Closing the book on the NFL season
As work crews tore down the final remnants of Super Bowl banners, scaffolding and bunting from inside the deserted Fort Lauderdale convention center, David Fleming strode confidently to the only remaining podium. As he approached the stage for his annual (and completely fictitious) NFL season wrap-up news conference, reporters and co-workers seated near the front of the packed auditorium noticed that Fleming's jeans were soaking wet from the knees down.
Looking far less slumped than he did in the one-on-one interview he did with Drew Brees on "SportsCenter" before the Super Bowl, Fleming ran through a long list of thank yous that included his Page 2 editors, his family, all NFL offensive linemen, the Saints' Scott Fujita, the chef at Michy's in Miami (for the buffalo style frog legs), fans of the Cleveland Browns and Ne-Yo.
Then he opened the floor to questions.
Audience: Let's start with the wet pants. What's the deal?
Flem: Glad you asked. I wore these in honor of my favorite pregame moment at the Super Bowl. I usually start out these news conferences with a quick recap of my escapades at the Playboy party. This year, however, just as I approached the entrance to the party the South Beach fire marshal shut the gig down.
I was just about to point out to the marshal the irony of him making that call less than 50 feet away from the Atlantic Ocean when NFL Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson walked up and got the very same stiff arm from the bunnies. So, feeling less insulted, our group went next door to the famous Delano Hotel and proceeded to dance in the pool. Hence, the wet jeans. We stayed until the DJ switched from a solid run of Michael Jackson's earlier material to a strange hip-hop remix of the Doors' "The End," which I took as a pretty good sign it was time to leave before someone started spinning old Who 45's.
My guess is the freaky scene at the Delano was probably better than what the fire marshal was working with next door. Besides, I'm not sure there was any way to top the ESPN Next party Friday night, which included a front-row seat for Ne-Yo's amazing performance (his thumping backing band reminded me of Earth, Wind & Fire even though I was, like, 5, when they were big) under a pink tent that was just slightly smaller than the Lincoln Tunnel. I heard Kenny Chesney was at this party and I wondered if, for him, watching Ne-Yo perform was like the Detroit Lions watching the Saints play in the Super Bowl.
Instead of cigars or cigarettes, waiters at the NEXT party were walking around with giant boxes of Snickers. I kept asking them, "Is this heaven?" By the end of the night the carpet was covered in a shiny soft snowdrift of tiny gold metallic candy wrappers. I don't exactly know why, but this scene somehow sums up the Super Bowl in Miami for me.
After the horrendous failure of your "37 Reasons Why the Colts Will Lose to the Jaguars" column, don't you think you should spend more time on your work and less time eating free Snickers?
Trust me, Miami wasn't all Hall of Famers, infinity pools and nougat.
For starters, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of neck tattoos and rain in Miami. Oh, and when I checked into my hotel room, waiting for me on my pillow was a cockroach the size of a Chihuahua. Seriously, I checked for a collar.
You often write in misplaced metaphors, is this one of those situations?
Well, after this season and that amazing Super Bowl, pro football itself is at its economic and cultural peak and yet, in Miami, you just couldn't get away from the feeling that there was a creepy, disgusting presence just waiting to infest the entire serene scene.
You saw the astronomical ratings for the Super Bowl -- they were 10 times what the World Series does. It's a simple fact that the NFL stands alone as our national pastime. And yet the vibe in Miami was that the players union and the owners really are dumb enough to blow this whole thing to smithereens with an uncapped year and a lockout in 2011.
Both sides are far apart on all the major issues right now. Owners are in debt up to their eyeballs from stadium construction and it's clear they want the players to acknowledge that investment and maybe even help pay down that debt, which is like McDonald's asking potential fry cooks at a newly built franchise to help out with the building's original construction costs.
Goodell used the word "pie" or "building the pie" so often in his presser in Miami I left with a mad craving for pastry. Of course, everyone knows that the main way to build the "pie" is by adding more games. I've asked 25 players about adding more regular season games and I'd say 22 of them just started laughing out loud at even the suggestion. Physically and mentally, the players can barely survive a 16-game regular season as it is. Now, the owners want to add two games without adding two pay checks? It really is laughable.
But not nearly as much as listening to all these clueless gazillionaires on both sides bicker over their billions. Seriously, at one point Goodell tried to make a point about the fact that the NFL has created an additional $3.6 billion in revenue during the past few years and that most of that money went to the players. OK, but does Roger Goodell really think in the current economic environment -- in which breaking even is considered a triumph for most businesses, and Joe Blow NFL Fan is skipping his vacation and working overtime in order to pay for his season tickets -- that anyone outside of NFL owners and players actually hears or cares about anything after the phrase "we made a three-point-six-billion-dollar-profit"?
Sorry, I didn't catch anything you said after "three-point-six-billion-dollar-profit."
Let's talk a little bit about how your season went, then. You seemed to be a bit like the Broncos -- you got off to a fast start and then faded.
Well, I did predict the Saints would make the Super Bowl -- a year ago. And I do think my column about the death of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and my column on the NCAA hockey Frozen Four were two of my best offseason files.
OK, but then what happened?
What? Come on. We started the fall with the epic Stream of Football Consciousness.
Then, you know that annoying guy at your Super Bowl party, the one who knew exactly why Lance Moore's awesome catch on the two-point conversion would eventually be ruled a completion? Yeah, well, he got all his info from our work on my "Here's the Catch" column.
Fair enough. You took a lot of grief for exposing the funny math involved in Brett Favre's laughable list of 43 so-called come-from-behind wins. Still glad you did that?
Uh, yeah, I still get a few angry e-mails a week on that one from fans who strongly prefer the legend to the facts. I've always been hard on Favre because I think he gets a pass from the media and the fans for stuff we rip other players for. In fact, one of my only regrets from the past year was going against my instincts and trying to jump on the Favre band wagon late in the season with that video column.
Wouldn't you know it, but three days later, the guy goes out and single-handedly destroys a third chance at the Super Bowl. I learned my lesson. Too bad Favre didn't.
Or, maybe, Saints corner Tracy Porter is just that good. Since he did it to Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl, too.
Although, I don't care what anybody says -- or doesn't say -- Reggie Wayne and Manning were strangely out of sync the entire game. (Wayne was turning the wrong way, dropping passes, pulling up short on routes, and, if you can cuss with your body language, he was dropping F-bombs all night.) I don't care what anybody says, he did not properly finish the come-back route that resulted in a Pick Six for the Saints, not to mention that TD he stone-fingered at the end of the game.
I'll tell ya how bad it was for Reggie Wayne: Members of The Who saw his performance and wondered, "Geez, what's wrong with that chap?"
You went out of your way to thank Cleveland Browns fans in your opening, is that because they turned your "one-sentence" column on the horrific recent history of Browns quarterbacks into something of an Internet phenomenon?
Well, yeah, that and my dad is a Browns fan, too. Plus, every time I hear talk about a team going for a perfect season I think of the original perfect team, the 1948 Browns.
After that entry, the column's focus seemed to shift between goofy conceits, such as Hug an O-lineman Day and intimate portraits of the athletes.
I guess that question could pretty much be the mission statement for this column. We try to approach serious topics in this game with a unique sense of perspective, actual reporting that helps fans learn something new and some occasional humor.
We sat down with Cincy's Cedric Benson before he was on anyone's radar screen. We introduced people to Andre Johnson, the best receiver in the game no one knew about. We got an exclusive with Michael Vick that showed a depth, a thoughtfulness and a level of regret no one had captured before.
Well, you also pretended to interview Eli Manning's foot.
Yes, um, that too.
You also sat down with Drew Brees for a cover story and an interview that ran on "SportsCenter." What kind of reaction did you get to that piece?
Most people ask me if Drew Brees is really tall or if I am just really short. It's a little of both. One family member called right away to say that my hair has never looked better on TV.
Near the end of the interview, I asked Brees if he had ever daydreamed about what Mardi Gras would be like after a Super Bowl win. He said he hadn't thought about it at all, and when I teased him about giving me the company line (I actually hit him with my notepad), Brees snapped at me like a receiver in the huddle who missed the play call. It was a brief, fascinating glimpse into his intense, driven style of leadership.
Here's the TV transcript of that part.
Flem: "I can tell by the look on your face that you've imagined a little bit what it might be like, post Super Bowl."
Brees: "Uhhhh, well, I can tell you right now, more so than ever, it's one game at a time. And it's the next ..."
Flem: "Come on! [notebook slap]"
Brees: "Look at what's happened the last two weeks. We're not looking any further than the next challenge, the challenge that's right in front of us. We know that if we take care of each one of these challenges in front of us, then we'll reach our ultimate goal. If we look too far ahead, that's the first thing that gets you beat."
Do you have any other unaired segments of that interview you could share with readers who have actually stuck with this conceit?
Flem: "You use the word 'calling' a lot. Do you understand the deep, serious nature of that word and the religious implications?"
Brees: "Absolutely. Well, here's the thing. I'm a strong Christian and I believe my priorities in life are faith, family, football. And I believe that everything happens for a reason. God puts us in positions that at the time we might think, 'Why is this happening?' And certainly when I hurt my shoulder it was "Why is this happening to me at all? Why now? The last game of a season when I don't have a contract after this. I'm going to be a free agent. I mean, Why.' So at the time I'm thinking this is the worst thing that could ever happen to me. Why me? But I look back on that now and say that's the best thing that ever happened to me because it brought me here to New Orleans. It gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in this community, and as the quarterback of this football team and this organization. It's helped take me to a new level as not only a player but as a person and as a husband and a father. Just because it taught me so much. You know that I otherwise might not have ever learned. Going through that hardship, that time where doubt very easily could have crept in or been a test of my faith, but in the end it made me much stronger in my faith. It made me stronger as a football player and as a man."
Even back then did you just have a sense this was the Saints' year?
Kinda. But, remember, they had just lost to the Bucs -- one of the worst teams in the league. They lost because Payton got conservative late in the game. Guess he fixed that.
On Sunday, I parked somewhere near Orlando for the Super Bowl and, three hours before kickoff, vendors were already selling Saints Super Bowl championship memorabilia on the streets outside the stadium.
Another good sign was how loose the Saints were all week. Posing for pictures on Friday, owner Tom Benson didn't want to be photographed behind the Colts helmet. So he grabbed it off the table and hid it behind his back so that only the Saints helmet and the Lombardi Trophy were in view.
Earlier in the week New Orleans practiced at the University of Miami. (Not to be confused with Miami University, the school in Ohio that is my alma mater and the training ground for about half the Saints' coaching staff, including Payton who was an offensive coordinator for the RedHawks way back when.) Anyway, the Hurricanes' facilities were slightly less elite than what the team was expecting from such a famous program. "Imagine a combination of litter box, doggie kennel and burnt hair, that's what the Miami locker room smelled like," says Saints linebacker Scott Fujita. And, trust me, former players at the "U," like Jeremy Shockey and Jonathan Vilma heard about it for the rest of the week.
According to Fujita, the team was also moved by a message from Bill Parcells that said, "When the media's gone, the band stops playing and the fans are no longer cheering, the only thing left will be you and your thoughts. You need to be able to answer yourself one question: Did I do everything possible to win this game? If you can't answer that question the right way, it will haunt you."
What about after the game, what stood out for you?
After the Super Bowl a humbled Peyton Manning answered questions with his usual grace and dignity but it was the first time in a long time that I can remember seeing Manning look awkward and uncomfortable. He was sweating. His shirt collar was too tight. And he had red blotches on his forehead. It was strange since he is usually the most calm, composed guy in the room.
(A few minutes later I saw the Colts' excellent GM, Bill Polian, in his green suit, carrying his brief case out to the team bus with the same look on his face: like a guy who just had the worst work day of his life, finally leaving the office.)
Anyway, in the middle of one of Manning's answers I thought it was fitting that he was muffled by the announcement of Drew Brees' arrival. When the throng of media heard that the Super Bowl MVP was on his way to the interview area, most of us lost interest in Manning and started to slowly trickle away so we could get to Brees in time.
It was a telling, poignant gesture and a momentary changing of the guards: Drew Brees, the lifelong underdog, finally stealing the spotlight from Manning, instead of the other way around.
All week long you look for moments that are real, moments when, even though 100 million people are watching, you just feel like it's you and the game. For most of us that moment was when TV cameras caught Brees quietly chatting to his son after the game. The MVP had tears in his eyes, the tears of a father who has accomplished any man's greatest dream: honoring his son and his family.
"Holding my son on the grandstand, taking it all in, I just thought about life and how we got to this moment," Brees said of the sweet, iconic moment that put a lump into the throats of 75 million fathers across the world. "And I was just trying to stay in that moment as long as I could."
So were we.
So were we.
Other postgame highlights included a hilarious conversation with Chris Reis, the Saints player who recovered the on-sides kick and then had to fight off several Colts, the refs and even his own teammates at the bottom of that pile-up for what seemed like half an hour. "It's dark down there, and guys are yelling and screaming and everyone's going crazy," he told me. "I got my hands on it and then it slipped down between my legs, but I got it back and got two hands on it and then the bodies just piled on. Everything went dark. Guys are peeling back my fingers and jabbing at me and screaming. At one point my own teammate couldn't see anything but he could feel the ball and he started trying to rip it out of my hands and I just screamed: 'It's me, man, I got it I got it.' At that point it was a street fight, but there was no way I was letting go. No way."
A few final questions.
You picked the underdog Giants three years ago, you picked the underdog Saints this time. In your weekly blog item "12 Things That Would Surprise Me This Week," you usually get 10 right.
It's more like eight, but go ahead.
My question is ... after reading your Nostraflemus column are you in fact psychic, and if so who will play in the next Super Bowl?
That's easy: Packers and Texans.
Final thoughts on the season?
I was supposed to fly home from Miami early Monday afternoon, but my flight was mysteriously delayed for more than an hour.
I was just on the verge of getting irritated when I saw a row of police cars, motorcycles and airline workers lined up outside on either side of the tarmac. It was as though everyone at the airport had dropped what they were doing -- delays be damned -- so that they could line up and properly honor the group that was heading out to the runway.
A few minutes later, I got my answer when the Saints plane motored past on its way home to New Orleans. That's when I realized that despite their amazing success on the field this season, and their scrappy, underdog triumph in the Super Bowl, the best part of the Saints' story has nothing to do with football and everything to do with hope, rebirth and putting Hurricane Katrina behind us.
And as the windows shook from the engine noise, passengers inside the terminal placed their hands on the cold, smooth glass, as if reaching out to touch the Saints as they passed.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship." His work also will be featured in "The Best American Sports Writing 2009" anthology. The Flem File appears every Wednesday during the NFL season with updates on Mondays and Fridays.