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Is Rick Reilly losing his bite, or does he just need his bicuspids sharpened?

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No contemporary sportswriter is more decorated (or better paid) than Denver's Rick Reilly, and so no sportswriter is more regularly critiqued. Since leaping wallet first from the sinking Sports Illustrated to ESPN last year -- a move he outlined in the January Message column "Rick Reilly, Loving Limbo" -- he's been among sports bloggers' favorite things to hate, right up there with the BCS, women's sports and everything.

The piling on continues this week on Slate (via Deadspin), where Josh Levine takes the time to count every dental-hygiene-related joke crafted by Reilly over his 27-year career as a newspaper columnist, magazine writer and author. Levine is the same writer who so carefully deconstructed the cultural import of Zach Braff a while back, and he only gets weirder here, literally charting every use of dental phrasing by Reilly, who does seem to harbor a strange fascination with floss. After reading it -- there's a freaking tag cloud -- I feel equal parts jealous and grateful my brain doesn't work like Levine's.

But at the end of what at first feels like a silly swipe at an accomplished writer, Levine transforms into Serious and Thoughtful Writer Guy, asking point blank the question many of Reilly's fans have been wondering: Is he mailing it in?

Here's the key passage:

Reilly says this isn't new territory for him: Around 1995, a reader complained that he'd overused the word spleen. "When you've been writing columns for 30 years," he continues in his e-mail, "I suppose you exhaust every body part." (He also asks if I've counted his references to Barcaloungers. I just did: 15.) The not-enough-body-parts defense is a reasonable one. It's also a symptom of how difficult it is to sustain a wisecrack-heavy writing style. At a certain point, your comic imagination will be outstripped by your perpetual need to fill your column with yuks. A good marker for when there's no more toothpaste left in your tube: the day you make your 116th dental joke.

Reilly is a gifted essayist and wordsmith. His long profile of Bryant Gumbel, "The Mourning Anchor," written for SI a decade before he became the mag's featured columnist, is one of the greatest pieces of sportswriting I've ever read. The first column that Reilly wrote for ESPN back in June, about reconciling with his alcoholic father, is a remarkable demonstration of how much you can say in just 800 words. The rest of his ESPN output, though, has shown signs of complacency. In just six months, he's made five tooth jokes and written two separate columns that refer to a rat gnawing on someone's stomach. Both Reilly and his editors need to start giving his copy more attention. He's far too talented a writer to succumb to something as treatable as tooth decay.

I share Levine's (and every other wannabe sportswriter's) fondness for Reilly's old stuff, although it's a different old story that I rank as my favorite: one from 1994, about a troubled high-school football referee named Kenny Wilcoxen. That story is singlehandedly responsible for sending me to journalism school. The way I figure, that story owes me a year's tuition (made payable to Sallie Mae).

But Levine's also right about Reilly's most recent stuff: He often seems out of touch, and out of new moves. And, frankly, as long as ESPN's checks are clearing, you can hardly expact that to change. Reilly is still good for the occasional burst of journalistic tear gas, like that piece about his dad. But at this point, after this long, they're just going to come less often. There's golf to be played. -- Joe Tone

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