I pulled out all the stops for the 2006 NFL season: Bought multiple magazines and newspapers; stalked the NFL Network; bookmarked every team's home newspaper; TiVo'ed exhibition games; even slammed my right pinky in a car door to look more like Brian Baldinger. I'm not just prepared, I'm overprepared. To the point that my head hurts. Constantly. I'm not kidding. I think I need a CAT scan.
But even a throbbing head couldn't stop me from breaking out the thumbs for the 2006 NFL season:
(Fortunately for Dolphins fans, they might have the easiest schedule in the league -- Chaz Batch in Week 1, four against the Bills and Jets, two against the Packers and Lions, one against the Titans, one against Indy's second string in Week 17. That's 10 wins right there. Well, unless Culpepper implodes sooner than later.)
Everyone forgets this, too, but those Raiders teams were almost criminally loaded; it's astounding they never appeared in a Super Bowl, although they did end up going down as the greatest Tecmo Bowl team of all time. In real life, they committed 12-15 penalties per game under Shell and were a mortal lock to blow any close game. Eventually, Al Davis got tired of watching this stuff and canned him (a big deal at the time), and Shell never coached another NFL team much to every savvy gambler's chagrin. These are the facts. But this was 15 years ago, so nobody remembers this stuff. For instance, most people don't remember that Julia Roberts was smoking hot, but when "Sleeping With the Enemy" pops up on cable, you're reminded that, hey, Julia Roberts was smoking hot. Unfortunately, no channel shows old Raiders games from the Art Shell Era, so nobody remembers how he stood frozen on the sidelines as the announcers said things like, "Wow, ANOTHER holding penalty on the Raiders; that's their 10th today!" and "I'm not sure Art Shell knows that you can't carry over timeouts from one half to the other." Watch what happens this season. Don't say I didn't warn you.
FYI: We just released the paperback version of my Red Sox book ("Now I Can Die In Peace"), which includes a 20-page afterword (with footnotes) that I made just long enough that you can't read it in a bookstore without starting to feel uncomfortable because you've been standing for so long. Also, I handed in the afterword in June, about six weeks before Boston's season fell apart, making it the first afterword that was already dated before the book was released. So that's always fun. (You'll especially love my glowing words about Josh Beckett. Shoot me.)
Just for kicks, we even included a photo of me and my buddy J-Bug holding the 2004 World Series trophy (with matching deer-in-the-headlights looks, no less). And there's a shocking story about the time I punched out Johnny Pesky at the Cask and Flagon. All right, I made that last one up. But you can find the paperback in any bookstore, or you can order it on Amazon.com for a measly 10 bucks. So get the thing already. Come on. I don't ask for much.
So why am I giving the Texans a thumbs up? Because it took 21 years, but we finally have a scenario that knocks Bowie-over-MJ off the board. See, Portland taking Sam Bowie was at least SOMEWHAT defensible -- nobody knew MJ would be a superduperstar, they had Clyde Drexler (a future Hall of Famer) playing the same position, and everyone forgets this, but Sam Bowie would have been an All-Star center if he stayed healthy. In fact, when he was healthy during the 1985-86 season, the Blazers gave the World Champion Celtics (who ended up going 82-18) more trouble than anyone -- they even were the only team to win in the Garden that season, and Bird had to toss up 49 points, a game-tying shot in regulation and a game-winner in OT just to fend them off in Portland. Sam Bowie was no joke. The guy was good. And by the way, the Rockets also passed on MJ for Hakeem. Nobody remembers that part.
Look, I'm not condoning the move -- Portland should have taken MJ. But the Blazers' logic for taking Bowie was, at the very least, understandable. Houston's logic was never understandable; the Texans' decision to pass on Bush was shockingly brainless from the moment it happened, if only because you can't disappoint your fans to that degree unless there's a really, really, REALLY good reason. Now it looks like the dumbest sports decision of the past 25 years and that's before we find out Reggie Bush's ceiling, both as an impact running back and personality. I just find the whole thing to be amazing. In a weird way, I'm glad it happened. Incompetence is always more interesting than competence. So thumbs up, Houston Texans. Well done. You're the sports version of Enron.
|• Dolphins (PK) over Steelers|
Meanwhile, everyone's counting out the Eagles, who absolutely REEK of Ewing Theory potential after T.O.'s departure and everyone acting like they were a 6-10 team last season, when the reality was this: Their defense was decimated by injuries; they lost McNabb in Week 7 and Westbrook in Week 8; and the T.O soap opera and residual bitterness from the Pats' Super Bowl destroyed what was left of their season. Well, who has an easier schedule -- @Hou, NYG, @SF, GB, DAL, @NO -- over the first six weeks? With the exception of Dallas and Chicago, who has a better defense in the NFC? Why is everyone so willing to count out a team with a quality coach that's loaded on the offensive/defensive lines? Couldn't they do a reasonable impression of the 2005 Bears, only with a much better QB? I love the Eagles this season. More on this later.
(Another reason to love them: After hitting rock bottom last winter, Philly seems to be in the middle of an under-the-radar resurgence, between Ryan Howard putting the Phillies on his back, the success of "Invincible" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," Billy King somehow avoiding a mindless Iverson trade (although there's still time), the upcoming Rocky movie, the hysterical M. Night Shyamalan book I mean, all we're missing is the reunion of D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince at this point. I'm feeling good things ahead for the Eagles. Can't explain it.)
(Fantasy note: Since Denver's success inadvertently spawned a trend of running back platoons throughout the league, could this be leading to us drafting team running games instead of individual runners, kinda like how we draft team defenses? We might have to make the move. The Pats, Colts, Jags, Titans, Texans, Broncos, Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Bears, Falcons, Panthers and Saints all have possible platoon situations this season. That's 13 teams! This is terrible. I hate Mike Shanahan. I really do. He's the Dr. Oppenheimer of this whole thing. And you know he's doing it intentionally. That's what kills me. He's toying with us. Maybe we should frame him for murder or something. This needs to end. I can't take it.)
"Hey, Bill, I have a movie pitch for you, I want you to write it. Let's say there's this new football announcing team, and one of the guys has been allowed to contradict himself and make dumb proclamations for far too long, to the point that it's hard to take him seriously anymore, and then his network decided to team him up with someone who's conditioned from years and years of radio and TV work to challenge every dumb sports-related argument he hears. And these guys were forced to announce games together for the next 17 weeks. Is that something you might be interested in?"
Look at it this way: Let's say your wife pumped out a couple of kids, gained 75 pounds, stopped having sex and constantly said things like, "You're gonna leave me; you're not attracted to me anymore." Would it make the situation better or worse if you hired a 20-year-old gorgeous Danish au pair to help her around the house? She'd probably go off the deep end and end up looking like Johnny Sack's wife, right? Well, the Cutler pick was Shanahan bringing a 20-year-old Danish au pair into the fold. And I'm not saying that this wasn't the best move for the long haul. But it will inevitably kill the Plummer-Shanahan marriage this season and by extension, the 2006 Broncos. Unless Cutler pulls a Roethlisberger and plays right away. You never know.
And fourth, you realize that the Arizona QBs are Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart, right? Warner was washed up three years ago; Leinart lost me forever during the episode of "Punk'd" when the cops mock-arrested him and a friend for soliciting a prostitute, then agreed to drop Leinart's charges if he sold out his buddy followed by Leinart incredibly agreeing to do so followed by an ecstatic Ashton Kutcher leaping out of a van to tell him he'd been Punk'd. Does that sound like something a great QB would do? Would Tom Brady or Brett Favre EVER sell a buddy like that? No way. That show told me everything I ever needed to know about Matt Leinart's future as an NFL quarterback. Pencil them in for 6-10.
(See, that's the kind of hard-hitting analysis you just don't get from Peter King and the NFL Network.)
So when you nail the chemistry battle and get everyone on the same page, that's an enormous advantage. Willie might be at the end of his career, and they may have overpaid for him but you can't put a price on the little stuff. If Cleveland's schedule wasn't so brutal and the Browns weren't so unsettled at center, I'd even have them as my AFC sleeper. As it is, I'm picking them as the proverbial "Gritty Underdog That Goes 8-8 But Finishes 12-4 Against the Spread." Love those teams.
(By the way, there's desperate, there's really desperate, and then there's "let's trade for Steve McNair" desperate really, the final nail in the coffin for Baltimore's lame attempt to build an offense over the last five season. That's why I liked what the Bears did last spring -- instead of panicking in a draft with weak receivers and QBs like the Ravens with the Kyle Boller/Travis Taylor picks, they went the other way and beefed up an already excellent defense. Hey, why not? You can win 10-12 games these days simply by controlling the clock and making plays on defense. The thing is, the Ravens KNEW THIS -- that's how they won the Super Bowl. Now their defense isn't as good, they wasted a bunch of prime draft picks, their playoff hopes rest on a QB whose odometer currently reads 173,458 miles, and if that's not enough, they killed Boller's confidence for good when he looked good down the stretch last season. You figure it out.)
(Seriously, do you think Roger lived at home in the mid-'80s, played Intellivision until the wee hours every night and had his mother busting his chops to find his own apartment? Would he go drinking with the other interns on Friday nights, return to someone's house for some bong hits, then confidently declare to everyone in the room, "Some day, I'm going to run the NFL," before eating about 75 Sour Patch Kids at once? When he got the job, did one of his old intern buddies watch the news coverage on ESPN and say, "Wait a second, that's Rog! Last time I saw him, we were Xeroxing our butt cheeks in the Jets offices!" I demand more info about this. Roger Goodall just replaced Monica Lewinsky as the most successful former intern of all time. This isn't a major story?)
(One Patriots-related subplot I don't like: The whole Branch thing. Why allow him to explore his market value and open the door for a division rival to go through the charade of offering Branch a ridiculous contract without giving up anything just to screw the Pats over which is exactly what the Jets did. Also, the Pats' logic was inherently flawed -- he's not worth market value for a No. 1 wideout, but he's worth a No. 1 pick? How does that make sense? Just trade him for a high No. 2 and be done with it. Thanks for listening.)
THUMBS EVERYWHERE: To the surreal Bledsoe-Owens tandem, which gives me the same giddy, get-ready-for-anything feeling I get every time Flava Flav is handing out clocks to drunken bimbos at the end of "Flava of Love." Here's Owens, the worst teammate alive, someone with a history of selling his QBs out and getting frustrated when they screw up and they throw him together with the oversensitive Bledsoe, who takes more bad sacks, throws more dumb picks and fumbles the ball in more key spots than just about anyone? How could this possibly unfold smoothly? Is anyone else getting flashbacks to the Michael Westbrook-Stephen Davis fight? And why am I fully aware that this is a disaster waiting to happen, but I'm more than willing to hand the Cowboys a wild-card spot? You figure it out.
We go through this every year, but it's worth mentioning again: True sleepers can only be teams that everyone is writing off -- like the Bears last season, who came out of nowhere to win their division (to the shock of nearly everyone). Ten teams fit the bill this season: Green Bay, New Orleans, San Fran, St. Louis, Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, Oakland, Tennessee and the Jets. I'm telling you, one of those 10 will make the 2006 playoffs, followed by the alleged experts writing/saying, "Oh my God, how did that happen?" and "Absolutely no one saw this one coming!" Happens every year.
My 2006 sleeper is (drumroll please) the Rams of St. Louis.
The explanation: Last year's team underachieved because of the ongoing Martz soap opera, Marshall Faulk's awkward situation and various injuries. The Rams have a fairly easy schedule that includes San Fran, Arizona, Detroit and Green Bay in the first five weeks, followed by a clash against rival Seattle at home in Week 6 (and Alexander's ACL should have exploded by then). They beefed up a lousy defense with three marquee free agents (Corey Chavous, La'Roi Glover and Will Witherspoon, who was great for the Panthers), drafted corner Tye Hill in the first round and hired Jim Haslett as their defensive coordinator. (Note: I like when teams hire former head coaches as coordinators, they're almost overqualified for the job).
AFC Playoff Teams
1. Indianapolis, 13-3
2. New England, 12-4
3. Denver, 11-5
4. Pittsburgh, 10-6
5. Miami, 10-6
6. San Diego, 10-6
NFC Playoff Teams
AFC also-rans: Jacksonville, 9-7; Cincinnati, 9-7; Cleveland, 9-7; Baltimore, 8-8; Kansas City, 7-9; Tennessee, 6-10; Buffalo, 5-11; Houston, 4-12; NY Jets, 4-12; Oakland, 3-13.
NFC also-rans: Tampa Bay, 9-7; Atlanta, 9-7; NY Giants, 8-8; Seattle, 7-9; Washington, 7-9; Arizona, 6-10; Detroit, 6-10; Green Bay, 5-11; New Orleans, 4-12; San Fran, 3-13.
The Rams have genuine firepower on offense (Steven Jackson, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Marc Bulger, even Kevin Curtis), as well as a new head coach, Scott Linehan, who worked under Nick Saban and seems exceedingly competent by all accounts. Throw in Seattle's inevitable collapse and the Rams absolutely REEK of sleeperdom. That's why I'm picking them.
In fact, let's just get to the big Super Bowl pick and call it a day. I narrowed it down to eight teams that could win it: New England, Indianapolis, Denver, Carolina, Dallas, Philly, Chicago and Miami. Nobody else made sense. From there, I crossed off Chicago, Miami and Denver because of their QBs. I crossed off Carolina because waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too many people are riding that bandwagon; that never ends up working out. I crossed off Dallas because of the T.O.-Bledsoe thing, which seems destined to explode at the worst possible time. And I crossed off the Colts because they're the Colts. That was easy.
So who's left? New England and Philly. Just keep in mind, I have been to exactly three Super Bowls in my life, with each trip having been decided well in advance. Each time, my favorite team (the Pats) showed up and won the title. I'm three-for-three.
Why is this relevant, you ask? Because I'm going to the Super Bowl next February in Miami and so are the Patriots. It's destiny.
Pats 27, Eagles 20.Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.