This is courtesy of my favorite football curmudgeon and press box crony, Paul Zimmerman, a.k.a. Dr. Z, who shared our belief that no one - no one - could conjure up two-minute magic quite like Johnny Unitas. So the following is respectfully submitted, and is not for the squeamish:
The Bears and Colts duke it out, before the reassuring protection of elaborate face masks. Doug Atkins of Chicago breaks through the Baltimore pocket and clubs Johnny Unitas with a sledgehammer of a forearm. The Colts huddle up and a fine mist of blood sprays from Johnny U's busted nose.
While the others look away, John Sandusky, one of Unitas' bodyguards on the offensive line, scrapes up a handful of dirt and jams it up the quarterback's nose. Like plugging a hole in a dike. Some fight back nausea. The referee, solicitous, makes a courtesy call, tells Unitas to take his time collecting himself.
And Unitas, in a response that will be handed down generation to generation, snarls: "Get out of my huddle so I can call a play."
Now then, today's question: Could you play for that man?
Or more accurately: How could you not play for that man?
Some have it. Some don't. It is the intangible, that part of quarterbacking that defies easy pigeonholing, that cuts through the standardized attributes, that boils down to this: When you're down four points, when it's 20 degrees in a wind-lashed enemy stadium, when 80,000 zealots are in full throat screaming for your head, when you've got 40 seconds and two timeouts, and when your body is one large bruise, who's your man?
Well, lately that sort of a role, minus the geyser of blood, has been filled by Timothy Richard Tebow, the unconventional and ubiquitous quarterback who is the talk of the NFL, and around whom there is no middle ground: Either you are convinced he is a pious fraud who drops "God bless you" at every sneeze and has gotten freakishly lucky running a Harry High School offense, or you are captivated by his it, by his current run of rallying wins, by his finding a way to win when it is very late, five in a row and counting, by his defiance of the orthodox, and by the slaying of some sacred cows. The game is over when he says it is.
Ah, but just you wait, the cynics howl. The defenses will figure him out soon enough and then they'll splatter that pretty-boy face all over the landscape.
This is an age of perpetual doubt, a society in which we take a perverse pleasure in failings, in which we spend more time tearing down the very same ones we have built up, and so the carrion feeders will keep waiting for him to be exposed, because surely his is an elaborately choreographed act. Isn't it?
I say, why not relax and enjoy it.
Yes, his passes often resemble wounded mallards, and his mechanics in general are flawed, perhaps beyond retrieval. But of his last 75 throws only one has been intercepted, which suggests there is some clay in there for the shaping.
A lefthanded running quarterback? And a Super Bowl winner, too? Not many of those around, although Steve Young fits the bill.
I confess to a soft spot where the artisans of the rambling and the scrambling, the escapists and the Houdinis, are concerned, the Roger (the Dodger) Staubachs and (forgive me) the Fran Tarkentons, and right in our own backyard, Randall Cunningham (the Ultimate Weapon, remember?) and now Michael Vick.
Cunningham was famously told by Buddy Ryan: Make five big plays a game and we win. When Randall retired he held the record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a career. That was eclipsed this season by Vick, and so we have right in our own backyard No. 1 and No. 2 in quarterback real estate.
And what else do they have in common?
No Super Bowl. Not even close. Because in the postseason the conventional wins out, and three truths remain self-evident: Run the ball, stop the run, win the turnover fight.
So what of Master Tebow? Well, by all accounts he owns the huddle, he is bull-strong, and they believe in him. (If there are some who don't they sure won't say it out loud now.) The last five opponents were easy pickings, the Broncos are playing wicked good defense, and they have a reliable running back in Willis McGahee to devour clock, so all that is required of Tebow is to direct a low-risk, no-frills offense. And be ready for the final two minutes.
And yes, logic and history say this carousel will throw a shoe sooner rather than later.
But maybe not. It doesn't cost anything to root for the knight on the white charger.
Maybe he will bust a nose and win a game.
Last month, at a Canadian Football League banquet, Joe Kapp, a legendary quarterback who once took the Vikings to the Super Bowl, whose passes sometimes looked as if they were end over end, got into it with Angelo Mosca, an old opponent. The argument was about a late hit in a Grey Cup championship game - in 1963!
That's 48 years ago - 48. And yet there was Kapp, in his 80s, firing right hands with gusto. And so the obvious question just had to be: Could you play for that man?