Monday, January 31, 2005

A-Fraud speaks . . .

. . . and a Nation snickers.

Not two weeks after he talked some misguided smack about Curt Schilling, Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees' disgraced metrosexual third baseman - not to be confused with their metrosexual shortstop - is apparently flapping his purple lips again.

The subject of a puff piece by Yankees apologist Bob Klapisch on today, A-Fraud tries in his usual transparently disingenuous way to say all the right things, to take the blame without really taking the blame. And as usual, he still somehow manages to come out sounding like a jackbooted egomaniac.

Sayeth the Fraud:

"I thought it was a smart play, and we almost got away with it. We put an umpire in the position of having to turn over a call like that in Yankee Stadium. It gave us a shot. (Umpire) Jim Joyce told me, 'if you'd knocked the crap out of (Arroyo) it would've been legal because he was in your way.' So if I had a chance to do it again, I would've tried to run him over. Even though I probably would've hurt someone with my weight and velocity, dropping my shoulder down." - A-Fraud, on the controversial play in the eighth inning of Game 6. (Quick recap: With the Yankees trailing by two runs, Captain Jetes on first and one out, A-Fraud tried to slap the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove after a dribbler back to the mound. A-Fraud was called out for interference and Jetes had to gather up his intangibles and return to first base. The Yankees ultimately lost the game and the series in the greatest collapse in sports history. But you knew all that, didn't ya?)

And one more:

"This is still Jeter's team because he's the captain. But my approach is not to be everyone's best friend. My approach is to win championships. The only way to do that is to be myself, and to take care of my world. With my talent people will follow naturally." - A-Fraud, whose talent has naturally led exactly zero major league teams to a championship.

Okay, so A-Fraud's quotes don't do much beyond offering further proof that his ego is as large as his salary; I suppose they aren't that surprising or inflammatory. Truth is, I threw this bit together just as an excuse to post that photoshopped masterpiece one more time. Kinda helps get you through the winter, no?

Oh, and what the hell. Here's a real photo to warm the cockles . . .

See ya in six weeks, Leatherface. And please, keep talking. The comedy you provide is priceless.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Fred. Dead.

"Oh, I've got a little something for Harrison, too."

- Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Freddie "I'd Like To Thank My Mouth For Being So Loud" Mitchell, baiting Patriots safety Rodney Harrison while telling ESPN's Dan Patrick that he doesn't know the names of New England's defensive backs.

Now, Mitchell couldn't possibly have been suggesting that his "something" for Harrison will come in the form of success against him on the football field, right? Right?

Because if anyone knows Freddie Mitchell's statistics, it's Freddie Mitchell. And even he, deep down in the depths of his swollen ego, must know that season totals of 22 catches for 377 yards is something considerably less than impressive, particularly for a former first-round pick with at least three self-appointed nicknames.("Dropsies" is not one of them, and neither is "The Late Freddie Mitchell," though it could well be by halftime Sunday.)

Further, even the numbest of nuts knows not to cross Harrison. Not only is he one of the fiercest safeties in the NFL, he's one who is notorious for taking slights - real or perceived - and using them to fuel his motivation. Surely Mitchell didn't mean to give Harrison any more reason to want to violently concuss him. Which leads us back to our original question:

What could Freddie Mitchell possibly have for Rodney Harrison? It must be something. Could it be . . .

I) Candy and flowers, followed by an apology and a desperate, pathetic plea for his life?

II) Scabies?

III) A map featuring Philadelphia's finest landmarks? (No, really, Rodney. There's a lotta . . . a lotta culture here! It's a baby New York!)

IV) A formal request to be put out of his misery, preferably with repeated forearm shivers to the skull?

V) A "Right Said Fred" t-shirt?

VI) Nude photos of Elizabeth Hurley? Mitchell reportedly dated Hugh Grant's ex during his UCLA undergrad days. So he's got that going for him, which is nice.

(Gratuitous photo coming up right . . .)

. . . now. Dammmnn, Freddie. Now that's how you get respect!)

VII) Two catches for nine yards in a 31-6 loss?

I'm thinking it's likely going to be number seven, although that number of receptions might be on the generous side. If you have any other suggestions for what Mitchell might have meant (you know, ones that might actually be funny), well, hell, send 'em along.

In the meantime, I'll be staring at Liz here.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

One big, fat reason to root for Donovan McNabb

"I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team." - Rush Limbaugh (the big, fat idiot pictured above), claiming Donovan McNabb is overrated by the libreral media on ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, Sept. 28, 2003.

It seems appropriate at this point to note that since Limbaugh's big, fat idiotic comments, McNabb has won 28 starts while losing just 5, has led the Eagles to their third and fourth consecutive NFC championship games, has been voted to the Pro Bowl for the third and fourth times, has thrown for nearly 7,000 yards with 53 touchdown passes against 19 interceptions, and has the Eagles one upset victory away from their first Super Bowl victory. Whether his skin is black, white, orange, periwinkle or mauve, this much is true: since Limbaugh opened his cigar hole and spewed his ignorance, McNabb has been perhaps the elite quarterback in the National Football League.

Limbaugh's stats aren't quite so impressive. His biased, borderline racist assertion caused a predictable commotion and eventually got him fired from ESPN. Two weeks later he checked into drug rehab for addiction to painkillers after his maid spilled the beans (so to speak) to a tabloid. So it's possible that, yes, he actually was high when he ripped McNabb. Which would be his best explanation yet.

What bothers me is that McNabb, one of the most genuine and jovial star athletes of this era, still has to answer questions about Limbaugh's comments. (Hey, I've got a question: What the hell was Limbaugh doing on ESPN anyway? That's like Stu Scott getting a gig on 60 Minutes.) During that headache-inducing hypefest known as Super Bowl Media Day, McNabb is certain to be asked about Limbaugh a thousand times if he's asked about him once.

It's not fair that he still has to deal with this garbage - hell, I considered not writing about it, just to do my puny part in letting the story die. (Then I remembered I have seven readers, including you, mom.) But I know that McNabb will handle his inquisitors - even the ones who aren't liberal - with his usual humor, honesty and grace. I also know he'll remind me why, even though I'm rooting for the Patriots to prevail, I'll also be rooting for him to perform well.

And there's the irony, really: I couldn't have cared less how well Donovan McNabb played quarterback . . . until that big, fat idiot told me I did.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Throwback column: Dec. 5, 2001

It won't be the biggest story for the ESPN hypemeisters this week - not when will-he-play-or-won't-he status of Terrell Owens practically requires a "Breaking News" update on the ticker every other hour - but it's sure to be on the short list.

With a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles 10 days from now, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will have won three Lombardi Trophies in four seasons. Only Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman will have quarterbacked as many Super Bowl champions as Brady, and only Aikman did the 3-for-4 thing.

It will be a hell of an accomplishment for Brady . . . if it happens, that is. Apparently, the talking heads aren't willing to wait for something as insignificant as the game's outcome before proclaiming a champion. We're still several sunrises before gameday, and already a breathless debate rages regarding his standing among NFL quarterbacks.

Not among current quarterbacks, mind you. Among the all-time greatest quarterbacks.

For superstitious reasons, this is one topic we're going to save for another day. We don't like to count our championships before they've hatched, so to speak. But - knock on wood, or Dan Marino's forehead - it is not a stretch to say that should the Patriots defeat the Eagles come Feb. 6, Brady's name will belong in the same breath as Unitas and Starr, Montana and Elway, Bradshaw and Aikman.

He is poised to join heady company, the sport's most exclusive club. And as I pondered his historical legacy - okay, all right, I've thought about it some, jinxes be damned - it got me to thinking about those days, not so long ago, really, when we were first getting to know Tom Brady, to trust him, to believe that this swizzle-stick thin former sixth-round pick might be someone truly special.

As I am prone to do when trying to gain some semblance of perspective, I went rummaging through my archives, trying to pinpoint that moment when it was crystalized for me, that moment when I arrived at the realization - probably later than most, since I'm kinda slow - that Brady, and not the comfortably tenured Drew Bledsoe, should not only be the future of this football team, but the present as well.

This is what I came up with. This column was published Dec. 5, 2001, three days after Brady led the Patriots to a come-from-behind road victory over the then-first-place Jets, a victory that catapulted New England toward the AFC East title and, perhaps more than any other win, gave the team the confidence to believe that this calm, cool kid QB could take them to wonderful places. Like, say, New Orleans. And Houston.

With Brady and the Patriots once again arriving at football's pinnacle - for some reason located in Jacksonville this year - and with a special place in history one victory from their grasp, here, then, is a look back, to those brilliant days when it all began.

Dec. 5. 2001 - Admit it. You looked to Drew.  It was the first half of last Sunday's Patriots-Jets border war, and Tom Brady, the fresh, new golden boy, was being battered and bludgeoned like his name was Bledsoe. He was struggling, the offense was stagnating, and you were steaming.

That's when your eyes began creeping toward the $103-million backup plan standing on the sideline. While the thought may have been fleeting, it crossed your mind nonetheless: Maybe Bledsoe can save the day. Maybe Belichick should put him in.

Thirty joyous minutes of football later, and we may never look Bledsoe's way again.

In the second half, Brady enjoyed a breakout performance reminiscent of Bledsoe's 45-of-70, 426-yard coming out party in '94 against Minnesota. The Pats fought back for a thrilling 17-16 win over a bullying rival, and the suddenly optimistic residents of Patriotville were left with but one question:

Quarterback controversy? What quarterback controversy?

We now know this to be the undeniable truth: Tom Brady is the quarterback of the New England Patriots. For now. For the foreseeable future. For the bright future.

Oh, most Pats fans were hopeful of this before the Jets game. Even if you admire Bledsoe - and I do - you couldn't help but be intrigued by Brady, the Bay Area kid who grew up idolizing Joe Montana, and, as ridiculous as it sounds, seems possessed by his spirit.

We immediately bought the confidence and discipline and all the other intangibles. We appreciated the sense of tempo (Tom Jackson's term) that he brought to the suddenly lively offense. We fell for the charisma, the boyish, easy grin.

And yet .  .  .

He hadn't really been tested yet. I mean, really tested. Sure, he'd taken a few lumps: the four-pick fourth quarter versus Denver, the bouts with inconsistency versus the Rams and the Dolphins, a shaky throw here and there.

But he hadn't had to endure one of those bloody Sundays that Bledsoe had become so accustomed to, those painful afternoons when the running game is stuck in neutral and the offensive line in reverse.

Brady hadn't faced true adversity.

The Jets presented Brady with plenty of it. This is how he handled it:

He stood up, picked the grass out of his teeth, and fought back.

After a feeble first half in which he completed five of 11 passes for 53 yards, he spearheaded an extraordinary team effort in the second half, going 15-of-17 for 160 yards in the Pats' most enjoyable come-from-behind victory in a calendar's worth of Sundays.

It was yet another passed test in this young quarterback's emergence. It may have been the most difficult. It surely was the most important.

We learned to trust these Pats in that second half, to realize that the possibilities for this proud collection of misfits are endless. We learned beyond a modicum of doubt that we can trust Brady, too.

Last Sunday, the Pats became a team. Brady's team.

There's irony here, if you're looking. In recent years, Bledsoe fought too many of the Pats' battles alone. Now that the Pats have some soldiers, some talent, he's no longer the field general.

Of course it's not fair. But to paraphrase Jerry Glanville, that's what NFL stands for - the Not Fair League. The cold, hard truth is, Brady has outperformed him.

Our respect for Bledsoe blinded us to his flaws; Brady has forced us to see them. The new guy doesn't have his predecessor's fastball - who does, other than the Green Bay Gunslinger? - but he does every one of the small things better.

Brady sells the play-action with a magician's sleight-of-hand. He gets rid of the ball in a nanosecond, which is why he rarely gets creamed in the empty-backfield formation, the one they ran so successfully in the second half against the Jets. He's decisive and efficient in the red zone.

And while he hardly is blessed with Donovan McNabb's footwork, he is just mobile enough. Remember that game-clinching 1¾-yard run, where he sprinted right, got hit and somehow spun for the first down? Think Bledsoe would have made it? Nope, no way. We saw what happens when he tries to run the last time he played the Jets: he winds up with a tube stuck in his chest.

It saddens me to think that Mo Lewis's savage hit may mark Bledsoe's final on-field act as a Patriot. He has meant so much to the franchise in his nine years, and for all his flaws, he has been nothing less than an outstanding quarterback.

No doubt he will be again. He's 29, healthy and hungry. For the first time since - well, when, Pop Warner? - he has something to prove.

Which, exactly, is why he must go. He casts too big a shadow. As long as Bledsoe is here, there will always be that temptation to look to him whenever Brady is struggling.

That wouldn't be fair to either player. Brady shouldn't have to look over his shoulder. Bledsoe shouldn't have to watch an understudy star in the role he made famous.

Right now, Bledsoe is masking his hurt and frustration with his usual class, but you just know his heart is aching. Somewhere beneath all that Bourquesque dignity and common sense lurks the well-fed ego of a professional athlete. He thinks he should be playing. He thinks his coach lied to him and likes the other guy better. If he doesn't yet think it's time to move on, he will in time.

Our best guess: He'll ask for a trade before the last light is turned off in Foxboro Stadium. And the Pats will appease him before the first light is turned on at CMGI.

It's too bad it has to be this way. But it must. Wonderful things are happening to the Patriots, with Brady playing quarterback.

It cannot be a coincidence. It is his team now.

If we catch ourselves looking to Bledsoe again, it will be only to say goodbye.

(This column was originally published in the Concord Monitor.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Just plain sick

News item: According to this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was bed-ridden with a 103-degree fever the night before the Patriots beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game.

The magazine reported that Brady had an intravenous line in his left arm Saturday night while fighting off chills in his Pittsburgh hotel room.

Naturally, Brady threw for two touchdowns with no interceptions to lead the Patriots to a 41-27 victory and their third Super Bowl appearance in four years.

In a related story, Brady confirmed last night that he intends on contracting whooping cough, gout, scurvy, swine flu, rickets, irritable bowel syndrome, and ear mites in the two weeks before the Super Bowl, then playing flawlessly against the Eagles "just because I can." He also mentioned that he has a goiter.

SI writer Peter King, who first reported the story, was waxing and buffing Brett Favre's little red Corvette and could not be reached for comment.

I'm too sexy for my shirt

Not sure, but I think that's T.O.'s promotional photo from his long-forgotten and regrettable film debut: Wide Receivers XXXIX: Goin' Deep. And to think they told him it would be tastefully done. Poor, naive kid. He's still scarred, you know.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

First and 10: Patriots-Steelers

So here they go again, to that familiar destination that never, ever gets old. For the third time in four years, the New England Patriots are on their way to the Super Bowl, having left one more demolished opponent in their wake.

One week after embarrassing league MVP Peyton Manning and dismantling his supposedly unstoppable Colts' offense, the Patriots stomped onto Heinz Field in Pittsburgh today and put a devastating end to the Pittsburgh Steelers' 15-game win streak, winning by a 41-27 score that really wasn't that close.

In claiming the fifth AFC Championship in their history, the Patriots accomplished a few other tasks against the Steelers:

They taught rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger (3 picks, fear in his eyes) that he has a long way to go before he is as good as the starmakers want us to believe he is.

They reminded Bill Cowher that there is more to coaching that sticking your chin out and spitting like a rabid mutt.

And they put up 41 spectacular points on the league's most impenetrable defense. It's no wonder that by the end of the day, all that those cute little yellow Terrible Towels were good for was wiping up blood, tears and, presumably, ketchup.

So . . . any more questions, NFL-know-it-alls?

Didn't think so. After what we've witnessed the last two weeks, everyone from Peyton Manning's daddy to Bill Cowher's dentist must realize that the Patriots are far and away the premier team in the NFL. There is no one else close, the Philadelphia Eagles included, as Donovan McNabb's soup-hawking mom is about to find out if she hasn't been paying attention.

Here's the truth about these Patriots: It's not just that they decimate their opponents . . . it's that they do it by systematically destroying what the opponent does best, by hammering them, humiliating them and filling them with self-doubt. They have an uncanny talent for morphing into exactly what they need to be on a particular day. One week, they're making the high-flying Colts look like they're just learning how throw a forward pass. The next week, they're making Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain Revisited defense look like it is made of doilies and lace.

The Patriots beat you at your own game, beat you with strategy, smarts and a hell of a lot of talent, and when it looks like you may be showing signs of life, they beat you down and step on your throat for good measure.

And just where has this approach taken them? To the Super Bowl, one more time. And to the brink of history.

With two weeks of insufferable hype awaiting - as if we'll buy it when the network hairdos try to convince us the Eagles have a chance - it's First and 10, Patriots . . .

1) There was a certain been-there, done-that feel to the Patriots' postgame celebration, much more subdued than in the past. Even Bob Kraft kept it short and sweet on the podium, perhaps fearing he might be propositioned by the man presenting the AFC Championship trophy, Joe Namath. ("Mr. Kraft . . . I want to kisssth you.") I don't mean to suggest that the Patriots are getting bored with winning AFC Championships; I simply took their understated but clearly joyous celebration took to mean that they realize there is unfinished business two weeks from now, and once that is resolved, then and only then will it be time to party like a champ.

2) Belichick is now 9-1 in the postseason, tying him with some cat named Lombardi for the all-time best playoff mark. A win against the Eagles next week, and that will make five rings for Belichick - two as the defensive coordinator for Bill Parcells's Giants, and three as the head honcho here. (Not that we're counting championships before they've hatched, mind you.) My point: The debate is no longer about whether he's a better coach than the Tuna. The debate is about whether any coach in history can measure up to him.

3) If one play in the game symbolized what these Patriots are all about, it was Rodney Harrison slowing up 50 yards into his 87-yard interception return for a touchdown, allowing Mike Vrabel to catch up and cream the remaining would-be tackler, poor Mr. Roethlisberger. The Patriots' intelligence, hustle and desire were magnified by the fact that every other Steeler abandoned pursuit about the time the pass settled into Harrison's hands.

4) Not that the Steelers gave up on the game, mind you. The Patriots held leads of 10-0, 24-3 and 31-10, yet Pittsburgh never allowed the leads to seem insurmountable - their resolve was impressive. If there was a turning point, it came early in the fourth quarter, with the Pats leading 31-17 and Pittsburgh looking at a first-and-goal from the Pats' 6. The Pats held their ground, as they so often do in short-yardage situations, and the Steelers found themselves facing fourth-and-goal from the 1. Bill Cowher kicked the field goal, the safe move if not the correct one. I couldn't fault him for taking the points there, but I also looked at it this way: If Bettis (or the underutilized Duce Staley) punches it in for a touchdown, the Pats' lead is down to 7 and all the momentum is in the home team's favor. I know I'm not the only one who breathed a sigh of relief when Pittsburgh settled for the three points.

5) Brady was 14-of-21 for 207 yards and two TDs, numbers that once again don't come close to explaining how truly spectacular he was. The Steelers pressured him all day with their fierce blitz and challenged him to throw deep. So what does he do? He steps up in the pocket and lets it rip. When he hit Branch in stride for a 60-yard touchdown (and 10-0 lead) in the first quarter, the first thing I thought: That might the prettiest deep ball I've ever seen. Second thing: Bet the Bledsoe toadies who claimed Brady couldn't throw deep are feeling foolish once again. Anyway, there's only one stat that matters to this guy: 8-0. I imagine you know what it represents.

6) Corey Dillon and Deion Branch (below, with David Givens after Branch's 60-yard TD reception) combined for 228 yards and three touchdowns. Think Steeler fans still believe their absence in the earlier meeting was nothing but a Pats fan's excuse for the loss?

7) Dillon didn't have sparkling final stats - 24 carries for 73 yards and a touchdown - but he ran as hard as always while absorbing some vicious whacks from the hard-hitting Steeler defense. It may not be fair to say that Dillon wanted this one more than anyone - that might be underestimating the will of his teammates - but I think we can say that no one is savoring it more than the emancipated Bengal. As the game wound to a close, Dillon was whooping and barking and flexing, more jacked and pumped than Pete Carroll on quaaludes. As my buddy Mistler said: What was up with Dillon channeling David Banner at the end of the game? He was rather Hulk-like, though he never quite turned green. That was left to the Steelers, who could not hide the color of their envy.

8) And the beat goes on for the best postseason kicker in NFL history. Three minutes into the game, and Adam Vinatieri ties the record for the longest field-goal in Heinz Field history, a 48-yard boot that must have felt like kicking an anvil in the frigid temperatures. I'm almost hoping he kicks another game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl, just solidify his Hall of Fame case even more. I'd rather he kick about six extra points, though.

9) Two picks for Eugene Wilson - one that set the tone early, and one that sealed the deal late. The kid is starting to remind me of Ronnie Lott in his early incarnation during the Niner dynasty - a cornerback who switched to safety and became a killer hitter. I'm not saying he's that good. But I'm not saying he won't be, either.

10) If you're a lifelong Pats fan, a survivor of Rod Rust and Clive Rush, of lost eras and stupid errors, then you know better than to take this golden age of Boston sports for granted. But it doesn't hurt to be reminded once in a while. So, if you'll pardon my lecture, please, remember to enjoy every moment of this, to appreciate every player and coach, to savor every game, every spectacular touchdown, every bone-jarring tackle. Just because we have great expectations doesn't mean we shouldn't be awestruck when they are met. Football teams like this one come around once in a lifetime - maybe once in history. Cherish today, and and look forward to the tomorrows just ahead.

One win, four losses

C'mon, coach . . .

. . . keep your chin up.

Too easy. Just too easy.

First and 10: Pats-Steelers preview

My prediction? Pain!

They've said all the right things all week, but anyone who knows their history knows the truth:

Today's combatants simply cannot stand each other. In fact, you might call it hate.

Part of the reason is that they are so much alike: They are successful, proud - arrogant, even - stubborn, and remarkably talented. They each think they are the best, and they intend to prove it.

Which is why we will tune in today. Rivalries such as this make for great television.

I am talking, of course, about Boomer "No, I'm not Phil Simms" Esiason and Dan "Hey, I made it to a Super Bowl" Marino on the pregame show. It's the most heated rivarly in the NFL today . . or on the "NFL Today." Can't wait 'til the hitting begins.

What's that you say? Yes, I suppose the Pats-Steelers game to follow should really be something too.

So as Marino gives Boomer the How-dare-you-drop-that-pass-Mark-Duper-you-idiot glare, it's first and 10, Patriots . . .

1) Steeler fans will claim we're making excuses, but the truth is this: The fates, for the first time in 21 games, were against the Pats during their streak-busting 34-20 loss to Pittsburgh on Halloween.

Consider: Ty Law goes down on the second series, forcing rookie free-agent Randall Gay into an unexpected role as an every-down player. Two plays after Law's injury, Gay is scorched by Plaxico Burress, and the rout is underway. (Note: Once he got his sea legs, Gay has proven to be a fine corner. But he wasn't ready that day.)

Consider: Corey Dillon did not play. The Patriots rushed for five yards. Five. Something tells me one thing has to do with the other.

Consider: Deion Branch did not play, missing the game with a sprained ankle. He may not be the Patriots' most productive receiver, but he is the most talented.

Consider: Right tackle Brandon Gorin was making his debut as a starter. When left tackle Matt Light went down with an ankle injury, Gorin moved to left tackle and guard/full-nelson specialist Steve Neal moved to right tackle. Is it any wonder that assclown Joey Porter made himself a regular visitor to the Patriots backfield that day?

Consider: Bethel Johnson slipped and fell on a pass route, enabling Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend to swipe a Brady pass and take it back for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead.

Conclusion: The breaks may not all go the Patriots way today. But I'm fairly certain they'll get more than they did on Halloween.

2) My favorite Jerome Bettis move: He attempts to run up the middle, but the defense plugs the hole and he is siphoned outside, where is gang-tackled after a gain of two yards. . . . and then he gets up and does a stupid-ass tippy-toe dance. I think we will see that move a lot today. The Patriots have traditionally stopped The Bus, although no one can stop him when he gets that dance fever. Frankly, Duce Staley scares me much more.

3) You have to give the Patriots the edge at kicker in every game from now until the day Adam Vinatieri's right shoe is bronzed in Canton. But I've been impressed with the Steelers' Jeff Reed, who booted the game-winner against the Jets a week ago and seems to thrive in the windy conditions at Heinz Field. I suspect the Steelers are as confident in him as the Patriots are in their two-time Super Bowl hero. That counts for something.

4) Pittsburgh's defense is legit. Troy Polamalu is the prototype for the modern safety (although I can't imagine Rodney Harrison ever wearing a ponytail), James Farrior is the Steel City's Bruschi, and Joey Porter is the player Rosey Colvin was supposed to be before the hip injury. If there is a weakness, it's that their corners are supposedly vulnerable, but rarely does the offense have enough time to expose them. The Steelers blitz more effectively than any team in the league, and the decisions Brady makes will go a long way to determining the victor in this game. In other words: No blind passes today, Tommy.

5) I give the Patriots the nod today at quarterback, running back, special teams and defensive backfield, and linebacker is a toss-up. But the biggest advantage for the visitors: coaching. Belichick has won his last seven playoff games and just publicly humiliated the alleged greatest offense in NFL history. Bill Cowher is 1-3 in AFC Championship games at home and nearly lost to an underachieving, poorly coached Jets team a week ago. Plus, his chin and that whole spitting thing freaks me out. He's more image than substance.

6) Quick note from today's JV game: While it would have been cool to see the league's most exciting player, Mike Vick, in the Super Bowl, the true New England sports fan is probably happy for the Eagles, who snapped their streak of three consecutive championship game losses with a 27-10 victory over Vick and the Falcons. The Eagles have had their share of hard luck, tough breaks and tragedy through the years, and their fans are our kindred spirits, a more vulgar and sarcastic version of ourselves. It's not hard for us to comprehend the joy they are feeling today.

7) Richard Seymour was listed as questionable on the injury report, and Belichick said on Thursday that the Patriots' All-Pro defensive lineman won't start but could see "situational" action. So does he play or doesn't he? And if he does, what will his role be? There's was some suspicion that Belichick suggested Seymour would play just to give the Steelers something else to think about, but that he'll be inactive again as he was last week. The guess here is that Belichick was being forthright (for once) and that Seymour is on the field during the most crucial situations. Jarvis Green filled in capably against the Colts, but he may be too much of a finesse player to succeed against Pittsburgh's mammoth offensive line. The Patriots need Seymour today. (Note: It's 6:23, and I just found out Seymour is inactive. Crap.)

8) Matchup that scares me the most: Hines Ward against Randall Gay/Asante Samuel. Ward, who has had four straight 1,000-yard seasons, is the receiver David Givens hopes to grow up to be, and his brute-force style should be doubly effective in today's lousy weather. If Roethlisberger can throw it, Ward will catch it.

9) Which brings us to what should be the Steelers' main concern today: the physical and mental well-being of their talented rookie quarterback. I have seen Roethlisberger enough this season to be confident in saying that he is going to be a star in this league for a long time. But he was atrocious last week against the Jets. Atrocious. Even Spergon Wynn was heard mocking him. There are rumors that he has a thumb injury, which would explain his uncharacteristic inaccuracy in that game, and a nagging rib injury is also a concern. Worse, he was pouting openly when things weren't going well. I imagine Belichick was salivating as he saw this, and he'll have a few new tricks to show the kid QB to try and rattle his confidence early. Surely you've heard the most oft-repeated stat of the week: Belichick is 13-0 when facing a quarterback for the second time. If Roethlisberger plays the way he did last week, it'll be 14-0 shortly.

10) Well, since my prediction of a 38-35 Pats victory last Sunday proved so accurate - hey, at least I got the winning team right, which is more than I can say for 90 percent of the national prognosticators - I might as well throw another one out there this week. Pats, 20-13. Vinny boots two field goals, Dillon gets a short TD and Brady connects with Givens on a long one, and Eugene Wilson picks a Roethlisberger pass in the closing moments to seal it.

That said, it'll probably 48-47. Either way, enjoy it. These are the two best teams in the league, and this is how it should be: the best against the best. The winner will be crowned the Super Bowl champion two weeks from now in Jacksonville.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Through the years with Juicin' G

Jason Giambi, geeked to be an Olympian, 1991 . . .

Jason Giambi, not-so-menacing in Modesto, 1993. . .

Jason Giambi, growing into big-league stardom, 1996. . .

Jason Giambi, livin' large in Oaktown, 2001 . . .

Jason Giambi, bloated tick of a Yankee, 2001 . . .

Jason Giambi, mysteriously shrunken Yankee, 2004 . . .

Jason Giambi, disgraced and shamed Yankee, 2004 . . .

Jason Giambi, geeked for the upcoming season, 2005 . . .

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Throwback column: Jan. 27, 2002

Can someone tell me what's gotten into the Pittsburgh Steelers this week? They've been . . . well, gracious. Classy. Respectful of the Patriots. Un-Steeler-like, really.

Where's the trash talk? Where are the pre-game proclamations of greatness? Where are the Steelers we have come to loathe?

Why so shy now, Plaxico? Does Hines Ward have laryngitis? Did Joey Porter get shot in the a$$ again, thereby rendering him a mute?

It's all so confusing. We thought the Steelers would be a their brash best - or worst, I suppose - especially after they actually backed up their big words in their impressive 34-20 victory over the Patriots on Halloween.

Instead, Ward spends the week leading up this AFC Championship showdown praising his mini-me, Pats receiver David Givens, while rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger chats up the press conference with a blandly affable poise that many veterans never quite master. Suddenly, the Steelers are acting like . . . professionals.

Which makes it really difficult for a Pats fan to work up the proper hatred for the Steelers, an interesting twist of irony considering how easy they used to make it.

So as a public service to you, this site's lone reader, I offer you a reminder of the Steelers of a not-so-distant yesteryear, the Steelers who talked like a champ and fought like a tomato can. I've posted two columns from my days at the "Concord Monitor" - one from before the 2002 AFC Championship Game, in which the Pats beat the Steelers 24-17, and one from before the next season's opener, when the Steelers were still in deep denial about their previous defeat.

Should the Pats beat them Sunday, I suspect we'll hear the same old familiar We-we're-better-We-wuz-jobbed-They-aren't-that-good nonsense again.

I, for one, am looking forward to it.

But for now, we look back . . .

Jan 27, 2002 - Among all the silly proclamations spewed by professional athletes, "We ain't getting no respect" is only slightly less ridiculous than "It's not about the money" and "I have no idea how that got in my glove compartment, officer."

The whole no-respect cliché is little more than an artificial way for players to psyche themselves up for battle.

Take the Baltimore Ravens, who last season milked the us-against-the-world thing all the way to a Super Bowl victory. Apparently, someone forgot to tell them they were actually favored in the game.

But your New England Patriots, well, they have a case. When they complain about a lack of respect, they have the proof to justify it.

Consider this: The goodfellas in Las Vegas have made the Patriots a 9½-point underdog against the Pittsburgh Steelers in today's AFC Championship game.

The Steelers were exactly 9½-point favorites one other time this year - in Week 14, against the Detroit Lions.

The Lions were 1-12 at the time.

That, dear readers, is the very definition of disrespect. It's no wonder Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy's ears turned to smokestacks Friday when he was asked if he thought the Patriots were, to paraphrase "lucky, a team of destiny, happy to be here."

Milloy was ticked because he knows what this whole region knows. The second-seeded Patriots belong in this game as much as the top-seeded Steelers. They have earned the right.

Yet they are perceived as lucky, kissed by destiny. That's partially because of the fortunate events of last Saturday night, and partially because there are so few marquee names on their roster.

Lucky? That's the conclusion of the ill-informed. The know-it-all nitwits who dismiss these Patriots haven't paid close enough attention to the goings-on in Foxboro this season, because if they did they'd realize this:

It's not about luck. It's about pluck.

No, the Patriots are not a great team, not in the Original Steel Curtain/How 'Bout them Cowboys/Montana-to-Rice sense. But they are a great team.

They have won via Antowain Smith's legs and Tom Brady's arm and Troy Brown's determination. They have won thanks to a flexible, bend-but-don't-break defense and an innovative coaching staff.

Yes, they have even won due to the correct interpretation of stupid rule.

Notice a theme here? To borrow a mantra from last week's victim, the Patriots just win, baby.

Their last loss was to the mighty St. Louis Rams, way back on Nov. 18. Since then, they have won seven consecutive games.

Today, it'll become eight. Of this I am convinced, and for more reasons than Terry Glenn has problems.

I'll be the first to admit I'm no bleary-eyed Ron Jaworski, obsessively breaking down film in the dungeon of the NFL Films offices. But I have spent enough Sunday afternoons on the couch to get a pretty good inkling of how the game will play out in the Patriots' favor. And I'm feeling damn good about today.

I think offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will come up with one of his typically inventive game plans, something that will turn the Steelers' hell-bent "Blitzburgh" defense against them. (Look for J.R. Redmond, a supreme pass blocker, to be a huge factor catching dinky passes out of the backfield.)

I think Brady will exploit Pittsburgh's iffy cornerbacks, Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington, with at least one long pass. (Although a bomb to Glenn on the first play of the game - a la Pats-Steelers '96 - appears to be out of the question.)

I think the rejuvenated Ty Law and one-time would-be press corner Tebucky Jones will shut down 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress. (Law, all 5-foot-11 of him, won his share of battles against 6-4 Keyshawn Johnson, and Plexiglass is no Keyshawn. It's his second year, and the dude hasn't even written a book yet.)

I think Jerome Bettis will play for the first time in seven weeks, and I think his rusty wheels will benefit the Patriots, who have traditionally slowed him. (I do fear Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, a moose who signed with the Patriots as a restricted free agent this offseason before the Steelers wisely matched the offer.)

I think the Patriots will hang close in the first half, then the coaching staff will make their usual shrewd halftime adjustments.

The victor will be determined when Adam Vinatieri goes toe-to-toe with his Steelers counterpart, Kris Brown, in the game's final moments. (Vinatieri proved last week he's capable of putting the pigskin through the uprights in Antarctica. Brown missed an astonishing 14 field goals this season and is known as "Miss" around the Steel City. Advantage, Patriots.)

But the Patriots' greatest advantage today? The man standing on their sideline, Bill Belichick. How wonderful it is that we can have complete confidence that our team's coach will come up with some devious, havoc-wreaking game plan.

I can't wait to see how he derails the Kordell Stewart Express. The Artist Formerly Known As Slash succeeds - thrives, even - because offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey severely limits what he asks him to do. Belichick, on the other hand, is a genius at making opposing quarterbacks play to their weaknesses.

It'll be a chess match, to be sure. And not to be too cruel, but Belichick matching wits with Stewart is the equivalent of Gary Kasparov dueling brains with Roger Clemens.

Stewart is this year's Trent Dilfer. No player in the NFL benefits more from the talent around him, and make no mistake, these Steelers are an excellent football team. They are disciplined and fierce and proud and relentless. In many ways, they mirror the Patriots.

What they are not is invincible.

The Steelers are getting way too much .  .  . well, respect, particularly after dismantling the Ravens a week ago. This year's Ravens were a hazy photocopy of their Super Bowl edition. Ray Lewis might kill me for saying this - seriously, he might - but his team quit. Elvis Grbac, the new millennium's Tony Eason, looked ready to burrow a hole and bury himself in the end zone.

After the emotional high of their triumphant humiliation of a most despised rival, there is serious letdown potential for the Steelers today. They seem to believe this is anti-climactic, that a trip to New Orleans is a certainty. They seem to forget that they are 1-2 in AFC title games in the Bill Cowher era, or that three of the last four home teams have lost this game.

Smirks on their faces, they pay lip-service to their opponent, all the while casting an eye toward the Big Easy.

They say they respect the Patriots.

By 4 p.m. today, they will mean it.

(This column was originally published by the Concord Monitor.)

Throwback column: Sept. 19, 2002

When I wrote the following column for the Monitor eight months later, on the eve of the 2002 season, the Steelers were still running their mouths, apparently angry that the Pats made them no-shows for their meticulously planned Super Bowl champions party in New Orleans. Man, what a cocky, unlikable Steelers team that was - All-Pro jerks like Porter, Burress and Ward (above, apparently practicing throwing in the towel.) Whatever happened to those guys, anyway?

Come to think of it, Ward - who is a classic example of a guy you love on your team and hate as an opponent - has been quiet this week . . . too quiet. Can't he claim that the Steelers are "basically" about to win their third Super Bowl in four years, just so we Pats fans can work up a healthy hatred again? C'mon, Hinsey. Help us out here. Give Belichick some motivational ammo.

One more note: You'll notice I batted .500 on predictions in this one. My theory that the Pats would pound Pittsburgh in that Monday night opener proved true. New England rolled to a 30-14 victory that wasn't - cliche alert - as close as the score. How much of a blowout was it? Even Donald Hayes scored a touchdown. Now that's a whuppin'.

As for my theory that the Pats would win a dozen or so games? Not so true. They ended up 10-6, their reign ending on the final day of the regular season when a Jets victory over Green Bay nudged them out of the playoffs. Such an anticlimactic ending seems so long ago now.

So here it is, a look back at the Steelers of Sept. 19, 2002, who sure seem a lot like the Steelers of today. If only Ward would start talking smack, or at least tell us he's booked a hotel room in Jacksonville . . .

Sept. 19, 2002 - All right, I think I've got it. I think I've figured out the reason the Pittsburgh Steelers have spent the last eight months yelping and yowling and smack-talking and generally behaving as if they're the baddest dudes in the football universe.

The Patriots hit them so often and with so much malice in the AFC Championship game that every last Steeler lost his memory.

A stretch? Sure. But can you offer a reasonable explanation why the Steelers would spend the offseason spouting delusional nonsense such as this:

"We should be the favorite in the AFC. The way we see it, we've got every advantage over the Patriots .  .  . People forget, we basically went to the Super Bowl last year."

That quote comes via the perpetually flapping gums of Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who by either convenience or concussion has "basically" forgotten all the little insignificant details of last January's game.

As a courtesy to Ward, we'll now remind him of a few details that have apparently been knocked from his rattled little mind.

Detail: The final score, which is recorded in NFL history books as a 24-17 Patriots victory.

Detail: The Steelers were outperformed, outsmarted and overpowered on offense, defense and special teams.

Detail: In a ballyhooed battle of coaching wits, their leader, the overrated Bill Cowher, was quickly and shamefully disarmed by Bill Belichick.

Detail: The Steelers endured so much physical punishment that their countless bruises beautifully accessorized their black and gold uniforms.

Hey, can't let those silly little details get in the way of a good fantasy. Yep, the Steelers practically did go to the Super Bowl. Well, almost. You know - basically.

Can't wait to hear Ward explain the Patriots Super Bowl DVD. Phony black-market bootleg, perhaps?

We're almost tempted to excuse the Steelers delusions as the daydreams of beaten men. Problem is, their belief that they are superior to the Patriots has become the party line around the NFL, a common perception. Apparently, the phrase "World Champion New England Patriots" is now considered synonymous with the word "fluke."

Our instinct is to roll our eyes whenever an athlete starts yapping that he ain't getting no respect. But these Patriots? They have the right to sing that song.

No defending Super Bowl champion has been as openly and roundly disrespected as your Patriots. Consider: Tonight, they'll open their season by raising a championship banner while christening a state-of-the-art new stadium in front of a national television audience. As if that's not enough to get them pumped and jacked, they're facing a disrespectful opponent, one they've proven they can manhandle and one they are eager to pummel again .  .  . and yet the Steelers are favored by three points?!

Wow. Seems the only way the Patriots will get any pre-game respect is if Aretha sings the anthem.

Know what's really maddening? All the talk among the "experts" about which team will be "this year's Patriots." In other words: Hey, Boomer. Hey, Sterling: Which lousy, no-talent team do you guys think will get lucky this season?

Few folks outside of New England seem to believe that the Patriots are legitimate, let alone that they can contend again. Of 17 supposed pro football experts polled on, a mere five picked the Patriots to win the AFC East. I figure they're the select few who happened to notice that the Patriots actually improved in the offseason.

Some of ESPN's pretend prognosticators prefer the Bills, ignoring that Drew Bledsoe is being asked to accomplish in his new home what he repeatedly failed to do at his former home - carry a team with a leaky offensive line and a nondescript running game.

Others prefer Miami, apparently unaware that New Orleans celebrated like it was Mardi Gras when Ricky Williams departed. Saviors rarely arrive with this much baggage.

And the majority (nine) prefer the New York Jets, which offers further proof of a New York media bias. Belichick versus Testaverde? Please. The over/under on boneheaded Vinny interceptions in that matchup is 3. And I'll take the over, thanks.

So we wonder: Why do so many so easily dismiss the Patriots? I'm convinced that it all descends from the Tuck Rule saga. Every Tom, Dick and Jon remembers that one pivotal play in the Snow Bowl, and the consensus of fans think the Raiders got robbed.(One more time: It was the correct interpretation of a stupid, stupid rule.) Few recall that the Patriots ruled that game in the second half, or that they went on to defeat the alleged two best teams in football in their own environment, first whupping the Steelers in Pittsburgh before stopping the Rams in their tracks on the Superdome turf.

Because of that one controversial and symbolic play, the Patriots are perceived as damned lucky. And of course they were, to a point. We'd be greedy to expect fortune to smile upon them so frequently this season. Maybe David Patten gets knocked unconscious while inbounds this time. Maybe Adam Vinatieri slips in the snow. Maybe Mike Martz remembers that Marshall Faulk is on his side.

Still, I am certain that the warranty will not expire on Patriots magic. Cinderella will party on at the ball, for this reason.
The Patriots did not become champions by dumb luck and the whims of a frostbitten referee. They became champions due to brilliant strategy, selfless and fearless performances and precise execution.

The Patriots were an outstanding football team that January day in Pittsburgh, and they remain one on this September evening in Foxboro. Maybe they don't have a running back with a cool nickname like "The Bus," or a quarterback blessed with the legs of a sprinter and an arm full of cannonballs. In the Sporting News's annual ranking of the NFL's top 100 players, only quarterback Tom Brady (No. 80) and safety/soul Lawyer Milloy (86) cracked the list.

They lack marquee names. They don't lack much else. This team has the best tactical coach in football in Bill Belichick, whom I'm beginning to think meant more to Bill Parcells than Parcells meant to him. It has Troy Brown, who is not on anyone's list of the 500 most gifted players in the NFL but makes every thinking fan's list of the five most valuable. It has Tebucky Jones, a perceived first-round bust who played the second half of last season as if he were an evolving version of Ronnie Lott. It has Adam Vinatieri and Antowain Smith and Roman Phifer and .  .  . well, you know their names and accomplishments, even if those who get paid to know such things don't. Hey, you've got the Wheaties box.

We'll take soldiers like that anytime, especially when the alternative is a hotshot running back like Jerome Bettis, who always seems to be running on fumes in Foxboro, or an overhyped quarterback like Kordell Stewart, who when pressured performs as if his heart was transplanted from a lemming.

Or for that matter, a receiver like Hines Ward, whose mouth runs much faster than his legs.

If the Steelers refuse to concede that they were outclassed a season ago, if they refuse to give their conquerors their due, well, so be it. It's their own fault if they don't learn from their mistakes. Perhaps they'll learn from the many they make tonight - should they choose to remember them.

New England 27, Pittsburgh 7.

It's the first of a dozen or so Patriots victories to come.

And there's no basically about it.

(This column was originally published in the Concord Monitor.)

Monday, January 17, 2005

Guest column: American idiots

Steve Mistler, a freelance writer based in Maine and a loyal Corona-and-Madden cohort of mine following some long days and late nights at the Concord Monitor, put together this piece before the Patriots turned Peyton and his Phony Ponies into glue yesterday. I'm posting it here because, while it was written with the intent of previewing the game, it is remarkably pointed and relevant in the aftermath of yesterday's wonderful bleep-you to all the big-mouthed, small-minded pundits who cannot comprehend how the Patriots win and win and win again despite "lacking" a Manning, a Moss, a Ray Lewis or a T.O. (Yeah, we mean you, Shannon Sharpe.) It is no exaggeration to say that is the best-articulated analysis I have read anywhere regarding the national media's perception of this delightful team. If you enjoy this article as much as I did, drop him an email to tell him so ( And if it's not too much to ask, mention that you heard he's a horse-bleep Madden player, too. The dude is brutal, the Scott Secules to my Tom Brady. He deserves your abuse.

By Steve Mistler

When it comes to the television media’s handling of sports, especially professional football, it doesn’t take much to stoke my fires of indignation. At the same time little in the Technicolor world of pre-game, half-game, post-game and three-days-prior-to-game bombast shocks me anymore. The result is a toxic concoction of apathy and anger that renders me paralyzed and mumbling on the couch, which I suppose, is precisely what the producers at Fox, ESPN and CBS have in mind when they air segments featuring “analysts” like Michael Irvin on the front end of a Coors Light commercial.

But every now and again, one of these screaming heads blathers something that springs me from the seat of discontent and scrambling for the keyboard of justice. It happened a few weeks ago (the keyboard of justice takes some time to get warmed up), when Mr. Irvin, self-portayed as the quintessential teammate on the once-great and always-humble Dallas Cowboys, offered his opinions during an ESPN segment addressing the so-called marketing genius of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens. During his impassioned diatribe Irvin explained the public’s appetite for Owens with its need for star power, character and excitement. The NFL, he said, had too little of these qualities, including the defending world champions, your New England Patriots. Actually, I believe the word he used to describe them was “boring."

Usually Irvin doesn’t bother me. After all, the words of a man who wears a silver suit bright enough to rival the sheen of a freshly minted quarter should never be taken too seriously. And his comments on this day wouldn’t have had an impact, if not for two reasons: 1. I suspect that a lot of people, particularly the pundits who cover the league, long for a sexier champion. 2. I suffer from a serious case of provincialism.

As the Patriots prepare to defend their title against the Indianapolis Colts this week I can’t help but think New Englanders are the only ones lucky enough to appreciate what the organization has built over the last few years. I’m not even sure I fully appreciate it. I’m not talking about the possibility of winning three Super Bowls in four seasons, something that hasn’t been done since Irvin’s Cowboys in the early 1990s. Nor am I talking about a dynasty, the overused and rarely fulfilled tag of greatness assigned to far lesser teams with far shorter periods of continued success. I’m talking about the amazing phenomenon, sustained by the Patriots for the better part of four years, of highly compensated professional athletes forsaking personal glory and stardom for team goals.

Understand that no pundit, play-by-play or color man has failed to mention such a theory since that first amazing championship in 2001. Stop me if you've heard these lines before:

"The Patriots are the consummate team, a squad of role players pointed in the right direction by their genius head coach, Bill Belichick."

"In the age of selfish athletes, the Patriots are an unselfish team."

"There no superstars on the Patriots."

Blah-blah, blah-blah, blah.

Okay, so the Patriots are the quintessential team. But answer me this: Are they really valued as such?

To hear Irvin and others to tell it, the answer is a resounding no. Too boring. Not enough creativity in the end zone. We need more color, more controversy to spice things up. More Sharpies. More faux moonings. Because, you know, who cares about the character of Patriots rookie defensive back Randall Gay when you have a self-promoter like Owens questioning everything from the number of passes thrown his way, to the sexual orientation of a former teammate. I mean, really, what story do you want to hear about? Randy Moss leaving a game early, or Tedy Bruschi staying at practice late?

Answer those questions honestly, ou too will understand the cynical machinations of the national media and the servicing of NFL fans across the country. If it doesn’t anger, disgust or shock, its been decided that you don’t need to hear about it. I understand this. A pacified audience isn’t likely to stay tuned for the Chrysler-Dodge Halftime Show unless Ricky Williams is invited to tell us about the best campgrounds for partying in Southeast Asia.

I have no problem with Williams, Owens, or even Irvin. It’s good to know those guys are out there, reminding everyone of the total disconnect between the dysfunctional millionaires playing sports and the average fan, because frankly, there aren’t enough Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers games on the NBA schedule.

It’s the hypocrisy that infuriates me. If we received a nickel for every sanctimonious "SportsCenter" segment on selfish athletes, or the lack of role models for our children, we could simultaneously finance Ricky’s exotic tastes in travel, dope and the college funds for all future generations of his progeny.

Meanwhile, the quintessential team, made up of athletes who have to work to be good at their craft – much like many their fans – will carry out its business, week after week, in relative obscurity, a cute little sidebar to biggest story of the day:

"Moss abandons teammates – again."

Chad's last word: Despite my respect for the vintage 'fro, I'd take one Troy Brown over three of this fraud. As would Mistler, and everyone else in New England, I believe.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

1st and 10: Pats-Colts

Should the doubt ever again creep into your mind about this Patriots team's chances on a particular day, go to your TiVO, your DVD player, or the library in your mind, and remember this game.

Remember how every "expert" at ESPN picked the Colts to win in a blowout. (Except for the one dissenter, Joe Theismann, whom, frankly, you don't want on your side.)

Remember how the newspapers and sportscasts were filled with stories about record-setting golden boy Peyton Manning and his inevitable and overdue victory over the Patriots.

Remember how the shorthanded Patriots defense, missing stalwarts Richard Seymour, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, took command mere moments after the coin flip and reminded Peyton that Archie isn't his only daddy.

Remember how the game wasn't nearly as close as the 20-3 final score would suggest.

Remember how happy you felt knowing the game was over long before it was over, how vindicated you felt watching those "experts" desperately try to reverse field during their contentious postgame show, how superior you felt watching Manning mumble and mope on his way to the sideline, how proud you felt watching Bruschi and Harrison and Brady and Dillon conquer their supposed conquerors with brute force and a warrior's will.

Remember it as the greatest Patriots victory that didn't end with the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy.

Remember it. Savor it. This victory. And this team.

Remember it. As if you will ever forget.

And with that, it's first-and-10, Patriots . . .

1) Typical big-game performance by Tom Brady: Decent stats (18 for 27, 144 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs), which don't even come close to suggesting how well he played. Brady was under siege in the first half - Matt Light had his usual issues trying to contain speed-rusher Dwight Freeney - yet he continued to demonstrate an uncanny knack for feeling the rush, taking a step forward or sliding sideways, and getting rid of the ball right before impact. Naturally, almost all of his throws were right on the bull's-eye, especially on the three clock-killing drives. No, the numbers won't tell you as much. But today, Tom Brady played the quarterback position as well as it can be played.

2) Typical big-game performance by Peyton Manning: Decent stats (27 of 42, 238 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT), which don't even come close to suggesting how poorly he played. Manning, who looks like a cross between Haley Joel Osment and Beavis on his handsomer days, was one long-faced Colt early in this one; he started hanging his head right around the time Marcus Pollard dropped a sinker on the Colts' first drive. For a quarterback who we are told is a great leader, his body language is atrocious. When a drive stalls, you can count on a four-pronged reaction from Manning: He'll shake his head, mumble something, glance sideways at the receiver who just let him down, and - this is my favorite part for some reason - tear off his chin strap in a huff. Manning, with all of his audibles and animated antics before the snap, acts as if he is control of the game. Manning really is the Marino of this generation. All he needs is some Isotoners and a burning hatred for Boomer Esiason.

3) Tedy Bruschi, that Tasmanian Devil of the Patriots' defense, was at his excitable best today, tearing the ball out of Dominic Rhodes's hands for a fumble ("That wasn't a giveaway," Bruschi said, "it was a takeaway") and recovering a Reggie Wayne fumble later on. But it was a play that didn't mount to anything tangible that symbolized the unity and brutality of the Pats' defense. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Colts trying to march for meaningless, stats-padding touchdown, Bruschi chased down Colts running back Edgerrin James near the sideline. But instead of trying to tackle James, Bruschi slapped at the ball while keeping him in bounds, holding him up just enough to allow Rodney Harrison to drill James all the way back to Terre Haute. It was intelligent, cruel, and so very typical of Bruschi and this defense. As Chris Farley would say: That was awesome!

4) Interesting note about Bruschi: The PTI guys (Wilbon and Kornholio, I believe their names are) were talking about the unsung stars on the Patriots, and suggested that Bruschi, along with Belichick, Vinatieri and Brady, will be the eventual Hall of Famers from this team. It was an interesting debate, in part because it's the first time I've heard Bruschi's name mentioned as a candidate for Canton (at least by someone who doesn't own a No. 54 Pats jersey). The more I consider it, the more I think he may have a shot. History may remember him as the epitome of this budding dynasty's defense, in the same sense that Jack Lambert epitomizes the Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain of the '70s.

5) Troy (Just Call Me A Football Player) Brown worked a triple-shift today, catching two passes at receiver, returning punts flawlessly, and capably shadowing Colts slot receiver Brandon Stokley as the nickelback. Sometimes it seemed as if he never left the field - and maybe he didn't. My point, as always: Troy Brown's number should be retired the day he takes off No. 80 for the final time.

6) I know his hands sometimes seem to be made out of formica, but there are very few tight ends in the NFL I'd rather have than Daniel Graham. He hurts people as a blocker, he runs faster than any man his size has the right to, and his mitts seem to be getting softer by the game. (He made a tough over the shoulder catch on one of the extended drives in the second half.) Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez are elite players, and I'm sure Brady could find a use for them, but I'm not sure they'd bring more to the Patriots than this guy does.

7) So I was off a little on my predicition that Deion Branch (1 catch, 15 yards) would be the surprise hero. Turns out that role was played by Kevin Faulk, who ran for 56 yards on 11 carries and caught a crucial 11-yard pass on 3rd-and-6 from the Patriots' 6-yard line in the fourth quarter, a drive that resulted with a Brady one-yard run for a 20-3 lead. My suspicion was that Faulk, who hadn't played in two weeks with a knee injury that the Pats were typically cryptic about, was finished for the season. Instead, we've rarely seen him in better form. Who knew?

8) Didn't think it was possible, but I believe Marvin Harrison just claimed Torry Holt's title as the Receiver Who Dives To The Ground The Fastest Immediately After A Reception (acronym: RWDTTGTFIAAR). Harrison was practically looking for a shovel out there once he caught the ball, and Reggie Wayne isn't exactly a bastion of toughness, either. These guys, as George Costanza might have said, shrivel up like a frightened turtle. Just call 'em the Fraidy Colts.

9) Talk to the hand . . .

One of the real joys this afternoon was watching Corey Dillon - who ran for 144 spectacular yards in his postseason debut, having spent first seven years of his career in Cincinnati purgatory - standing on the sidelines in the closing moments, nodding his head and looking around at the panorama of fans, absorbing every cheer and savoring every second. For a guy who was malcontent at the University of Washington and with the Bengals - and if you've seen his rap sheet, you know his miscreant reputation was well-deserved - he has fit seamlessly into the Patriots' selfless way of going about their business. Check out this classic anecdote from an feature on Dillon from earlier this week:

Coming in, (Dillon) worried his reputation would precede him, but what mattered more was (his) work ethic - "Hotdogs get weeded out here," Rodney Harrison says - and whether the new guy could take a joke. You need a sense of humor to mesh with the Pats, and Harrison and Willie McGinest tested Dillon early by walking by him one day and saying, "Man, we should've gotten Eddie George." Dillon laughed, and when he later saw Harrison eating dessert, he said, "Ronnie Lott wouldn't have eaten cookies." He could dish it out, too? He was in.

Great story. Great player. And at this point in his life, maybe a great guy, too.

10) During the postgame cheer, Belichick was talking about Bruschi's 15-yard return of a pitiful Mike Vanderjagt kickoff, which fell to its death on the 30-yard line, giving the Pats great field position at the 45 to start the second half. Belichick could barely hide his disdain for player - whoops, I mean kicker - who'd called the Pats "ripe for the picking" earlier in the week. Said the coach with a smirk, "I could have kicked it farther than Vanderjagt."
Hey, for Belichick, that passes for a colorful quote. He may have had a point, too, although it's easy to understand why Vanderjagt botched the kick. It's damn tough to kick a football with your foot stuck in your mouth.

"No, Vanderjagt, you drunken idiot kicker, Mr. Belichick is not signaling that your field goal was good. They just scored a touchdown. Now put down the wine cooler, will you? We're still playing the damn game here."

The meat . . .

. . . has been cut.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

1st and 10: Pats-Colts preview

After watching Ben Roethlisberger play with the tentativeness of a rookie quarterback making his postseason debut - hey, quit moping there, big fella - and after watching Bill Cowher coach as horribly as . . . well, as horribly as Bill Cowher traditionally coaches when his team is favored in the postseason, I know this much to be true: The Pats win today, the Pats win the Super Bowl. It's that simple.

Pittsburgh, cocky as ever and oblivious to its vulnerability, absolutely will not beat the Patriots a second time this season. That became apparent in their skin-of-the-goalposts 20-17 overtime victory over the Jets today. And as impressive as the Falcons were in a 47-17 rout of Mike Martz's dainty Rams, no team in the NFC cracks the top four in the AFC.

Of course, there is one daunting obstacle on the Patriots' road to Jacksonville via Pittsburgh: The Indianapolis Colts, whom they must defeat today. It's no easy task to be sure.

We've heard all about Indy's unstoppable offense for two long weeks, and it's impossible not to be impressed with what Peyton and his Ponies have accomplished. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that if they can do this - if the Patriots can defeat the high-scoring Colts today with a defensive backfield held together by duct tape, crazy glue and Troy Brown - it will be Belichick's greatest feat as an NFL coach. With two Lombardi Trophys as a reminder of all this man has accomplished, that's saying something.

The drama begins at 4:45 today. Save a spot on the couch for me.

And with that, it's first and 10, Patriots . . .

1) Obviously, the key to this game is the quarterback. No, no, not Golden Boy Peyton. I'm talking about Thomas Rondell Brady. If he plays his usual game, flawless and precise, the Pats will prevail. But if is careless with the football - meaning more than one interception, or an ill-timed fumble - and the Colts get an extra possession and some decent field position, that dream of three Super Bowls in four seasons will not become a reality.

1a) Okay, Rondell isn't really Brady's middle name. His real full name is Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. I just didn't feel like looking it up at that particular moment, so I guessed. Curiously, my conscience chose this moment to wake up. Damned journalistic integrity.

2) The sleeper offensive star of the game: Deion Branch. A knee injury temporarily derailed what many of us thought would be his breakout season. He's an outstanding receiver and the Colts don't have a d-back who can run with him. (I know this. You know this. The national guys haven't a clue.) Branch is healthy now, and best of all, he's severely underestimated at the moment. I'm predicting a performance similar to his sensational effort in the Super Bowl last year: 8 catches, 133 yards, 2 touchdowns, which, knowing Branch, also means three ridiculous end zone dances. Hopefully, he resists making an ass out of himself until they are up 20 points. Then, for all I'll care, he really can do what Randy Moss pretended to do.

3) My hunch - or maybe it's something more concrete than that - tells me Richard Seymour is not going to play in this game. When, if you think about it, is doubly damaging to the Pats' chances. Not only is he among the elite defensive lineman in the league, but he's emerged as a wrecking ball of a blocking back in short yardage situations. I trust Dillon on third-and-1, but it's reassuring to have Seymour blasting a hole in front of him.

4) The Patriots will miss Ty Law, and I'm sick of hearing Two-Faced Ordway and his bloated minions tell us oh-so-condescendingly that his three picks against Manning last year were the result of zone coverage. It's nonsense. The Patriots may have been in a zone, although I suspect Ordway couldn't recognize a zone defense on film if the alignment of players spelled out Z-O-N-E, but it was Law, not the scheme, who made three fantastic plays. It was the best big-game performance I have ever seen from a defensive back, and his performance deserves more than a casual dismissal by a pack of chicken-wing-gobbling know-it-all nitwits.

5) If I'm a Patriots defender or a loonie in Section 302, there's one thing I'm yelling at Peyton Manning all game: "Cut that meat . . . cut that meat . . ." Say this for Manning. He sells his affection for insurance adjusters as well as he sells the play fake. Great commercial. And today he's going to regret ever doing it.

6) If you want to convince yourself that the Patriots won't miss Law, there is a fairly easy way to do it: A starting defensive backfield of Eugene "The Hittin' Machine" Wilson, Rodney Harrison, Asante Samuel and Randall Gay is better than 20 of the starting foursomes in the league. Maybe 25. The problem is that, by my count, Indy has six top-flight pass catchers (Harrison, Wayne, Stokley, Clark, Pollard and James) and the Patriots will have a difficult time defending all of them consistently, especially if Earthwind Moreland is prominently involved. Rather than signing Hank Poteat (the best name in football, Earthwind be damned) and Antwan Harris off the street, maybe Belichick should have enlisted Mike Haynes and Raymond Clayborn for nickel- and dime-back duty. They can't be anymore out of shape than walk-ons 'Teat and 'Twan.

7) I'm curious to see who's taking punts for the Pats now that it's apparent that Kevin Faulk will not be doing so even if he does play. Bethel Johnson, a threat to bust one every time he touches the ball, is the tempting choice, but his inexperience as a punt returner is a concern. He fumbled (and recovered) a punt against the 49ers in the season finale, and we're all aware the Pats can ill-afford to be careless with the ball today, especially in their own territory. I hope it's Johnson early, but I want Troy Brown back there with him as a security blanket, and I want the cerebral Brown taking punts solo if it's close late.

8) The prevailing opinion from the national media is that the Patriots will try to control the clock with Dillon. There is logic to the theory, not to mention precedence. When the Parcells/Belichick Giants stifled the K-Gun Bills in 1990, they took time into their own hands by pounding Ottis Anderson time and again and keeping Buffalo's offense off the field. I suppose there would be less effective strategies than taking their chances by giving it to Dillon 38 times today. Ultimately, though, I think the tempation to go after Indy's porous pass defense will be too strong for Charlie Weis to ignore. As I said, victory will be in Brady's hands, and not Dillon's legs.

9) I doubt Manning is sleeping well tonight, knowing full well that the defining game of his career is hours away. Think about it: If he wins, the burden of beating his longtime nemesis Belichick will have been overcome, a Super Bowl victory will seem entirely possible, and his place among the finest quarterback of all-time will be secure and indisputable. But if he loses? That monkey on his back takes on the weight of a gorilla, and the comparisons to Dan Marino - a great passer who will hear until his dying day "yeah, but he couldn't win the big one" - will only get louder. Of all the players performing in this game, Manning faces the most pressure, and he hasn't always handled adversity well. It'll be fascinating to see how he copes in a few hours.

10) So after all the words are spent and all the stats are crunched and spewed, it comes down to this: Who's gonna win this friggin' thing? Thought you might ask, though I suspect you already know my answer. Your faithful blogger's prediction: Patriots 38, Colts 35. I'm expecting an NFL Films all-time classic, with Adam Vinatieri adding another line to his Hall of Fame resume in the final seconds. And once again, we'll thank the great coach in the sky for blessing New England with a kicker who isn't a drunken idiot.

Enjoy the game, peeps. And remember: "Cut that meat . . ."

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Significant shrinkage

News item: According to the Associated Press, Major League Baseball and the Players Association today agreed on a tougher steroid-testing program that will suspend first-time offenders for 10 days and randomly test players year-round. A first positive test would result in a penalty of 10 days, a second positive test in a 30-day ban, a third positive in a 60-day penalty, and a fourth positive test in a one-year ban -- all without pay. A player who tests positive a fifth time would be subject to discipline determined by the commissioner.

Coincidentally, bloated San Francisco Giants basher Barry Bonds announced today that he has taken up yoga instead of weightlifting, has sworn off "flaxseed oil," "the clear," "the cream," and "Chicken McNuggets," had his mammoth head shrunken three sizes by a witch doctor, and intends on reporting to spring training looking like this:

Saturday, January 08, 2005

A Ty and a loss

Ty Law is done for the season. Sooner rather than later, I fear, the same will be said for the Patriots.

The news, devastating if not totally surprising, came today. Law, the Patriots' four-time Pro Bowl cornerback, will miss the entire postseason with a broken foot he suffered on Halloween in a loss to Pittsburgh.

For Patriots fans, the word that Law had been placed on injured reserve felt very much like getting punted in the family jewels. While Law had missed the final nine games of the regular season with the injury, he had been progressing toward a comeback in recent weeks, even going so far as to make the trip to New Jersey in hopes of picking off a Chad Pennington duck or two in Week 15.

He was so close. Instead, he is done. Dammit.

The importance of Law to this team - and the significance of his absence in the week ahead - cannot be overstated. After the kicker, the quarterback, and the coach - I believe you know them by name - he has been the most crucial cog during the franchise's recent and unprecedented stretch of postseason success. If there is such a thing as a clutch cornerback, it is Law.

He was the thinking fan's MVP in the Super Bowl upset (or so it was thought to be at the time) of the Rams, returning an interception for the Patriots' first touchdown and pummeling the Rams' fragile receivers into the fetal position.

In last year's AFC Championship Game, he submitted the best-single game performance this fan has ever witnessed from a cornerback. He single-handedly humiliated NFL golden boy Peyton Manning, intercepting the Colts quarterback three times in New England's victory, while limiting All-Pro receiver Marvin Harrison to 3 catches for 19 yards.

Law at is best is a dominating defender. Even at a percentage of his normal self - really, we couldn't have expected him to be rust-free after such a layoff - Law still would have been the Patriots' most capable cover man, based on wisdom and experience alone. He was a hell of a postseason trump card. We were counting on him for that, at least. It crushing to learn he'll be a spectator.

I imagine the reaction was somewhat different in Indiana. Upon hearing today's news, Manning, Harrison and the rest of th Colts' offensive stars must have begun salivating at the thought of sweet revenge and the suddenly very real chance of exacting it. The Patriots will encounter the more-electic-than-ever Colts offense next Sunday not only without Law, but fellow starting cornerback Ty Poole, who survived just four games before going on IR himself. Facing the Colts in their depleted state is a daunting task, and one that even they may not be able to overcome.

While the Patriots have dominated Manning in recent meetings - he's 0-5 against Brady-led Patriots squads, including this season's loss in the opener - there is a prevailing sense among football fanatics that this season belongs to Manning, that it is his time, his turn to officially rise to true greatness. He broke Dan Marino's 20-year old single-season touchdown record, throwing an astounding 49 thanks in part to the NFL's crackdown on that scourge of the league, pass coverage, and now Law's inability to return from injury might be the fortuitous break he needs to get that elusive Super Bowl ring.

As I hunt and peck here, I realize it almost sounds as if I'm conceding victory to Indy next week. I do not mean to present such a notion as a certainty, as dire as some circumstances may seem. If there is anything we have learned during the Belichick reign of supremacy, it's that only an idiot or a more vile creature, such as Paul Maguire, underestimates this team. The Patriots did not win eight of nine games in Law's absence solely by using a Smoke and Mirrors defense. Greatness, and a third Lombardi Trophy in four years, can still be theirs.

But in pursuing such greatness, Belichick faces his most difficult challenge since resurrecting this franchise from the Carroll/Grier Ruins. A season ago, pass defense was this team's strength. Now, with Law and Poole in street clothes, rookie free-agent Randall Gay starting at one corner and veteran receiver Troy Brown playing the role of willing but often overwhelmed nickel back, that strength has become a weakness, and it's weakness that their next opponent is perfectly capable of exposing. To put it another way, I seriously doubt even Belichick believes he can win a Super Bowl with Earthwind Moreland playing a significant role on his football team.

Despite the efforts of stalwart safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson, both of whom have helped disguise many of the defensive backfield's deficiencies with their remarkable skill and smarts, they've had trouble fencing in far lesser quarterbacks than Manning. Carson Palmer and Jon Kitna combined to put up 328 yards and three passing touchdowns against the Patriots on Dec. 12, and even A.J. Feeley - a borderline NFL starter at best - looked more than capable in the Dolphins' stunning 29-28 victory Dec. 20, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass in final minutes.

A week from today, Manning gets another crack at the Patriots, and a chance to do what he does best: Put up some gaudy statistics. Whether or not he finally gets a victory to go with his pretty numbers is another matter entirely. Perhaps the Patriots' best hope is to outgun him in a shootout, the Colts defense being among the most porous in the game.

But there is no disputing that Manning's chances got a whole lot better today. This year, the Law is no longer on the other side.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

I love the '80s

Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame today, putting both men among company they deserve to keep. They are worthy choices, and in the case of Sandberg, the finest second baseman of his era, it was an honor a few years overdue.

Which comes as no surprise, really. For some inexplicable reason, so many great players from the '80s are getting little or no love from the Hall of Fame voters. Oh, sure, the no-brainers got in with proper ease: George Brett, Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Eddie Murray, Tito Landrum . . . you know, the obvious ones. But so many truly wonderful players from that era are having a hard time getting due respect from the voters, at least in their early years on the ballot

I have my theory why the decade is generally disregarded: the inflated statistics (and inflated biceps and inflated foreheads) of this generation have made the more modest numbers of their predecessors look less impressive than they actually are. So many of these guys were true superstars, the best of their time. But their stats don't look so super stacked up against the bloated numbers of the current time.

It's hard to believe now in this era of Monster Mashers, but no player hit 50 homers between 1977 (when George Foster hit 52) to 1991 (when Cecil Fielder hit 51). Hell, the AL's leading home run hitter in 1989 was Fred McGriff . . . with 36. Three years later, the Crime Dog led the league again . . . with 35. Not even Tom Emanski would be impressed with those digits.

Still, such uniform disrespect for an entire era of ballplayers is not right. On a day when Boggs and Sandberg - two genuine greats - got their just rewards, it seems appropriate to praise a few of their peers who are also deserving of the game's highest honor. So then, permit me to suggest half-dozen or so stars from the last generation who would have been on this fan's Hall of Fame ballot, along with their years in the big leagues and the number of votes that they were shy of the 387 required for induction:

Huh? What's that? Tito Landrum isn't in yet? Cripes, these Hall voters really don't know what their doing . . .

Goose Gossage (1972-94), 102 votes short: In my 26 years as a baseball obsessive, there have been precisely two closers who kidnapped your hope of victory the moment they stepped out of the bullpen. Mariano Rivera, pre-October 2004, is one. The great Goose is the other. He has the stats (310 saves, a 3.01 ERA, 9 All-Star appearances), the longevity (23 seasons) and a certain flair (gotta dig the fu-manchu, the raging-stork follow through, and that Yaz-killing rising fastball that always seemed on the verge of spontaneous combustion). The Goose? C'mon, people. He was automatic as a closer, and he damn sure should be automatic for the Cooperstown, too.

Jim Rice (1974-1989), 80 short: Rice was the most feared power hitter in the American League from 1977 to 1986 - in other words, an entire decade. He won three home run titles, led the league in total bases four times (including an astounding 406 in his MVP season of 1978), and finished in the top 5 of the MVP voting five straight years. So why hasn't the Hall called? Because, ironically enough, while he was dominant for an extended period, he never quite managed to be mediocre in the twilight of his career. Rice's final three seasons went thusly:

1987: .277-13-62
1988: .264-15-72
1989: .234-3-28

And then he was done, at age 36, with 382 homers and a .298 average, numbers just shy of crucial Hall of Fame milestones. Had he been able to hang on for three or four more years, hitting around .280 with 18-20 homers and padding his stats to proper levels, he'd have long ago been enshrined. Rice's vote totals were up this year, and with a Hall class next year headed by guys who were mediocre forever (Gary Gaetti, anyone?), hopefully he'll get that phone call that's already long overdue.

Which brings us to The Hawk . . .

Andre Dawson (1976-95), 117 short: Stood alongside Hall of Famer Dave Winfield as the best all-around player in baseball in the early- and mid-80s, a power-speed-defense combo with a nickname that perfectly captured his graceful yet almost fierce fly-chasing style in centerfield. Unfortunately, his glory days game in the obscure baseball outpost of Montreal, and by the time his travels took him to larger markets (Chicago, where he won the '87 NL MVP, and Boston, where he didn't win much of anything) he was declining into a one-dimensional slugger whose knees had long since been turned into Steak-'Ems by Olympic Stadium's unforgiving AstroTurf. But with 438 homers, 314 steals and 20 seasons of dignity and class, he gets my vote every time. Let the The Hawk in, dammit.

Alan Trammell/Lou Whitaker, (1977-96, 1977-95), 300 short/off the ballot: Ask me, these guys are damn near Hall-worthy based on their individual merits. Trammell was the true MVP of the 1987 season (criminally awarded to Toronto DH/Mutt George Bell), hitting .343 with 28 homers and 105 RBI while playing a brilliant shortstop for the AL East champs. It was his best season among many. He finished in the top three of the MVP voting three times, was the MVP of the 1984 World Series, and along with Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount, were the prototypes for Garciaparras, Jeters and Tejadas, the great field/great hit shortstops of today. As for Whitaker, he made five All-Star teams, won the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year award, bashed 244 homers (how he loved that short rightfield porch in Tiger Stadium) and won three Gold Gloves. According to, the most similar player to Whitaker in history is Sandberg, with Trammell second. Decent company there. But while they were excellent individually, their legacy is and will always be as a tandem. Trammell and Whitaker. Whitaker and Trammell. They debuted together on Sept. 9, 1977, and for the next decade and a half, they became perhaps the finest long-running double-play combination in the game's history. It's apparent they aren't getting into Cooperstown individually, not with Whitaker getting bounced from the ballot in his first year of eligibility. Perhaps they could share a plaque. It's unprecedented and unlikely, sure. But how appropriate it would be.

Jack Morris (1977-1994), 215 short: Decent farm system the Tigers had there from '76-'78, huh? In a ridiculously fruitful three-year stretch, Detroit developed Mark Fidrych, Jason Thompson, Steve Kemp, Lance Parrish, Whitaker, Trammell and Morris. Of the latter trio, Morris is the most likely to eventually make it to Cooperstown. In fact, we are so certain he will get there that we already have a pretty good idea of what it will say on his Hall of Fame plaque:

Morris, a pockmarked, mustached righthander, was considered the finest big-game pitcher of his era. In Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, the slider specialist pitched 10 shutout innings in the Twins' 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves, ranking among the greatest clutch pitching performances in postseason annals. Pitched a no-hitter during the Tigers' 35-5 start in 1984 on the way to a World Championship. Finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting six times, led the American League in victories twice, and spewed one of the sport's most memorable quotes when he said, upon spying a female reporter in the locker room, "The only time I want to be talking to a woman naked is when I'm on top of her or she's on top of me." Jack Morris, Mr. Class.

Steve Garvey (1969-87), 281 short: When Garvey was active, it was assumed that he was a Hall of Famer. Maybe the reason that he hasn't has a sniff of Cooperstown is that he's been a little too active in retirement, having apparently sired half of Orange County. His "Mr. Dodger" reputation has been revealed as cultivated, if not fraudelent, a trait that tends to piss off the press, which hates to be played for the fool. His cumulative statistics may not appear entirely Hall-worthy - a .296 average, 2,599 hits, 272 homers - but his resume includes a lenghthy column of impressive secondary credentials, such as an NL-record consecutive games streak (1,207), four Gold Gloves, one MVP award (1974), and 11 postseason appearances, in which he batted .339 with 11 homers in 55 games. Should he be in? I'll leave it at this. Garvey may not be a Hall of Fame cinch, but he was far more accomplished than Tony Perez, Cooperstown Class of 2000.

Otis Nixon (1983-99), 387 short: Nope, not a single vote for Otis My Man. Not a shock, just a damn shame. Ask me, there should be a place in some Hall of Fame somewhere for a man who looked 65 when he was 25, who, five years after leaving behind his already dim big-league spotlight was charged with trying to stab his bodyguard (wait . . . he has a bodyguard?), who married Sugar Ray Leonard's ex-wife and later traded up for one-time pop-tart Pebbles, who inexplicably bunted into the final out of the 1992 World Series, who, during his fledgling days with the Indians, surely inspired the legendary movie character Willie Mays Hayes, and who, most memorably to my own eyes, walked down the main street of Old Orchard Beach, Me. on a sweltering summer day in 1984 wearing his trademark Jheri curl and a leather pants-and-vest outfit that surely had to have been discarded by the Jackson brothers during their Victory Tour. Trust me, it's an image you don't forget. Never will there be another one like Otis. He deserved a vote for originality alone. Besides, wouldn't you love to see this face on a plaque?