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Thursday, December 14, 2006
We're on the clock

By David Fleming
Page 2

There's always a ton of stuff going on this time of year in the NFL. So many great topics, so little time. Rather than have to choose, I decided to attack them all – in a new time-saving concept I like to call, The 30-Second Column.

No. 1: New NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has volunteered to help the Bengals with their off-the-field behavior. Ready. Set. Go.

This is good to see. Because I was beginning to wonder whether Tags had passed along his gift for condescension to the new guy. The NFL wants to help the Bengals? Let's forget for a moment the steroid scandal from the Panthers' Super Bowl team that was all but swept under the rug, the fact that HGH is undetectable right now or that the economic structure of the league is such that it makes sense to draft talented players with questionable character because you can get them for bargain-basement prices. And why do the Bengals need help? Has their off-the-field behavior affected their play? Nope. Last time I checked they were the only playoff contender on a four-game winning streak. And spare me all the hand-wringing. Winning is all that matters in the NFL, unless I missed the new group of fans and owners who are OK with spending a thousand bucks a year on tickets and merchandise for a 1-15 team with a really nice coach and a roster full of choirboys.

No. 2: NHL. Ready. Set. Go.

Is there anything better in the world of professional sports couch potato-ing on Monday nights than setting your remote on MNF and the NHL game on Versus and then using your "last channel" button to flip back and forth? This week during the Bears-Rams game, the young, explosive Penguins came back from a 4-0 deficit against the Caps and killed a four-on-three power play in the OT before winning 5-4 in a shootout while the Pens players on the bench wore their helmets backward, rally-cap style. This was, by far, the most compelling and enjoyable sports event I've watched on television this year.

While the NFL continues to legislate the fun, violence and competition out of football, have you seen what the NHL has done with its sport? With a handful of key rule changes, this league has boldly remade the sport, not just saving it but making it 1,000 times better. I grew up in Detroit, watching old Red Wings games on Channel 50 at a time when, if your team went down 2-0 you could go to bed, game over. In the old NHL, with a two-goal lead, every guy who brought the puck up over the blue line was mugged by three defenders and left in a bloody scrap heap in the corner. Now you've got guys flying up the ice, down by four, with a chance to score on almost every rush. The NHL has legislated speed, scoring and the pure joy of hockey back into their game – and it should be commended.

No. 3: Vince Young. Ready. Set. Go.

Vince Young
Vince Young is case in point: Don't always listen to NFL scouts and experts.

Last year, for a piece in The Magazine's Next issue, I exchanged e-mails with a teenage football fan in Cairo, Egypt, about how obvious it was – even halfway around the world – what a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback talent Vince Young was going to be in the NFL. I had made the mistake of listening to the so-called experts who worried about his odd release and his working mostly out of the shotgun at Texas and all the other "you'll poke your eye out sonny" stuff from the world's least progressive group of men – NFL scouts. Meanwhile, my friend near the Nile watched Young win 30 of 32 college games and take over the national championship and decided to just go with his gut. Guess who was right? This guy is the player we've been waiting to see since the Falcons drafted Mike Vick. He's so good – with silky-smooth feet, a powerful arm and give-me-the-ball leadership – that he makes the Titans' "Blue's Clues" powder-blue pants look cool. Here's the best part: Jeff Fisher and Co. now have 11 draft picks and more than $40 million in cap space to build around him.

No. 4: New Dallas Cowboys Stadium. Ready. Set. Go.

At a billion bucks and 2.3 million square feet, including 1,600 toilets, the Cowboys' new stadium will be the largest domed structure in the world. (Unless, in the meantime, someone decides to build a structure to house all of T.O.'s issues.) A billion dollars? Come on, am I the only one who thinks the NFL's stadium race has gotten just a bit out of control? Have you seen the gazillion-dollar spaceship the Cards plan to get blown out in every week for the next 50 years? Let's not even talk about the idea of public money lining the pockets of private business or the fact that the people who will pay for this stadium won't be able to afford a ticket inside. (I really think this is it: At some point stadiums are going to become so expensive to build that they push ticket prices to the point no one will be able to afford to attend live games anymore and from then on the NFL will be played in large television studios with no crowds.)

Anyway, at the simulated unveiling, the mayor of Arlington, Robert Cluck, said the stadium "will be a wonder of the United States and even the world." Indeed, when completed I do suspect the entire world will look upon the Cowboys' new stadium and wonder a great deal about what a structure like this says about our society.

No. 5: Peyton Manning. Ready. Set. Go.

This kills me to say, because there are times when he's played the position perfectly this season – and I mean that literally – and I also really got a kick out of picking Peyton's brain for a recent magazine story about the crucial six-second span of every play. But with stat geeks and fantasy analysis trying to take over the game, I cannot budge on this point and neither should you: In the NFL you are not a great quarterback unless you win a Super Bowl. Why not? Because, ultimately, this is a team sport and, fair or not, part of being a great quarterback is leading and inspiring the people around you to achieve things they could not have done on their own. I know, I know, Peyton can't tackle or play linebacker. I never said the parameters for quarterback greatness were fair. They're not. And maybe part of my reason for sticking with this argument is that I have no doubt, whatsoever, that Manning will win a Super Bowl before he's done. So it's a moot point. Unless your name is Dan Marino.

No. 6: Guest 30-second column. Carolina coach John Fox on the statistical analysis done by Berkeley economic prof David Romer that suggests coaches are cowards because they don't go for it more on fourth-and-goal. Ready. Set. Go.

"Statistical analysis like this doesn't interest more people because it's sterile. It's not real. It's a damn paper. Here's the thing: It's all matchups at the goal line. I don't think his stats and computers take matchups into account, am I right? It's not about stats and probability at the goal line, it's about yours against theirs. Guards on linebackers. Who's hurt? Do they cover your tight end? Who's playing well, who isn't? Are they the No. 1 run defense and we're the 31st-ranked run offense?

"There's no question the other thing that isn't factored in here is momentum. No question there's a huge emotional swing that you have to factor in. You move to the one and don't get in? Factor that in as far as momentum the rest of the game? A stat can't do that. There are just way more factors that go into this decision than just one equation. How's your offense playing? How's your defense playing? The score? Time remaining in the game? Should I throw that out the window and look at this stat? Let me tell you something, if we're up seven and I can kick a field goal to go up 10 – that means two scores, with two minutes left to play in the game – I don't give a crap on fourth-and-1 if I think I can get in the end zone or not – I'm kicking the dang field goal. See, I don't want to dismiss this paper. But I won't hold it up as gospel, either."

No. 7: Tiki Barber. Ready. Set. Go.

Tiki Barber
The Flem File wishes Tiki the best in his retirement -- and doesn't want to hear any criticism.

I talked to a former NFL player last year who can occasionally still hear popping and hissing sounds coming from his neck. I have had tiny beads of sweat form on my forehead while watching Dan Reeves attempt to stand up and walk on two disfigured knees. Nothing is as sad to watch in this sport as the precipitous decline of a once-proud warrior running back (like, say, Eddie George) over the final hundred carries of his career after his body has said "no mas." And why is it so sad? Because essentially you and I both know these men are severely reducing the quality of their lives for little more than our entertainment and to sell beer advertising for the NFL. So I beg you all not to spend the next month questioning, begging, cajoling and guilt-tripping Tiki Barber into playing another season. Wish him well. Congratulate him on a wonderful career and for having the wherewithal to leave with all of his faculties still intact. Then let him go.

No. 8: The Detroit Lions. Ready. Set. Go.

Every time anyone ever mentions Lions GM Matt Millen, what's the first thing you hear come out of their mouth? Oh, what a great guy. Matt's such a man's man. Matt was such a selfless leader as a player. He's so loyal. Blah. Blah. Blah. Give me a break. Matt Millen is 23-70 as a GM. He's actually legally blind in his eye for talent. I mean, the people he hires can't even dress themselves. If the Lions were to blow everything up today and start over, Millen has them so far behind, it would take four years starting from right now to fix the team. So if Matt Millen is the kind of great, quality, super, first-class dude everyone says he is, why won't he do the honorable thing and let poor William Clay Ford off the hook and resign? Is he a devout coward? I swear, Lions fans, if Millen isn't gone by Week 16, there better not be more than 100 people in the stands when the Lions lose 87-0 to the Bears on Christmas Eve at Ford Field.

No. 9: The Pittsburgh Steelers. Ready. Set. Go.

The Pittsburgh Steelers should name their embarrassing title defense of Super Bowl XL "One for the Bum." It's been quite a soap opera at the confluence this season: Bill Cowher doing a James Taylor impression (in his mind he's going to Carolina); Hines Ward shooting his mouth off about Peyton Manning before the season even started; Joey Porter's initial rant against Kellen Winslow and then his lame apology; and, of course, Big Ben, the poor fella. You could argue that save for a two-month run to the Super Bowl the Steelers have been pretty ratty the last two seasons. You could argue that, but don't. All the Super Bowl hangover stuff shouldn't diminish last season at all. If anything, it should make Steelers fans look back and see just how miraculously everything fell into place for their team.

No. 10: 30-second grab bag. Ready. Set. Go.

My daughter was a little gun-shy about going back to the Christmas parade this year because Santa, sitting atop a fire truck, chucked a Junior Mint from, like, 50 feet away, and hit Ally right smack dab in the noodle. … Just like the Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year Awards, there should be a Special Teams POY Award, I think. … My new catchphrase: "Yo, hit these tots right here Dawg!" has not caught on as well as I expected. … The best part of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is when the Grinch is rocketing down the mountain on his sled and he looks behind him and Max, his dog, is sitting comfortably on the back of the sleigh, sheepishly shrugging his shoulders and waving – tink-tink – back to the Grinch. … Everybody's an Ohio State fan now, huh? … Not big on those year-end sports lists, and I believe the issues run far deeper than just wins and losses, but it's shocking when you realize how we no longer dominate the world in a single sport. World Cup? Ryder Cup? Hoops? Baseball? Nothing. … I want to see Brett Favre with a playoff-contending team (say, Carolina) next season. It's time, Green Bay. If you truly love something then set it free. … New favorite TV show: "Rob & Big" on MTV. … My li'l RedHawks hockey team from Miami University is, once again, atop the CCHA standings. … My older brother Bill looks exactly like Jets coach Eric Mangini. I wonder if Mangini gives out horrible Christmas presents like my brother, too. … The Nutcracker: kinda creepy, psychedelic and gory, ya know? … Need a last-minute gift idea? Nerf Hoop. Bam. You're done.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book was "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter." His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at