- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
As I left Thomas' office, I remembered the players describing his first meeting with the team—that he had come to announce, quite nervous, sweating heavily: "I don't care if you guys like me or not. That's not what I'm interested in. I'm interested in winning."
Thomas' views were supported in kind by the most outspoken Colt, the brilliant middle linebacker, Mike (Mad Dog) Curtis, also called The Animal. Curtis thinks of football as an "extension of childhood" and believes that those who practice it should be treated with the authority and methods used to harness unruly children. He is the one player who will have nothing to do with the NFL Players' Association, being not only a firm believer in the benevolent patriarchy of the club owners, but that football players have never had it so good.
My own clearest memory of Mike Curtis—a vivid example of his insistence on the correctness and order of things—revolved around an incident during the Baltimore-Miami game last year. A man sitting in the front row of the stands decided suddenly to run onto the field and try to make off with the ball as a souvenir. He handed his field glasses and program to a friend sitting next to him. "Hold these, Ed," he said. "I'll be right back."
The Miami offensive huddle was just breaking when he crossed the sidelines. The 60,000 people caught sight of him almost immediately, and a vast, gusty roar of anticipation went up. Bubba Smith noticed him right away. Bubba was delighted to see him coming because the Baltimore defense had been on the field a long time and he was tired and he hoped this cat would pick up the ball and crazy-leg around the field with it, the police after him, for a good long lime, permitting Bubba to thoroughly rest his bones and get his breath back. "I gave him a big smile of encouragement," Bubba told me afterward.
Smith's grin was the last thing the fan saw; just as he picked up the ball, and began scampering off between the two lines, he was hit by Curtis, darting in from his linebacker's spot with a ferocious shoulder block, and, as the ball flew off in one direction, the fan rose up into the air as if launched from a trampoline. Two policemen rushed out, and he was supported swiftly off the field. "Wha' happened?" the fan asked. "You got hit by The Animal—Mad Dog Curtis," one of the policemen answered, shaking his head in wonderment.
The general consensus was that Curtis' reaction was instinctive—that since his whole psyche is geared to removing a football from whomever is carrying it, what triggered his quick, devastating rush was a normal psychological response...the territorial imperative at work. (The title of Curtis' recent book is indicative: Keep Off My Turf.) Curtis himself, though, produced a more sophisticated reason. "It was anarchy," he told me. "That wise guy was exactly like some stranger climbing over a fence into my yard. He was interfering with the basic law that keeps people in their seats. He was like the 1% of the public that feels it can disrupt the majority with impunity. It's a weak, permissive society that lets them get away with things like that. Such people should not be allowed to disturb the tranquillity of the society," he told me firmly. "In our society there are too many malcontents and too much hogwash."
Curtis' feelings about the Colts and the changeover were more or less an extension of these views. "McCafferty set what you might call a 'lenient posture,' " he told me. "That's all right if you're winning, but it's bad if you're losing. Idealistically, ballplayers are supposed to be able to get themselves mentally prepared for a game. Realistically, someone's got to beat their tail. You don't believe that?"
"But don't some players bridle under...?"
"A lot of people don't like the sort of humiliation inflicted on them by a Don Shula or a Vince Lombardi, but the point is that their system turns out better football players and stronger teams. I'm a great admirer of Shula's coaching. He just didn't permit mistakes. Mac's attitude seemed to be that mistakes were inevitable and should be kept to a minimum. Well, that's a difficult approach. It's true that Mac had two good years, but the first was a carry-over from Shula, and because we had an easy schedule, and even though that was the Super Bowl year, we didn't exactly pound anybody. It's my feeling that with a club like McCafferty's, which doesn't function under the whiplash, there's not enough intensity. You drop a ball? So what. No, give me the medieval approach."
"What about the function of management?" I asked.