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Thursday, January 18, 2007
Ready. Set. Go.

By David Fleming
Page 2

Back by popular demand, for football fans far too busy to read and absorb a full column of information this close to championship game weekend, I give you the Flem File's buffet of 30-second columns.

No. 1: The San Diego Chargers will bring coach Marty Schottenheimer back for another season. Ready. Set. Go.

This is great news ... if you're a Denver Broncos fan. By guiding the Chargers to an NFL-best 14-2 record, Schottenheimer became just the fifth NFL coach to reach 200 regular-season wins. Big deal. With everything working in his favor -- seeding, injuries, home-field advantage throughout -- Marty Ball Inc. pulled another gag job in the playoffs, failing to advance in the postseason for the 13th straight season. Is it me, or did Schottenheimer's postgame speech -- about taking his hat off to his opponent and how, despite the bitter result, how gosh darn proud he was of that group of men in the locker room -- sound eerily familiar? Where have I heard that before? Hmm. Maybe it was 1986 in Cleveland after a 12-win regular season? Or was it 1995 and 1997 after 13-win seasons in Kansas City? No, wait, I think it was in 2004 after Schottenheimer's 12-win Chargers team wet the bed the first time. Against the Pats, MB Inc. was at it again: poor clock management down the stretch (again), failing to utilize MVP LaDainian Tomlinson (again), a general lack of composure under pressure by the Chargers (again) and perhaps the league's finest group of talent -- squandered. Again.

No. 2: Media predictions. Ready. Set. Go.

The Florida Gators have no chance. None. Rex Grossman? He's finished. The kid can't play. He's awful. The Saints run defense? TD: total disaster. After New Orleans bumped off Philly on Saturday, Hollis Thomas, the Saints' loquacious defensive tackle, explained to me (while buttoning up his SpongeBob SquarePants shirt) that his team had truly enjoyed feeding a nice big "s--- sandwich" to all the experts, stat geeks, radio screamers and prognosticators. Thomas' statement made me wonder about two very specific things: First, what exactly was in that gumbo they served inside the Superdome press box? And second, I understand that bold, often loudly shouted predictions are a necessary evil in this business, but would it really be that big a deal for people like me to once in a while just say: Look, I know enough about the NFL to admit I have no idea how this game is going to turn out. What's wrong with that? Is that so bad? It's the truth. Everything else is just Nick Saban. And in my mind, the unpredictable nature of the games is exactly what people love about sports in the first place.

No. 3: Colts coach Tony Dungy. Ready. Set. Go.

This is an excerpt from a 2005 cover story on Dungy in ESPN The Magazine. It's reprinted with permission from the author (me).
... over the next decade Dungy did in fact change the game -- making over the once hapless Bucs, perfecting the Cover 2, exorcising Peyton's playoff demons, improving opportunities for African-American coaches -- and he did it without the game ever changing him. What's bothersome is that the football establishment seems so quick to label a coach like Bill Belichick a genius with a great quarterback while the Colts are often described as a team with a genius quarterback and a great head coach. "That's just the world we live in," says Herm Edwards. "I guess we still have different things we call different people." Maybe, then, the real test of just how far the league has come lies in the (weeks) ahead. Can a self-effacing man like Dungy get the credit he deserves but refuses to seek? If respect is power and results are what matter most then how can the Colts' season be looked upon as anything other than the work of a genius? "You limit a great man and you cage in Tony's influence by bringing race into his accomplishments," says future Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks. "Integrity has no color. Character has no color. Don't sell him short. Tony is a leader among all men."

Amen.

No. 4: A response to Baltimore Colts fans from last week's column. Ready. Set. Go.

Rather than take the advice of some recent e-mailers -- and die a slow, painful death from an infectious disease while residing in a gutter of my choice -- I'd like to respond to all the former Baltimore Colts fans who were peeved by last week's make-believe column. Ah-hem. Get over it! OK, that was childish. Sorry. Let me start again. Listen, I hate franchise free agency and money-hungry, clueless owners as much as anyone else (my father's from Cleveland, after all) but clinging to this notion that fans and cities somehow maintain a moral ownership of their pro teams is just ridiculous. Championships. Memories. Great players. Big games. A catch with dad before the big game. Sniff. Sniff. In the end, these mean nothing to owners and the league at large other than as a means to manipulate consumers into spending way more money than they probably can afford for something they don't really need. The NFL has been -- and always will be -- a business. A giant, ugly, multibillion-dollar bid-nezz. The teams, the players, the league, the owners, they're all in existence for one reason: to make money. It's cruel, it's unfair and it's manipulative -- and it's called the NFL. Baltimore Colts fans should know that better than anyone.

No. 5: Bob Sanders, Colts safety. Ready. Set. Go.

I once asked Indy defensive coordinator Ron Meeks to explain to me what the difference was in the Colts' much-improved defense. Before he began, I told him, please, I'm on a per diem, take as much time as you need, go into as much detail as you want, just really, you know, break it down for me. And his reply was two words: Bob Sanders. I laughed. And he repeated himself. Bob. Sanders. Improved play on the interior by tackle Booger McFarland has helped Indy a great deal, but once again we're seeing how Sanders, the former Iowa Hawkeye and a Pro Bowl starter after just his second year in the league, is a rare one-man difference maker on defense. He has a break-the-mold combination of speed and size, hips that transition in space better than anyone else's in the game, an encyclopedic knowledge of quarterback and receiver tendencies, and a blue-collar approach to the job (meaning: Dude likes to hit people in the mouth) instilled in him by his father who once videotaped himself at his job inside an Erie, Pa., plant to show his son where he was going to end up if he didn't study and work hard on the football field. Let's just say I think Bob got the message.

No. 6: The Saints Cinderella Story. Ready. Set. Go.

This won't be a popular line of thinking in the Gulf Coast, but if the Saints truly want to snag a Lombardi, they need to think of themselves less as Katrina recovery mascots and more as the baddest football team on the planet. I applaud the way that, from day one, as far back as the team's first meeting at its very first minicamp in May, coach Sean Payton has embraced (rather than run from) the Saints' role as a symbol of hope for the city's rebirth. And the team has accomplished that goal well beyond what anyone could have imagined. But to take the final step, the Saints need to shift their perspective. Just a little. "We're living a dream, but we're more than just a feel-good story," New Orleans Pro Bowl defensive end Will Smith said after the Saints beat the Eagles. "We're a legit team now, fighting our way to the Super Bowl."

No. 7: The Oakland Raiders coaching search. Ready. Set. Go.

There's low -- like, say, the Detroit Lions -- and there's really low -- like, say, Brittney Spears barfing on her boyfriend and getting turned down by the NFL Network. And then there's really, really low: the Raiders' annual search for a living-breathing human being to actually man their sidelines. Let me just put it this way for Raider Nation: Denny Green, the man who was just fired by the Cardinals, turned you down. It's too bad because I really thought he was the guy to get Oakland over that three-win milestone. Now, word is that either USC QB coach Steve Sarkisian, a former CFL player, or Hall of Famer James Lofton, whose massive body of work in the coaching field includes four years as the Chargers' receivers coach, is poised to take the job. Knowing the Raiders, this seems about right. This is all subject to change, of course, especially if I decide to return the 13 voice-mail messages on my cell from Al Davis. In all seriousness, I wonder whether, at some point during this process, the Raiders considered simply going without a coach? Think about it. It's not a bad idea. They'd save some coin and attract a lot of attention. I mean, they won just two games with a coach, how much worse could they get?

No. 8: LT's postgame outburst. Ready. Set. Go.

LT is hands down the best player in the NFL and one of the game's greatest ambassadors. (You'd think with only 30 seconds to work with, I wouldn't waste time stating the obvious, but, oh well.) But he messed up after the game against the Pats when he lost his head, went after some players from New England and ripped Bill Belichick a new one. (Admit it, though, that was kinda cool.) For starters, if Shawne Merriman is going to create some silly, obnoxious dance that's meant to mock and humiliate opponents, then the Pats' turning that back on him is fair play. It's like when TO did Ray Lewis' Ray Ray Shuffle in the end zone last year. If the Ravens didn't like it, they should have kept TO out of the end zone. Right? The same logic applies to LT: If you don't want the Pats mocking you, do something about it -- during the game. Talking to your teammates about not taking stupid penalties is a good place to start.

Nos. 9-10: Grab bag. Ready. Set. Go.

The walk through downtown New Orleans to get to games inside the Superdome has become one of the absolute joys of what I do. ... The David Beckham signing came as quite a shock to me because I thought MLS folded, like, three years ago. ... The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders are an American icon. But not for long. The reality TV show based on the squad and featuring a disturbingly draconian and cold-blooded leader, is a lot like the experience of a hot dog lover who gets to tour a sausage factor and after seeing firsthand just what the dogs are made of and how they're actually concocted, the guy barfs in the parking lot and becomes a vegan. ... Speaking of barfing in a parking lot, how about Britney Spears' getting turned down by the NFL Network? Yikes. ... To continue playing and help his team, Terrell Owens might have done permanent damage to his finger by continuing to play through what must have been excruciating pain. Yeah, how can the Cowboys ever survive with a selfish guy like that on their team? ... If the Patriots win another Super Bowl snoozer using a roster from the football equivalent of the land of misfit toys, I wonder whether this will be the year that fans (outside of New England, I mean) finally begin to rebel against the kind of legislated mediocrity in the NFL before we are all faced with a field of 32 teams that all finish 8-8 and a 0-0 tie in the Super Bowl that gets decided by a coin flip? ... Call me crazy, but the fans in Philadelphia were actually having -- gasp -- fun with the Eagles' surprising run. ... I can't believe Jack Bauer bit that guy's neck. When was the last time a regular TV show made you gasp and yell at the tube like that? ... Just imagine if the NFL, like college football, took 50-some-odd days off between Sunday's game and the Super Bowl. Kinda makes the two-week thing seem not so bad, huh? ... I keep getting e-mails asking me to go back to ending my columns by stating what I was listening to while I was writing. Well, this column was written while listening to a bootleg CD of a Pearl Jam show from Raleigh, N.C., a few summers ago.

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 Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.