The playoffs are coming, and here's one good thing about that: Since all NFL playoff games are shown nationally, local affiliates can't screw up the coverage.
Last week's Tuesday Morning Quarterback item on local affiliate screw-ups drew so much reader response only a charity auction of a night handcuffed to Jennifer Lopez would have done better. Fans around the country, it seems, are unanimous in hating their local affiliates.
The problem is that local affiliates have a gift for avoiding the hot matchups and airing clunker games. TMQ lives near Washington, D.C. This Sunday the 4 p.m. CBS doubleheader obvious choice was Indianapolis at Miami, a playoff atmosphere game pitting two winning teams fighting for their division crown. What did the nation's capital see? Ravens at the 3-12 Cardinals, one of the worst pairings of the season.
But don't take my word for it. Reader Abbey Castle of Portland protests that in November, rather than show the top-notch Chiefs-at-Raiders pairing, CBS affiliate KOIN aired the 2-7 Seahawks at the winless Chargers. James Kogutkiewicz writes that "Milwaukee Fox affiliate WITI has perfected the dismal art of broadcasting stomach-churning games between schlubs while highly anticipated pairings of Super Bowl contenders go unaired." Shannon Deible is so mad about a 1999 screw-up as to be still steaming: The Fox affiliate for Seattle scheduled Dallas at the Chesapeake Watershed Region Indigenous Persons, which turned out to be a fabulous 41-35 game won on a 76-yard pass in OT. But when kickoff time rolled around, Seattle viewers saw: Crocodile Dundee II. "Thamus" notes the CBS affiliate in Cincinnati endlessly shows naught but the Bengals and Browns. Sometimes Bengals and Browns games air back-to-back, leading Thamus to philosophize, "AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!"
George Merkle protests that in San Antonio, where few think fondly of Dallas, affiliates insist on airing every Cowboys game, despite the 5-10 Dallas record. Recently San Antonio got a Boys tilt instead of the sparkling Rams-Vikings pairing, and the only time the network broke in to show a play from the latter, what it showed was a field goal. Doug Kornreich decries that Savannah, Ga., gets every awful Falcons game rather than the contending teams. Lee Davis of Atlanta boasts his relief that because Falcons tickets don't sell, the home team is blacked out locally, and Atlanta itself gets to see real games while Savannah suffers. Reader "Marked" notes that a week ago, rather than show the important (and Pennsylvania-relevant) Pittsburgh-at-Giants matchup, Philadelphia's Fox affiliate aired: An infomercial for Web TV. That is, a program urging you to escape from the clutches of the very organization afflicting the program on you.
What's going on here? Each week, local affiliates of CBS and Fox pick the game they will air at 1 p.m. Sunday. Fox and CBS alternate games in the 4 p.m. doubleheader slot, and so every other week a local affiliate gets to make a 4 p.m. choice.
Affiliates always show games involving teams from their city. This makes marketing sense even when the home team is a loser, while for winning home teams, ratings are fabulous. During the week of the ER season premiere, top local ratings in more than a dozen major cities were drawn by home team NFL broadcasts.
But the system breaks down when there is no home team contest to show and local affiliates must pick. You'd think they would look at the standings and select the top pairing. You'd think wrong. Enigmatically, local affiliates often choose matchups that seem "regional" or involve the division of the home team, regardless of whether the game is any damn good. Los Angeles sees the woeful Chargers rather than national pairings of winners. Washington, D.C., sees the inexcusable Cardinals. New York City, the nation's largest TV market and sporting two local teams to confuse programmers, consistently gets the worst nonlocal selection in the country. Because the Jets and Giants both play on most Sundays, often all other action is either blanked out or screwed up. A week ago, "RJT" notes from New York, in the 1 p.m. Sunday slot the Fox affiliate skipped several attractive games to show Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.
Thus the NFL goes to considerable lengths to establish exciting, winning teams, then denies much of the country the chance to watch them on Sunday. The solution is NFL Sunday Ticket, which for $159 annually allows viewers to pick anything on the card. Many, many Americans would gladly fork over this sum to be set free from the tyranny of the dart-throwing monkeys who run local affiliate programming.
The catch is that NFL Sunday Ticket is available only using DirecTV, the satellite service that millions can't get. TMQ would dearly love to install DirecTV: He could even bill it to Microsoft! But lovely greenhouse-gas-absorbing trees block his home's view of the southwestern sky, where DBS1, the DirecTV satellite, hangs. Other satellite reception barriers afflict other potential customers. Infuriatingly, the NFL runs advertising for Sunday Ticket during regular broadcasts—using networks to promote what networks cannot carry. At least this assures us the Old Economy media will sell the New Economy media the rope from which they will be hanged.
NFL Sunday Ticket is confined to DirecTV because the league signed an exclusive contract with the satellite company in the distant past (1994) when many analysts thought satellites would long be the sole medium for specialized programming. There were also nutty politics behind the deal. Early in the 1990s, Congress thought that it would be horrible if cable offered pay-per-view sports; charges for specific programming were then somehow viewed as un-American. The NFL assured lawmakers it would not sell games via cable, only via satellite. But now we've all switched to thinking there is nothing better for the economy than paying for content that used to be free: Subscription radio is even coming. No one would object if NFL Sunday Ticket were offered by cable today.
The exclusive deal with DirecTV expires after the 2002 season, at which point NFL Sunday Ticket will flood the market on all carriers and all wavelengths: It'll probably come into your car, if not be projected onto your sunglasses. Until then we remain at the mercy of football-illiterate local affiliates.
Best Plays of the Week: Best No. 1. A week ago Warrick Dunn saved Tampa Bay's bacon when he spun out of a tackle in the end zone, avoiding a closing-seconds safety. Last night Dunn once again made the play of the week. Bucs trailing Rams 35-31 with 1:49 remaining and the ball on the Tampa 35, Dunn took a pitch and was hemmed in for what seemed like a killer loss. Again showing presence of mind, Dunn lateraled the ball back to QB Shaun King, whose 15-yard run combined with a roughing penalty against the visitors moved Tampa into position for its last-second win. This 5-foot-8-inch gentleman Dunn knows what he's doing.
Best No. 2. Indianapolis lined up in a four-wide formation on the Marine Mammals 4. Colts RB Edgerrin James went in motion left, resulting in an empty backfield, which normally ensures pass. But Miami MLB Zach Thomas pulled out to follow James, leaving five Colt OLs across from four Dolphin DLs. QB Peyton Manning ran behind this mismatch for an easy six. Coaches often forget that spread-the-field formations leave the defensive center soft for QB runs.
Best No. 3. Green Bay faced third and goal on the Minnesota 5. Brett Favre pump-faked to the right flat and then lobbed over the middle to an open Ahman Green for six. The guy in the right flat was open, too! It's nice to see the old Favre again, even if the old Favre only shows up once a month now.
Best No. 4. In snow and swirling wind that had already closed the Buffalo airport, New England threw for a meager 44 yards during the first 59:29 of play. But in the final 31 seconds of regulation plus overtime, the P-Men were unstoppable, tossing for 112 yards and pulling out an improbable win. What happened? Field conditions had deteriorated so much that DBs couldn't keep their footing, so the Pats began to run short crossing routes on every play; Buffalo DBs fell down trying to hold assignments as the receivers crossed. The Bills made no adjustments to this adjustment: He who adjusts jogs up the tunnel victorious. Lack of redeeming virtue: The wondrous Doug Flutie, playing his final game in Buffalo for salary cap reasons and perhaps his second-last game for age reasons, was denied a storybook finish in the snow as the Bills fumbled twice at the New England goal line and botched a short FG in OT.
Worst Plays of the Week: Worst No. 1. Trailing 17-7 with six minutes left and facing fourth and one at the Kansas City 48, the Broncos had do-or-die but also one of the league's best power running games. Did they power-rush? Play-fake and go for the home run? No, it's a shaggy-looking 2-yard slant in, incomplete, game over.
Worst No. 2. With Dallas leading Jersey/A 13-0 in the third, G-Man Pete Mitchell caught a short pass, appeared to fumble, then fell on the ball; officials ruled him down before the fumble. Cowboys coach Dave Campo challenged the ruling of no fumble. But the Giants had recovered anyway, meaning they would get the ball in exactly the same place regardless of whether the call was upheld or overturned. The pointless challenge cost the Cowboys a timeout much needed in the endgame of a contest they ultimately lost 17-13.
Stats of the Week: Stat No. 1. Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper make amazing plays, but the Vikings have allowed 73 points in the last two games.
Stat No. 2. The Bears had more punts (nine) than first downs (eight).
Stat No. 3. The Browns had more penalties (seven) than first downs (six).
Stat No. 4. New England and Buffalo have played three straight overtime games. Finals: 13-10, 16-13, 13-10.
Stat No. 5. The Panthers ran up 30 points despite just 169 yards of offense. They gave up more sack yardage (22) than they gained rushing (11 yards on 15 attempts).
Bane of Resplendent Jersey: Detroit is 4-3 at home but 2-0 at the Meadowlands, having beaten both Jersey/A and Jersey/B there this season.
Three Rivers Stadium Farewell: Thirty years, four championships, only one home losing season. Wow. The concrete chunks will be consecrated rubble.
Jerry Rice Nonfarewell: It looks like Rice has played his final home game for San Francisco, which faces yet another crash on the salary cap. Rice appears determined to show 'em by slogging through one extra year with another team; this would be a mistake. Part of the mystique of the great player is to spend his entire career in the same colors, enduring the good and the bad without ever leaving town because something didn't go exactly his way, the memory of his greatness belonging to one city alone. That is why Dan Marino was so, so right to walk off as exclusively a Dolphin though he could have slogged through in one more season as a Viking. That's why other stars such as Jim Kelly, Anthony Munoz, Phil Simms, and Mike Singletary were so, so right to wave farewell as one-team players though they could have caught on somewhere for a final year.
Pause for a moment to contemplate Rice's achievements. He not only leads the NFL in multiple career categories; what's amazing is the percentage by which he leads. Rice has 20 percent more receptions than the next closest player, Cris Carter; 32 percent more receiving yardage than the next closest player, James Lofton; 34 percent more 100-yard receiving games than the next closest player, Don Maynard; a stunning 44 percent more receiving touchdowns than the next closest player, Carter. In most all-time categories in sports, the leader is slightly above the next player. Rice has practically lapped the field.
What a shame it would be to watch Rice spend a listless, superfluous season shagging down-and-outs for the Panthers or Eagles when he could walk away with his name inexorably synonymous with two words: "Wow" and "Niners." Canton-class receivers Lofton, Art Monk, and Andre Reed tried to prolong their careers with one extra season catching dump passes for strange teams, dreaming they were still 24 years old with the glory still ahead of them. Each looked pitiable at the last. Reed is the most recent example. In his final home game of the 1999 season, Reed became No. 2 all-time in receptions: Rather than wave farewell to thundering cheers as a one-team great, he cursed his own club for telling him the truth, that his moment had run its course, and has spent the 2000 season in embarrassment as a third-string nobody for a strange team. Can you even name the team Reed is on right now? Rice should not go out this way. He has records, three Super Bowl rings, the love of fans and purists alike. No football career has come closer to perfection. But the sun also sets.
Touch Football Script: After the item on the 15-play "script" sequence of calls used by offenses such as Denver and San Francisco, several readers wrote in asking for a script they could use in the football that applies to their lives, namely touch football. Here, as a public service, is a touch script:
1) Any crossing pattern.
2) Everybody run a quick out.
3) Everybody go deep.
4) Any crossing pattern.
5) Everybody buttonhook.
6) You run a pump and go; everybody else do something on the other side.
7) Reverse pass by a WR back to the QB. (Technical note: In touch football, all players are WRs.)
8) Any crossing pattern.
9) You go deep, and I'll deliberately underthrow it.
10) Hook-and-ladder left.
11) Quick snap as soon as we get to the line.
12) Any crossing pattern.
13) Act like you're mad because you're not going to get the ball, then I'll hit you.
14) Direct snap to anyone.
15) Quarterback draw on three Mississippi.
Repeat as necessary. Stop as necessary to drink microbrewed strawberry-blond winter-wheat-based spiced dark pale holiday ale.
Great Moments in Coaching: A week ago Chicago enjoyed a rare victory, quarterback Shane Matthews throwing a Bears-record 15 straight completions. As his reward he was benched for Cade McNown, who lost Sunday's game while completing nine in total. McNown is 1-8 as a Bears starter, the benched Matthews 2-2. Chicago coach Dick Jauron has changed starting quarterbacks nine times in the past two seasons. And look how well it's working! The Bears are 10-21 during that span.
Great Moments in Management: Moment No. 1. After the Seattle Seahawks won the AFC West last year, Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager and Head Coach (actual title) Mike Holmgren pronounced himself dissatisfied with merely winning the division and declared he would clean house by waiving DT Sam Adams and unloading RB Ahman Green. This season Seattle is 6-9 and was eliminated by Thanksgiving. Adams signed with Baltimore, which became the NFL's No. 1 defense while the Seattle defense plummeted to No. 31, worst in the league. Last week, Adams made the Pro Bowl. Green, shipped to the Packers for a low draft pick, has run for 1,101 yards, including 161 on Sunday.
Moment No. 2. Since Owner/Megalomaniac Dan Snyder's canny firing of head coach Norv Turner with three weeks remaining and the team having a winning record, the Persons have been outscored 56-16 and eliminated from the playoffs. Proximate cause of the firing was the Owner/Megalomaniac's demand that Jeff George start at QB: George has now lost both Snyder-mandated starts, throwing one touchdown versus three INTs. On the day of the Turner firing, Snyder announced to the press that players greeted his decision with a standing ovation. Actually, players later said, there had been stony silence. How exactly did this guy fake his way through the business world? Redeeming Snyder virtue: By comparison, he makes partner Mort Zuckerman seem stable and emotionally well-developed.
Haiku Corner: Here are reader haiku, the first two on Monday Night Football:
It's not improving.
Dennis, Eric, Melissa,
"Miked Up," too. All blah.
Why Melissa Stark?
Why not Robin Roberts? Or,
Hey, Cokie Roberts!
Nine has shaken Aikman's mind
White-faced and sidelined.
Woodson chops Watters
Wet field like a slip-and-slide
Raiders screwed big time.
All games, claims, "But I have to."
Curses! Wife outfoxed.
That last is from TMQ's actual wife, the very trim and very red-headed Nan Kennelly, who has been foiled this fall on requests for Sunday afternoon chores, family outings, etc., because the column gives me a professional obligation to watch the NFL. Why didn't I think of this years ago? Outfoxed, Nan has taken to grumbling that she could have an affair on Sunday afternoons and I would not notice. To which TMQ replies: affair on Sunday afternoons during NFL season? Not with any real man.
Keep submitting verse via "The Fray" titling entries "Football Poetry."
Why Melissa? Jenna McKenna's haiku asks why MNF viewers see the very blond Melissa Stark as the MNF sideline reporter. Few figures, as it were, have caused more NFL chat this year.
When Don Ohlmeyer took over MNF, with so far as anyone could tell the objective of driving ratings down to their lowest ever (that's what has happened), he unceremoniously booted 46-year-old sideline reporter Leslie Visser and replaced her with 26-year-old Stark. Even the barroom demographic was dismayed, for though Visser is a senior citizen by network standards for women, her work is well-regarded among sports nuts. Rumors swirled that Stark had been hired because she had two talents, if you catch my drift.
Instead it's turned out that: 1) Stark is not an airhead, her sideline reports are fine if run-of-the-mill, and 2) she is also not a bimbo—cute but hardly a bombshell. So if we weren't going to get a sex goddess, why can't we have Visser back? TMQ has received dozens of e-mails from fans convinced ABC is using "body shots" of Stark to emphasize her figure, opening the shot low as if the cameraman were kneeling in an erotic position, then slowing panning upward. TMQ has watched carefully for evidence of "body shots" of Stark and can report: They are being used, but they ain't workin'.
On the looks and bod scale, MNF's other new sideline reporter, Eric Dickerson, has more going than Stark. This surely Q-scores well with female viewers and certain XY individuals. But given that MNF's straight male viewers must still at least slightly outnumber its gay male audience, shouldn't the aesthetic emphasis be on the babes, not the studs?
Which brings us to Robin Roberts, formerly an ESPN football commando and now vanished into hosting Wide World of Sports. Jenna McKenna is wise to speak well of her. Roberts is nonyoung, unexceptional in appearance, and hands-down one of TV's best sportscasters. TMQ and about 48 million guys in barrooms would vote for Roberts any day.
Ridiculous K2 Survival Gear ? Victory: For the Flaming Thumbtacks at Browns (Release 2.0) game, played in snow, Cleveland coach Chris Palmer came out in a heavy parka, mega-gloves, a ski mask, and a fur-collar hood so tightly cinched his eyes were barely visible. Palmer looked like he was preparing to go EVA to fix the Jupiter ship antenna in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher wore a turtleneck sweater, a medium-weight jacket, no gloves, and nothing on his head. TMQ doesn't have to tell you who won.
All-Undrafted All-Pros: Last week this column featured its All-Waivers All-Pros. Now that the official Pro Bowl roster is out, TMQ adds an All-Undrafted component. Among the 84 players selected are eight who were never drafted and had to talk their way into tryouts: Darren Bennett (San Diego), Jeff Garcia (San Francisco), Larry Izzo (Miami), Chad Lewis (Philadelphia), Keith Mitchell (New Orleans), Scott Player (Arizona), Rod Smith (Denver), and Kurt Warner (St. Louis). Congratulations to these undaunted gentlemen.
Big Week for Harvard Except … Harvard grad Matt Birk made the Pro Bowl for Minnesota while Crimson alum Isaiah Kacyvenski intercepted a pass for Seattle. Harvard did much better in the NFL than the Supreme Court.
Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! Leading 24-14 late in the third, Tampa had the Rams facing third and nine, down and distance favoring the defense. It's a blitz! Specifically an actual zone blitz (meaning a DL drops into coverage in the area the blitzer came from), not the "zone blitz!" announcers have begun to cry out whenever they see anyone rush the QB. In this actual zone blitz, 285-pound Bucs DE Chidi Ahanotu ended up covering Marshall Faulk, the league's leading TD scorer, deep to the end zone. Ahanotu almost stayed with him! Only almost. A 27-yard Faulk touchdown catch pulled St. Louis back into the game.
Hidden Indicator of the Week: On Sunday there were six late or overtime field-goal attempts to win or tie. Eerie symmetry: Two were good, two were bad, and two were blocked. This is the kind of hidden indicator that is essential to an insider's understanding of the sport. Unfortunately, Tuesday Morning Quarterback has no idea what it means.
Running Items Department
Obscure College Playoff Scores: Georgia Southern 27, Montana 25 (Division I-AA championship). Mount Union 10, St. John's of Minnesota 7 (Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, Division III championship).
Most Embarrassing Dennis Miller Moment: Suspended out of respect for Al Gore, visiting associate lecturer in public affairs, Towson State University.
But with yet another fabulous game last night, MNF is having its best season ever in terms of football and its worst season ever in terms of ratings. This can't possibly be in any way whatsoever related to Miller, can it? Last night as Warrick Dunn ran into the end zone, Miller said, "That's a classic move by Marshall Faulk." Al Michaels quickly covered for him.
New York Times Final-Score Score: Once again the Paper of Record goes 0-15 in its quixotic attempt to predict an exact final score, bringing the New York Times Final-Score Score to 0-233 for the season. Reader Brad Hammill's generic final score—Home Team 20, Visiting Team 14—also whiffs, bringing this item to 0-148 since inception.
Reader Animadversions: Vigilant readers caught spelling the WR as "Chris" Carter and calling the Flaming Thumbtacks FB "Leon" Neal. One decorously protested in haiku:
Carter's Cris should be h-less
Neal is Lorenzo.
TMQ Trivia Challenge: Last week's question:
Of the following, which is not an actual record for NFL futility:
Most consecutive games lost, Tampa Bay, 26.
Most consecutive home games lost, Dallas, 14.
Fewest yards gained in agame, -7, Seattle.
Most interceptions in a season, 42, George Blanda, Houston.
Most sacks allowed in a season, Philadelphia, 104.
Most fumbles in a game, 10, San Francisco.
Many entrants refused to believe that Seattle had spent an entire game going exclusively backward or that the Eagles had surrendered 104 sacks, six and a half per game! True, too true. Many refused to believe Blanda once threw 42 INTs. Too true, and he did it in a 14-game season, averaging three picks per game. This season's most-picked gentleman, Vinny Testaverde, has 22 INTs through 15 games, an average of 1.5 per game.
Turns out every futility stat is true, too true. Jamie DeVriend of Tampa, Fla., wins by realizing it was a trick question. Now this week's Challenge:
Controversy surrounds the Pro Bowl fullback selection, which often goes not to true fullbacks such as Howard Griffith of Denver but to RBs or H-backs. This year the NFC "fullback" is Mike Alstott of Tampa Bay, strictly a runner in the Bucs offense and a notoriously mediocre blocker. The AFC "fullback" is Richie Anderson of the Jets, who plays almost exclusively as a motion receiver.
But sometimes the slot goes to real FBs whose role is to lead-block where others follow. Once there was a Pro Bowl fullback selected exclusively for blocking: He made it to Hawaii despite not having a single carry during the season. Name this gentleman.
Submit your answers via The Fray slugging them "Trivia Answer." And remember to include your e-mail in case the Supreme Court orders TMQ to stop reading entries and declare you the winner.
P.S.: Tuesday Morning Quarterback will appear on Wednesday morning next week.