Blue ribbon performer
CARRAZZO. It's Italian for turnover. Hands up any genuine football fan, and not just Carlton supporters, who hasn't heard that gag over the past few years?
Like most jokes, it's funny the first few times, but for Carlton midfield veteran Andrew Carrazzo, probably even more galling than it used to be. Not because he doesn't have a sense of humour, but because it helps if a clever putdown has at least some basis in reality. And these days, that ol' chestnut couldn't be further from the truth.
The misconception has always had an ironic twist, given the usual comparisons between him and the glamour boys of the Blues midfield, skipper Chris Judd and the silky Marc Murphy, Carrazzo's grunt work so often allowing that star pair to shine.
Turnaround: Andrew Carrazzo is now one of the AFL's best ball-users. Photo: Getty Images
But the irony is even richer now. As Carlton tore the Brisbane Lions apart at the Gabba last Thursday night, all eyes were again on Judd and Murphy for their seamless ball use. But it wasn't as if their unheralded midfield cohort couldn't hold his own on that score. Indeed, he did better than that.
While Judd had 33 disposals and Murphy 30, their disposal effectiveness ran equally at 70 per cent. Carrazzo, meanwhile, racked up 31 touches - at a superior 81 per cent.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that's an anomaly, either. Over the course of 2011, Carrazzo's kicking efficiency of 72 per cent was better than either Murphy's (66) or Judd's (60.5).
Chris Judd and Andrew Carrazzo. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
So far in 2012, Carrazzo ranks equal seventh in the AFL for disposals, and his kicking efficiency, at 75 per cent, is the equal-ninth highest of the top-50 ball winners.
Doesn't sound like such a laugh any more, does it? Unless you're Carlton coach Brett Ratten, who now not only reaps the benefits of all the spade work his close-checking midfield man does, but with far more polish, and still with the vast bulk of the football world thinking Carrazzo can't do much more than a shutdown job.
Ratten trots out another Carrazzo stat off the top of his head, clearly having used it in support of his man so often even recently that he knows it by heart.
''If you looked at his efficiency last year, and especially his kicking inside 50, the retention rate was second-highest of our midfield,'' he says. ''They're the things people don't look at, and don't actually want to assess and dig for a bit deeper, and from that point of view, I think he does get harshly treated.
''When you're around the stoppages, there's a lot of pressure on you, and it's hard to make the perfect play. It's when you're out in the open, missing those [targets] that are really critical for a midfielder, and he's really reduced those.''
Not that Carrazzo has abrogated his more traditional responsibilities in search of a new, improved reputation as a ''free-wheeler''.
When some run-with players start winning more of the ball, it's easy for them to, in tagging terms, put the cart before the horse. The feisty Blue, who can also add serial annoyer of opponents to his CV, loves getting a kick, but still loves denying his opponent one, too.
It's a point stressed by Ratten, who in his weekly votes for the coach's award, gave Carrazzo third best, only a shade behind Judd and Murphy.
''I thought he was brilliant in his role for the team, and just in winning the ball,'' he says. ''Against Richmond, I thought his role on [Trent] Cotchin after quarter-time was just as good. He'd kept [Dustin] Martin to three [disposals] in the first quarter, then went on to Cotchin after he'd had 11, kept him right down for the rest of the game, and had more than 30 himself again.''
''He does a great job for us most weeks. When you look at his head-to-head battles with his opponents throughout the last two years, he's just been brilliant.''
No supporter, let alone coach, could ask a lot more. Indeed, this year, Carrazzo has risen to another level while juggling even more off-field responsibility than most could imagine as father to triplets, his wife Yvette having given birth to girls in mid-January.
Yet it's hard to think of too many best-and-fairest winners who have been at times as pilloried as the former Geelong rookie-list player. He slogged away with the Cats for a good two years before being given another crack at it with a Carlton that had sunk to a dangerously low ebb on and off the field, and still had a fair bit of pain to endure.
In terms of acclaim, Carrazzo had the misfortune to win the Blues' best and fairest both in another really poor year of 2007 (Carlton finishing 15th, and sacking coach Denis Pagan late in the season), and immediately prior to the arrival at Visy Park of the (on-field) messiah Judd.
As the Brownlow medallist set about reviving a once-great club's fortunes and Carlton fans once again dared to hope, it also seemed the cue to wipe from the memory banks anything to do with the largely miserable preceding six years.
Of course, Judd and early draft picks such as Murphy and Bryce Gibbs have had much to do with the Blues' renaissance. But so has the steady improvement of the unsung No. 44, even if popular perception of him is more something out of 2005-06 than 2012. There's another, more fundamental quality Ratten cites. Simply, Carrazzo's spirit.
''His passion and will to win and push himself is very contagious for the others,'' says Ratten. ''They really get caught up in it. He's just so passionate about trying to have success at this football club, and he's driving a lot of people around him, which is fantastic.
''His family have barracked for Carlton all their lives, so he loves the club, but I think he's also getting older, and he doesn't want to miss out on his chance, so he's pushing those around him to make sure they don't slip up, either.''
Who knows? A few more performances like those with which Carrazzo has begun 2012, might push football's ''comedians'' into coming up with some new material.