Ross Tucker
Wednesday September 17th, 2008

I should have known better. It didn't matter how much of a blatant disparity there was between the Colts' and the Vikings' lines. Peyton Manning against Tarvaris Jackson is the ultimate no-brainer. One is a Super Bowl champion. The other never will be.

That's just one of the key observations I came away with after attending my first NFL game since I retired from football, doing so as a color commentator for the Sports USA Radio Network.

Offensive and defensive linemen genuinely believe games are won and lost in the trenches. I always felt there was significant truth to that when I played, and I still believe big men in the pits can have a huge effect on the outcome of games. But just as I suspected this offseason when I wrote about some of the contracts being doled out to interior lineman, the maulers can only control so much. As a matter of fact, the same can be said of virtually every position unit other than quarterback.

The Vikings bruised and battered the Colts on both sides of the ball for most of the game. Adrian Peterson was virtually unstoppable at times running behind Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk and company. The Vikings defensive line dominated a Colts offensive line that was so green it could have been considered one of your daily servings of vegetables. Yet it was all for naught because of Minnesota's deficiency at quarterback.

It would be inaccurate to simply say Jackson doesn't have the tools to be a successful NFL quarterback, because he does. He makes some amazing throws at times, like during the two-minute drill that ended the first half. Jackson also heaves a beautiful deep ball that could draw rain if it wasn't inside a dome. But at times he can't complete a seven-yard hook. Therein lies the rub.

Jackson is maddeningly inconsistent, and this handicaps the Vikings in so many ways. They obviously agree, as evidenced by Wednesday's announcement that backup Gus Frerotte will get the start against the Panthers in Week 3.

The Vikings, however, have nobody to blame but themselves for their poor QB play. They had an opportunity in the offseason to trade for Houston quarterback Sage Rosenfels but reportedly didn't want to give up a second-round pick for the highly regarded backup who went 4-1 as a starter for the Texans a year ago. So they were willing to give up a first and two third-round picks for Jared Allen, but not a second to give themselves another legitimate option at quarterback?

The Vikings have championship talent at every position except the one that matters the most. Sunday's game showed that.

The NFL has a whistle problem, and it has been around a lot longer than referee Ed Hochuli's inadvertent whistle in the Broncos-Chargers game.

Inadvertent whistles are an unfortunate but inevitable part of team sports, particularly in football. The men in stripes are charged with both maintaining the integrity of the rules and protecting the players. In a game marked by its ferocity and aggression, the officials have a duty to blow the whistle when they feel the play is over.

Obviously, in Hochuli's case, the whistle was blown way too early. Both he and the league have admitted as much, and now one of the tasks is to prevent it from happening in the future.

There are plenty of times when players need that auditory signal that a play is over, otherwise they will continue to carry out their assignment or hit the next man in their path. Players have been trained since peewee ball to play until the whistle blows. The problem, however, is that contrary to popular belief, the whistle does not always end the play.

In fact, I have been told on a number of occasions in my discussions with NFL officials that the "play ends the play, not the whistle," which makes absolutely no sense since it is impossible for all 22 players to finish the play to the best of their ability yet also have a sense of what might be going on far away from them or even behind them.

How does a lineman know that his ball carrier has been tackled behind him unless if there's no whistle? What if a lineman lets up because he assumes a tackle has been made, then watches the guy he could have blocked make the tackle?

Yet, the fact that the play ends the play is what I have been told on a number of occasions, including once when I was appealing a fine for, you guessed it, a late hit. The NFL has a whistle problem that needs to be fixed and it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with those of the inadvertent variety.

NFL players get the opportunity, as the saying goes, to play a kid's game for a king's ransom. But it often doesn't feel like much of a game because the NFL is such a cut-throat business. The financial considerations, the constant stress and worry about job security and the physical toll on one's body all serve to sap most of the purity out of the game that most players fell in love with as kids.

All of the simple pleasures surrounding the game are not lost, however, and the best example of that can be seen two-plus hours before games when the players are on the field going through their individual pre-game routines, often before the fans are even allowed in the stadium.

Standing on the field during pre-game, talking with some of the Colts and Vikings players and watching others, I was reminded of how unique and cool that time before games truly is.

For some players, it is a time to catch-up with the guys they know on the other team and discuss what is going on in their lives. There is laughing and joking that belies the intensity that will soon follow. It is not nearly as difficult to talk cordially with your adversaries as you might think. The only time it can be a little awkward is when you are talking to the guy you'll be lining up directly across from for 60 minutes. In that case, there is a huge elephant in the room that is difficult to avoid.

Some players go through certain stretching rituals before the official warm-ups even begin. Manning and Marvin Harrison are famous for their passing tree before every game, making sure they are in concert once the contest begins.

Some players have created their own school-yard style games on the field, like seeing who can hit the field goal post from the 10 yard line with a pass, anything to kill what seems to be the longest three hours in history before game time. Non-skill position players often throw the football back and forth, which is about the only time a lineman has the opportunity to catch or touch a football on an actual NFL field.

This unique time is when the players look most like kids, when you can see the shred of innocence that is still left in the profession.

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