Saturday, June 30, 2007

He who WLAFs last ...

The NFL this week pulled the ridiculous-looking 220-volt plug on its spring developmental league, which was founded 16 years ago as the World League of American Football and was known at various times as the World League, the NFL European League, NFL Europe and, lastly, NFL Europa. The NFL says the move was necessary as it shifts its focus to "presenting the NFL to the widest possible global audience," but the decision to turn the lights out essentially puts an end to the NFL's noble but doomed effort to make tackle football a truly international game.

The league's original name, the World League of American Football, or WLAF, reflected the NFL's global ambitions. There were 10 teams, including six in the United States and one each in Montreal, London, Barcelona and Frankfurt. By the end of its run, the league had only six teams, and five of them were in Germany: Frankfurt, Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Rhein (Dusseldorf). The fact that the Germans were the only foreigners to develop an interest in American football is not terribly surprising. Germany long ago mastered the blitz and the long bomb and is well-accustomed to cheering wildly and waving banners as helmeted brutes smash through the line and seize large chunks of opposition territory. Indeed, the switch to the name NFL Europa was an acknowledgement of how much the league had concentrated its camps in Deutschland. Besides, it was a name bound to give Germans of a certain age and disposition the warm fuzzies. (The sixth NFL Europa franchise was in Amsterdam, which demonstrates that you can get a Dutchman to watch anything if he smokes enough hash.)

The rest of the world, however, generally isn't interested in American football, just like America generally isn't interested in rest-of-the-world futbol, or "soccer," as we call it this side of the Pond. It's just a cultural thing. We complain, for example, that "nothing happens" in soccer because we see these guys run around in short pants all afternoon, yet the game ends up 1-0 -- or 0-0. Foreigners complain that "nothing happens" in football because after every play, the clock stops and the teams call a circle jerk on the field. We laugh at their fruity-sounding team names like "Aston Villa" and "Tottenham Hotspur," and they laugh at our fruity-sounding team names like "Tennessee Titans" and "Jacksonville Jaguars." Both sides have a point.

The NFL shut down its European experiment just as it's preparing to play the first-ever regular season game outside North America. The Miami Dolphins and New York Giants (two more snigger-worthy names, come to think of it) will play in London's new Wembley Stadium on Oct. 28. When tickets were made available in May, they sold out almost immediately. Pretty impressive -- but recall that in 1994, World Cup games in the United States were selling out 90,000-seat stadiums, leading many to proclaim that soccer had finally "arrived" in this country. And just as pro soccer has slid to the bottom of the U.S. sports heap in the intervening 13 years, so will American football lose its novelty factor among the blood-sausage-eating set once the NFL has every team playing a regular season game in Europe every year, as it has said it plans to do. People will line up around the block to see the first game this fall -- especially with storied (if not particularly good) franchises such as Miami and New York involved -- but who's going to come out in the rain to watch the Houston Texans and the St. Louis Rams collide in Budapest in 2011?

But we're not here to bury the erstwhile WLAF. We're here to praise it as one of the weirdest fucking undertakings in the NFL's books. You could hardly have found a more delightful rathole to pour money down -- an estimated $30 million a year by the end. So, some thoughts:

The first president of the league was Mike Lynn, who was instrumental in building a three-time Super Bowl winner in Dallas. Unfortunately, he did so as general manager on the Minnesota Vikings. It was Lynn who in 1989 concluded that the Vikings were just one piece short of a championship team -- and that the missing piece was Herschel Walker. So he shipped off all the rest of his pieces to the Dallas Cowboys, who, sure enough, assembled a championship team out of them, while Walker averaged 54 yards a game in Minnesota. After just a year in the WLAF front office, Lynn returned to Minnesota to resume kicking Vikings fans in the testes.

By order of Congress, every story about NFL Europe had to reference Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme and Adam Vinatieri, all of whom played for the Amsterdam Admirals before becoming NFL stars. Their names, and that of Jon Kitna (Barcelona Dragons), were introduced as evidence that the league really was a developmental environment rather than a dumping ground for sixth-round draft picks. Warner, of course, is the patron saint of all minor league football players. As Brett Forrest wrote in Long Bomb, the definitive history of the XFL:
How it happened and why it happened, none of that mattered to the castoffs jacked up on Warner's mythology. The important thing was that it happened, and that it could happen again. ... Kurt Warner's departed minor-league ghost assumed a very real presence, and XFL players references his story only half as much as they dreamed it.
But for every Warner, there were a dozen Stan Gelbaughs, David Archers and J.T. O'Sullivans. The hero of the final World Bowl was Casey Bramlet. The players may have been kidding themselves, but NFL teams weren't. NFL Europa wasn't a place for a player to develop. It was a place for a player to get a last chance before the parent club cut him loose completely.

Though the NFL fudged the truth in explaining its decision to kill the European league, it at least was honest in saying the league was a marketing tool. If it had played up the whole developmental aspect too much, it would have had to confront the reality that the vast majority of these players weren't developing anything except chronic conditions. Contrast this with the NBA's "D-League," which exists because pro basketball's obsession with teenage boys was destroying the sport. Having essentially encouraged a decade's worth of high school kids to throw away their educations to pursue a pro career that they'd never catch, the NBA then had to find a place to put them. The next big star to come out of the D-League will be the first.

So NFL Europa twinkles out of existence. The Frankfurt Galaxy is (are?) history. Same with the Scottish Claymores, London Monarchs, Sacramento Surge, Montreal Machine, Memphis Mad Dogs and many more. Goodbye to bewildered crowds cheering wildly whenever someone kicks a ball. Goodbye to those big Skoda patches and other uniform ads. Goodbye to the enchanting sound of a chorus of whistles ringing through a nearly empty stadium. Goodbye to round-the-clock reruns on NFL Network. From this day forward, Germans seeking a football fix will look glumly at their stadiums and declare: "I see nothing! Nothing!"

Friday, June 22, 2007

God Almighty, make it stop

Now that I'm gainfully unemployed, I get to watch more television. Not that there's usually anything worth watching, but still, there are a lot of channels. And every single goddam one of them is now pimping this fucking Evan Almighty movie in some way or another. I hate that movie. I will not see that movie. Morgan Freeman is not God; he's Easy Reader. I hope God makes him pay. George Burns, too. The movie's trailer, which is supposed to show the funniest parts of the film, isn't even funny, unless you find bird shit funny, and it isn't, unless it hits a helpless person. Stupid movie, and if you go see it, you're stupid. Dummy.

And yet the publicity machine grinds along. The lowest of the many low points was a segment on Dateline NBC, in which NBC short-timer Stone Phillips pretended that the "upcoming NBC/Universal release" was newsworthy enough to merit a cringeworthy interview with Steve Carell (here's a transcript and video clips). For the segment, Phillips inserted himself into the role of Carell's Buddy No. 1, riding around with him in a golf cart on the Universal lot and clumsily ribbing him whenever Carell made the mistake of revealing any trace of his true personality.

For example, Phillips brought up the scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which Carell's character has his chest waxed. Carell explained why he submitted to an actual, painful waxing rather than let the effects crew set him up with phony chest hair:
"I thought the chest-waxing scene would be funny only because of the guys in the scene watching me do it. Because I figured, 'If I was really having it done, they’re gonna laugh. It’ll be horrible. It’ll be horrifying to watch.' I didn’t think the actual ripping or me screaming was the funniest part. To me, the funniest part is watching them squirm because they know it’s real."
That's a kind of insight that you don't often get. Most people would think the scene is funny because a guy is getting his chest hair pulled off, when in fact the humor comes from watching people watch someone get his chest hair pulled off. I hoped Phillips would follow up, and we could have a brief discussion of what "funny" means to Carell. But Stone's head -- so big on the outside, so empty inside -- had moved on to other things, and he decided that he was going to tease Carell about having played a middle-aged virgin "incredibly convincingly." The man has a good-looking wife and two kids, douchebag. Back off.

Later, Carell says nearly everybody can identify with the Virgin character because everyone has inhibitions of some kind. He then goes on to talk about his own greatest inhibition. As he speaks, he gets that middle-distance stare you get when you're really looking inside yourself. It's really quite moving:
"Honestly, talking about myself, because —- I think down deep or not so deep, I don’t think I’m a very interesting person. I don’t think this will be ..."
... at which point Canned Ham Phillips jumps in with "Are you being serious now?" For just a second, a who-is-this-asshole? look flashes in Carell's eyes, then he remembers who's paying him, and he goes along with it. Again and again, stuff like this would happen. Carell described an embarrassing incident from childhood -- one that you can tell sticks with him to this day -- and Phillips treated it like a "bit."

Another exchange demonstrated just how dim Stone Phillips can be. Carell joked that Evan (fucking) Almighty will be "the best motion picture in the history of the world" and predicted that "this movie may make $1 million. And that’s a lot of money." Phillips, apparently having never seen Austin Powers, blunders in:
"Well, I hate to break the news to you. You know, Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey pulled in $240 million in this country at the box office."
And you realize that Stone Phillips has no idea what's funny, or why it's funny. If Carell had said he thought the movie would make "$999 trillion dollars," Phillips would have laughed his big pussy head off. Because that's such a big number! There's no way! But going with a ridiculously low number? I don't get it!

Eventually Carell himself wearied of Phillips' act. The breaking point came when Stone Phillips, in a line of reasoning I have no doubt he wrote down for himself, suggested that Carell had some insight on the story of Noah's ark because, I shit you not, he'd once been a mailman:
Phillips: "You know, I read that before you became an actor you were a mailman."

Carell: "I was."

Phillips: "Now, if any job could prep you to play Noah, it’s gotta be delivering the mail. I mean, what mailman has not had to deal with some ornery animal?"

Carell: "Stone, I would say that’s a stretch. I would really say that’s a stretch, connecting the whole mailman thing with Noah. I don’t know, what are you reading?"

Phillips: "Well, I was thinkin’ ... I was looking through your bio ..."

Carell: "Noah and the mailman? Come on. OK, all right, all right. I’ll go with you. Yeah. Being a mailman was so much like being Noah because I had to deal with -- I had to deal with lots of animals. Yeah."

Phillips: "Now, you’re getting the hang of this."

Carell: "And I remember one time I was delivering the mail and it rained for 40 days. And my mail truck floated away. But luckily, all the dogs in the neighborhood had climbed onboard. And I saved them. So there really is a direct correlation."
Leave the comedy to the professionals, I say.

What does this have to do with football? Nothing! It's the offseason. You want something about Pacman Jones? Fine: If the charges stick and he goes to prison, then, just like the strippers he loves to watch, he's gonna wind up with his ass wrapped around a pole. Good enough?

As for Stone Phillips, all I can think of is what Klaus Kinski wrote about Werner Herzog in his memoir nearly 20 years ago:
"I despise ... Herzog. ... He should be thrown to the crocodiles alive! An anaconda should throttle him slowly! The sting of a deadly spider should paralyze him! His brain should burst from the bite of the most poisonous of snakes! ... Big red ants should piss in his eyes, eat his balls, penetrate his asshole, and eat his guts! He should get the plague! Syphilis! Malaria! Yellow fever! Leprosy!"
Klaus Kinski wouldn't have liked Stone Phillips, either.

UPDATE! David Plotz takes down Evan Almighty as the anti-faith, pandering, cynical piece of shit it is at Slate. Required reading.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

MMQB: Somewhat rank

I could just kiss Brett Favre. "MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK" FOR JUNE 18


1. Peter King leads this week's column by ranking NFL quarterbacks -- more specifically, the QBs he expects will be starting on opening weekend -- from 1 to 32. To King's credit, he comes out and admits that he's just doing this because he has nothing else to write about. (Indeed, he doesn't even say anything about coffee this week.) Still, I'm a little disappointed. Any fool can write about quarterbacks and head coaches. Down and Distance does it all the time. What would really show off King's expertise would be a ranking of NFL centers, or strong safeties, or offensive coordinators. I suspect, however, that few people would read a ranking of NFL centers, so quarterbacks it is. Anyway, I was thinking that it's silly to argue with King's rankings or his reasoning; after all, they're just his opinion, and he's entitled to it. Then I read the part where he says that if you disagree with his assertion that Jon Kitna will be one of the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL this year, "It's fine because it's your opinion, but it's probably wrong." Once he went there, I really had no choice ...

2. At the top of the rankings, King has Peyton Manning at No. 1 and Tom Brady at No. 2. Fine. The Colts won the Super Bowl, and they beat the Patriots twice along the way, so that makes sense. King doesn't need to say anything further on the subject. In fact, I'm pleading with him not to. The whole who's-better-Brady-or-Manning debate is so 2004, and everyone's sick of it. Even Brady's Ladies must have been a little relieved to see Manning collect a ring, as it means we can finally move on to something else (like: who's better, Jon Kitna or Jeff Garcia?). But of course King has to keep talking, and that's where we get into trouble:
For years, we could say -- and not be wrong -- that all Manning does is put up great numbers. Now we've got to say he puts up intergalactic numbers while putting his team in a good position to win games.
As we all know by now, the knock on Manning was never that he didn't win games. The Colts were 60-20 in the regular season over the past five years, best in the NFL. No, the knock on Manning was that he couldn't win big games. That's not even right. It was that he couldn't beat the Patriots in the playoffs. Who on Earth has been saying that Manning doesn't put his team in a position to win? No one. King is hunting straw men, again. As for Manning's numbers, which King says have gone from "great" to "intergalactic," compare them from 2004 and 2006:


The numbers, it seems, actually got a little worse, which is why some people felt that Manning had regressed this season, when in reality this was the best year of his career. Which brings us to the unseemly discussion of "intangibles" ...

3. King wraps up his rankings with a nifty little chart breaking down the QBs' performance over the past two years according to the factors he considers most important: wins, playoff wins, yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception "ratio" (we'll come back to that) and "intangibles." King explains that Brady was tops in the "intangible" category "with a 10 on a 10-point scale." The definition of intangible, mind you, is "something that cannot be perceived by the senses, defined or quantified." In other words, if you're able to rate it on a 10-point scale, it's not intangible. Call this quality "leadership" or "grit," if you must (and you're just dying to), but "intangible" is best reserved for writers seeking to explain away their man-crushes. (To wit: King gives Brett Favre an 8, while Rex Grossman gets just a 5. Come on now. I don't care how good your defense is; if you play as shitty as Grossman did and still win 13 games, that's some serious fucking intangibles.)

4. King's chart also says Manning has put up a league-leading touchdown-to-interception "ratio" of "+40" over the past two years, while Alex Smith has had the worst, "-10." I'll wait here while you go figure out what the he's trying to say. Since when are ratios expressed as positive or negative integers? In 2005-06, Manning threw 59 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. The ratio of those two numbers is 3.1-to-1. For every interception Manning threw, he passed for 3.1 touchdowns. The number King provides, however, is the touchdown-interception differential: Manning threw 40 more TDs than INTs. Calling the differential a "ratio" is a distortion, and here's why: Say Quarterback A throws 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while Quarterback B throws 15 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Who has the better numbers? If you go by differential, then QB A comes out slightly ahead (+14 vs. +12). Going by ratio, however, QB B wins in a landslide (5-to-1 compared with 2.4-to-1). If you're going to run around dropping science on us, get it right.

5. Straw men on parade: King attempts to paint a couple other choices as gutsy rather than shrug-worthy. First is his decision to put Drew Brees, at No. 3, ahead of Carson Palmer (No. 4). King has us in the audience shouting, and I quote, "Sacrilege!" Really? Is it that outside-the-box to predict Brees will have the better year? Brees played in a conference championship last season; Palmer didn't. Brees plays in the NFC South; Palmer plays in the AFC North. Brees plays indoors in the South; Palmer plays outdoors in Ohio. I do think Palmer is the better QB, but to say Brees will do better in 2007 is hardly a stretch. Finally, King acknowledges that we in the audience are calling him an "idiot," though not for the usual reasons. He says it's because he has Jon Kitna at No. 9. He goes on to explain that because Kitna is in a Mike Martz system, he should throw for more than 4,000 yards and be one of the "most effective" quarterbacks in the game in 2007. It all depends on what you mean by effectiveness, I guess. Kina did indeed pass for 4,200 yards last year. With 22 interceptions. And Detroit finished 3-13. If we think King's a fool for putting Kitna so high, it's not because we doubt that Kitna will rack up yardage in the fourth quarter when down by 17. It's because we believe it won't matter.

6. Moving on, King praises New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant for giving a team official $2,000 on the last day of camp and asking that it be used to take all the women who work in the team offices out to a fancy lunch. It was a nice gesture, but King praises it thusly: "Way to remember where you came from, Charles." Because Grant was once ... a woman in the Saints front office?

7. Jeff Garcia says he felt "personally snubbed" when the Eagles let him go in free agency after he did such an able job filling in for the injured Donovan McNabb last year. King agrees: "He still can't figure out why the Eagles didn't seriously try to sign him after he led the team to the playoffs last season. Neither can I." Well, everyone else has already figured it out. Jeff Garcia is the new Kelly Holcomb -- not a bad player, but the absolute worst guy you can have on your bench because he's not a bad player. When Garcia is your backup, you have a quarterback controversy on your hands. It happened in Detroit in 2005, and it would have happened next year in Philadelphia if the Eagles had signed him. Any time McNabb threw two interceptions in a game -- or even one in the first quarter -- the talk would have started: "Does Garcia give us a better chance to win?" "When is Garcia going in?" Can you blame Andy Reid for not wanting something like that tearing his locker room apart, just when he'd gotten it pieced back together following the Terrell Owens debacle? OK, maybe you can blame Reid, and maybe it was the wrong decision, but there's no mystery as to why it was made. So now Garcia is in Tampa Bay, where he has been handed the starting job over Chris Simms. Nothing says "building for the future" like bringing in a 37-year-old QB.

8. King's "aggravating travel note of the week" is a complaint about the Back Bay train station in Boston:
"What a dump. Grimy, smelly, humid, with a crummy waiting room. Washington's train station is a thing of beauty, almost a destination in and of itself. Baltimore's is OK, Philly's ancient and utilitarian. Even Newark has a little gem of a station, and it's always busy. But can't a great city like Boston do something about the first place many visitors see when they get to town?"
But Boston has a grand, inviting, cheery train depot, like Washington's Union Station (which is more shopping mall than train station). It's called South Station, and it's where most of the tourists arrive by Amtrak. It's on the Red Line, which means its hooked directly to Cambridge, the Common, the Freedom Trail and all that. Back Bay Station isn't much, and it isn't supposed to be. It's for commuters. It handles less than a third the traffic of South Station, which is only a mile away. I mean, it's on the Orange Line, for goodness' sake. You disembark at Back Bay, I've got no sympathy for you.


Peter is not well-connected: This week, King doesn't name-drop once. I suspect the Charles Grant anecdote may have been based on firsthand observation, but, strangely, there is no mention of anyone addressing King directly.

Total number of quotes of the week: 3.

Total number of things King thinks he thinks: 20. Total number unrelated to football before he gets to his "non-football-related thoughts": 1 (hey, the government screwed New Orleans!). Number of non-football-related thoughts in which King pretends he understood the Sopranos finale all along: 3.

Hiatus! Having reached the bottom of the barrel, King is on vacation until July 16. Just as well. Some folks haven't seen the Sporanos finale yet.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

MMQB: Um, the Sopranos aren't real

Blathering about Italians for the second straight week. "MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK" FOR JUNE 11


1. Peter King is all about the series finale of The Sopranos this week. King says he liked the way the finale ended, a view shared by about 2 percent of the U.S. population, as opposed to the roughly 3 percent who hated the finale. Think I'm exaggerating? The Neilsen overnights estimated the audience at 11 million people. Even assuming that half as many additional people recorded it, that's still only 5 percent of the population. Meaning 95 percent of the country didn't watch and doesn't give a shit. And yet it was on the front page of half the newspapers in the country. Get it into your thick skulls, white people: It's premium cable. Anyway, of all the Sopranos blah-blah-blah King spews forth this week, the most aggravating appears in his "quotes of the week":
Quote of the Week I
"We have to break our dependence on foreign oil."
-- A.J. Soprano, in the final episode of The Sopranos on Sunday night.
Classic A.J. Within 15 minutes, the conscience-ravaged A.J. is driving a new BMW without a care in the world, except where the next pizza's coming from.
Sigh. I didn't think I'd ever have to explain this to someone older than about 7, but here goes: This is not a reality show. A.J. Soprano is a fictional character. King is calling out a made-up person as a hypocrite. Jesus. When King reads the comics pages and sees that Jon has put Garfield on a diet, does he scoff and shout: "Oh, you're never going to get him to lay off the lasagna!"? Peter, please, we understand that your television show is very important to you, but those people on the screen are just actors, reading lines written for them. The characters don't actually have human failings, because they aren't actually human beings.

2. After watching Randy Moss work out during his first minicamp with the New England Patriots, King says he has a gut feeling that "Moss is going to keep his nose clean, shut up, and stick everyone's negative opinions about him (including mine) where the sun don't shine." Wow. I assume that King, being a wordsmith and all, is aware that when you tell someone to stick something "where the sun don't shine," you're telling him to shove it up his own ass. I know Moss is kind of an odd duck, but I can't imagine he'll choose to demonstrate defiance by buggering himself.

3. King writes: "Trent Green's deal with the Dolphins seems very fair ... maybe a little too fair for a 36-year-old guy who ended last year on such shaky ground with the Chiefs." Fair, in this context, isn't a sliding scale. It's binary: Either something is fair or it isn't. If the contract is "too fair," then it's gone beyond the point where it's fair. By definition, then, it's unfair. Call it semantics if you wish, but it's just lazy, stupid writing. If the Dolphins overpaid, then say so.


Peter is well-connected: "I asked Rodney Harrison if he thought Moss was still Moss. 'Are you kidding me, Peter?' he said ... "; "Seven years ago ... I interviewed Michael Strahan in the same booth that Tony, Carm and A.J. (Soprano) ended an era Sunday night ... "; " 'I loved it!' said the biggest fan of the show I know, Mike Lombardi, the former Browns and Eagles and Raiders exec ... My buddy Jason Hehir of HBO texted me: 'I couldn't be more irate at that ending.' ... "; "Thanks, one and all (including you, Mike Timlin), for ... the swellest birthday party a big lug could ever have."

Peter is predictible and dense: King turned 50 this week, and while he doesn't bang that drum as loudly as he does The Sopranos, he still milks it pretty good. Hey, he's entitled. But I can't let this line pass without comment: In the weekly "coffeenerdness" item, he says, "You know it's your birthday, and you must be very hard to buy for, when you get six Starbucks cards as gifts." First of all: You know it's your birthday when ... you get gifts? You didn't know until then? It's right there on your driver's license. But even better is how he looks at the six identical gifts he received and concludes that it means he's "hard to buy for." Uh, if you were hard to buy for, then you'd get cash, or a bunch of shit you'd never use. On the contrary, King is so fucking easy to buy for that six people came up with the same idea. Meanwhile, King is thrilled that someone else anonymously delivered five cases of Heineken Light (ugh), "in cans" (ugh), to his house. "The gift of life," he calls it, sounding more like an alcoholic than he probably cares to. So that was a great gift, too? Yeah, he's so hard to buy for.

Total number of quotes of the week: 4. Total unrelated to football: 1 (Sopranos, of course.

Total number of things King thinks he thinks: 16. Total number unrelated to football before he gets to his "non-football-related thoughts": 1 (take a wild guess).

Monday, June 11, 2007

NFL invisible for 25 years, USAT says

USA Today is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a series of Top 25 lists. As in, the 25 most groundbreaking inventions of the past quarter-century, the 25 most influential people, that sort of thing. (If this sounds familiar, it's because ESPN did exactly the same thing for its 25th anniversary a couple years back.) Today's installment in the USA Today series is the "25 Greatest Sports Stories." Lists like these are intended as conversation starters, not definitive histories. They're inherently subjective, so it's pointless to quibble with this item or that item. That said, however, you can't help but notice that there's something missing from today's list.


The only football story on the entire list is at No. 11: Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie's Heisman-winning Hail Mary pass against Miami in 1984. And that's it. One football story, and it's 23 years old, it's not even from the NFL, and I don't know if it even qualifies as a "story." (It was a great moment, to be sure, but it was hardly a story. It was one play.) The only other football player on the list is O.J. Simpson, whose trial is at No. 22. But the O.J. trial wasn't a football story. It wasn't even a sports story. It was a legal story, a celebrity story, a story about race and class, but most assuredly not a football story.

So with one story on the USA Today list, football -- America's game, by far the most popular sport in the Unites States today -- is tied with hockey, cycling, women's figure skating and women's soccer. Meanwhile, there are four basketball stories, two golf stories and two stories about athletes with HIV.

Oh yeah, there are also nine stories about baseball. Unfortunately, not one of those nine is the story of how baseball, once the national pastime, has fallen far behind football (and now NASCAR) in popularity thanks to a breathtaking run of greed, arrogance, stupidity, disingenuousness and moral laziness. The No. 1 story on the list is the Boston Red Sox's World Series championship in 2004, the TV ratings for which were exactly one-half of what they were 25 years earlier.

No. 2 on the list is Cal Ripken setting baseball's record for consecutive games, which I can get behind. No. 5 is "steroids in baseball," which I can't get behind, especially because the very next item on the list is the "1998 home run chase." I thought that by this point we all understood that without steroids, there would have been no 1998 home run chase. These are the same story. Moving on, No. 10 is another baseball corruption highlight: "Pete Rose banned," which was definitely a big deal. No. 13 is Kirk Gibson's walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series. Well, now. Sure, he was hurt, but Gibson's homer came in Game 1 of a five-game series. Joe Carter hit a World Series-winning walk-off home run in 1993. But then again, Carter isn't every sportswriter's secret crush.

No. 15 is Bill Buckner's error in the 1986 World Series. Eh. Talk about a story that the media loves all out of proportion to its impact. (The game was already tied, the error didn't lose the Red Sox the World Series, and even if Buckner had played the ball cleanly, Bob Stanley still wouldn't have made it to the bag for the forceout.) No. 19 is the 1989 World Series being postponed by an earthquake, which isn't much of a sports story, either, but is more so than O.J. And No. 23 is the strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series. For my money, that should be the No. 1 story, because that's the event that killed whatever emotional connection America had left to baseball. Since the strike, the story of Major League Baseball has been one gimmick after another: interleague play, faux-retro ballparks, home run chases engineered with juiced balls, "alternate jerseys" and, my favorite, the decision to make home-field advantage in the World Series dependent on the outcome of an exhibition game in which the lineups are decided by whichever team's fans can most effectively stuff Internet ballot boxes.

What football stories at least deserve consideration? Off the top of my head:

The rise of the NFL colossus. The NFL is now a year-round phenomenon. First the draft became a national TV event, then the scouting combine, then team minicamps. Fantasy football has turned everyone into an armchair G.M. (In fact, the rise of fantasy sports of all kinds should probably be in the top 10.) If "the pervasiveness of ESPN" can rate No. 24 on the USA Today list, then the NFL's sheer hegemony should be in the top 20.

The 1985 Chicago Bears. Though they may not have been the best of all time (they weren't), the '85 Bears became a metaphor for athletic dominance that transcended football. Plus, they produced the seminal sports music video, paving the way for the Berenguer Boogie just two years later.

Joe Theismann's leg. The most famous sports injury of all time. Like the footage of Ronald Reagan getting shot over and over on national TV, this sickening replay of Lawrence Taylor ending Theismann's career became a point of reference for the next two decades. Too bad LT didn't hit him in the vocal cords.

Adam Vinatieri's leg. Not once but twice in three years, Vinatieri won the Super Bowl with a field goal on the final play of the game. If Michael Jordan's NBA Finals-winning shot vs. Utah in 1998 (in Game 6, not 7) qualifies, then Vinatieri's heroics deserve a place on the list.

I worked at USA Today for years, and I still have a lot of good friends there. This criticism (loving, of course!) is directed at USAT specifically, but it applies to the sports media generally.

Sports media types love baseball far more than does the public. My local newspaper, for example, has a tiny sports section, but every day it gives over a full page to baseball agate that's freely available everywhere else. Sports media types will tell you that of course baseball provided more than one-third of the biggest sports stories of the past 25 years. Everyone they know just loves baseball!

Sports media types also inbue certain moments with "meaning" far out of proportion to their actual impact. It was nice to see Team USA win the 1999 Women's World Cup (No. 14), but the lasting impact was close to zero. The league that grew out of the World Cup collapsed within three years amid near-total apathy. Similarly, the news that Arthur Ashe was dying of AIDS (No. 20) was tragic, but it came less than a year after Magic Johnson had already put a famous face on HIV. Perhaps Ashe is on the list because he was hounded by a certain newspaper into revealing his diagnosis, which he had preferred to keep private.

Breaking down the "25 Greatest Sports Stories," we find the trouble:

1. Sox win Series 5. Baseball steroids
2. Ripken breaks record 6. '98 home run chase
3. Tiger Woods wins first Masters 9. Magic has HIV
4. Villanova wins NCAAs 10. Pete Rose banned
7. N.C. State wins NCAAs 12. Dale Earnhardt dies
8. Jack Nicklaus Wins '86 Masters 17. Tonya Harding v. Nancy Kerrigan
11. Flutie Hail Mary 19. Series earthquake
13. Gibson home run 20. Ashe has AIDS
14. 1999 World Cup 22. Simpson trial
15. Buckner error 23. '94 Series canceled
16. Duke buzzer beater in '92 NCAAs24. ESPN is really popular
18. Jordan's last shot
21. Lance Armstrong
25. Wayne Gretzky sets NHL scoring record

It's simple: Not enough "sports," too many "stories."

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Unnecessary Football League

United they stand, United they fall

It's a dead time in the sports world. The NFL is roughly halfway between last season's Super Bowl and next season's Kickoff Weekend. Baseball is plodding along in its customary drug-addled fog. The NBA playoffs have been so typically compelling that they were easily pushed off the front of the sports section by Kobe Bryant's PMS. The NHL is in the midst of a historic Stanley Cup final -- for the first time since 1918, not a single person is watching. The golf, tennis and NASCAR seasons are in full swing, but the golf, tennis and NASCAR seasons are each eleven and a half months long.

With so little going on that's worth paying attention to, it's no wonder that sports fans were briefly abuzz over the news that a Wall Street financier, Bill Hambrecht, and a senior Google executive, Tim Armstrong, are organizing a new professional football league. What bumped the headlines up a couple point sizes was the news that they have already lined up at least one prominent franchise owner: Mark Cuban, the Internet zillionaire who has transformed the NBA's Dallas Mavericks from a perennial doormat to a perennial disappointment, and made a multimedia nuisance of himself in the process.

The Hambrecht-Armstrong-Cuban venture has been tentatively title the United Football League, or UFL, and you can read all about it in this New York Times article. (Hurry, before it goes behind the TimesSelect subscription wall.)

If the name "UFL" sounds vaguely familiar, it's probably because you're confusing it with either the UFC or the USFL. The UFC is a mixed martial-arts competition known as the "Ultimate Fighting Championship," which is a patently ridiculous name, considering that the rules say you can't bite, can't pull hair, can't head-butt, can't gouge eyes, can't kick a guy in the balls, can't punch him in the throat, can't stick a finger up his ass, can't stomp on his head, can't sucker-punch him after the bell, can't hit him with a chair. "Ultimate," my ass. Pussies.

The USFL, on the other hand, was the greatest threat the NFL has confronted in the four decades since it merged with the AFL. For three years, the USFL raided rosters, sent salaries skyrocketing and tussled with the NFL in city halls and courtrooms across the country. It was the league where Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Gary Zimmerman, Reggie White, Sam Mills, Herschel Walker, Maurice Carthon, Sean Landeta, Bart Oates, Doug Flutie and scads of others started their careers. It was where Carl Peterson earned his reputation as a personnel genius. It was the place where Jim Mora won playoff games, and where Lee Corso was a head football coach instead of just a leathery buffoon. It was in the USFL that the two-point conversion came to pro football, instant replay got its first test, and Jacksonville established its credentials as a major league city.

But the USFL ultimately drowned in a sea of red ink and legal-size files, broken promises and bounced checks. It carefully cultivated fans in small markets, only to throw them overboard. It vainly chased fans in large markets, getting only shrugs and giggles in return. It proved the viability of playing football in the spring, then followed Donald Trump and Eddie Einhorn on a disastrous, logistically impossible and ultimately suicidal march toward autumn.

Anyone thinking of investing in the UFL is well advised to study the lessons of the earlier league. The USFL's many failures are likely to be repeated, because of what hasn't changed in the 22 years since it went under. But what's worse is that the USFL's few successes are unlikely to be repeated, precisely because of what has changed since then.

On first glance, the biggest difference between the UFL and the USFL is simply a matter of the calendar: The USFL played a season running from February to July. The UFL plans to play in the autumn, just like the NFL. Strike one. And probably strike two and three.

The USFL was formed as a spring league precisely because it knew it couldn't compete head to head against the NFL. Founder David Dixon believed the league would appeal to the hardcore football fans who were left hanging every year after the Super Bowl ended and the NFL went into hibernation for seven months. The USFL would be their fix. To play in the fall, Dixon reasoned, would be absurd. With NFL games on television every autumn weekend, who would ever watch teams of guys who couldn't make NFL rosters? And that's not even getting into the matter of competition from college football.

If you hope to compete head-to-head against the NFL, you need to have players approaching NFL quality, which means you have to be prepared to pay what the NFL is paying for talent. The USFL wasn't, at least initially. The league's original 12 teams agreed to a salary cap that would keep average player salaries in the $30,000-to-$50,000 range, with a little left over for each team to sign two "stars" -- defined as players with regional appeal, such as a high-profile graduate of a local university. The NFL, meanwhile, was paying at least three times that for players. An NFL survey in the 1981 season, two years before the USFL began play, found that the average player salary was about $90,100. At its inception, the USFL was determined not to get into a calamitous bidding war with the NFL like the one that the AFL waged in the 1960s.

(The average NFL salary in 2006, two years before the UFL hopes to begin play, was about $1.4 million. That's a 1,454 percent increase from 1981 in nominal dollars and a 559 percent increase when adjusted for inflation.)

The UFL masterminds are also determined to keep player salaries relatively low -- but they also intend to compete directly with the NFL in the fall. Hambrecht told the Times, "Bill Walsh used to tell me that the last 20 players cut from every team were almost interchangeable with the last 20 players to make the team." So the UFL will stock its rosters with those guys, and will go after the top players from Arena ball and the Canadian league. Also, the league will be able to offer most rookies -- particularly late-round picks and undrafted free agents -- more money than they could make under the NFL salary cap.

Walsh's statement about the quality of the last players to be cut may well be true, but all it means is that the UFL will compete for fans' attention with rosters full of bubble players. And the "top stars" in the Arena league and Canada aren't playing there by choice. They're there because they can't make NFL rosters. Most rookies, meanwhile, don't get much money because they aren't very good. What the UFL is proposing to do is kind of like starting a new baseball league and saying, "We can be just as good as the major leagues. We'll just sign the best players in the minors."

The USFL, of course, abandoned its focus on keeping costs down, one of the cornerstones of its business plan, by the start of its second season. Wanting "name" players to sell tickets, its teams began pursuing top-tier college players and raiding NFL rosters. The Oklahoma Outlaws signed Buccaneers QB Doug Williams. The Boston Breakers signed Bengals tight end Dan Ross, a Massachusetts native, then rewarded him by moving to New Orleans. The Los Angeles Express not only signed Steve Young to play quarterback, but also added three top young linemen to protect him: Zimmerman, Mark Adickes and Mike Reuther. The Birmingham Stallions signed Bills running back Joe Cribbs, a three-time pro-bowler. And, of course, Trump's New Jersey Generals signed Browns QB Brian Sipe and Chiefs safety Gary Barbaro to complement Herschel Walker, then added Flutie a year later. (Sipe was dealt to the Jacksonville Bulls.)

The free spending shredded the USFL's cost-control mechanisms and ultimately contributed to its collapse, but it did have one positive effect: It brought the league sustained attention.

This is a critical element. The Times article that introduced the UFL concept said, "A new league's biggest issue ... is whether it really can approximate the NFL's level of play." This is dead wrong. A new league's biggest issue is whether it can get people to pay attention. The lifeblood of any pro sports league is not the drum-dyed, hardcore fan; it's the casual fan. And casual fans are not going to pay attention to a league made up of NFL final-cut casualties, Arena all-stars and third-round draft picks -- even if they're good players. They want to see stars, and football stars are created in two places. One of those places is the college game, but any player who comes out of college already a star will command too high a price for the UFL, according to its own financial strategy. The other place, of course, is the NFL.

For obvious reasons, the Times article is compelled to play the dog-eared Tom Brady Card: "It's also worth remembering that many late-round draft choices are good football players. Tom Brady, for instance, was a sixth-round draft choice." True. But Brady became a star by winning three NFL titles. Suppose Brady had signed with a rival league. Even if he led his team to, say, three straight title games and won two of them, how much of a star would he really be? About as big a star as Chuck Fusina, who won two championships in three years with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars of the USFL. There's a reason you don't know Fusina's name today: The USFL never created its own stars. The only names from the USFL that anyone recognizes today are those that came into the league already having attianed stardom in college or the NFL, and those that became stars in the NFL after the league folded in 1985. So will it be with the UFL.

(On the topic: Here are some other quarterbacks drafted in the sixth round since 2000: Reggie McNeal, Bruce Gradkowski, Jeff Smoker, Jim Sorgi, Kliff Kingsbury, Josh Booty and Josh Heupel. I've said it before and will say it again: The fact that Tom Brady was a sixth-round choice says nothing about the sixth round and everything about a blind spot in NFL teams' player evaluations.)

But let's pretend players won't be a problem for the UFL. Let's say somehow the league manages to convince fans that it plays a fairly decent brand of football without bankrupting itself on player salaries. Now will anyone watch?


As said above, the USFL played in the spring because spring was the deadest period of the football calendar, especially in the early 1980s. Remember, this was before the NFL draft became a television event. Before the NFL scouting combine became a television event. Before the Arena Football League even existed. Before NFL Europa. Before the NFL Network existed to show pro football 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The USFL gave football fans something to watch. It gave ABC and ESPN something to show. It gave football writers something to write about for those seven months when they would otherwise be covering golf or tennis or God-knows-what for the general assignment desk. And even if those writers often paid more attention to the front office ("Can the league survive?") than the activity on the field ("The Wranglers beat the Federals!"), at least they were paying attention to something in the USFL.

Which is why the foolishness of the Trump-engineered move to the fall was obvious to nearly everyone not named Trump (and maybe to him, too). From the time he bought into the league, Trump had agitated for a fall schedule, arguing that football was "meant" to be played in the autumn. Never mind that the whole league was built on the proposition that football was so popular you could play it any time of year. Trump -- abetted by Einhorn, who had taken over the bankrupt Chicago Blitz on the condition that the USFL move to the fall so as not to compete with his own White Sox -- pointed to the TV money being thrown at the NFL and said, "That's where we have to be." But they had cause and effect backwards. That money was being thrown at the NFL because it was the NFL, not because the games were being played in the fall. If the NFL had chosen to move its games to the spring, the money would have followed.

The USFL abandoned the spring for the fall for the same reason the New Jersey Generals raided NFL rosters and signed top college players: Trump hoped to force a merger with the NFL, a merger that would include his Generals and maybe someone else, and to hell with the rest of the league. He should have listened to John Bassett, the owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits and a fierce opponent of the move. Bassett had owned the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League of the mid-1970s. After that league collapsed, Bassett kept the team together as he petitioned for entry into the NFL. The response from the NFL was the same then as it would be ten years later, when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle would say of a USFL merger or expansion: "I just can't see it happening. There's just no sentiment for it. When we expand, we'd want to pick our own cities and our own owners." Ultimately, the proximate cause of death for the USFL was not the decision to play in the spring. It was the decision to quit playing in the spring.

In the 22 years since the USFL played its last game, the NFL has gone ahead and filled the spring and summer with football. The combine. The draft. European games. America's Game. Minicamps. NFL Replay. Plus there's the Arena league, with which the NFL has developed an informal partnership. Still, the football traffic in the warm months is nothing compared with the fall and winter. The new UFL will be trying to penetrate a football market in which the NFL plays games not just on Sundays and Mondays but also on Thursdays and Saturday nights. College football has long since expanded beyond Saturdays, and now plays just about every day of the week except Sunday. A week's worth of football on TV once consisted of two college games Saturday afternoon, maybe two or three NFL games on Sunday and Monday Night Football. Today, it's wall-to-wall football on CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN U, the various Fox Sports Networks, NFL Network and hundreds of local channels. You tell me where the UFL is going to find room to set up shop. The Times article says, "One television advantage the UFL will have is Friday night. Thanks to the 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act, the NFL is prohibited from televising games on most autumn Friday nights. (The prohibition was meant to protect high-school football.) Any new league would have televised football all to itself that evening." Well, televised pro football, at least. ESPN2 has been showing college football on Fridays for years now. The reason there isn't already more football on TV on Friday? Because no one watches TV on Friday.

Then there's the question of who's going to televise the UFL. The NFL has locked up all the broadcast networks except ABC, whose parent, Disney, owns Monday Night Football on ESPN. The Times floats a few ideas in the USA network, TNT and Versus, the sad-sack stepsister of the sports broadcasting universe. USA is owned by NBC Universal, which is laying out $650 million a year to show Sunday night NFL games, so ... probably not. Versus is essentially fictitious. As for TNT ... Look, content is precious in the 500-channel universe, so someone will be willing to put UFL games on, but the economics argue against any major basic cable channel making the necessary investment.

Still, let's say the UFL gets a national TV contract to go along with all those great players it's going to sign. Where are the teams going to play? The UFL has said it will put franchises in Las Vegas, Mexico City and Los Angeles, the great white whale of professional football in America. (Let me venture to guess two more sites: Birmingham and Memphis. Only five markets had teams in the WFL, the XFL and the USFL: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Birmingham and Memphis.) Back to the Times article: "... the NFL does fine despite not fielding a team in 21 of the country's top 50 markets -- including such enormous metropolitan areas as San Antonio, Las Vegas, Orlando and (of course) Los Angeles." The suggestion is that those non-NFL cities are the kinds of markets that are ripe for UFL franchises. Take a look at the top 50 media markets in the United States, ranked by the number of television households:

1.New York Yes (2)
2.Los Angeles No
3.Chicago Yes
4.Philadelphia Yes
5.San FranciscoYes(2)
6.Dallas Yes
7.Boston Yes
8.Washington Yes
9.Atlanta Yes
10.Houston Yes
11.Detroit Yes
12.Tampa Yes
13.Phoenix Yes
14.Seattle Yes
15.Minneapolis Yes
16.Miami Yes
17.Cleveland Yes
18.Denver Yes
19.Orlando No
20.Sacramento No
21.St. Louis Yes
22.Pittsburgh Yes
23.Portland, OR No
24.Baltimore Yes
25.Indianapolis Yes
26.Charlotte Yes
27.San Diego Yes
28.Hartford No
29.Raleigh No
30.Nashville Yes
31.Kansas City Yes
32.Columbus No
33.Cincinnati Yes
34.Milwaukee Yes
35.Salt Lake CityNo
36.Greenville, SCNo
37.San Antonio No
38.Palm Beach, FLNo
39.Grand Rapids No
40.Birmingham No
41.Harrisburg No
42.Hampton Roads, VANo
43.Las Vegas No
44.Memphis No
45.Albuquerque No
46.Oklahoma CityNo
47.Greensboro, NCNo
48.Louisville No
49.Buffalo Yes
50.Jacksonville Yes
(54.New Orleans Yes)

All of a sudden, those 21 major markets aren't so attractive. San Antonio may be the nation's seventh-largest city, but it has no suburbs, and its metro area is dwarfed by those of much smaller cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Orlando is larger than nearly half the NFL's markets, but good luck to anyone trying to establish a fourth pro football team in Florida, which also has three college teams stocked with NFL talent. And most of the "available" markets on the list -- Sacramento, Raleigh, Harrisburg, Grand Rapids, Palm Beach and others -- are so close to existing NFL teams that they are for all intents and purposes in the same market.

The UFL could try to compete directly with NFL teams in NFL cities -- if it wants to die a quick death, as opposed to a drawn-out one. One thing the USFL discovered in its three-year history was that you can put a new football team in a major market, but that's no guarantee that people will watch. The Breakers lasted one season in Boston before moving to New Orleans, then Portland. The Chicago Blitz played in front of tiny crowds for two years before going under. The Washington Federals eventually fled to Orlando. The Los Angeles Express were lucky to draw 10,000 people in the 90,000-seat Coliseum and played their last home game at a junior college in the San Fernando Valley. The move to the fall, meanwhile, killed some of the league's relatively successful franchises. The Philadelphia Stars and Michigan Panthers couldn't compete with the Eagles and Lions, so the Stars moved to Baltimore (actually, College Park, Maryland, just outside D.C.), and the Panthers merged with the Oakland Invaders (the Raiders were still in Los Angeles.) The Houston Gamblers and Trumps's Generals were planning a merger, as were the Denver Gold and Jacksonville Bulls, when the league went out of business. These teams were essentially established franchises, and they had no hope of competing against local NFL teams in the fall. The UFL has less than no hope.

We could also discuss the issue of stadium availability, but that would just be piling on, wouldn't it?

The UFL does have Los Angeles to itself. Too bad L.A. is a nearly impossible market to crack, even after losing two NFL teams (mostly over stadium issues). The UFL also does have Mexico City. And it does have Las Vegas, a metropolis that is about to find itself in the same position Phoenix was in for most of the 1970s and 1980s: the boomtown that pro sports franchises threaten to move to in order to extort better stadium deals from their own cities.

I love pro football. And I love rebel leagues. Look over the Down and Distance archive, and you'll find an astonishing amount of information about the USFL, the WFL, the AAFC, even a little about the XFL. It'd be great if the UFL could succeed. But it won't. It can't. Even if it manages to round up attractive players, even if it manages to get itself on a network people actually receive, even if it manages to find investors to pay the bills and stadiums to play the games in, it will fail for simple reasons of supply and demand. There's an endless supply of football in the 21st century, but there's only a finite demand.

MMQB: The Italian nut job

Achtung! Wo ist das Taxi Zum Klo? "MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK" FOR JUNE 4


1. Peter King begins his column this week by offering up his prediction for Super Bowl XLII: Colts 44, Saints 37. Such predictions, however ridiculous, are an offseason staple of professional football writers, and they aren't intended to be taken seriously, so I'm not going to ding P.K. for doing it. I'll also let slide the fact that King doesn't just offer his opinion on who will be playing, he also predicts an exact final score eight months before the game and three month before the season even starts. (Me, I have Indianapolis winning 45-37, but King expects Vinatieri to miss the extra point after the fourth Colts touchdown. He's the insider!) What I will criticize King for is his rationale for picking New Orleans at the NFC champion: "I like the Saints quite a bit. In the end, they have the fewest weaknesses in the conference, and they're the only good team with a quarterback and a running game that can stand toe-to-toe with the Colts and have a chance in a shootout." This could be true, but what gets a team to the Super Bowl is not how well it matches up with the other conference's champion, but rather how well it matches up against the top teams in its own conference. By King's rationale, the Colts should have played the Cowboys in Super Bowl XLI, because Dallas had proven it could beat Indy.

2. In explaining his choice for the AFC representative in the next Super Bowl, King writes: The three best teams in football right now -- and this cannot be debated -- are New England, Indianapolis and San Diego, in some order." This cannot be debated? I'll debate it. Indianapolis has lost major players from a defense that just barely got it together for the playoffs. San Diego's new head coach is Norv Turner, career record 58-82-1. Everyone's entitled to his own opinions, but to say something is not debatable just means that you're not prepared to defend those opinions.

3. "Butch Davis didn't part company with the Cleveland Browns with lots of handshakes and warm wishes. That makes one of his first signings in his first recruiting class at the University of North Carolina quite notable." Ooh, this sounds so meaty! Then comes the bait-and-switch. It turns out that Davis has successfully recruited the son of former Browns security director Lew Merletti to play for him at Carolina. King seems to be arguing that because Davis' tenure as head coach was, on balance, unsuccessful, it's somehow remarkable that during his four years in Cleveland, he developed friendships with people in the Browns organization. the only thing more shocking would be if he still sends his former secretary a Christmas card. And once again, the Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me interests only Peter King.

4. King presents without comment a quote from Buffalo News writer (and fellow Hall of Fame voter Mark Gaughan) on why Randy Moss doesn't belong in Canton: "Anyone who makes the statement "I play when I want to play' should never be put in the same category as players such as Walter Payton, Mike Singletary and Jim Kelly." I'll agree that Moss doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, but since when is Jim Kelly in the same category as Walter Payton and Mike Singletary?
5. Addressing the accidental death of Patriots DB Marquise Hill, King makes the stunning (for him) admission that he didn't know much about an NFL player. He says:
"For those of us who did not know him, it's sad that when Hill's name came up in his three NFL seasons (which wasn't often, because he was not an impact player), the first thing we thought is, 'failed second-round pick.' Now we've learned about the work he did building a ramp for a multiple sclerosis victim in Massachusetts, and about the tireless behind-the-scenes work he did post-Katrina in his native New Orleans. The guy worked hard at football, but it never came for him the way the Patriots, or he, thought it would. But that should not define him in death."
Agreed, but ... what's irritating about this is that Hill's work on behalf of the less-fortunate was not a state secret. It was there for those who cared to look, but no one cared to look. The sports media fills reams of paper, stacks of tape, and terabytes of server space bemoaning the antics of dogfighters, wife-beaters and drunkards -- and yet rarely cares to look for anything else. Maybe Hill's good works would have drawn more attention had he been a star. But how sad is that? You know that if Hill had beaten up an MS victim rather than helped him, we'd have known his name -- regardless of how good a player he was.


Peter is well-connected: "Before my vacation began, I asked NBC boss Dick Ebersol which show I should download to my IPod ... "; "A few years ago ... I was at a taping of a TV show with New York sports radio host Mike Francesa.

Peter went to Italy and came back as Cliff Clavin: "Never have I been much of a wine guy, but staying in Tuscany ... "; "You know what's great about dinner in small towns in Italy? ... "; "The one Italian thing I am now addicted to: olive oil." (I don't have the heart to tell him olive oil isn't a beverage.)

Peter learned a language during his vacation in Italy: "Maybe Chicago wll by OK with the Lance Briggs and Alex Brown distractions on defense and the organization having silly blinders on when it comes to its uber-backing of Rex Grossman ... "; "Lew Merletti ... was the security-meister for the Browns when Davis coached there." Is there something inherently funny about German that I'm not getting?

Peter may be on the take: "Houston first-round pick Amobi Okoye turns 20 on June 10 -- the same day I turn 50. This means Okoye will go through mini-camps, a full training camp, a full regular season and most of the next offseason without being able to walk into a bar in Houston and say, 'I'll have a Coors Light, please.' "

Total number of quotes of the week: 4

Total number of things King thinks he thinks: 16 Total number unrelated to football before he gets to his "non-football-related thoughts": 1 (update on 1st Sgt. Mike McGuire and his team in Iraq).