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FOOTBALL NOTES

The man that fame forgot

More people have heard of Kinky Friedman than Benny Friedman, but in a week that may all change.

Benny Friedman may not have invented the forward pass but he certainly advanced its cause at a time when the football was shaped more like a watermelon, being 2 inches fatter around the middle and stubbier on the ends.

It was easier to throw a brick than that football, so few professional teams did it very often. Few teams besides whatever one Benny Friedman was on.

Friedman is one of two senior candidates for inclusion in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and will have his case made next Saturday in Jacksonville when the 39-man Hall of Fame Committee reviews his candidacy as well as those of 14 other former players. No one on that list, including Dan Marino, who is arguably the greatest passer of all time, seems so far ahead of his time and so lost since that time as Friedman.

Friedman played in the NFL between 1927 and 1934 for the Cleveland Bulldogs, Detroit Wolverines, New York Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers. The first two of those teams folded, and Giants owner Tim Mara purchased the remnants of the Wolverines just to get Friedman as his quarterback and paid him the highest salary in the league, $10,000.

In 1929, Friedman's first year in New York, he threw 20 touchdown passes, twice the league average and a total that still would have led the NFL as late as 1977. Players and teams can be fairly judged only within the context of their time, and you can argue that it is an injustice that so many years have passed without Friedman joining the 195 men who now make up the Pro Football Hall of Fame's roster, because he was dominant during his career.

From 1927-30, for example, Friedman led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns every season. During those years, he threw for 5,653 yards and 55 touchdowns, numbers that Peyton Manning is threatening to put up in one season. But the next most productive passer in that era threw for 3,770 yards and 27 touchdowns. Friedman threw for 50 percent more yardage than the next-best passer in the league and more than twice as many touchdowns.

As the great sportswriter Paul Gallico described him in the pages of the New York Daily News in 1930, "Benny Friedman is the greatest football player in the world."

Friedman twice threw for more than 1,500 yards, something done by no one else until 1942, and he played at a time when not only the ball worked against him but so did offensive philosophies and defensive rules. There was, for example, no such thing as a penalty for roughing the passer back then, the theory being how can roughing anyone be illegal in as rough a game as pro football? Friedman never flinched and never missed a game.

He was more than a thrower, however. In 1928, Friedman led the NFL in passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns, a feat not even Michael Vick seems likely to match. From 1927-30, he was selected as the league's best quarterback four straight times. Even in his final full season, 1933, Friedman completed 53 percent of his throws, 10 percent better than the next most accurate quarterback in the league.

Red Grange, the legendary Galloping Ghost, played against Friedman in those days and said years later, "Anybody can throw today's football. You go back to Benny Friedman playing with the New York Giants . . . He threw that old balloon. Now who's to tell what Benny Friedman might do with this modern football? He'd probably be the greatest passer that ever lived."

Whether or not that's true, it would seem fitting that he and Marino are inducted in the same year, for Friedman arguably invented the modern passing game and Marino was its high priest. Seventy years have passed since Friedman last wore an NFL uniform, and so little is remembered about him. There are no "SportsCenter" highlights to turn him into an instant legend, only grainy film.

But in the bright memory of Giants owner Wellington Mara, Friedman lives on. In 1998, Mara told Hall of Fame football writer Will McDonough, "If I could pick one man who is not in the Hall of Fame that should be in the Hall of Fame, it would be Benny Friedman. He was the Johnny Unitas of his day. He was the best of his time."

A rising star in Ravens' front office

Ravens director of college scouting -- and Taunton native -- Eric DeCosta is only 33, a young man cut from the same mold as Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.

Yesterday was the Senior Bowl, which is known to many inside the NFL as the world's largest job mart. Every unemployed or hoping-to-advance scout, coach, and personnel man is there looking at the talent that will be coming into the NFL in the spring draft but looking equally as hard for job opportunities.

DeCosta didn't notice the latter, but the 49ers did.

The 49ers asked the Ravens for permission to talk with DeCosta about becoming their general manager, his name coming up in part because of his relationship with new 49ers head coach Mike Nolan, the former Baltimore defensive coordinator. Nolan was highly impressed with DeCosta's scouting skills and draft analysis and projections. Since he's trying to rebuild a moribund franchise, Nolan knows he needs a top personnel man. He also wants a guy young enough to be flying below the league's radar.

DeCosta is such a man, but he's also loyal to the Ravens, who plucked him out of graduate school for a gofers job before he became a full-time scout and then their college director under director of player personnel Phil Savage. General manager Ozzie Newsome didn't want to lose DeCosta, especially with Savage having left to become GM of the Cleveland Browns, but it would have been difficult to stop the 49ers from making the case that this was not a lateral move but a step into senior management.

They won't get to make that case, however, because DeCosta signed an extension with the Ravens a year ago and told Newsome he wanted to honor it. There is something to be said for such loyalty in an era of claim jumping all over sports, but Newsome knows it is only a matter of time before DeCosta's expertise coincides with the right opportunity.

When they do, Taunton will have produced its first NFL general manager.

Reading wasn't fundamental for rookie

Two days before he would throw the worst interception of his young professional career, Ben Roethlisberger ran the same play a half-dozen times in practice, and every time he made the right choice -- which was a long touchdown pass to Hines Ward.

But when faced with the same situation and the same defensive read in the AFC Championship game a week ago, Roethlisberger instead tried to force the ball into the flat, where Patriots safety Rodney Harrison jumped all over it. Harrison returned the interception 87 yards for the touchdown that broke the Steelers' backs.

Pittsburgh quarterback coach Mark Whipple could only shake his head and accept that this is what rookies do. Sometimes they make the plays. Other times nobody has any idea what they're doing.

A few days after the game, Roethlisberger conceded that he should have gone to Ward on a post pattern when Harrison started to jump the shorter route but he decided to try the "safe" throw.

What looks safe in the NFL often is not. That is why you must keep the game simple. Make your reads and do what those progressions tell you to do. That is perhaps Tom Brady's greatest strength. He makes the reads and then throws wherever the game is telling him to throw. Had Roethlisberger done that then, according to the Steelers' tape of the game, it would have been a touchdown and a new game.

Of course, it was -- it was a Patriots touchdown and a new game from that point.

Etc.

Coach is a true charger

If Carl Mauck ever wants to give up coaching in the NFL, he can always try the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Mauck was hired by San Diego to replace Hudson Houck, one of the best line coaches in football, a hiring that came only days after Mauck charged across the field at the Las Vegas All-American Classic, a college all-star game, and threw a punch at an opposing coach for calling a blitz in a game in which blitzing was banned. Mauck was coaching the East team's offensive line, and when he realized the blitz had been run and his unsuspecting quarterback was put at risk, he flew into a rage and then flew across the field. Although a little more restraint might have been called for, Mauck was trying to defend his players against a breach of coaching ethics that, in a sport as violent as football, could have jeopardized a quarterback's future. Bet there was no blitzing after that.

Banner performance

The Eagles have modeled their salary cap approach on that of the Patriots, it would seem, and have been brilliant in one area, to be sure. Cap guru Joe Banner knows how to manipulate the numbers to his team's advantage, but he and his staff also know when to let a veteran go and get him back on the cheap. They've done it with both Hugh Douglas and Jeremiah Trotter, who returned to be productive members of the defense. Trotter becomes a free agent again March 2 but he will very likely not price himself out of the market as he did two years ago. That's because the memory of a disastrous two-year stint with the Redskins is still fresh in his mind.

High-paying jobs

Assistant coaches' salaries have begun to skyrocket. Houck left the Chargers for an $850,000-a-year deal with the Dolphins to be offensive line coach. That's $100,000 more than Romeo Crennel earned this year to coordinate the Patriots' defense and $350,000 more than Charlie Weis got to run the offense. Houck is still well behind Atlanta line coach Alex Gibbs, who earned $1 million this year. New Miami coach Nick Saban is driving up the cost of hiring coaches around the league. He not only handed Houck $850,000 but did the same with new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who will get a half-million-dollar raise from his salary with the Vikings of a year ago. Saban also doubled the salary of new wide receiver coach Charlie Baggett. Some think this is a reflection of the growing belief that coaching is far more important in the salary cap era than it once was because players come and go so frequently that teams must get all they can, quickly, out of younger, cheaper talent.

Trying times

At 33, Alonzo Spellman is hoping for another shot in the NFL, three years after he last played in the league. Spellman suffers from bipolar disorder and had several bizarre incidents during his playing days, once barricading himself in his home. He also served 16 months in federal prison after threatening a family on a commercial flight. Spellman has been on medication to balance his mood, and he recently talked with players' union head Gene Upshaw about getting one last chance. Spellman has been working as an assistant coach for a Pennsylvania high school without incident.

Going pro?

Southern Cal offensive coordinator Norm Chow is hinting that he's interested in moving to the NFL. He interviewed for the head coaching job at Stanford in December and two years ago he turned down the Kentucky job.

A rank assessment

Rams tackle Kyle Turley was asked last week where he would rank Mike Martz among the league's 32 head coaches. "I put him down at 33," said Turley, who continues to feud with Martz over his injury status.

Ready to go shopping

Speaking of the Rams, perhaps no team is in better salary cap position. St. Louis projects to be $14.7 million under the cap, with 44 players under contract. That's a lot of cash to invest in a half-dozen or so top free agents.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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