Paul Zimmerman hasn’t written a word since he suffered multiple strokes. He’s still the best football writer of all time.
A few years back, in the midst of a 2007 NFL season in which a 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde started a few games for the Carolina Panthers, I wrote a column on FoxSports.com insisting that the quarterbacks of “today”—despite all their lumps and bruises—were still, as a whole, better than the quarterbacks from 20 years ago.
It was a rather forgettable column, one in which I listed out a bunch of bad starting quarterbacks from the mid-’80s—Rusty Hilger, Scott Brunner, and Mike Moroski, to name a few—and made the point that in our collective rearview mirrors, it’s easy to wax poetic about the magic of Montana and Marino and forget just how awful David Archer and Bruce Mathison really were. I listed out several forgettable names, highlighted their woeful stats and mustaches, and pushed my argument through brute force.
I got a few emails from readers, mostly in support of the piece, but not as much of a response as I’d hoped. The article lived on the site’s homepage for a few hours, and that was that.
Then, about five months later, long after the season had already wrapped, I received an email with no subject and a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet attached. Curious, I opened the email to read the following:
I read your piece on the different QBs through the eras. The reason why today’s QB’s GIVE THE APPEARANCE of being as good is that a flawed system is being used: the current QB rating system, which is obsolete. It was devised in 1973, using standards of ’72, which are no longer applicable. Just as a player can train for a combine workout, he can also work on getting his grade points up, since many salaries are built on the points (I talked to one GM who built it into the contracts, without fully understanding how the grades were arrived at). The way to get your grades up is to complete a high percentage of passes, since all four categories in the system are keyed to that single factor … one of the major failings of it. So, what you are seeing is a QB completing a five-yard checkdown on third and eight, hoping that the receiver will break the tackle. And the crowd boos as the offense trudges off the field, but his rating has been aided. That’s what we’ve got now … dinkers with very little color and artificially inflated grade points.
Paul Zimmerman? The Paul Zimmerman? Like Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman from Sports Illustrated?
I opened up the attached spreadsheet and found an incredibly detailed analysis of every NFL team’s starting quarterback from the 1977, 1987, 1997, and 2007 seasons, side-by-side. The stats were all there, and with various fonts and colors, Zimmerman identified which of the four quarterbacks—the ’77 one, the ’87 one, the ’97 one, and the ’07—was the franchise’s best. Based on his findings, Zimmerman concluded that the quarterbacks of the ’80s, on the whole, were far superior than the ones of today.
It was the kind of statistical analysis teams pay outside consulting firms thousands of dollars for. And it was coming from Dr. Z? The Dr. Z?
I grew up idolizing Paul Zimmerman, or Dr. Z, as he was known to his SI readers. Zimmerman had as distinct and boisterous a voice in the world of sports journalism as anyone. Each week, he’d open his readers up to a world—one based in Northern New Jersey that involved NFL general managers, his wife (a.k.a. “The Flaming Red Head”), and a taste for fine wines—that seemed to only exist in Hunter S. Thompson novels and the Chelsea Hotel.
As a Jersey kid and an aspiring sports writer, I’d hang on to Dr. Z’s every word.
Long before Bill Simmons was referencing “his buddy Daryl” (Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morley) and Just One of the Guys, Dr. Z was working bottles of 1975 Gruaud-Larose and Stan Getz, the great American jazz saxophonist, into his NFL articles. He was never better than during the final week of April.
Each year, Sports Illustrated would hand over the keys of its NFL Draft coverage to Zimmerman, and he’d pump out a mock draft worth salivating over. They were incredible. Quick and to the point, he gave one-liners on each player with more authority and confidence than Mel Kiper and Todd McShay put together.
On Jerry Rice in 1985: “Not as much speed as Al Toon or Eddie Brown, but great hands.”
On Charles Woodson in 1998: “Best cover man since Deion, with the same arrogance.”
On Robert Gallery in 2004: “They need a downfield wideout, but Gallery is the kind of lineman who comes along once in a decade.”
Each April, I’d tear out Dr. Z’s mock draft and eagerly await the Giants’ first-round pick. Where’d Dr. Z have our guy slated to go? Earlier? Later? Long before the NFL Network provided 24-7 draft coverage and 75 NFL writers handed out grades for each pick, I had my Dr. Z mock draft as my handy draft-day guide.
I responded to Zimmerman’s email with three paragraphs worth of praise and admiration. I told him how I was writing today because of him. I referenced three pieces he’d written in the ’90s that I’d clipped out and saved in a binder in my childhood bedroom.
Typical fanboy stuff.
Then, at the end of this 300-word email, I wrote: “As for the article, you’re right on the QB passer rating point, but I stand behind my argument. As a whole, the QBs of today are as good, if not better, across the board than the QBs of any other era. For every Marino, Montana, and Elway in 1991—there was a Tom Tupa, John Friesz, and Bob Gagliano.”
Within seconds, he fired this response back:
Re-read what I sent through. Check 1987 vs. 2007. FINAL TALLY … 1987 wins it, 14 1/2 to 13 1/2, and I think I bent over backward to be fair to the moderns.
We’d go back and forth on the topic over the next few weeks. This was PTI, with 30 years of experience separating the two debaters. Was Bill Kenney really the better Chiefs quarterback than Damon Huard? Could he honestly tell me Neil Lomax was a better pro than Kurt Warner? He’d come back with stats, anecdotes, and caps lock. I loved it all.
Every so often, I’d shoot him a link to an article of mine, and he’d respond with his thoughts. Nothing long, nothing flowery, and no sage-like wisdom or career advice. Just football.
At the 2008 NFL Draft, I finally introduced myself, and he was incredible. Hunched over his laptop in a blazer, he gave me a strong handshake, and we had a quick chat about the Day Three prospects he had his eye on. It was a cool moment. Later on that afternoon, I saw him using one of the few telephones in the press area, presumably reaching out to one of his sources about a trade or an upcoming selection. With Blackberries abounding and Adam Schefter covered in makeup for the NFL Network, Dr. Z was holding a telephone attached by a cord. I wanted to take a picture.
In November of that same year, Dr. Z suffered a stroke. The news made ripples around the sports world and shook me pretty hard. One day we were emailing and arguing about Jon Kitna’s legacy. The next day we weren’t.
It’s been roughly three years since he fell ill, and Dr. Z hasn’t written a column or been to an NFL Draft since. We haven’t exchanged any emails, either.
As we gear up for what should make for the most peculiar NFL Draft in years, I can’t help but notice what a void there is for a voice like his. I think of how much I’d love to read his mock draft and his take on Danny Watkins, the 26-year-old former firefighter turned offensive lineman. I think about what an [email protected] Twitter feed would be like.
And I’m forever grateful that I got the chance to talk shop with him.