Mort's Super Insight

I had been trying to come up with a local angle, perhaps one with a Razorback connection, for a Super Bowl column for over a week. It could have been Cedric Cobbs, but he wasn't even a great interview in person and he isn't on New England's active list. The only other possibility was Philadelphia's Shawn Andrews, but his broken leg happened so early this season that I don't see how he could provide serious insight at this point in the season.

It hit me when I turned on ESPN for my nightly sports fix about 10 days ago. There was Chris Mortensen staring at me, the same Chris Mortensen who popped in and out of Razorback football practices last fall to watch his son, freshman quarterback Alex Mortensen. Chris moved his family to the Northwest Arkansas area, settling in Bella Vista, last summer. He does a lot of his ESPN work from a studio set up for him on the UA campus.

One of the nice things that happened last fall (maybe one of the few fun things in a 5-6 season) was getting to know the elder Mortensen. Always respectful and generous with his time to the local media, Mortensen has grown on all of us. If it's true that he respects the local guys, I am even more respectful of Mortensen and the thoroughness in his preparation for his job as ESPN's chief NFL analyst. He's always on target with breaking news. And, he's doing all of that from Northwest Arkansas.

This should be Mortensen's busiest week, with on-site practice reports in Jacksonville for Sunday's game. Mortensen has spent time with both teams and if there is someone who knows this game inside and out, he's it. So, I thought, that's where I'm going. I'll try to track him down.

One email later, and I've got his personal mobile number with one question in his reply, "What's the best time and day for you?"I picked the day, but I made him pick the time. Worked out great, although we did get interrupted when someone beeped in on his cell to inform him (ahead of everyone else) that Emmitt Smith was going to announce his retirement.

We had visited for 45 minutes when I decided I'd taken enough of his time. You need more, you got it, he responded. I could have listened for hours. He is the man on NFL stuff for ESPN and that says a lot.

I only asked a couple of questions. Better to just listen to his thoughts on the two teams than to show him how little I know about the NFL. I'm a casual viewer on the NFL. He knows I'm a college reporter. No use trying to pretend.

I wanted to know his favorite Super Bowl, and he came up with two. But he had memorable moments from many others. The first, he said, was easy to pick because "it was my first, '79 with the Steelers and the Rams. That was memorable because the Rams had them down at halftime. But (Terry) Bradshaw and (John) Stallworth had different ideas and they came back in the second half."

Next favorite for Mort, as they call him on ESPN, had to be the "Broncos and the Patriots in San Diego. That might actually be my personal favorite. My roots are in California and I covered John Elway when he played high school football there. I still think Elway and Terry Bradshaw are the best physical talents to ever play quarterback in the NFL."

Mortensen detailed that game and the Denver comeback that included a key scramble by Elway with a headfirst dive for a first down.

"Elway had those two bad knees and he went airborne on that 8-yard run to get past the stake," Mortensen said. "I'll always remember that one. I had Alex fly out for that game. He's always been an Elway fan. You know he has always wanted to wear No. 7, Elway's number. I know that was special for Alex to see him play such a great game."

Mortensen reeled off other Super Bowl highlights, including the '85 game that turned into the predicted Bears runaway.

"You can say that wasn't a great game, but I think it's impressive to see a great team apply the knockout," he said. "I remember that game for Mike Ditka putting in The Fridge, William Perry, for a touchdown run late in the game. He had Walter Payton over on the sideline when he should have been the one scoring his Super Bowl touchdown. Ditka still admits he blew it on that call."

What will the '05 game be remembered for? Terrell Owens is getting the most coverage, but that's not what Mortensen and I discussed. In fact, his name wasn't mentioned. Mort talked about the great minds in the game, the coordinators and the head coaches and whether the Patriots would be the same after some of their assistants head to other jobs next season.

Charlie Weis, the Patriots' offensive play caller, will become head coach at Notre Dame on Monday. His role in Sunday's game should not be minimized, Mortensen emphasized.

"Charlie Weis is a genius," Mortensen said. "You hear that term a lot in football, but I mean he is really a genius. He may be the only true genius in the NFL. He scored a perfect 1,600 on the SAT. He's got a 160 IQ. That comes in handy in football.

"There are a lot of people who can draw up Xs and Os. I remember Joe Gibbs telling me that there were a lot of coordinators who can come up with brilliant game plans during the week. The key is what happens after the kickoff. Can they manage a game? Who makes the in-game adjustment.

"Weiss is brilliant at that. I'm not talking about what happens at halftime. I'm talking about making them between plays during the first, second and third quarter. Can they see what is happening on the field with the human element and then fix the problems. Charlie is great at that."

That's also a Bill Belichick trademark, too, according to Mortensen.

"Bill does it for the defense," Mortensen said. "He's just like Charlie in that respect. You have two great ones there."

Mortensen broke down both teams in detail, but we don't have space to cover it here. Let's just do the quarterbacks, New England's Tom Brady and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb.

"It's a great match," Mortensen said. "Brady is a great one. He has the pocket presence of a Dan Marino. He's as accurate as anyone I've seen. I compare him a lot to Troy Aikman. Some are talking about Joe Montana, because of the number of Super Bowls. He's going after his third. But I look at Brady and think of Troy. Brady does have that Montana poise. That is a fair comparison.

"But I think McNabb is a great one, too. He's done it about as well as any quarterback this season. He's playing so well. He hasn't had to run, although that might be required in this game. I think people are starting to appreciate what McNabb can do. He had a great performance in the NFC title game and he's been consistent in the playoffs this year. I expect him to have a great performance."

That doesn't mean Mortensen is picking the Eagles. He sounded like a hard lean to the Pats, although he didn't say it. The line has been solid for New England for two weeks and he thinks it's fair.

"Very much so," he said. "You are talking about a team which has won 31 of 33 games. They've won two of the last three (Super Bowls). They've shut down the best offenses and scored on the best defenses. Statistically, you might argue against that statement, but I look at what happens in the red zone. That's where the Patriots are so good."

I came away thinking Chris Mortensen's pretty good, too.


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