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Tuesday, October 23, 2001
Updated: October 24, 7:09 PM ET
Whazzzzup in the NFL?

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

With apologies to CNNSI's Peter King, here are 10 things I think I think after six weeks of the NFL season:

Trung Canidate
With substitutes such as Trung Canidate, the Rams are the league's only reliable favorite.
1. I think this has been the strangest NFL season in recent memory. The media usually starts their "This has been the strangest season ever!" buzz around Week 5 or Week 6 -- it's an NFL October Tradition, right up there with my girlfriend asking on Sunday at noon if I want to go apple-picking, me following that question up with the answer, "What are you, insane?" and her storming out of the house -- but this season really has been the strangest season of all-time.

Consider the following things:

  • Twenty of the 31 NFL teams have records of .500 or better.

  • The short list of quality teams this season includes Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco (combined record last season: 12-36).

  • Out of the nine consensus Super Bowl "contenders" from the preseason, only three of them (Green Bay, St. Louis and Philadelphia) have winning records. The other six (Indy, Tampa, Baltimore, Tennessee, Denver and the Giants) are a combined 15-18.

  • After the favorites went 35-21 against the spread in the first four weeks, the underdogs went 22-4-2 over the next two weeks. (22-4-2! That's impossible!)

  • The Patriots are slightly above-average as a football team, maybe even a little better when you factor in their coaching staff and team chemistry ... and there isn't an NFL team they couldn't beat if they played well and get two or three breaks. No 2001 victory is out of their grasp. Seriously. And just for the record, I feel the same way about the Browns and Falcons.

  • Along those same lines, other than St. Louis, there isn't a reliable favorite in the league anymore. Remember the days when you could count on a contender to bounce back from an embarrassing defeat the following week? (What happened to Denver and Baltimore last week? Didn't they get the memo?) Remember the days when you could throw two quality home teams into a two-team tease and assume they would cover at home (like Tampa, New Orleans and Indianapolis, for instance)? Remember the days when the home team was money on Monday nights (like this week with the Giants)? I miss those days. And so does my wallet.

    So what's left? I'm not sure. We already achieved Pete Rozelle's vision of a parity-driven NFL two seasons ago, when the 200-to-1 underdog Rams cruised to a Super Bowl title. Now we've reached a point where the league has become predictably unpredictable. It's a gambler's worst nightmare.

    (Which reminds me...)

    Jon Kitna
    Despite his occasional decent games, keep reminding yourself it's still Jon Kitna.
    2. I think the local weatherman in hell will report "Temperatures in the midteens all weekend" before I wager on a team that prominently features Jon Kitna again.

    2a. I think that there's excruciating, there's really excruciating ... and then there's the experience of watching Carolina's Chris Weinke throwing two interceptions inside the 10-yard-line in the first half against a brutal Redskins team, then singlehandedly giving the 'Skins life with 10 minutes remaining in a 14-0 game (by tossing a screen pass right to LaVar Arrington for a 67-yard interception and touchdown). Can everyone who wagered on the Panthers last Sunday file a class-action suit against Weinke? Has this ever been done before?

    2b. I think the lesson here, as always, is "Never wager on a team with a crappy QB." And I knew this! I knew this. Normally I'd fine myself, but the financial bloodbath has already been devastating enough. Does anyone know a good pawn shop in the Boston area?

    (Whoops... I'm using my out-loud voice again...)

    2c. I think I miss the days when you could recoup your 1 p.m. gambling losses by wagering on two sturdy 4 p.m. teams in "Message Game" situations. For instance, Sunday featured Denver coming off an embarrassing loss in Seattle (and heading into San Diego for an AFC West tilt), as well as the Packers looking to drive a stake in Minnesota's season and extend their lead in the NFC Central. In the old days, you could rely on the Mike Shanahans and Brett Favres of the world to save your butt. Not anymore.

    Elton John
    Elton John's wig isn't as curious as Barry Sanders' hairline.
    As I told my buddy J-Bug last night, "This has become a league which I am unfamiliar with." All of the gambling rules accrued over the years ... you might as well throw them out the window. I give up.

    3. I think I always get excited for those Coors Light commercials with Barry Sanders for one reason: Sanders possesses the strangest hairline of anyone on the planet. And just for the record, that includes Shane Battier, Roy Firestone, Elton John and Brad Daugherty.

    (Note: Somebody needs to release the Barry Sanders Wig for Halloween this month, along with the Dave Campo Wig, the Troy Aikman Concussion Mask, the Dave Wannstedt Fake Mustache, the Al Groh Blow-Up Doll and the Fred Taylor "Pull Your Own Groin" Start-Up Kit. I'm telling you, NFL Collectibles should have a whole Halloween Department. It's a no-brainer. They could even release an "NFL Legends," collection so we could finally get our hands on the Bruce Coslet Wig. Can somebody make this happen, please?)

    Doug Flutie
    Doug Flutie has finally found the right team, if you don't count the Stampeders and the Argonauts.
    4. I think it took 16 frustrating years, but Doug Flutie finally found the right NFL team. It's funny how life works out -- had the Bills decided to keep him over Rob Johnson, Flutie would have spent his twilight years on a rebuilding team. Instead, he's the proverbial "Right Guy, Right Place, Right Time," on a team where he doesn't have to carry the offensive load -- unless it's absolutely necessary (like Sunday, when Denver stacked the line against the sublime LaDainian Tomlinson, putting the game in Flutie's hands).

    4a. I think Tampa Bay made an enormous mistake going for Brad Johnson over Flutie ... and I think it probably costs Tony Dungy his job within the next one to four months.

    4b. I think it's fair to say that the list of "Reliable Quarterbacks Who Can Consistently Win Games" has been whittled down to four: Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia and Flutie. That's it. That's the list.

    Think about it. Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb make too many mistakes. Brian Griese, Rich Gannon and Mark Brunell are only as good as the people around them. Peyton Manning is slapping together a Karl Malone-type career (and his Ewing Theory potential is jumping off the charts). Steve McNair and Chris Chandler can't stay healthy. Drew Bledsoe has been hideously exposed by Tom Brady (more on this in a second).

    Jeff Garcia
    Jeff Garcia is one of four reliable QBs who can consistently win games.
    Look at the list again: Favre, Warner, Flutie and Garcia. Three of those four guys were forced to prove themselves in other professional leagues before another NFL team even gave them a chance.

    (I ask you again ... is this a weird NFL season or what?)

    5. I think we've reached the section of the "10 Things" column where I'm supposed to talk about non-sports items, like high school field hockey and Starbucks.

    (Racking my brain ...)

    (All right ...)

    I'm ashamed to admit this, but Monday night I went to see the new Drew Barrymore movie "Riding in Cars with Boys," accompanying the Sports Gal as part of our "She won't bitch about the fact that I spend seven hours every Sunday watching football if I escort her to an occasional chick flick and don't bitch about it" deal. Savvy, huh?

    I only have two hopes with chick flicks: that they're short and that there's a cute actress prominently involved. Needless to say, since "Riding in Cars" lasted for 140 interminable minutes and the wheels came off the "Drew Barrymore is a babe" bandwagon about three years ago, I spent the last 45 minutes trying to pull a piece of metal off the bottom of my seat so I could jam it into my jugular vein. Even the Sports Gal didn't like the movie that much, and this is coming from a person who was peeved that the Academy Award committee snubbed "The Wedding Planner" last spring.

    Five disturbing phenomenons about the chick flick:

  • Every chick flick has a scene where either A) a male baby pees on somebody, B) there's a wedding, and/or C) there's an unredeeming male character who lets somebody down. This is apparently a rule. If you can work all three of those scenes in the same movie, the director apparently gets a $50,000 bonus.

  • Whenever I see a chick flick, there's always a moment when I accidentally make eye contact with another boyfriend or spouse at the theater and we quickly glance away. It's like seeing somebody in the adult section of a video store -- you're just hoping nobody will recognize you and things will move along as quickly as possible.

  • I'll sum up the storyline from every chick flick: "Men suck."

  • There's always a specific threesome sitting somewhere in the theater during every chick flick -- one girl sitting between two guys. Why two? I have no idea. Usually, they seem like platonic friends, the girl isn't very attractive, at least one of the guys looks like Tim Burton, and the guys overlaugh at every joke in the movie, to the point that you start rooting for one of them to choke to death on a Sour Patch Kid. Again, I'm not sure what's going on here.

  • Every time you block out the fact that you're watching a chick flick, something funny happens and everyone in the theater starts laughing, a high-pitched cacophony of giggles that reminds you, "Hey, I'm at a chick flick." That's usually when I start bludgeoning myself over the head with my 128-ounce Mountain Dew.

    Anyway, on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give "Riding Cars with Boys" a minus-13. Let's forget this section ever happened ... and if you're attending any showings of "Serendipity" in the Boston area over the next few weeks and see someone who looks like me, please don't make eye contact with that person. For everyone's sake.

    Tom Brady
    Tom Brady has New Englanders leaping off the Drew Bledsoe bandwagon.
    6. I think the Tom Brady Era is taking the Ewing Theory to the next level, especially considering that your buddy Sports Guy predicted a Ewing-resurgence for the Patriots before Week 3. You had the overhyped, overvalued superstar who never really won anything and received an inordinate amount of media attention and fan hype (Drew Bledsoe). You had the requisite injury during the season that caused everyone to write the team off (Bledsoe going down in Week 2, possibly for the season). You had everyone writing the team off.

    And then ...

    You had the team immediately running off a 3-1 streak, including two "I can't believe this is happening!" wins (both over Indy), as well as an improbable comeback win (over San Diego), showing more life than they've shown in years. Now you have the local media searching for answers to explain how a team can lose its franchise player and "inexplicably" start playing better. And everyone keeps saying that the Patriots have come out of nowhere. You know better.

    Just for the record, I officially abandoned my seat on the Bledsoe Bandwagon at 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, when the Pats took a 28-6 lead in Indianapolis, and I called my father just to pretend I was Paul Tagliabue, announcing, "With the first pick of the 2002 expansion draft, the Houston Texans select ... Drew Bledsoe, quarterback, New England Patriots."

    (Sounds far-fetched? Remember, they signed Bledsoe to a mammoth contract extension last spring; they couldn't trade him without absorbing an impossible salary cap hit. But according to NFL rules, any player who gets selected in the expansion draft has his contract and cap figure transferred to the Texans -- even the pro-rated bonus payments -- which means the Pats could leave Bledsoe unprotected and hope the Texans gobble him up, which would clear $10 million to $12 million in cap space to spend in free agents next spring. Mmmmmm ... cap space ...)

    Tony Dungy
    The Buccaneers should entertain offers for head coach Tony Dungy.
    7. I think Tampa Bay and Indianapolis should trade coaches -- Dungy straight-up for Jim Mora. Why don't teams ever trade coaches in sports? What's the worst thing that could happen? What about Marty Schottenheimer and two Schottenheimers to be named later for George Seifert and cash? Couldn't this work or am I crazy?

    8. I think Buffalo's Travis Henry always looks like one of those stubborn buffaloes on the Discovery Channel that fight off four or five cheetahs before they finally get dragged down. Last week against the Jaguars, he had 57 carries for 65 yards even though he was hit three yards behind the line by four defenders on every carry. High comedy. His career might not last until November at this rate.

    9. I think Chicago and Pittsburgh are shaping up as the "Out of Nowhere Teams" in each conference this season -- those basement teams that beef up against crappy opponents, shock the experts, win 10-11 games and scare the heck out of the bookmakers in Vegas (given that they were long shots to win it all before the season). Both teams run the ball effectively, avoid taking chances on offense, swarm the ball on defense and make plays on special teams; in other words, they're following Baltimore's 2000 playbook to a tee.

    Chicago's resurgence wasn't that improbable, given that somebody strange was coming out of the NFC Central ... but Pittsburgh? Did you ever envision them at 4-1, when four of their first five were on the road? Now they finish up with seven of their last 11 at home. Yikes. It's almost enough to make you forget that Kordell Stewart's still involved. Almost.

    Keep in mind, just in case the Bears or Steelers stumble over the next few weeks, there are an inordinate amount of other "Out of Nowhere" candidates: San Fran (4-1), San Diego (4-2), Cleveland (4-2), Atlanta (3-3) and New England (3-3). For all we know, all of those teams might make the playoffs this season ... but the schedule seems to favor Chicago and Pittsburgh over everyone else. For all we know, all of those teams might sneak into the playoffs. It's been that kind of season.

    10. I think that "Any Given Sunday" was a flawed movie, to say the least, crippled by brutal editing, suicidal casting decisions and a script that meandered all over the place. And yet one scene makes it all worth it. You know the one. It's the scene when Al Pacino (as coach Tony DeMarco) throws the movie on his back before the Big Game:

    "You know, when you get old in life, things get taken from you. That's part of life. But you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out that life's a game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late, or too early, and you don't quite make it. One half-second too slow or too fast, you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second."

    (Now the players are clapping ...)

    "On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone around us for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know that when we add up all those inches, we know that's gonna make the #$%#^@& difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!"

    (Now the players are screaming along with every word...)

    "I'll tell you this -- in any fight, it's the guy who's willing to die who's gonna win that inch ... Now I can't make you do it. You gotta look at the guy next to ya, look into his eyes, and I think you're gonna see a guy who will go that inch with you."

    (The light bulb finally clicks for enigmatic QB Willie Beamon ... he strolls toward his coach, inspired ...)

    "You're gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows when it comes down to it, you're gonna do the same for him. That's a team, gentleman. And either we heal, now, as a team ... or we will die as individuals. That's football, guys. That's all it is."

    (Dramatic pause)

    "Now, what are you gonna do?"

    (Complete Pandemonium in the locker room. Chills galore. And the team bursts out of the locker room in slow motion ...)

    And I can't think of a better way to end this column.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.