A little over a month ago, Bill Arnsparger, legendary longtime NFL defensive coordinator, passed away on July 17, aged 88. You may know it, because it went largely unreported, but Arnsparger was one of the NFL’s true pioneers.
Arsnparger was a pathfinder in league history. He pretty much created the zone blitz and introduced the pro-level game to the range of possibilities available with the 3-4 defense.
Just for a bit more meat on the bone, Arsnsparger’s career resume also included building the famed “No-Name” defense that took the Miami Dolphins to two-straight Super Bowl titles and an unbeaten season in 1972. A decade after that perfect run, Arnsparger’s “Killer B’s” took the Dolphins back to the show.
If you’re unaware of the scale of Arnsparger’s impact on today’s game, don’t beat yourself up (too much). How could you know when the league men like Arnsparger helped shape seems to have so little respect for its own history? Well, at least for the history that matters.
When Arsnparger passed away, the league’s official site posted a single, simple wire report. An NFL.com search for “Bill Arnsparger” brings that wire report up first. The next two Arsnsparger-centric search results are a duplication of a slideshow from 2007.
Did I mention this guy practically invented the zone blitz, a staple of every modern defensive playbook?
Still, it should come as little surprise there were no feature-length articles detailing Arnsparger’s career and analysing the schematic footprints he left on the NFL’s landscape. It’s just one more depressing reminder of the frivolous nature of the way the league’s history is viewed and how football is covered today.
During days when NFL fans should have been reading about how Arnsparger influenced a hefty portion of what they see every Sunday, they were instead treated to a Brett Favre marathon.
You see, the former Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings quarterback (did I miss anyone out?) was being inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame.
In other words, the risible NFL Network had a perfect opportunity to spew forth hours upon hours of tidbits, anecdotes and remembrances of controversial incidents from a colourful career. You know, the exact type of things that have killed quality coverage of the gridiron.
There was no escaping Favre mania. Here’s the NFL.com search. But it wasn’t just the league’s official televised arm strangling you with the life and times of No. 4. Here’s what a Google search revealed.
Basically, everybody wanted to talk Favre and put a camera in front of Favre. But nobody was talking about Arnsparger.
Where’s the respect for the meaningful history of this great game?
Of course, Favre is also a genuine part of the league’s history. He played 20 seasons, hoovered up passing titles and league MVP awards, went to two Super Bowls and even won one.
Favre was a great quarterback. But he was just that: another great quarterback.
He wasn’t a trendsetter who changed the way his position was played. Go and screen some highlights of Fran Tarkenton and you’ll see another quarterback as willing to manufacture big plays out of nothing and take chances the way Favre did.
Favre didn’t help revolutionise approaches to offensive football the way Joe Montana did when he combined his eagle eye and internet-speed brain with Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense.
So why did Favre get so much screen and air time? Because he was controversial, because he was erratic and outspoken.
The sad truth is that stuff plays better with this generation of fans than learning how the game they watch every week – and presumably love – came to be what it is today.
Yet it’s not fair to put it all on the fans. Sure, demand shapes supply. But those making the demands are also informed by what’s supplied to them.
What does that gobbledygook mean? It means if you keep filling TV screens, website pages and radio airwaves with reality TV-style garbage, most people have no choice but to eventually lap it up.
Sadly, it’s a trend the NFL seems to have readily embraced, especially when it comes to informing its fans about its own history. Back in 2008. legendary Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman bemoaned the same problem:
I was interested in the commissioner’s take on the progress and future of the NFL Network. It was born in 2004. A guy named Steve Bornstein was brought in to run something called NFL Media, which lumps NFL Films and NFL.com in with NFL Network. What he created in the NFL Network part of it was a hodgepodge of programming that brings us half a season of live games and a good NFL draft package, but makes up for it with extended interviews, press conferences, talk, talk and talk, deadly stuff featuring such artistic and intellectual luminaries as Rich Eisen and Jamie Dukes.
It wouldn’t be so bad if you could just tune out the blah blah and stay with the stuff you like, but much of NFL Films’ really creative football material, both from an artistic and historic perspective, is being squeezed out. NFL Films, with its near passionate dedication to the game, is, in the words of Bornstein and his Network buddies, “obsolete,” and “passé,” if you listen to the repeated remarks. The only place you could see NFL Films’ Game of the Week last season was on something called the ION network, which does reruns of stuff such as Baywatch.
Not much has changed since Dr. Z’s column. Frivolity rules while the important stuff is drowned out of the attention span.
So instead of learning about the “53” defense, or how Arnsparger gave Dick LeBeau the basis for a scheme that’s stayed popular for 30 years, NFL fans know all about Favre’s problems with painkillers, what was going on with those texts he sent when he was with the Jets and, thanks to Steve Mariucci’s merciless recollections, what Favre based his pre-game jokes on.
Anyone struggling to see the problem needs more powerful lenses.
There’s an entire generation of NFL fans who don’t know what a zone blitz is, what a trips formation is or what quarters coverage looks like. But they can tell you about a quarterback’s history of sexual scandals or what a certain linebacker likes to call his pets.
Men like Arnsparger shaped the game as we know it today. Yet there’s still no place for coordinator’s in the Hall of Fame.
But there is plenty of room for the type of content and commentary that belongs on the pages of a gossip magazine.
History, it seems, only remembers you properly if you loved to tell fart jokes.