The Tangled Philosophy Behind Star Trek’s Universal Translator

Despite his reputation as a man of action, Captain James T. Kirk was always most effective as a man of rhetoric. Memes may show him throwing rocks at lizardmen or sporting a torn tunic, but the true climax of many an episode of Star Trek was almost always a speech. Causing a computer to destroy itself through a trap of Socratic logic. Convincing a goateed Spock to upend a corrupt and illogical social order. Television Kirk was a master of assessing a situation and (more often than not) finding the right thing to say.

“Metamorphosis,” the ninth entry of Star Trek’s bell-weather second season, threw diplomat Kirk a sizeable wrinkle. En route via shuttlecraft to a planet on the brink of war, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Commissioner Nancy Hedford are abducted in space a noncorporeal cloud-being and stranded on the planetoid Gamma Canaris N. There, they meet Zephram Cochrane, the famed inventor of warp drive who had been taken the century before and given youth and immortality. Cochrane reveals that a being he had named The Companion brought them there to assuage his request for human company on the deserted planetoid. This fact does not sit well with the erstwhile captain. With Hedford dying of a terminal disease and a war to stop, Kirk decides that he must somehow communicate with The Companion and state their case for being allowed to leave. Cochrane is skeptical. The wayward inventor can communicate with the entity, but only through a telepathic link initiated by the Companion itself. How is Kirk, perpetual solver of the impossible, going to bridge this seemingly insurmountable gap?

It’s within the confines of this trap that the ill-fated Gene L. Coon’s gentle meditation on the nature of relationships transforms into an important piece of Trek lore. The viewer notices Spock making an adjustment to the interior grooves of a small metal tube. Cochrane, ever the inquisitive scientist, asks for an explanation of how the device works. “There are certain universal ideas and concepts common to all intelligent life,” Kirk explains. “This device instantaneously compares the frequency of brainwave patterns, selects those ideas in concepts it recognizes, and then provides the necessary grammar.”

“And,” Spock adds while reassembling the device, “it translates its findings into English.”

Thus marks the first appearance of the device that has become known in Trek circles as the universal translator. As Federation technology goes, it remains obscure beyond the most hardcore of the Star Trek fanbase. Writers and scientists have moved mountains in attempting to explain how the more prescient warp drive and transporter could work, inventing technical backstories intended to keep up with perpetually changing scientific theories. Michael Okuda and Rick Steinberg, who served as technical consultants for Star Trek: The Next Generation and later authored the popular TNG Technical Manual, even invented a device called the “Heisenberg Compensator” to address a lingering doubt about the viability of transporter technology based on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics. (When Okuda was asked to explain how the compensators worked in a 1994 interview, he replied with a Groucho-esque “they work just fine, thank you”).

By contrast, the universal translator has not been subject to such intense technical scrutiny. Aside from moments in which its lack of presence manifests (mainly as some kind of mechanical failure), it exists as a technological phantasm. To use a biological metaphor, the universal translator is one of the ship’s involuntary processes, no more intrusive to everyday activity than the neurons of the main computer or the respiration of the life support systems.

Unlike Star Trek’s other far-flung technological possibilities, though, the universal translator does have the benefit of near plausibility in the real world. The recent release of translation devices like Logobar’s ili and the Kickstarter-funded Transay have promised a new bright future for transcending language barriers in interpersonal communication (with mixed results). And while the viability and utility of these devices are called into question, their mere existence points to a near future in which easy communication across the barriers of language is not a complete fantasy.

This future promising the ease of communication through technological mediation seems idealistic enough. But like every mechanical innovation, the universal translator is Janus faced beyond issues of feasibility. And the possibility of this technology becoming as widespread as the smartphone in the near future necessitates a series of thorny questions regarding this issue of cultural impact. What are the consequences of a machine that promises instantaneous translation of not only words but also ideas and concepts? Have these consequences already started to manifest from merely representing such a device on a program that has become synonymous with an idealized future for humanity? And what meaning does a universal translator carry in an era where the association of language with identity has become more potent and potentially destructive to the very global institutions and initiatives that underpin the social philosophy that Star Trek has perpetuated?

Although Coon was the first to write the universal translator into an episode of Star Trek, he could not claim credit as its inventor. In fact, the issue of representing different languages on the show was taken up prior to writing and shooting the first pilot, 1964’s “The Cage.” In the draft proposal for the series that creator Gene Roddenberry wrote to pitch to network executives, he mentions an intention to establish a “telecommunicator” worn by each crew member that instantaneously translates spoken language into something intelligible. By the time the series went into production, this concept was dropped due to concerns of feasibility. Jerry Sohl, who wrote the “Corbomite Maneuver” (third in the series to be produced), mentioned in an interview that by an early point in the series, writers and directors worked under the assumption that “everyone did speak English.” This seems a necessary compromise, given the spartan circumstances under which the show was made. But this decision also sets up the use of the translator in “Metamorphosis” as an instrument utilized when all other options for dialogue are off the table.

That the issue of language was of such concern to the creators held significance for the later development of the universal translator. The device may have been conceived as a convenient storytelling device to avoid the problem of representing the languages of multiple cultures in a script. But taking the concept of real-world technological application seriously was novel territory in science fiction television and film of that era. Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic foray into astral realism was still several years away at the time Star Trek was first produced. This made the show both groundbreaking and solitary in its attempt to explain its gadgetry with at least a veneer of technical precision.

The lesson was not lost upon the next generation, as it were. When the Star Trek universe was revived for television during the 1980s, the idea of an ever-present universal translator mediating the gaps in linguistic diversity came back on the table. The aforementioned Technical Manual contains a section describing the design and usage of the universal translator on the Enterprise 1701-D. Here, it is referred to it as a “program” in the ship’s computer designed to analyze samples of language and create a communication framework based on a set of universal, structural aspects perceived to be inherent in the concept of language. Those aspects include “symbology, syntax, usage patterns, vocabulary, and cultural factors,” which combine together to create the means for basic exchange in a matter of minutes. The implication is that once enough data has been accumulated on a given language, the translator can facilitate communication of complex concepts with relative ease. As long as the crew has access to the computer, either on-ship or through their communication badges, the program does its work.

The seed of the assumption that every interaction between intergalactic species takes place through the translator was further reinforced in the early 2000s on Star Trek: Enterprise. One of the character arcs for communications officer Hoshi Sato regarded her role in programming the first universal translator for everyday use on Starfleet vessels. In the episode “Breaking the Ice,” Hoshi provides some context for the program in answering a child’s question about how the crew speaks to aliens. She begins her response by saying the translator is “like an alien dictionary with hundreds of languages programmed into it,” before detailing the pitfalls of language acquisition from unknown sources. Again, her framing of the translator as primarily an “alien dictionary” implies that once the hard work of acquisition is complete, the system remains active to supplement future interactions with those species.

These examples from more contemporary iterations of Star Trek suggest that the philosophical underpinning of the universal translator changed very little from its first incarnations, even if the employment of the technology itself changed a great deal. As such, it is worth going back to Kirk’s original explanation to Cochrane (and the audience) in “Metamorphosis” as a conceptual benchmark.

Philosopher Rick Hanley has noted that Kirk’s recourse to “universal ideas and concepts” and the “frequency of brainwave patterns” expressed in “Metamorphosis” was terminology commonly associated with rubrics from the field of psycholinguistics. While this term had been in use since the 1930s, Star Trek coincided with a popular explosion of psycholinguistic concepts based on the writings of Noam Chomsky during the 1960s. Chomsky famously theorized that there must be some kind of innate ability within human consciousness to grasp and extrapolate the complex features of language that don’t clearly manifest through social interactions. This idea of innateness suggested that some tangible, homogeneous root for all linguistic concepts could be found if one could dig deep enough into the human psyche. Once found, the development of all language could be extrapolated based on those inherent dynamics.

Since their heyday, Chomskian ideas about language have gathered more than a few critical reactions, some of which form the basis for modern critiques about the viability of the universal translator. One of the more potent criticisms draws from the older semiotic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the very figures that Chomsky was writing against. The most pertinent Sassurean axiom is that the linguistic sign (the relationship between a word and the particular object or concept it references) is arbitrary. By this, Saussure meant that there exists no underlying set of rules that dictate how signs develop across all languages. Were this true, the ability of the universal translator to extrapolate the grammar of an unknown language based on analysis of its construction of signs would be fatally compromised. Farzad Ehsani and others, in an essay about the feasibility of universal translation, points out that the 6,000+ currently languages in use on planet Earth would present a semiotic nightmare for any programmer. And this doesn’t even account for the exponential problems that galactic diversity would add to the equation. You can’t even assume that the inhabitants of one planet, whether Vulcan or Andoria, would all speak the same language, much less guarantee the intelligibility of all people on all habitable planets.

This semiotic issue formed the lynchpin of the fifth season TNG episode “Darmok,” one of the more memorable hours of that particular series. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is abducted and stranded on a planet with the captain of a Tamarian ship, a culture whose language is based entirely upon metaphor and allegory relevant to their homeworld. Picard’s difficulties establishing a dialogue with his counterpart are understandably frustrating. He’s not a linguist, nor does he have access to the universal translator on the ship to help him out. But back on the Enterprise, the computer has just as much difficulty making sense of the language, even with the translator programming at its disposal. Because the Tamarian language uses signs in a way that stymies syntactical analysis in the way the computer is designed to do, it and the crew are as helpless as Picard. Only when the captain figures out their semiotic system for himself – through the trial and error of interpersonal interaction – are they able to communicate and resolve the crisis.

Another issue arises when considering the conceptual legacy of figures like Ludwig Wittgenstein and the British “ordinary language” philosophers like J.L. Austin (another group of figures anathema to Chomskian ideas about innateness). The important contribution of these thinkers lies in their concept that the meaning of words is not just socially constructed, but dependent on the level of everyday speech. Even if the problems of semiotic construction could be overcome by a sophisticated computer program, the rudimentary vocabulary it creates would still suffer from the multiple meanings individual words can carry, and how those differ depending on the social and cultural context. Anyone who has attempted to employ a second language amongst native speakers can attest to the sense of embarrassment and helplessness this can cause, where the same word or phrase can mean many different things depending upon how it is used. When amplified by the diplomatic protocols and tense interpersonal standoffs constantly portrayed in the Star Trek universe, the potential ubiquity of the universal translator as the basis for all interaction becomes further compromised.

Again, TNG addresses this issue, albeit with far more subtlety. In “The Mind’s Eye,” Picard is having an argument with a Klingon colony governor over the discovery of weapons that appear to have been provided by the Federation to local rebels. The conversation, to the audience, takes place in English, implying the use of the translator through Picard’s communicator badge. Yet when goaded by the governor over the potential strategic gains that a Klingon withdrawal from the planet would entail, Picard slowly approaches him and responds with a terse, untranslated epithet in Klingon, delivered with culturally appropriate rhythm and gesturing. “You swear well, Picard. You must have Klingon blood in your veins,” the governor responds, once again in English, respecting the human’s display of the Klingon virtues of directness and force.

Watching this interaction, can you plausibly believe that he would have complimented Picard with such grudging affection had the translator been doing all of the work? Beyond the obvious chasm between word and mouth that would appear on-screen and between the characters, Picard switching to Klingon serves a tangible narrative and characterizing purpose, both in context of a television show and in the lived world of Star Trek. It shows his diplomatic skill, indirectly references his prior role as the Klingon Arbiter of Succession, and provides a dramatic moment upon which the emotional gravity of the scene is anchored. All of this meaning is lost the moment you assume that a translation device is perpetually operating while Picard and the governor banter back and forth.

If you assume that the universal translator is always working, even if unseen and unheard, then the consequence is that the world of Star Trek can never transcend the artifice of television. To represent the translator in its actual function would erase the subtle aspects of interpersonal interaction that drive drama, humor, and emotional meaning. Interaction would become boring to watch and dysfunctional in practice. A perpetual universal translation becomes a translation that fails on all accounts.

Why, then, hold to the fantasy of perpetual, universal translation if it undermines the sense of realism on such a fundamental level? Because an equally problematic alternative arises from the answer. If the universal translator isn’t an omnipresent force in the world of Star Trek, it must be assumed that English serves as the institutional bureaucratic language of the United Federation of Planets and that most interactions seen in Star Trek occur on that basis. (Remember, Spock even implies this idea in “Metamorphosis” when summing up Kirk’s explanation of the universal translator).

I can’t speak for other planets, but on Earth, historical instances of creating linguistic homogeneity for the purpose of bureaucratic efficiency has been fraught with problems. Any scholar of empire – whether Roman, British, or Habsburg – can attest to that. Most of all, the practical use of English (or any one language) across the Federation undermines the vision of a culturally diverse future as the heart of the Star Trek universe. If the issue of everyone speaking English can be framed as a pragmatic compromise of television production, rather than a compromise in world building, then the fantasy of future diversity can reasonably perpetuate. The universal translator becomes an easy way to avoid the hegemonic problem that the construction and enactment of a bureaucratic language entails. It’s at heart an elegant technological wallpaper to cover the cracks in translating a fictional veneer into an actually lived world.

Star Trek may be science fiction, but the idea that language is a mechanism of power isn’t abstract at all and carries a great deal of consequence for people across the globe. That Star Trek as a whole has, for the most part, avoided these issues of language reflects the ideas of its creators as much as the future it imagines. Consider that the bulk of the Star Trek universe has been produced during times in which the corrosive aspects of nationalism, reflected through a desire to make language and culture synonymous, were waning or subsumed. The rise of Counterculture in the 1960s (original Star Trek) and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (Next Gen, Deep Space Nine, Voyager) reflected separate mass movements toward an idealistic future apart from the sectarian divides of the past. But the current moment is shadowed by the rise of Trumpism in the United States and ethnocentric authoritarian movements throughout Europe. If our vision of the future is invariably tied to the lived moment in which we consume it, then a future where everyone speaks the same language – even for the sake of intergalactic bureaucracy – becomes foreboding and nervous.

In essence, both realizations of why we hear English in the Star Trek universe fall into a thorny trap of essentialism. If English is the bureaucratic language of the Federation, then this begets the question of why that particular language is used and not another, and what means were used to promote that language as the lingua prima. If the universal translator is ubiquitous, and individual languages are preserved in social situations, then we are presented with a future in which the need to actually understand the links between language and culture becomes irrelevant to communication. Machines will do this work, making the task of empathy and understanding between different people at best more difficult, if not impossible. Neither interpretation seems to embody a broader philosophical humanism that Star Trek represents.

I don’t think that the creators and producers of the original Star Trek can (or should) be held responsible for these implications. They were too busy dumpster diving for set accouterments on the Desilu lot to worry about the unwitting philosophical implications of the universe they were creating. But it’s notable that these concerns are creeping into the consciousness of the latest group of showrunners. During the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, there’s an intriguing scene where series protagonist Lt. Commander Burnham is using a translator to eavesdrop on a group of Klingons while infiltrating their ship. When discovered, the Klingon general Kol reacts with anger and disgust. Not just because he’s found a spy, but because of the device she uses to understand them. The divergent interpretations of the translator offered by the two characters are telling. While Burnham thought of the device as a means of peaceful communication, Kol considers it a means to undermine the unique cultural trace of the Klingon language.

Framing the universal translator as a device carrying potentially dire implications for cultural interaction instead of a neutral technology is a step in a more nuanced direction. It’s a tacit acknowledgment of the dangers outlined by one of the most well-known references to the dark side of universal translation in popular culture. In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a notable passage explains the impact of the Babel fish – a creature that, once placed in the ear, makes other species instantly intelligible. In the universe that Adams created, this creature had the unfortunate effect of “caus[ing] more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

It’s a prescient warning to keep in mind for both the Star Trek universe and our own when contemplating the possibility that all it takes to solve the perpetual problems of language is mere widgetry. Technology may eventually allow us to travel at speeds faster than light. When arriving, we might defy the objections of Werner Heisenberg and move from ship to surface with incomparable ease. Once face-to-face, though, the hard and time-consuming work of understanding will remain a challenge for the fleshy machinery of the brain and the empathetic gadgetry of the heart.

 

 

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Crypt Ohio: A Historical Graveyard of Buckeye State Quarterbacks (Part III)

Click here for Part I, here for Part II.

 

Emblematic. That’s the word. Representing something that cannot be seen by itself. I struggled with the proper word to use for quite some time. Symbol carries too much epistemological baggage to be useful. Patient zero implies the subject in question is source to a contagion, which is both overdramatic and insensitive for my purposes. Even origin lacks proper nuance, and again regards the subject as some kind of beginning.

What I see in our final quarterback – our emblematic quarterback – is elements of all the triumphs and tribulations endured by those who followed over the next few decades. Like Jaworski, Anderson, Esiason, and Roethlisberger, there are moments of transcendent brilliance; like Thompson and Couch, the unfulfilled promise; like Swick, the devastating injury; like Quinn the pressure of carrying a franchise through difficult times; like Miller and Frye being a local star. And ultimately, like many on the list, a career that failed to live up to expectations. In one quarterback with a magnificent and tragic story, we see all of these tropes come together into one fascinating package.

 

 Greg Cook, CIN (1st round, 5th pick, 1969, University of Cincinnati)

If you go and look up Cook’s career statistics at a resource like Pro Football Reference, the numbers on that page will look similar to many other quarterbacks mentioned previously in this series:

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These numbers, objectively, give little indication of the player that Paul Brown called “the best quarterback prospect I’ve seen since Otto Graham.” Cook did more, though, to evoke such evaluations in only eleven games than most others in an entire career.

The above quote about Graham comes from an October 10, 1969 profile of Cook by John Pekkanen for Life Magazine, written just after the Bengals’ third game of the season, third victory, and third start behind center for the rookie from Chillicothe, OH. It stands as a surviving portrait of a lost talent at its zenith:

Today Cook is something of a sensation himself as a rookie pro quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals – and like [Joe] Namath he has long hair and sideburns and says just about anything on his mind. His team, pack of bright-eyed and bushy young enthusiasts (the oldest player is 29), won only three games last season, their first in the American Football League. But this year Cook led them to surprising victories in their final three exhibition and first two regular-season games, then casually predicted the Bengals would polish off the strong Kansas City Chiefs next. For boasting prophecy it was not quite in the Namath class, but close: Cincinnati won, Cook putting them into the lead with a 73-yard touchdown pass before he had to leave the game with a muscle pull.

The “muscle pull” that Cook suffered as a result of a sack from Chiefs linebacker Jim Lynch turned out to be a torn rotator cuff in his throwing arm. He returned after missing the next three games to finish out the season, but with severe pain that sapped his arm strength and altered his throwing mechanics. Cook had offseason surgery on the shoulder, but was unable to play the next year and didn’t return to game action until 1973. His final appearance, three pass attempts in the season opener against the Denver Broncos, came with none of the fanfare or success that greeted his presence four years earlier.

For the next forty years, testaments to “the prince who never became king” were a staple of Cincinnati sports culture, coming with a flurry in the wake of his 2012 death from pneumonia at the age of 65. They spoke of a man built like his era’s defensive linemen (6’4’’, 230) who captured the imaginations of those who follow profession football with all of nine healthy quarters of play that belie his spate of post-football problems. Nowhere is this melancholy nostalgia for Cook more prescient than in a short documentary released by NFL Films in 2013, an absolute must-watch for anyone remotely interested in the history of professional football. Former teammates like Bob Trophy and Sam Wyche join others in describing Cook, whose combination of skills has no complete equal in the modern game. What they described sounds like a fusion of Ben Roethlisberger’s size and strength, Aaron Rodgers’ pocket awareness and downfield vision, and Brett Favre’s unique mechanics and showmanship dropped into an era where defenses lacked the athleticism or the complex strategy of today. No less a personality than Bill Walsh is seen calling Cook the “greatest talent to ever play the position… while he played, he was the best there was.”

The late Walsh wasn’t one to speak hyperbolically. And in a way, perhaps no other quarterback was so important for the development of offensive tactics. Cook’s impact on the game began in college, where his unique combination of skills offset what Pekkanen had called “a line so weak it appeared to be manned by pacifists and Latin instructors.” Matt Opper, writing a piece about the late Cook for the Bearcats’ SB Nation website, details the revolutionary situation the quarterback found himself in during his time at the University of Cincinnati:

The unknown quantity was that at UC Cook had played for Homer Rice and his Offensive Coordinator Leeman Bennett. In the late 60’s the duo were one the cutting edge of Football strategy. At the time option Football was beginning to take hold of college football, particularly Bill Yeoman’s veer at Houston. What Rice and Bennett did in their time at UC was perfect and offense that married the option running attack sweeping the country with a complex passing game that stretched defenses vertically. Rice even wrote a book on the offense he ran with the Bearcats and in his later stops. The offense was ahead of it’s time and Cook put up monumental numbers in his final two seasons as a Bearcat. Cook’s time with Rice and Bennett, both of whom would go on to be NFL coaches, was the perfect training for what came next.

In 1968, Cook’s senior season, he became the instrument by which the offense employed by Rice and Bennett took off. Cook led the nation in total offense, including a then single-game record of 554 yards passing in a 60-48 loss to the seventeenth-ranked Ohio Bobcats. And despite being named Second Team All-American, he did so rather quietly as the Bearcats finished 5-4-1 in the second tier Missouri Valley Conference. This would prove advantageous for Brown, who was searching for a cornerstone quarterback to helm the Bengals after a rocky debut season. That one of Cook’s skill and pedigree was waiting right in his backyard would prove advantageous in an era when teams lacked modern tools to scout players at smaller schools with limited media exposure. Indeed, when Brown attended the Bearcats’ season finale against Miami (OH) to scout Cook personally, he walked away certain that he would have the same impact on the Bengals as Graham had on the Browns during the 1940s and 1950s.

Brown made Cook the first quarterback taken in the combined 1969 NFL-AFL draft that saw O.J. Simpson taken with the first pick. One spot ahead of Cook, the equally quarterback-starved Pittsburgh Steelers opted to take a defensive lineman from a North Texas squad that had beaten the Bearcats during the 1968 season: Joe Greene, first piece of the Steel Curtain.

From day one, Cook was intended as the centerpiece of an aggressive vertical passing game designed by Walsh, at that time a young offensive coordinator fresh from a stint on Al Davis’ staff in Oakland. In many respects, Cook was the perfect quarterback for the scheme, possessing the physical skills (strong arm, mobility) and the mental ones (acute field vision from the pocket, quick decision making) Walsh was looking for to open up the passing game. And in the few games that he was healthy, the film shows exactly what Cook could do. Walsh knew this capability all too well when he spoke of Cook’s potential to command the passing game. “[The offense] would have started with the deep strike, and everything would have played off that,” he told NFL Films in 1986. “It would have set records that never would have been broken.”

Perhaps the best demonstration of these abilities can be found in the documentary short, which features segments where Jaworski and Wyche – both former NFL quarterbacks – watch the footage and simply marvel at the mature talent on display. “This is like a masters’ degree in quarterbacking, yet this guy is a rookie,” raves Jaworski, who just moments earlier seemed slightly skeptical upon considering Walsh’s opinion of Cook. There manifests a similar sense of disbelief amongst the defensive backs on opposing teams. Wyche points out a moment where a now-injured Cook throws a touchdown pass against Oakland into the narrowest of windows, prompting future Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown to throw the ball and his helmet in disgust. In another, two Broncos defenders simply sit on the ground and look at each other in amazement after Cook drops a ball between their double coverage for a Cincinnati touchdown.

Such thinking lies at the heart of Cook’s legacy on the Bengals, on professional football in Ohio, and on the NFL as a whole – what was and what might have been. What was came to pass when Cook couldn’t recover to start the 1970. The Bengals, desperate for a quarterback, traded for Virgil Carter – a cerebral player with good mobility but limited arm strength. Forced to create an offense more suited to Carter’s strengths, Walsh inverted his passing strategy to emphasize short passes to the running backs and tight ends that would open up opportunities down the field as the defense adjusted. Over the next ten years, Walsh would polish his scheme with a succession of quarterbacks– first with Ken Anderson, then with Steve DeBerg and Joe Montana in San Francisco where it took on the popular moniker “West Coast Offense” that it carries to this day. And per Walsh’s admission, none of that happens if Cook is healthy and able to execute his version of a Sid Gillman/Davis-inspired vertical scheme we see flashes of in the footage.

As for what might have been, that’s something more difficult and fascinating to speculate. The Bengals appeared in the playoffs three times during the 1970s, losing in the divisional round each time (1970 to Baltimore, 1973 to Miami, 1975 to Oakland). Furthermore, they finished with a winning record and just missed the playoffs in three further seasons (1972, 1976, and 1977) before tailing off at the end of the decade. With Cook at the helm, healthy and with a few seasons of experience in Walsh’s offense, it’s not hard to imagine Cincinnati taking the next step and winning a Super Bowl in at least one of those seasons. Perhaps the Bengals become the AFC team of the 1970s instead of Pittsburgh, establishing an institutional culture that could better weather or even avoid the tumultuous 1990s and early 2000s and mitigate the problematic handling of success that currently plagues the franchise. Moreover, Anderson would have had a completely different career outside of the Bengals. He never works with Walsh in an offense that suits his strengths, and possibly never gets drafted considering there was almost no usable film from Augustana College with which to scout him. More than likely, Anderson goes from 1981 NFL MVP to historical footnote along the lines of Swick, Miller, and others.

The most lasting legacy of Cook, though, may have been in the mentality dictating the ways in which both the Bengals and the Browns, two franchises tied together by the legacy of Paul Brown, drafted and developed quarterbacks. I can’t help but think that specter of Cook manifested when Mike Phipps – another “best quarterback I’ve ever seen” (from Northwestern head coach Alex Agase in 1969) – failed to become the franchise savior for the Browns in the early 1970s. And again when local legend Gene Swick injured his arm in 1976. And when Jack Thompson, David Klinger, Akili Smith, and Tim Couch all failed to live up to expectations. I most definitely see the legacy of Cook in the 2004 Draft, when the Browns entertained the possibility of drafting Ben Roethlisberger with the sixth pick before settling on Miami (FL) tight end Kellen Winslow. Instead, the Miami (OH) quarterback with the Cook-like stature and skills fell to the Steelers at eleven, inverting the events of the 1969 once again to Pittsburgh’s benefit.

As for Cook himself, life after football was tumultuous at best. I won’t tell you more in hopes that you’ll watch the fifteen-minute NFL Films segment posted above. But I do want to mention that his devoted his time to painting for much of his life (he was an art major in college). One of his few finished works is a watercolor self-portrait capturing the hit that effectively ruined his career.

 

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The absence of solid borders amongst the vibrant colors captures the spirit of Greg Cook in life. On the field, his play evoked a dreamlike haze that has proven difficult to recapture. Off the field, the borders remained blurry and indistinct for him, hoping for cohesion but never quite accomplishing it.

Crypt Ohio: A Historical Graveyard of Buckeye State Quarterbacks (Part II)

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Today, we continue our foray into the history of Ohio quarterbacking by looking at those spawning from institutions of higher education and landing in the NFL. As expected, get ready for a great deal of Ohio State.

If you haven’t read Part I, click here.

(Lead image is a picture of Terrelle Pryor’s fumble against Penn State in 2008. My way of saying the Pryor won’t be featured because he was a Supplementary Draft pick, but wanted to include him nonetheless. Though, in the spirit of fairness, here’s Pryor doing something good.)

Part II: Quarterbacks Drafted from Ohio Colleges and Universities

Ron Jaworski, LAR (2nd round, 27th pick, 1973, Youngstown State)

If a random person on the street under the age of 30 identifying as a causal football fan had to name five random NFL quarterbacks from the 1970s, Jaws would probably make the list based on the familiarity of younger generations who know him as a broadcaster and ESPN analyst. He risked fading into obscurity early with the Rams, as he showed little in parts of three seasons with the exception of a playoff win in 1975. Jaws got another chance when traded to the Eagles prior to the 1977 season, where new head coach Dick Vermeil installed him as the starter. So began nearly a decade of solid but unspectacular play in Philadelphia, with the exception of his magical 1980 season (27 TD – 12 INT, 91 QB Rat, Pro Bowl, Super Bowl appearance). However, that particular campaign stands as an outlier in much the same way as Esiason’s 1988 season. Outside of 1980, Jaworski led the league in sacks taken three times and never again had a rating higher than the mid-70s. In 1985, he was quickly usurped by electric rookie Randall Cunningham and retired four years later as a backup.

 

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Gene Swick, CLE (4th round, 97th pick, 1976, Toledo)

A record setting MAC quarterback brought in to compete with Sipe who never panned out and faded into obscurity, and the first of the “Quarterbacks Drafted by Ohio Teams from Ohio Colleges and Universities” to be featured here. Swick led a storied career for the Rockets, culminating in a 1975 senior season where he led the nation in total offense, won the Sammy Baugh Award as top passer, and finished tenth in the Heisman voting. However, he tore his rotator cuff in training camp, was released, and never played in an NFL game.

 

 Mark Miller, CLE (3rd round, 68th pick, 1978, Bowling Green)

The Browns try another record setting MAC quarterback, but lacking in all of the national accolades, making him something of a poor man’s Gene Swick. Miller was a local legend from Canton who led the MAC in passing yards in 1977, but showed little in ten appearances over two seasons with the Browns, most coming when he replaced an injured Sipe in a 1978 game against the Bengals. He was traded to the Packers in 1980 and made a brief appearance in the USFL before leaving professional football entirely.

 

Art Schlichter, BAL (1st round, 4th pick, 1982, Ohio State) 

When I think of the worst-case scenario for Johnny Manziel, this is who immediately comes to mind. In Columbus, Schlichter was the star that emerged in the wake of Archie Griffin and bridged the gap between Woody Hayes and Earle Bruce. His pedigree in four years as a starter: 8,850 total yards from scrimmage and 85 total touchdowns, three consecutive finishes in the top six of the Heisman voting. He also threw 46 interceptions, one of which led to Hayes punching a Clemson player in the closing moments of the 1978 Peach Bowl and ending his career. As encapsulating moments go, this one frames Schlichter’s subsequent life in football as well as any. Upon entering the league, the specter of his gambling and alcohol problems overwhelmed him entirely. In 1983, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended him for the entire season for betting on games, the first such punishments handed out by the league in twenty years. The Colts cut ties with him during the 1985 season, and he last appeared in the NFL as a training camp casualty with the Buffalo Bills in 1986.

Schlichter was briefly able to harness some of his massive talent in the Arena Football League, where he the Detroit Drive to the title while being named MVP in 1990. But an incident involving a bad check led him to leave football entirely to focus on his various addictions. Since 1995, Schlichter has been in and out of prison, most recently convicted of running a ticket scam in 2012. Jeff Snook wrote an interesting book regarding Schlicter’s rise and fall that is worth the time.

 

 Mike Tomczak, CHI (UFA, 1985, Ohio State)

Arguably the most professionally successful OSU quarterback since the merger, making it strange that he wasn’t even drafted in a year that still had twelve rounds. Tomczak won a Super Bowl ring riding the bench for the 1985 Bears, and ended up starting 31 games in five seasons for the franchise. Pittsburgh fans will remember him best as a stalwart backup during the first decade of the Cowher administration. He led the 1996 squad to the playoffs, and spent the next few years stepping in when Kordell Stewart produced bouts of puzzling play on the field. Tomczak’s career numbers were nothing spectacular (88 TD – 106 INT, 68.9 QB Rat), but given its start his career can be thought as nothing other than highly successful.

 

 Tom Tupa, PHX (3rd round, 68th pick, 1988, Ohio State)

Owner of a surprisingly productive, if slightly strange, career in professional football. In his senior year with the Buckeyes, Tupa was both the starting quarterback and an All-American punter. Phoenix used him as a backup at QB and punter and primary kick holder before handing him the starting QB job during the 1991 season. His poor numbers (6 TD – 11 INT, 62 QB Rat) sealed his fate behind center, but afterward he managed a long and solid career as a punter, even making All Pro with the Jets in 1999. If that weren’t enough oddity for one player, he also holds the distinction of scoring the NFL’s first two-point conversion with the Browns in 1994.

 

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Larry Wanke, NYG (12th round, 334th pick, 1991, John Carroll) 

Will forever hold the distinction of being 1991’s Mr. Irrelevant, a moniker given to the final player selected in every draft. And as with most 12th round picks, Wanke never saw game action in the NFL, but he rewrote the record books at John Carroll after transferring from Pitt following the 1988 season. In the depths of my imagination, I like to think that the Giants reaching down taking a Division III quarterback was the straw that finally prompted the league to whittle the draft down to seven rounds, which happened two years later.

 

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Kent Graham, NYG (8th round, 211th pick, 1992, Ohio State)

His career was hardly prolific, yet still managed to hang around for ten years with eight different teams. Transferred to Ohio State from Notre Dame, and didn’t show much as a starter his senior year stepping into the shoes of the departed Greg Frey. But the Giants grabbed him in the 8th round as a developmental lottery ticket, mostly due to his prototypical size (6-5, 230). Had some solid seasons as a part-time starter with Arizona (1996) and the Giants (1998-9), but was seen by most as an average backup for much of his career.

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Kirk Herbstreit, JAC, (7th round, 212th pick, 1993, Ohio State)

Just kidding. The Jaguars didn’t even exist in 1993. Wanted to see if you were paying attention.

 

 Bobby Hoying, PHI (3rd round, 85th pick, 1996, Ohio State)

The most highly regarded post-Schlichter quarterback who teamed with Eddie George to come within a breath of a national championship in 1995. Hoying had a decent 1997 season as a part time starter before bottoming out badly in 1998 (0 TD – 9 INT, 45.6 QB Rat). New Eagles head coach Andy Reid would take Donovan McNabb with the second pick in the 1999 draft, exile Hoying to Oakland, and he was out of the league within two years. He still holds the strange distinction of completing the most consecutive passes without a touchdown.

 

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Joe Germaine, STL (4th round, 101st pick, 1999, Ohio State) 

Was a big reach for a guy who was never a full-time starter in college and was undersized (6-0, 202) even for quarterbacks in the late-90s. Appeared in three games in his rookie season, and never played in the NFL again.

 

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Steve Bellisari, STL (6th round, 205th pick, 2002, Ohio State)

Never appeared in a game, but certainly fit the mold of athletic college quarterbacks that Mike Martz constantly tried to turn into wide receivers (i.e. Nebraska’s Eric Crouch). It’s more fun, though, to think that the Rams drafted him just to troll cynical Buckeyes fans, given that Bellisari was one of the most disliked OSU quarterbacks in recent memory.

 

Ben Roethlisberger, PIT (1st round, 11th pick, 2004, Miami OH)

Far and away the best quarterback on this part of the list, but people sometimes forget that he came within a hair of having it all slip away. There was the motorcycle accident after his second season, requiring reconstructive surgery on his face. Then the rape allegations, which led to a civil suit settled out of court and almost prompted a trade to the Raiders. On the field, Roethlisberger has become the face of the franchise, and is now either the best or second best quarterback to ever play in Pittsburgh with an opportunity for a bust in Canton when his career is finished. But the specter of his off-the-field decisions will linger on the Steelers franchise long after his retirement.

 

Craig Krenzel, CHI (5th round, 148th pick, 2004, Ohio State)

The man who succeeded Bellisari in Columbus, and by contrast one of the most beloved OSU quarterbacks in recent memory. Though possessing a limited ceiling of professional potential, he got his shot to start five games as a rookie for the Bears. His play wasn’t as bad as Hoying in 1998, but showed little enough that the next season Chicago turned to 2005 4th round pick Kyle Orton, and made the playoffs on the strength of their defense and running back Thomas Jones. Krenzel never got another chance and faded out of the league.

 

Charlie Frye, CLE (3rd round, 67th pick, 2005, Akron)

Had the unenviable task to serve as the Browns’ first young reboot to the position following the failure of Tim Couch. Frye was a local boy (Willard, OH) who set fifty-three records at a local school (Akron), and had the support of the fanbase and local legend Bernie Kosar. He showed enough in a few starts during a lost 2005 season that he was named starter in 2006 with the team trading incumbent Trent Dilfer. His numbers that season were bad but hardly catastrophic (10 TD – 17 INT, 72.2 Rate) given the state of the team, but Frye’s hold on the job slipped the moment that Brady Quinn fell to the Browns in the draft. He was named starter during training camp in 2007, but replaced by Derek Anderson in the middle of the first game that season against the Steelers. While Anderson went to the Pro Bowl, Frye was quietly traded to Seattle and left the league a journeyman after the 2009 season.

 

 Bruce Gradkowski, TB (6th round, 194th pick, 2006, Toledo)

Has led a nice career as a solid backup for several teams (most recently the Steelers), making him better than most 6th round quarterbacks not named Brady. He also broke all of Gene Swick’s passing records at Toledo, though Swick’s were arguably more impressive given the era that he played in.

 

Troy Smith, BAL (5th round, 174th pick, 2007, Ohio State)

Former Heisman Trophy winner perhaps hurt most by his lack of size (5-11, 206). Never really given a shot by the Ravens, though he played decently in six starts with San Francisco in 2010. He was released following the season and been out of the NFL ever since, most recently playing for the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL. Strangely enough, both of his NFL releases have come at the hands of Harbaughs (John in Baltimore, Jim in San Francisco).

 

 

Coming tomorrow, PART III: Emblematic Edition, featuring a longer essay on the man I consider to be the spiritual source of the decades of Ohio quarterbacking failure featured above.

Crypt Ohio: A Historical Graveyard of Buckeye State Quarterbacks (Part I)

Blake Fumble

Take the time to talk with any aged sports fan rooted in Western Pennsylvania, and eventually the topic will turn to the Valhalla of quarterbacks who have emerged from the area like a wellspring. Names like Johnny Unitas, George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino have all been inscribed into the annals of professional football greatness. On the surface, it seems like the worst sort of cherrypicking imaginable. Nevertheless, that is a fairly impressive list of quarterbacks to call the watershed of the Allegheny and the Monongahela home.

Across the state line, in Ohio, the historical disposition of the quarterbacking profession remains a far foggier enterprise.

I write this post as another professional quarterback perceived to have great promise for one of the two Ohio franchises is shuffled toward the waiver wire with great fanfare. The Cleveland Browns announced, via new Director of Football Operations Sashi Brown, that Johnny Manziel will be among the teams cuts on March 9th when his $4.6 million dollar salary can be quietly moved onto the next years’ cap. Saddled with off-the-field chaos overshadowing on-the-field mediocrity, Manziel takes an uncertain future into the professional sports wilderness. Back in Cleveland, the Browns and their fans are faced with yet another offseason in which their franchise savior may await.

This state of affairs is nothing new for either professional franchise in the state of Ohio. The Browns have been in management purgatory almost constantly since their franchise relaunch in 1999, and seem perpetually years away from turning a corner in a division featuring two of the NFL’s most stable franchises (Pittsburgh and Baltimore). The Bengals are in much better shape both institutionally and talent-wise, but seem frozen by the specter of repeated playoff failures. The recent and insane AFC Wild Card game loss against a Steelers team being held together by the stringy remains of Le’Veon Bell’s ACL is but the latest example. And it was but twenty years ago that the Bengals themselves were the Browns of today: poorly run and hopelessly talentless.

The fact remains that neither team has won a championship since Jim Brown ran roughshod over opposing defensive lines during the Kennedy administration. The Browns have never appeared in a Super Bowl, and the Bengals last appeared in one while George H.W. Bush was seeking the Republican nomination in 1988. Bad quarterbacking can’t account for all of this failure, but its worth considering whether even one moderate success from the list below would have made a difference in some years when an opportunity presented itself unexpectedly.

Upon further reflection, it seems to problem may go beyond the purview of even the Browns and the Bengals. On the college side, the lack of professional success from Ohio State alums in particular, given the school’s blue chip reputation, is borderline phantasmagorical. Cardale Jones, he of 269 career pass attempts in college, represents the freshest face attempting to kick this trend. But history is against him in many respects.

The question becomes how bad this state of affairs actually is? Are Ohio teams at all levels just historically unlucky with a few high profile quarterbacks? Or is there something deeper here that can be uncovered from a deeper analysis?

Time to do an autopsy of Ohio quarterbacking: the good, the bad, and the Schlichter.

First, though, I need to set a few methodological ground rules in order to narrow the pool a little bit. Because of length, I will be posting this list in two parts. The first will include all quarterbacks drafted in the first four rounds by either the Cleveland Browns or the Cincinnati Bengals since 1969. I’m including examples from later rounds if they had interesting careers or fascinating personal tidbits, but it’s not worth listing a 15th round pick from 1977 that never played a down in the NFL (and believe me, there are a lot of those) just for the sake of being thorough. The second part (posted in time for Super Bowl Sunday) will include two categories: quarterbacks drafted from Ohio colleges and universities, and quarterbacks drafted by the Browns or Bengals from Ohio colleges and universities. Since this list is considerably shorter, I will include any quarterback regardless of round that falls into these two categories.

Oh, and two more rules:

No Ohio prep quarterbacks. This list is long enough as is. Feel free to do the research on that end if you’d like, but I’ll pass.

No quarterbacks currently with the Browns or the Bengals. Manziel will be released soon, but you don’t need me to tell that story for you – Google will suffice. As for the Bengals, A.J. McCarron was a 5th round pick and therefore falls outside of the established guidelines. Andy Dalton is a Top 10 quarterback who will only get better as his competition gets older and he matures into his prime. I’m ready to declare him a total success and therefore exempt from this list.

(Although, it wasn’t that long ago that Dalton’s worth of a contract extension was up for considerable debate…)

 

Part I: Quarterbacks Drafted by Ohio Teams

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Mike Phipps, CLE (1st round, 3rd pick, 1970, Purdue)

Can hardly be considered a total bust given his five years as the Browns’ starter, including a playoff appearance in 1972 and over 10,000 career passing yards. However, he was taken two picks after future Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, and was traded twice in his career for future Hall of Famers (on draft day in 1970 for Paul Warfield, and to the Bears in 1977 for Ozzie Newsome).

 

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Ken Anderson, CIN (3rd round, 67th pick, 1971, Augustana College)

Perhaps the quintessential example of a good-but-not-great quarterback who simply refused to give up his starting job and remains one of the most underrated signal callers of his entire era. Anderson led the Bengals to several playoff appearances during the 1970s, and posted one of the best seasons in franchise history while leading the team to their first Super Bowl appearance in 1981. He led the league in completions twice (1974, 1982), completion percentage three times (1974, 1982, 1983), passing yards twice (1974, 1975), QB Rating four times (1974, 1975, 1981, 1982), went to four Pro Bowls, and was named All Pro once (1981, at the age of 32). And were it not for an unfortunate injury suffered by another quarterback appearing later on this list, he most likely would have never had the opportunity to accomplish any of it, at least not in Cincinnati.

 

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Brian Sipe, CLE (13th round, 330th pick, 1972, San Diego St)

Falls as far as can be outside of the established criteria, but makes the list as one of the biggest draft steals of the entire 1970s. Sipe took over the starting job from Phipps in 1976 and became a franchise staple for the rest of the decade. His career culminated in 1980, as leader of the “Cardiac Kids” team that won the AFC Central and narrowly lost in the Divisional Playoff to the eventual champion Oakland Raiders in one of the most devastating losses in franchise history.

 

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Randy Mattingly, CLE (4th round, 100th pick, 1973, Evansville College)

Never played in an NFL game, had three unremarkable seasons as a backup in the CFL, but is the older brother of former Yankees star first baseman Don Mattingly.

 

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Mike Boryla, CIN (4th round, 87th pick, 1974, Stanford)

Never played for the Bengals, as he was traded during the draft to the Eagles where he started for three seasons and made the Pro Bowl in 1976. After retirement, he remained in the Philadelphia and started a side career as an actor in addition to a day job as a lawyer. In 2012, Boryla premiered a well-regarded one-man show entitled The Disappearing Quarterback, featuring anecdotes from his time as a player and criticism of the league’s handling of player injuries and health.

 

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Gary Sheide, CIN (3rd round, 64th pick, 1975, BYU)

Never appeared in an NFL game, but the coupled with the Boryla choice from the year before, it seems indicative of the Bengals desire to find a potential replacement for Anderson. Often credited as the first in a great string of BYU quarterbacks throughout the 1980s, including Jim McMahon, Steve Young, and Ty Detmer.

 

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Jack Thompson, CIN (1st round, 3rd pick, 1979, Washington State)

Owner of an incredible nickname (“The Throwin’ Samoan”), Thompson rewrote the PAC-10 record books and seemed poised to take the reins from an aging Anderson. He showed little in five starts over two years, and was eventually traded to Tampa Bay where he washed out after one season as a full time starter. To make matters worse, Thompson was taken before Phil Simms and Joe Montana and became the first of several high profile busts hailing from the Cougars (the others being Timm Rosenbach and Ryan Leaf).

 

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Paul McDonald, CLE (4th round, 109th pick, 1980, USC)

Drafted to help replace an aging Brian Sipe, he was the primary starter for the Browns in 1984 and played poorly enough that the franchise spent a No. 1 pick in the 1985 Supplementary Draft on Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar and never looked back.

 

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Dan Feraday, CIN (12th round, 333rd pick, 1982, University of Toronto)

Never played a down in the NFL, but is to this day the only quarterback ever to be drafted from a Canadian university.

 

Jeff Christensen, CIN (5th round, 137th pick, 1983, Eastern Illinois)

Notable only because he was the first quarterback drafted after the 1st round in the famous “Year of the QB” which saw six (John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien, and Dan Marino) taken during the opening frame. He’s also the only person on this list to be on the rosters of both Cincinnati and Cleveland during his career.

 

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Boomer Esiason, CIN (2nd round, 38th pick, 1984, Maryland)

Easily the most notable quarterback for the Bengals between Anderson and Carson Palmer, Esiason had several fantastic years running Sam Wyche’s no-huddle offense, and led the franchise to their last appearance in the Super Bowl in 1988 while being named First Team All-Pro. His performances after that season, however, were marked by increasing mediocrity, cementing his status as a very good career quarterback with statistics bolstered in part by his longevity.

 

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Doug Gaynor, CIN (4th round, 99th pick, 1986, Long Beach State)

Erik Wilhelm, CIN (3rd round, 83rd pick, 1989, Oregon State)

Donald Hollas, CIN (4th round, 99th pick, 1991, Rice)

Three unremarkable and short-lived backups from the Esiason era. I only remember Wilhelm because I somehow made the Super Bowl with him at quarterback during a season of Tecmo Super Bowl when I was a kid.

 

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David Klingler, CIN (1st round, 6th pick, 1992, University of Houston)

Like Thompson, a flashy quarterback who rewrote college record books (most notably the NCAA record for most passing yards in a game that was broken by Washington State’s Connor Halliday in 2014) and was brought in as heir apparent to an aging starter in decline. His abysmal 4-20 record over three seasons began the downward spiral of the Bengals as the worst franchise in professional sports during the decade of the 1990s. Along with fellow former Cougar Andre Ware, it’s interesting to wonder whether his career would have been different had he come along twenty years later when quick reads out of the shotgun became more en vogue.

 

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Eric Zeier, CLE (3rd round, 84th pick, 1995, Georgia)

The last quarterback drafted by the original incarnation of the Browns, Zeier lasted a few seasons as a spot starter but never seriously challenged for a full time job.

 

Tim Couch, CLE (1st round, 1st pick, 1999, Kentucky)

Akili Smith, CIN (1st round, 3rd pick, 1999, Oregon)

Undoubtedly the nadir of bad professional quarterback play in the state of Ohio. The intention was for Couch and Smith to become rivals, if not on the level of Brady/Manning, at least rising to the stage of Roethlisberger/Flacco. It wasn’t to be. Smith looked so lost in his one year as a starter in Cincinnati that they immediately decided to reboot and cut ties, leading to the number one pick two seasons later. Couch fared better, but was saddled with a poor offensive line typical of expansion franchises and failed to develop his elite skills while running for his life. His golden moment to lead the Browns to the playoffs in 2002 was usurped by journeyman Kelly Holcomb, and his career never recovered. Neither have the Browns, making him perhaps the most devastating failed pick on this list.

 

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Spergon Wynn, CLE (6th round, 183rd pick, 2000, Texas State)

Notable for two simple reasons. First, he came from my soon-to-be wife’s alma mater. Second, he was the quarterback drafted before New England took Tom Brady.

 

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Carson Palmer, CIN (1st round, 1st pick, 2003, USC)

Finally became the blue chip quarterback to lift the Bengals out of the doldrums, yet still never fully realized his potential in Cincinnati. A potential Super Bowl run in 2005 folded under the arm of Kimo Von Olehoffen, and subsequent years were defined by increasing discord with the front office until he was traded to Oakland following the 2010 season while still in his prime. His late career resurgence with Bruce Arians in Arizona has pushed his career into borderline Hall of Fame territory, which could be cemented by finally winning the big game before he retires.

 

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Luke McCown, CLE (4th round, 106th pick, 2004, Louisiana Tech)

Failed to reach even the standard set by his older brother Josh (who currently plays in Cleveland), but he deserves credit for hanging on as a journeyman backup for longer than most other quarterbacks drafted by the Browns.

 

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Brady Quinn, CLE (1st round, 22nd pick, 2007, Notre Dame)

Although he likely would never have achieved the stardom thrust upon him after leading Notre Dame to the 2006 Sugar Bowl, Quinn’s career was derailed as much by bad circumstances as bad play. He could never quite escape the shadow of Derek Anderson, suffered untimely injuries when he did get chances, and never gained the trust of a new coaching staff after Romeo Crennel was fired. That being said, Quinn’s play on the field did little to help his case. He squandered a second chance with Kansas City in 2012 so badly that he hasn’t been seen in professional football since.

 

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Colt McCoy, CLE (3rd round, 85th pick, 2010, Texas)

Considering his ceiling was tabbed as a solid journeyman backup coming out of college, it should be no surprise that he failed to exceed that status in Cleveland and remains in that role currently for the Washington Redskins.

 

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Brandon Weeden, CLE (1st round, 22nd pick, 2012, Oklahoma State)

I can appreciate the Browns’ thought process here, even if the results didn’t match their expectations. At 29 years old when drafted, Cleveland hoped that he’d be mature enough to step in and provide stability at the quarterback position, doing just enough to help an above average defense carry the team into the playoffs. Unfortunately, Weeden never really got on track, and is now in one of the worst possible positions to be in as a quarterback: early thirties with no real track record of success. His poor performance in Dallas this past season likely ended his chances as a professional starter for the time being.

 

To Be Continued in Part II

M*A*S*H Men: On Popular Culture’s Most Obscure and Unique Multiverse

 

In contemporary popular culture, where the television reboot, the musical remix, and the film franchise hold sway to a greater degree than ever before, I’m fairly confident in declaring one creative property immune to the magic of studio necromancy.

M*A*S*H.

The irreverent quasi-autobiography written by Richard Hornberger (a.k.a. Richard Hooker) about his stint as a surgeon with the 8055th in Korea produced two memorable screen adaptations. First came the 1970 feature film directed by the then-obscure Robert Altman, one of the most potent anti-Vietnam allegories ever produced. Ring Lardner Jr.’s script adhered closely to the spirit of Hooker’s novel, although it does leave out some of the more memorable anti-religious episodes that would have killed a film that already had a short studio leash.

(I won’t spoil these in-text if want to read the book yourself. If you want to know without reading the book, consult the attached footnote.)[1]

Most of the book’s vignettes did make it into the final version, giving audiences a taste of war life outside of the front lines. Dedicated surgeons who persevere by flaunting army regulation at every turn and carrying on outside of the surgical tent like devil-may-care assholes. The three main characters – Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John McIntyre, and Duke Forrest – carried a tangible countercultural resonance that helped launch the careers of their respective portrayers (Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Tom Skerritt), as well as director Altman. It also happens to be one of my favorite movies ever made.

The film was far enough outside of the Hollywood box for 1970 that it must have seemed odd when Larry Gelbart approached Twentieth Century Fox about a television adaptation the next year. Certainly, no one could have foreseen it becoming on of the most beloved and longest running (1972-83) comedies of the era. The proof is in the numbers, too: number three in the Nielsen ratings during its eleventh season, and a Dimaggio-esque record of 125 million viewers for the series finale “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.” This longevity was partly due to the commitment to character and tonal development over the course of the show. What started out as a screwball comedy with a laugh track under Gelbart had turned into a family-centric dramedy by the early-1980s as Alan Alda (Hawkeye Pierce) took on a greater share of the writer/director duties. This tonal shift was so profound that it inspired a fantastic parody over twenty years later on the Futurama episode “War is the H Word,” where a robot surgeon named iHawk had a switch that changed his mood between “irreverent” and “maudlin.”

As popular as the film and television adaptation were during their respective eras, it’s hard to imagine a M*A*S*H reboot finding much of a contemporary following. Reboots most often come about when a property has a certain audience that can be counted on to prop up the newcomer as it finds footing with newer audiences. Boomers with fond memories of the series would likely scoff at newer incarnations of Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Radar O’Reilly. Millennials weaned in a post-9/11 era filled with two wars have already shown that they don’t take to the idea of addressing the topic of war through the lens of humor. This is perhaps evident in the failure of critical darling Fox sitcom Enlisted, a show that also sought to lightly satirize military life.

M*A*S*H, for all of its cultural importance, lacks the needed status of a sure thing for a studio to take a chance on it. But, if there are to be no more adventures for the men and women of the 4077th as I suspect, then be comforted in the knowledge that M*A*S*H holds one more unique distinction amongst the franchises scores of accolades.

It harkens back to the golden age of the television spinoff, an effective way for networks to maximize the value of popular programs by creating new shows starring side characters. All In The Family creating The Jeffersons and Maude. The Mary Tyler Moore Show spawning Rhoda and Lou Grant. A series as popular as M*A*S*H became during the late 1970s would have been a tempting target for spinoff possibilities. Sure enough, an opportunity presented itself after Wayne Rogers (Trapper John) left the show following the third season in a dispute over money and screen time. Veteran television writers Don Brinkley and Frank Glicksman approached Twentieth Century Fox with an idea for a series based on the Trapper John character, taking place twenty-five years after the end of the Korean War. The producers’ first choice for the title role of Rogers, thereby making the new show a direct spinoff of the M*A*S*H series but he turned it down by stating he didn’t want to play another doctor on television. The role instead went to Bonanza alum Pernell Roberts.

Trapper John, M.D. premiered on CBS in 1979, and in every respect resembled a typical period hospital drama like Medical Center – the previous series that Brinkley and Glicksman had developed for television – or Quincy, M.E. By all accounts, the spinoff was quite successful, running for seven seasons and garnering six Primetime Emmy nominations during that time. However, there were almost no in-series connections to M*A*S*H whatsoever. McIntyre’s time in Korea went unacknowledged outside of the pilot, and no characters from the sister series made guest appearances.

There was little doubt in the minds of M*A*S*H producers, though, that Trapper John, M.D. was a direct spinoff of their own show, and they sought to claim a piece of the action. And here’s where things get really interesting.

The producers of M*A*S*H sued the producers of Trapper John, M.D. for a share of royalties, claiming the spinoff was based on a character inspired by the 1972 M*A*S*H television show. This argument seems fairly straightforward, considering the original choice for the role of Trapper John was Rogers. The defense lawyers, however, came up with a creative solution to this problem. Trapper John, M.D. was not a spinoff of the M*A*S*H television show, they argued, but in fact a spinoff of the 1970 M*A*S*H film, and therefore the character was developed directly from that property. The argument, semantic to a fault, worked. A California judge ruled in favor of the defense, and to this day, Trapper John, M.D. is legally considered a spinoff of M*A*S*H (1970), and not M*A*S*H (1972).

For various incarnations of M*A*S*H and the people who still watch them, the implications of this case matter very little. For people like me who gravitate toward obscure interpretations of cultural objects, this case opens up an entire universe of possibility.

The court’s decision essentially means that M*A*S*H (1972) is not directly related to M*A*S*H (1970). This canonical separation from the film was clearly not intended by the creators of the series, since they offered Skerritt the chance to reprise his role as Duke Forrest and brought back Gary Burghoff as Radar. But it exists nonetheless. It can therefore be assumed that the film and series take place in different universes while utilizing the same characters. Trapper John, M.D., as a spinoff of the film, would therefore take place in that universe, as opposed to the one established by the series. Taken to its logical conclusion, you can essentially argue that from 1979 to 1984, shows based on the same creative property but set in different and unrelated universes aired simultaneously on the same television network.[2]

Seems like we have ourselves an honest-to-god multiverse on our hands.

I can think of no other example in contemporary mass media that comes close to resembling the M*A*S*H phenomenon, where a multiverse existed via two different programs solely within a single medium. Utilizing parallel or alternate universes for storytelling purposes was nothing new in popular culture by 1979, having been well-trodden territory in television shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, not to mention countless films and novels. But these were almost always internarrative plot devices existing within the framework of a single show or movie. Most often, extra narrative multiverses were established across an entire stream of media that encompasses a popular series. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, for example, established a different film universe from that previously established by other Trek properties dating back to the original series, but the prime universe still exists in the books and continues to grow through the work of new authors.

To find a conceptual cousin to the M*A*S*H multiverse, one must move far afield from television, into the realm of comic books – DC Comics, in particular. Multiversal logic was employed by DC starting in the Silver Age of the 1950s as a way to address the problem of divergent continuity and origins when updating popular Golden Age characters like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. By the 1960s, crossover events between the Golden Age (named Earth-One) and Silver Age (Earth-Two) universes were common, and multiverse logic became a convenient way to create unique stories featuring established characters. Later, the multiverse also became a convenient means to pull in characters from other comic book companies (like Blue Beetle from Charlton Comics) when their rights were acquired and absorbed into DC. By 1985, this multiverse had become convoluted beyond repair and required an epic event – the twelve issue Crisis on Infinite Earths, to winnow the multiverse into a single, streamlined continuity.

I’m not holding my breath for a Crisis on Infinite M*A*S*H event anytime in the near future. But finding a way to bridge the two universes together via a single narrative would be a fun little exercise in pop culture quirk. Is it too much to ask for a comic book where TV Hawkeye, movie Trapper John, and both Radars go on some kind of fun adventure? I’ll be on the phone with DC to hammer out the details.

Stat.

 

 

 

 

[1] In order to raise money, Hawkeye hatches a plan to have Trapper John grow out his hair/beard and go on a roadshow of the Korean countryside selling villagers autographed pictures of Jesus Christ for $1 a piece. There’s also an episode where they tie the Protestant chaplain, known as Shaking Sammy, to a cross and intimate that he will be burned alive for sending letters to the families of fatally wounded soldiers lying about their conditions.

[2] The time span listed also includes the M*A*S*H series spinoff After M*A*S*H, which followed the homefront adventures of Colonel Potter, Corporal Klinger, and Father Mulcahy for a brief season and half run.

Vale, Benedictus

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At the end of every year, a considerable amount of digital print is written concerning those notable individuals who shed their mortal coil in the previous twelve months. Material ranging from compilation playlists to quirky tributes and heartfelt retrospectives flood our search engines, and we read voraciously in hopes of saying goodbye, and learning something new on the way out. Myself included, as someone who just consumed testimonies to singer Natalie Cole’s history of health problems or former M*A*S*H star Wayne Rogers’ career renaissance as a Wall Street investor and involvement in an ongoing paternity suit. Indeed, you can argue that it’s only after death that those transcendent figures we think to know in life become their most transparent and luminescent to our gaze.

In the case of Benedict Anderson, who died quietly in Indonesia on December 13, I learned that his brother Perry was a longtime editor of the journal New Left Review.

Anderson wasn’t a person who would have made any of the mainstream lists to which I allude. In fact, most people outside of academic circles would have little cause to know who Anderson was or his broader importance. Those of us who spent any time in graduate seminars in the humanities and social sciences, however, know him as the man who wrote the book influencing the modern intellectual discourse on the phenomenon of nationalism.

Anderson was already a well-known professor in the Department of Government at Cornell and influential scholar of Indonesian culture and politics when Imagined Communities was first published in 1983. At that point, the concept of nationalism was considered by many to be an analytical relic stemming from Enlightenment conceptualizations of nations based in language (via Jean-Jacques Rousseau) or volksgeist (via Johann Gottfried Herder). In the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, academic interest in nationalist ideologies once again became relevant, and Anderson’s work became indispensible in framing this concept in the age of a creeping global consciousness. His poignant argument about nationhood, gleaned from his intimate knowledge of the complex social and political structuring of the modern Indonesian nation-state, was as a modular construction. Vast, beyond the direct experience of its inhabitants, but also limited to a number less than the entire population of mankind. Within this space, he argued, lay the uniquely modern phenomenon of print capitalism to draw disparate groups of people together in ways impossible in premodern epochs. The nation, Anderson thought, was not a wellspring, but a series of cultural practice put into action by agents.

(My apologies for the crackerjack box analysis. I do limit myself to 1,000 words per post!)

But I’m not here to wax nostalgic about Imagined Communities, or reiterate its importance in the wake of Anderson’s death. Rather, I want to draw attention to another of Anderson’s works – less well-known, less methodologically influential, yet has proven to have been far more influential on my own work and research interests than its more famous predecessor.

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I first read Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (Verso, 2005) as part of a graduate anthropology seminar on postcoloniality. Immediately, I was taken by both the global historical scope of the project coupled with its intimate portraits of the protagonists. “This book,” Anderson states in the introduction, “is an experiment in what Melville might have called political astronomy. It attempts to map the gravitational force of anarchism between militant nationalisms on opposite sides of the planet.” True to his thesis of print culture drawing disparate and disengaged people together into networks of belonging, Anderson traces how the anarchist playbook crafted by figures like Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin began to influence a generation of nationalist radicals populating the embers of the Spanish colonial world. Figures like José Martí in Cuba and José Rizal in The Philippines are weaved into a complex narrative showing the ways in which national and transnational ideological movements become intertwined in various ways. In essence, it provides a thematic variation of the thesis established in his earlier work.

What I like most about Under Three Flags, though, is that its weaved cosmology feels as messy and intimate as the world – the late nineteenth century – that it portrays. As noted by Victor van Bijlert in his 2007 review of the book, Anderson doesn’t so much outline a broader movement of political consciousness reflecting the influence of anarchism as chart a different way of thinking about the political biographies of certain figures central to Filipino nationalism in the late nineteenth century – Rizal, Isabelo de los Reyes, and Mariano Ponce. The gravitational force of anarchism may not represent a profound effect in the grand scheme, but it’s a detail that once unearthed gives an enriched understanding of the political world in which these figures lived. Coherence of narrative is traded for a thickness of experiential understanding.

This desire to unfold the thick, undercharted aspects of cultural practice is what drew me to the book, and what has so profoundly influenced my own work. In many ways, Under Three Flags seems to be an experiment in what Nicholas Mathew and Mary Ann Smart call quirk historicism, where “the historical micronarratives that once obediently fell into contextual patterns or acted as isolated anecdotes have staged a kind of mutiny, multiplying in service of a narrative logic that overwhelms and even supplants any larger critical goals” (2015:62). Anderson’s quirk lay in this desire to thread together a different, global cosmology through the power of the printed word. This has certainly stood as a lesson to me, as I seek to navigate my own desires for the quirk of rethinking the historical relationship between sculpture and music through statues that make sounds.

As I recall, the book was not well received by the rest of the class precisely because of its status as quirk. Knowing the impact of Imagined Communities and in the wake of reading other methodologically influential works like Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity At Large, I think they were somewhat let down by what they saw as an overly ambitious and elaborate pet project. So it was with many of the critical evaluations of the book upon its release, but I’m happy to note that it’s gained something of a cult following amongst political historians in recent years.

Anderson may not have been the first to embrace the power of quirk (the übertext of this will always be Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project). But his quirk was the first that I encountered, and it changed the way I approached research and writing in ways I’m only now starting to appreciate. When I cracked open my copy yesterday to read through the introduction once again for the first time in several years, my first thought mirrored that which I had ten years ago: political astronomy…damn straight.

Godspeed, Dr. Anderson, and thanks for the memories.

Works Cited

Nicholas Mathew and Mary Ann Smart, “Elephants in the Music Room: The Future of Quirk Historicism,” Representations 132 (2015): 61-78.

The Greatest Teaser Ever Told…

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Shortly after I wrote my piece on the recent teaser trailer for Star Trek Beyond, I noticed that the film’s co-writer Simon Pegg let his own thoughts on the action-driven vignette be known.

It was very action-packed. I didn’t… Yeah. It was surprising. I find it to be kind of the marketing people saying, “Everybody come and see this film, it’s full of action and fun,” when there’s a lot more to it than that. I didn’t love it because I know there’s a lot more to the film. There’s a lot more story and a lot more character stuff, and a lot more what I would call Star Trek stuff. But you know, they’ve got to bring a big audience in. They’ve got to bang the drum. To the Star Trek fans, I’d say be patient.

(Note: if you haven’t read the Star Trek Beyond post already, scroll down the page and read through it before continuing).

Pegg’s final words asking Trek fandom for patience mirror my own advice, noting that this teaser trailer is not for you, but aimed at a different audience the studio is hoping to pull in from The Force Awakens. No harm in that. Star Trek Into Darkness was technically a success at the box office ($228m in the US on a $190m budget), but came nowhere close to the profit margin for Abrams’ Star Trek released three years earlier ($257m on a $140m budget). Ensuring the longevity of the franchise on the silver screen requires more than a competent and engaging finished product.

My call for caution regarding something as ultimately insignificant as a teaser trailer, though, reminded of how difficult such an argument can be with regards to a Star Trek movie. For most films (and film franchises, for that matter), the teaser itself is almost entirely forgotten once the next extended preview drops a few months later. It’s certainly forgotten once the movie is released, and can be judged on its own merits. Star Trek is a rare franchise for which a teaser trailer is inevitably considered to be of great worth. This is because – if you didn’t know already – one of (if not) the greatest teaser trailers ever made comes from a film in the Star Trek canon.

Behold, the teaser trailer for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, from the late spring or early summer of 1991:

Star Trek VI Teaser Trailer (be certain to watch before continuing!)

This, dear friends, is how you tease an audience for your upcoming motion picture. Not a single frame or musical cue from the actual finished product is to be found. The narrator, a gentle grandfatherly-sounding Christopher Plummer (who played the villianous General Chang in Star Trek VI) telling us of the journeys we as an audience have taken with the crew of the Enterprise. As we are invited to take one final trip with these characters, a montage of their past adventures scrolls across the screen. The camera pans out, and we come to realize that the images from episode and film are superimposed onto the body of the ship itself. An imagined starship made of literal dreams and memories of its creators and fans. The noise of the warp engines flares, and the trailer concludes with the screen shooting to black as if the Enterprise itself warps through its threshold. Text giving the release date of STA 12 R 13 D 91 ATE fills the screen, as the musical accompaniment concludes with a triumphant cadential fanfare.

Given how climactic the ending the trailer plays, one can forgive the fact that the eventual release date would turn out to be one week earlier on December 6.

What makes this piece so powerful lies in how every bit of the teaser is borrowed from the past. The superimposed scenes ranging from the second pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier are only the tip of a warm and nostalgic iceberg. The sequence of the Enterprise going into warp was first created for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and later recycled for The Wrath of Khan. The music comes from the late James Horner’s closing credit crawl for Khan, also used for the opening credits of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. We have seen and heard every bit of this trailer before, whether we realize it or not. This seems paradoxical for a format predicated on “teasing” a new movie to an audience. But the sequence works because whoever created it understood what the movie was, why it was made, and who it was made for.

It still gets to me, this teaser, almost twenty-five years and an entire lifetime later. Only a handful of films will ever make a similar impact on a person. A teaser trailer, though? Seems impossible to believe.