Tuesday December 18th, 2007

I got a tremendous e-mail from Frank Reich, the former quarterback now living in Charlotte, about one event I neglected in the early editions of Monday's column --Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook going down at the 1 so the Cowboys wouldn't get another chance to touch the ball in a 10-6 Eagles win -- and another event I neglected completely: Peyton Manning's headiness on the last play of the Colts' 21-14 win over the Raiders.

To recount:

• In Dallas, with 2:19 remaining and the Cowboys trailing 10-6 with no timeouts left, Westbrook took a handoff at the Dallas 25 and ran downfield for a certain touchdown. But he knelt at the 1 instead of running into the end zone, after being told by tackle Jon Runyan in the huddle that if you get deep in Cowboys' territory, make sure you don't score but stay inbounds and let the clock run. Runyan thought since Dallas had no timeouts left, all the Eagles had to do with two minutes left is kneel down three straight times to run out the clock. If Westbrook had scored, it would be possible (though, highly improbable) for Dallas to score quickly, recover an onside kick and score again. So Westbrook went down and Donovan McNabb took three knees and the game ended.

Westbrook told me something that, until now, no one knew. This play's roots stretch back to Sept. 28, 2003, when Philadelphia led Buffalo 16-13 with 2:19 left to play. Buffalo had no timeouts left. The Eagles had the ball on their 38-yard line, on second-and-8. Westbrook burst through the line and ran the length of the field for a touchdown. An insurance touchdown, everyone thought. But the real insurance, as Westbrook said last night, would have been to run as far as he could and go down, inbounds, at the Buffalo 1, even though Philadelphia won the game 23-13.

"Donovan told me then, 'Maybe you should have taken a knee,'" Westbrook said. "But if I'd taken a knee, it was the same situation as yesterday in Dallas.'' He's right -- the Eagles would have gotten to the two-minute warning, and McNabb would have done three straight kneel-downs, bled the clock, and the Eagles would have won. Instead, they gave the Bills the ball back with 2:04 left and Drew Bledsoe back there flinging it downfield.

"So this time, early in the drive, in the huddle, Jon Runyan reminded us, 'Hold onto the ball, don't go out of bounds, don't score.' As a running back, that goes against everything you've ever been taught. All your practice, all your training, is to fight as hard as you can, run as hard you can, and score. Now he's saying, 'If you get to the 1, take a knee.' It was hard, but we all know it was the right thing.

"I've said from the time I put on this uniform that my No. 1-goal is to win games. Not stats. Stats are nice, touchdowns are nice, but I want to win. And the only way we have a chance to lose in this case is if we fumble while taking a knee. And that's not happening. So really, it was the only decision to make. And do you know how gratifying it was to win at Dallas while taking a knee? It's the perfect way to win.''

Westbrook went Christmas shopping all afternoon Monday, and he said he got two reactions from the fans. "First you've got the fantasy football people,'' he said. "They all wanted me to score to help their team win. They get pretty hyped up about that. But then there were the fans who, once they understood the play, were real excited. A few people said things like, 'Great play! Smartest play I've ever seen.' So that's gratifying.''

I told Westbrook something I'm sure he doubts: That's the kind of unselfish play fans will remember the rest of his career. We'll see. But this just cements his greatness, in my eyes. Talk about a guy you'd love to have on your team. Not only is he the most versatile back in football, but there's also no more of a team back in football.

• In Oakland, the Colts led 21-14 with the ball at their 35 on fourth down, with the play clock five seconds ahead of the game clock, both ticking down and Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage ... With the play clock at :05, the game clock was at :10, so it was clear the Colts were going to have to snap the ball one more time. You're thinking: He's not going to snap this, is he? Isn't the play to take the delay call, then have Hunter Smith punt the ball, or take the ball, run around and kill the clock, or run through the back of the end zone for a safety? But no. Manning, without showing any stress or looking any different than he does before any snap, took the ball, waited a second or two, then fired an arcing pass deep for Reggie Wayne. Incomplete. Clock killed. Game over.

Now for Reich's e-mail:

"PK: Here is my take on what the Colts did on the last play. I wonder if it has ever been done before? I kind of doubt it. But even if it has [and I doubt it has] -- I loved the way they did it. They didn't need to call a timeout to discuss -- there was never any doubt what they were doing. They broke the huddle with complete confidence in what they were doing. I guarantee you that no one but Peyton Manning pulls it off like that manner.

"What was funny was that I was watching on TV -- you need to go back and watch the TV replay -- as the Colts broke the huddle on fourth down and walked to the line scrimmage, take notice that Dick Enberg and Randy Cross say nothing. They knew there was a five- or six-second difference in game clock and play clock. Surely the Colts were not going to run a play? In my opinion, no one knew what was going on ... and at least Dick Enberg was smart enough not to say anything to incriminate himself.

"Rather, once Manning ran the play, he added commentary like this was no surprise to him. That is why he is 'Mr.' Enberg. Maybe I am making more of this than I should, but it is little things like these that separate the men from the boys. The truth is that 99.99 percent of the time this kind of stuff doesn't matter -- but every once in a while it makes the difference between winning and losing a game.

"Just ask the Buffalo Bills, after the 'fluke' the Cowboys pulled off against them at the beginning of the season. That is also what made Brian Westbrook's play so brilliant. What if he scores and makes it a two-possession game ... and what if Cowboys go down and score real quick ... and then kick an onside kick and recover it and then score again? Sounds unlikely, but it doesn't sound unlikely to Bills fans.

"Westbrook took that possibility out of the equation -- absolutely brilliant. If you watch Andy Reid's reaction, it sure seems as if Westbrook's 'fall' was a shock to even him. Truth is, there are only a handful of players in the league who have this kind of smarts. I would call it gamesmanship."

Couldn't have written it better myself. To Manning, it was a no-brainer, just another play in another game, unnoticed by every fan and most in the media. I asked five peers between Sunday night and this morning about it, and they didn't know. It won't go on his Hall of Fame reel, but it's just another example of how a thinking quarterback gives you another dimension in a thinking man's game.

On to your e-mails:

LET'S HELP GEORGE MARTIN. From Brian Smith of Montclair, N.J.: (Brian is the sports editor of our hometown paper, The Montclair Times.) Your fantastic piece on George Martin in Monday Morning Quarterback this week couldn't have come at a better time. One gift from my mother at Christmas each year is $100 toward a charity of my choice. It started when I was 12 or 13 with the Jimmy V Foundation. We were discussing it yesterday, and I told her I wasn't sure where to send the money this year. Now I know. Merry Christmas, Brian.''

That's great, Brian. Thanks a lot. And thanks to the many of who contributed to the Martin walk and the tremendous cause of 9/11 first-responders now having physical and mental health problems. Some of your personal notes have been inspirational. I don't want to over-shill for this cause, but I've see what Martin's doing first-hand, and I can vouch for how needed the money is, and how sincere he is in sacrificing seven months of his life for his fellow man.

Please pass along the column link and how to contribute to anyone you think might help. They are: Online at: http://www.active.com/donate/aJourneyfor911. By mail: A Journey for 9/11, c/o Valley National Bank, Box 707, Wayne, NJ 07474-707 (with checks payable to "A Journey for 9/11.'' By phone: 866-808-2553.

WHAT ABOUT STEROIDS IN THE NFL? From Steve Lucas of Norristown, Pa.: "I know baseball is an easy target right now, and kudos for you for not jumping on the 'Yankees titles deserve an asterisk' bandwagon. However, I can't help but think that as much as the Mitchell Report only scratched the surface on steroid and HGH use in baseball, that use and abuse has been just as widespread [if not more] in the NFL during the same time period. Any chance we'll see a similar list about players in the NFL? Or a movement to investigate similar to what we saw in MLB? If not, do you think there should be?''

Great question. I doubt we'll see a similar list because so much of the steroid use was done by players who are now retired, and there is no great rush to discover who used steroids in 1977. I would be more interested for football in an HGH list. Currently, as you know, NFL players are not tested for human growth hormone, and it's a loophole Roger Goodell and Gene Upshaw have to figure out how to close.

YOU'RE RIGHT. I IDIOTICALLY IGNORED WESTBROOK IN EARLY EDITIONS ON MONDAY. From Joe McNiff of Cherry Hill, N.J.: "Peter, how could you not mention more about Brian Westbrook? This guy is the essence of selfless. I wish more NFL players were like Westbrook.''

Hope the above takes care of my Monday gaffe.

I SURE WOULD. From Robert Ferguson of Dallas: "I know the entire world is enamored with the Dallas coaching staff, and most of it is deserved, but I think they outcoach themselves sometimes. For example, in this Sunday's loss to the Eagles, Dallas had first-and-goal and Tony Romo threw a pick. I know that was unusual for Romo, but I would like my chances with Marion Barber getting four cracks from the 4-yard line, wouldn't you?''

I'd like it too. But the problem was, Romo was playing with a bum thumb. I'm not sure the coaching staff knew how bad it was until after the game, but Romo was gutting it out. I'm sure Jason Garrett would have opted for a different call if he knew then what he knows now.

ON GEORGE MARTIN, AND OTHER THINGS. From Bill Stroh of Essex Junction, Vt.: "Thank you for sharing your inspiring, deeply moving George Martin story with us. I was having a bad day before reading his effort to help so many people. Thanks. Oh, and as a long-time Giant fan who remembers his fine play ... it looks to me as though Martin could still sneak through the line and catch a quarterback, no? Another question: Where is the greater weakness with the Giants ... Eli Manning ... or Kevin Gilbride? My vote is Gilbride ... I believe Eli will improve.''

For a 54-year-old man with 14 years of NFL wear on his tires, Martin looks terrific. It's amazing that he's walked 1,050 miles now and doesn't hurt anywhere. Re: the current Giants, I wouldn't be too down on Gilbride. A quarterback has to go out and execute the game plan.

Gilbride has had to draw up plans for three different primary running backs and a passing game where the best receiver never practices. That's not easy. I don't want to be a cliché guy about this, but Manning just has to play better. We all know he doesn't have the best supporting cast around him, but a good quarterback has to lift those around him. Completing 55 percent is not getting it done.

DONALD'S RIGHT. AND I'M GOING TO WRITE ABOUT THOMPSON SOON. From Donald Stadler of London: "Your comment about Charley Casserly being in your top-five list for NFL executives brought to mind a more deserving candidate. What about the Packers' Ted Thompson? Think of where the team was when he came on, and how far it's come. Since January 2005 Thompson has rebuilt the D- line, receiving corps, and most of the secondary, linebacking, and O-Line. Brett Favre is still the core of the team but even there Thompson drafted a good-looking heir apparent.''

Perfect sentiment, Donald. Absolute spot-on. I'll be writing about Thompson soon, but suffice to say I'm a big believer in his non-panicky management style, and in the teaching ability of Mike McCarthy's coaching staff.

NOT A BIG FAN OF WEATHER. From Jacob Goins of Baltimore: "Snow games are fun, but only under this condition: your favorite team isn't a favorite in them. Snow completely robs a game of its speed and the players' cutting abilities. I like watching teams in the snow in which I don't have a rooting interest, though.''

Snow games are compelling television, that's for sure. I agree elements like we saw over the weekend make games totally phony in a way. There's no way that Cleveland pitches a shutout against John Carroll University, never mind another NFL team with a great running back. But I know this: When there's a snow game on, I can't look away.

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