The Jets' upset in Super Bowl III wasn't a great 60-minute game, it was simply an event that marked a sea change in pro football. The 49ers' 92-yard drive to beat Sam Wyche's Bengals in XXIII was fun, but the game wasn't a classic. Tennessee-St. Louis four years ago was my personal favorite (head-knocking defense, some great long plays, the KevinDyson stretch) until XXXVIII.
Now this was a wonderful championship battle, full of everything that makes the game dramatic, draining, enervating, maddening, fantastic, exciting -- and makes you so ridiculously upset that there is no more football, real football, for seven months.
Here's what Super Bowl XXXVIII gave us:
1. Legitimate pregame debate about which team was better, and what kind of game it would be. I made a pregame brunch appearance with Jon Gruden and Howie Long on Sunday. Gruden said, "This is the Panthers' day of destiny. I like them, 23-13." (He really talks that way, as you know.) Long was just as passionate about why the Patriots would win. I picked the Pats to prevail 17-9 and predicted it would be a low-scoring game, with more field goals than touchdowns. The entire Los Angeles Times staff went with New England. The last four NFL players I talked to during the week liked Carolina.
2. The thrill of victory. When I cornered hero Mike Vrabel after the game, he said: "Never, ever in my wildest dreams did I think I'd have two sacks, a forced fumble and a touchdown catch in the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl! It's such a blur right now. I'm going to have to see it on TV to believe it really happened."
3. The agony of defeat.Ricky Proehl (who, by the way, is one hell of an NFL player, full of guts and guile and the owner two of the best hands in recent football history), eyeblack still streaking down his face, sweat pasting his hair to his head, walked through the bowels of the stadium 15 minutes after the game, leaned over to me and said: "Deja vu all over again. What a killer, man. What a killer."
4. Great plays from unexpected sources.Dan Morgan had 18 tackles. Man, what a game. Will Witherspoon, brick wall. What an impressive couple of early stops he made on Patriots runners.
5. Smart coaching. A hundred examples, but here's one I really liked. The Pats lost Rodney Harrison, their warrior safety, to a broken arm, and Carolina saw a hole in the New England deep secondary. The Panthers had already been probing the corners, but then they went for the jugular -- Proehl, over the middle, wide open in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. Bang! Carolina offensive coordinator Dan Henning turned from cautious to cowboy, because that's what the game called for.
6. Total, ridiculous unpredictability. First 26 minutes: zero points. Last 34 minutes: 61 points.
8. Strategy controversies. Carolina drew to within 21-16 on a touchdown with 12:39 left in the fourth quarter, and John Fox chose to go for two. My peers fainted. Phil Simms disagreed. I liked it. First of all, Carolina could still have gotten the ball one more time. The Patriots were wearing down the Panthers defense. Points were vital. If you kick the point and draw to within four, you still need a touchdown, same as if you were down by five. I know in retrospect it looks dumb, but you can't coach in retrospect. Good call.
9. Thirty-seven points in the fourth quarter. I mean, here are two of the great defenses in the league, maybe the best two, and they looked like Ali and Frazier in the 12th round, just trying to stay upright and go the distance. Five touchdowns and a field goal in the final 15 minutes. The Vrabel score, and his general heroics, typify what the Pats are -- one of the great true teams of our day. "Are we going to be able to fit your head through that door anymore?" New England personnel director Scott Pioli asked Vrabel after the game. "Are we gonna be able to renegotiate?" Vrabel shot back, grinning. He's a metaphor for the blue-collar team with one star -- Tom Brady. Vrabel broke his right arm Sept. 21 and stayed out three games instead of the eight that the bone requires to heal properly. As Vrabel talked with team trainer Jeff Whalen after the dramatic win, the linebacker was asked if the arm hurt. Vrabel gave a wry smile. Whalen said: "Only on days ending in 'Y'." According to Vrabel, football players play, regardless. Plus, he's grateful to New England for giving him a chance to line up regularly on defense. The Pats were the only team to offer him an opportunity to play defense after he spent four years mainly on special teams for the Steelers. "I wasn't going to see the field in Pittsburgh, except on special teams," he said. "It was either go to New England, stay in Pittsburgh or sell insurance in Ohio." Now, for the reasonable cap costs of $2.05 million this year and $3.66 million in 2005, Vrabel will remain a Patriot ... perhaps until his next career begins. He'd love to one day be an assistant coach at his alma mater, Ohio State.
10. The ascension of two legends-in-the-making.Bill Belichick, with three or four more very good years, will have my mental vote for the Hall of Fame -- if the guy ever decides to hang 'em up. That's doubtful to happen anytime soon. He's having too much fun, and he's still able to effectively recharge at Nantucket each summer. Brady is 26 years old. He is 6-0 in playoff games, 26-4 in games played in November or later, 7-0 in overtime games, 2-0 in Super Bowls, two-for-two in Super Bowl MVPs. If you seriously think it's premature to compare him to Joe Montana, you are high.
I didn't even mention Adam Vinatieri.
"Clutchest kicker of all time," Vrabel said. "Uh, is that a word? 'Clutchest?' Whatever. Most clutch."
I was in a group of three or four writers talking with Vinatieri after the game. Someone asked him: "Do you think this was the best Super Bowl of all time?" Vinatieri said he would leave it up to others to decide.
"Best Super Bowl of all time," I said. He smiled and said that was good enough for him.
Offensive Players of the Week
The New England offensive line of Matt Light, Russ Hochstein, Dan Koppen, Joe Andruzzi and Tom Ashworth. Even though Tom Brady took his share of hits, he was never sacked and the Pats ran for 127 yards against the best defensive front of its day.
Defensive Player of the Week
New England LB Mike Vrabel. How wonderful it must be to play the best game of your life in the biggest game of your life? Simms did it 17 years ago. Said Vrabel afterward: "You know what I said to Roman Phifer before the game? Let's go out and change our lives."
Special Teams Player of the Week
Carolina DT Shane Burton, whose block of a Vinatieri field goal midway through the second quarter kept the game scoreless. The nearly 27 minutes of 0-0 action was the longest period without a score to start the game in Super Bowl history. Vinatieri's kick was low, and a leaping Burton deflected it around the elbows.
Coach of the Week
New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. For his offense to rack up 481 yards and 32 points ... and allow no sacks ... and hold the ball for 38:58 ... and to have the daily double of great calls (the TD pass to Vrabel and the brilliant two-point conversion fakery that resulted in Kevin Faulk's successful run) ... well, let's just say Weis' unit had one hell of day.
Goat of the Week
Carolina K John Kasay. By booting the last kickoff of the season out of bounds and allowing the Pats to take possession at their own 40, Kasay made it possible for New England to drive only 37 yards before setting up for Vinatieri's winning field goal. The Pats could well have won without the assist, but it still was inexcusable.
Stat of the Week
From the Nice-Work-If-You-Can-Get-It Department:
The NFL has something called a performance pay scale, in which low-paid players who log significant minutes are compensated an additional amount out of a league pool at the end of the season. This is very good news to Koppen, a rookie and fifth-round draft pick who started the final 15 games of the season at center for the Patriots. MMQB has learned that Koppen will get the largest percentage increase from the performance-pay pool, a 40 percent bump from his 2003 base salary of $225,000. According to an NFL Management Council source Koppen will receive a bonus of approximately $90,000 from the pool, which will likely be the most money allocated any player in the league when the system is finalized after the season.
Not bad for the kid -- a hefty bonus, plus the winner's share from the divisional playoff game, AFC title game and Super Bowl, collectively, of $122,500. Koppen almost doubled his salary with money he never expected to make -- $212,500 in performance and postseason bonuses not in his original contract.
We should call this the "I'm Positive He Didn't Use These Exact Words" Quote of the Week:
"I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance of the Super Bowl. It was not intentional and regrettable." --Justin Timberlake
"Wardrobe malfunction?" When you rip half the top off a woman, you call it a "wardrobe malfunction?" That's like me saying I have a "caloric issue with my stomach" instead of saying, "I'm overweight, dude."
On Thursday, Sports Illustrated PR people Rick McCabe and Sheryl Spain took the magazine writers and editors out to dinner at Mark's, the finest restaurant I've experienced in my 20 years of covering Super Bowls.
The place is a converted church with the second-most-original menu (only Top of the Cove in LaJolla, Calif., which I dined at during the week of Super Bowl XXXII, beats it for originality because its braised ostrich and medallions of elk, but not for the quality of the food and service) I've seen in all my years of covering pro football. Anyway, while there, we learned that commissioner Paul Tagliabue had dined at Mark's a few nights previous. So impressed was he that Tagliabue tried to get a table again for Saturday night. Nope. Already packed. Couldn't squeeze the commissioner in.
"He's not the only one," said our waiter, Kris Stanley, who is the captain of the place. "Paris Hilton called, and we turned her down. One of the rap guys said he wanted to rent out the whole place for a party Saturday night and we said no. We're a neighborhood restaurant. We're going to be here long after the Super Bowl is gone. So we've got to take care of the people in Houston."
Seems that Tagliabue, who, as I reported on Friday enjoyed the Russian Boar at Mark's, wouldn't choose between the dessert offerings -- the Patriots' Boston cream pie or the Panthers' Southern lemony torte thing -- ostensibly so he wouldn't appear to choose sides. Both were delivered to the table. Ah, but Tags couldn't keep his partiality cloaked for long.
"He loved that Boston cream pie," said Stanley. "He really wolfed it down."
I guess this would qualify as a "travel" note, seeing as how I was on a media bus to Reliant Stadium at 1 p.m. Sunday when it happened.
The bus was crawling through heavy traffic. A half-mile from Reliant we passed a bar. A ton of guys were hanging out on a porch in front of the place. A 25-ish woman was wearing a Brady jersey, sort of preening for the guys, who were obviously hooting at her. The woman lifted up the front of the jersey to reveal ... a sports bra with the Patriots' Flying Elvis logo emblazoned on each cup.
A nice variety to spice up this Super Monday, from Terrell Owens (boo!) to Naomi Watts (yea!) to Peyton Manning (I say yea, the readers say boo):
GOOD RIDDANCE, TERRELL: From James Blankenship of San Francisco: "Thank you, Peter King, for being one of the first to finally mention Terrell Owens' performance last year and how many passes he dropped! He directly contributed to the Niners losing two games (for which, of course, he took no responsibility), and yet people only talk about his personality issues as his downside. His play for the 49ers last year significantly dropped off. He has an amazing body, but has average hands at best. As a Niners fan, I am just glad the T.O. era is over."
I call 'em the way I see 'em, James.
I'M A FAN OF THE OCCASIONAL NAOMI WATTS E-MAIL. From Alan Shirakawa of Duvall, Wash.: "If you liked Naomi Watts in 21 Grams, go see Mulholland Drive."
I will. Dozens of other readers also suggested the same thing.
NOW THIS SOUNDS LIKE A GOOD IDEA. From David Piechowski of San Francisco: "I think you're dead-on about moving the hiring/firing-of-coaches period past the Super Bowl. For one thing, why does the NFL want to have the messy divorces between teams and coaches all over the news when the focus should be on the upcoming playoff games? The NFL can get some more mileage and exposure by pushing this entire process until after the Super Bowl."
Wow. That's a great idea, David. Wish I'd thought of it, and I hope Tagliabue reads this.
FINALLY! AN ANSWER TO MY GUNTHER CUNNINGHAM QUESTION ABOUT WHETHER A COACH HAS EVER BEEN A HEAD MAN AT ONE PLACE, THEN, LATER IN HIS CAREER, BECAME AN ASSISTANT FOR THE SAME TEAM. From Ken Casarsa of Cicero, N.Y.: "Jim Ringo did it with the Buffalo Bills. He was the head coach in 1976-77 and served as an assistant under Hank Bullough in the 1980s."
MANNING LETTER I. From Ben Lilly of Annapolis, Md.: "Your Monday Morning Quarterback is a great column, and I love reading it every week. I totally disagree with you about Peyton Manning. He is a good QB, but not great yet, and I would take Tom Brady and Steve McNair over Manning any day of the week. But I don't know why anyone cares or gets mad over your judgments seeing as how you were the guy touting Danny Wuerffel -- and Steve Spurrier's system -- two years ago.
Ouch. You got me right where it hurts.
WE LIVE IN THE SAME TOWN IN NEW JERSEY, BUT REALLY WE'RE MILES AND MILES APART. From James Dunnemann of Montclair, N.J.: "You can't be serious about taking Peyton Manning over any player in football. This guy has been handed everything in his career and he has done nothing with it. You say Indianapolis' matchups with Tampa and Miami this season were big games. Those teams didn't even make the playoffs this year. Look at Manning's career at Tennessee. He has all the talent but none of the courage. It is funny you compare him to Dan Marino, another guy with a great arm but without the mental capacity to perform when everyone expects it. What good is a doctor who can only make precise cuts on a cadaver?"
To each his own. I'm stunned, after watching so many Manning games over the past six years, then seeing him dissect two playoff foes for a combined 79 points before losing to the Patriots, that so many James Dunnemanns think he's a choker. I guess we're seeing a different game.
This is the final Fine Fifteen.
1. New England (17-2). I'm already wondering how it's possible not to pick them to repeat.
2. Carolina (14-6). John Fox, take a bow. I mean it. For your guys play that long and that hard in the biggest game of their lives is a tribute to the great job you did in changing a mindset among this formerly hapless group.
3. Indianapolis (14-6). Note to Peyton Manning maligners: He didn't lose yesterday.
4. Philadelphia (13-5). Only Baltimore, Minnesota and New Orleans enter the offseason with more cap money to spend than the Eagles, who are $18 million under the projected $78.5 million salary limit for 2004. So I don't want to hear any excuses about not upgrading the receivers, Iggles.
5. Tennessee (13-5). I can't see the Titans keeping both Drew Bennett and Justin McCareins, the restricted free-agent wideouts. For Steve McNair's sake, I hope they can retain at least one.
6. Green Bay (11-7). Ahman Green got far too little notice for breaking the Packers' single-season rushing record by 400 yards, don't you think?
7. St. Louis (12-5). The funniest bit on an NFL pregame show this year, without a doubt, was Frank Caliendo's Brenda Warner-wears-the-pants skit that aired a few weeks back.
8. Kansas City (12-5). New defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, old sap that he is, will hang photos of both George Patton and Derrick Thomas on his Arrowhead Stadium office wall for Chiefs players to see.
9. Seattle (10-7). Not sure if any single Seahawks stat this year was quite as disappointing as a fully healthy Koren Robinson's 896 receiving yards.
10. Baltimore (10-7). The Ravens will go after a corner such as Troy Vincent in free agency, or they'll draft one high.
11. Dallas (10-7). The Cowboys will pursue a running back such as Corey Dillon in a trade, or they'll draft one high.
12. Miami (10-6). Jay Fiedler and Brian Griese combined for a 57 percent completion rate, 16 touchdowns and 19 picks. That's just not good enough. Marino will finish taping Inside the NFL on the HBO set in New York on Wednesday. After a few goodbye beers, I expect he'll be starting the quarterback search Thursday around 8 p.m. ET.
13. Washington (5-11). The Redskins dropped from No. 12 to No. 13 since the last Fine Fifteen because I remembered that their front seven averages about 96 years old.
14. Denver (10-7). I don't mean to rub it in, but we pro football writers elected John Elway to the Hall of Fame Saturday, which just puts an exclamation point on how incredible it is that he was the quarterback when this team last won a playoff game five years ago.
15. Atlanta (5-11). In order, the four best coaching hires of the offseason were: Joe Gibbs as head coach in Washington; Dick Jauron as defensive coordinator in Detroit; Alex Gibbs as offensive line coach in Atlanta and Jim Mora Jr. as head coach in Atlanta.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts on the Super Bowl:
a. Shame on CBS. I mean, shame. Not airing the moveon.org ad about the budget deficit was censorship, pure and simple. What country are in we in? Isn't America the home of the free? The land of free expression? It's OK for you to air anti-smoking ads geared toward children, but not a commercial about the ills of the budget deficit? Oh, but woe be to someone who asks us to think during the Super Bowl! God forbid!
b. I'd suggest the NFL use different paint on the Super Bowl fields. It looked to me like Vinatieri and punter Ken Walter both slipped, untouched, on the dark-green-painted turf.
c. Not to single him out or anything, but Walter might want to check the want ads on the flight home to New England.
d. I hear that on Saturday John Fox agreed to wear a microphone during the game for NFL Films, but then backed off when he got to the stadium Sunday. Hmm.
e. I do want to send kudos to the Richardson family for their generosity. I don't recall any team, ever, flying every club and stadium employee, plus a guest, to the Super Bowl, and including a game ticket for all. For Panthers owner Jerry and his son Mark, it meant chartering three planes for 400 employees and one guest each, plus 800 tickets, plus 400 hotel rooms for four nights each. The concessions workers came. The night watchman at Ericsson Stadium came. When I saw Mark Richardson Sunday morning, I said: "That's really ..." and he cut me off and said, "expensive." He smiled. No, I thought. "Worth it" is what I was thinking. What a wonderful gesture.
f. Huge instant-replay review on a fourth-and-1 run during the Patriots' second-quarter drive into Carolina territory. I think ref Ed Hochuli made the right call, upholding the New England first down. Though it appeared Antowain Smith might not have gained the few inches he needed, there was no clear view that he didn't, and so Hochuli didn't have the indisputable evidence he needed to overturn the call. I thought Hochuli and crew had a good game.
g. Sorry about that deactivation, Dan Klecko.
h. Way to end the game, He Hate Me. That's the only move you've got? Getting pancaked to end the goshdarn Super Bowl?
2. I think of all the crazy things that happened here during the last seven days, the craziest was veteran football writer Vito Stellino having his M&Ms confiscated by security people at Reliant Stadium.
3. I think Jake Delhomme convinced me, you and the rest of America that he's going to be one heck of a player in this league for a long, long time.
4. I think this is everything you need to know about fame, fleeting and otherwise, at the Super Bowl. Last year I brought my daughter Mary Beth and her friend Sara with me to the commissioner's Friday night party/extravaganza. Midway through the party, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden left, surrounded by a phalanx of maybe 15 security dudes. They were hustling -- really moving. You got in their way at your own risk. Mary Beth wanted to meet Gruden. I told her it was doubtful. But I was able to get in a position where I could signal to Gruden as his entourage stormed by, and he stopped. He shook my hand, then said hello to the girls. Then Gruden's posse marauded past. Fast-forward to this year, at the Saturday night Sports Illustrated party. Gruden walked in with wife Cindy and agent Bob LaMonte and his wife, Lynn. I said hi to the coach, and a minute later, I saw Gruden cooling his heels for a couple of minutes, waiting for the ladies outside the rest room. A few people shook his hand, but mostly he just stood there and waited.
5. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I am surprised to say I give Houston a B+ for the week. I wasn't expecting to like the city as much as I did. But I loved the sports facilities, all gorgeous. I loved the restaurants. I loved the verve here.
b. Coffeenerdness: A Super Bowl is really super when there's a Starbucks 200 paces from the media room. Heck of a job, Houston.
c. When a Ben-less Jennifer Lopez walked toward the elevators of the Hilton-Americas Hotel the other night, a crowd of maybe 40 droolers swarmed after her, running and screaming, like they were on fire and she had the extinguisher. Lord help us all.
d. On behalf of every sportswriter who was in town for the week -- and some of them who weren't -- I have to thank John McClain profusely. The Houston Chronicle football maven sacrificed endlessly to make sure his peers had a good time here. Thanks, man.
e. As we walked back into the hotel Sunday night, a guy in the lobby bar saw Mary Beth and me and said: "Hey, go Montclair field hockey!"
6. I think, as one of the 16 MVP voters for this game, I swung back and forth like a pendulum during the final seven minutes as I contemplated my pick. I was, in order, set to vote for Brady until he threw his big pick; then I was going to give it to Delhomme or Antowain Smith or Vrabel; then, after the Panthers went ahead, I was ready to vote for Delhomme; then, after Vinatieri's field goal with four seconds left, I finally split it between Brady and Vrabel. I gave Vrabel his lone half-vote.
7. I think I was amazed to hear Tagliabue say the other day: "The Bengals are back, and everyone else in the league better beware." He sounded like Frank Costanza. "Serenity now! Serenity now!"
8. I think these are my 2004 Hall of Fame thoughts:
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
a. For all you Richard Dent fans, know that Chicago Tribune football scribe Don Pierson did one of the best jobs I've heard in 13 years on the Hall of Fame voting committee when he presented the defensive lineman's case to the 39-man panel Saturday morning. He did a terrific job of weaving facts and stats and what it was like to face Dent, and what impact he had on the '80s Bears. I walked into the meeting squarely on the fence with Dent. I walked out firmly in his corner.
b. For the record, I voted "yes" on Barry Sanders, Elway, Bob Brown, Carl Eller and Rayfield Wright, and "no" on Bob Hayes. They were the six finalists for election to the Hall this year. I don't think Hayes belongs. He's a sort of Roger Maris to me -- significant to the history of pro football but deserving of entry in the Hall of Very Good, not the Hall of Fame. I have tremendous respect for his game-breaking ability and 71 touchdown catches in 11 years. But overall I'm not crazy about his numbers (he averaged 34 catches a year -- 2.8 a game -- and in eight playoff games had 10 catches for 128 yards and no touchdowns), and I'm skeptical about his long-term impact on the game. While I do think he was obviously a gamebreaker, speed was part of the NFL before he got there (Don Hutson ran a 9.4-second 100-yard dash in 1935) and it would still be a key element now had he never played.
c. Giants fans, it looks like the only player from that run of great teams in the '80s and 1990 who will make the Hall of Fame is Lawrence Taylor. With the competition on the rise (Marino, Deion Sanders, Reggie White) in the next two years, and Harry Carson not even making the final six this year, I fear the middle linebacker won't get into the Hall for a very long time, if ever.
9. I think the Steelers are crazy for showing no interest in Drew Henson. I'll tell you who is intrigued by Henson: Kansas City. Interesting, seeing as how Trent Green still has some good years left in him.
10. I think I really admire the Panthers, if you haven't caught my drift. "I just want to say," said Vrabel afterward, "how great a job those guys did all game. What a team they have. They've really turned it around." Got Carolina on the schedule next year? What a load. "The strongest team in football," Gruden said Sunday "And the toughest team on our schedule."
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.