Ilan Mochari
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BlogMay, 2008
It was 20 years ago today; Steve McNair versus Jim Kelly

I once spent two hours studying the history of football’s shotgun formation while procrastinating on a sixth-grade report about crystalline structure. The scene of this bookish crime was the Great Neck Library, where I was a regular from 1980-93. I returned to the library not long ago. And this time, I got lost in the April 4, 1988, issue of Time instead of researching Salvadoran subjects for my novel-in-progress, The Ring Behind the Glass.

I was curious about El Salvador’s 1988 elections, which inaugurated ARENA and ousted the Christian Democratic Party. Of course, I didn’t have to investigate this in Great Neck. But the demons of productivity are unpredictable, and after slacking all morning with my high school pals, I succumbed to nerdy cravings.  

My first Time temptation was Lance Morrow’s cover story about Israel’s 40th anniversary. I had to read it, if only for conversational ammo at the Seder. It was a nuanced essay on Israel’s statehood and the Palestinian conflicts. I defy you to find a sentence like this in contemporary news glossies: “The body floats in uneasy weightlessness in the blue-green metallic sheen, and one looks off across the lifeless water toward the crumpled hills of Moab in Jordan.”

I also loved Morrow’s quoting Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back: “In less than thirty years the Israelis have produced a modern country – doorknobs and hinges, plumbing fixtures, electrical supplies, chamber music, airplanes, teacups. It is both a garrison state and a cultivated society, both Spartan and Athenian.” Yet Morrow doesn’t stop there. Without minimizing Israel’s achievements, he mentions how $43 billion in U.S. aid hardly hurt the cause.

Morrow’s article was only the beginning of my amusement. Other distractions included:

  • The advertisements: For Carlton cigarettes, bragging about the low levels of tar; for NutraSweet, linking the product to proteins found naturally in peas, grapes, milk and chicken.
  • Flattering reviews of Stand and Deliver and Biloxi Blues, written by Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, both of whom still work at Time.
  • With 18 states remaining, Jesse Jackson had amassed more votes in primaries and caucuses than the eventual Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis.
  • Northwest Airlines, then the fifth largest in the U.S., became the first major carrier to ban smoking on all North American flights.
  • International affairs: A truce between Nicaragua’s contras and Sandinistas. Also, Iraq bombing the Kurds with chemical weapons.
  • Business: Apple sues Microsoft and HP for copying its user-friendly desktop interface. The best part of this article was that the author had to define mouse as “a handheld pointing device.” 
  • Entertainment: “The Wonder Years” debuts on television; tennis star Chris Evert marries Andy Mill.

By the time I got to the Salvadoran elections, I had to dash for the Seder. I scanned the article I’d intended to read, and I jogged home with plenty to talk about.

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Statistically speaking, three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Steve McNair had one elite season. It was 2003-04, when he was co-MVP with Peyton Manning, when his Tennessee Titans were a dropped Drew Bennett pass from derailing the New England Patriots. McNair’s rating in 2003-04 was 100.4, ten points higher than he’d achieve in any other season. He completed 250-of-400 (62.5 percent) for 3,215 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

You need five seasons like that – or multiple championships – to make the Hall of Fame. The recently retired McNair may never get enshrined, and it’s no big deal: Football history is littered with terrific signal callers like Phil Simms and Daryle Lamonica who never quite struck the fancy of Canton’s kingmakers. 

But McNair is comparable to one recent inductee: four-time Pro Bowler Jim Kelly. The numbers are close: In 160 career games, Kelly threw for 35,467 yards, 237 touchdown passes and 175 interceptions. McNair, in 161 career games, threw for 31,304 yards, 174 touchdowns and 119 interceptions. Kelly’s career rating was 84.4. McNair’s career rating was 82.8. Kelly lost four consecutive Super Bowls; McNair lost one.

So, yes, Kelly’s resume is better. But Kelly played with Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas (12,074 career rushing yards) and seven-time Pro Bowl wideout Andre Reed (13,198 career receiving yards). McNair’s top cohorts were four-time Pro Bowl running back Eddie George (10,441 career rushing yards), and two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Derrick Mason (9,024 career receiving yards).

You can call it even between Reed and Mason, but Thomas had it all over George. And leaving aside statistics, there’s the naked eye. Anyone who watched McNair will tell you: He carried the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV, including one play rivaling Eli Manning’s escape in Super Bowl XLII. In his lone Super Bowl appearance, McNair completed 23-of-36 for 214 yards. He added 64 rushing yards, a positional record, and rallied the Titans from a 16-0 third-quarter deficit. It was a better Super Bowl performance than Kelly ever submitted.

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  • My analyses of two recent NFL draftees: Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco, picked 18th by the Baltimore Ravens; and Miami safety Kenny Phillips, picked 31st by the New York Giants. Also, my assessment of the Jacksonville Jaguars team needs.
  • Another Seder highlight was discovering the Internet adventures of my cousins, Gillian and Ben BenAry. Gillian and her friend Whitney have a blog about all splendors visual, from display windows to wallpaper to mustaches to geometric shapes. Ben has several skits on YouTube and he believes this is his best.

Ilan Mochari is a novelist and journalist living in the Boston area. His fiction has been honored by
Glimmer Train. He is a former staff writer for Inc magazine, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO magazine. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari