By David Fleming
Page 2

SAN DIEGO -- Now, I don't want to start off this week's File by implying that it's been a long time since the Chargers were good or even intriguing enough to get me to fly to California. But the last time I ventured to this spectacular town for a looksee at their football team, one of the players I interviewed was a certain clipboard caddy named Sean Salisbury. And the last time I chronicled a Charger who actually got his uniform dirty was in 1995, when I spotted QB Stan Humphries screaming for joy on his back atop the cold hard turf of Three Rivers Stadium (which is now a parking lot) after leading the Chargers to the AFC Championship and into Super Bowl XXIX.

So it's been a while, Cali. And man, is it good to see you again.

This time, San Diego was the final stop on my recent cross-country Jack Kero-wacked reportage binge to gather intelligence for an upcoming package in The Mag on offensive strategy in the NFL.

So before getting to Cali, I had to first survive ... deep breath, people ... a blackout in St. Louis; Mike Martz's tales of buying a dishwasher during his bye week; a hotel full of wild granny quilters in Houston; fajitas in the Texans' cafeteria near the Texans' billionaire owner Bob McNair; a 6:30 a.m. interview preceded by a full-volume-blasting of STP's "Vaseline" in the dark, empty parking lot of the Death Star monolith that is Reliant Stadium; a visit from my older brother's tender tornado twin boys (one of whom, within 12 minutes of their arrival, had already eaten a blue crayon and vomited it back up into my cupped hands); and a phone call back to the office that featured my Mag editor, Chad Millman, singing Tupac's hit, "California Love" (complete with the metallic, speaker box distortion of the vocals.)

Which meant I was stuck with that song in my head for a full week.

Californ-yaa ... nodowtabowtit.

(Yes, of course I know what that actual lyrics are, but it was a long week and I felt like free-styling.)

Indeed.

After all this, it was 3 a.m. on Friday morning by the time I made it to San Diego, where the "historic" hotel I checked into put me in a room without, I swear, a bed. No bed. Honest. A couch. A sink. A TV, sure. But no bed. I guess that's all 200 bucks plus taxes gets you these days. A sink, a closet and a TV. I've heard of stealing soap and toiletries from hotel rooms, but a bed?

Shoot, though. The truth is, I probably would have slept on the floor. Because it's always cool to see first-hand when the NFL returns to a city as beautiful as San Diego is -- a place that has an abundance of culture, spirit and natural beauty, but only four winning football seasons in the last 22 years.

Drew Brees
Drew Brees is experiencing a resurrection in San Diego this season.

And what better place to take it all in than the old-school, open-air press box at Qualcomm Stadium? It's a rare treat, a nice antidote to the antiseptic, climate-controlled, carpeted and catered luxury suites that pass for press boxes these days -- places where it's easy to become detached from a game that ought to be offering a kaleidoscopic attack on your senses. Here, you can smell the grass, feel the wind and the sun, hear the wave, that wonderful human tsunami, as it roars around a stadium while snippets of The Who and U2 jump outta the JumboTron.

On Sunday, Qualcomm Stadium was rockin', awash in light blue. (I gotta tell ya, those "Blues Clues" unis are growing on me.) You just knew things were gonna go the Bolts' way when, early on, big goofy guard Mike Goff picked up a fumble and, tripping seismic meters all over the region, rumbled 11 yards to set up San Diego's second score. On Friday, Goff and I talked about the game plan and how it consumed his thoughts during the week.

"But I'm not, like, mixing my corn at dinner into an 'over' defense or moving my steak into the 'A' gap. It's not that extreme," says the guy who had last run with the football as a sophomore in high school 12 years ago. "But people don't understand how mental this game really is."

"Mental" is exactly the way I'd describe Drew Brees, who now has 15 TDs and one pick in his last six games. On Sunday, Brees reminded me of Brett Favre -- yes, I said it; and no, I'm not going mental -- the way he was so confident in the pocket, making reads and sending laser-guided bullets through triple coverage without blinking an eye in the face of the Saints' rush. His check-downs were precise. His audibles were sweet. And his hair was perfect.

"It's all about results; that's what I've learned," says Brees. "It's all about winning. In my position, I'm considered the CEO. I'm out on the field, leading the team on offense, calling the plays, making sure I'm checking plays at the line, making sure we're out there executing the way we need to. I think when the quarterback isn't able to do that, it definitely shows on offense."

To me, Brees is the ideal representative for this team of scrappy junkyard dogs. A few months ago, he was a bust, a joke, a fumbling, bumbling waste of yet another high draft pick who was renting space in the huddle until Philip Rivers could get ready. Now, coach Marty Schottenheimer, he of the grind-it-out-until-every-last-fan-is-snoring offensive style known as Marty Ball, is inexplicably presiding over a recreation of Air Coryell.

"Who knows in this business?" Marty said on Monday. "If I had any idea of how you could handicap these games, I would go gamble. I wouldn't coach. I'd gamble, because I could make a heck of a lot more money."

You can take this to the bank: Brees has experienced what I like to call The Switch -- when the game begins to slow down for young QBs. Donovan McNabb had his. Mike Vick is still waiting. Kordell Stewart's never arrived. Peyton Manning's happened in, uh, third grade, I think. Brees is seeing his defensive keys, recognizing blitzes and processing tons of info on three and sometimes four reads, all before that back foot plants at the end of his drop.

Watch him. Watch him closely. He's not rocking on that foot, frantically patting the ball, confused, robotically scanning the horizon for a lucky break. Not anymore. He's the first person who knows where the ball is going, not the last. There's a presence there -- one that just wasn't around late last season. No matter what the yahoos say. (After the game, of course, some radio dude spent most of his post-game show insisting that he was the only one in town -- no, the universe -- who never wavered in his steadfast belief and support of Drew Brees. Even though, technically, that would make him an imbecile based on the way Brees performed and graded out at the end of 2003.)

Tupac Shakur
Meanwhile, many people believe Tupac never died.

See, this is what's so fascinating about today's brutally opportunistic NFL: A team can draft a star QB with every intention of making him the future of its franchise. (And, trust me, that was the plan in San Diego. On Sunday, one of the free giveaways inside the stadium was a portrait of Rivers -- doing, I don't know what ... counting his cash?) And then, in the three weeks it takes to figure out the guy's mega-guaranteed signing bonus, the goofy scrub backup the team has all but discarded emerges as an MVP candidate.

The way this team is responding to Brees reminds me of how Tom Brady broke in with the Pats -- yeah, I said it. I mean the Bolts, a team that was about as exciting as static electricity a year ago, are heading into their bye week at 6-3, and they've scored 85 points in their last two games. OK, it was against the Raiders and the Saints. But still, they only had to punt once on Sunday.

"You don't get too caught up with too many people patting you on the back, because things can change fast, as I've seen the last two years," says Brees. "There are ups and downs, and you have to weather the storm at times. But I think we have something special going here."

Just wait until LT gets healthy. While LaDainian Tomlinson recovers from a groin injury, Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been using him perfectly as a decoy at the line of scrimmage to free things up for Brees. On Sunday, if LT went right, the ball went left (and usually to TE Antonio Gates, who was standing alone in the end zone.) If LT went into the pile, the ball came out over the top to Keenan McCardell downfield. They used LT to set up a 48-yard reverse. They used him to soften the 'backers. To draw in the safeties. To spread the corners. It was genius.

"It's the choose-your-poison game plan," says McCardell. "You put eight in the box to stop LT, and we beat you over the top. By the time defenses start creeping back a bit and playing more zone, then a healthy LT will be ready to go absolutely crazy."

Crazy?

Crazy good?

Californ-yaa. Nodowtabowtit.

Crazy is how good the Oggi's pizza tasted at the stadium. Crazy is having the pee wee cheerleaders at halftime dance to Billy Idol's tribute to masturbation, "Dancing with Myself." Crazy is seeing this sign (from you-know-who) above the urinal in the press box men's room: "If it wasn't for sports you'd have time to wash your hands." Ugh. Crazy is a football neophyte like Gates now being mentioned in the same breath as T.O. and some guy named Moss.

Crazy good was seeing Marty actually smile and relax with 13 minutes left to play in the game.

Crazy bad, though, was a QB throwing the ball 20 yards backwards to no one. (I think Aaron Brooks must have stayed at my bed-less hotel.) Crazy bad was a coach who kicks a field goal trailing by 30 in the fourth quarter.

Crazy mad was the look on Saints owner Tom Benson's face as he marched by in a tunnel under the field after the game. Crazy sad was the N'awlins fans who unfurled a huge Saints flag in the north end zone once the score was 36-7.

And just plain crazy is how tough the AFC is nowadays.

You realize, of course, that on Sunday, Bill Belichick moved the Pats to 7-1 by using his roster like a Swiss Army knife: a linebacker as a receiver, a kicker as a quarterback and a wideout as a corner. That just ain't right, people. And in Pittsburgh the last two weeks, the 7-1 Steelers have out-rushed two previously undefeated teams by, oh ... 445 YARDS. Again. Not right. Not even close.

LaDainian Tomlinson & Drew Brees
LT and Brees have had lots to celebrate so far this year.

The Bolts aren't nearly as good as either one of those teams. But they've come twice as far in half the time. Riding down to the field at the end of the game with the Chargers' coaches (they were munching Oggi's, too), someone wondered out loud when was the last time a San Diego QB got to take a knee at the end of a game? No one could even fathom a guess.

"Hey," said fullback Lorenzo Neal, "this team has been 6-1 and gone in the tank. We haven't done anything yet. The best is yet to come."

After catching up with LT and McCardell, it was dark by the time I left Qualcomm, spiraling down the stadium's Gattica walkways to the mezzanine below, where I found myself, literally, locked inside the stadium. I walked and walked. I tried doors and gates. Nothing. I passed some workers, some security guards and fans. No exit. Nothing. I even passed the sweet Chargers helmet-mobile and thought briefly about hot-wiring that thing and riding it to freedom -- but it was already covered in a tarp and locked down for the bye week.

So I just kept walking. Pretty soon, I was standing below a colorful mural behind the open end of the stadium. Another security guard waltzed on by. But I let the guy pass without asking for help locating an exit.

And that's when it hit me.

After more than a week on the NFL road, after a leaky airport, thick fog, several teams, dozens of interviews, hours of practice and film, thousands of miles, 100 club sandwiches, mad quilters, billionaire fajitas, enough caffeine to kill an elephant, vomit catching, odd urinal signs and one hotel room without a bed, the truth was pretty clear.

I was in no hurry to leave.

Californ-yaa, I sang out loud to no one in particular.

Nodowtabowtit.

FLEM GEMS -- NFL WEEK 9

WHYLO
Responses to last week's Halfway column were, uh, almost twice as scary as usual.

Joe from Alabama starts us off with this doozy: "I had a question. Do you have to strain to write that crap or does it flow freely like diarrhea?"

Rob writes, "Half Over: This Column. Half: The amount of coaches who look manly throwing their red replay flags? Yawn ... Half the effort: Your column. Please try harder."

Or I could just follow Jason's solution: "Kill yourself for listening to the Donnas."

Ed says, "This proves that ESPN hires writers who would not know sports if it hit them in the head. To denigrate Marino is ridiculous -- more of a leader than you'll ever be a writer. Keep up the bad work!"

Richard piles on with, " ... half of my life getting through the first half of your almost-readable column. How could anyone get to the end? The clincher was listening to the Donnas ... sheesh. The Donnas are absolute TOTAL crap. No halfs about that."

Conor, though, makes a very good point about an unfortunate omission from last week. "No mention of Tiki Barber in your halfway article? Hello? Bueller? ... Bueller? He only leads the league in total yards! Why you hating on Tiki?"

On this one, I noticed that Sean copied the e-mail back to himself -- which means, technically he sent this lovely morsel back to himself. (Dude has issues.) He writes, "Ben Roethlisberger sucks (potty phrase). And (potty word) you!"

Ryan writes, "I just wanted to say Go RedHawks." Flem note: YEAH, ALL THE WAY TO THE MAC TITLE AFTER MARSHALL'S UTTER COLLAPSE AGAINST AKRON. And did you see my Li'l RedHawks got a vote in the Top 25 this week? (Now, where ever could that have come from?)

The good news just keeps rolling, seeing as how DJ owes me a cow. He writes, "From a spell check standpoint, I hope 'Igles' was a joke. I'll bet a fridge full of dead cow you get more angry Philly e-mail than normal. (FLEM NOTE: Uh, it's a pretty common nickname.) I have to admit, though, compared to that terrible inner-self, outer-self chat with a punter last week, you did well this time."

Ed kills the love with, "Dave ... Dave ... Dave.  I have to say that your article is the worst I have ever read. I keep giving it chances, and you keep disappointing me! You never have any good information for your readers."

Andrew disagrees, kinda: "You should do a weekly feature on punters. Seriously. Think of how many people you could annoy. Man, I wish I had your job. This e-mail written while listening to: The Flaming Lips."

Brad from Philly (as if I need to point that out) writes, "Love when you old dudes talk about the new music you're listening to. I'm not going to go out and buy an album or listen to a certain band because you are listening to them. Stick with articles about punters, chief. P.S. Your mother helped me log on."

Josh, who is now calling himself 'my favorite Canadian,' writes, "After your last column, it is my strong belief that you're Halfway to a Pulitzer and maybe Halfway to having some of those imbeciles that hate on you each week actually bowing down and praising your journalistic godly-ness. Remember: Don't Condemn The Flem."

And finally (thank goodness), Nick writes, "I'm not gonna lie, I don't read your column all that often but I thought you mentioned last week that you play in a rec hockey league ... maybe I'm wrong. Did you play in college at all?"

OK, I've got a coupla things to clear up here.

No 1: No, I did not play hockey in college. I actually paid for school with a Div. I-A wrestling scholarship. I play rec hockey now because there are no adult rec wrestling leagues in my area (or anywhere on earth for that matter, which is a good thing).

No. 2: Brad from Philly almost won the WHYLO this week for getting so worked up over The Donnas that he insulted my mom, but, ya know, assigning the WHYLO to a Philly fan is almost a cliché.

No. 3: The only thing worse than someone borrowing their mom's computer just to insult mine is Nick asking a question about an obscure personal reference from a recent column, but feeling the need to preface it with the note that he "doesn't read the column all that often."

If that's the case, then Nick probably isn't familiar at all with his new award (wink ... wink) -- the WHYLO of the Week.

Nick, Who Helped You Log On?

THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: The Replacements.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.




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