By Bill Simmons
Normally my NFL column runs on Fridays, but we pushed it up for three reasons:
1. So much happened last weekend that I couldn't wait two more days to discuss everything.
2. Now that Isiah Thomas has publicly threatened me, my life could end at any time.
3. After my 1-3 gambling debacle in Round 2, let's just say that it could be tough to type this column out with two broken thumbs.
So there's a sense of urgency here. That's why I'm rushing ahead with the column and handing out awards for Round 2, certainly one of the strangest weekends in NFL history. Without further ado ...
The James Brolin/Chad Lowe Award for Best Ongoing Emasculation
To poor Tony Dungy, who sent his punting team out twice this season in fourth-and-short situations only to have it waved off by an overwhelmed quarterback whose postseason record currently stands at 3-6.
First of all, can you imagine what would happen if Bill Belichick sent New England's punting team out and Tom Brady tried to wave it off? Actually, I know what would happen -- Belichick would immediately call a timeout, furiously motion for Brady to come over, then chew him out on national TV. That's what would happen. Second of all, if you're the other Indy players, how can you respect your coach after that? Who's running the team, Dungy or Manning? Can you name another professional athlete in any sport who acts autonomously and directly disobeys his coach? Why doesn't the national media make a bigger deal out of this? What's the difference between Manning waving the punt team off the field and Terrell Owens questioning the competency of Donovan McNabb?
One positive outcome: The Tony Dungy "I can't believe my QB just hung me out to dry on national TV" Face. Eerily reminiscent of the scene in "Scarface" when coke dealer Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia's character) shows up at the Miami nightclub, sees Tony Montana with his arm around his girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer's character), makes the requisite "Get your hands off my girl" comment, and not only does Tony refuse to budge, he stares him down and fires back with something along the lines of, "Hey, maybe she needs a new man, Frank." And poor Lopez just stands there for four or five seconds with the castrated deer-in-the-headlights look, debating his options before skulking away. That was Tony Dungy in the Pittsburgh game. Not good.
(Note: Later that night, Lopez ordered a hit on Tony at that same nightclub, which Tony managed to foil and find time to shoot Frank a few hours later. I find this interesting.)
The Pat O'Brien Award for Best Phone Call
To my father, who waited 18 hours to call me after Saturday night's crushing Patriots loss, finally calling during the Panthers-Bears game, and then started the conversation by calmly muttering, "Kevin Faulk ruined my winter ... he ruined my winter ... he ruined my whole winter ... "
The Earnest Byner Award for Most Startling Fumble that Nobody Saw Coming and Actually Made You Gasp Aloud
To the Bettis fumble, which reached "you could describe a game in two words 25 years from now and everyone would immediately know which game you are referring to" status even before Nick Harper was tackled and the Colts blew the game. Can you remember a team ever going from complete euphoria to complete devastation that quickly? Four lingering questions and thoughts:
1. How does Jerome Bettis not have two hands on the football? How? Wouldn't the instructions in the huddle have been something like, "Jerome, even if you have to shove it inside your belly button, whatever you do, hold onto the ball?"
2. What were the odds that the ball would bounce right to Harper (the guy who was allegedly stabbed in the knee by his wife the night before), and what were the odds that Harper could have scored a touchdown simply by racing to the sideline, but instead chose to make a crazy cut back toward the field, where a wobbling Ben Roethlisberger somehow tackled him? Two inexplicable cuts in the span of 18 hours!
3. Wasn't it exciting to see Mrs. Harper lock up the Lisa Left Eye Lopes Significant Other Career Achievement Award for the 2006 ESPYs?
4. Tony Kornheiser proclaimed on Monday's "PTI" that, had the Colts come back to win, the Bettis Fumble would have become the most famous play in NFL history. Personally, I don't think anything could top Scott Norwood missing the field goal and destroying the collective psyche of an entire city. But that's just me. At the very least, a game-losing Bettis fumble would have been in the short discussion along with Unitas-to-Ameche; Bart Starr's QB sneak; Montana-to-Clark; Theismann's leg breaking; the Byner fumble; Norwood's kick; the Lett/Beebe play; Kevin Dyson getting tackled at the 1-yard-line; Vinatieri's game-winner against St. Louis; the Namath-Kolber interview; and Joe Buck flipping out after Randy Moss mooned Lambeau Field.
(As it turned out, it wasn't even the most shocking moment of the day -- not when the "24" brain trust decided to kill off President David Palmer. How can you kill off the greatest fake president ever? Who would do such a thing? That was the most traumatic Hollywood death since Curtis Jackson was gunned down at the liquor store during the second season of the "White Shadow." Heck, I was planning on voting for Palmer two years from now -- instead, I have to vote for Kevin Kline. Plus, every time I see an Allstate commercial, I'm going to expect Dennis Haysbert to get gunned down right in the middle of a busy intersection. What an outrage. Can't they bring him back for Season Six under the old "Um, he never really died, he was just in a coma, and now he's fine!" angle?)
The Champ Kind Award for Most Anguished Reaction in the Face of Suddenly Losing Someone You Loved
To me and every other Patriots fan -- we've been walking around like zombies for four days and counting. It's one thing to lose the championship belts; it's another thing to give them away in the most uncharacteristic way possible. Hey, we want to seem like good losers -- after all, the Belichick-Brady teams won more than a few games in which they outplayed a more talented team simply by sticking together and not screwing up, and we always bristled whenever the fans from a vanquished opponent played the whole "we gave that gave away, we were better than you" card. At the same time, that was a Hall of Fame "No F-ing Way Game," between the killer turnovers and the consistently ludicrous officiating (did Jeff Triplett bury Ed Hochuli in a shallow grave or something?), only none of us could hit the reset button and start the game over. Unbelievable. I still can't get over it. One of the toughest Boston losses ever. Grace period, schmace period.
(Did the Broncos do a terrific job of banging bodies, punishing Brady, avoiding turnovers and taking advantage of mistakes? Absolutely. They were a better football team on Saturday night. But I will go to my grave wondering what would have happened if Kevin Faulking Faulk didn't fumble with 1:54 remaining in the first half. All season long, this Broncos team was fearing a situation in which Plummer had to make plays in the second half to win a game for them. The Pats were one more quarter away from making that happen. And they blew it. Aaaaaaargh. I can't talk about it anymore.)
The Bad Idea Jeans Award for Worst Move Before a Playoff Game
To the Bears D-backs who trash-talked Steve Smith in the pregame warmups before the Carolina game. Why wasn't this in the scouting report? If you were Lovie Smith, wouldn't this have been your only ironclad instructions all week? Don't talk to him, don't look at him, don't even make eye contact with him. If he approaches you in the warm ups, act the same way you would if you were hiking in the wilderness and a grizzly bear approached you -- don't move, don't react, don't do anything until it walks away.
(Note: For next year's Manifesto, we're adding "Never bet on a team dumb enough to trash-talk Steve Smith," as well as "Never, ever, ever trust anyone who calls Archie Manning or Phil Simms 'Dad'" and "Never wager on a team that had a starter involved in a situation that needed police attention the night before the big game." Although Charlotte, N.C., reader Sean O'Connor suggests his own Playoff Manifesto: "Go against Bill Simmons' pick." Thanks, Sean. Thank you.)
The Shaun Alexander Award for Best Disappearance by Shaun Alexander in a Big Game
To Shaun Alexander ... I know, I know, he ended up getting concussed (I love that word). But it's not like he was looking like the 1964 version of Jim Brown before that happened. Watching the game, did you ever think to yourself, "Wow, Alexander's not coming back, Seattle's in trouble now?" Is there a single Seahawks fan who would rather lose Hasselbeck over Alexander in a big game? Does Alexander even rank in the top 10 of "Indispensable guys who immediately make their team half as competitive by leaving the game"? The answers to those questions are no, no, and no. So why would Alexander win the 2005 MVP then? Shouldn't we have a Most Outstanding Player and a Most Valuable Player to account for these situations?
The Harlem Shuffle Award for Funniest Attempt to Prove You're Hip
To Fox and CBS for moving out of the '70s with their "Cool music with a quick riff to get you fired up for the football game" choices -- Fox played the Killers (welcome to the 21st century, Fox!), while CBS played "Jane Says" by Jane's Addiction (welcome to the '90s, CBS!). Terrible news for Billy Squier, Bad Company, George Thorogood and everyone else who relied on the royalties from live sporting events.
(Note to the networks: If you're interested in songs from the last year with good instrumental hooks, try "Banquet" by Bloc Party, "Sweet Troubled Soul" by StellaStarr*, "Tribulations" by LCD Soundsystem, "This Isn't It" by Giant Drag and "Finding Out True Love is Blind" by Louis XIV. We're all pulling for you guys to get this right some day. And yes, I spend way too much time on iTunes and checking my e-mail, hoping they'll ask me to make a Celebrity Playlist before remembering that I'm not a celebrity. Back to the column.)
The TiVo Award for Best Three-Second Delay in Real Life
To the back judge who whistled Asante Samuel for pass interference, the worst anti-Patriots call since Ben Dreith saved Oakland's season by whistling Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton for an unconscionable roughing the passer penalty in the 1976 playoffs. Not to break out a batch of sour grapes, but ...
1. If anything, that penalty should have been called on Ashley Lelie, who would have needed Freddie Krueger's arms to catch that ball, whether he was "impeded with" or not. But ever since Dungy and Bill Polian pulled their hissy fit after the 2004 AFC Championship and pushed the competition committee to change the pass defense rules to help out their quarterback, referees have adopted the "if there's even a modicum of contact and it seems like the receiver has a 10 percent chance of making the catch, throw the flag to be safe" policy. Well, you know what's going to happen? Eventually, this is just going to become some team's offense -- run the ball, kill some clock, and lob 15 to 20 passes per game. Figure you get lucky and catch two, get another four to five pass interferences, and maybe give up two interceptions (which would be like punts). That's still worth about 250 extra yards of offense per game. If you're the Bills with J.P. Losman, would you rather run the West Coast offense or the "Screw it, maybe we can draw some flags" offense?
2. The flag was thrown three seconds after the ball bounced off the grass. Put it this way: If you were making a football movie, and you wanted a scene in which the crooked refs were making every call for the home team, the back judge wouldn't wait that long to throw a late flag because it would seem too unrealistic. I mean, this wouldn't have even happened in "Remember the Titans."
3. That was the sideline judge's call since he was right there and all, so having the back judge intervene was the equivalent of an NBA referee standing at midcourt, then running 50 feet to overturn an out-of-bounds call under the basket. If that's not bad enough, the sideline judge tried to talk the back judge out of the flag, since he had a better angle and all, but the back judge wouldn't be denied.
4. The Pats were leading, 3-0, with under 2 minutes to play in the first half. By throwing this flag, the back judge was making a conscious decision to completely alter the course of the game. He waited three seconds and did it anyway. Also, the next day, a similar situation happened when Manning tried to hit Reggie Wayne in the end zone two plays before Vanderjagt's final shank, right down to Pittsburgh's defensive back running stride for stride and Wayne pushing off. No flag. And yes, I'm getting angry.
Again, the Patriots deserved to lose. They were terrible. But it's tough enough to win against a good home team without the officials handing them seven free points. If that was the only bad officiating moment of the weekend, it would be one thing -- obviously the reversal of the Troy Polamalu interception was 10 times more damaging and reprehensible -- but we're reaching the point where they need to run a disclaimer before every game:
"We'd like to apologize in advance for the horrible officiating. We swear, these games aren't fixed, it just looks that way. We're just too cheap to make officiating a real priority or hire anyone who's under 40 years old and might still have his reflexes and eyesight. Even instant replay isn't helping -- it just makes these guys look three times more incompetent when they're overruling calls that never should have been made in the first place. These guys are boobs. We're sorry. Anyway, enjoy the game!"
-- Sincerely, the NFL
The Jim Ross Award for Best Moment that Could Have Been Made into a Fantastic Story Line
To Mike Vanderjagt for shanking that season-ending field goal, which looked like one of Ali Haji Sheikh's efforts if you were playing the 1982 Giants at the All-Madden Level and completely screwed up the kicking wheel. After all of Vanderjagt's problems with Manning over the years, I kept waiting for the postgame press conference when Vanderjagt pretended to be upset, answered a few questions, and then suddenly Bill Cowher's music started playing (with Cowher dressed as Sergeant Slaughter), followed by Vanderjagt breaking into a big smile, and then the two of them hugging as Jim Ross screamed "No! No! No! My God, no!" Then Vanderjagt would rip off his Colts jersey to reveal a Steelers jersey underneath. This would have been one of the five greatest moments in sports history. And you know what? There's still time.
(Frank from New Jersey adds, "I think the Vanderjagt Face has to be added to the list of faces after losses under the category of 'I'm going to vomit all over the field.' His eyes resembled Jack Nicholson's near the end of 'The Shining.'" Good point, Frank. We're also adding the Tony Dungy "Oh, man, I was just castrated by my quarterback again, I hope the cameras aren't on me right now" Face and the Rex Grossman "Um, guys, I already obliterated the over/under for TD drives by our offense, you didn't tell me this was gonna be a freaking shootout, what the hell?" Face.)
The J-Lo Award for Most Improbable Outfit
To Bonnie Bernstein, who looked like she was headed right to the Golden Globes after the Pats-Broncos game ended. As Cincy reader Greg Snow points out, "It was 53 degrees in Denver and Bonnie was on the sidelines dressed in fur like some Russian Bond chick. Unreal."
The Dr. Kimberly Shaw Award for Best Performance with Multiple Personalities
To the Panthers, 37-1 long shots to win the Super Bowl before the playoffs, unquestionably the team that screwed up more parlays and teasers than everyone else combined during the 2005 season ... and now they look like a finely-tuned powerhouse that can't be stopped. You figure it out. Seriously, skim through their season and point out one moment where you could say, "In retrospect, we should have known right here." And yes, you better believe I'm picking them this week. They have committed too many gambling atrocities this season. Even seeing a random Panthers highlight on "SportsCenter" makes me feel like Jennifer Aniston finding out about the Pitt-Jolie fetus for the first time.
(By the way, after reading about my Panthers losing streak in Friday's column, followed by my Bears pick and subsequent shellacking -- we're up to 11 straight weeks of me not picking a Carolina game correctly. I have been inundated by e-mails from Panthers fans and Seahawks fans begging me to pick against their teams. Let's just say that this never happened to Jimmy the Greek, or even Stu Feiner for that matter. But two e-mails stood out ... )
The Unabomber Award for Scariest E-Mail (Tie)
From Jeremy in Regina, Saskatchewan: "Big fan. I read your column all the time, and I really enjoy your work. But as a diehard Bears fan, if this whole Reverse-Jinx thingy works against you again, and the Panthers end up winning on Sunday, I will kill you and eat you. Seriously. I'm sharpening my canine teeth with a nail file as we speak. Best wishes, Jeremy"
From Bryce in Renton, Wash.: "I think I speak for every Seattle resident when I say for the love of GOD, please pick the Panthers! I will CHAIN YOU TO A PIPE IN THE CRAWL SPACE IF YOU DON'T PICK THE PANTHERS!"
(Between those e-mails and Isiah's comments, I'm thinking about making a makeshift will over the weekend before I'm brutally murdered. Let's just hope they televise the reading on ESPN2. And the authentic Patriots helmet, along with the three framed photos of Super Bowl XXXVI, XXXVIII and XXXIX and the Andre Tippett throwback jersey go to ... the J-Bug!)
The Peyton Manning Award for Worst Performance in a Playoff Game
With apologies to Tom Brady, who was uncharacteristically sloppy for two straight weeks and made the single-worst throw of his career (the pick to Champ Bailey), I still think Manning gets this award for his Tony Eason impersonation against the Steelers. More than everything else, quarterbacks need to come through in the clutch, carry themselves like the coolest guys on the field, inspire confidence in their teammates (no matter how bleak the situation), respect the coach's decisions and be quality teammates even in the face of adversity. Manning did none of these things on Sunday. And I'm not sure even A-Rod would have muttered the "I'm trying to be a good teammate" line. Some guys rise to the occasion in big games, some guys shrink from the occasion. He's one of the shrinkers. But if you're playing a 2-10 Lions team on Thanksgiving with three days to prepare, he's your guy.
While we're here, three Manning-related e-mails that I enjoyed this week ...
From John Buford in N.C.: "Have you noticed the similarity between the Peyton Manning Face and the Boss Hogg Face? You know, the one that Sorrell Booke made whenever he found out that the Duke boys had used their cousin Daisy's sexuality and chicken-frying prowess as a diversion to steal the keys from Enos and break out of America's least-secure jail again?"
From Andy in Indy: "Can you please spare me another 'Colts choke, Peyton sucks' article? We know this already and you should feel our pain. The worst part about the situation is that as a Colts fan I know that we have another eight to 12 years of this, because there is NO WAY we would ever get rid of Manning. It is like moving in with a girlfriend, breaking up with her, but still having to live with her for the next 10 years ... leaving you with predicaments where you are hitting a home run with a girl at a bar (ie: regular season) and then you go for the close (ie: playoffs) only to remember that your ex-girlfriend lives with you. Good times all around. Man, I can't wait to go 13-3 next year! At least we can look forward to another MVP season ... I heard Aaron Brooks is available!!"
From Steve in Kansas City: "Joe Posnanski had an article about Manning in Monday's paper that included this tidbit: 'Manning lost only five games in Isidore Newman High in New Orleans, but three of those losses came in the state playoffs. He did not win a state championship. He lost only six games at Tennessee, but famously three of those losses were to Florida, and the Volunteers did not win the national championship until after he left.' Which brings me to this question, which do you think will come first? A Manning championship ... or a movie remake of 'Cagney & Lacey' starring Jennifer Aniston & Angelina Jolie?"
The Alton Williams Award for Guy You Probably Don't Want to Wager Against in Any Circumstances
To The Great Steve Smith (that's officially his name now), and not just because he's the modern-day Clint Eastwood. He's starting to look like one of those guys in college who was kicked off the team for sleeping with the coach's daughter or hot-wiring a professor's car, so he's stuck playing intramural football ... only he's way too quick and fast for everyone in the league, and worse yet, he's ticked off that he's playing intramural football. So he's just destroying everybody week after week and getting open over and over again, even with three guys covering him. It's almost unfair. And has anyone as small as Smith ever dominated consecutive playoff games like that before? Has anyone made the Allen Iverson comparison yet? Isn't this what would have happened had Iverson decided to play football instead of basketball?
(Note to Mike Holmgren: Start buttering up Smith now. Mention that he's the best receiver in the league at least 750 times this week. Send him roses with a card that says, "Take it easy on us this week, you're the best!" Seek him out before the game, give him a hug and say something like, "I just wanted to greet the guy who's about to knock my team out of the playoffs." Heck, even have your D-backs shake hands with him before the game and tell Smith that it's an honor just to go against him. Just remember, Jake Delhomme and Ricky Proehl are telling Smith stuff like, "Did you know that Holmgren told Coach Fox that he couldn't believe how short you were?" and "Can you believe that Lofa Tatupu keeps accidentally calling you Dante Hall?" You need to counteract this stuff pronto.)
The Bow-Cha-Cha-Bow Award
To the great Jim Nantz, who described a Patriots drive by saying that it was "their deepest penetration all night." That would have been funny in its own right ... but when Jim Nantz is involved? Off the charts funny.
(Speaking of announcers, here was my favorite e-mail of the weekend, courtesy of Georgia reader Pablo Gonzaga: "Listening to Joe Buck and his man-crush on the Panthers makes me want to slash my wrists and do push-ups in alcohol.")
The Prosecutor Jim Garrison Award for Best Impression of the "Magic Bullet"
I swear, I'm not blaming the officiating for the Pats' loss. Really, I'm not. I know it seems that way ... I just can't handle it when my favorite team gets screwed over by bad calls. For my sake, let's look at the Bailey fumble logically, and only because I slow-mo'ed it on TiVo 345,323 times this weekend before ultimately bludgeoning myself with the remote.
A. There's Champ running full-speed down the left sideline with ball in his right hand, with young Ben Watson heroically running full-speed toward him at a 55-degree angle.
B. Watson nails Champ at the 2-yard line, but because Champ has so much forward momentum going, he doesn't really start to fumble until he's one-and-a-half yards from the goal line. Also, the direction of Watson's hit pushes Champ toward the sideline.
C. Again, he's carrying the ball in his right hand -- the same side where Watson popped him. Watson's momentum pushes the arm forward before he fumbles, so his hand probably released the ball one yard from the goal line.
E. Here's the best way to describe the direction of the ball after it comes out: If Champ fumbled in a direction of a clock, the ball would have gone toward 10:30 on the clock.
My first point: Given Bailey's position on the field, his momentum from running full-speed, how close he was to the goal line, and where the ball eventually landed, it would have been logistically impossible for the football to go out of bounds before it crossed the goal line. There is no possible way. It's impossible. The football would have had to have taken a hard-left (almost a 90-degree angle), then a hard-right (to end up where it ended up). Almost like the magic bullet embedding itself into Gov. John Connelly's back.
My second point: With all of the technology we have, isn't there an ironclad way to prove this once and for all? If that was ruled a touchback, the Pats would have been down only 10-6. With an entire quarter to play. Starting another drive from their own 20. I find this to be significant. Not as significant as Jason Priestley making his TV comeback in a show called "Love Monkey," then spending the entire show deadpanning lines with his head tilted upwards like George Plimpton ... but significant nonetheless.
My third point: As Las Vegas reader Kyle tells us, "I was at the Pats-Broncos game, sitting in Section 111, Row 7. That Bailey interception return came right at me. Let me tell you, that was a freaking touchback. But, there wasn't a ref or cameraman within 20 yards of the play. Even the Broncos fans knew it was a touchback and were screaming for Shanahan to get the play off. Also, Ben Watson levelled Champ. Champ was on the ground for the entire review time."
My fourth point: I really, really need to let this go. Remind me to break out the Super Bowl DVDs this weekend. You know, assuming I'm still alive and all.
(Coming Friday: AFC and NFC championship picks.)
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 on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.