This hasn’t been the happiest NFL season so far. Katrina. New Orleans. The Superdome. Thomas Herrion. Wellington Mara. Lake Minnetonka. Ken Hamlin. Mike Martz. Dwayne Carswell. Owens-McNabb. The ongoing subplot of Tom Benson possibly abandoning New Orleans and moving the Saints to San Antonio, the equivalent of somebody’s wife getting into a debilitating car accident, then her husband filing for divorce while she’s still in the hospital.
By the way, we’re only in Week 8.
So that part has been a little sobering. As for the actual games, can you remember this many yellow flags, late-game screw-ups, coaching brain farts, inept offenses and killer calls that went the wrong way? Other than Colts, Redskins, Giants and Steelers fans, none of the 32 fan bases seems that happy with its respective team (whether it’s bad coaching, bad QBs, leaky defenses, crushing injuries, even an inability to beat a certain rival or come through when it truly counts), and an inordinate amount of coaches and quarterbacks have been on the bubble since Week 1. Even from a fantasy standpoint, I can’t remember hearing this much complaining before, between Deuce and Dillon, Johnson, Clayton and Burleson, Julius and Kevin Jones, Trent Green and Marc Bulger, Manning and Harrison, Denver’s RB platoon, and prolific fantasy serial killer Daunte Culpepper (who wiped out tens of thousands of teams from coast to coast).
So what has been fun about the 2005 season? I’m going with Manning vs. Manning, maybe the most compelling subplot in any sport right now. Forget that an all-Manning Super Bowl could shatter the pregame hype record as we know it, that Archie Manning probably would have to pull a Richard Williams and skip the game or watch it in someone’s basement, even that Eli has a chance to legitimately own New York for the next 15 years. There’s another dynamic at work here, and it’s unlike any situation that has ever happened in sports.
Imagine A-Rod putting up huge numbers over the past 10 years, then coming up short when it mattered pretty much every time. (You don’t have to imagine it because it happened. Just bear with me.) Now, imagine he had a younger brother. And imagine that same brother was a highly regarded shortstop for the Cubs, and maybe his stats weren’t as good as A-Rod’s stats, but unlike A-Rod, he had a knack for coming up big when it mattered. Not only that, but his teammates loved him and believed in him. And imagine this kid ended up carrying the Cubs to a 2006 title over A-Rod and the Yankees and becoming an MJ-like demigod in Chicago.
That would be pretty crazy, right? Well, this could actually happen with the Manning brothers in less than four months. Peyton has Hall of Fame stats; Eli has All-Pro stats and an extra something that can’t really be defined. You just know it when you see it. Jeter has it. Brady and Big Papi have it. Favre still has it from time to time. I think David Wright has it in him. So does Ginobili. Certain guys just seem to stand out in big spots. They have that extra something.
And that something manifests itself in little ways. Like the way Eli struggled in the past two games against good defenses (Denver and Dallas) but somehow sprang to life when the Giants needed him most. Like those occasional “Wow!” plays he makes (the ultimate sign of greatness), like the reverse scramble to keep a third-and-4 alive in the Denver game, or an impossible completion to Burress to keep the Dallas game alive. Like the way his teammates mobbed him after the winning TD in the Denver game (you know the QB is clicking with his team when the defensive players mob him after a big play), or all the “As long as we have Eli, we know we have a chance” quotes that filtered out of Jersey this week. He’s special. You can see it.
Does that mean his brother isn’t special? Of course not. But something happens to Peyton in certain big spots, and you can see that, too. He gets a little jittery. Makes that weird face like he just stepped in dog poop. Gets frustrated easily. Misses throws he normally bangs out. On the sideline, his teammates don’t have that “I’d kill for this guy” look in their eyes. Again, it’s nothing tangible, but that’s the great thing about football — not everything has to make sense on paper. For instance, if you examined the Steelers-Bengals box score from Sunday, you would see Bettis’ 56 rushing yards and assume he couldn’t possibly have been the key guy in that game. Not true. It wasn’t just the yards, it was when they came and how they affected his team at the time. When the “Bus” is rolling like that, the Steelers take on a different swagger. They can beat anybody.
And that’s the problem with Peyton Manning, the two-time MVP, as well as the quarterback of a team that’s 7-0. There’s still something missing. He doesn’t have that same galvanizing effect on his team. He doesn’t get better when it matters. Like A-Rod, Karl Malone, Jim Kelly and some other greats over the years, Peyton always seems to peak in safer situations, like with a 10-point lead in the second half, when the wheels are coming off an opposing team and he settles into a deadly groove. Going back to college, Eli peaks when he’s down a score, when his team needs him to come through, when he doubles as the only hope on the football field. Some guys rise to the occasion, other guys shrink from it, and in this case, the two extremes just happen to be brothers.
Hey, maybe this plays out with Peyton winning a Super Bowl and ending the “can’t come through when it matters” argument once and for all. Maybe this plays out with neither Manning making it to Detroit. Or maybe, just maybe, this plays out with Eli toppling the Colts on a last-minute drive in February.
Now that would be something. Almost enough to make you forget what a sobering season this has been so far.
On to the Week 8 picks
(Home team in caps.)
GIANTS (-2) over Redskins
Let’s see the ‘Skins win their first three games by a total of six points (with two of the games being legitimately blown by the other team) then they drop two to the Broncos and Chiefs then they destroy a horrendous 49ers team and suddenly they’re getting less than a field goal in the Meadowlands against a quality Giants team? Seems a little early to break out the Popsicles, doesn’t it?
(While we’re here, shouldn’t Rich Hall create a sniglet to describe that weird fantasy football feeling of anger/envy/hatred/betrayal when someone like Santana Moss randomly becomes an elite player, only it didn’t happen when he was on your team? It’s vaguely reminiscent to dating a virgin in college, getting the Mr. Miyagi treatment for a few months, dumping her, then finding out two years later that she’s suddenly pulling a Paris Hilton on your entire class. Whoops, bad analogy — there are no virgins anymore. That one would have worked great in 1995. Oh well.)
BENGALS (-9) over Packers
Let’s just say that Tom Jackson decided not to break down the Aikman-Emmitt-Irvin versus Palmer-Johnson-Johnson comparisons on ESPN this week.
PANTHERS (-8) over Vikings
I have three for this one
1. Leading candidate for “Funniest Moment of the Season”: Culpepper’s dramatic kneel/pseudo-cry routine after Edinger’s winning field goal last week. Straight out of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” acting playbook.
2. Leading quote for “Funniest E-mail of the Season,” courtesy of Syracuse reader Bernie Mucitelli: “I think the Madden Name Generator is broken. The Green Bay Packers just signed WR Taco Wallace. Are they going to release Mayor McCheese?”
3. Leading candidate for “Funniest Quote of the Season”: Mike Tice’s postgame comment about his team where he said, “I thought they practiced with better emotion all week; I thought they studied better, harder; and I thought they heeded my warning and stayed home and off the streets.”
(Yup, gotta keep them off those dangerous streets in Minnesota. Wasn’t that where “Boyz N the Hood” was filmed?)
Raiders (-1.5) over TITANS
Lemme get this straight: Steve McNair’s body is so banged up that they didn’t bring him to Arizona last week because they didn’t want to risk his aching back going out on the cross-country flight but he’s OK to start this week and get popped 15-20 times by finely honed athletes between 250 and 350 pounds? Also, Tennessee’s receiving corps this week consists of Roydell Williams, Courtney Roby and Tyrone Calico? I have that straight, correct?
COWBOYS (-9) over Cardinals
I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again: It’s an especially cruel experience to root for Drew Bledsoe. During the final timeout before that fateful third-and-14 pass in the Seattle game, we were watching the game with my buddy Sal (diehard Cowboys fan), and both Hench and I (diehard Pats fans with Bledsoe scars) were pointing out as meekly as possible, “Um, probably not a good idea to run a play here; might want to take this one out of Drew’s hands and go to overtime.” and seconds later, one of the Seahawks was sprinting down the sideline with the game-changing interception. Within 90 seconds, Sal was storming out of the house, and who could blame him? I’m telling you, few things in life can prepare you for rooting for Drew Bledsoe.
(Random note: Thirty minutes later, I was leaving right when Sal’s wife dropped by, leading me to explain why Sal was no longer there. When I was done with the story, she started laughing and said, “I can’t believe you guys take football so seriously; it’s unbelievable to me.” So I tried to compare the feeling of watching your buddy get slaughtered by a football game to being a bridesmaid in a wedding where something goes horribly wrong for the bride, followed by her saying, “I see what you mean, like if the limo never showed up for the church or something, yeah, I would feel terrible.” So to recap, the Cowboys-Seahawks game was a wedding, Sal was the bride, that Bledsoe interception was the limo not showing up, and Hench and I were the bridesmaids. I’m glad we settled this.)
Bears (+3) over LIONS
Remember the Tommy Maddox Corollary from last week’s column? I present to you “The Reverse Maddox,” as personified by last week’s Browns-Lions game, when I picked the Browns solely because Joey Harrington was on the road then Mariucci pulled a late swerve and started Jeff Garcia for the token “Screw you, Cleveland, you never should have cut me!” start. Couldn’t have made that move on a Thursday, Mooch? And speaking of the Lions, did you know they’re 5-1 against the spread right now? Seems a little high, no?
SAINTS (-2.5) over Dolphins
Nick Saban on Gus Frerotte: “I’m not here to say we’re disappointed in Gus. I’m not here to say we’re satisfied in Gus. I’m not sure Gus is satisfied in himself.”
(Put it this way: When your coach discusses his QB the same way President Bush discussed FEMA in the weeks after Katrina, it’s probably not a good sign for your playoff hopes.)
(Unrelated note: Thanks to DirecTV for only showing last Friday night’s game in Miami and Kansas City — and nowhere else in the country. Fantastic. Imagine being a Dolphins fan, living outside of Miami and not being able to see your own team even though you’re paying nearly $200 a year to allegedly get every NFL game? How is that fair? And then they have the gall to show the replay on Sunday afternoon, like anyone would rather watch a taped game over a live one. Who makes these decisions? Was it the same guy who thinks it’s a good idea to show offenses that aren’t in the red zone on the Red Zone Channel, or was it a different guy?)
Browns (+2) over TEXANS
Four quotes to sum up the 2005 Texans season so far. Try to find the one that doesn’t fit:
1. WR Jabar Gaffney after the Colts thrashed them Sunday: “There is nothing you can say to describe this. It’s terrible. This is the lowest point of my career. It was just really depressing.”
2. Reader Bret from Houston: “As a Houston native and a Rice graduate, I strongly protest your characterization of the Houston Texans as the Rice Fightin’ Owls. Any sentient human being knows the Owls would have at least covered the spread against Indy. I’ve been trying to come up with a historical precedent to the mind-numbing, soul-sucking catastrophe that is the 2005 Texans, and am failing miserably. The Texans have no discernable talent (or pulse) when Andre Johnson is on the sideline. If possible, the fan experience of watching this tragedy unfold is even worse than their record. It’s the equivalent of watching a half-dozen replays of Albert Pujols’ Game 5-winner before each Astros at-bat. I mean, our heads are in our hands BEFORE every play from scrimmage.”
3. Reader Jared from Washington: “Is it about time to unveil the Dom Capers/Avery Johnson ‘I Have No Idea What I’m Doing Here So I’ll Just Keep My Mouth Shut and Stand Completely Still and Hope Nobody Realizes I’m the Head Coach’ Face?”
4. QB David Carr, “Any time we go on the field, I think we can win. As long as I’m doing what I know how to do, we have a chance to win.”
COLTS (-17) over Bye
This could be their toughest game in five weeks.
Jaguars (+3) over RAMS
What an anticlimactic end to the “Which one of the Mikes will get fired first?” game. Do I have to pay off the Mike Martz bets? Is it a no-contest? Considering he’s trapped in a hospital bed and they won’t even let him make phone calls to his coaches during games, and considering he clearly won’t coach them next season, that’s basically a firing, right? More important, is anyone else hoping this Martz saga ends with him staggering onto the field during a game like Shooter in “Hoosiers”?
(By the way, did anyone else notice that St. Louis’ new third-string QB is named “Jeff Smoker?” That can’t be a real name, right? Jeff Smoker? Is that an action hero, porn name, stage name, wrestling name what is it? Wouldn’t you be terrified if you wagered heavily against the Rams, two QBs went down and Jeff Smoker ambled onto the field? Couldn’t you see headlines like “Smoked!” and “Chain Smoker!” after another Rams miracle win? I feel like Jack Horner during the “Those are great names!” scene in “Boogie Nights.” If a QB named Jeff Smoker can’t make it, there’s no hope for anyone.)
NINERS (+11) over Bucs
This wins the award for “most ridiculous spread of the year.” You will see a WNBA star come out of the closet before you see Chris Simms favored by double digits in an NFL game again. All right, bad example.
BRONCOS (-3.5) over Eagles
If you’re the banged-up Eagles, do you mail this one in and save yourself for the upcoming Redskins/Cowboys/Giants stretch? I thought so.
Chiefs (+6.5) over CHARGERS
Seems like a three-point game to me. And since I have nothing else to add … watching football last Sunday with my friends, I brought up the topic, “What touchdown dance would cause the biggest possible fine?”
You would think it would be Adam Carolla’s idea for the “Touchdown Poop,” which I described two years ago — basically, the guy scores a touchdown, then squats like he’s on the bowl, stays there for a couple of seconds, turns the pages of an imaginary newspaper and finally “pushes” the ball between his legs. We figured that if Randy Moss did that, he would get suspended for a game and fined like $150,000. Plus, Joe Buck might start crying on the air.
But I think this one would be worse: “The Delivery.” What if Moss scored a TD and immediately fell to the ground on his back, with his legs up in the air like a pregnant woman, and two receivers stood on either side “cheering him on,” and Randy pretended he was pushing, and finally the QB leaned over him and “pulled” the football from Randy’s loins, then held the football to his shoulder like a baby for a few seconds before Moss stood up, gingerly grabbed the “baby,” cut an imaginary umbilical cord, then spiked the ball as hard as he possibly could? I think that would be like a three-game suspension and a $500,000 fine, right? Plus, Buck would be more distraught than Walter Cronkite after JFK’s assassination. Let’s hope and pray that Randy reads ESPN.com.
STEELERS (-10) over Ravens
No truth to the rumor that Brian Billick is changing his first name to “Mike.”
PATS (-8.5) over Bills
Dan from Toronto sums up Buffalo’s season: “Do you ever feel like you are in such a funk before your team has even played? I am so sick about how crappy I am going to feel at the end of the Sunday night game against the Pats that here is my analogy: My Buffalo Bills are going to get HAMMERED so badly this Sunday night that I am already preparing for the emptiness that I am going to feel after that game. It’s like waiting for a doctor to come meet you in the waiting room after you just showed him your balloon-sized tumor in your head. You know you have cancer, he knows you have cancer but you still have to do the song and dance of waiting for the confirmation. Right now my Bills are the cancer! And the Bills season is over far too early.”
(By the way, I want you to watch something right now, watch the way Tedy Bruschi fills this lane, watch this, watch him sneak over there and meet McGahee, watch this — BAM! Right there! You want to talk about a guy who isn’t rusty? You want to talk about a guy who missed playing football? You want to talk about a guy who has this crowd in a frenzy right now?)
Last week: 7-7
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available right now on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.