Was there really a Super Bowl, or just a halftime show? Sorry. I promised my friends that I wouldn't mention it and now look what I've done. I've led with it.
Our Playoff Diary begins on Friday night, Jan. 16, at the Philadelphia Marriott, where the Eagles are holding their pre-NFC Championship press conference. And while I'm listening to Donovan McNabb telling us that no one's happy to just be there, I'm watching a curious thing. Some guy from the Eagles' PR staff is sneaking around the room, surreptitiously slipping an envelope to selected writers. What the devil could this be? I was consumed with curiosity. Finally I asked one of the recipients.
"Party tickets," he said. Gee, that's right. I had forgotten that the NFL usually puts together some semblance of a Saturday night party before the championship games. Next day I asked a young woman at the NFL credentials desk how the league determined who qualified for an invite.
"Oh, the VIPs, I guess," she said. I practically burst out laughing. Just too freakin' rich. The caste system strikes the postseason.
"You're not really going to write about this, are you?" The Flaming Redhead asked when I mentioned this odd little grace note.
"Absolutely not," I assured her.
Now that we've begun our story with nonsense sandwiched between two lies, let me say that I picked the Panthers to lose to the Eagles, just as I'd picked them to lose to the Rams. Very early in the Philly contest I realized that there was no logic to my choice. I had been on a talk show and someone asked me to compare the teams, and I did it unit by unit, giving Carolina an edge in offensive line, defensive line, running backs, receivers and linebackers, with Philly getting the nod on quarterback and secondary.
"So why did you pick the Eagles?" the guy asked me, and I mumbled something about Eagles Mystique, with a total lack of conviction.
I regretted my pick even more when The Redhead and I sat down with John Fox for an hour or so on Saturday, the day before the game. He was impressive as a defensive coach, when I first got to know him, and even more impressive now, as the Panthers' head man. Everything about the man says "winner."
"You know, it's an ugly game," he said, "and we play ugly. That's why people don't like us. Our draft ... a tackle and a guard in the first two rounds -- everyone hated it. Not sexy. That's us. That's the way I like it"
I think the Panthers-Eagles contest was decided even before McNabb retired from the arena with sore ribs, or at least we thought it was sore ribs. There never was a press box announcement about the injury. FOX-TV's sideline reporter, Pam Oliver, fished out the information, and the writers in the press box who like to listen to the TV through their headsets were privy to the information.
The Panthers locker room was a loose, happy place after the game. I hunted down Carolina offensive coordinator Dan Henning, the offensive coordinator. He speaks with a southern accent now. Forty-four years ago, when I was the schoolboy writer for the New York World Telegram-Sun, I covered Dan when he was a 17-year old All-City quarterback for St. Francis Prep in Brooklyn. He spoke Brooklyn then.
"I've had some real good offensive teams," he was saying after the Philly game, "but they've never been backed up by a defense like this."
All told, a good weekend in Philly, which was actually where I was born. It was also the home of the best restaurant we ate in during the entire postseason, Le Bec Fin on Walnut St. And Philly was the site of my favorite Super Bowl ad ... in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer: A picture of Mike Ditka, announcing that "New Levitra (for erectile disfunction) salutes the Philadelphia Eagles." And we know how it salutes them.
The Tuesday before Super Sunday used to be called Picture Day. Now it's called Media Day. What it really has become is Idiot Day. They crawl out from under rocks and behind bushes. Feature editors turn their fashionistas loose, the style section comes armed with mikes and mini-cams, Jay Leno and David Letterman and the rest of the nighthawks send their wannabe's on the trail with instructions to "be outrageous, be crazy, give us an offbeat sound bite." All of it is just tiresome, the same stuff I've been witnessing for 37 Super Bowl Picture/Media Days. Warren Sapp cruising the area, with his worn-out shtick and some 13-year-old creature with spiked, canary-yellow hair from Nickelodeon going around with a camera crew, conducting interviews.
"How do you spell referee?" he asked Rodney Harrison. Harrison spelled it. "How do you spell pass interference?" the canaryhead said. Harrison spelled it.
"How do YOU spell haircut?" Harrison asked the kid, who grunted in disgust and signaled to his crew that it was time to move on.
All the old angles, the old cliches. How does it feel to be the favorite ... to be here ... to face us? Stories that were written in camp resurface. Harrison: "They gave up on me in San Diego." Jake Delhomme: "I was second string in NFL Europe." The same old question, "What's the dumbest question you've been asked?" receives the same old answer, "That one."
And when some pudgy little freak started goading Harrison with, "What's the weirdest place you and your wife made whoopie?" that's when I lost it, and the confrontation has already been well-documented.
I asked Patriots tackle Matt Light how the front five worked their protection when a defense came out in a Bear look and covered the middle three -- guard, center, guard -- as the Panthers did. He looked at me as if I were some kind of insect, and I realized the question was as out of place as a concert violinist at the MTV Music Awards.
"What are you, a coach?" he said. "You want our game plan?"
The Patriots seemed like the tighter of the two teams. "It's a business trip for us," was what you heard. It was a warning light. Same thing the Vikings, one of the most buttoned-up collections of Super Bowl entries in history, used to say. Same thing the Eagles said before they played the Raiders, who were hanging out on Bourbon Street before the '81 contest. The Panthers were the looser team this time. Some of them actually seemed to be having fun.
"You see, I got him this coat as a present," Jarrod Cooper, a special teams whacko was saying about his special teams buddy Rod "He Hate Me" Smart. "Not sure what kind of animal it was from. Neanderthal, I think. Got it at the Salvation Army. Cost me 13 bucks."
"It was St. Bernard," Smart said. "But one time I lost this bet to him, and for a day I had to wear this outfit they got me. Pink daisy-do shorts, and a pink T-shirt, size women's large that said 'I Love Guys,' and flip-flops that lit up when you walked..."
Old Super Bowl formula: The looser team wins. I was beginning to feel that I'd made a real mistake in picking the Patriots.
Saturday was the low point of the week. The voting for Hall of Fame induction. For seven years I had been lobbying for the admission of two Seniors candidates into the final balloting session, instead of one. As a member of the Seniors Committee that selects these veterans, whose careers had to have ended 25 or more years ago, I've always felt a terrible, hollow feeling when some of the great names in history were passed over, year after year. It was a situation that could only get worse as a few modern-era candidates became seniors every year and only one old timer could be rescued from the swamp. So I wrote letters to Judge David Dowd, the chairman of the Hall's Board of Trustees, and cornered individual board members whenever I could and brought up proposals at enshrinement meetings.
And then this year they changed the rules and allowed two seniors to be presented. And then undid all the good that decision caused by setting it up so that they had to go head to head against the moderns, John Elway and Barry Sanders, etc. (Under the old system, the Senior candidate came in by himself and stood alone, with only a yea or nay vote called for). And then the committee cut the maximum number of enshrinees from seven to six, to make getting voted in even harder. Why? Why the double cross?
"The selectors themselves wanted it," said the Hall's Executive Director John Bankert. "That's what they said at the owners meetings."
The owners meetings? Who of us ever went to the owners meetings? The NFL spring meeting in March is the one we all go to. And besides, I hadn't talked to a single selector who said he approved of that new system ... unless he didn't understand what they were actually doing, unless somehow it was finessed through. And why did they cut the number from seven to six?
"To keep the list from getting diluted," said the Hall's vice president of communications, Joe Horrigan.
Last August our committee had met in Canton, Ohio, and selected Bob Brown, the Boomer, the great offensive tackle, and Dallas wideout Bob Hayes, the fastest player who ever lived and the greatest deep threat in history. We chose them after a fairly exhaustive weeding process.
Going into Saturday's meeting I had very creepy feelings about what would follow. I was Brown's presenter. I also gave a short speech on behalf of Hayes. Nothing but losing seasons before he arrived, then two years later the Cowboys were in the championship. Caught 36 TD passes in the 38 games they won in his first four years with the club, forced teams into the two-deep zone, which was hardly used before his arrival, had a lifetime per-catch average of 20 yards, which is unheard of today. In short, he made a huge impact on the game. His only weakness was a subpar record in postseason action, and that made me nervous. But still ...
Well, both seniors, Hayes and Brown, made the final six, where only a yea or nay vote was required. Eight nay votes, offsetting 31 yeas, would be enough to reject a candidate. Then the final votes were cast and we broke for half an hour to wait for the press conference announcing the enshrinees. I was still grumbling about the process.
"You remind me of lawyers who appear in my courtroom," Judge Dowd said, "and keep arguing even after they had won." I told him nothing had been won yet. And then the enshrinees were announced -- Elway and Sanders, who were slam dunks, Brown and Carl Eller. Dallas' great offensive tackle, Rayfield Wright, who had reached the final six, was rejected. And so was Hayes. The Hall ended up with its nice, undiluted four-player list.
I sat down that afternoon and wrote a letter to the Hall, resigning from the Seniors Committee. I was just tired of being some kind of performing seal, going out to Canton in the summer and playing their game and picking a candidate who was going to be rejected, thanks, in part, to a system that encouraged it.
Who were the selectors who had cast the eight (or more) negative votes? We'll never know because these guys come out of the shadows very infrequently. If there had been some dissenting opinion about Hayes expressed in the room, we could have tried to argue against it, but we're dealing with silent assassins, waiting behind the door with a gun. Killers in the dark. So screw 'em. Let them do their number on the Seniors without my help.
And I know what I would be asking if I were reading this right now. If you're so upset, why not quit completely as a Hall of Fame selector? The answer, for the record, is that I can do more good from within than without in trying to improve the system. But underneath, there's just the feeling that I would miss it too much. I would feel that a lifetime of covering the sport was ending on a downer. I would miss being involved, and being able to write about it. So we make our little gestures, and maybe if three or four more Seniors selectors had joined me, the folks at the Hall would have gotten the message, but that's too much to ask for.
This was the big surprise that greeted me right away as the Super Bowl got under way: The Patriots' offensive line, composed of two regulars, one fifth-round draft choice and two street free agents, was controlling the Panthers' front four, which is considered the best in the NFL. Not only controlling, but dominating at times. This took Carolina pass defenders out of coverage and forced them to blitz more than they'd have liked to, in a desperate attempt to put heat on Tom Brady.
The Patriots narrowed their line splits at times and assigned rookie tight end Daniel Graham the occasional task of staying in and max-protecting, and Brady remained unsacked while throwing 48 passes. The blitzes were picked up and he got some of his most crucial and longest completions against those all-out rushes.
Graham, who got the start over Christian Fauria, turned out to be one of the unsung figures of the game, not only catching four passes and contributing in blitz-pickup, but in his run blocking, both from a position up front and as a wham-blocker cruising behind the line. Defensive linemen hate wham blocks, which usually catch them from the side. Even if the maneuver doesn't create a serious hole, it keeps the D-linemen nervous and blunts their pass rush.
But Graham was also a key figure when the Patriots decided to run the ball from a three-wideout set, against the Panthers' nickel defense. On one Antowain Smith six-yard run that bought a first down on the way to the Patriots' initial second half TD, I saw Graham take on linebacker Greg Favors, who was playing him straight up, and drive him and dump him on his back. On Smith's two-yard TD that ended the drive, Graham created the hole with a perfect form block on Julius Peppers, getting under his pads, driving him and turning him. Tight ends aren't supposed to do that to defensive ends.
Peppers had a rough day in general. After a while the Patriots started concentrating on the Panthers' left side, his side, and free agent Tom Ashworth, after some opening jitters on his pass-blocks, started doing a number on Peppers, too. Panthers nickel back Terry Cousin, who covered the slot receiver, also became a favorite target when New England went with three wides.
In the early stages of the game, which seemed like two fighters feeling each other out, I thought the Panthers' offensive line might return the favor, but it was an overmatch in favor of New England. There was just too much talent on the Patriots' side of the ball, whether it was Ted Washington in the middle, or Richard Seymour crashing down from his end spot, or Mike Vrabel rushing outside or stunting, or even reserve lineman Jarvis Green, who had a sensational postseason. It was practically impossible to get them all blocked.
I missed the halftime presentation because I was nose deep in my charts, trying to put some coherent thoughts together, but I was told that toward the end of it, a nervous titter ran through the show.
The second half was unique, at least for Super Bowls I had seen, because law and order seemed to break down and a kind of formlessness took over. It was thrilling for the fans, this reversion to shootout football, but this was supposed to be a defensive contest, right? The Panthers scored on their last three possessions, all on long drives. The Patriots scored on three of their last four, and the other one went the length of the field, culminating in an end-zone pick.
For the Panthers, it was mostly a matter of tiring out. By the end of the third quarter, New England had run off 56 plays to Carolina's 37, and there was a noticeable sag in the Panthers' defense, particularly on short-yardage plays. The unit had made mistakes in the first half -- both short Brady TD passes came on slants when the cornerback looked for inside help that never arrive -- but in the fourth quarter it was a physical thing.
The Carolina successes against a Patriots defense that had prided itself all season on not giving up long plays was tougher to figure, except that the Panthers are blessed with long-range people, and Delhomme, once he settled down, had the guts to keep firing it up there for them. The Panthers gained 387 total yards, and almost half of them (188) came on only four plays, TD passes to Mushin Muhammad and Steve Smith, another long completion to Ricky Proehl and a 33-yard TD run by DeShaun Foster.
"Nobody was stopping anybody ... it was just a matter of who would have the ball last," said Patriots guard Russ Hochstein, a career backup who acquitted himself nobly against all-pro Kris Jenkins.
Fox was criticized for going for the two-point conversion twice and failing on both occasions. OK, let's take this all the way through, assuming he'd have kicked the PAT each time. Early fourth-quarter touchdown and extra point puts the Panthers down 21-17 rather than 21-16. Then their next TD, a seven-pointer, puts them up 24-21, instead of 22-21. The Patriots score, but they don't have to go for two and now Carolina is ahead 28-24 instead of the actual 29-22. Carolina comes back with its TD with 1:08 left and leads, 31-28, instead of being in a 29-29 tie.
Which leads to Brady's miracle final drive and Adam Vinatieri's field goal to tie it at 31-all, and we go into the first-ever Super Bowl overtime. And who do you like in OT, the Patriots against a worn-out Panthers defense or Carolina against a team that has lost both safeties and has to cover the deep stuff with special-teamer Chris Akins and Shawn Mayer, an undrafted rookie who hadn't enough playing time for a Patriots' varsity letter?
A thorny problem, to be sure, and frankly, all the what-if's wear me out.
Much more logical is the argument that on the Panthers' final drive, they never should have called time out when they reached the New England 14 with 1:43 left. It's a quibble, I know, and the important thing is scoring, with the idea of leaving the Patriots as little time as possible a secondary consideration. But still ... 1:08 was left for the Pats and that was all Brady needed.
John Kasay knocking the kickoff out of bounds and setting the Patriots up on the 40 didn't help, but up till then, the average New England starting point, following a kickoff, was its own 27. So would 13 yards really make that much difference? Well, maybe, but in the overall context of the game, it wasn't as huge an issue as some people made it.
How do I rank this game in the pantheon of Super Bowls? No. 1 for freakiness, although I'll have to think it through before I give it an overall ranking. And how about the Brady-Joe Montana comparison?
Well, they have one common trait, the ability to lift their game to the highest level under the most extreme pressure. But one thing Montana had that Brady can't match is an almost mechanical accuracy. As great as he is, Brady will occasionally get into streaks in which he sprays his passes. But Montana had the ability to hit his receivers at exactly the right time, in stride, particularly on the short patterns, so that they would enter their route arrogantly, at full speed, and turn five-yard gains into 50-yarders.
But Brady's only 26, for gosh sakes, and he already has two Super Bowl MVPs under his belt. The sky's the limit.