Posted: Friday February 3, 2006 11:39AM; Updated: Saturday February 4, 2006 12:01AM
Gus Frerotte. To casual fans, Frerotte was a journeyman quarterback who lived down to his reputation in Miami this season, costing the Dolphins with errant passes at crucial times. To most people who understand football, Frerotte was a huge reason Miami improved from a 4-12 flameout in 2004 to a 9-7 season under first-year coach Nick Saban.
"Gus Frerotte played his ass off," a veteran quarterback for another AFC team told me on Wednesday night. "Nick Saban should be down on his knees thanking the guy, because he balled. Gus is a football player, and he proved it."
Alas, Saban does not seem to share this opinion. According to another player familiar with the Dolphins' situation, the coach has talked of bringing in another quarterback and hasn't offered a whole lot of positive reinforcement. Meanwhile, Frerotte's biggest fan in Miami, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan (whom Frerotte had followed from Minnesota), just left to become the Rams' head coach. Frerotte is a terrific teammate and leader, a selfless, self-deprecating, strong-armed passer. He is tough on the field and stellar away from it, a family man with a great wife and three kids and whose priorities are in order. Put it this way: Unlike many of his peers, if Frerotte ever does get a Super Bowl ring, it won't come close to being the most important ring on his finger.
Joe Horn. Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking -- loudmouth, egotistical self-promoter whose inflammatory comments and infamous cell phone call from the end zone represent everything that's wrong with football. The truth? Horn is a team player who fought his way from obscurity (junior college, the CFL) to become one of the NFL's best receivers. What he says may be unpopular, but he usually speaks for others in the Saints' locker room who aren't in a position to be controversial. And if you accompanied the man to the Astrodome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as I did, and saw the genuine, unpretentious compassion he extended to Hurricane Katrina evacuees, you'd realize how really deserving he is of a Bettisesque turn. In 1993, Horn was out of football. He spent the year washing dishes and working in a furniture factory to support his family. Tell me this guy wouldn't be a Super story.
Matt Birk. In addition to being one of the smartest and most forthright players in the NFL, the standout center is an underappreciated warrior, even within the Vikings organization. As I wrote before this season, he was willing to continue playing through a painful hernia injury in 2005 if Minnesota would guarantee his salary, but the team balked and was deprived of his services. As I wrote in the aftermath of the Vikings' Love Boat scandal, Birk's was a voice of reason in a dysfunctional universe. Give this low-key family man a moment in the national spotlight before he quits, then step back and watch him become one of the best TV analysts in the game.
Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor. Funny, passionate and fiercely competitive, the Dolphins' defensive leaders are brothers-in-law (Taylor is married to Thomas' sister, Katina) and brothers in arms. Because of them, the Dolphins have remained mostly competitive for a decade, even when they had obvious deficiencies -- and have always given maximum effort. Get these guys on adjoining podiums and watch the sparks fly. A few years ago, when I asked Thomas if he felt weird at all that Taylor was hooked up with his sister, he replied in his inimitable Texas drawl, "Hell, I love it. It helps the gene pool. I'm not the best-looking guy in the world, but Jason is pretty as hell."
He and Thomas would look even more beautiful in the Super Bowl spotlight.
Tony Dungy. The epitome of class and understated professionalism, Dungy has come so close for so long that his Super moment seems inevitable. This year, amid the most brutal of personal tragedies, Dungy seemed destined to take the Colts to Detroit and earn his long-awaited ring. Alas, Super Bowl XL was Bettis' turn. When Dungy's arrives, it will be every bit as heartwarming. And while he may not be able to have his hometown as a backdrop, Miami (site of Super Bowl XLI) is close enough to Tampa to give this story an added touch of emotion.