Now for a MMQB timeline of the season
INDIANAPOLIS, March 1: I smell a nice rivalry cooking.
On Friday night, the Saints' staff at the Combine gathered in a private room at St. Elmo Steakhouse, the 108-year-old Indy foodie landmark, for a final celebratory nod to the Super Bowl win over the Colts. This is a group that likes its wine, and likes to have fun. At the restaurant, word passed that Dallas owner Jerry Jones would have his Dallas group in this exact room Saturday night for a team dinner. Jones, one of the waiters told the Saints' group, even phoned ahead to make sure a magnum of a wine he loved, Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon, was ready to be served at dinner.
Sean Payton told the waiter he'd like to have that wine, too. The waiter told him: Sorry, sir. We've got only one bottle of it left, and it's reserved for Mr. Jones.
Payton said he'd like to have the bottle nonetheless. I assume there was much angst on the part of the wait staff at that point. My God! Who do we piss off? One of the most powerful owners in the NFL, or the coach who's the toast of the NFL, the coach who just won the Super Bowl?
Here came the bottle of Caymus Special Selection, and the Saints' party drained it.
But drinking Jones' wine wasn't enough. Payton gave the waiter some instructions, took out his pen ... and, well, the Cowboys party found at the middle of their table the next evening an empty magnum of Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon, with these words hand-written on the fancy label:
World Champions XLIV
That's the kind of thing Jones will get a big laugh out of. And remember.
BOSTON, May 10: Tom Brady's life changes.
Brady will hear a lot of questions about his commitment, now that he's spending so much time in Los Angeles. Hs goal in the offseason used to be to win the prized parking spot given to the most dedicated player in the offseason program. Now his family goals take precedence, and because his older son (he shares custody), lives in Los Angeles, he feels he has to be in southern California more than if Jack lived back East. He made it clear he's not going to give short-shrift to either of his sons, and if he has to work on his own for a good part of the offseason, away from his teammates, then so be it.
"It's a balancing act,'' he said. "I don't want the next 10 years to go by and to say I wasn't there for my sons. I wish I could be there [in Foxboro daily in the offseason] the way I was when I was 24, but life is different now. Things actually are much more simple than they've ever been. I used to spend every weekend running around with friends. Now I've got two great kids, and I love spending time with them. [Benjamin] is usually up at 6 in the morning, so that's when the day starts now.''
He said he's going to go back and forth through the offseason and will attend all the mandatory camps and as much of the offseason program as time allows. But he was honest about the fact he's not going to know his new mates once training camp begins in late July as well as he used to know everyone in the locker room.
"I'm not going to have the same relationship with the guys as if I was there every day,'' he said. "I hope they can understand. I've seen it handled different ways by a lot of guys on the team in the past, including some of the real leaders. I've seen Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison when their family lives turned in a different directions and they couldn't be in the offseason program every day. Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: We've all got to be ready to play.''
JOHANNESBURG, June 13: Covering the World Cup is fun.
On Sunday evening, with the temperature dropping into the high forties in the tony Melrose Arch section of this teeming city, I followed four wafer-thin Namibians through a ritzy outdoor mall. These men were about 25, and about 5-foot-8. They might have weighed 100 pounds. All four carried sturdy brown walking sticks. They wore brown sandals and leather loin coverings that I'd best describe as mini-skirts. And that's all they wore.
The four talked in their native tongue happily among themselves, walking by a Mont Blanc store, then a shop with $5,000 watches, and made it to the 50-yard-by-50-yard neighborhood square, where, as in scores of neighborhoods in South Africa these days, a huge TV screen was set up for watching World Cup games. While the four waited for the Germany-Australia game to begin, they gathered with a few other Namibians hoisting the Namibia flag (with woven blankets around their shoulders), and danced to some African music from a local band onstage.
I looked around. There were Hondurans with their flag, dozens of Brazilians with a few of theirs, Italians in their smart blue Azzuri jackets, Germans (who somehow, somewhere found Becks), South Africans on and offstage, Americans, English, Spaniards, Dutch (in bright orange), vocal and imbibing Aussies, a ton of Mexicans (with a few sombreros), Ghanaians with their trademark black star celebrating their afternoon victory, and a family of Danes, all in Danish team jerseys.
When the game kicked off, fans of all these nations blew those omnipresent vuvuzelas, drank Castles and Windhoeks from passing beer vendors, and stood shoulder to shoulder, yelling and rooting and drinking. (And in many cases, annoyingly, smoking.)
Americans in sweatshirts, and Namibians in skirts and carrying walking sticks, watching Germany play Australia. The World Cup. It's not like anything I've seen.
GEORGETOWN, Ky., July 29: Everybody's optimistic, some with good reason, in July.
Of all the things you don't expect to hear at an NFL training camp, Frank Sinatra crooning on a hip player's portable Bose speaker would be one. But here it came, wafting underneath the stands of the football stadium at Georgetown College, the entrancing and melodic "It Was a Very Good Year.'' I couldn't understand where it was coming from. As players walked from the locker room under the stands to the cafeteria after Cincinnati's morning practice, I craned my neck to see the source, and it was Chad Ochocinco, with a hand-held Bose speaker box, with his iPod doing the job.
When I was 35
It was a very good year.
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls
Of independent means ...
"I'm just so excited I can't stand it,'' Ocho said. "Carson's got to be out of his mind excited. Me, TO, Antonio [Bryant], the run game, Gresham, Shipley, our other young receivers ... How are they gonna stop us? The other guy who's got to be going nuts is Cedric [Benson]. They can't jam the box on him now.'' When I walk away from him, I said, "Have a good year.'' Chad quickly says, "No. Great year. I always have a good year. This is going to be a great one.''
ST. CHARLES, Mo., Aug. 7: The Rams have their quarterback.
On the Rams sideline Saturday night, during the club's first scrimmage of the summer at woody Lindenwood University, all eyes were, of course, on rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, the first pick of the 2010 draft. "What's uncanny,'' said GM Billy Devaney, "is how he doesn't just complete the pass. He completes the pass most often where his guy can get it and the defender can't. Drives the corners crazy.'' On cue, Bradford took one of his 34 snaps of the evening, dropped back, and threw a spiral high and outside to 6-4 wideout Jordan Kent at the goal line. Kent and the covering corner both jumped for it, but Kent had half a foot on him and won the ball easily.
A few minutes later, pressured, Bradford let one fly 45 yards downfield on a corner route to wideout Danny Amendola, in tight coverage. The ball floated perfectly into his arms before he got pushed out. Gain of 50. "The boy can throw that football!'' corner Ron Bartell exulted next to me. "You see that?!!'' Now that's a corner -- exulting when one of his brethren in the secondary got beat. Not a common thing for training camp. But when you've lost 42 of your last 48 games, and your passing game is probably the biggest reason why, you want any hope you can find. And in St. Louis, hope is spelled B-R-A-D-F-O-R-D.
NEW YORK, Oct. 11: Larry Fitzgerald's right -- it's a weird year.
The voice from across the country late Sunday night said what we all feel, if I'm not mistaken, about the 2010 NFL season. "What is normal in this league right now?'' Larry Fitzgerald, fan of the game, said from Arizona. "Such a strange year.''
It's Oct. 11, the Monday morning of Week 5, and the league is fresh out of unbeatens. (Last year, after five weeks, five perfect teams remained.) The Colts go 55 minutes without a touchdown, at home, against Kansas City. Half the free world picked the Cowboys to play the first home Super Bowl ever; they're the worst team in the NFC East and have rendered Jerry Jones speechless. The Packers were supposed to waltz into the playoffs with an Indy-like offense, and we look up this morning to find they've been outscored by Shaun Hill's Lions. Atlanta coach Mike Smith admitted to me the other day the Falcons could be anywhere from 1-3 to 4-0, but after a gritty slugfest next to Lake Erie against the Browns, there's a good chance they're the best team in the NFC at 4-1.
Carolina, San Diego, San Francisco and Cincinnati ... 4-16.
Jacksonville 107, New Orleans 99.
Max Hall 1, Drew Brees 0.
Kansas City and Tampa Bay, three wins. San Diego and Dallas, three losses.
Randy Moss, a Viking. Brett Favre, accused. The circus, in town tonight.
Vince Lombardi, on Broadway. (I saw it with my own eyes Friday. He'd laugh if he were around. It's right next door to "Wicked.'')
NEW YORK, Oct. 18: The clampdown is coming.
"This is crazy!'' Rodney Harrison said as we tried to process the sixth or seventh vicious NFL hit of the day in the NBC viewing room Sunday afternoon.
Then, almost under his breath, Harrison said quietly, "Thank God I retired.''
The games we watched Sunday seemed as violent a collection as I've seen. Judging from the tweets and e-mails I got as the day went on, the public was astonished too. The Dunta Robinson collision with DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia, concussing both the Atlanta corner and Eagles receiver and probably kayoing the invaluable Jackson for Sunday's game at Tennessee. Several shots in Pittsburgh, two vicious ones by James Harrison of the Steelers; his helmet-to-helmet shot against Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi will certainly draw a heavy fine, and it's incredible to me no official flagged what could be the textbook definition of hitting a defenseless receiver. In New England, Brandon Meriweather lighting up Baltimore's Todd Heap with a hit to the head so vicious that either a mouthguard or something flew high into the air at the moment of impact. And so on -- six or eight shots where you wondered, "Is that guy getting up?'' ...
If the NFL's serious about its rules, and is giving more than lip service about concussions, it's essential the league acts now to reinforce the rules on the books.
NEW YORK, Nov. 22: Aaron Rodgers stakes his claim as The Man.
It's hard to not have great admiration for Aaron Rodgers. After the Packers embarrassed the Vikings on Sunday at the Metrodome, Rodgers made a beeline for Brett Favre at midfield, and they embraced for a good 20 seconds, both whispering into each other's earholes. It's obviously been an odd relationship between the two; they were friendly but never tight in Green Bay, and now Rodgers is proving there is life -- very good life -- after Favre in Green Bay, a prospect that once seemed unthinkable.
I asked Rodgers if he could share anything he'd said to Favre at such an awkward and probably emotional time. Rodgers not only had played at a Favrian level back home in Green Bay, but now he'd come into Favre's new place and finished the process of ripping the team's 2010 guts out. Green Bay 31, Minnesota 3. Somewhere, in some deep place, Rodgers had to be feeling some measure of tremendous satisfaction, but he wasn't going to show it in that embrace, and no matter what he thought of Favre, he realized the moment and knew it was only right to treat Favre with the dignity he hoped one day the man who vanquished him would treat him. Maybe sometime around 2024.
Hearing my question about what went on between he and Favre, Rodgers said, "I'd rather keep that private. I don't think it'd be right to share it.''
Just the right answer.
The Packers, for what it's worth, look like the best team in the league to me after 10 games.
NEW YORK, Dec. 20: Bad news from Dodge City.
We yell a lot in the fifth-floor Rockefeller Center viewing room of NBC's "Football Night in America.'' Up to nine games in high-def on a big wall in front of the room, and the 12 to 15 people in the room putting together the Sunday night show get a little excited from time to time. Oh, Rodney Harrison yells, often at big hits. Tony Dungy even yells a time or two per Sunday. I yell more than I ever did in a press box, where yelling is verboten. But I don't recall the sound coming out of the viewing room ever sounding like it did at 4:18 p.m. EST Sunday. It was something like, if I can paraphrase:
"NOOOOOohwhatareyouDOINGYOUIDIOT!'' That's when Giants punter Matt Dodge, with 14 seconds left in a 31-31 game, chose to not do what his coach told him and actually punted the ball to the most dangerous punt-return man in football for no apparent reason.
"NooooooAHHHHHHHHHOHHHHHHHH!'' That's when DeSean Jackson fumbled the punt, picked it up at about his 35-yard line, and began grasping for daylight to run toward.
And "AHHHHHHHHHHHHNOOOOOOOOOOO! Yougottabekiddingme! AHHHHHHH! LOOKATCOUGHLIN! AHHHHHHHHHHH!''
So now, this is the first wee-hours-of-Monday-morning writing session that I have a sore throat ... The Eagles scored 28 points in the last nine minutes in New Jersey Sunday and beat the Giants.
NEW YORK, DEC. 27: Feeling Lucky?
I heard reliably earlier in the week that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the unquestioned top prospect in the draft should he choose to bypass his final two years of eligibility, was thinking about staying in school rather than being this year's Sam Bradford. As I said on NBC last night, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh told me he thought Luck, a redshirt sophomore, was leaning toward staying for a fourth year.
I said to Harbaugh Sunday that I'd heard the Luck family (his dad, Oliver Luck, is a former NFL quarterback) was concerned with the fact that drafted players, because of the prospect of a protracted work stoppage, might not even see their playbook or start practice 'til Labor Day -- or later. If that's the case, why wouldn't Luck stay for his fourth year at Stanford and play, whether Harbaugh (who is rumored to be a candidate for both pro and college head-coaching jobs after turning around the Cardinal) is there to coach him or not?
"I don't think that's the correct logic,'' Harbaugh told me from his home in northern California. "But I do think it's more likely he'd come back. If I had to bet one way or the other, I'd bet he's coming back. He loves college. He loves the college life. He's such a good kid -- and so smart. He's got a 3.5 GPA in Architectural Engineering, and all along his plan has been to go to college for four years, get his degree, then figure out what to do with his life. This is a kid who has a plan. And he's a kid who's not the big-man-on-campus type. He just fits in.''
CHICAGO, Jan. 24: This coach's hometown just can't lose.
In the summer of 1989, a small-college tight end from Baker (Kansas) University came home to Pittsburgh to begin a coaching career. He found his way onto the staff at the University of Pittsburgh as an unpaid grad assistant. At night, to support himself, he worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift in the toll booth at Exit 5 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (the Allegheny Valley exit), 25 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. His dad, a firefighter and police officer and bar owner near a dying steel mill, raised him to be tough, respectful and hard-working -- and a Steeler fan. Which he was, loving the Steelers as a teenager when they won their four Super Bowls in the seventies.
The toll-taker, Mike McCarthy, will try to break the hearts of everyone back home. He's the Green Bay coach.
And now you know the rest ... of the story.
Winners of the NFC Championship in the 16-team National Football Conference in the last 10 seasons:
2010 Green Bay
2009 New Orleans
2007 New York Giants
2002 Tampa Bay
2001 St. Louis
Ten seasons, 10 different winners. Of the six non-champs over the past decade, five (Atlanta, Dallas, Minnesota, San Francisco and Washington) have each won at least one playoff game. Only Detroit hasn't won a playoff game among the 16 NFC teams in the past 10 years.
Interesting. I could see Atlanta or Dallas contending next season.
ARLINGTON, Texas, Feb. 7: The hero broke his collarbone.
Fellow Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden and I had stood there marveling at a guy dressing himself, right down to the tying of his shoes, with a broken left collarbone. And I don't mean a collarbone with a little chip fracture. I mean, the thing was broken all the way through.
At one point, Woodson turned his back to us -- his left arm already through the sleeve of his black jacket, his eyes closing to help bear the pain -- and said, "Now I'm going to ask your for a favor. Help me with my jacket.''
Layden and I both reached to help him lift the jacket in position so he could push his uninjured arm through the sleeve. Woodson did it, and there he stood, dressed in all black, happy with himself. Because he still had the one good arm to hug the Vince Lombardi Trophy with, and he plans to do a lot more of that in the next couple of days.
It's been an eventful week, with all the weather weirdness here, with the league and the players taking baby steps on a very long trip to get a new labor deal, with a seven-man Hall of Fame class that has left quite a few of you apoplectic and us 44 selectors needing a very long nap, and with the two teams with the most NFL titles in the last 50 years facing off in the History Bowl. Fun weekend, compelling weekend.
The memory of being at his locker with Woodson, cherishing his first championship of a 13-year career, will be with me for a long time. For two reasons: Because he was in such obvious pain, and because he didn't care about the pain.
Phillips: Cox, La Russa, and Torre added to Hall of Fame class
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