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Hall of Fame process could be better, but it will never be perfect

I don't recall such a negative reaction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame class as this year's in the 18 years I've been on the Selection Committee.

I got a tweet the other day from a reader who asked me to defend taking part in a "corrupt'' process. Jason Whitlock, writing for FOXSports.com, called me the "speaker of the house" in a "textbook, good-ol'-boys network'' and said the selection committee violates "nearly everything that we as journalists stand for.'' Fans of Cris Carter, Andre Reed and Charles Haley, who weren't voted in, have e-mailed and tweeted with particular vitriol. "Resign, King!'' one e-mailer railed. "If you don't know Cris Carter is a Hall of Famer, you have no business voting for the Hall of Fame.''

We're considered to be idiots for putting in Chris Hanburger, totally out of touch for enshrining an old geezer, Ed Sabol, who never played the game, and shouldn't be voting for football immortality because so many of us have never played the game. And so on.

The process has always been an exercise in intensity, both inside the room and out. The 44 voters are passing judgment on what could be the last truly important thing in a former player's or coach's life, and so I appreciate the importance of our job. I also appreciate the interest people inside the business and outside have in the process.

The best way to address the criticism is to go through the issues, one by one, that have come up in the nine days since we sat in a Dallas meeting room for seven hours and 28 minutes, picking the seven-man class of 2011.

SECRECY. The Hall appoints each selector -- 32 representing each NFL franchise, and 12 at-large voters picked for their overall knowledge of the game. We are asked to abide by the Hall's selection criteria, which includes taking into account, only in the case of players, what a player did on the field; and in the case of coaches or contributors, only what they did on and around the game that influenced the game.

We're asked to keep the subject and intensity of the discussions out of the press when we leave the room. I'm often asked why. I'll give you a totally fictitious example. Let's say the Dallas representative, Rick Gosselin, is asked to give his case, pro or con, for Larry Allen when the longtime Cowboys guard comes up for a vote in 2013. And let's say Gosselin presents the case for Allen well, but lets it be known he doesn't think he's as strong an offensive-line candidate as, say, Dermontti Dawson or Willie Roaf.

It's not fair for Gosselin to walk into Cowboys offices, having to cover the team (which he does occasionally, but not as a beat man) and team officials not cooperating with him fully because he's not pro-Allen. That's just an example, but the Hall feels, and I agree, that if our discussions are quoted or characterized outside the room other than in saying that so-and-so gave a great presentation for a particular candidate, the honesty of the discussion in the room could be compromised.

Now, the Hall requests, but does not mandate, that we not say who we voted for during the meeting. I believe the 44 votes should be a matter of public record. I feel we should say who we supported, because the fan interest is so high and because transparency in the vote should be expected of us. Many of my peers disagree with me on this, but I think if we're not willing to put our name to our vote, then we shouldn't be on the committee.

I had one TV-loving NFL owner a couple of years ago tell me how cool it would be to have the Hall deliberations on live TV, on NFL Network. This, in my opinion, would be a disaster. If everything we say in the room can be quoted in the outside world (and what a boring set of quotes that would be, mostly), I'm convinced it would paralyze real debate and make it way too stilted. The key is to promote honest debate, not staged debate.

"CORRUPTION'' OF THE PROCESS. I think Whitlock's column must have stirred the masses, because I checked my e-mail and Twitter feed when I rejoined civilization Saturday and saw that I was being accused of being corrupt and deceitful about the Hall process. Be careful, people. Corruption is defined as a willingness to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain. (Whitlock didn't use the word, but he said we "profit'' from being on the committee, and keep our "personal biases'' hidden.)

For the record: I have never been offered anything, financial or otherwise, to vote for any Hall candidate. I have never had another voter say to me, "If you vote for my guy, I'll vote for your guy.'' I have had voters say to me, "I know you have voted against this candidate before, but I just ask you to come back one more time and look at his case again.'' It happened when Len Shapiro, formerly of the Washington Post, asked me to reconsider Art Monk, which I did because he made a good point -- all the good points about leadership and on-field example-setting I made about Harry Carson with the Giants, Art Monk did with the Redskins.

And, yes, I have biases, if that's what you call strong feelings about people being candidates or not. We all do. I covered the Giants for four years when they had the best run defense in football, and I pushed Harry Carson hard, and he finally got in five years ago. At the same time, I am not a George Young supporter; not that I feel he wasn't an excellent general manager, but if we're going to put a GM in, I'd start with Ron Wolf and then Bill Polian.

THE QUALIFICATIONS OF THE SELECTORS. I am not opposed to the committee being expanded. Not at all. But at some point, if you want the process to be somewhat the same as it is now -- discussion and/or arguments about the candidates -- I don't know how much bigger the pool can be. I'd love to see, say, a few more nationally respected people in the room, like widely read Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Some of those in the room have more experience covering the game and watching the game than others. But I still think it's valuable to have each franchise represented, even if the selector from that franchise isn't a veteran football writer or broadcaster. If we start eliminating selectors because some haven't been around the game for 20 years, I think we're setting a bad precedent, because then the franchise won't get the same attention for its candidates than the veteran selectors can give. You just have to let some green selectors grow into the job. This brings us to ...

THE BOARD OF SELECTORS. Lots of people want to expand the process. That is OK with me, but it's not going to solve the problem of who gets in and who doesn't. Just because you add more voters doesn't mean that the percentage for enshrinement (80 percent) is going to change.

I'm not a fan of including former players as voters. Many former players could be counted on to give a totally dispassionate view of teammates and foes alike. But a few years ago, I remember a current Hall of Famer arguing passionately for a former opponent NOT in the Hall, and then we found out during the meeting that the two men are in business outside of football together.

Let's say we decide to put one player or coach from each franchise on the committee. (Because you simply can't put a former Steeler on and not include a former Brown.) That would add 32 voters, making it a 76-person panel. Could the selection meeting be held in one day with 76 voters arguing their cases? I think the meeting might be better, but there's no guarantee it would be. It also might be more partisan.

I wouldn't decry adding 32 former players and coaches, but for all those who think it'd be nirvana and fix everything that ails the process, I don't see it. And for those who want the media out of it altogether, there's some merit there, because none of us played in the NFL, and, in fact, very few of us played beyond high school. But I want to know if Joe Cowboy is going to put in the work that Gosselin does, or if the former player is just going to show up, test the waters and vote the way his peers want him to vote.

THE VOLUME OF CANDIDATES. If we put in everyone the fans (and many media) wanted to be in, the Hall would be increased by 200 people tomorrow. Raider fans are adamant about Ray Guy, Tom Flores, Lester Hayes, Jim Plunkett and Cliff Branch. After the Hall put in three Broncos in the last four classes, I got at least five angry tweets from Denver fans about how Randy Gradishar, Karl Mecklenburg, Steve Atwater and Terrell Davis were all getting jobbed. That's only two teams, and nine guys getting the shaft.

It should be hard to get into the Hall. I think seven enshrinees in one year is plenty. I've asked people over the years to take the 15-man ballot and tell me which 10 don't belong in the Hall. Very, very rarely can people honestly pick 10. And that's the problem. Almost every year I've ever voted, after we get through the debate and have to winnow the class from 15 to 10 on the first cutdown of the day, I have looked at the ballot and said, "If any of these 10 or 11 get to the final five, I'd vote for them.''

REGIONALISM. Whitlock said in his column that he would cry if Roaf, a tackle he covered for several years as a columnist in Kansas City, didn't get elected this year. I've found that to be a common trait over the years: Local columnists get passionate about local guys. It wasn't the Denver Post guy, or the Miami Herald voter, who pushed the Art Monk candidacy so hard. It was the Washington Post guy. Is it more of a travesty that Roaf wasn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer, or that a man with 1,101 catches (Carter) has now missed four times? Or that Dawson -- who was first-team All-Pro more than any other center (six times) in the last 50 years, and double the times Roaf was first-team All-Pro -- can't get in? Pick your travesty. I suspect if Whitlock had worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette instead of the Kansas City Star, he'd be decrying the Dawson snub, not Roaf's.

RACISM. The only thing that angered me about Whitlock's column is when he followed his skewering of the Hall selection committee because it has three black voters (a fourth, Michael Wilbon, left the panel when he began covering the NBA a few years ago) in the next sentence by saying two white men -- me and Gosselin -- lead an "old-school, good-ol'-boys network'' in the selection room. If he finds me racist, I wish he'd just call me racist.

Now, as for the three-out-of-44 argument, it's valid ... to a point. In an ideal world, there'd be a lot more than seven percent black voting members in the Hall. But let's look at the pool these voters come from. The Hall takes its voters from NFL press boxes, and I'd guess (it'd just be a guess, but I'm probably not far off) that the NFL's main press box at the Super Bowl was no more than 10 percent black. And is there some great injustice we've perpetrated that can be linked to racism? Four of the last 19 modern-era enshrinees are white.

Now, as for my power in the room, I hope I'm looked at respectfully, and I try to make good arguments. But if I was so powerful, wouldn't I have gotten Paul Tagliabue in once in three tries? Couldn't I have swayed the room on Cris Carter? In fact, both men have gone in reverse since I began to vehemently support them. Tagliabue didn't even make the final 15 this year, and Carter didn't make the cut from 15 to 10 this year.

As always, comments welcome.

***

Why labor hope is scarce, but it shouldn't have flown out the window.

My 7,000-word SI bio-story on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell either got lost in the fog of the Super Bowl or bored you all to tears, because not many of you have responded to me about it. But there are three passages I'd like to share with you from the story. With the frustrations of last week's canceled negotiating session between players and owners (canceled by the owners) and then Goodell calling off this week's monthly owners meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the state of the talks, I understand why most of you would be having feelings of doom about the 2011 season right now.

In the past few days, there have been reports that players offered to take 50 percent of all revenue without any owner exemptions for expenses (owners currently get a $1-billion credit, after which the pie is split), radio and print reports that Carolina owner Jerry Richardson said something to demean player leaders Drew Brees and Peyton Manning at a Feb. 5 meeting, and reports that the union is angry owners decided unilaterally to stop meeting after one proposal last week instead of for the two days they'd been scheduled to bargain. If you're a fan, you're justified in thinking all will soon be lost and the season will be affected.

That's understandable. It's been 24 years since the last NFL games were lost due to a work stoppage, so you don't know how to feel when we're in the middle of such a time. But I want to stress two things before I get to three Goodell passages you should remember when the hour is dark:

1. Sports negotiations are deadline deals filled with both sides shooting at each other. The March 3 deadline is fairly meaningless, when you think about it. What happens in March that's vital to the regular season? Think of that word -- vital. Nothing. Is free agency vital to a season? No.

2. Players and owners have shown they can survive abridged seasons. Except for the March 2006 owners' agreement with players, which everyone now sees was decidedly one-sided in favor of the players, no deals get done early, particularly in football. In 1982, when the league's schedule was reduced from 16 to nine regular-season games, a new CBA was ratified on Nov. 17. In 1987, players struck after the second week, were out for four weeks, and resumed play in Week 7. In the meantime, one week was canceled and three were played with replacement players and NFL guys who crossed the picket line.

I covered the Giants that year, and the season was a thing of ridicule, with stars like Lawrence Taylor crossing the picket line to play virtual pickup games (Taylor faced a truck driver from Illinois recruited to play left tackle for the Bills in the last Giants' strike game in Buffalo, and the guy was called for five penalties on LT). So don't think the threat of missed games is going to cause players or owners to cave. They may cave eventually, but I still think games will be lost. Now, will the game be tarnished? Of course. Ruined? No.

Having said those two things, I'll tell you something I experienced trailing Goodell for parts of a couple of months. Other than the league's failure to get a team in Los Angeles -- a drive he spearheaded -- he didn't fail at many negotiations, or in making many deals. I got the feeling that, as in many negotiations, with many smart negotiators, Goodell's feeling when asked about these talks last season was basically, It's not time to make a deal. Neither side is going to be serious about making a strong offer now. Why force it, and then have to live with an offer you feel is too one-sided in favor of the other side? (Those are my characterizations, not his, to be clear.)

I bring you three anecdotes from my story:

Jerry Jones suing the league, 1995: Goodell was the lone dissenting voice in the league office when Jerry Jones sued the NFL in 1995 to be able to use his Cowboy logo locally in sales. The NFL lumped local and national rights to beer and soft drinks and burgers at that point; Jones thought he could make far more selling on his own than simply taking one-30th of the revenue the league raised by lumping all teams together. "I believed Jerry was right,'' Goodell said. "And I thought we were wrong on suing him. We didn't need to go there. So we were in a staff meeting, and I said Jerry had some good ideas; maybe we could sell sponsorship without the club marks. And the reaction was, 'No way. This is what we've always done.' ''

But that's what ended up happening. The league agreed to do what Jones, and Goodell, wanted -- have the league empowered to have an official soft drink of the NFL (which is now Pepsi), and have each team sell local soft drink rights (16 teams have Coca-Cola, 16 have Pepsi). It's been a boon to business. Jones estimates in the 15 years of the new NFL sponsor-nomics, the Cowboys have made more than $100 million more than they would have made doing things the old way. Consultant Marc Ganis of Sportscorp Ltd., estimates the 32 franchises are at least $2 billion richer because of the new way.

Replacing the Browns in Cleveland, 1995-96: The league woke up one November morning to the news that Art Modell was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Such a storied NFL city, with such tradition, without a franchise? Disaster. The locals were so ticked off at Browns owner Art Modell, and at the league for allowing the move to happen, that whoever was dispatched from the league to calm the masses was Public Enemy No. 2, behind Modell. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue sent Goodell to Cleveland to try to work out a deal to put an existing or new franchise back in the city. "Roger took a ball that was flatter than a pancake and blew it up,'' said Tagliabue.

In early negotiations, it was clear a new stadium was vital to the process, and Goodell told the city's chief negotiator, Fred Nance, that fans would have to help fund the stadium through the issuance of personal seat licenses in all seats in the stadium's lower bowl. Making fans pay even $200 or $400 per seat for the privilege of buying tickets had never been done in Cleveland, and Nance and mayor Michael White fought back. Goodell met some longtime Browns fans, who pleaded with him to keep costs down in a city where the economy was tanking. Finally, Goodell came up with a plan: exempt the 10,000 seats in the Dawg Pound from PSLs. That did it.

Nance and the mayor agreed to the plan. Still, Goodell would need 12 of 21 City Council member to vote for whatever stadium plan was agreed to by the city and NFL, and even after the city agreed, only seven council members were solid yes votes. That left Goodell to politic the council, along with the mayor and Nance. They got six votes to change. The stadium project, with the Browns keeping their names and colors and records, was approved 13-8.

"There would not have been a deal without Roger,'' said Nance. "No way. He was a guy who came into a city under siege, and he was hard-nosed and he was stubborn. But he was sensitive to figuring out what we had to have to make a deal, and how much he could compromise knowing he had the owners to answer to with whatever he did.''

The network renegotiations, 2009: Goodell and NBC Universal boss Dick Ebersol are close friends. In 2004, when Ebersol was mourning the loss of his 14-year-old son, Teddy, in a plane crash, Goodell got Tagliabue and then-NFLPA head Gene Upshaw to agree to fund a suite each in the dormitory the Ebersol family had donated to Teddy's private school in Connecticut. Dick Ebersol was overcome with emotion when he toured the dorm and saw little plaques outside the two rooms, side by side, noting the NFL's and NFLPA's generosity. It's a gesture from Goodell that the Ebersol family will never forget.

In the 2009 negotiations for a two-year extension, through 2013, to NBC's contract with the NFL, the league was stuck on a rights fee of $600 million per year for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. That's what NBC was currently paying. The difference: The current deal included two Super Bowls. The new two-year deal included none. Ebersol and Goodell had a few back-and-forth discussions, and Goodell finally said the NFL wouldn't take a dime less. "There was a coldness and a 'that's it' kind of tone in Roger's voice that was chilling,'' Ebersol said.

And this is what Ebersol heard in Goodell's voice: "At his heart, Roger can be a cold son of a bitch. I think the people on the other side of the negotiating table are going to hear that in the coming months. This really nice man is going to show mettle, and he's going to do what he thinks is best for the National Football League. It's what he's always done.''

---

Now, what does all that mean? I don't know. All I know is that I doubt Goodell has shown much of his real hand yet. And he won't for some time.

The NFL's attentiveness to head trauma isn't going away.

One thing I've been negligent in bringing up recently is how much the league, despite the massive problems defensive players have with this, is going full-speed ahead on the issue of cutting down helmet hits and the launching into defenseless players.

I spoke with retired Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, a league consultant and chair of the league's committee that brainstorms ideas from the teams and from league officials, all designed to improve the game and make it safer. The committee gives ideas to the Competition Committee. Accorsi and veteran league player-personnel official Joel Bussert have looked at a lot of tape from the 1950s and '60s -- an ardent fan in Iowa has some particularly old highlight films from the '50s -- and reached some interesting determinations.

"First,'' said Accorsi, "the rosters were 33, 37, 40 players. On lots of teams in the '50s, like the Baltimore Colts, some of those guys played every play. And the big difference you see is they played under control. They played on their feet. They didn't leave their feet unless they had to. They tackled the way they were supposed to -- face up in the chest. Before all the nickel and dime defenses, you'd see four DBs back there. One guy tackled you. Now, today, you go up for the ball in passing downs, and there's a convention back there. Three or four guys are in the hit, and it's a lot more jarring. On running plays, almost every time, the runner lowers his head. We're trying to do something about that, maybe try to make that illegal.''

But Accorsi said the biggest problem, judging today's game with the one of a half-century ago, is simple: "The worst thing is the launching, guys leaving their feet to hit the ballcarrier like missiles. And look at their bodies. They're chiseled, rock hard. You're getting hit with a ton of bricks. The legal hits are dangerous. What we're trying to do is eliminate the launching.''

Accorsi brought up the 1958 Eastern Conference playoff game between New York and Cleveland as an example of how a hard hit was made in a classic form way -- and a way he thinks is passé today. "Frank Gifford took a swing pass for the Giants, kept his balance, kept his feet, got wrapped up by one of the Browns, and not with the head. They played the game on their feet, and not attacking head-to-head. That's what we've got to take out of the game, all the hits to the head.''

***

The aftermath of fan treatment at the Super Bowl, Part II

We've been inundated the past eight days, and rightfully so, with the absurd tale of Super Bowl fans with valid tickets getting to the game and being told their seats were not ready. And I hope the 400 or so fans who were deprived get as much from the NFL and the Cowboys as the law allows. That the Cowboys didn't even apply for a permit for the seats until one month before the game, shows the sloppy and haphazardness of stadium preparation, which, quite frankly, stuns me when it comes to Jerry Jones and the NFL. It's inexcusable.

But the other day, longtime NFL writer Cliff Christl from Wisconsin sent me an e-mail describing the treatment some fans trying to enter the stadium got on game day, and I thought it was so interesting, and so disturbing, that I asked if I could reprint it. He said I could. I hope the NFL reviews how ticket holders are admitted to future Super Bowl stadiums, because I can guarantee you based on what I heard before leaving Dallas last Monday, this was not an isolated occurrence.

Christl's note: "Almost by accident, I got to witness and hear firsthand about the mistreatment of fans at Cowboys Stadium beyond those who lost their tickets. Basically, I think all but the earliest arriving fans -- those who arrived four, five hours before kickoff -- had to stand in cattle lines for hours.

"The details: My wife and I arrived at the stadium about 1:30 on a bus. I had a media pass and my wife had a game ticket, so we walked to the media gate first and asked where she should enter. We were told by a gatekeeper there to walk to Gate W, where we saw a sea of humanity: Twenty-five or more yards wide and at least two or three city blocks long. From what I could subsequently gather, Gate W was actually a security checkpoint, not one of the 10 gates to the stadium (four of which were apparently closed for security reasons).

"Based on the instructions of the gatekeeper and having driven or walked along two sides of the stadium, I suspect Gate W was one of only one or two outside gates for regular ticketholders to enter. And I assume that means more than 50,000 fans who had tickets other than for the luxury boxes and club seats had to cram their way into one or two gates. Anyway, I entered the stadium through the media gate within 10 minutes. My wife stood in line for two-and-a-half hours.

"As the time passed, I ran into an old friend from Green Bay, Mike McKenna, a former WBAY sportscaster who was there with his family. He explained that he and his family had waited more than two hours to get in, and that it was a nightmare outside. The more stories I heard the more dreadful they sounded.

"Desperate people were going to the bathroom in empty beer cans, along the fence area, and they weren't all men. Little kids were getting pushed around. Older people were becoming woozy, complaining of pain and dropping out. One elderly man told my wife he was feeling pain in his chest, his legs were numb, and he could no longer take it. People started jumping the gates that everyone had to snake through as they got closer to the stadium and tempers flared. And apparently there was nobody around as far as stadium personnel to help or guide anyone.

"I expected to read something about this whole fiasco in Monday's Dallas Morning News, but their writers were too busy gushing and crowing about what a wonderful day it was after all the bad weather during the week. While I was waiting in the concourse for two hours, I also observed a long line the entire time outside the Pro Shop where people could buy Super Bowl gear. It never seemed to move or get any shorter. I ran into a former colleague at my old paper, and she said she had walked the entire concourse and found only two Pro Shops, both with long lines. Also, the nearest concession stand where I was waiting had run out of food, except for nachos, an hour before kickoff.

"My wife, Mike McKenna and others that I talked to were being good sports about it. As my wife said, after paying what she did for a ticket, she just wanted to put the nightmare behind her and enjoy the game. I think the host committee in Dallas was lucky that Green Bay and Pittsburgh were in the Super Bowl, and people were just happy to be there and not inclined to cause trouble.

"As time passes, more and more people are sharing stories about people waiting for hours in line. ... But I have yet to see anyone investigate the debacle in Dallas and how poorly almost all fans were treated, not just the unfortunate ones who lost their seats.''

Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News published his annual special-teams rankings Sunday. Among anything the print media does, Gosselin's kicking-game rankings are the most respected by coaches and front office people in the league. Gosselin takes 22 special-teams categories and ranks all 32 teams in the league from 1 to 32 -- 1 for the best team, 32 for the lowest-ranked.

Three notable things:

• The Patriots won, thanks to a strong rookie season from punter Zoltan Mesko, excellent coverage units and the job done by the first-year special-teams coach Scott O'Brien, clearly one of the best in the business. The Pats edged the hard-charging Titans for the top spot, with Tennessee riding rookie returner Marc Mariani's two touchdowns and 1,859 return yards to respectability.

• Though seven of the league's 12 playoff teams finished in Gosselin's top 10, the Super Bowl champ Packers were 29th, the same ranking of the Saints two seasons ago, when New Orleans was champion.

• The Chargers, a well-deserved 32nd in the rankings after a disastrous year, didn't make the playoffs in a major surprise. In not a major surprise, they fired their special-teams coach, Steve Crosby.

Here are the NFL's 10 best special-team units in 2010, according to Gosselin's rankings (points in parentheses):

1. New England (269)2. Tennessee (274)3. Cleveland (277)T-4. Chicago (280)T-4. Oakland (280)T-4. Seattle (280)7. New York Jets (294)8. Baltimore (311)9. Pittsburgh (314)10. Atlanta (318.5)

"Last year, I thought we'd win it. This year, I know we'll win it.''-- Jets coach Rex Ryan, in an interview with MSG television Friday night at halftime of the Knicks-Lakers game at Madison Square Garden.

"There's going to be doubters and haters all the time. It's my job to prove them wrong. Right now they're correct. Never called an offensive play in the National Football League. I'm young and inexperienced to some degree, so it's my job to prove them wrong.''-- New Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, to WLW radio via sportsradiointerviews.com, on his surprise in getting the Bengals play-calling job.

Gruden's first job is to convince Carson Palmer that his style of the West Coast offense can fit Palmer's game.

"I think it might have been the best goal I have ever scored.''-- Wayne Rooney of Manchester United -- and I know it's weird to see a soccer quote of the week here, but via Deadspin, you've just got to see it if you have not. It's not only one of the great goals I've ever seen, but also one of the great athletic feats. I played soccer as a kid, and in high school, and I actually coached it for a while in New Jersey. I have seen some players do bicycle kicks. Remarkable enough. But to do one of them and aim the ball at a spot in the goal where you know the keeper would never have a chance to touch it ... Well, that's just beyond anything I could imagine from a kick of a ball you don't have time to do anything with but react in a lightning-quick way.

I've known Jimmy Johnson for 22 years, and in that time, the most incongruous thing about him (and there are a few, such as his love for a band in the Florida Keys called "Big Dick and the Extenders'') that I saw was his love for a tiny Teacup Yorkie, Buttercup. The cute-as-a-button furball came when Johnson began dating a woman, Rhonda Rookmaaker, whose young dog it was. And Buttercup traveled to Miami when Johnson coached the Dolphins -- even going on Dolphin road trips on the team plane -- making her the most famous dog in south Florida.

Well, Buttercup died a few weeks ago. It's still an emotionally raw time for Jimmy and Rhonda, now married, and she can't even think of getting another dog right now.

My personal advice: Get back on the horse. Get a dog. Take it from personal experience -- the new dog will soothe the pain from the loss of the old dog. We have a portrait of Woody, our golden retriever who died in January 2001, on the wall of our apartment, and it will never leave the wall. And that nut job Bailey, our current golden, was wonderful in helping us move on from Woody.

What a column. I even give Jimmy Johnson pet advice!

I was in San Francisco over the weekend, visiting daughter Laura, who has relocated there from Los Angeles. Saturday afternoon around one, we were at the corner of Castro and Market in The Castro, which, according to Wikipedia, is "considered America's first, currently largest, and America's best-known gay neighborhood." I looked over at an outdoor cafe, Twin Peaks, and this is what I saw: a naked man, burly, around 35, with a white cockatoo sitting on his left shoulder. The foot-long bird was eating some seeds of some kind out of a coffee cup in the naked man's outstretched left hand.

The naked man wore nothing other than a narrow satchel that very partially covered his groin. Scores of people walked by and sat in the cafe, barely giving the man a sideways glance. A few minutes later, after leaving a store in the neighborhood, we noticed the naked man and the bird were now seated in the café, the bird eating and the naked man talking to some acquaintances.

Later that afternoon, we met some of Laura's friends for pizza in North Beach, right near the church where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married. I asked her friend Ben: "Is it rare to see men walking around naked?"

"It depends what you mean by 'rare,' " said Ben.

I see.

"Sorry.''--@jharrison9292, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, in a tweet I'm sorry to say I missed in the mayhem of the Steelers' Super Bowl loss to Green Bay. I assume Harrison tweeted this from the team bus, after 11 p.m. ET, on the night of the game.

Harrison also revealed on Twitter in the days after the game that he will undergo surgery today, presumably on the right shoulder he injured against Baltimore in a playoff game 23 days ago, and said he would be idle for four to six weeks.

1. I think the travels of longtime NFL and college coach Jerry Gray ought to be a documentary for the Travel Channel. On Jan. 16, Gray was on the sidelines of Soldier Field, coaching the secondary in the Seahawks' playoff loss to Chicago. The next day he was named assistant head coach and secondary coach at Texas, his alma mater. He had that job for 24 days before taking the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator job under new coach Mike Munchak. In the past 14 months, Gray has had four employers: the Washington Redskins, Seattle, Texas and the Titans.

2. I think you'll recall my posting of the normally sedate Bob McGinn's optimistic long-term forecast of the Packers in this column two weeks ago. I thought I'd forward his thoughts about the season Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers just finished, from Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a piece I found to be right on the money, and quite reminiscent of something that might have been written about Tom Brady six or seven years ago:

"Opponents tried blitzing on 30.6 percent of passes, but Rodgers is almost impossible to blitz. His razor-sharp mind and ability to process information so quickly makes him almost like a coach on the field. Compared to mediocre passing in his first few years, it's almost as if he had been given an arm transplant. His accuracy is outstanding. He commands the huddle. He has great feet. His practice habits are excellent. He's secure with the ball, losing two of six fumbles. His ball-faking and footwork get better all the time. He didn't hold the ball as long as he did in '09, although his sack total didn't drop that much (16.5 to 13.5). As long as he doesn't suffer additional concussions or major injury, Rodgers puts the Packers in grand shape for the future almost by himself.''

3. I think there's an interesting book out that will make you think about things you don't think about enough. It's called "Scorecasting,'' by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, the latter a Sports Illustrated writer. It's basically "Freakonomics for Sports," a counterintuitive look at things we've taken for granted, perhaps wrongly, over the years. A couple of NFL-related points:

• There's a lengthy chapter about how the Cowboys came to dominate NFL drafts, in part by relying on "The Chart," a draft-valuation guide. The conclusion: The top pick is the ultimate "winner's curse" and that teams are better off trading for more picks. The price slope is steep. The talent slope is modest.

• There's a chunk on home-field advantage, including a finding that visiting quarterbacks actually have a higher cumulative passing rating than home quarterbacks, suggesting that all the fan yelling doesn't really have an impact. The book's belief: home-field advantage is determined largely by official bias. One piece of evidence: With the introduction of NFL instant replay, penalties and recovered fumbles called in favor of the home team dropped significantly.

• The book discusses ref Mike Carey's non-sack-call before Eli Manning's pass to David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII. Classic omission bias. One offshoot: If Carey calls that in-the-grasp (as the authors think he would have done, had it been the second quarter), the Giants lose and Brady has four Super Bowl rings.

Personally, I don't buy that Manning should have been called down there, but lots of people disagree with me, including the authors of this book. You can buy it here.

4. I think it's fruitless to talk, write and theorize about what teams are going to do in free agency when there's a very good chance there won't be free agency. Folks, this labor fight is going to be a long one. I believe it'll be Labor Day, at least, before a solution is found. Given that scenario, how can the league possibly say: We're playing real games in 21 days, and so you 495 free agents, go spend the next week flying from team to team, finding a home, and sure, you'll be ready to play two weeks after you sign with your new team in a new scheme. Surrrrre.

5. I think that while I am onboard with those who feel the Packers are going to be very good for a long time, I think declaring them this decade's Steelers of the '70s needs to take a reality break. The Packers were a rotten break away -- can you say Tampa Bay victory over Detroit on Dec. 19 -- from not even making the playoffs. They survived ghastly injuries to finish 10-6. Not taking anything from them, because they're the most beat-up team I've seen win a Super Bowl. But only one team in the last 12 seasons has repeated as champion -- New England, 2003 and 2004. It certainly can happen, but I believe I'll be choosing some team other than the Pack when, and if, the 2011 season is played.

6. I think I'd be hard-pressed to think of a big-money free agent who messed up his football life, and real life, more than Albert Haynesworth.

7. I think now that ESPN has backed my Twitter poll of 1,200 fans last week -- who said by a resounding 82-percent vote that they favor a 16-game season, not 18 games -- I hope we stop hearing the league and commissioner say fans want an 18-game regular-season.

8. I think that even though the Steelers lost the Super Bowl, I found myself wondering why Pittsburgh's been to five conference championship games over the past decade. I settled on consistency.

During Super Bowl week, watching the Steelers practice as one of the Pro Football Writers of America's pool reporters, I remembered being at Steelers camp in 2004. That was a summer when I didn't think the Steelers would be so consistent. Pittsburgh was coming off a 6-10 season and coach Bill Cowher had two seasons left on his contract. Though Cowher hadn't won a Super Bowl in his 12 seasons at the helm, and though he'd had three losing seasons in the previous six, owner Dan Rooney gave him a two-year contract extension through 2007. I wrote in August 2004 in SI:

"The last loyal team in sports was at it again last week ... The Steelers' loyalty feels laudable, emblematic of how sports should be. Yet there's one nagging question for Steelers fans: Why now? Why extend the contract of a coach when there is absolutely no internal or external pressure to do so? ... Football coaches and general managers say players must prove themselves every year. Why haven't the Steelers held their coach to that standard? Said club president Art Rooney II: 'We have a system where players come and go. I think the best way to deal with that is to have coaching stability, and we think the record that our last two coaches have had has proved it's a pretty good way to go about it.' There is, however, a difference between Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher that Rooney didn't mention. After 12 years coaching the Steelers, Noll had won four Super Bowl. Cowher has won none.''

In the next two seasons, Cowher won 31 games, including one Super Bowl. Not only did the Rooneys make the call at the right time, but also they probably got Cowher under-market, as it turned out. In the seven seasons since that day in Latrobe, the three winningest teams in the AFC are New England (95 regular- and postseason wins), Indianapolis (94) and Pittsburgh (87). The big difference: Pittsburgh has two Super Bowl victories since then. No other team in football has more than one.

9. I think the most interesting thing I heard about the labor situation in the last week or so has nothing to do with the actual negotiations themselves, but rather with something Peyton Manning supposedly said to NFLPA union boss DeMaurice Smith during the weekend of the Super Bowl: "Wish I'd been a union rep.''

Imagine alternate rep Tom Brady and NFLPA board member Drew Brees being joined at a big union meeting someday by Colts player rep Peyton Manning. Now that'd be something to see, the three most famous passers in the game facing off against the football establishment.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Happened again Saturday night in a hotel in San Francisco. Found The Godfather on TV, midway through, and I was spellbound for the last hour. How do you turn it off when Al Pacino is about to rub out the dirty cop and the rival mob boss at the Italian restaurant in the Bronx?

b. By the way, speaking of Francis Ford Coppola, if you visit the Napa Valley anytime soon, you have to stop at Coppola's Rubicon Vineyard in Rutherford. Not only is it a place of beauty, but also the wine kills too. His Cask cabernet is one of the best glasses of wine I've ever had.

c. Name five better cities in the world than San Francisco. You can't.

d. A few days off gave me the chance to polish off one of the books I've been dying to read: Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand, who got our attention a few years ago with the masterfully told horse-racing epic Seabiscuit. I've read but one living-history book in my life as good as Unbroken, and that's the riveting account of the Bataan Death March, Tears in the Darkness, by Michael and Elizabeth Norman.

Unbroken is a tale I'll carry with me for years, a story of a World War II hero I'm shocked I never heard of until a week ago, because Hillenbrand's incredible narrative of Louie Zamperini makes him one of the most unforgettable characters I've ever read about. There should be schools named after Zamperini. Towns.

I don't want to give away too much, but if you get this book only to read about surviving adversity and surviving more adversity than a man has ever encountered (if Zamperini doesn't win the gold for survival, I can guarantee he's on the medal stand), you'd be well off. I recommend this book highly, and for reasons having nothing to do with war. As with the Normans' incredible narrative of soldier Ben Steele in Japan, you get so attached to Zamperini and his roller-coaster life that you are magnetized to Unbroken. Ever read a book late into the night and look over at the clock and see that it's 2 o'clock and know you're going to be in big trouble in the morning because you'll wake up fatigued, but you can't put it down anyway? This happened to me twice last week with Unbroken.

e. Michael Kay, you're married! Congratulations! And a lucky man you are, finding the sweet Jodi Applegate. Sounds like the nuptials were terrific on Saturday. Wishing for a long, good life for you both, and 50 years of bliss.

f. I'm not saying the Devils are bound for the playoffs (they still lead the league in losses from a disastrous first three months of the season), but they've won 12 of 15 and Jacques Lemaire has them playing that defensive kind of hockey everyone hates outside of north Jersey, and at least they're going to make the next two months interesting in the East.

g. Coffeenerdness: Peet's, I beg you to come to the South End of Boston. In all seriousness. You need no market studies -- I'll keep you in business personally. Experiencing the superb lattes of Peet's over the past two weeks in Dallas and northern California reminds me of Kramer after he's had a chance to play the Westchester Country Club, and says he's spoiled and can no longer play the public courses around New York. "I can't go back, Jerry!'' he says. "I can't! I won't!'' Like me with coffee. C'mon, Peet's. Boston needs more of you.

h. Beernerdness: Tried Cristal, a pilsner from Peru, at a Peruvian restaurant in the Pacific Heights section of San Francisco the other night. Very nice. Smooth, with a nice bite. A little like Peroni. "Beer from the Andes,'' the label said. Don't believe I've ever consumed anything from the Andes before. A nice experience.

i. Seems weird to be in the offseason, doesn't it? The season sped by at blinding speed. I miss it already.

j. Next Tweetup: Downtown Indy, on Friday, Feb. 25, during the Scouting Combine, at a brew pub I'll advertise next Monday.

k. I got the top pick in my Rotisserie League draft the other day. The dreaded top pick. I hate it. It's a 12-team league, with a serpentine draft, so if you pick first, you don't pick again until 24 and 25. I'd much rather have the eighth pick, though I hope there is some value choosing first. But with the best 36 players off the board (we all protect three players from last year's team), I'm going to be in dire need of baseball knowledge.

l. Hey! My new best buddy, John Legend, won three Grammys last night! Way to go, John.

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