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MMQB: A NFL season retrospective


It's been an odd week. I've been bronchially ill for much of it, napping and coughing and going to bed at 8. I planned to have this week's column be a year-in-review job, what with management and players in silent mode before the federal mediator in Washington over the weekend.

My year in review is coming. But first a few words on Dave Duerson. The former Bears' All-Pro starting safety shot himself in the chest Thursday after texting family members to be sure, after death, that his brain was harvested and analyzed for the kind of degenerative brain condition that has been found to be increasingly common in some former football players. And not just NFL, but high school and college players too, kids who have had more brain trauma than the human brain was meant to have. As part of my year in review, I'm going to recall the scene I discovered in the fall at a VA hospital in Massachusetts, where a smart neurologist is leading a study on brain trauma in deceased people, trauma that has led to dementia, depression and suicide (in the most extreme cases) among some victims.

On Sunday, I spoke with Chris Nowinski, the co-director of the Boston University Med School's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. He's part of a cadre of smart young people working to discover the relationship between brain trauma and debilitating illness. I asked him about Duerson's decision to bequeath his brain to be studied.

Duerson, 50, was a four-year starter at Notre Dame, graduated on time with a degree in economics, won the NFL Man of the Year award in 1987, earned a seat on the Notre Dame Board of Trustees in 2001, worked with the NFL Players Association, and then saw much of his personal and professional success waste away in the past five years. Most of his football friends, in interviews over the past few days, said they were shocked by the dramatic turn of events in Duerson's life that resulted in his decline and suicide.

"Mr. Duerson's decision to donate his brain for research will help a lot of people,'' Nowinski said. "It's an admirable decision to make at a time in his life that I can't imagine the hardship he was going through.''

It will be several months before noted neurologist Dr. Ann McKee and her staff can draw conclusions on the study of Duerson's brain. Not just because to do the job right it takes at least a month of pathology work and study of cross-sections of the brain to determine the extent of any brain damage. Plus, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has received between five and eight brains this month, Nowinski said. They may not all be football players' brains; the Center studies brains of those from other professions where head trauma is common.

Nowinski was careful to say this is not strictly an NFL problem. The Center has studied at least one high school player's brain, and one of a college player, and found the disease. "It's a football problem, not an NFL problem,'' he said. "The problem has to be fixed at the youth level, because guys can play 15 years of football before they ever get to the NFL. The education is improving, but we need to get more creative about changing the rules at the lower levels of football.''

Nowinski pointed out that the National Federation of State High School Associations recently issued its rule changes for the 2011 season, and though there were points of emphases issued about helmets, concussions and helmet-to-helmet hits, there were no rule changes concerning the dangerous hits. Nowinski said he vehemently disagreed. "The building's on fire,'' he said. "They need to react. You've got Little Leagues setting pitch-count limits for young kids, but there are no limits on how many times a young kid can get hit in the head. That's wrong.''

Now for the beginning of my midseason story on a league on fire, and one reason the NFL reacted so stridently to the spate of violent incidents:

From SI, Nov. 1:

At the Veterans Administration hospital in Bedford, Mass., last Friday, one of the world's foremost experts on repetitive brain trauma -- and a major Packers fan too, judging from the Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre bobbleheads on a shelf next to her desk -- slipped a slide into a microscope. Dr. Ann McKee, an associate professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University who has been studying the brains of deceased football players, wanted to illustrate the damage that repeated hits to the helmet can cause. This slide of a cross-section of a human male brain, magnified 100 times, showed scores, maybe hundreds, of tiny brownish triangular bits of a toxic protein called tau, choking off cellular life in the brain.

"This is Louis Creekmur," said McKee. "You can see there are hardly any areas untouched by the damage. Like with Wally Hilgenberg, it is widespread in Louis Creekmur. I would call it incredible chaos in the brain. Louis was demented when he died."

Lou Creekmur: 10-year NFL offensive lineman, Pro Football Hall of Famer. Wally Hilgenberg: 15-year NFL linebacker, one of the key members of the Vikings' Purple People Eaters defense.

Over the past three years McKee has been given the brains of 16 former NFL players, some of whom suffered dementia, ALS or severe depression. Families of the players wondered whether there was a link between football and the psychological, physical or behavioral problems that afflict some older players. Rigorous testing has been completed on 14 of the brains; 13 were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the condition that was so widespread in the brains of Creekmur and Hilgenberg. In addition McKee has examined the brains of deceased college and high school football players and found evidence of CTE in several of them as well.

"I can say confidently that this is a distinctive disorder that you don't develop in the general population," McKee said. "In fact, I have never seen this disease in any person who doesn't have the kind of repetitive head trauma that football players would have."

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McKee spoke three days after the NFL came out with its new points of emphasis on helmet-to-helmet shots, fining three players the eye-opening total of $175,000 for frightening hits in Week 6 and warning that suspensions were the next step on the disciplinary ladder if such blows continued. As she gathered up the slides of the damaged brain tissues of NFL players, McKee considered a question: What would she say if she could speak to Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather (fined $50,000 for a helmet hit on Ravens tight end Todd Heap) or Steelers linebacker James Harrison (fined $75,000 for his second offense, a shot on Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi)?

"I wouldn't say anything," she answered. "I'd just show them these slides."


It's hard to transition from that to a breezy look at the season just concluded, so I won't try. Here goes.

Things I don't look bad for writing

On March 8: I talked to A.J. Smith for 20 minutes last Thursday, after all the tenders came out, and the Chargers had tendered Shawne Merriman, a player they don't even like, with first- and third-round compensation. I still don't understand why they did it. In other words, if a team were to sign Merriman -- a player who's been invisible for two straight years -- it would have to give two high picks in one of the best drafts in years. It's not happening, obviously, and I can't figure out why the tender wasn't something like Anquan Boldin's third-rounder, designed to draw out interest from a team and give the Chargers compensation.

What happened: Merriman strained his calf, played but three games, was released by the Chargers Nov. 2 and picked up by the Bills.

On March 22: The NFL Draft's a month from today, and this weekend has proven one thing to me: Tim Tebow's going higher than we thought he would. Something interesting has happened this weekend. Most agents are happy to tell you where their client will be visiting before the draft and which teams he'll be working out for. A top player is usually happy to talk about a conversation he had with Bill Belichick or advice he got on how to throw the ball from Mike Holmgren. Not agent Jimmy Sexton over the weekend. And not Tim Tebow. Both said at the request of the teams, they'd like to keep the opinions from the teams to themselves, and they'd like to keep which teams are interested to themselves. Of course, it's an open secret that Washington coach Mike Shanahan worked out Tebow in Gainesville on Saturday, and that Cleveland, Seattle, New England and Buffalo will either do so or already have. But you won't get that from the Tebow camp. I now think Tebow's going in the 28 to 45 range, to a team willing to be patient with him at quarterback and maybe to allow him to help the team in other ways immediately. That's how much he helped himself with his aggressive remaking of his throwing motion at his workout Wednesday.

I asked Tebow if he thought he'd be a first-round pick, and there was a long pause.

"Heh-heh,'' he said, chuckling a little uncomfortably. "Not sure. Good question. I believe with all my heart that I'll be an NFL quarterback, but who takes me, and where, I don't know.''

What happened: Tebow got picked 25, by Denver.

On April 5, after the Eagles dealt Donovan McNabb to Washington: I like the trade for both teams. I like Reid trusting himself enough and having enough guts, as Bill Belichick did with Drew Bledsoe nine years ago, to trade McNabb to a division rival. Since the Super Bowl loss to New England, Philadelphia is eight games over .500, and Reid saw the team hitting a wall. When a coach sees a team getting stale, he has to change, and Reid has done that, with the release or trade of nine current or former starters between the ages of 27 and 33 since the end of the season.

What happened: I got it half-right. The Eagles got the far better of the deal, and Washington's stuck with a quarterback it really doesn't want.

On April 26, after the draft: Green Bay. The Pack bought what Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was saying -- that the 2009 season of left tackle Bryan Bulaga, idled for three weeks by a thyroid condition, was nothing like his 2008 season, when he was a monster. Bulaga will be ready when either of the old Packers tackles goes down this year. James Starks, nice value in round six, could be a good complement to Ryan Grant.

What happened: Bulaga was a stud at right tackle as a rookie and played great in the Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh. Starks, a late-season surprise, had a 123-yard playoff rushing day against the Eagles.

On July 26, pre-training camp: I have no information for you, other than I, like all of you, think Brett Favre's going to show up in time to play the third preseason game (Aug. 28, Metrodome, Seattle in town).

What happened: Favre was calf-wrestled back onto the Vikings on Aug. 17, played one series Aug. 22 in San Francisco, then played as much as the rest of the first unit in the preseason game with Seattle.

On Aug. 23: I'd put the odds at the owners locking players out of team facilities on March 1, 2011, or thereabouts, at 80 percent.

What happened: I still would.

On Aug. 23, regarding fantasy football: You probably can't pick Arian Foster too high. The coaches still are skeptical of Steve Slaton's ability to hold onto the ball, and Ben Tate's gone for the year ... On the road for much of the last month, I bet I got approached by 50 fans asking me for fantasy advice. (No! Don't take it!) ... The guy who could have more value than all of them is Houston running back Arian Foster. The 2009 undrafted free-agent out of Tennessee has grabbed the starting job with no strings, and with the fleet Ben Tate on IR after a preseason injury, I expect Foster to put up silly numbers in an offense that fits him perfectly.

What happened: Foster won the NFL rushing title with 1,616 yards, and led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,220.

On Sept. 6, predicting a 33-27 Pittsburgh victory over Green Bay in the Super Bowl in the NFL Preview issue: The Steelers? Really? The team with the suspended starting quarterback? The one that traded away a Super Bowl MVP? The club that couldn't beat the Chiefs or the Raiders in 2009? The defensively mortal Steelers? The geezer Steelers? Green Bay in the NFC you can understand, especially after Aaron Rodgers's phenomenal preseason. But Pittsburgh? The football gods are laughing, and the karma gods are weeping.

What happened: I changed my pick before the playoffs to New England-Green Bay. Idiot. Super Bowl XLV: Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25.


Things I wish I had back

On May 24: I think this is just a hunch, but I wouldn't be surprised if Terrell Owens signs with Washington.

What happened: T.O. signed with the Bengals just before training camp.

On May 31: I think one of the surprises of training camps come August will be the readiness of Brady Quinn. Denver coach Josh McDaniels likes what he sees in Quinn, has tinkered with his drop and delivery (slowing him down, which was vital, since Quinn's drop always looked like someone just pulled a fire alarm), and will let the quarterback drama play out there. I still think Kyle Orton wins the starting job, but Quinn has a shot to unseat him.

What happened: Quinn got buried far down the depth chart and never got a chance to sniff the top job behind Orton and Tim Tebow.

On July 26: Ran into Larry King at Nate and Al's deli in Beverly Hills. That's his breakfast haunt. "Who's your surprise team of the season?'' he asked me. I said, "Carolina.'' Expected him to say: "Charlotte, North Carolina ... Hello!''

What happened: The Panthers were the surprise of the season, all right. The surprise pathetic team, finishing with the worst record in the NFL.

On Aug. 30, regarding the new rule that had the umpire stationed behind the line of scrimmage rather than near the middle linebacker: I don't want to be too dramatic about it, but it's a virtual certainty that the rule will have far more impact on the Colts than on any team in football. They won't be able to run their no-huddle offense with the same speed they always have ... For now, I can see some mayhem on the horizon.

What happened: Absolutely nothing, other than more offensive holding calls. This was the same much ado about nothing issue as in 2009 with the low Cowboy scoreboard, which was supposed to be dented by punters weekly. Never got touched in the last two regular seasons.

On Sept. 6, when I predicted the following:

· John Fox would be coach of the year and Carolina would make the playoffs.

· Dallas, San Francisco, Carolina and New York would be the four NFC teams playing on wild-card weekend.

· Ryan Mathews and Dexter McCluster split my vote for offensive rookie of the year.

· Missouri would be awful, again. The Chiefs would finish last in the AFC West at 6-10, and the Rams last in the AFC West at 3-13.

· The Bucs would finish with the worst record in football, 2-14.

What happened: Fox got fired. Carolina was the worst team in football. Dallas, San Francisco, Carolina and New York didn't make the playoffs. Mathews and McCluster were veritable non-factors because of injury. The Chiefs won the AFC West; the Rams lost the NFC West title on the last night of the regular season. The Bucs were one of football's great surprises, finishing 10-6.

Now for a MMQB timeline of the season

INDIANAPOLIS, March 1: I smell a nice rivalry cooking.

On Friday night, the Saints' staff at the Combine gathered in a private room at St. Elmo Steakhouse, the 108-year-old Indy foodie landmark, for a final celebratory nod to the Super Bowl win over the Colts. This is a group that likes its wine, and likes to have fun. At the restaurant, word passed that Dallas owner Jerry Jones would have his Dallas group in this exact room Saturday night for a team dinner. Jones, one of the waiters told the Saints' group, even phoned ahead to make sure a magnum of a wine he loved, Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon, was ready to be served at dinner.

Sean Payton told the waiter he'd like to have that wine, too. The waiter told him: Sorry, sir. We've got only one bottle of it left, and it's reserved for Mr. Jones.

Payton said he'd like to have the bottle nonetheless. I assume there was much angst on the part of the wait staff at that point. My God! Who do we piss off? One of the most powerful owners in the NFL, or the coach who's the toast of the NFL, the coach who just won the Super Bowl?

Here came the bottle of Caymus Special Selection, and the Saints' party drained it.

But drinking Jones' wine wasn't enough. Payton gave the waiter some instructions, took out his pen ... and, well, the Cowboys party found at the middle of their table the next evening an empty magnum of Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon, with these words hand-written on the fancy label:

WHO DAT!World Champions XLIVSean Payton

That's the kind of thing Jones will get a big laugh out of. And remember.


BOSTON, May 10: Tom Brady's life changes.

Brady will hear a lot of questions about his commitment, now that he's spending so much time in Los Angeles. Hs goal in the offseason used to be to win the prized parking spot given to the most dedicated player in the offseason program. Now his family goals take precedence, and because his older son (he shares custody), lives in Los Angeles, he feels he has to be in southern California more than if Jack lived back East. He made it clear he's not going to give short-shrift to either of his sons, and if he has to work on his own for a good part of the offseason, away from his teammates, then so be it.

"It's a balancing act,'' he said. "I don't want the next 10 years to go by and to say I wasn't there for my sons. I wish I could be there [in Foxboro daily in the offseason] the way I was when I was 24, but life is different now. Things actually are much more simple than they've ever been. I used to spend every weekend running around with friends. Now I've got two great kids, and I love spending time with them. [Benjamin] is usually up at 6 in the morning, so that's when the day starts now.''

He said he's going to go back and forth through the offseason and will attend all the mandatory camps and as much of the offseason program as time allows. But he was honest about the fact he's not going to know his new mates once training camp begins in late July as well as he used to know everyone in the locker room.

"I'm not going to have the same relationship with the guys as if I was there every day,'' he said. "I hope they can understand. I've seen it handled different ways by a lot of guys on the team in the past, including some of the real leaders. I've seen Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison when their family lives turned in a different directions and they couldn't be in the offseason program every day. Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: We've all got to be ready to play.''


JOHANNESBURG, June 13: Covering the World Cup is fun.

On Sunday evening, with the temperature dropping into the high forties in the tony Melrose Arch section of this teeming city, I followed four wafer-thin Namibians through a ritzy outdoor mall. These men were about 25, and about 5-foot-8. They might have weighed 100 pounds. All four carried sturdy brown walking sticks. They wore brown sandals and leather loin coverings that I'd best describe as mini-skirts. And that's all they wore.

The four talked in their native tongue happily among themselves, walking by a Mont Blanc store, then a shop with $5,000 watches, and made it to the 50-yard-by-50-yard neighborhood square, where, as in scores of neighborhoods in South Africa these days, a huge TV screen was set up for watching World Cup games. While the four waited for the Germany-Australia game to begin, they gathered with a few other Namibians hoisting the Namibia flag (with woven blankets around their shoulders), and danced to some African music from a local band onstage.

I looked around. There were Hondurans with their flag, dozens of Brazilians with a few of theirs, Italians in their smart blue Azzuri jackets, Germans (who somehow, somewhere found Becks), South Africans on and offstage, Americans, English, Spaniards, Dutch (in bright orange), vocal and imbibing Aussies, a ton of Mexicans (with a few sombreros), Ghanaians with their trademark black star celebrating their afternoon victory, and a family of Danes, all in Danish team jerseys.

When the game kicked off, fans of all these nations blew those omnipresent vuvuzelas, drank Castles and Windhoeks from passing beer vendors, and stood shoulder to shoulder, yelling and rooting and drinking. (And in many cases, annoyingly, smoking.)

Americans in sweatshirts, and Namibians in skirts and carrying walking sticks, watching Germany play Australia. The World Cup. It's not like anything I've seen.


GEORGETOWN, Ky., July 29: Everybody's optimistic, some with good reason, in July.

Of all the things you don't expect to hear at an NFL training camp, Frank Sinatra crooning on a hip player's portable Bose speaker would be one. But here it came, wafting underneath the stands of the football stadium at Georgetown College, the entrancing and melodic "It Was a Very Good Year.'' I couldn't understand where it was coming from. As players walked from the locker room under the stands to the cafeteria after Cincinnati's morning practice, I craned my neck to see the source, and it was Chad Ochocinco, with a hand-held Bose speaker box, with his iPod doing the job.

When I was 35It was a very good year.It was a very good year for blue-blooded girlsOf independent means ...

"I'm just so excited I can't stand it,'' Ocho said. "Carson's got to be out of his mind excited. Me, TO, Antonio [Bryant], the run game, Gresham, Shipley, our other young receivers ... How are they gonna stop us? The other guy who's got to be going nuts is Cedric [Benson]. They can't jam the box on him now.'' When I walk away from him, I said, "Have a good year.'' Chad quickly says, "No. Great year. I always have a good year. This is going to be a great one.''


ST. CHARLES, Mo., Aug. 7: The Rams have their quarterback.

On the Rams sideline Saturday night, during the club's first scrimmage of the summer at woody Lindenwood University, all eyes were, of course, on rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, the first pick of the 2010 draft. "What's uncanny,'' said GM Billy Devaney, "is how he doesn't just complete the pass. He completes the pass most often where his guy can get it and the defender can't. Drives the corners crazy.'' On cue, Bradford took one of his 34 snaps of the evening, dropped back, and threw a spiral high and outside to 6-4 wideout Jordan Kent at the goal line. Kent and the covering corner both jumped for it, but Kent had half a foot on him and won the ball easily.

A few minutes later, pressured, Bradford let one fly 45 yards downfield on a corner route to wideout Danny Amendola, in tight coverage. The ball floated perfectly into his arms before he got pushed out. Gain of 50. "The boy can throw that football!'' corner Ron Bartell exulted next to me. "You see that?!!'' Now that's a corner -- exulting when one of his brethren in the secondary got beat. Not a common thing for training camp. But when you've lost 42 of your last 48 games, and your passing game is probably the biggest reason why, you want any hope you can find. And in St. Louis, hope is spelled B-R-A-D-F-O-R-D.


NEW YORK, Oct. 11: Larry Fitzgerald's right -- it's a weird year.

The voice from across the country late Sunday night said what we all feel, if I'm not mistaken, about the 2010 NFL season. "What is normal in this league right now?'' Larry Fitzgerald, fan of the game, said from Arizona. "Such a strange year.''

It's Oct. 11, the Monday morning of Week 5, and the league is fresh out of unbeatens. (Last year, after five weeks, five perfect teams remained.) The Colts go 55 minutes without a touchdown, at home, against Kansas City. Half the free world picked the Cowboys to play the first home Super Bowl ever; they're the worst team in the NFC East and have rendered Jerry Jones speechless. The Packers were supposed to waltz into the playoffs with an Indy-like offense, and we look up this morning to find they've been outscored by Shaun Hill's Lions. Atlanta coach Mike Smith admitted to me the other day the Falcons could be anywhere from 1-3 to 4-0, but after a gritty slugfest next to Lake Erie against the Browns, there's a good chance they're the best team in the NFC at 4-1.

Carolina, San Diego, San Francisco and Cincinnati ... 4-16.

Jacksonville 107, New Orleans 99.

Max Hall 1, Drew Brees 0.

Kansas City and Tampa Bay, three wins. San Diego and Dallas, three losses.

Randy Moss, a Viking. Brett Favre, accused. The circus, in town tonight.

Vince Lombardi, on Broadway. (I saw it with my own eyes Friday. He'd laugh if he were around. It's right next door to "Wicked.'')


NEW YORK, Oct. 18: The clampdown is coming.

"This is crazy!'' Rodney Harrison said as we tried to process the sixth or seventh vicious NFL hit of the day in the NBC viewing room Sunday afternoon.

Then, almost under his breath, Harrison said quietly, "Thank God I retired.''

The games we watched Sunday seemed as violent a collection as I've seen. Judging from the tweets and e-mails I got as the day went on, the public was astonished too. The Dunta Robinson collision with DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia, concussing both the Atlanta corner and Eagles receiver and probably kayoing the invaluable Jackson for Sunday's game at Tennessee. Several shots in Pittsburgh, two vicious ones by James Harrison of the Steelers; his helmet-to-helmet shot against Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi will certainly draw a heavy fine, and it's incredible to me no official flagged what could be the textbook definition of hitting a defenseless receiver. In New England, Brandon Meriweather lighting up Baltimore's Todd Heap with a hit to the head so vicious that either a mouthguard or something flew high into the air at the moment of impact. And so on -- six or eight shots where you wondered, "Is that guy getting up?'' ...

If the NFL's serious about its rules, and is giving more than lip service about concussions, it's essential the league acts now to reinforce the rules on the books.


NEW YORK, Nov. 22: Aaron Rodgers stakes his claim as The Man.

It's hard to not have great admiration for Aaron Rodgers. After the Packers embarrassed the Vikings on Sunday at the Metrodome, Rodgers made a beeline for Brett Favre at midfield, and they embraced for a good 20 seconds, both whispering into each other's earholes. It's obviously been an odd relationship between the two; they were friendly but never tight in Green Bay, and now Rodgers is proving there is life -- very good life -- after Favre in Green Bay, a prospect that once seemed unthinkable.

I asked Rodgers if he could share anything he'd said to Favre at such an awkward and probably emotional time. Rodgers not only had played at a Favrian level back home in Green Bay, but now he'd come into Favre's new place and finished the process of ripping the team's 2010 guts out. Green Bay 31, Minnesota 3. Somewhere, in some deep place, Rodgers had to be feeling some measure of tremendous satisfaction, but he wasn't going to show it in that embrace, and no matter what he thought of Favre, he realized the moment and knew it was only right to treat Favre with the dignity he hoped one day the man who vanquished him would treat him. Maybe sometime around 2024.

Hearing my question about what went on between he and Favre, Rodgers said, "I'd rather keep that private. I don't think it'd be right to share it.''

Just the right answer.

The Packers, for what it's worth, look like the best team in the league to me after 10 games.


NEW YORK, Dec. 20: Bad news from Dodge City.

We yell a lot in the fifth-floor Rockefeller Center viewing room of NBC's "Football Night in America.'' Up to nine games in high-def on a big wall in front of the room, and the 12 to 15 people in the room putting together the Sunday night show get a little excited from time to time. Oh, Rodney Harrison yells, often at big hits. Tony Dungy even yells a time or two per Sunday. I yell more than I ever did in a press box, where yelling is verboten. But I don't recall the sound coming out of the viewing room ever sounding like it did at 4:18 p.m. EST Sunday. It was something like, if I can paraphrase:

"NOOOOOohwhatareyouDOINGYOUIDIOT!'' That's when Giants punter Matt Dodge, with 14 seconds left in a 31-31 game, chose to not do what his coach told him and actually punted the ball to the most dangerous punt-return man in football for no apparent reason.

"NooooooAHHHHHHHHHOHHHHHHHH!'' That's when DeSean Jackson fumbled the punt, picked it up at about his 35-yard line, and began grasping for daylight to run toward.


So now, this is the first wee-hours-of-Monday-morning writing session that I have a sore throat ... The Eagles scored 28 points in the last nine minutes in New Jersey Sunday and beat the Giants.


NEW YORK, DEC. 27: Feeling Lucky?

I heard reliably earlier in the week that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the unquestioned top prospect in the draft should he choose to bypass his final two years of eligibility, was thinking about staying in school rather than being this year's Sam Bradford. As I said on NBC last night, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh told me he thought Luck, a redshirt sophomore, was leaning toward staying for a fourth year.

I said to Harbaugh Sunday that I'd heard the Luck family (his dad, Oliver Luck, is a former NFL quarterback) was concerned with the fact that drafted players, because of the prospect of a protracted work stoppage, might not even see their playbook or start practice 'til Labor Day -- or later. If that's the case, why wouldn't Luck stay for his fourth year at Stanford and play, whether Harbaugh (who is rumored to be a candidate for both pro and college head-coaching jobs after turning around the Cardinal) is there to coach him or not?

"I don't think that's the correct logic,'' Harbaugh told me from his home in northern California. "But I do think it's more likely he'd come back. If I had to bet one way or the other, I'd bet he's coming back. He loves college. He loves the college life. He's such a good kid -- and so smart. He's got a 3.5 GPA in Architectural Engineering, and all along his plan has been to go to college for four years, get his degree, then figure out what to do with his life. This is a kid who has a plan. And he's a kid who's not the big-man-on-campus type. He just fits in.''


CHICAGO, Jan. 24: This coach's hometown just can't lose.

In the summer of 1989, a small-college tight end from Baker (Kansas) University came home to Pittsburgh to begin a coaching career. He found his way onto the staff at the University of Pittsburgh as an unpaid grad assistant. At night, to support himself, he worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift in the toll booth at Exit 5 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (the Allegheny Valley exit), 25 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. His dad, a firefighter and police officer and bar owner near a dying steel mill, raised him to be tough, respectful and hard-working -- and a Steeler fan. Which he was, loving the Steelers as a teenager when they won their four Super Bowls in the seventies.

The toll-taker, Mike McCarthy, will try to break the hearts of everyone back home. He's the Green Bay coach.

And now you know the rest ... of the story.

Winners of the NFC Championship in the 16-team National Football Conference in the last 10 seasons:

2010 Green Bay2009 New Orleans2008 Arizona2007 New York Giants2006 Chicago2005 Seattle2004 Philadelphia2003 Carolina2002 Tampa Bay2001 St. Louis

Ten seasons, 10 different winners. Of the six non-champs over the past decade, five (Atlanta, Dallas, Minnesota, San Francisco and Washington) have each won at least one playoff game. Only Detroit hasn't won a playoff game among the 16 NFC teams in the past 10 years.

Interesting. I could see Atlanta or Dallas contending next season.


ARLINGTON, Texas, Feb. 7: The hero broke his collarbone.

Fellow Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden and I had stood there marveling at a guy dressing himself, right down to the tying of his shoes, with a broken left collarbone. And I don't mean a collarbone with a little chip fracture. I mean, the thing was broken all the way through.

At one point, Woodson turned his back to us -- his left arm already through the sleeve of his black jacket, his eyes closing to help bear the pain -- and said, "Now I'm going to ask your for a favor. Help me with my jacket.''

Layden and I both reached to help him lift the jacket in position so he could push his uninjured arm through the sleeve. Woodson did it, and there he stood, dressed in all black, happy with himself. Because he still had the one good arm to hug the Vince Lombardi Trophy with, and he plans to do a lot more of that in the next couple of days.

It's been an eventful week, with all the weather weirdness here, with the league and the players taking baby steps on a very long trip to get a new labor deal, with a seven-man Hall of Fame class that has left quite a few of you apoplectic and us 44 selectors needing a very long nap, and with the two teams with the most NFL titles in the last 50 years facing off in the History Bowl. Fun weekend, compelling weekend.

The memory of being at his locker with Woodson, cherishing his first championship of a 13-year career, will be with me for a long time. For two reasons: Because he was in such obvious pain, and because he didn't care about the pain.

"I guess in this world we don't have a lot of people with, like, backbones. Just because somebody pay you money don't mean they'll make you do whatever they want or whatever. I mean, does that mean everything is for sale? I mean, I'm not for sale. Yeah, I signed the contract and got paid a lot of money, but ... that don't mean I'm for sale or a slave or whatever."-- Washington defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, to radio station 106.7 The Fan, in September. Haynesworth has been paid $34 million since signing with the Redskins 19 months ago, and is not happy the team is asking the defensive tackle to play defensive tackle.


"Tell Peter King we already got our two wins.''-- Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber, in the victorious Buccaneers locker room at Carolina, after the Bucs beat the Panthers in Week 2. Tampa Bay is 2-0. I picked the Bucs to be 2-14 in the SI NFL Preview Issue.


"We live in a Coors Light generation, and it's so sad.''-- Young Willie Cornblatt, an Indiana University student and driver for me for one week on my training-camp trip, as we looked at the beer choices at a minor-league baseball game in Albany, N.Y., in August.


"You share a very intimate relationship with Brett Favre.''-- NFL Network host Stacey Dales, to Steve Mariucci, beginning an interview in November about Favre.


"I've tasted the caviar now, so eating out of the garbage is not where I want to be.''-- Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, on the current quarterback-troubled, Kurt Warner-less days with the Cardinals, to Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic.

From March 29, at the Scouting Combine:

Colt McCoy seems like Drew Brees, nine years later. Accurate, confident, undersized, historically prolific at a major college. Obviously, he can only hope the comparisons many NFL scouts and coaches are making, linking the two, are valid. Comparing the college stat lines:

Brees was a high school football star at Austin (Texas) Westlake High. McCoy was a high school football star at Jim Ned (Texas) High.

Brees married a volleyball player at Purdue. McCoy is engaged to a track-and-field athlete at Baylor.

Brees is active in many children's charities and is a benefactor of a children's hospital in New Orleans. McCoy is active with the Children's Miracle Network telethon and volunteers at the children's hospital in Austin.


From Sept. 20:

Philadelphia linebacker Ernie Sims went 1,000 days between wins.

True fact: The last time Sims played in a game for a winning team before Sunday's 35-32 triumph over Detroit was Dec. 23, 2007, when the Lions, his original team, beat Kansas City. Since then, he was 0-1 in 2007, 0-16 in 2008, 0-11 in 2009, and 0-1 this year with the Eagles. That's a personal 29-game losing streak for Sims.

"Wow,'' Sims told me after the game. "I never sat down and figured that out.''

Well, who would?


From Nov. 1:

Sacks by Ndamukong Suh at midseason: 6.5.

Sacks, combined, by Jared Allen, Julius Peppers, Albert Haynesworth: 5.0.


From Nov. 15:

NFL quiz: What player, with a minimum of 20 passes, has the highest completion percentage and passer rating in history?

Antwaan Randle El.

The former Indiana quarterback, who's been mostly a wide receiver as a Steeler and Redskin, has been pretty good as a part-time passer too, throwing an average of three passes a season. His career line:


From Dec. 5:

Baltimore and Pittsburgh have played four times in the past two years.

Baltimore 2 wins, Pittsburgh 2.

Baltimore 67 points, Pittsburgh 67.

Baltimore 7 touchdowns and 6 field goals, Pittsburgh 7 touchdowns and 6 field goals.


From Jan. 3:

When You Know It's Time To Retire Dept.:

Brett Favre, 41, whose daughter Brittany turns 22 next month, got hurt twice this year.

The first came when, after looking downfield for 24-year-old Sidney Rice, Favre got creamed from behind by 22-year-old Buffalo linebacker Arthur Moats. That resulted in a damaged shoulder.

The second came when Favre targeted 23-year-old running back Toby Gerhart against Chicago, and he had his head drilled into the turf by 23-year-old defensive lineman Corey Wootton of the Bears.

From March 1:

Last Monday, Dolphins president Bill Parcells, a huge baseball fan, stopped by the Cardinals' training facility in Jupiter, Fla., before going to the office. It was 6:50 a.m., and Parcells went looking for his good friend Tony LaRussa.

Parcells walked by the Cards' weight room. There was one man in there. Albert Pujols.

"And he hadn't just gotten there either,'' Parcells said. "He was working hard, sweating. There's a reason why the great ones are great.''


From Aug. 9:

This Week's Sign of the Waning Influence of the Once-National Pastime: None of the five athletic sons of Tony and Lauren Dungy owns a baseball glove.


From Aug. 16:

Houston GM Rick Smith meditates every morning. He goes into a large closet in his Houston-area home very early before the day gets busy, shuts out the world and either mouths a mantra like "Peace'' softly and repeatedly or just sits in silence.


From Nov. 1:

I shared a dressing room with Rihanna on Saturday.

Kind of.

On home Notre Dame Saturdays, I dress for the NBC halftime segment in the room where my TV clothes are stored, along with Rodney Harrison's and Tony Dungy's. That's also the room where the star of "Saturday Night Live'' dresses. (You may remember 51 weeks ago how I stepped on Taylor Swift's red gown in the same dressing room. Then again, if you have a life, you may not.) This week, the star was Rihanna, who sings. After the Notre Dame halftime show, I went back in the room to change, and I was nearly through when a woman, maybe 28, walks in and, with a You Are NOT Supposed To Be In Here look, says, "Ohhhh. Uh, this is Rihanna's dressing room.''

"I'm almost done,'' I said. "One minute.''

"This was supposed to be locked,'' she said, annoyed, and turned and closed the door.

To the closed door, I called out, "I didn't steal anything. It wouldn't really fit me.''


From Nov. 15:

In looking into the performance of great coaches in NFL history and losing streaks this week, I have even more respect for Paul Brown than ever. Which is difficult to fathom, because I already considered him the best pro football coach ever.

I set out to look into how Bill Belichick's teams performed after a loss, which, since 2003, has been fairly remarkable. After the bad loss at Cleveland last week, I thought it merited a look, particularly since a treacherous road game lay ahead last night at Pittsburgh. So I decided to look at two-game losing streaks by the great coaches of our time. I picked out five: Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Bill Walsh and Belichick. And I compared their greatest eight-year runs as NFL coaches with Belichick's current eight-year run. How many two-game losing streaks did each one have over that eight-year span. What I found:

Belichick had one in 2006 and one in 2009. New England's victory over the Steelers Sunday night staved off number three. That's it. And no three-game losing streaks for Belichick either.


From Dec. 20:

NFL Draft, 2000, 199th overall pick: Tom Brady, QB, Michigan.

NFL Draft, 2010, 199th overall pick: Joe Webb, QB, Alabama-Birmingham.

As you may recall, I changed the name of the travel note in July because of an interesting experience with a Westin Starwood Preferred dillweed. The story follows.

The Westin Hotel/Michigan Avenue in Chicago has long been a hotel of choice for me, because of its proximity to everything in such a great city. Last week, on my last travel leg of vacation, it was also the scene of something I never could have expected: an argument that, in 10 seconds, almost escalated into a hotel-lobby brawl.

There are three elevators in the lobby of the Westin, and at rush-hour check-in last Tuesday, two were out of service. So when my wife and I got to the bank of elevators around 6 p.m., there were 15 or so people waiting for the one working lift. We waited two, three, four minutes. Now there were 25 or 30 people waiting. And then a 35ish man wedged in to the left of the crowd waiting for the elevator. He looked at the line of people and looked peeved. We all were, of course. Then the door opened and 10 or 12 people came off the one working elevator. And the 35ish man took three quick steps to the elevator.

"Hey, hey, hey,'' I said. "Come on, buddy. That's not right.''

The guy stopped. He looked at me. Angry. "Don't tell me what to do,'' he snarled. "I wasn't going on.''

"Yes you were,'' I said. "I saw what you were doing. That's not right.''

He took a couple of steps toward me.

"I'm a Starwood Preferred member,'' he said angrily.

Like that made cutting the line OK.

"You're also an a------,'' I said.

I obviously shouldn't have said that, but he deserved it. Now he walked the final three steps toward me. "You wanna step outside?'' Mr. Starwood Preferred said. He bumped my chest hard. "People who use that word are looking for a fight,'' Mr. Starwood Preferred said. "People who use that word to me, I go outside with. You wanna go outside?''

Now the elevator was full, and the door closed.

"No, I don't,'' I said.

He was breathing hard on me. "You're a big talker,'' he said, stepping back a step or two.

"And you're still an a------,'' I said. Oh, so clever.

He stepped toward me again. Almost simultaneously, a front-desk gal near the bank of elevators chirped, "I can take a few people up the service elevator!'' So my wife sidestepped the guy. I walked toward the door, me staring at Mr. Starwood Preferred the whole way. "---- you, ------------,'' Mr. Starwood Preferred hissed at me.

"Have a nice day,'' I said, and boarded the service elevator.

I don't know exactly why -- it's not testosterone, I don't think -- but I almost wish Mr. Starwood Preferred had taken a swing at me. Even if he'd pummeled me (and he may well have), he'd have known that at least one person out of 30 sniffed out the real idiot in the crowd. Then again, I like my nose unbroken.


From Aug. 9:

I had the aisle seat in a full three-seat row on the flight from Tampa to New York, and next to me was a pleasant woman, I'd say about 50, in a T-shirt and shorts. She noticed I had a photo of my dog, Bailey, looking posture-perfect, well-groomed and very obedient as the wallpaper on the desktop of my laptop.

"What a beautiful dog!'' she exclaimed. "You are so lucky!''

"Thank you,'' I said. "Yeah, she's a great dog. Almost 11 now.''

"I'm a cat person,'' she said.

"Oh,'' I said. "Cats are good.''

"She's 20.''

"Twenty,'' I said. "Wow. That's amazing. She must be very healthy.''

"Well, no,'' she said. "She's very overweight. I spoil her. I never had kids, and she's my baby. She's got diabetes and a bunch of other things we have to give her medicine for. But I love her so much. My husband and I, I don't know what we'd do without her. We just love cats. I live paycheck to paycheck, but every month I've got money automatically withdrawn for the cats -- the ASPCA, animal shelters, you know.''

"Oh,'' I said. "That's nice.''

"You want to see her?'' she said.

Not really. "Sure,'' I said, anticipating a wallet photo or a picture on the cell phone.

The woman angled her body toward me and lifted her left leg and twisted it so I could see the outside of her calf. From just below the kneecap to just above the ankle was a perfectly tattooed image of her cat's orange-and-brown round face with dark, piercing eyes. You couldn't see any leg there, just cat -- the tattoo enveloped the outside of her calf.

"I really love her,'' she said wistfully, putting her leg away.

So I see.

From April 27:

"Lendale White traded for a ham sandwich, which he ate.''--@adbrandt, former NFL executive Andrew Brandt, now of National Football Post, after Seattle acquired the disappointing (and sometimes overweight) White and defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson simply for swapping draft spots in the fourth and sixth rounds Saturday.


From Feb. 7:

"I'm watching your Real Sports episode. You're awesome. That is all.''--@Alyssa_Milano, actress Alyssa Milano, commenting on my star turn on HBO's "Real Sports.''


And, finally, the last words from who else? The Rexman.

From the first episode of 'Hard Knocks:' By my count, the show was 52 minutes long and featured 23 off-color words by the Jets coach: 10 f---s, eight s---s, two g-- d---s, two a--es, and one b----.

From a later episode of 'Hard Knocks,' with his offense stalled: Ryan: "You can be a world champion, but not like this. We won't win it! We'll sit back and say, 'Why didn't we do it?' We didn't do it because where were our f------ priorities? How about our offense? When are we going to put it together? When are we going to put it together? Can we not run the ball down their throats every snap? Can we not throw it any time we want to f------ throw it? Let's make sure we play like the f------ New York Jets! And not some f------ slapd--- team. That's what I want to see tomorrow. Do we understand what the f-- I want to see tomorrow? Let's go eat a god d--- snack."

From an interview with Steve Sabol of NFL Films, while he and his staff edited the final episode of 'Hard Knocks:' Ryan: "I haven't had a normal bowel movement in six weeks.''

From the pregame hype before the Jets lost to the Patriots by 42 points in December: Ryan: "Looks like they're the best team in football. That's what all the experts say. Except me.''

From the front page of the New York Post on the day of the Patriots-Jets playoff game, with New York in full froth and the tabloids leading the march: There is a bare foot, with toenails painted green with GO JETS on the nails. The headline, exhorting the Jets, sort of, screams: "LICK 'EM.''

From the bus on the way to the airport, following the Jets' 28-21 playoff stunner over the Patriots: Ryan: "I knew I'd get one shot to do this in my life. One opportunity. I'm just an average guy. I'm not for everybody. The only thing I know how to do is coach.'' Pause. Small talk. Then this: "Same old Jets. Going to the championship game two years in a row.''

From an SI dinner at the Super Bowl, speaking to advertisers, swimsuit models and Jets fans: Ryan: "Nothing's changed from the first two years. We haven't won it yet, but next year we will.''