Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Maybe Tiki Barber was the problem

Considering the way the New York Giants played over the last half of the 2007 season, I don't know that it's any great shock that they've wound up in the Super Bowl. But if back in September you had declared that this team, with Eli Manning playing quarterback, and with Tom Coughlin serving as head coach, and with running back Tiki Barber having retired, and with tight end Jeremy Shockey on injured reserve, would make the Super Bowl, someone would have called you crazy.

And that someone would probably have been Tiki Barber.

You remember Tiki, right? Played 10 years for the Giants? Fumbled the ball all the time? Finally stopped fumbling the ball all the time, but it didn't improve the team any? Him? Yeah, him.

As you may have known, Barber retired at the end of the 2006 season and took a job with NBC, where he offers the occasional opinion on Football Night in America in between discussing the Mommy Wars or the hot looks for fall or whatever it is he does with Matt and Meredith on the Today show. Eager to distinguish himself out of the gate this season, Barber seized on the Giants' 0-2 start to declare that Manning was a lousy leader and Coughlin was a lousy coach. From there, Barber continued to make headlines by ... um ...

You know, when you think about it, Barber didn't make any other headlines. Hired by NBC to bring viewers his wisdom and insight and big bald head and blah-blah-blah, Barber delivered two weeks of Giants locker room kiss-and-tell and 15 weeks of little else. He stabbed his former QB in the back, and he stabbed his former coach in the back. And then that QB and that coach and the rest of Barber's former teammates did something they'd never really done with him on the team: played spirited football in the postseason.

(Yes, the Giants went to the Super Bowl in 2000 while Barber was with the team. Perhaps even in spite of him. They won the NFC that year solely because someone had to. In the Super Bowl the Ravens exposed them for the frauds they were.)

So Tiki Barber -- a Hall of Fame player, according to Peter King, who lives in the New York area and works with Barber, so he's totally the best person to judge -- retires, and the Giants go on a better run than at any time since 1990. When is someone besides me going to theorize that maybe Tiki was the problem all along?

Think about it. The Giants players have gushed about how Manning has stepped up as a leader in the locker room this season. Perhaps that's because there is no longer a certain bald-headed self-appointed team leader poisoning that same locker room, running to whisper in the media's ear (Psst! Peter! C'mere!) that this kid can't get his shit together. The Giants have also noted that the notoriously rigid Coughlin has loosened up considerably this season. Perhaps that's because he felt he could loosen up, that he didn't have to hold the reins so tightly if there was no one there looking to grab them away.

It's just a theory, mind you.

The Giants are full of big personalities. Plaxico Burress can run his mouth. So can Antonio Pierce. And fucking Cooper Manning will win the Super Bowl before Michael Strahan will ever be content to let his play do all the talking. But those guys want to be happy more than they want to be right. (And in the NFL, being a champion = happy.) Tiki Barber? Somehow, he's just always seemed like a guy who had a greater desire to be right. Perhaps that's why he quit the game when he did, with the Giants seemingly ascendant. He wanted to go to TV, where he can always be "right." I mean, it's not like he's going to lose a battle of wits to Jerome Bettis. He would lose one to Cris Collinsworth, but Collinsworth is way out of his league in the insight department, and they both know it, so they don't get into it.

Back when he was still with the team, however, he was a leader. So when he pissed and moaned (or pissed and whispered) about the coach, the quarterback, the game plan, the hot looks for fall, whatever, other guys in the locker room took that cue. The Giants had a rep as a team out of control, where everybody was pulling in a different direction. Barber disappears, and what happens? Suddenly everyone's pulling in the same direction, and they win 12 out of 16, and they damn near punch out the 15-0 Patriots, and they bury both the Cowboys and the Packers on the road, and if I were a betting man I'd take the 12 points Vegas is offering and put a few hundred on the Giants in the Super Bowl.

Then there's Shockey. Barber may have lost credibility as a result of the Giants' run; Shockey might well lose money because of it. In a league full of look-at-me players, he's among the look-at-me-iest. And yet Manning is just fine with Kevin Boss in the lineup. Because it's the NFL and the contracts aren't guaranteed, it's inevitable that the Giants front office will ask whether they really need to be making Shockey the highest-paid tight end in the league when the team plays this well without him, especially when he comes with all the strutting and preening and tattoos and other bullshit.

But that's just riffing. Shockey has been out only two games. Insufficient data, as the scientists say. Barber has been gone all season. That's a statistically significant sample.

Monday, January 21, 2008

It was a fun litttle parity party

The NFL is about to see a remarkable run come to an end. Looking at the last 14 seasons, we see that, regardless of who won the Super Bowl, there have been 14 different losing teams:

2006 Bears
2005 Seahawks
2004 Eagles
2003 Panthers
2002 Raiders
2001 Rams
2000 Giants
1999 Titans
1998 Falcons
1997 Packers
1996 Patriots
1995 Steelers
1994 Chargers
1993 Bills
Whether the Patriots lose or the Giants lose, we'll have our first repeat loser since the back-to-back-to-back-to-back Bills of the early 1990s. Further, it didn't matter who won Sunday's conference championship games. The Chargers and Packers are also on the list of losers.

Feel free to discuss what all this means.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Oh, grow up

The NFC Championship Game gives us an interesting matchup at quarterback. For the Green Bay Packers, you have Brett Favre, who, despite the graying hair, the well-lined face and the litany of tragedies to befall his family, remains the closest thing the NFL has to Peter Pan. You know: The boy who never grew up. It's that childlike enthusiasm that gets guys like Peter King all moist in the panties.

The New York Giants, on the other hand, appear to have the Anti-Peter-Pan playing quarterback. From what I can tell by listening to the pigskin pundits, Eli Manning has been doing nothing but growing up since the third week of the season. After the divisional round victory over Dallas, we heard umpteen variations on the theme of "Eli Manning grew up today." Just like we heard it after the wildcard win in Tampa, and after the regular season finale against the Patriots.

Look, Eli Manning will be just fine. He'll never be as good a quarterback as his brother, but he's probably already a better quarterback than his dad. And I'm going to venture that he's a better quarterback than Philip Rivers. There are fans out there who think the Giants made a big mistake in trading Rivers for Manning on draft day 2004. All they need to do is look at how Rivers got into it with the fans in Indianapolis on Sunday. Think about it: If he can be driven to distraction by a bunch of Midwestern yahoos in the stands at the RCA Dome, do you really think the New York media would do anything but fucking eat him alive? Manning's been under the microscope since high school. You may not like how he deals with the spotlight -- essentially, by pretending he doesn't care -- but at least he deals with it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Memory lane

Monday night, the NFL Network was showing the original NBC broadcast of Super Bowl XXXII. The most remarkable thing about the game? It wasn't seeing Brett Favre as a 28-year-old kid. Or seeing John Elway still in uniform. Or seeing Mike Holmgren about 40 pounds lighter. Or listening to the bizarre three-man broadcast team of Dick Enberg, Phil Simms and Paul Maguire. Or even seeing the game being played in daylight. (It was in San Diego, so it was still light out at kickoff.)

No, the most remarkable thing was seeing referee Ed Hochuli, with hair, and with biceps and pecs about half the size they are today.

Just weird.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Time for Dungy to go

Do I have to say it again?
Yes, PCS, I'm afraid you're going to have to say it again.

Because I really don't want to have to say it again.
Oh, come on, man, just say it.


No coach in the National Football League mismanages the end of the regular season as consistently and as predictably as Tony Dungy. It cost him dearly year after year in Tampa. It cost him dearly year after year in Indianapolis up through 2005. And it cost him dearly again this year.

The most important event in Sunday's Chargers-Colts game was Marvin Harrison's fumble deep in San Diego territory. At that point, the Colts were up 7-0, and another touchdown would have put them in position to dictate the pace of the rest of the game. Then Harrison fumbled. Replays showed clearly that no Charger actually laid a hand or helmet on either the ball or the arm in which Harrison was carrying it. So who slapped the ball out?

Dungy, you could say.

Harrison hadn't played in a real game in two and a half months, having injured a knee against the Broncos in the fourth game of the year. By Week 16 of the regular season, however, he was said to be healthy enough to play, even though he wasn't the mythical "100%." But rather than give Harrison some action either in that game or in the season finale against the Titans, Dungy elected to hold him out to allow him to "heal fully." When questioned about whether his No. 1 receiver would be able to play effectively after such a long layoff, Dungy said he didn't think Harrison's timing would be a problem at all.

Well, it's not about timing, dummy. You can work on timing in practice. It's about contact, and Harrison hadn't had any contact in 11 weeks. Then, Sunday, the very first time an opposing player touched him (lightly), he dropped the ball.

The rest of the Colts were ugly in stretches, too. Both of Peyton Manning's interceptions came on passes that bounced off his receivers' hands. Why would a team that's as dependent on precision as the Colts play as sloppily and as unevenly as they did Sunday? Perhaps because they hadn't played a game to win in three weeks, since they wrapped up a first-round bye. Funny enough, that's exactly what happened in 2005. And yet, in 2006, when they had no choice but to play hard every week of the regular season, they came into the playoffs on a hot streak and took it all the way to the Super Bowl.

The better the Colts play in the regular season, the worse they perform in the playoffs -- because the better they play in the regular season, the earlier Dungy decides to start mailing it in. Sometimes -- or usually, if you're the Colts -- when you switch off the engine, you can't get it started again. For years, people have laid the Colts' postseason collapses on Manning. But it's not on him to get the entire team up for the game. That's the coach's job, and once again Dungy failed.

Heading into the offseason, there's uncertainty about whether Dungy will return. He says he hasn't even thought about it, which, if true, is a fairly selfish thing to do. Because every day he delays a decision is another day the Colts will fall behind everybody else in finding a successor, should he choose to leave. Nevertheless, Colts fans, if they ever want another shot at a Super Bowl, should hope he moves on.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A perspective on perfection

As everyone knows by now, the New England Patriots are the first team to go 16-0 in the regular season, but just what does that mean, form a historical standpoint? I produce an English-language news publication for international markets, and just for fun, I whipped up this graphic for this week's edition. I think it helps put the Patriots' accomplishment into perspective. Do you know how hard it is to go 16-0? Hell, do you know how hard it is to go 15-0?

Readers of Down and Distance are the only people in America who get to see this graphic. Lucky you.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


It's official: Down and Distance has finished the season tied for first place in the 2007 Sportsfrog NFL Picks contest Thanks to everyone who ... you know what? Thanks for nothing, actually. You didn't have any thing to do with this. This is all me Me ME ME ME ME. So suck it!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Week 17: High tide

The final week of the season is notoriously hard to pick, and yet Down and Distance went 12-4 to finish the season at 171-85, or 66.8%, which is a hair above the two-thirds line that delineates your ass from a hole in the ground. I'll let the boys at Sports Frog figure out where I finished in the final standings, but it may be pretty high. For those out there pulling for D and D, I thank you.

The bizarre nature of every season's Week 17 is best summed up not game-by-game, but rather archetype-by-archetype. There are only a few categories, but every team inevitably fits into one of them.

Played this year by: Washington, Tennessee, Cleveland
It's not the Browns' fault that their victory was made irrelevant by day's end.

Played this year by: Minnesota, New Orleans
Even if they'd won, the Vikings and Saints still would have been left outside. Tough titty. When you need to win to get in, you win. But the Vikings couldn't do it last week, either.

Played this year by: Chicago, Denver
They may have had crappy years, but neither the Bears nor the Broncos are the kind of team to roll over and let someone else come in and claim a playoff spot on their home field. That's the sort of thing the Vikings do.

Played this year by: Green Bay, San Diego

Played this year by: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Dallas
Note that I said these teams should rest the starters. Dallas didn't, and the Cowboys now look even more toothless than they did after losing to the Eagles. Jacksonville didn't need to beat Houston. The Colts didn't need to beat Tennessee, but they could have, if they'd even tried. Considering all the injuries Indy has battled through this year, I guess I'm OK with Manning and the rest taking the second half off, even though it'll probably cost them their shot at repeating. What I'm not OK with (nor was Madden) is the decision to pack it in when down by less than a touchdown with three minutes left. Even if you play your reserves, you still have to try to win the damn game. The only exception is when losing would get you a better playoff opponent (see New England throwing the last game of 2005 so they could get the Jaguars rather than the Steelers). That wasn't the case here. For shame.

Played this year by: New England, N.Y. Giants
To the chagrin of the 1972 Dolphins, the Patriots figured they'd made it this far, they might as well go for 16-0. To the everlasting credit of the Giants, they also played this game to win. (Well, except for that period when they tried to sit on a 5-point lead. You do that against the Patriots for even a second, and they'll slit your throat.) Even if it costs the Giants down the road in terms of injuries, it was the right call.

Played this year by: Tampa Bay, Seattle, Pittsburgh

Played this year by: Cincinnati, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Atlanta(!), Houston, N.Y. Jets, Carolina, Arizona

Played this year by: San Francisco, St. Louis, Miami, Baltimore, Oakland, Kansas City, Detroit
Well, OK, the Ravens did have Brian Billick's job to play for. Perhaps that's why the Steelers let them win. Didn't work.

New England 38, N.Y. Giants 35
Chicago 33, New Orleans 25
Cleveland 20, San Francisco 7
Green Bay 34, Detroit 13
Houston 42, Jacksonville 28
Philadelphia 17, Buffalo 9
San Diego 30, Oakland 17
N.Y. Jets 13, Kansas City 10
Washington 27, Dallas 6
Arizona 48, St. Louis 19
Denver 22, Minnesota 19 (OT)
Tennessee 16, Indianapolis 10

Cincinnati 38, Miami 25
Atlanta 44, Seattle 41
Carolina 31, Tampa Bay 23
Baltimore 27, Pittsburgh 21

SEASON: 171-85 (66.8%)
(2006 through Week 17: 154-102, 60.2%)
(2005 through Week 17: 172-84, 67.2%)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS have wrapped up their third year with -- duh -- New England in the top spot. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. Unlike with other, lesser rating systems, no opinion is involved in formulating these rankings. None. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. Don't like where your team is ranked? Blame science. (Key: FIN = final ranking. W16 = last week's ranking. POW = KAPOW-ER centigrade score. P? = team in playoffs?)
1 1 Patriots100.0016-0Y
2 2 Colts 83.5713-3Y
3 6 Packers 72.8913-3Y
4 3 Steelers 71.0910-6Y
5 7 Chargers 70.5411-5Y
6 4 Cowboys 67.7313-3Y
7 5 Jaguars 64.9611-5Y
8 8 Seahawks 64.8810-6Y
9 9 Bucs 57.85 9-7Y
1010Vikings 53.61 8-8
1111Eagles 49.82 9-9
1216Redskins 46.68 9-7Y
1312Giants 45.5610-6Y
1413Browns 44.7710-6
1515Titans 41.7010-6Y
1619Cardinals41.63 8-8
1717Bengals 39.55 7-9
1818Texans 39.54 8-8
1914Saints 38.71 7-9
2020Bears 37.28 7-9
2122Broncos 20.75 7-9
2221Lions 20.43 7-9
2324Panthers 19.42 7-9
2423Jets 17.90 4-12
2527Ravens 13.71 5-11
2626Bills 13.23 7-9
2725Raiders 13.14 4-12
2828Chiefs 9.00 4-12
2932Falcons 3.15 4-12
3031Dolphins 1.33 1-15
313049ers 0.15 5-11
3229Rams 0.00 3-13
Teams eliminated this week* from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): Steelers, Jaguars. Teams previously eliminated: Dolphins, Rams, Jets, Falcons, Bengals, Texans, Raiders, Bears, Vikings, 49ers, Broncos, Cardinals, Eagles, Ravens, Chiefs, Panthers, Saints, Bills, Chargers, Redskins, Titans, Lions, Browns, Bucs, Giants, Seahawks.
*The Steelers had posted five losses, but had proved they can win the Super Bowl with an 11-5 record. This week they lost No. 6.
Teams remaining in Super Bowl championship consideration: Patriots, Colts, Cowboys, Packers.

Rotten fish

Wow. Just when it appeared that the 1972 Miami Dolphins were not, in fact, a bunch of pathetic old men clinging desperately to their fading moment in the sun, they go and reassert their sorry selves. For a team that won every game they played, they have proved themselves over and over during the ensuing 35 years to be an astounding pack of losers.

Exhibit A: In mid-December, as the New England Patriots were 14-0 and closing in on a perfect season of their own, Larry Csonka was taking part in ceremonies in Miami honoring the '72 Dolphins. (And it seems like they have those ceremonies about every six weeks down there. What else are they going to celebrate?) Csonka, the power runner on the early-'70s Dolphins teams before he chased the big money to the World Football League, commented that Patriots coach Bill Belichick was some kind of fool for playing his starters and playing to win even after New England had the No. 1 playoff seed locked up.

"He isn’t pulling his people out," Csonka said of Belichick. "He’s got a Super Bowl to worry about. Why would you even play Brady the next two games? Why would you even take a chance?" Well, Larry, perhaps because he has already won three Super Bowls, which is one more than ... um ... oh, I don't know ... you. (Hell, count the game plans he devised for Bill Parcells, and he's won five.)

This quote may well be the saddest I've seen all year. Every time any NFL team gets to 10-0, the '72 Dolphins -- led by Csonka's old backfield mate, former drug trafficker Mercury Morris -- take to the interview circuit to declare that all those wins don't mean nothin' if you don't win 'em all. As Morris famously declared, "Don't call me when you get to my neighborhood; call me when you get to my street." So here the Patriots were, driving up the Dolphins' street, and Csonka comes running out of the house in his bra and panties and his hair up and curlers, and he runs toward the Patriots' car waving his arms and screaming for them to turn around, turn around, for God's sake TURN AROUND.

(Despite what he says, I somehow suspect that Csonka had no problem with New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin's decision to play his starters for the whole game against the 15-0 Patriots, even though the Giants also had their playoff spot locked in. Perhaps Coughlin understood that when you have a shot at greatness, you take it. Greatness? Yes. Mention the "Miami Dolphins" and "undefeated season" to a football fan my age, and you're just as likely to hear 1985 mentioned as 1972. More likely, even.)

Exhibit B: Now that the Patriots have finished the regular season 16-0, Morris' teammates are crawling out of the woodwork to point out that New England hasn't in fact done anything yet. Guard Bob Kuechenberg probably sums up the entire team's feelings best when he pipes up from his rocker: "They’ve done a heck of a job thus far. But now the exhibition season is over and the real season begins."

In every other year since 1972, the Dolphins have made themselves feel good -- and relevant -- with the knowledge that whatever team had happened to win the Super Bowl really hadn't accomplished much because they'd still been beaten in the regular season. Lombardi Trophies are nice, they always say, but somebody gets one of those every year. WE, on the other hand, went undefeated in the regular season, and that's the hardest thing you can do. (Especially when punks like Larry Csonka are pissing all over you for playing to win.) In other words, in most seasons the '72 Dolphins are quick to point out that it's not the Super Bowl title that made them special, it was the 14-0 regular season before that. This year, the Patriots have finished an even longer regular season undefeated, and ... well, look at that. The regular season doesn't matter anymore!

Every small town has a few guys who set high school football records about 30 years ago. Some of them move away and make something of themselves, and they continue to live their lives with the tape deck set on "play." And then, decades later, when some kid breaks a record, the local paper will track down the guy who just got passed, and he'll offer hearty congratulations. He might even have assumed that the record was broken a long time ago. Over the course of his life, if the topic of high school football came up in conversation, and if it seemed relevant, he would mention that he set a record and that it felt good at the time and that he's proud of it, but that it was a long time ago, and he's got a lot more to be proud of (then he pulls out the pictures of his kids).

But some of those old record breakers never leave town and never make something of themselves. Their tape deck goes stop-rewind-play, stop-rewind-play. You know the guy: He sits up at the top of the bleachers at every game, and he looks out at the current players -- kids who dare to be young and able while his body just gets older and saggier -- and he's filled with resentment. And when one of those kids starts getting close to one of his old records (or, better yet, to the last of his old records), he starts quietly rooting against him. Wishes for an injury, even. The kid gets closer, and he's not so quiet anymore. Nothing against the kid, he'll say, but it was harder in my day. And he'll go on to talk about the better equipment and the better field and the better conditioning, and it will be clear that he's doing just what the 1972 Dolphins are doing right now: Moving the goalposts every which direction, so that no matter what that kid does -- or the New England Patriots do -- the record will always stay intact, if only in his mind.

More from Kuechenberg: "If (the Patriots run the table in the playoffs, too), they will have earned it. But my heart is dead set against it. The ’72 team is uniquely immortal in American sports, and I don’t want us to lose that special place." Now, if he'd just stopped there, it'd be OK. Even being the asshole that I am, I do understand melancholy. We all want to feel special for the rest of our lives, and there's a certain sadness in seeing our achievements surpassed. But he goes on: "We will forever be immortal, and if they win every game in front of them, then they will join us among those ranks. They will have deserved, it and I will congratulate them. But something in my heart makes me feel that we accomplished something so special that it forever sets the standard of excellence in sports. Imperfect is mortal. Perfect is immortal.”

Well, no, God is immortal. You're just a fucking football team. But between the lines, it's obvious what he's saying: Even if the Patriots finish undefeated, even if they do it in a league that's 10 times tougher and 10 times more competitive, even if they do it by beating four playoff-caliber teams from their own conference (Colts, Chargers, Steelers, Browns) and three from the NFC (Cowboys, Redskins, Giants) while the 1972 Dolphins' best opponents were two 8-6 teams, even if they shatter every NFL record along the way, it won't matter -- because Miami went undefeated first. The Dolphins are saying they will always be Neil Armstrong, and the best the Patriots can aspire to be is Buzz Aldrin. What they don't get, though, is that while they were the first to walk on the moon, the Patriots are now walking on fucking Mars, and they're thinking maybe they could stroll on the surface of the sun and not even break a sweat.

So as the '72 Dolphins hunch over the toilet tonight (I hear it's taco night at the elder-care facility), they'd do well to consider the example of another Miami legend: Dan Marino. In 2004, when Peyton Manning was closing in on the record for touchdown passes in a season that Marino had held for 20 years, Marino admitted feeling wistful, admitted hoping that he could keep the record. But he didn't bitch about how the rules nowadays go out of their way to protect quarterbacks and prevent contact with receivers. He didn't insist that the record he set in 1984 was only meaningful because the Dolphins went to the Super Bowl that year. (They didn't win, though, so Mercury Morris wants you to know that the '84 Dolphins are pussies.) But he didn't do any of that. He sighed a little, shrugged his shoulders and congratulated Manning. A few years later, when Brett Favre started approaching all of Marino's career passing marks, Marino could have intimated that Favre was hanging around the league past his due date just to break his records. He could have -- and before this season, a lot of people would have thought he was right. (Just like Jim Brown was right about Franco Harris but didn't have any problem with Walter Payton breaking his records.) But he didn't. He sighed a little, shrugged his shoulders and congratulated Favre. Marino knows he's in the Hall of Fame. Knows that he was one of the greatest quarterbacks in history. Knows that he has carved out a successful second career as a broadcaster and that that's where his energy belongs.

What Marino understands, and what the '72 Dolphins have failed to grasp after more than three decades, is that while the record books may play a zero-sum game, the history books do not. The fact that someone broke your records does not mean that you never held them. Babe Ruth and Roger Maris are still with us, after all, just as Jack Nicklaus will be with us long after Tiger Woods wins his 20th major. The fact that someone matches or even surpasses your accomplishments does not diminish your accomplishments.

Next time he crosses paths with Mercury Morris down in Miami, Marino could try explaining that. Good luck.