posted: Nov. 29, 2005  |  Feedback

Just a couple of quick things for today ...

• The final schedule for the second East Coast Book Tour is set, with a 12/11 date in Kenmore Square added. Click here for details.

• The Sons of Sam Horn website is running their third annual fundraiser for the Jimmy Fund. Last year they raised over $50,000, this year they're hoping to double that. If you're interested in donating, click on this link for details. There's also a fundraiser message board thread that lists some of the random prizes they're giving out, including an incredible offer from Red Sox owner John Henry -- whomever makes the highest bid gets to sit in the Red Sox war room on July 31st (the day of the trading deadline). I think it would have been funnier if the person with the highest bid became the new Red Sox GM, if only because Larry Lucchino will be running the team regardless of who gets that job. But whatever.

• Speaking of charity, a few weeks ago, the guys at asked me to participate in their NBA Cares Celebrity Fantasy League, which makes no sense because the other people in the league are actual celebrities. But how could I resist the chance to compete with the likes of Star Jones, Sam Jackson, Bernie Mac, Pamela Anderson and Matthew Modine? Plus, everyone gets ten grand to give to their favorite charity (I picked the Celtics Shamrock Foundation, a really good cause). If you win the whole league, your charity gets 20 grand.

We did the draft on the same night of the Pats-Bills game, with everyone online making picks -- some of the celebs used assistants to pick their teams, but it seemed like Kenny Smith, Diana Taurasi, Michael Rapaport, Modine, Jones and maybe even Bernie Mac really picked their teams. There was a chat room set up in case anything happened, which was high comedy because Modine's computer flaked out on him, so we had to wait for a few minutes while he got back online. So we're just sitting there waiting, and somebody types something like, "Jeez, it's been six minutes," so I quickly typed back, "It's not the six minutes, it's what happens in those six minutes." Nobody got it. Also, Star Jones kept bragging that Magic Johnson helped her with her picks, then took Shaq with the 5th pick. So I started making "See, that's why nobody ever hired Magic as a GM" jokes and I think she was legitimately ticked off -- she fired back with something like "How many rings do you have?" It's not often in life that you get the chance to rile up Star Jones. I hope they televise this thing next year, I want her to take a swing at me.

Anyway, here are the guys I picked who are still on my team (you start ten every week, 2 centers, 4 forwards and 4 guards): Mamba (my 1st round pick), Pierce (2nd round), Gasol, Howard, Cassell, Joe Johnson, Ricky Davis, Maggette, Brad Miller and my man Bobby Simmons ... and I have picked up Mourning, Pryzbilla, David West and Mike James since the season started. Right now I'm 2-2, but it's a weekly league and I've had some bad luck with the schedules and stuff -- for instance, I lost to Taurasi last week because Mamba only played 2 games, as well as because of all the residual karma from all the WNBA jokes I've made over the years. Right now, Bernie Mac is killing everyone at 4-0 -- he had the 10th pick and somehow ended up with Wade AND Duncan. These are the things that happen when you're in a league where Star Jones is getting advice from Magic Johnson. Also on Bernie's team: Odom, Jefferson, Miles, Lewis, Paul, Bosh, K-Mart, Knight, Bogut, Deng, Battier and Grant Hill. Pretty good on paper, but not THAT good. I think I can take him. Stay tuned.

• Finally, this week's book recommendation ...

Remember when I panned John Feinstein's new book about the Baltimore Ravens two weeks ago? After I wrote that review, I was thinking about sports books centered around that "spending a season with..." theme and why some of them work and some of them don't, ultimately deciding to re-read one of my favorites of that genre: "Unfinished Business" by Jack McCallum. You know McCallum from Sports Illustrated, but he spent the 1990-91 season following around the Celtics, which was an interesting team in itself -- Bird, McHale and Parish were still there, Reggie Lewis was just becoming an All-Star caliber 2-guard, and there were young legs like Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, Eddie Pinckney and Kevin Gamble on hand. Nobody remembers this, but before Bird's back went out in December, they were 26-5 and considered the best team in the league (they ended up losing to the Pistons in the semis).

But that's not why I love the book. Instead of recapping games and spending ten pages on mini-autobiographies for each player, McCallum goes in the other direction -- he's only concerned with the dynamic of the team, the histories of the players relating to one another, the ebb and flow of the season, the jokes everyone makes during practice and on the bus rides, the various character roles people fill on a team and so on. Within 200 pages, you feel like you know everyone, and McCallum isn't afraid to go after certain people (like Bird's curiously cold treatment of McHale, or how Johnny Most became such a self-parody in his later years). To this day, it remains the best character study of Bird, and McHale might be the funniest character in any sports book -- not only did I forget how consistently funny he was, it's astounding that he's not making like $10 million a year working for ABC or ESPN right now. He could have been bigger than Barkley.

Here's the difference between McCallum's book and the Feinstein book: it's only 257 pages long (half the size of Feinstein's book), but there isn't a word wasted, and you feel like you were a fly on the wall with that Celtics team for 8-9 months. Isn't that the ultimate goal of one of these books? It's also laugh-out-loud funny at times, and he tackles the basic questions that I'm looking for from these books -- what's so-and-so like, why did this happen, how do these guys get along, who's the funniest guy on the team, and so on. I think it's one of the five best NBA books ever.

(So what are the other four? We'll get to them. I promise.)

Anyway, since it's such a great book, you know what that means: That's right, it's out of print! Check the usual suspects (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, eBay, Abe's Books, your local library) for copies. But if you can find it, and you love the NBA, you won't be disappointed.

Back tomorrow with a new column.

posted: Nov. 23, 2005  |  Feedback

Happy Thanksgiving! The quick picks for Week 12 ...

DETROIT (+3) over Atlanta
We're due for one of those artificial turf games where two 300-pound guys land on Michael Vick and it takes them 20 minutes to scrape him off the turf. He's good for one of those a year.

Denver (-2) over DALLAS
Drew Bledsoe against the Broncos defense ... giddy up! By the way, we might make it through the rest of the season without Jake Plum having to come from behind to beat somebody.

(Boulder reader Tony C. on the Jake Plum phenomenon: This is the 'Rich Gannon Story, Part Two.' I think it went down Rich and Jake in a darkened locker room, with Rich handing Jake the magic elixir saying something like this: 'Alright Jake, this stuff's the secret. When Steve DeBerg gave it to me, he made me swear to tell no one on my team and that I would know when it was time to pass it and who was worthy. I've been watching you Jake and you are the chosen one. Guard the secret well and pass it on wisely when you're done.'")

CHIEFS (-3) over Patriots
Ladies and gentleman, the New Triplets: Tom Brady, Heath Evans and Andre Davis! And yes, the Patriots are officially in "We're locked into the AFC East and the No. 4 spot, let's get everyone healthy for January" mode. Fine with me.

BILLS (+4) over Panthers
I'm never taking Jake Delhomme on the road again. You can go to hell, Jake Delhomme. You can go straight to hell.

(Annoying announcer trend of the week: Both Fox guys kept calling Steve Smith "Steven Smith" last week. I think they thought Stephen A. Smith was playing. Why does stuff like this happen? 2005 could go down as the worst year in the history of NFL announcing. I'm convinced.)

BENGALS (-9) over Ravens
The Ravens are so bad, it took them five quarters to beat a team playing Tommy Maddox at QB. By the way, did anyone else think the Bengals would have won that Colts game if Carson Palmer didn't choke with that last interception? That's two games now where that Bengals team blinked as soon as someone else looked them in the eye. Not working in January.

Chargers (-3) over REDSKINS
Easiest game on the board. And since I have nothing else to add, Brad in Columbus solves my "Who's the MLB equivalent to Raef LaFrentz and Gus Frerotte" from last week's column:

"I think it has to be Hideo Nomo. Nomo just seems to be one of those guys that stinks and has hurt every team he's played for since leaving the Dodgers (the first time) but he keeps showing up and getting a chance somehow (a la Gus and Raef). And the thing all 3 of these guys have in common is that at some point they randomly come up with some huge game. Gus's 360 yards vs the Pats ... Raef's 7-for-7 from 3 ... Nomo's no-hitter for the Red Sox in 2001. I think the amount of parity in pro sports today breeds this kind of thing. If you took 5 teams out of the NFL and MLB, do you think guys like Gus Frerotte and Hideo Nomo would still be around? I think not."

BUCS (-3) over Bears
I'm not sure if Chicago needs this one nearly as much as Tampa does -- they have three straight road games after this one. By the way, everyone was worried that I jumped off the Bears Bandwagon last week -- hey, I haven't gone anywhere. I picked them to finish 10-6, they're going to finish 10-6. I even have $50 on them at 80-1 odds to win the Super Bowl. So there.

(Feud of the week: Phil Simms screaming about Steve Young saying Chris Simms wasn't tough enough because he grew up in a "laissez faire atmosphere." Meanwhile, Steve Young came from the mean streets of Greenwich, Connecticut. You'd hate to see this thing end with somebody getting strangled to death by a Burberry's scarf.)

VIKINGS (-4) over Browns
The lesson, as always: if you replace a talented QB who makes consistently horrible mistakes with a mediocre QB who doesn't make any mistakes, you'll win more games with the mediocre QB.

(From reader Andrew B. in Santa Monica: "Is there anything funnier in the NFL right now than the ongoing Mike Tice 'Trying to Figure Out if I Won the Challenge' Face? Last week vs. the Giants (on that quasi-Eli-fumble/forward pass play) he is marching down the sidelines, arm outstretched and pointing as if the Vikes are going to get the ball, and only about 5 seconds after the ref gives the Giants the ball back does he finally realize that he's wrong. Then yesterday, on the interception return for a touchdown, he looked like he was trying to do long division in his head for about 10 seconds until he realized the touchdown would stand. The NFL should require that Tice challenge one play per half just to show his struggles in interpreting the ref's decision.")

NINERS (+8) over Titans
The Niners are just frisky enough that this line seems high. By the way, has any receiver in the history of mankind vacillated between "absolutely unbelievable" and "freaking terrible" like Brandon Lloyd? Either he's the next Lynn Swann or the next Hart Lee Dykes. Maybe a little of both.

TEXANS (+4) over Rams
I think Maguire, Theismann and Patrick should do every Texans game. What's better than Patrick saying "This kid has all the tools" about David Carr (who's only like 3-58 in his last 61 starts), or Theismann yelping, "You cannot blame Dom Capers for what's happening here" as the cameras show Capers frozen on the sidelines with his mouth open, almost like he's trying to catch flies. And by the way, if they can't come within four points of the imploding Rams this week, that should answer the "Should Capers come back?" and "Should we renew Carr?" questions. Emphatically.

(Speaking of Theismann, here's an e-mail from Brendan in Indy: "With just around 1:00 left in the 3rd Quarter and the Texans facing a 4th and 4 from the 4 yard line. Down 31-14, the Texans lined up like they were going to go for it. At which point Joe Theismann says 'the Texans are going to go for it, and I love that call' following by the Texans calling a timeout and the game going to a commercial break. When the game returns, the Texans are kicking the field goal and the announcers are arguing about the decision to kick the field goal, with Theismann arguing FOR the field goal. I thought that maybe I had misheard who had said they loved the call to go for it, so with the beauty of TiVo I was able to go back and watch it again, and sure enough it was the great Joe Theismann! He really is creating arguments with himself!")

CARDS (+3.5) over Jaguars
On the Vengeance Scale, Kurt Warner's dramatic win in St. Louis last Sunday was at least a 0.2 or a 0.3.

RAIDERS (-7) over Dolphins
The Dolphins are this year's winner of the "Team That's Had Their Hearts Ripped Out Because of Their Crappy QB's" Award. But here's the good news: Last year's winner? The Bears. So there's hope.

EAGLES (-4.5) over Packers
I'm enjoying the Mike McMahon Era -- even have him starting for both my fantasy teams. Plus, as Amy from New Jersey points out: "How is McMahon starting if he is considered the third string QB for the Eagles? Do you think that Detmer's neck-beard is holding him back? Is he better than McMahon, but the Eagles don't want him on TV due to the neck-beard? I got all excited a few weeks ago when McNabb left the Denver game because I thought we would see the neck-beard. But, guess what? Detmer came into the game WITHOUT the neck-beard! Did the Eagles reward him for shaving it off? Also, it has been documented that Detmer travels to road games only with the clothes he is wearing and a toothbrush. (So how did he shave the neck-beard when they were playing at Denver?) Does this all lead to getting passed over when the starter gets hurt? Or is it because Detmer's the place-holder and they can't mess with the karma there? Even if it didn't cost Detmer a start, I think neck-beards should be avoided."

(See, there's a place for female footballs fans on this planet. And you thought there wasn't.)

Giants (+4.5) over SEAHAWKS
Two straight "Vegas had no idea where to set these lines" games! That's always fun. This feels like a three-point game to me.

JETS (+1.5) over Saints
I don't mean to sound callous -- really, I don't -- but if Katrina doesn't happen, there's no way Jim Haslett still has a job. Just a terrible coach. The Saints have quit on him now for four straight seasons -- he's coming up on Wayne Fontes's record. This year, everyone thinks they quit because of the hurricane after-effects, and I'm sure that played a part, there's no question. But these guys always look out undisciplined and underprepared. Always. At some point, you have to look at the coach.

COLTS (-5) over Steelers
I'm never going against the 2005 Colts again. By the way, classic moment in the Bengals/Colts game last week when they showed Chad Johnson writing something in big letters after his touchdown, and Jim Nantz happily said, "Oh, boy, let's see what Chad's up to now," and then Chad showed off his message -- "TO -- I got you baby" -- leading to this exchange:

-- Nantz: "Ah ... "
-- Simms: "Ah, jeez.."

(Four full seconds of silence.)

SEASON: 80-77-2

posted: Nov. 15, 2005  |  Feedback

One follow-up to today's Cowbell column (featured below):

When I linked to the David Halberstam book on Amazon, I didn't realize that my book was featured on his page. Admittedly, I should have looked to make sure. Now I have e-mailers claiming that I linked to his book only because my book was also featured on his Amazon page, even though I mentioned six weeks ago how much I liked it when I read the advance copy. Terrific. Apparently I'm that conniving.

Anyway, here's a link to John Feinstein's book as well.

As you can tell, there's a link for my book on that page, too.

And just for the record, I started these sports-book recommendations as a way to write about some of the books that have meant something to me over the years. Then I started receiving a steady slew of "You're just linking to out-of-print books, you're doing this intentionally because you don't want to promote any new books that you're competing against with your book" e-mails. Whatever. So I write about a couple of new football books that I happened to read over the past month … and now it was a thinly veiled excuse to promote Halberstam's book and get people to buy mine? Clearly, I can't win either way.

Maybe it was my mistake for thinking that I could review sports books from a fan's perspective without my own book being a factor. The way our culture works now, everyone who writes a visible column on the Internet has to have some sort of hidden agenda, and everyone is in this for the wrong reasons, and everyone's a sellout, and that's just the way it is. Honestly, I just started the series because I was cleaning out boxes of sports books from my garage and forgot how much they meant to me, so I wanted to recommend some of them and explain why I liked them. In the case of the Halberstam/Feinstein books, since I recently read both of them, I thought I could discuss both of them from the same perspective established in my other book reviews. Apparently not.

Anyway, I'm only concentrating on older books for these reviews from now on. If they're out of print, so be it. That's why we have libraries.

Congratulations to Alex Rodriguez, your 2005 American League MVP. Even though I wanted Big Papi to win, it was nice to see the sheer joy on the faces of Yankee fans Monday when … oh, wait, there wasn't any joy whatsoever. Good choice, though.

I'm torn on this one. As I wrote six weeks ago, you really had to follow the 2005 Red Sox to understand Big Papi's impact on the team -- they would have won about 12 to 15 fewer games if you replaced him with a mediocre DH. On the other hand, I'm the same guy who argued last April that Steve Nash shouldn't win the NBA MVP because he couldn't guard anyone. And when you consider that A-Rod is an above-average defensive third baseman, his hitting stats and Big Papi's hitting stats were relatively equal, and most of the 28 voters didn't have the luxury of watching Papi's overall impact at the plate and in the dugout, the vote seemed like a forgone conclusion. The sad thing is that Papi isn't a bad first baseman. In fact, you could make a decent case that the Red Sox would have been better off playing him at first base, DH-ing Kevin Youkilis and benching Kevin Millar once it became apparent that Millar couldn't hit for power anymore. But whatever.

Anyway, not only am I still battling bronchitis, but now I sound like Harvey Fierstein. I know you're not gay, but if you were gay … would you find me attractive? At least I have a built-in excuse for last week's putrid NFL picks. But I did want to mention two things:

1. Sad weekend for wrestling fans with the passing of WWE star Eddie Guerrero, who became the umpteenth wrestler to mysteriously drop dead in a random hotel room in the past 10 years. Last night's "Monday Night Raw" brought back memories of the Owen Hart show six years ago -- it started off with every WWE wrestler standing on the stage as Vince McMahon said some words about Eddie. At least half of them were fighting off tears, some of them were openly sobbing … it was much more emotional than you would think. Really poignant show. With that said, I'm getting tired of seeing the headline "WWE Star Found Dead In Hotel Room," and since there have been so many similar deaths like this, I can see this story mushrooming in the mainstream media over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

2. I read two football books in the past few weeks, one that I really liked, one that I didn't like nearly as much.

The one I didn't like that much: "Next Man Up," by John Feinstein.

Loved the idea (spending a season with the Baltimore Ravens), loved the premise, loved the reporting … but it reads like a 500-page AP article. It just didn't do much for me. My biggest problem with Feinstein's stuff is that he releases a new book every year, but it rarely feels like he spent enough time writing the book -- you never get a sense that he slaved over the pages, crafted every sentence and made sure there wasn't a word wasted. Isn't that what you should do for a book? For instance, "The Punch" (Feinstein's book on Rudy Tomjanovich and Kermit Washington) was truly a waste of time -- all over the place, lazy as hell, even had sections where he repeated stuff he had already written. It was like a 50-page magazine piece that he tried to stretch into 300 pages; at the time, I remember being furious that I wasted 25 bucks on it.

"Next Man Up" wasn't nearly as bad; I just didn't really understand the point. You could almost imagine Feinstein staring at a list of sports subjects and thinking, "Let's see, I've written about baseball, college hoops, golf, tennis … what's left? I know, pro football!" For one thing, he chose the Ravens and Brian Billick … who already received enough exposure with "Hard Knocks" a few years ago on HBO. Why choose the Ravens when we already know some of the characters on a semi-intimate scale? And I'm sorry, but the 2004 Ravens just weren't that interesting; they certainly didn't warrant 300 pages, much less 500-plus. Plus, didn't "Hard Knocks" and some of those other behind-the-scenes shows and TV features tackle this behind-the-scenes NFL stuff already? I already knew about "The Turk." I already knew how Billick handled cutting guys. I already knew about NFL draft rooms, big boards, the free-agent process and everything else. So you can't just trot this stuff out and pretend that I never knew about it.

Although Feinstein's access was great, some of the reporting that was truly absorbing (like Chris McAlister's bizarre season, the tension between coordinators, the religious tension on the team, even how the Terrell Owens saga played out) was buried in all the formulaic stuff that Feinstein feels like he has to throw in every book -- nitty-gritty details from games we don't care about, background information about inconsequential coaches and players, petty little vendettas that he always feels obligated to carry out. (In this book, he goes after Daniel Snyder and ESPN, among others.) And there was no attempt to put anything in perspective. That's what really bothered me. After 500 pages, I still wasn't sure about Feinstein's true opinion of Billick (or anyone else with the Ravens). Did he think Billick was full of crap, to a degree? Was Billick just plain lucky to walk into a Baltimore situation that had much of the '00 Super Bowl team in place when he arrived? Is it possible that he's overrated? Why do so many NFL people believe that he's an arrogant jerk? Why does he seem so happy to let reporters and TV crews in his locker rooms? Is he just feeding his ego? Feinstein doesn't even touch this stuff.

Anyway, I hate criticizing sports books, because the fact remains it's an achievement just to write any book. I just wish Feinstein had either spent more time on this one or chosen a different team. If you're a Ravens fan, you should get it. If you're just a football fan, wait until "Next Man Up" ends up on a bargain rack for $4.99 or something, then skim through it for the interesting stuff. That's my advice.

But here's a football book I will recommend: "The Education of a Coach," by David Halberstam.

I hate when people compliment me on a column with something like, "That was the best thing you've written in awhile!" Because the implication is, "You've been terrible lately, and it's about time you wrote something good again." So I always take that personally. But this was my favorite Halberstam book since "Playing for Keeps" (the one about the MJ era and his impact on the NBA), and I would have loved it whether it was about the Patriots' coach or not. The thing I have always loved about Halberstam's stuff -- he's a reporter, but he never relies on quotes that much. In other words, he gathers as much information as possible, then attempts to put that information in some sort of larger perspective. With this book, he's not telling us that Bill Belichick is a great football coach, he's telling us how Belichick became a great football coach -- the lessons he learned, which people impacted him, what he learned from everyone who passed through his life -- and after awhile, everything begins to make sense.

I loved three things about this book. First, the access Halberstam gets from Belichick is extraordinary, but there's a reason for that -- not only are they neighbors in Nantucket, but Belichick is a huge history buff and apparently counts Halberstam among his favorite writers. So it's a perfect match in a way (I just don't think Belichick would have been this forthcoming with any other writer). Second, the insight into Belichick's thought process -- particularly with stuff like "planning for the Super Bowl against the Rams" and "Brady vs. Bledsoe" -- was truly spectacular. And third, the book was surprisingly candid about Belichick's complicated relationship with Bill Parcells (who comes off like a callous jerk in some parts), to the point that it now makes sense why Belichick chose to walk away from the Jets job a few years ago.

(In fact, reading that section, you can see the parallels between Belichick-Parcells and Theo Epstein-Larry Lucchino -- both Belichick and Theo reached a point in their careers where they needed to leave the shadow of their mentors, for a variety of reasons that couldn't be easily explained, and eventually we learned that Parcells and Lucchino were more domineering and difficult than we initially realized. In Lucchino's case, the stories are still trickling out and the Dick Cheney parallels are officially jarring. But that's a whole different column.)

Anyway, if you're a Patriots fan, you absolutely have to get this book. If you're a Halberstam fan, you absolutely have to get this book. If you love football and want to understand how a coach becomes a coach as well as all the difficult decisions that could sidetrack him along the way, you have to get this book. And while we're on the subject, I have always felt like there are two kinds of sports books:

Group A: The ones that simply tell you what happened.

Group B: The ones that attempt to put what happened in some sort of perspective.

After his brilliant "Season on the Brink," Feinstein settled into a safe (and lucrative) career of pumping out those Group A books -- the writing isn't challenging, you can skim around to the juicy parts, there's just enough to keep your interest, and then you finish the book and never think about it again. Which is fine. But I would much rather spend $20-$25 on Group B sports books that challenge me, enlighten me and make me think. So I'm recommending the Halberstam one.

Here's the link.

posted: Nov. 10, 2005  |  Feedback

I'm sick. So we might as well start there. The Pats-Colts game on Monday literally gave me bronchitis. I didn't know this was possible. Anyway, I wanted to follow up on Tuesday's Pats-Colts column, which people either loved or despised.

There were three ways I could play that column (and only three):

1. Avoid writing anything and wait until Friday's picks column. After all, the 2005 Colts are clearly better than the 2005 Patriots -- there's not much else to say. So why say anything? Then again, had I not written anything, I would have been treated to a slew of "What's the matter, afraid to write after the big loss? What a copout, you're spineless!" e-mails. So that option was out.

2. Straightforward column about the end of the Pats dynasty and how the Colts have clearly passed them. Yawn. Not only was everyone else writing this column, but I would have been treated to a slew of "Typical Simmons flip-flop, way to point this out after the fact, you're terrible!" e-mails.

3. Play the role of the bitter Pats fan who takes shots at everyone because he's pissed that the Colts finally grabbed the torch from the Pats, then ends the column in the most smug, annoying way possible. This angle appealed to me for a few reasons. First, I was bitter about the game, so it was easy to write. Second, it's always fun to make Peyton Manning jokes, especially on the morning after he said the words, "'Footloose,' by Kenny Loggins, best describes me." And third, I have been getting hostile e-mails from Colts fans all season -- with the highlight (or lowlight) probably coming from a woman who ended her rant by writing, "I hope you get a** cancer!" -- so they were ripping me no matter what I wrote. Hey, why not give them what they wanted? You expect me to act like a bitter Pats fan and make excuses … well, here you go!

Here's the point: I was screwed any of those three ways. So don't blame me, blame the Pats for rolling over on Monday night -- they put me in a no-win spot. I had to play that column that way, if only because there was no other way. And you know what? I enjoyed writing it. A little too much, actually.

And while we're on the subject, regardless of our Pats-Colts differences, people from Indiana should like me. After all, I believe that "Hoosiers" is the greatest sports movie. I believe that Larry Bird is the Basketball Jesus. I believe that Bob Knight was the most entertaining coach of all time. I believe that Ben Wallace should have been suspended for just as long as Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal. I believe that the 1998 Pacers came the closest to bringing the Bulls down during the MJ Dynasty. I don't believe that Reggie Miller was a superstar, but if I were down by one and needed a basket with 18 seconds left, and I could choose a starting lineup of any five players from the past 30 years, I would pick Isiah, Reggie, MJ, Bird and Hakeem. And on my "Top 20 Things To Do Before I Die" list, "Make the pilgrimage to French Lick" is somewhere in my top five. So don't think I'm anti-Indiana, because I'm not.

Truthfully, I ended up caring a little less about that defeat than I thought I would -- mainly because it's hard to complain after three Super Bowls in four years, but also because the Pats' going for it on fourth-and-2 in the first quarter was such a jarring concession that they were outmanned, almost like somebody telling you, "Hey, I'm going to crash my car in that telephone pole in about 10 seconds, put your seat belt on and pray that the air bag pops out."

I think most dynasties and mini-dynasties end this way -- not with a nail-biting defeat, but with a definitive butt-whupping that leaves no doubt whatsoever. Isiah's Pistons teams went out this way (to the '91 Bulls), as did Aikman's Cowboys (to Kerry Collins and the '96 Panthers), Magic's Lakers (to the '89 Pistons), Shaq's Lakers (to the '04 Pistons) and so on. One of the few exceptions were the 2000 Yankees, who struggled through their season, won their division with a paltry 87 games, then somehow put everything together for four weeks and won another World Series. Every Yankee fan would universally agree that this was the worst Yankee team of that entire run, but they got it done in the end.

Can the Pats rally back from this? I would say no. Just seems like there have been too many injuries to too many key guys (come on, Bruschi, Seymour, Light and Harrison?), as well as too many games over the past two years (remember, they played a combined 38 during the past two Super Bowl seasons, with everyone gunning at them every week). Structurally, the vaunted Pioli-Belichick duo botched the free-agent process for the first time in years (Duane Starks, Chad Scott, David Terrell, Monty Beisel, Chad Brown, etc.) and spent two first-rounders on tight ends (Ben Watson and Daniel Graham) who can't stop dropping passes. (Note: I'm not blaming either of them for what happened -- it's football, it's a crapshoot, and you can't expect a front office to just continue rolling sixes, eights and nines at a crap table without throwing an occasional seven. The fact remains, last year's offseason was bad.) Suddenly they're making mistakes and failing to force turnovers, which were the two things that you could always count on these Belichick-Brady teams not to do. And for the first time, I'm wondering if the whole "been there, done that" syndrome has sunk in. More than any other sport, football teams rely on emotion over anything else. All season, with the notable exception of the Pittsburgh game, this Patriots team has seemed flat. Even Brady said so this week.

Could they take the AFC East with nine wins? Absolutely. Hell, they might need only eight. And yes, there's a good chance they could get healthy before January, just like there's a good chance the Colts could suffer some crippling injuries along the way. Then again, there doesn't seem to be any reasonable way for the Pats to solve their secondary problems (which have been there all season) when teams aren't allowed to trade after Week 6. My gut tells me this particular Pats team is done, and that Indy, Carolina and Denver are clearly the three best teams in football right now. And you know what? I'm fine with it. As I told a friend this week, "It was a great run, I wouldn't change a thing."

One more note on this: I liked an e-mail from Indy reader Andy Gilmore, who wrote, "All I want is for you to give Peyton his due. Like Teddy KGB said, 'He beat me. Straight up, pay that man his money.' Give it to him Sports Guy. He earned it!"

Andy, you're right. No more snide jokes -- Manning beat us, he earned it, and that's that. Pay that man his money.

To be continued in January. Hopefully.

* * * * *
A few other quick notes before I call it a day so I can hawk five pounds of phlegm into a Kleenex …

• The Mark Cuban back-and-forth didn't play out exactly how I wanted, if only because he didn't have a ton of time to respond, but I still thought it turned out OK. After the fact, he told me he had typed most of his responses on his Sidekick (the Mavs are on a road trip right now), which astounded me because I have a Sidekick and it takes me like 10 minutes to type two sentences. But I thought it was cool that he took the time. I'm even taking Cuban up on his offer to sit in the last row of a Mavs game this season, if only because I think I can talk him into trading for Brian Scalabrine after enough beers.

• As you probably noticed elsewhere on this site, the first season of "The White Shadow" was released on DVD. And not only that, but NBA TV has been running some select episodes, including three episodes from 1 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, the pilot episode next Monday at noon, and the classic "Wanna Bet" episode (with guest star Michael Warren) next Tuesday at noon. I have been debating whether to do an episode guide for Season One, but that show came out so long ago, I almost wonder if I'm antagonizing anyone under 25 by wasting a column on that topic. So I'm putting it up to a vote. If you want me to write an episode guide for Season One, go to my main page and vote for that one. I put up some other choices as well. So I'm leaving it in your hands.

• Remember my riff about the worst possible touchdown celebration (Randy Moss pretending to give birth)? Well, a version of this idea was done a few weeks ago in an Italian soccer game -- Roma's Francesco Totti scored a goal, ran to the sidelines, stuck the ball under his jersey, then one of his teammates reached in and pulled the ball out like an obstetrician, then handed it to another teammate, who held the ball aloft (I'm paraphrasing the Euro soccer story that a few readers sent me). Apparently he did this to pay tribute to the birth of his first son, and everyone in the crowd loved it. Obviously I don't follow Italian soccer, and I swear on Al Jefferson's life that I didn't read one thing about that story after it happened. But that game happened about a week before my Randy Moss riff. I just thought that was bizarre. Even stranger, everyone in Italy apparently loved it, whereas my whole premise was that people here would be horrified. So maybe it just depends on the context and the crowd.

• Three mistakes from my NBA preview:

1. Reggie Miller can't come back this season to the Pacers because they released him under the Allan Houston Rule. My bad.

2. My joke about a reality show where Rob Babcock takes over various businesses and runs them into the ground … I already made that joke last year with Isiah Thomas, even giving a name to the show ("The Midas Touch"). I swear, when I repeat old jokes, it's not intentional -- my big mistake is that I write columns, hand them in and never think about them again. For instance, Page 2 was running "The Best of Page 2" to celebrate its five-year anniversary this week, and they reran some old Vegas column that I haven't read since I wrote it. Not only that, but I laughed at a couple of jokes that I had written because I didn't remember writing them, so I felt like I was reading someone else. Clearly, I am going insane. Might just be too much TheraFlu.

3. For about two hours there, I had a section about the Mason-Magloire trade where Desmond Mason was called "Derrick." These are the things that happen when you write 10,000 words in 60 hours. I swear, I'm not going McCarver on you. I'm too young.

• One mistake from the Theo column: As many readers from Chicago have pointed out, the whole media cartel thing has already been done by the Cubs, who have had a similar deal going with the Chicago Tribune, WGN and WGN Radio for many years.

• In case you were wondering, I am firmly entrenched in the "There's no way we should trade Manny Ramirez" camp. Just look at what's happening with Paul Pierce right now -- it's always better to be prudent about these things unless someone bowls you over with an offer, and only because you're always better off keeping a guy with talent and hoping he becomes happy again over giving him away for 40 cents on the dollar. Forget about Peter May's ridiculous article in the Boston Globe, in which he used the Pierce subject to take his umpteenth shot at whoever is running the Celtics. When he's healthy and happy, Pierce is one of the best 10 players in the NBA -- just look at his stats through four games. Other than LeBron, is anyone else the best scorer, defender, rebounder and passer on his team? (And to think, I wanted them to trade Pierce the past two summers.) In Manny's case, he plays 150 games every season, nobody's more consistent at the plate, he's not a cancer or anything, and he's just as quirky as he was when they signed him five years ago. So why trade him?

And yes, I wish I trusted this current Red Sox braintrust even REMOTELY to make the right move. But I don't.

More tomorrow.

posted: Nov. 8, 2005  |  Feedback

On Monday morning, there was an e-mail waiting for me from my buddy Gus, who happily reported that he had just won a Broncos Super Bowl at the "All-Madden" level with the passing cones turned on. When the game was released last August, I remember claiming that this feat was impossible, that it couldn't happen, that the passing cones were too tough, that even pinning the Puma in "Nintendo Wrestling" was more realistic. But Gus pulled it off. With a wife and two kids, no less.

By the time the Pats-Colts game rolled around, I was convinced Gus' e-mail was a bad omen. If Manning and the Colts prevailed in Foxborough, after everything that had happened over the last five years, it was just like winning at the All-Madden level with the passing cones on, right?

As it turned out, Gus' accomplishment was considerably more impressive. I spent the last two months trying to figure out this Patriots team, which easily could have been 1-6 without Brady and hadn't played a good all-around game yet. Had there just been too many injuries to too many key guys? Were they worn down from playing 38 games over the past two seasons? Were they playing possum for this game? Why had the defense only forced five turnovers in seven games? Did Belichick know the Patriots had the AFC East pretty much locked up -- whether they won 11 games or 9 -- so he was proceeding accordingly and refusing to rush injured guys back before they were ready? Had the Patriots simply gotten worse and the Colts gotten better? Did the three-time champs have any swagger left?

We found out the answer in the first quarter: Trailing by seven after Indy's opening drive, the Pats had rolled down to the Colts 20 and were facing 4th-and-2. Twenty out of 20 times, teams kick the field goal here and take the points. It's the smart move. It's the only move.

And yet …

Belichick left his offense on the field and went for it. Didn't even think twice.

Sure, the Patriots ended up converting that first down and eventually scoring seven. But Belichick's message was clear: We need all the points we can get; our defense can't stop these guys. And they couldn't. Forty points and a gazillion first downs later, Manning was smiling on the sidelines, his teammates were pretending they liked him, ABC was rolling their fake MasterCard commercial and the fans were pouring out of Gillette Stadium. The torch, for all intents and purposes, had been passed. After four arduous years, various rule changes to help their passing game, and a cream-puff schedule highlighted by a fortuitous bye before last night's game, the Colts (and the NFL) finally got their wish. There was a new alpha dog in the AFC.

Would the game have turned out different if Harrison, Seymour, Light and everyone else had played? Maybe. This Pats season has reached the point where, on Friday afternoon, I was doing an interview with a Boston radio station and they asked me, "Were you surprised that Arturo Freeman was released today?" … and I didn't know what shocked me more, the fact that the previous week's starting safety had been released, or that I was wondering, "Wait, how the hell are we gonna replace Arturo Freeman?" During the first half of Monday night's game, Al Michaels casually said, "Mike Stone in the game for the Patriots," and the cameras showed some dreadlocked dude wearing a No. 24 Pats uniform and playing safety, and I had never heard this man's name or seen him before in my life. Now we were counting on him to help shut down Indy's passing game? Huh?

But enough about the crumbling Pats. Monday night's story was obviously Manning and the Colts, who look like a legitimate threat to go 19-0, with the added bonus that the NFL probably won't have to institute its "Indy gets to use 12 guys on defense and play 16 home games" rule changes that were in the works for 2006. Offensively, the Colts are just about unstoppable now that they're emphasizing ball control over breaking records and winning ESPYs. Defensively, they're better than average. And they have a swagger about them that I can't remember seeing before. On the sidelines in the fourth quarter, Manning was in full John Kreese mode on the sidelines; during the final Doug Flutie drive, you almost expected one of his smiling teammates to scream, "Get 'em a bodybag, yeah!!!!!!!" It was almost enough to make you forget that this was the same guy who admitted on one of those dopey ABC profiles that "Footloose, by Kenny Loggins, best describes me." Almost.

Let's face it: Manning was awesome last night -- made just about every throw, dominated the game in every respect, carried himself like a guy who wasn't allowing his team to lose under any circumstances. Just an awesome performance. He was totally in the zone, just like Kevin Bacon in the "Footloose" scene where Bacon danced his frustrations away in an abandoned flour mill. There was only one time when he looked like the old Manning, right before that interception near the end of the first half, when he flipped out over the delay of game penalty, then tossed an interception on the following play and seemed genuinely rattled -- much like Bacon in the scene when he's thrown off his high school gymnastics team. Unlike other years, his defense immediately got him the ball back (thanks to a crushing Dillon fumble) and Manning orchestrated a beautiful two-minute drive to effectively clinch the game. Because of the quarterbacks involved, last night felt like a tennis match with two guys serving 130 miles-an-hour. In other words, first guy to break serve wins. With that Dillon fumble, followed by the two-minute drive, the Colts broke serve. And they never looked back.

So what happens now? I have always been a firm believer that the NFL season doesn't start until Week 9 or Week 10, mainly because it takes most teams about two months to figure out what they have. For instance, the 2001 Pats started out 5-4, lost a Week 10 game to the Rams and never lost again. With that said, it's hard to imagine anyone touching this Colts team, who have effectively locked up homefield advantage and won't have to play a single playoff outside (unless the Broncos can somehow pass them). More importantly, they exorcised those "Can't beat the Patriots" demons and won't have that storyline hanging over their heads throughout the playoffs (as a Red Sox fan, I know what that feels like). And they should be well-rested from a schedule that could conceivably have them playing three-fourths of their games against non-playoff teams (which makes perfect sense because they were 12-4 last season).

Of course, they still have to win the Super Bowl. I received some interesting e-mails today, mainly from the Indianapolis area, many of them imploring me to have sex with myself, lunch on my own genitals, all that good stuff. And that's fine. I wouldn't have expected anything less. But the fact remains, Monday's victory didn't mean anything in the big scheme of things. Only those three playoff games in January and February matter. In "Footloose," the movie ends with Bacon and his buddies dancing at the prom, and you knew it was headed that way because, after all, it was a movie. In real life, there isn't a script for the 2005 NFL season -- as far as we know -- and the season has a little less than three months to go. You still have to come through when it counts.

And yes, I know Indianapolis hasn't won a title since the Pacers prevailed in the 1973 ABA Finals, so fans there are still feeling this whole winning thing out, and it's easy to mistakenly believe you won the Super Bowl Monday night. But you didn't. Just remember, a lot can happen in three months. Injuries can happen. Bad breaks can happen. Teams can catch you at the wrong time, and your season can disappear just like that. So talk all the trash you want. Enjoy yourself. Hell, hum a few bars from "Footloose" if you're feeling it. Just be careful. After all, there's a reason Gus didn't e-mail me about that All-Madden championship until after he won.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a little nap and rest my head on my three Patriots Super Bowl DVDs.

November 2005