Everybody’s screaming at their TV sets when the Dolphins play these days, but some opinions are meatier than others.
Who knew, for instance, that a former Pro Bowl quarterback lives rather anonymously in Delray Beach, watching NFL Network all day long in his tidy little condo and wishing more than anything that he could help the struggling Dolphins correct mistakes that he and his multitude of Hall of Fame buddies never made?
“Ryan Tannehill is a big man and he’s a good quarterback, but he’s getting the snot knocked out of him by fading back just 3 or 4 yards to throw passes,” said Tommy O’Connell, 83.
“When I played, Paul Brown told me, ‘Tommy, one thing I notice is that you drop back about 5-6 yards before you pass the ball. You’ve got to go back 9 yards. The reason we do that is so pass rushers will have got to go wider to get to you and when they do, you’re going to find more seams and holes to throw the ball through.’ ”
If you’ve never heard of Paul Brown, one of the game’s great innovators, it must be nice to be so young. The NFL franchise is Cleveland is named for him, if that helps, and he started and coached the Cincinnati Bengals from scratch.
For a stronger connection, however, let’s lean in for more from O’Connell. He’s the most direct conduit possible to the pro football world of 1957, when a tough guy could make a living, if not quite a luxurious one, playing quarterback at 5-feet-9 and change.
“Paul Brown was the smartest man in football,” said O’Connell, who after one particularly good season negotiated with the legendary coach for an annual raise to $15,000 from $11,000. “He was truly a gentleman, too. I don’t want this to come out wrong, but the rest of the coaches in the NFL swore like animals.”
One good Brown deserved another, or at least that’s how it worked out for Tommy, who teamed with enough heroes in his brief professional career to fill an entire wing at Canton.
“I was the first quarterback who ever handed the ball to Jimmy Brown,” said O’Connell, who was as eager as anyone to see what the rookie sensation from Syracuse could do. “We were playing an exhibition against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Paul Brown told me, ‘I’m going to put Jimmy in with you. You help him out if he needs help. I’m just going to call a couple of draws or something like that.’
“So in comes Jimmy and Paul Brown sends in a draw, and Jimmy gets hit right about the line of scrimmage, but he bounces off a guy and runs 75 yards for a touchdown. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better running back. Jimmy was awesome.”
Lou Groza wasn’t half-bad, either. His name is on the award that the Palm Beach County Sports Commission gives each year to the nation’s top college placekicker, but in 1957 Groza’s teammates simply called him “Gooey Louie.” O’Connell should know. He was Groza’s holder for a couple of years in Cleveland. Held for George Blanda in Chicago, too.
The Browns made it to the NFL championship game with O’Connell but got thumped 59-14 by the Lions in Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium, long since demolished. Tommy played that day all pumped up on novocaine because there were three hairline fractures in his left leg. Before long came the ultimate pain of retirement at 31, but O’Connell numbed that disappointment by starting a successful investment business in Boston.
Maybe that will ring a bell with some of you New Englanders. Mike O’Connell, one of Tommy’s five sons, played 860 NHL games and from 2000-06 was general manager of the Boston Bruins.
Or maybe you’re a Midwesterner. Tommy can tell you about quarterbacking the University of Illinois’ last unbeaten football team. That 1951 season ended with a 40-7 Rose Bowl win over Stanford, which just happened to be the first nationally televised college bowl game.
For now, though, would you like to hear Tommy’s take on Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito on our way out the door?
“Martin says he got bullied and everything, but if he walks out on his team and they’ve got a game a few days later, he’s a quitter,” said O’Connell, “and he’s going to quit on you in the game. I wouldn’t want him on my team.”
There may be a little dust on the highlight reel of Tommy’s pro career but the passion never wanes. It’s worth the trip back with him to that longago world, when birds did all the tweeting, and here’s the real secret.
Nearly every South Florida neighborhood has a super senior with stories more real and entertaining than anything on cable. Ask around, and if you find somebody who boxed against Jersey Joe Walcott or competed in any of three sports against Babe Zaharias, let me know.