“People stress the violence. That's the smallest part of it. Football is brutal only from a distance. In the middle of it there's a calm, a tranquility. The players accept pain. There's a sense of order even at the end of a running play with bodies strewn everywhere. When the systems interlock, there's a satisfaction to the game that can't be duplicated. There's a harmony.” -- Don DeLillo
Well…no matter which side of the fence you sit on, there’s one thing that nobody can deny, and that is this: If you write a sports column for any length of time, you give yourself virtually limitless opportunities to look like a really, really huge dork. Like the time, in Part Two of my NFC Preview, when I picked the Philadelphia Eagles to finish the 2004 season at 8-8. I picked the Cowboys to win the NFC East, too. This is why I don't operate heavy machinery!
In the week following that article, a large number of Eagle fans scalded my Inbox, making their feelings known. And all I have to say is this: Guys, I’ve checked with the doctors. Most of your suggestions were physically impossible. Tom Wilson, one of the more reasonable Eagle rooters, simply asked me to put my back behind the smack and make the following bet:
If the Eagles finished 8-8 or worse, Tom would send me a case of the microbrew of my choice.
If the Eagles finished 9-7 or better, I’d tout the Philly team in one of my articles and explain WHY I was wrong. Worse, I’d be buying my own beer.
Well, call me John Kerry,
‘cause I’m ready to concede. They’re 7-1, and they ain’t
tanking it to a 1-7 tune down the stretch. So where did I go wrong when I wrote
“After losing three consecutive NFC Championships, the Eagles felt that drastic change was in order. So, after fielding one of the more consistently balanced teams of the new millennium, the Eags blew it all up, took a stiff swig of the red liquor, pushed all the chips to the middle, and gambled big on the two free agent prizes of the 2003 offseason – former Titans DE Jevon Kearse and All-Time Pain In The Butt Terrell Owens. Wild, wacky stuff!
The upside of these moves? Well, if he can keep his head on straight, T.O. provides Donovan McNabb with the Total Receiver Package he’s never had. And if he can stay healthy, Kearse The Freak will no doubt continue his terror-strikes against every QB the Eagles oppose. But in two Yankee-esque moves, this team may have just spent their way out of another division title.
Owens’ main problem in Philly? With Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell as his accomplices, he’ll see more than his share of double coverage…his acquisition could wind up being better for Pinkston and Mitchell than for Owens himself. And as soon as coach Andy Reid starts spreading the ball around and T.O. sees his stats head south as a decoy…well, we’ve seen THAT movie before.
Kearse has no such antisocial tendencies…what he does have is a frightening injury history for someone who just bagged a large portion of the team’s total cap. And in a cap-driven league, you simply cannot put this much pressure on two players – I don’t care how good they are. Were the Eagles too depressed after the NFC Championship to watch the Super Bowl and see two well-balanced teams go Ali-Frazier on each other? Apparently.
And what of the position depth? Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent are gone, leaving a mere shell of Philly’s formerly stellar secondary. Tough-guy RB Duce Staley is now a Steeler and the Eags are just hoping Brian Westbrook can stay healthy. LB Jeremiah Trotter might be a bargain at essentially the vet minimum, but there’s no denying it…this is a franchise that has blown apart the big picture for one shot at glory. Wrong sport, guys…"
Here’s the short version of “What The Hell Was I Thinking?!?!?”:
1. I believed that Terrell Owens was a top-tier receiver, but also a guy with too much baggage to make his acquisition worthwhile. I thought he’d completely upset the applecart in Philly. While there’s no doubt that T.O has added to the quite considerable laundry list of people who want him poleaxed on a post pattern once and for all (Ozzie Newsome, Ray Lewis, Jeff Garcia and about half the hand-wringing sports journalists in America, yours truly quite possibly included), it hasn’t seemed to affect the team. Yet. Whether that has to do with his relationship with McNabb, Andy Reid’s hands-off policy (less to rebel against?) or his own production, Owens hasn’t carved this team in half. Yet. And it isn’t like his former 49ers are any better, on or off the field, without him.
It all begins with McNabb,
I believe. T.O and D-Mac have a tangible rapport, an X-Factor – like Unitas
and Berry, Starr and McGee, Montana and Rice, Young and Rice, uh…Druckenmiller
and Rice, Gannon and Rice (apparently, everyone but Hasselbeck and Rice). McNabb
seems content to play the Career Diplomat to Owens’ Barking Junkyard Poodle,
but they seem to get each other. Simpatico. That’s why it works. Although,
if you want to take T.O.’s sideline outburst during the one game the Eagles
have LOST in his time there as “Oh-oh…here we go again…”,
who could blame you?
There’s very little about Owens that’s defensible in my mind. But that’s me. My aesthetic runs far more towards Barry Sanders than Deion Sanders. Doesn’t mean that what he’s doing isn’t working…and I think a lot of people have a problem separating the clueless punk from the great player. The inverse argument (which I have used more than once) is that we, as fans, are under no obligation whatsoever to find the diamonds in the dung. Especially when Owens seems to go out of his way to be despicable. That’s me speaking as a fan.
As a writer, though, I DO have an obligation to separate the player from the man. Or, at the very least, admit my difficulty in doing so. The question that will ultimately determine Owens’ legacy to this thing called football is whether or not he can make the player and the man stand up in any manner of harsh light. The kind of light, say, brought on by an NFC Championship game…
2. I was convinced that the Eagles were banking far too much on Kearse, an awesome defensive player who’s missed a lot of career time with injuries. But so far, it’s been Grant Wistrom, the other big-ticket free-agent defensive end, that’s been off the field more than on, while Kearse has cemented the Philly D.
3. Regarding the hit to the Eagles’ cap and the “overwhelming dependence” on Owens and Kearse? It seems to be working so far, no? Not much I can say about that. The NFL is the ultimate risk-reward league. Philly pushed all the chips in and wound up with four aces. And as my esteemed colleague Scott Jones pointed out in his recent “Beat The Man Midseason Report”, Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent have been relative non-factors with their new teams while the Eagles sit pretty with the 2nd-ranked defense in the NFL (points per game, although they’re 24th in yards allowed, which is kinda strange).
There you have it, angry Philly Phans…one sportswriter’s mea culpa.
So are the Philadelphia Eagles the Best Damn Team In Football? Uhhh…they were for about a week. Then, they were derailed by a juggernaut that nobody seems able to stop.
The Five Best Damn Teams In Football
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-1): When Bill Cowher inked a contract extension in the offseason that made him the Steelers’ head coach through 2007, you’d have to forgive the Pittsburgh faithful for eschewing the handsprings and huzzahs. This, after all, was the second extension Cowher had been given after his team failed to make the playoffs the year before. Was ownership asleep at the wheel? Was the team looking for stability after the departure of highly regarded offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to the Buffalo Bills’ head job? Was the front office in a state of perma-coast with the longest-tenured coach in the NFL?
The answer to that last question? Let’s just say it’s a Big. Fat. No. The Steelers had a solid defense and a running game in need of reclamation (augmented by the acquisition of the Eagles’ Duce Staley), but after 12 years of trying to put his team over the top with Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, The Kordell Stewart Roller Coaster and erstwhile overachiever Tommy Maddox, Cowher decided that 4 AFC Championship games, a Super Bowl loss and a 115-76-1 career coaching record just wasn’t enough. It was time to get a marquee quarterback.
And while the rest of the world was awash in the “Where Will Eli Go?” fiasco, the Steelers had their sights set on a kid with ungodly intangibles and a name that appeared to be Greek to some scouting departments.
More’s the pity. Cowher and the Steelers drew the Ben Roethlisberger lot, and the rest has been almost inconceivable history. We’ll detail the kid’s season a little later on (when we talk about the absolute joke he’s made of any Rookie Of The Year Awards), but let’s just say that Pittsburgh might be on to something reeeeeeeeally special here.
2. New England Patriots (7-1): OK, forget about the 21 wins in a row. Fine. Everyone’s sick of talking about it, right? Let’s instead talk about the way the Pats rebounded from that loss to the Steelers. Against The Artists Formerly Known As The Greatest Show On Turf (on their turf, nonetheless!) with most of their receiving corps out, their shutdown corner out, their star running back probable and their mojo seemingly spent. Touchdown passes to linebackers? Kickers throwing pinpoint TDs? Wide receivers providing emergency coverage? HUH??? They’re not perfect, they are mortal and they will bleed, but they’ll draw more blood than they’ll shed 99 times out of 100. And that’s why they’re the Champs until someone knocks them off the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (7-1): See above, says the dorky sportswriter!
4. New York Jets (6-2): It’s HAAAAAAAARD to win in the NFL, says Jets coach Herman Edwards. True dat, but it’s a lot easier when Chad Pennington hits the Pantheon, Curtis Martin gets a jolt from the Juvenation Machine (© Bill Simmons) and a defense comes together (VILMA!!!). What I find difficult to understand is the reluctance of some to hoist the Jets on that elite pedestal. And I sensed that reluctance before the Bills upset them last week. An underrated New York team. Is that even possible???
5. Atlanta Falcons (6-2): Coin flip here – it could have just as easily been the Chargers in the five-slot. I’d like to know just what the heck got into Drew Brees, wouldn’t you? But I like the Falcons just a little bit more. With Alex Gibbs coaching that O-Line, Rich McKay manning the front office, Jim Mora, Jr. looking remarkably veteran-like in his debut season as a head coach and Michael Vick surprising some with his ability to begin to adapt to the West Coast Offense, the Falcons look like a team who belongs here. The defense, which was very strong to start, has been a bit worrisome of late. That’s what could knock them off.
Studs Of The Year
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts: No, it’s not a surprise what he’s doing this season. Far from a shock that he’s unquestionably the best quarterback in the NFL. So, who needs surprises? Just stand back and watch the bullets fly! Two things I do find very interesting about Mr. Manning right now – first, that he’s right on pace to make Dan Marino’s 1984 season an afterthought, and second, a stat I really love. In the Colts’ 8 games this season, Manning’s QB rating when his team is ahead is 98.4. When they’re behind? An astonishing 120.8. And with the Colts’ cheesecloth defense, Peyton’s playing from the wrong side of the eight-ball far more than he should be. THAT, my friends, is a Most Valuable Player. Now, Peyton, about those Patriots…
2. Randy Moss, WR, Minnesota Vikings: This is sort of a “co-vote” for Moss and his QB, Daunte Culpepper. With Reggie Wayne emerging as another threat in Indy along with Marvin Harrison, there isn’t a QB-WR tandem in the NFL that relies on each other more than Culpepper/Moss. We’re going to talk about mentorship and leadership when we talk about Ed Reed next up – I think some credit should be given here to former Viking WR Cris Carter, who overcame his own early demons to show both Moss and Culpepper the way.
3. Ed Reed, S, Baltimore Ravens: In which Ray Lewis’ “Grasshopper” becomes the Kwai Chang Caine of the NFL and starts kicking unenlightened redneck tail on his own. You had a feeling about Reed if you followed his path. Lewis took Reed, the Ravens’ first-round pick in 2002 under his wing and told him how it could be: “Come learn it MY way. The Spartan Way. Eat right, watch film at my house until your eyes glaze over and have me bust your chops in the gym every day. Then, just maybe, you’ll grow wings and I can watch you fly.” Ed Reed understood. Last year, I contended that Lewis should have been the 2003 NFL MVP because of the “Big Brother” thing…he’s almost as much a coach as he is perhaps the best linebacker ever to play the game. When you drink THAT Kool-Aid, you’re returning 106-yard interceptions for touchdowns and making everyone in the league throw the other way before you know it.
Honorable Mention(s): Priest Holmes, RB, Kansas City Chiefs, Shaun Alexander, RB, Seattle Seahawks, Terrell Owens, WR, Philadelphia Eagles.
Comeback Players Of The Year (so far):
1. Drew Brees, QB, San Diego Chargers: So…WOW. What did it take? Another year in the box? The fact that the Chargers drafted Philip Rivers? The rich, chocolatey taste of Ovaltine? Whatever it is, it’s working. 18 TDs and 3 INTs. A 108.7 QB ranking (third in the NFL, behind only Manning and Culpepper), and the Big Jump from “maybe…” to “definitely!” Wherever he goes in 2005, he’ll arrive in a whole new tax bracket, respectwise.
2. Shawn Springs, CB, Washington Redskins: Ouch. Was it us or was it him? I dunno. What I do know is that when Springs went to our nation’s capital after the 2003 season and discovered Gregg Williams’ hyperactive defense, he morphed back into the stud corner he used to be (three sacks, three picks in 2004 so far) and helped alleviate the hurtin’ that the loss of Champ Bailey was supposed to have caused. What he looked like toward his end in Seattle was an injury-prone has-been with a 2-inch vertical leap and a disturbing proclivity for whistling merry tunes in the locker room following agonizing losses. Maybe it was us AND him…but I’d still take Ken Lucas and Marcus Trufant any day of the week.
3. Corey Dillon, RB, New England Patriots: Another “reclamation project” that some teams probably didn’t want to risk. Wonder what they thought when Team Belichick picked him up? Wonder what they thought when he rushed for 749 yards in seven games (the game he missed due to injury was against the Steelers. The Pats, uh, lost that one)? Wonder what they thought when he did it without a hint of disruptiveness? Personally, I’d be thinking that there are times when a player and a system meet in perfect harmony. This would be one of those times.
AFC Rookie Of The Year (so far):
1. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Just wrap up the award and send it to Big Ben right now…this competition is OVER. I think Roethlisberger is a clone of Tom Brady sent from New England to Pittsburgh for future draft considerations under the table…how else do you explain this? He’s 6-0 as a starter so far in his NFL career? He leads the team that beat the Pats and Eags in consecutive weeks? REALLY??? Holy Terry Bradshaw, Batman…there’s a new sheriff in the Iron City.
Jonathan Vilma, LB, New York Jets: Like I wouldn’t find a way
to stick him on here? Please. VILMA!!! VIIIIIIIIIIIIIILMAAAAAAA!!! Fortunately,
the kid from “Da U” who I so desperately wanted for my Seahawks
has lived up to this writer’s preseason mushy-gushy. I watched him play
in the Monday Night game against the Fins – he was running around like
his butt was on fire. In the Jets’ loss to Buffalo last week, he had 10
tackles and five assists. He’s smart, fast, aware, he plays the angles,
and he’s fit right in. Undersized? Yeah, right. And all I can do is speculate
shamelessly as to what kind of extraterrestrial damage an Anthony Simmons/Jonathan
Vilma OLB combo would exact on the NFL. Hmmm. How long’s that rookie contract???
3. Dunta Robinson, CB, Houston Texans: Robinson’s really stepped it up in his last four games, with three INTs and nine passes defensed. He could well be the cornerstone of the Texans’ rapidly improving defense.
NFC Rookie Of The Year (so far):
1. Michael Clayton, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Let’s see. Keenan McCardell holds out and gets himself traded to the Chargers. Buh-bye Keyshawn. Joey Galloway and Joe Jurevicius get hurt and miss serious time. And Michael Clayton, the Bucs’ first-round pick from LSU, steps up and grabs 42 catches for 595 yards. That’ll work!
2. Mewelde Moore, RB, Minnesota Vikings: The name is Swahili and means “he who gets his wisdom, knowledge and strength from God.” Mike Tice would have to agree. Gets a very slight nod as the best rookie RB over Steven Jackson of the Rams, if only because he’s been used more. With the Vikings’ running game in serious flux, Moore has been a paragon of stability. Not bad for a fourth-round pick, no?
3. Michael Boulware, S, Seattle Seahawks: Yes, the former Florida State linebacker is still learning his new position, and there are times when he’s been caught out of place both as a safety and as a nickel LB. But he’s been in the right place enough to bag three interceptions and a forced fumble (not to mention one of the “Jacked Up!” moments of the year when he just decimated Tom Brady, causing the aforementioned fumble). This is a very special player – buy the stock while it’s reasonable.
The “Vince Lombardi Is Smiling At Yoooooou!!!” awards:
1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots: As Bum Phillips once said of Don Shula, “He can take his’n and beat your’n, or take your’n and beat his’n”. Cornpone philosophizing and all, it’s a pretty fair description of the man to whom losing has become antimatter.
2. Herman Edwards, New York Jets: Maybe the best motivator in the NFL. His players would kill for him. Someday, I’m going to really enjoy watching an African-American coach win a Super Bowl, pounding the very last nail in the figurative coffins of every Al Campanis and Rush Limbaugh in the world. I wouldn’t put it past Edwards to be the one to do it, either.
3. Jim Mora, Jr., Atlanta Falcons: Too bad they don’t have a Rookie Of The Year award for coaches – Mora would have this sewn up. It would be one thing to come in new and just wind Michael Vick up and watch him go. Quite another to not only train him in the ways of the West Coast Offense (thereby looking ahead to when he’s past thirty years old and can’t do that stuff anymore), but to also transform the Falcons’ D from a 3-4 finesse-ridden Goof Troop into a 4-3 monster that likes to eat quarterbacks. Keep an eye on Mora – something tells me he’ll be an elite name very soon. Betcha dad’s proud, too!
4. Marty Schottenheimer, San Diego Chargers: Well, there’s still a gleam. I’ve always had a great deal of admiration for Marty Schottenheimer, but I was beginning to wonder if his time in Washington and what looked like a dead-end street in San Diego would tarnish his legacy forever. Then, Steve Spurrier went and coached the Redskins, making just about everyone else who had ever done so (including Otto Graham!) look pretty good in comparison. Now, he’s got a Charger team that went 4-12 last year at a 6-3 clip and tied for the lead in the AFC West. They’re young, they’re hungry, and they believe. This is a guy that I just like to see back on top. Good on ya, Marty!
The “I hope You Didn’t Pay Full Price For That Headset!” awards:
1. Dennis Erickson, San Francisco 49ers: Ever have one of those days on the golf course when you just couldn’t get out of the sandtrap? Ever have a couple YEARS like that? It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing about the once-proud Niners – the organization’s seeming inability to keep itself out of the salary cap purgatories that generally cause 10-year rebuilding programs, or the malaise that surrounds such ill-advised thinking. In any case, Dennis Erickson had a good thing going at Oregon State. He wanted another chance to prove himself in the pros. This was NOT the way. Hard to say how much you can even blame Erickson – he was given nothing to work with. If he’s smart, he’ll get the hell out and let someone else steer the Titanic.
2. Jim Haslett, New Orleans Saints: With Miami’s Dave Wannstedt out of the picture, it is now Haslett for whom the bell tolls. With so much talent and so many consecutive playoff whiffs (the Saints haven’t made it to the postseason since 2000, Haslett’s first season), it would seem a fait accompli. The more interesting question may be: Will Haslett’s successor be coaching the L.A. Something-or-Others down the line?
3. Norv Turner, Oakland Raiders: What’s the title of the most interesting psychology study I could imagine? How about, “Why I Want To Coach A Team That Is Run By Al Davis”? No offense, Norv, but AIIIIIIEEEEE. This is not 1969, Kerry Collins is not Daryle Lamonica, Jerry Porter is not Warren Wells, and you are not John Madden. Defenses in the modern age are too complex for “Bombs AWAYYYYY!!!” 25 times a game. That’s why it was the West Coast Offense of Gruden and Gannon that put the Raiduhs in the Super Bowl a couple years ago. Norv, I know you’re a damn fine offensive coordinator, and I know you’ll find another gig when, sooner than later, King Al comes around and decides that it’ll be someone else who’ll bring him his sixties flashback dream. As with Dennis and the Niners, Norv, the odds are that it won’t really be your fault.
Just One Rant Before I Go (Tra-la-la…): Generally speaking, I regard the concept of reality TV with about the same hostility you’d get from a Mike Shanahan-Al Davis blind date. But there is one notable exception. ESPN’s “Dream Job”, in which talented unknowns battle it out for a one-year contract as a SportsCenter anchor, has me parked in front of the boob tube every Tuesday night. Why? Maybe it’s because I wanted to be a sportscaster as a kid, and it’s fascinating to see the mechanism behind such a career choice. Perhaps it’s because I’ve gained some measure of respect for sportscasters as a breed when I see how tough it really is. I think what I most enjoy about the show is the quality of the contestants, especially when, as happened last Tuesday, the semifinal elimination drilled the finalists down to two.
These three semifinalists (David, Grant, and Anish, who was cut) were all on their game. They all brought knowledge and a distinct ability to bring that knowledge across. I thought later about what a tough cut Anish was, and how relieved David and Grant were to still be on the island. Then, my mind roamed to the profanity-laced tirades that generally accompany my “enjoyment” of televised professional football. Not naming any names, but it occurred to met that any of these three kids could probably torch half the football announcers fans have to endure.
Then, my mind wandered to the recent TV deal the NFL signed with CBS and FOX…EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS over six more years (extending the current deal through 2011). Guys, you gotta take some of that money and put some analysts together that won’t embarrass you. Thirty years ago, Howard Cosell railed against the coming “jockocracy”, when an announcer’s athletic achievements would overshadow his or her professionalism, accuracy and ability. Then, many thought Cosell was battling his own insecurity. While that may have been true, he now looks like a prophet.
Where are the wordsmiths who can actually enhance our enjoyment of the game? Who can personalize the visceral intensity of this sport we love? Is it all just (halfway mangled) stats? Hell no, I say! There’s so much more to it. There’s the human element. There’s the ability to learn. The potential for outrage. Barriers broken? New standards set? Or do you people who run the show REALLY want to entrust your eight-billion dollar investment in the national pastime to a bunch of robots, only half of whom seem to be able to talk their way out of a paper bag?
It is my humble request that “Dream Job” be expanded, and that the men and women who broadcast the NFL on a weekly basis be put on the spot. Let them compete. This ain’t a tenured gig, pal! If you can’t outswing that 23-year old future star with a hungry gleam in his eye…well, you don’t belong in that booth. You’re wasting oxygen! Sorry if that’s cruel, but above and beyond my own growing irritation and the irritation of many people I know with the plummeting excitement level of NFL broadcasts, I think it’s just bizarre that two networks would pay that much money to show something and throw the race before it even begins. The kids are out there…and they’ll surprise you. Give them a shot.
Or, failing that, I’ll
just nurture my growing affection for the mute button and a stack of CDs every
Sunday. I can go either way…
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.