The handsome little mug was unmistakable, the manic, jaw-clenching grin even more so: Tom Cruise, ensconced in Dan Snyder's luxury box, on hand for the "Monday Night Football" season opener. The Cruiseman came; he saw; late in the fourth quarter, he closed and pumped his fist, as if discussing the finer points of psychiatric care with Matt Lauer. Shortly thereafter, the Minnesota Vikings kicked a go-ahead field goal, and stole an unexpected road victory when Washington Redskins kicker John Hall booted his own last-minute, game-tying attempt wide left.
This is no coincidence.
Jack Nicholson next to the Los Angeles Lakers' bench is good. Spike Lee at the Garden is better. But Cruise? The man brings bad mojo. Simple as that. He may be a Hollywood megastar. He may be a great dad, a loving husband, 24-karat morning talk show ratings gold. He may even be the perfect person to stand outside a Church of Scientology, passing out flyers and enthusiastic, slightly-crazed thumbs-up gestures to curious passersby.
Cruise is absolutely, positively not the sort of celebrity you want hanging around your football team. Period. The venerable, snack-sized actor is the human equivalent of the "Madden" cover curse on the Jose Canseco steroid diet (Winstrol is good for you! I swear!). He brings worse luck than a black cat swaddled in a Terrell Owens Philadelphia Eagles jersey. Consider the karmic wreckage from Monday night's game, which saw the ballyhooed Redskins -- a Super Bowl contender by most preseason estimates -- lay a bigger egg than Monsieur Lestat in "Interview with the Vampire."
Hall's missed kick? Far and Away.
Skins corner Carlos Rogers getting toasted like a Pop Tart, then dancing a jig after Vikings receiver Troy Williamson dropped a surefire touchdown catch? Eyes Wide Shut.
Washington's much-hyped attacking defense failing to force a turnover and managing a single, lonely sack of 76-year-old Brad Johnson? Not exactly The Firm.
Thing is, I feel for the Redskins. I really do. I also wonder if they've seen "Vanilla Sky." Inking a two-year development deal with Cruise's production company -- as Snyder and his partners did last month -- probably seemed like a no-brainer. Then again, so did bringing aboard Deion Sanders. Honest to goodness, I thought the Skins had learned their lesson, eschewing overpriced, over-the-hill big-name free agents for smarter signings that were low on sex appeal but high on bang for the buck.
Indeed, the once-chaotic Redskins have been -- Zoiks! -- a stable, well-run franchise over the past two seasons, a team headed in the right direction. The club brought back Joe Gibbs. Acquired quality players like Shawn Springs and Santana Moss. Hired first-rate coordinators in Gregg Williams and Al Saunders. With grit replacing flash, the team made the playoffs last season, beating Tampa Bay in a first-round road game while purging the bitter aftertaste of the Norv Turner-Martyball-Steve Spurrier era.
Enter Cruise, who embodies a philosophical step backward. As a fan, he's rotten luck; as an actor, he's a supernova in the early stages of collapse, Tinseltown's answer to Bruce Smith, Sack King. High profile? Check. Vanity Fair cover? Check. Publicist-driven "apology" to Brooke Shields? Check. But don't be fooled. Washington isn't getting the "Top Gun" Cruise, the wounded yet cocky, squinty-eyed embodiment of America's 1980s resurgence. Nor are the Skins getting the "Jerry Maguire" Cruise, proof positive that you could make a bundle in the go-go 1990s without being a ruthless jerk. Uh-uh. The Quan is gone. What's left is the Cruise of "Magnolia," the annoying, vaguely creepy guy who is hanging on by a very thin thread.
Go down the list. "M:I III" was a turkey, an incomprehensible -- and by action movie standards, that's saying a lot -- series of big-bigger-BIGGEST explosions that reportedly failed to meet box office expectations. On the PR front, Cruise's past two years have resembled something out of the Bush White House, one disaster after another (Couchgate, Lauergate, Surigate and a truly unforgettable "War of the Worlds" promo appearance on BET. Much love!). Recently, Paramount severed its relationship with Cruise, a long-standing partnership that produced some $2.4 billion in ticket sales. Ouch. Think about it: studios exist to make money. They don't care about anything else (see Lohan, Lindsay, nocturnal habits). So why would mogul Sumner Redstone not only dump Cruise, but publicly lambaste him to boot?
Simple. The public is getting sick of Cruise's wackiness, and the guy who once had All the Right Moves is finally failing to outrun the giant blue-screen fireball erupting at his back.
Washington runs the risk of karmic Collateral damage. Beyond injury, the Redskins risk insult -- slings, arrows, and above all, snickers. During his first few years of ownership, Snyder was something of a league piņata, bashed and mocked as an impetuous Boy Owner by everyone from Chris Berman to the guys on the Fox pregame show to, well, Page 2. Some of the fun-poking was gratuitous, some of it well-deserved. Whatever the case, Snyder has done much to patch up his tattered public image since then, involving himself in charity work, copping a more humble public posture and generally keeping a much lower profile. It's an impressive, Andre Agassi-like bit of reinvention -- and one that associating himself with Cruise threatens to undo.
After all, the actor is a late-night monologue staple, comic fodder for just about everyone. Having him in your luxury box is like having Kevin Federline sing the pregame national anthem: even if he's good -- highly unlikely, by the way -- you're just asking to be lampooned. Worse still, Cruise may end up turning neutral fans against Washington. How many people pull against the Boston Red Sox simply out of spite for Ben Affleck?
(Sorry. Can't type too busy raising my hand).
Also remember: Cruise has gone a bit -- and we're pretty sure this is the technical term -- batty. It's only a matter of time before he butts in on football matters. So what if he can't tell a Cover 2 zone from a 4-6 blitz? Complete and total ignorance has never stopped him before. He's an authority on psychiatric drugs, despite lacking a medical degree. He was an expert on Shields' postpartum depression, even though none of his wives to that point had ever given birth. Just imagine him in the Skins' training room:
Cruise: Hey, put down that cortisone shot. You don't need it. Take this ginger pill instead.
Team trainer: But
Cruise: You don't know what you're doing. You're glib! You haven't done the reading. I have!
Under former owner Jack Kent Cooke, the Redskins attracted celebrity backers of a different sort -- inside-the-Beltway stalwarts such as Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. Flashy names? Not exactly. But locally relevant and quietly powerful, much like the teams they rooted for. Perhaps the back-to-the-future approach epitomized by Gibbs should be brought to the owner's box. Condoleezza Rice, for instance, is a hardcore pro football fan. The most powerful woman in the world can't find a regular seat next to Snyder? Really?
In the meantime, the future looks dimmer than the script for "Days of Thunder": Cruise jumping up and down, Oprah-style, every time Clinton Portis scores. No. No. A thousand times no. Not unless Portis sneaks a couch onto the field and does the same thing. And speaking of over-the-top celebrations, the only guy pumping his fist more enthusiastically than Cruise on Monday night was Brad Johnson. The same guy who led the Vikings to victory, the same guy the Redskins once shoved aside in order start big-named, big-armed, woefully inadequate and eminently unpopular Jeff George.
Again, this is no coincidence.
Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.