who would make plays on special teams and hold his own in spot playing time- was defined by Ruffin Hamilton.

20. Seth Marler, K (1999-2002)

So yes, while it is hard to rank kickers, Marler has the hardware, right?

One of two outright All-Americans who played for Tulane since 1974. That is not all C-USA, that is All-American. He is Tulane's all-time scoring leader. Marler made the all-decade C-USA team and three times all C-USA (once first team, and once as a punter!). He is in the Tulane Hall of Fame.

It seems enough.

This was a big scoring era for Tulane, a team simply loaded with talent at quarterback, fully executing the cartoon number offense required in those heady days of C-USA play. Marler was a big part and big weapon.

He had the amazing year in 2001: 15-for-16 FGs, 7-for-7 from 40+ yards. He won the Lou Groza award and again, was named an All-American.

Plus, playing for those big offenses, he simply had to make a lot of kicks- a career 66 FGs made. Outstanding.

He had a big leg (four career makes from 50+ yards), but he was a little streaky. 66-for-91 career- so take away a streaky 2001 campaign and his numbers are still quality, but not amazing. The quality Brad Palazzo would be a similar comparison. He would routinely make 4-of-5, or eight in a row, then a miss a couple. But Marler has that 2001 season forever- which other Tulane kickers and punters cannot point too.

He got a good look in the NFL at Jacksonville- but that streakiness caught up with him. Just got into funks and missed very make-able kicks again and again and again. Look at his 30-39 and 40-49 numbers. Kicked in the Arena League-don’t know much about that.