It is December, and in the NFL December separates the men from individuals who merely have X and Y chromosome pairs. To the standings, a September W or L carries the same weight as a December W or L. But as the league turns, December results are a thousand times more important. The pressure is on. December games are played when the losers know they are losers and everyone is expecting their loserhood to deepen; when the successful teams know they are successful, but each play counts in the battle for all-important first-round byes; when the clubs poised between reaching the playoffs and dropping to loserhood are so nervous you can practically see their team buses shaking.
Whether you make the postseason bears little relationship to what you earn. Playoff bonuses are relatively small—$10,000 each to players in the first round. Huge offseason deals often go to gentlemen from crummy teams (they tend to stand out) while those who perform deep into January may find themselves cut by Valentine's Day as clubs deal with the salary cap. (Winning gentlemen tend not to stand out, since their teams play like teams.) Exactly because it's got nothing to do with money, performance in "money time" is what players respect each other, and themselves, for. And now it's money time, when we find out whose has heart and who's a pumped-up pretender.
Teams that turned in money performances over the weekend: Jersey/A, New Orleans, Oakland, St. Louis. Teams that looked nervous as cats: Detroit, Indianapolis, Miami. Teams that looked like Frankenstein had more heart: the Chesapeake Watershed Region Indigenous Persons. Teams that crashed and burned: Buffalo and Pittsburgh. The Steelers were so shaky they lined up for a field-goal attempt when trailing 20-3 in the third and knowing a loss eliminated them; the football gods were offended and brushed the ball aside well before it reached the goal posts. Miami looked so nervous it punted in opposition territory with three minutes left even though it was behind. The Persons looked like they were auditioning for the Cincinnati Bengals taxi squad. Redeeming virtue of the Persons wheeze-out: It proves that money can't buy happiness.
Come next Sunday, most if not all playoff slots will be decided but maneuvering for byes and seeding will continue. Getting into the postseason makes a team's season a success, but seeding is the key to the Super Bowl since the four bye teams win nearly 80 percent of second-round games.
Best Plays of the Week: Best No. 1. Tampa Bay led Miami 16-13 with 2:09 to go and was backed up on its 5. Quarterback Shaun King threw an ill-advised screen to Warrick Dunn, who was surrounded in the end zone. It looked like a sure safety, but Dunn spun out of a tackle and managed to get back onto the field. This 1-yard loss was the consensus play of the day.
Best No. 2. Oakland's third-and-long innovation of lining up five DBs across the field at the first-down marker, rushing just 3 and forcing the offense to throw under, has now been named the "stick" formation because the DBs form their barricade at that yellow stick. The Jets faced third and 11 from their own 2, the Raiders came out in the stick, and Jersey/B was forced to throw under. Punt, Raiders touchdown on ensuing drive. Why aren't other teams imitating this set?
Best No. 3. For years San Francisco has been making a living on "motion-out," in which a WR, usually Jerry Rice, comes across the formation in motion, then makes a quick lateral turn-out for a short gain that's nearly impossible to stop. The play drives defenders to distraction because they know it's coming, yet all you can do is choke up on the WR and be there when the ball arrives. Sunday against New Orleans, Terrell Owens trotted across for the motion-out. When the DB came up, Jeff Garcia pump-faked, and Owens double-moved to a go route for a 69-yard TD.
Best No. 4. Trailing the Niners 27-24 on the road, the Saints faced fourth and 4 at their own 37 with three minutes left. Yes—they're going for it! Novice QB Aaron Brooks scrambled for the first on a wild broken play, and New Orleans went on to win in the closing seconds. Compare this to Miami which, playing at home and trailing by the same margin with the same amount of time remaining, faced fourth and 6 at the Buccaneer 47. No—it's a punt! Buck-buck-buck-brawck. Tampa players jogged up the tunnel victorious.
Worst Plays of the Week: Worst No. 1. With the score tied at zero in the second quarter, Detroit faced third and goal at the Green Bay 6. QB Charlie Batch had a pass-rusher directly in his face and instead of taking the sack, heave-hoed into double coverage—or, to be precise, into coverage he couldn't see because there was a rusher directly in his face. Result: INT returned to the Packers' 40, Green Bay scores on its drive. Take the sack! Sometimes the best plays a QB makes are incompletions and sacks if they avoid crazy passes that get picked off.
Worst No. 2. Trailing 13-0, the Steelers faced third and 2 on the Giants' 12 with a minute remaining in the second. QB Kordell Stewart faked a pitch right and handed off to Jerome Bettis running left. But when Stewart faked right—there was no one to his right. This phantom fake had no effect on the G-Man defense, which stuffed Bettis for a loss, forcing the Steelers to settle for a field goal.
Worst No. 3. Martay Jenkins of the Arizona (CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN FOOTBALL-LIKE SUBSTANCE) Cardinals became the NFL's all-time leader in kickoff return yards in a season with 1,964. Nice for him, but you can only set records in this category if your team is constantly being kicked off to.
Stats of the Week: Stat No. 1. RB Michael Pitman of these selfsame Cardinals had 11 carries for minus-1 yards.
Stat No. 2. Kansas City turned the ball over on each of its first four possessions.
Stat No. 3. The Bengals had as many punts (nine) as first downs.
Stat No. 4. The Rams ran up 40 points, 508 yards, and 32 first downs. Nice to have things back to normal.
All-Waivers All-Pros: The Pro Bowl teams will be announced Thursday, and they'll be heavy on first-draft-pick, media-hyped types. How good are some of these athletes? Pretty good. But the players TMQ most admires are those who reach a Pro Bowl level despite having been shown the door. Thus the Tuesday Morning Quarterback All-Waivers All-Pro team, composed entirely of gentlemen who have been waived, let go in free agency if their original teams made no serious effort to retain them, released under the old Plan B system, or were "street" free agents who talked their way into tryouts. (Asterisk indicates waived more than once.)
OT: Ray Brown,* San Francisco; Glenn Parker,* New Jersey/A.
G: Tom Nütten, St. Louis; Randall McDaniel, Tampa Bay.
C: Kevin Mawae, New Jersey/B.
TE: Frank Wycheck, Tennessee.
WR: Chris Carter, Minnesota; Ed McCaffrey, Denver.
RB: Tyrone Wheatley,* Oakland; Lamar Smith,* Miami.
FB: Leon Neal,* Tennessee.
QB: Rich Gannon,* Oakland.
DE: Bruce Smith, the Persons; Eric Hicks, Kansas City.
DT: La'Roi Glover, New Orleans; Ted Washington,* Buffalo.
ILB: Michael Barrow,* New Jersey/A; Marvcus Patton,* Kansas City.
OLB: Keith Mitchell, New Orleans; Eddie Robinson,* Tennessee.
CB: Eric Allen, Oakland; Terrell Buckley,* Denver.
S: Rod Woodson,* Baltimore; Kurt Schulz, Detroit.
K: Steve Christie, Buffalo.
P: Darren Bennett, San Diego.
KR: Desmond Howard,* Detroit.
ST: Isaac Byrd, Tennessee.
TMQ would gladly stack this team up against the official all-pros. Only at OT, OLB, and CB is this unit weaker than the official all-pros, and in a game the All-Waivers All-Pros might have more motivation.
Notes about the judges' decisions: Both players picked as OTs currently line up as guards but have played tackle. Twice-waived G Corbin Lacina of Minnesota would be welcome while practically the entire Niners OL could make the squad, as this group has allowed the second-least sacks in the league while starting Brown plus Derrick Deese, Dave Fiore, and Scott Gragg, all of whom qualify for All-Waivers. The receivers are strong, but it's a shame to leave off the twice-waived duo of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell of Jax or the discarded Shannon Sharpe of Baltimore. Discarded Charlie Garner would make a fine addition at RB as would the twice-waived Garrison Hearst, if healthy. The DT choice was particularly tough as waived gentlemen Sam Adams of Baltimore and John Parrella of San Diego posted excellent seasons. At LB, the All-Waivers coach would surely want twice-waived Brian Cox of Jersey/B plus once-waived Carlos Emmons of Philadelphia. Qualifying DBs Victor Green of Jersey/B, Eric Davis of Carolina, and James Hasty of Kansas City would be welcome. Waived CB Deion Sanders of the Persons would assuredly not be welcome as the goal of this team is to win, not to promote marketing concepts.
So many good kickers have been shown the door that the slot is overcrowded: among them Gary Anderson of Minnesota (NFL's all-time leading scorer, waived four times), Matt Stover of Baltimore (this season's leading scorer, released under Plan B), Joe Nedney (30 of 34 in 2000, waived three times), Philadelphia's David Akers (third-leading scorer this season, street free agent). And tabbing Gannon as the quarterback was a wrenching choice since Jeff Garcia and Kurt Warner also qualify for All-Waivers. Garcia's magnificent year—28 TD passes versus nine INTs—is especially impressive considering he calls signals for a young, losing team. It's interesting that with the quarterback being by far the most valuable position in football, three of the top NFL QBs this season are gentlemen nobody wanted.
Skinny Guys of the Week: In pelting rain in Miami, Tampa kicker Martin Gramatica hit a 46-yard field goal for the winning points, then Tampa punter Mark Royals stood at the back line of his own end zone with two minutes remaining and boomed a 53-yard punt to preserve the victory.
Boast of the Week: Commissioner Paul Tagliabue posted an open letter to NFL fans claiming credit for a "significant decline over the past three years in the number of players charged with criminal offenses."
If Intellectuals Were Football Columnists: From Ayn Rand's football column, "The Fumblehead":
Dennis Green stood astride the simulated polymer-type grasslike substance as an immense, superhuman megacolossus. Lesser men were too puny, too trembling, or too ethnically surnamed to comprehend the heights to which he aspired. Masculine, rippling, striding, Dennis Green would mold the Minnesota Vikings into the vehicle of his soaring vision. Destroy and rebuild them every offseason, if that was what it took. Others would laugh, fail to understand. Their derision would prove his genius.
Change quarterbacks every year? No other coach had the courage. But if it brought Dennis Green closer to the realization of his vision, quarterbacks would have to be waived; their destinies scarcely mattered except to the so-called imaginary "God" of the weak-willed losers who deserved their fates. Sean Salisbury, Jim McMahon, Rich Gannon, Warren Moon, Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Jeff George. Use them and toss them aside, this was what great men did with others, and Dennis Green did it to quarterbacks without hesitation because it served his will. His only disappointment was that he failed in his attempt to use Dan Marino and toss him aside; even the greatest must overcome setbacks. The beautiful cheerleaders and glamorous, gorgeous starlets who came to Vikings games drawn by Green's force of will could only wish he would use them and toss them aside as well!
And if his teams are 94-53 during the regular season yet only 3-7 in the playoffs? Lesser men used this against him, claimed it showed he could not win under pressure. They did not understand his vision! They could never understand his vision because these lesser men were short or were ethnically surnamed or were women. Dennis Green did not care if his teams lost in the playoffs; he cared only for his vision and would pursue it despite what was said by sniveling naysayers. Let them arrest him and put him on trial—he would welcome it, welcome the chance to defend himself for all the world! At his trial he would be surrounded by masculine, rippling, striding men. These manly men, who know what they want and will take it from the sniveling, ethnically surnamed doubters of the world, would slowly, purposefully strip off their sweat-soaked garments to reveal their rippling masculinity and bulging, throbbing masculine powers. Bulging and throbbing, these masculine men would force their …
Note to copydesk: Ayn kinda wanders here into 10,000 words on the sexual prowess of NFL players. There's a readership for this, of course. But could we get her to condense?
Programming Malfunction of the Week: Local CBS and Fox affiliates get to choose which games they show in the 1 p.m. Sunday slot, and many distinguish themselves for a dartboard approach. Of 1 p.m. Sunday Fox-carried games this weekend, the obvious top-billing matchup was 10-3 Miami hosting 8-5 Tampa Bay. So what did Fox affiliate WTTG in the Washington, D.C., area show? Philadelphia at cover-your-eyes 3-11 Cleveland, one of the worst pairings of the year. No amount of clicking of the remote or the cable converter box caused this football bouff to disappear and a real game to take its place. By the middle of the fourth, crowd shots revealed that most Browns faithful had left. But though paying customers in Cleveland didn't want to watch, WTTG assumed the Washington, D.C., area would be riveted to this drama and did not switch to the final moments of the down-to-the-wire Tampa-Miami contest.
The week before, CBS affiliate WUSA of the Washington, D.C., area had a 1 p.m. Sunday choice of any of these four playoff-important matchups of winning teams: Broncos at Saints, Raiders at Steelers, Miami at Bills, or Flaming Thumbtacks at Eagles. It chose to show—nothing.
Has your local affiliate inexplicably aired a woofer while a good game went unshown or aired a Tony Robbins infomercial instead of any game? Submit your complaint via "The Fray" slugging your entry "Local Affiliate Outrage." (Note to viewers in the Cincinnati, Phoenix, and San Diego SMSAs: Airing of games involving your teams does not qualify as a programming outrage though the games themselves may qualify as outrages.)
Harmonic Home-and-Home: The Steelers went to Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands twice this year, to play Jersey/A and Jersey/B. They split the two appearances while scoring 30 points and surrendering 33.
Provisional Quasi-Coach of the Week: For his first practice as momentary short-term interim provisional quasi-coach of the Persons, Terry Robiskie took the field wearing a heavy parka, heavy gloves, and balaclava—though the temperature was 42 F. Thus Robiskie managed to violate the TMQ sideline law, Ridiculous K2 Survival Gear ? Victory, before he had even stepped onto the sideline! The football gods chortled and showed their displeasure as the Persons were pasted, 32-13, by woeful Dallas with the Cowboys playing their third-string QB. At a press conference after the humiliation, the extremely overpaid Deion Sanders demonstrated deep, abiding respect for his new quasi-coach by repeatedly pronouncing his name "Robinsky."
Great Moments in Management: Moment No. 1. Owner/Twerp Daniel Snyder has fired 80 people since taking control of the Persons. And look how well it's working! Team expenses are the highest in NFL history; performance has steadily declined; fans are livid; numerous extremely overpaid gentlemen barely bothered to go through the motions in the debacle at Dallas. What a leader of men Owner/Twerp Snyder is proving to be! Redeeming virtue: one step closer to inevitable Snyder public meltdown. (For a totally unconvincing defense of Snyder, click here.)
Moment No. 2. After RB Chris Warren played a horrible game in the Dallas defeat by Tampa Bay—he dropped passes, refused to block, and threw a tantrum in the locker room—coach Dave Campo wanted to cut him. Instead, Owner/President/General Manager (actual title) Jerry Jones told Warren that as punishment, he had to sign a long-term contract. When Warren refused, he was waived. As punishment for harming the team, we're offering you a long-term contract. These are the sorts of canny management moves that get a club to 5-9. Then again, being with the Cowboys next year might constitute punishment.
Bruce Smith's Revenge: As they have many times this season, Buffalo outplayed an opponent in yardage, this time holding the third-ranked Colts offense to 237 yards at home, yet still lost. Oh ye of little faith in the football gods: It has been decreed that the Bills must suffer this season as punishment for the way they treated Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas. Instrument of the celestial retribution? Since the moment in November when Buffalo was 7-4 and star LB Sam Cowart was injured, the team has been outscored 101-36.
Ecological Horror of the Week: While attention has been directed to—what's that Florida controversy again?—biologists in the Sunshine State have been struggling to contain the inadvertently transplanted Asian swamp eel, which is spreading because it has no predators, is resistant to poison, and can reproduce under many conditions owing to the ability of individual swamp eels spontaneously to change gender.
Spontaneous gender change? Ye gods! What if the thing attacks New York City?
The Dumbbells of History: As the Florida Supreme Court was preparing its decision last week, commentators endlessly noted, "The weight of history is on their shoulders." This caused TMQ to wonder, how much exactly does history weigh? (Just Western history? All recorded? Back to cave paintings?) At the gym, I found I could bench-press about 50 years, the weight of the postwar era. But you should see some of these NFL offensive linemen. They can bench the entire Enlightenment and squat-press the Pax Romana.
Haiku Corner: Staff and reader verse, the Doug Lach composition referring to Carolina's victory over the Rams:
He drops back and looks
Counts in his head, "One, two, three ..."
Then gaccckkkkkkkkkkkk! Sees but turf.
Can't defeat the power of
The Nedney Unit.
Randy Moss, feet down
In bounds. Another touchdown!
Defender shakes head.
Keep submitting your verse via The Fray slugging your entry, "Football Poetry."
Stunt of the Week: On its opening possession, Cleveland used three different players at quarterback.
Hidden Indicator of the Week: This weekend there were no mysterious underlying statistical trends. The best explanation Tuesday Morning Quarterback can propose is that all mysterious statistics have been sucked to Florida.
Running Items Department
Obscure College Playoff Scores: Georgia Southern 27, Delaware 18 (Division I-AA semifinal). (Georgia Southern now 33-6 all-time in I-AA playoffs.) Delta State 63, Bloomsburg 34 (Division II championship). Mount Union 70, Widener 30 (Division III semifinal).
Obscure High-School Feat of the Year: Tyler Ebell of Ventura High in Ventura, Calif., ran for 4,220 yards this season, double Eric Dickerson's all-time NFL season mark of 2,105 yards. Ebell averaged 325 yards rushing per game.
Most Embarrassing Dennis Miller Moment: Suspended out of respect for Dolores Hupplefinger of Vero Beach, Fla., the very first person to say on Nov. 7, "Now how am I supposed to use this thing?"
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 0-218 for the season. Undeterred by total inability to forecast scores, the Times has recently taken to predicting exact individual player statistics. Before the Giants-Cardinals game, the paper divined that Kerry Collins would throw three TD passes and Michael Strahan would record two sacks. Actual: one Collins TD, zero Strahan sacks. This week the Times predicted two sacks for Bears LB Brian Urlacher. Actual: zero Urlacher sacks. Meanwhile reader Brad Hammill's generic final score—Home Team 20, Visiting Team 14—also whiffs, falling to 0-132 since its inception.
TMQ Trivia Challenge: As the election remains in perpetual sudden death, thoughts turned to overtime, resulting in last week's trivia question, which was:
TMQ once proposed that 2-0 in overtime would be the ultimate football score. Sadly, this seems improbable in the NCAA overtime format: The team with the ball would have to suffer a 75-yard loss. But though there's never been a 2-0 overtime professional game, there was one contest in NFL annals decided by a safety in sudden death. Give the game date, the combatants, the final score—and name the gentleman who recorded the winning deuce.
Several readers correctly identified the game: Vikings 23, Bears 21, Nov. 5, 1989. Several pointed out that this contest was a trivia gold mine: Kicker Rich Karlis accounted for all of the Vikes' regulation scoring with seven field goals, meaning Minnesota rang up 23 points without recording a touchdown.
But the question of who got the winning deuce proved frustrating to readers. Some suggested "no one" was the answer as it was a punt snapped out of the end zone and thus went on the scorer's sheet as a team safety. Matthew Hall of Morristown, N.J., that resplendent football state (combined team records: 19-9), wins this challenge for correctly noting that the safety was notched by LB Mike Merriweather, who blocked the punt out of the end zone. Contemporaneous accounts supplied by Über-trivia-meister Mark Longbrake relate that after Merriweather made the block, then fumbled the ball across the back line trying to recover it for a touchdown, he threw his helmet in anger because he thought he'd blown his chance to end the game, forgetting that a kick blocked out of the end zone is a safety.
Two left-over points about safeties:
1) Though there's never been a 2-0 overtime game (we can only dream), there was one NFL contest in which the sole points were a safety: Green Bay 2, Chicago 0, Oct. 16, 1932.
2) TMQ has aesthetic objections to the form by which scorekeepers record safeties. When Bruce Smith sacked Trent Green for two earlier this year, the line score read, T. GREEN TACKLED BY B. SMITH IN END ZONE. Why "in end zone?" Where else can you get a safety? Line scores for touchdowns don't read, GEORGE 5 RUN INTO END ZONE. And why do safety line scores say who was tackled? Somebody gets knocked down, blown past, or otherwise outdone on every six, and the name of the embarrassed player is not in the line score: It doesn't say, MOSS BEATS LYGHT FOR 32 PASS FROM CULPEPPER. Line scores for deuces should be lean and simply say, B. SMITH TACKLE.
Here is this week's Trivia Challenge:
Warren Moon is the NFL's all-time leader for recovered fumbles, having fallen on a loose rock 55 times. Unfortunately, they were all his own mistakes: Moon is also the league's all-time leading fumbler, having dropped the rock 160 times. It seems 105 of them got away.
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 a game: -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.
Submit your entries via The Fray titling them "Trivia Answer." And remember to include your e-mail address in the event the Florida State Legislature and Florida Supreme Court issue split decisions on whether you have won.