Three things to cover today: the death of a well-respected football chronicler, the Michael Vick contract from a different angle, and the stunning (at least to me) results of my Super Bowl prediction contest.
I'll lead off with a letter -- one of many I received -- about the death of a fine man way too soon. It's from Brett Climie, of Guilford, Conn.: "Please post your thoughts (if you knew him) of the shocking and sad passing of longtime Detroit Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski. A big fan of the Lions and resident of Connecticut, I have relied on his pull-no-punches reporting and insight since I was in junior high school. He will be sorely missed!''
Indeed he will. (Kowalski died Monday, suddenly, in his home, getting ready for another day covering the Lions ... after posting his final Lions story at 8 a.m. He was 51.) I knew Tom. A worker bee of all worker bees. He was a Lions beat writer for nearly three decades, and every time I went to Detroit or was in the Lions' locker room somewhere, he was front and center, asking the tough questions.
Deep down, he was as much an advocate for the fans who loved the Lions as any other beat man for any other team in the country. He felt their pain, though he never rooted for the Lions; that's a taboo in this business, which he respected greatly. He was forever holding the feet of every Detroit coach and GM (especially Matt Millen) to the fire, because he felt he needed to ask the tough and most basic question to all those who ran this perennially disappointing franchise: In a league where parity reigns, why has that parity never reached the state of Michigan?
You'd think that would engender all kinds of hatred from the team he covered. But I spoke with my longtime college friend, Bill Keenist, the Lions' VP of Communications, who spent hours with Kowalski and the other Lion media regulars six or seven days a week from July through the end of December for the last 30 years. And his words, dripping with emotion about Kowalski, were apt: Fair, hardworking, always there, tough, prodigious with copy.
One of the good ones is gone, and our business, and Lions fans all over the country, will miss him. Kudos to Jim Schwartz -- and to Dominic Raiola and Jason Hanson and Matthew Stafford -- for their words of tribute to Kowalski's family yesterday.
As usual, Kowalski, who wrote for the Booth Newspapers and MLive.com, was serving his fan base Sunday night, less than 12 hours before he died. He answered a question about why this team is different from that 2008 4-0 team from the preseason, and he wrote: "You can start and end with No. 9.'' Matthew Stafford. So sad Kowalski won't be around to chronicle this fascinating year of Stafford and his team. So sad that he left us way too early.
There's another reason Vick got the money. The Eagles think he's responsible.
One of the most interesting conversations I had on my training-camp tour was with Michael Vick, and it had nothing to do with the Eagles' chances or his new teammates or someone called Toure'. It was about his relationship with Tyrod Taylor, the sixth-round Ravens quarterback who, like Vick, went to Virginia Tech.
Now, I was surprised but not shocked that the Eagles gave Vick a six-year, $100-million deal Monday. Surprised because he's not proven himself to be a durable quarterback who can give a team 16 games consistently; he's played a full season once in his NFL career. But I understood because they wanted Vick to feel like he was going to be the cornerstone of the franchise going forward, and this contract will allow him to play with financial peace of mind by allowing him to erase the estimate $20 million he owes a bankruptcy court in Virginia. Now, he should be able to move on with as normal a life as he can lead, without the specter of debt hanging over his head.
One reason the Eagles felt comfortable handing Vick more than $40 million guaranteed is because they've seen a more mature Vick. A good illustration of that is his relationship with Taylor. They worked out together in Virginia Beach with speed-and-agility trainer Tom Anderson on the athletic stuff, and with Vick teaching Taylor the football stuff, over the spring and summer.
The fruit of that relationship can now be seen in Baltimore. Taylor, self-assured and smart and confident, has earned the backup quarterback job with the Ravens in camp, and his long drive in the fourth quarter last Thursday -- admittedly against Redskins backups -- enabled Baltimore to defeat Washington. The thought of a sixth-rounder earning the backup quarterback position for a playoff team is quite a feat for a young player, but that's how good the Ravens feel about him.
His indoctrination started with the Vick workouts, and with Taylor telling Vick he idolized him and wanted to learn from him.
"Don't idolize me,'' Vick told Taylor. "Follow me, watch me, but brand yourself, Tyrod.''
Vick told Taylor that when the lockout ended he had to be ready to step into a practice huddle with the Ravens and call plays confidently. "When the lockout's over,'' Vick would say, "You've got to go in and call the plays like you know them. There's not going to be any excuses.'' Because Taylor had been exposed to the Baltimore offense from offseason exposure to Ravens veterans, he had an idea of what the offense was, and what the terminology was, and Vick told him during every workout to make sure he did his homework on the Ravens' plays. And Vick would throw basic NFL concepts at him, like how to call protections and how to recognize certain blitzes and how to be sure to go through his progressions on a pass read.
When I was in Ravens' camp, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told me: "This Tyrod Taylor could be special. He could be an incredible story. He's come in and done a good job of understanding what we do.''
Cameron told me that day, "Michael Vick's a part of that story. Wait and see.''
Said Vick: "Everything I asked him to do, he did. I'd say, 'Get in your playbook tonight,' and he'd come back the next day and I'd ask him things, and he understood. This kid I'm really rooting for because he's gone after it the right way. He really wants to be an NFL quarterback. He's really worked at it. One night I called him at camp and said, 'How's it going, little bro?' He said, 'Getting it down. Running with the twos. Going good.' ''
Running with the twos. Tyrod Taylor and his tutor have to be happy about that.
You read my mind pretty well.
First, I was hoping one of you would pick my Super Bowl prediction correctly: Atlanta over San Diego (24-20), with regular-season MVP Philip Rivers the tiebreaker. Lord. Thirteen of you picked the teams, the winner and the MVP. Wow. I'm sending all 13 a copy of the NFL preview issue, signed by me, with thanks for your participation -- and congrats for reading my strange mind.
In addition, I'm going to award four prizes. The contest, in the event of a tie, called for the winner to be "the person who picks the score that is closest in total points by both teams to the score I chose.'' My total point prediction was 44. The closest is Justin Poulous, who picked a 27-20 Atlanta victory, so Justin is the champ. He wins first prize. I'll be in touch with him, and I'll figure out just what that is.
The other three winners all picked Atlanta to win by four points. I thought that should count for something. So one entrant via email reply, James Collison (31-27), and two via Twitter, @nickbowers (27-23) and @kilowatt44 (28-24). As well as the magazine cover signed, we're going to send each of those winners a blowup of their favorite SI cover, matted.
Thanks for entering. Fun little contest.
Now onto your email:
HE QUESTIONS HOW PLAYERS PRACTICE. "I find it interesting that players are up in arms over the fines they incur for in-game hits, but at the same time they fought in the new CBA to limit the amount of contact that takes place in practice and the amount of practices that have incurred during camp. Does anyone else not see the irony of this with the players. They would like to have their ability to still deliver the kill shot in a game without incurring the wrath of the league, but want limited contact during practice. To me this sounds like the players really just don't want to practice as much versus being concerned about their physical well being.'' -- Greg Manship, Boston
The way I see the players' thinking is a little different: Their bodies don't know if a hit is coming on an August practice field in training camp or on the Super Bowl field with the title on the line. A hit's a hit, and the fewer they have to deliver, the better it is for them, and for their longevity.
DEFENDING THE DOLPHINS. "I'm pretty tired of everyone in the media trashing my Fins. Yes, the o-line struggled to create holes against Tampa, but guess what, even with that performance, Reggie's still averaging 4.2 yards a carry this preseason. Not too shabby. And what about Henne's great performances these last two games? Not one word. Instead we get more of the same tired Kolb updates and yet another retread of the Orton story from a month ago. The Dolphins are one o-lineman away from a very good squad. It seems you and your colleagues only want to report on the bad, never the good.''-- Mark, Oakland
You could be right. That's what's great about August in the NFL: Every team has a chance. I didn't see the Dolphins this summer, so I'm not the one best qualified to pass judgment on them. But I would say I'm very skeptical of Reggie Bush being the kind of every-down back Dolphin fans are praying he'll be. He wasn't able to do that in New Orleans. I don't see why that would change now. As for Henne, I loved him coming out of Michigan, and I still like him. But he hasn't delivered yet. We'll see if he's better in this new offense.
GOOD QUESTION. "You wrote: 'Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib won't be suspended, according to Bucs GM Mark Dominik, after his offseason incident in Texas in which someone shot at his sister's boyfriend. I think the reason he wasn't suspended is because no credible evidence has been produced that he fired the shots or did anything to encourage the shots to be fired. Now, if he's found guilty when the case goes to trial in the spring, he'll certainly be disciplined. But not now.'
"Can you please explain how Aqib Talib being accused but not charged or convicted differs from Ben Roethlisberger being accused but not charged or convicted? I think this proves my greatest concern regarding the new CBA. Until there are some checks and balances it seems Roger GODall is going to ruin the NFL.''-- Scott Skinner, Lake Saint Louis, Mo.
Scott, the NFL commissioner's discipline policy is not going to ruin the NFL. That's silly. Is it inconsistent? Yes, it seems to be at times. But Roger Goodell has suspended players who have been accused without being found guilty (Pacman Jones, for instance).
The Roethlisberger suspension was handed down, at least in part, because of two things: Roethlisberger's consistently aberrant behavior over time and because the three-month barrage of news media coverage after he was found in the company of underage college girls and accused of assaulting one of them "tarnished the shield.''
I'll just make one final point about the legions of those who defend Roethlisberger and to this day do not think he should have been suspended. It's common knowledge Roethlisberger was behaving immaturely and needed to be corralled and needed to turn around his personal life. This suspension helped him do that, from all appearances. Steeler fans should be happy someone took him by the throat and said, "Grow up.''
DEFENDING FANTASY FOOTBALL. "Regarding 'Being a Fantasy Football fan versus an NFL team fan.' I'm 40. I considered the Vikings to be my team from 1975 until, oh, about five years ago. It was then that I became more-or-less detached from the Vikes, due mainly to Fantasy Football, which I've played for 18 years. I'm not ashamed of it; I do not apologize for it and I don't mind that people think it's ridiculous -- I can even understand why they would say so.
"The Vikings, along with 31 other NFL teams, play a game. Having four kids, I found I didn't have the time, nor, more to the point, the inclination, to get so invested in their game, nor their results. I just didn't have the passion to care about the Vikings any longer. Fantasy Football is a game, too, but it is also a hobby. I can be my own GM, and appreciate the game for what it is -- a game.
"I, too, would find it ludicrous if fantasy football fans got angry at players for poor performances, or for [making a smart football play and] taking a dive at the 1 yard line to run out the clock rather than scoring a TD. I can understand Arian Foster's frustration if he deals with that often, but surely a man of his intellect can see the other side of the fantasy football fan coin as well.
"I happen to have Arian Foster on my team. I hope he's healthy mainly because he seems like a great guy and he's very talented/fun to watch. Sure, it would be great if he helped me win my Fantasy title, too, but I'm not going to send him hate mail if he doesn't. I enjoy The NFL now more than ever before because I can appreciate games without the petty 'I'll cheer for my team blindly regardless of circumstance' bias. Is this a bad thing? I don't think so.''-- Kevin Christopherson, Northfield, Minn.
Reasonable, smart and interesting. Thanks for writing. I'm sure people like Kurt Warner, Arian Foster and Todd Haley would applaud you. When they get ticked off is when people approach them even after they've performed well in a victory and grouse about how their numbers were good enough (or, in the case of Haley, if they've run the ball well and he just didn't call Jamaal Charles' number enough).
ONE MORE TAKE ON THE FANTASY GAME. "I read the comments that Arian Foster made in your column yesterday. It got me to wondering what pro football players really think about their sport. Pro football is very popular in the United States but I believe, contrary to what many players think, it is not because of the players, the play on the field or the feeling of being at a stadium. The reason pro football is popular is because of Fantasy Football, Survivor Pools, Betting Lines, Vegas Odds and picking teams against the spread.
"I know it is taboo to talk about gambling and the NFL but let's be realistic here. Pro football is the number one betting sport in the country and Fantasy Football has surpassed Fantasy Baseball in terms of people that play. This is what keeps the sport alive.
"The on-field product is average, watching a game live is torture because of the commercial breaks and not knowing what is going on throughout the league and many of us have been priced out of games. I ask you: Do the players and the NFL coaches really put their head in the sand regarding the gambling, betting and fantasy football or do they know this is what drives their sport?''-- Guy Beretta, Fanwood, N.J.
If they read your letter, it'll get them to thinking about it. Thanks for the note.
GOOD CALL, JUDY. "Regarding your Travel Note of the Week, I'm always puzzled when the airlines announce "the last and final boarding call." Is there a difference between the "last" and "final" boarding calls? Also, I have found on more than one occasion that they actually make multiple "last and final boarding calls." I'm baffled every time I hear that announcement.''-- Judy Adams, Los Angeles
Finally, my last and final word on the subject.
THE INSIDE SCOOP ON 'CURB:' "Just wanted to quickly answer your question about Curb Your Enthusiasm. They used a college in the Bronx to double as the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I was the production secretary on the New York portion of Curb and they actually paid me to go up to Cooperstown on Hall of Fame weekend to buy tickets to the hall, collect shopping bags and purchase souvenirs that they could use in that Hall of Fame scene. So because of a 15 second scene in a TV show, I got to spend a day in Cooperstown taking pictures of Ozzie Smith, Dwight Gooden and of the museum, which I hadn't been to since I was a kid.
"As an aspiring writer/comedian being on set to Larry David, Ricky Gervais, etc., work has been an unbelievable experience. And between you and me, you're going to love the next few episodes, which include a couple of baseball players who were on opposite ends of one of the most memorable moments in history and the way Larry uses that is amazing.''-- Chris Burns, Buffalo
Could you possibly be talking about Bill Buckner? Thanks, Chris.