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Thursday, December 18, 2003
Updated: December 23, 12:08 PM ET
A Master, a commander and a kicker

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

I thought (and am still thinking, really) that ESPN.com's John Clayton (he of the Land of Time Before Time, easily as visually arresting and mysterious as any character in Middle-earth and "Return of the King") was a year early on the Colts when he picked 'em to go to the Super Bowl at the start of this season.

Even JC seemed ambivalent about it.

But pick them he did.

"Ah, I'll go ahead and take the Colts," is how he said it.

Peyton Manning
The Colts might be better off letting Peyton Manning go.

Good semi-call. Tony Dungy, Peyton Manning and a few others should be getting the credit. Colitis No More! Contenders now, contenders tomorrow, contenders forever (read the next five years, which is forever in the NFL), all accomplished with the quickness, too. Dungy just got to town weekend before last, didn't he? Last I heard, Jim Mora was saying "Playoffs?! Playoffs?!" in disbelief, talking about his own team, showing pointed dissatisfaction and even contention with one Peyton Manning, which, in retrospect, was not the wise move. If anybody's going anywhere, it ain't Peyton. Faux Lombardi bluster was fine in the USFL, but money QBs don't grow on trees around here or anywhere I can think of, offhand. If you've got one, know that, and count your blessings.

After Peyton's 25-for-30, 290-yard, five-TD county fair shooting exhibition last week, the Colts will get a bye and a home game in the playoffs. And as long as that game is not against the McTites, they'll win that playoff game, which would be a first for Peyt.

* * * * *

Peyton Manning is an interesting case. In last week's "Political Football" NFL Chronicles column, we force-fit a comparison between Manning and Dan Marino. Actually, that comparison stacks up in Manning's favor. No one had the speed of release of Marino, who should have been throwing darts in a pub; he let it go that quick, with that kind of economy of motion. But that skill was pure natural law, an act of evolution, survival of the fittest. Marino had no legs. He actually played on what amounted to metal splints. He had to have a quick release, or become obsolete.

Now Manning has a very quick release too, not quite hair-trigger like Marino's but still, very quick. And he has three weapons Marino never had -- namely, Marvin Harrison and legs. I don't know where people get this idea that Peyt is a lesser kind of athlete. I think it's because maybe we're brainwashed about what an athlete supposedly is and supposedly looks like. In fact, when human beings are involved, the only limits are in their observations. Some people stack Peyton Manning up physically against McNair and Vick and find him wanting. But there are only two of those playing, and they would leave Hercules and Rafer Johnson wanting. Stacked up against anybody, Peyton is a fine athlete. He can run for first downs, and will, like in the Colts' win against the McTites two weeks ago. He can move.

He also has the best on-the-move, play-action fake in ball. It's like a snake charmer. I mean, I stare into the backfield when he does it and I'm just watching on TV! I know defenders freeze.

Peyton Manning

At the same time, Manning induces inexplicably raw emotions against him, and that one I can't figure. In the "Political Football" column, we also compared him to Bill Clinton, because that's the reaction he gets, that's the telling vehemence of the actual hatred for him, seemingly out of nowhere; it's inexplicable to me because, for one thing, Peyton Manning is not actually President.

Is Peyt's curse having been rude -- she'd claim having been much more than rude -- to a female trainer at UT?

Karmically, maybe. But not in fact.

So I'm still working on this. Is it that Peyton is a Southerner, and somewhat resented for his overly quaint manners, and accessibility, and his highly mimickable drawl and seeming Pickett-like suicidal availability -- he doesn't miss any starts, he doesn't run and hide after he loses -- along with his check-with-me permutations at the line before the snap. (Speaking of that, why, Peyt, didn't you change Tom Moore's brain-dead fourth-down goal-line let's-dive-Edge-in-there-again call against the Patriotics two weeks ago to the obvious naked boot? The Patriotics' only defenes was a total sellout on the dive; play-action, roll left, you walk in; did McGinest fall into one there, or what?) Is it that Peyt's heart, opposite of the league's Stonewalls and self-promotion artists, is obviously on his sleeve?

What is it about Peyton Manning that is resented so?

Hit us on Ralpwiley@aol.com, if you think you know. Make your reasoning, if you can call it that, brief, and evergreen; remember, if anybody uses profanity and gets read around here, it'll be me.

I do know that Peyton should use that hatred, that underestimation of him. Take a page from Field General McNabb. Freak 'em if they can't take a joke. And even if they can ...

* * * * *

How did the Colts do it?

Dungy's how.

Tony Dungy
Can Dungy win the big one? He's 2-5 in the playoffs in his career.

Dungy's how they did it so fast, anyway. They make the playoffs with mirrors on D his first year in, and now they're a year early, because of the speed of the scheme they play, even playing in that ding-magnet, the nouveau House of Pain, a barn like that Dome, in front of a bunch of fans who are just killing time until the next high-school basketball game. So Dungy and Bill Polian took pass rusher Dwight Freeney, a total Tasmanian devil of a spinning top, and Mike Doss, undersized stick of dynamite, at safety. They both have been learning exponentially and now must be accounted for on every play, else they will definitely be blowing something up.

Doss got run over by Fred Taylor in a loss at Jacksonville, as Fred was romping for the game-winner, and Tayor looked back at the prone Doss -- nice touch, there, Fred; live and learn, rook. Doss then got run by and through by kick returner Bethel Johnson in a loss at the Dome to New England, when he was obviously looking at the ball and trying to strip it away, rather than just exploding into Bethel and letting the chips, the uniform accoutrements and hopefully the ball fall where they may. Two lessons were learned there. Hell, if Doss had already been a veteran, the Colts could be 13-1 now.

It's not that they play Cover 2. A lot of teams play a lot of Cover 2. It's that they are learning to play Dungy's Cover 2. It's how they play Cover 2. They entice, induce the dump-off, then they outrun what you are trying to do against it, and arrive with the ability to tackle and strip. If you can't break a tackle, or make a guy miss against this type of Cover 2, you are done, capital D.

Linebacker David Thornton might not be Derrick Brooks, but he's fast, and if you don't block him or screen him off, he'll will outrun the play. And as for Freeney, he fell a little in the draft two years ago because in a Syracuse-Miami game he got blocked out by the sun, in the person of man-mountain Bryant McKinnie -- certainly no shame. You can't give Tony Dungy an edge rusher like Dwight Freeney, basically giving him the option of blitzing or not. Under Dungy, Freeney's as effective as Warn Sapp. Scary part for the rest of the league is that Dungy is still putting this together -- it's not yet what he wants, but parts are in place, and he's still getting production out of the Chad Bratzkes and Larry Trippletts.

I thought at the beginning of the season they were one more draft away, just in looking mostly at the Dungy side of the ball. But, with the way Peyton has been finding people, and with so many people to find, all the Dungy D has to do is hold you to 24 and they've got a shot at you. A very good shot at you. I don't know if Indy can go into New England and win an AFC title game in that weather, but they could go into KC and win, should it happen to break that way.

Speaking of breaking that way, rookie tight end Dallas Clark's leg broke in a bad way a couple weeks ago, a harsh but learnable lesson for him. Know when to get your feet up out of there, and learn when to get down; but Clark's injury allowed their secret weapon out. We can say Marvin Harrison, the best in the business, tilts the field; he does. But you can take a guy away with a double-team, for the most part. You can't shut down Marvelous, but if you occupy him with two, you've got a chance to reverse the ball, take it away yourself.

The only problem with that is, everybody else is one-on-one.

Tight end Marcus Pogo Pollard, Edge out of the backfield, and Reggie Wayne are all capable of getting seriously open against single coverage. But the straw that appears to be ready to either break a back or stir a drink is this little straw named Brandon Stokley.

Brandon Stokley should not be getting credit, but some balls. He caught a TD in last week's blowout of the pathetic Falcs. White boy has got a jet up his. He can run and he understands the coverages and where the holes are in it. Like any receiver who wants to be great -- and not all of them do, not all of them believe they can be, can get talked out of it -- he is always looking to go up, and there's his charm. You may recall Stokleydokely catching a TD pass on Jason Sehorn in the Ravens' Super Bowl couple years back. Same guy. Only maybe wiser, having been hurt, and maybe faster, because of the track the Colts play on. You don't often get a white boy like this at wide anymore. I don't know why. I grew up watching Lance Alworth and Don Maynard and they would blow by your ass in a heartbeat. You never had time to notice pigments. If you weren't careful, they'd run by you so fast, they'd strip off whatever paint job you happened to be wearing. It became moot.

Mike Vanderjagt
Vanderjagt has been perfect with his legs, not so perfect when he opens his mouth.

* * * * *

Mike Vanderjagt should not be getting credit. Other than for the fact he's made 38 straight field goals and counting this season, and was publicly desirous of breaking the record of 40, which he may have done by the time you get around to reading this. Other than that, what has he done? Some would argue he doesn't have to do anything else. Those who would argue that had best avert their eyes for the next few grafs, and move to the other side of room, out of the way, so you won't get hit by strays.

I've been working up a jacket on Vanderjagt ever since his rant about Dungy and Manning in the offseason, an offseason after Dungy's first in Indy, when he and Manning helped make each individual Colt, Vanderjagt included, a playoff share for one round. They lost that playoff game, 41-0 to the Jets. That's fine, you file, you remember, you visit them soon. That's a professional approach. I've seen Montana and Walsh lose a playoff game 49-3 to a New York team, the Giants, and win Super Bowls later.

But Doctor Vanderjagt suspected he saw a fatal character flaw. Which made me examine him, not Dungy and Manning, more closely. After all, what was there to doubt about Manning and Dungy? Manning can't be a fluke. Not only did he finish in the top five in voting for the Heisman Trophy -- so did his daddy, and his little brother. His willingness and ability to show up every game and produce in the big leagues over multiple seasons speaks for itself. You can see what Manning is about on every snap.

Dungy? Do you remember what Tampa Bay was like before Dungy? A joke, is what. He got them to within a 11-6 loss to the Rams of the Super Bowl. And that was on the road, too. And now the Colts are all turned around, too. As I say, I myself had forecast them for the Super Bowl, only next year, after one more draft. But I'm not trying to come off as a savant. My point is, why can't you see it. Why the blind spot. Like Manning, what is it about Dungy that people, even people like Vanderjagt, don't get? Or like?

I understand that Vanderjagt was just speaking off-handedly on a local TV show, and probably never expected his comments to blow up like they did. Still, he expressed a surprisingly laymanesque opinion of his teammate and coach. It was what you'd expect a fan to say, not even a knowledgeable fun, at that.

So I've been watching him.

What I saw wasn't pretty.

In the Indy-Tampa game, the comeback game, when Indy was down 32-14, or so, that Sunday/Monday Night camera focused on Vanderjagt and that's the shot the producer called for punch-up. There was Vanderjagt, with this look on his face I can't describe other than this way; if I'm in a lifeboat or a foxhole with the guy giving me that kind of look, one of us is going to have to get out quick. It was kind of "here we go again," "see I told you," look.

It was a treacherous look.

By the time the Colts, behind Manning and Marvelous, made the miracle comeback from three touchdowns down with less than five minutes left, Vanderjagt's facial expression changed from eye-furrowed displeasure to abject choke. Not that it's not human. It is. Vanderjagt made the kick he had to make in OT, shtoinking (thank you, Nick Bakay) it off the upright to "give" the Colts the win.

Then later, Vanderjagt was on the cover of award-winning ESPN magazine, looking cool and tough, with the hook being how he and his comments, passions and fire, woke up the Colts. I am assuming ESPN magazine did not become award-winning for this bit of conjecture. Then, the game against New England, Bethel Johnson was returning a kickoff up the right sideline. This wasn't just talk, or photo shoots. This was actual football, coming right at you, very fast. Vanderjagt was right in front of the play. But somehow he conveniently spun 180 degrees away from Bethel, making it look good though, taking himself out of Bethel's path. Vanderjagt then ran alongside the play, trailing it, for the next fifty yards to the end zone. Like he was going to try and tackle somebody or something.

In that same game, while on the bench, Vanderjagt was over by Marvin Harrison when something happened with the Colts' D on-field; a dropped interception perhaps, I don't remember, because I was too busy laughing when I saw the shot of Harrison falling over on the sideline turf in mock disbelief and disappointment. Falling over on the ground right next to him, in imitation? Vanderjagt.

There's nothing wrong with pretending to be a ballplayer, wanting to be a ballplayer. All of us have done it and still do it. But there's something very wrong with pretending to be one, then knocking those who are actually are, and who are on your own team, making you money. So that's off my chest. I hope Vanderjagt does get the NFL record of 40 straight field goals. But I also know that in the end it won't be all about 40 or even 50 straight field goals. It's all about one. And if you don't believe me, ask Gary Anderson.

Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.