There were plenty of thoughtful tributes to Argos' legend Dave "Super" Mann, who passed away this week, was the descriptions of the wide range of areas he managed to excel in on and off the field. Off the field, Mann co-owned the legendary "Underground Railroad" soul food restaurant in Toronto, hosted a jazz show on local radio, played the drums, hung out with Bill Cosby (and even appeared in a TV movie with him), and that's hard to duplicate. His on-field performance was even more remarkable, though, as he served as a receiver, running back, punter and kicker and excelled in every role he tried. We don't see as much of that cross-position versatility in the CFL these days, and while some would say that's a reflection of the increased specialization required in today's game, perhaps teams should be more willing to think outside the box and try to find the next Mann.
Specialization isn't all bad, of course. In the old days, many of the guys asked to play multiple positions did so more from roster and budget limitations than them legitimately being the best option on more than one front. With today's deeper rosters and more intensive scouting, it's easier to find new players for whatever particular role you'd like, and in most cases, that's not a bad thing. Having a guy who can be an average punter and an average defensive back may be nice, but it's better for your team (and the overall quality of the game) to have one guy who's an outstanding punter and another one who's an outstanding DB. What stood out about Mann, though, was that he didn't just play more than one position; he was one of the league's best at multiple positions, first leading the Argonauts in yards and touchdowns as a receiver and later becoming one of the top punters and kickers in the CFL. Here's what Sean Fitz-Gerald wrote about Mann's ability to star in multiple roles:
Born in Berkeley, Calif., Mann began his career with the Argos in 1958 and became one of the best receivers in the Canadian game. He was also a kicker and a punter, and retired with the league record for most career punts, and career punting yards.
"I just wish I had started to kick field goals earlier," he told The Canadian Press in 1968, when he was 36. "If I had the timing down right, I could go on until I'm 49 years old."
In 2005, he was named an "All-Time Argonaut alongside franchise legends such as Dick Shatto, Condredge Holloway and Michael (Pinball) Clemons. He spent 12 seasons with the Argos, in total, and was given the nickname "Superman" for his versatility.
"He was truly an outstanding football player," long-time friend and former teammate John Henry Jackson said on Wednesday.
The pitfall of the idea of increased specialization and having one player for each role is that it overlooks the chance that one man may be the best fit for multiple positions. That was the case with Mann (and he likely would have been even more dominant if used as both a receiver and a kicker early in his career), and it's hard to say that it couldn't be the case with some of today's players. A notable example is the Stampeders' J'Michael Deane, an offensive lineman who filled in admirably on the defensive line last season following injuries; sure, playing both ways can be difficult given the strategy and preparation involved for each position in today's game, but the idea of using an incredibly athletic player like Deane on some plays on both offence and defence is a thrilling one, and one that could perhaps throw other teams off thanks to its unconventional nature.
It's not just Deane, either. What if some converted Canadian quarterbacks like Marc-Olivier Brouillette (a linebacker and special-teams star with the Alouettes) and Mathieu Bertrand (a fullback with the Eskimos) were used for passing on trick plays, or if players like Jordan Verdone and Johnny Aprile were used at their college positions (linebacker and receiver, respectively) in addition to where their teams hope to convert them to (fullback and defensive back)? This isn't an option that would work with the vast majority of players, sure, but with a special few who could legitimately be the best option at multiple positions, it might just be a tremendous move. That was the case with Mann, and maybe his versatility will again be seen in the CFL some day.