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Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Two QBs who can carry their teams

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Stay with me here.

I'm about to go all counter-intuitive on you.

I'm about to tell you why, even though Carolina and New England are the better teams, something -- probably something weird -- tells me Peyton Manning and/or Donovan McNabb will persevere. One, if not both of them, will go to the Super Bowl.

Luke Skywalker
Perhaps you should bet the way you feel -- like a true Jedi.
I'm not telling you that's the way to bet. It's all feel.

Trust your feelings, Luke ...

Usually, I say screw your feelings. Go with superior defense. New England and Carolina have the superior defenses. So, by all means, take Carolina and the points -- Philly giving 5 1/2? Patently absurd. If you can get the Colts (aka the Cult) and 3 1/2, take it and run.

I don't like the taste in my mouth when I say this. Pete Rose might read it. I don't like to talk spreads; makes me feel polyester on my skin. I stink of alcohol and cigarette smoke. So I usually stick with picking pure winners. Last weekend, I gave you all four winners and the one spread I felt comfortable recommending, the McTites getting six. I remind you of this not for congratulations. That's what I'm supposed to do. I remind you so you won't blow me off.

Why am I going with Manning and McNabb, two quarterbacks, when the AFC lost Super Bowls for a decade straight-plus in the '80s and '90s by depending strictly on quarterbacks like Marino, Elway and Kelly, while the NFC was depending on Lawrence Taylor and Ronnie Lott? It's only because of how they have been personally attacked. It would be justice, I think, for them to beat the odds, as I see it.

You see, pilgrims, there's nothing particularly wrong with saying Tom Brady is a lucky fraud, or Jake Delhomme is garbage. Everybody's entitled to their opinion, no matter how misguided. But it's another thing entirely for your own teammate to say on TV you're too soft and weak to win big games, and have that teammate be a kicker, for God's sake. Your kicker, on top of that. It's another thing entirely to be made into a "racial" political football by the man one Al Franken calls a big fat idiot. (Franken's wrong, by the way. Rush is not that fat. Not to me.)

Let us go now into deep backstory of both games, and the author. Then I'll finish with a flourish and tell you why picking winners and picking Manning and McNabb are not mutually exclusive.

I'm going to set you up, then hit you with the clincher.

***

Let's start with McNabb's game. I've heard it said he "needs" to win this game to be "considered in the conversation" of top-shelf Cubes. Let me suggest this. He's already proven it just by getting them here: Football is not about a Monday morning conversation between a bunch of stuffed shirts and armchair generals. Saying McNabb must prove he's championship-caliber is as ignorant as Rush Limbaugh saying he is "not that good," and is being propped up by the liberal media. Whether it's reported on TV or not, it's still a miracle the Iggles are in the NFC final. It's a triumph of McNabb's will, if you will -- or even if you won't.

Donovan McNabb
Donovan McNabb led the Eagles with his arm, and his feet, to a win against the Packers.
Let me (and certain facts) explain.

First, there was this whole Limbaugh diversion. That would have been enough to crush a Kordell Stewart or Kurt Warner right there. And then there are the limited Philly receivers -- James Thrash, a glorified kick returner, and Todd Pinkston, a stick figure who is game but can't escape a jam. One thing Cris Collinsworth said worth hearing was how McNabb had to hold the ball (and thus get sacked nine times) because the WRs were getting zero separation from the Green Bay DBs. Iggle wides don't accelerate into cuts; it's like they are stuck in the LaBrea tar pits coming out of them.

McNabb had to overcome that. Has to still.

Then, psychologically, he was going up against Brett Favre. And not just Brett Favre. Everybody in America who wasn't an Iggle fan wanted Favre to win because of the tragedy of his dad dying. That was a lot of negative karma coming at you, if you were No. 5.

Then, on the Eagles' first series, a ditzy-if-talented running back named Correll Buckhalter whiffed blocking a corner blitz by Milli Vanilla McKenzie, earning himself a seat on the bench for the rest of the game. McKenzie blindsided McNabb, causing a fumble. Favre converts. 7-0 Green Bay quickly becomes 14-0 Green Bay, because the outstanding cornerback Troy Vincent was hurt (didn't know this when I wrote last week's column about how magnificent Ahman Green wouldn't rush for 150 bucks -- the most important stat every week in the NFL is the Injury List) and not playing, and one Sheldon Brown summarily proved why good cover corners are worth every pecan they get.

So if you're D. McNabb, you have no wides, you've spotted the Pack a 14-0 lead, and your most productive RB, Brian Westbrook, is also out injured. Curtains, right?

What do you do, pilgrim? What do you do?

If you're McNabb, you replace Westbrook and Buckhalter your own damn self, rush for a buck-oh-seven on 11 totes. After starting one-for-seven in the passing game, you then go 21-for-39 for 248 yards, two TDs. With no wides!

Terrell Owens
Imagine if Donovan McNabb had Terrell Owens to throw to?
If Terrell Owens has any brains, he signs with Philly, even for short money. With McNabb, he'd make it up in playoff shares and commercials ops. I don't think people understand how much prolific receivers have to do with any QB's presumption of greatness. Roger Staubach threw up the Hail Mary, but somehow Drew Pearson came down with it. I can't tell you how many times Terry Bradshaw just threw it up there and prayed that Lynn Swann and John Stallworth would go get it. Kurt Warner "won" a Super Bowl in '99 when he threw up a blind prayer and Ike Bruce made a play on it when A. Dorsett took a bad angle, as is (was?) his wont.

Go back and look at it, pilgrims.

Same with any QB. On the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) fourth-and-26 play, you know who really made the play? Freddie Mitchell. McNabb threw a laser shot right at him; it hit his hands, taking some velocity off. Hard to stop a ball thrown with that kind of pace with just a clean hand snatch. Mitchell had a fraction of a second, I'm talking milliseconds, to secure the seed and put it away before taking a helmet-to-helmet hit. He did. And he should get credit for it. Just as Javon Walker should get credit for bringing in that 44-yard rainbow from Favre, setting up the field goal that led to the Packers' 17-14 lead.

Neophytes and wanna-bes and the unschooled, sorely disappointed that Favre did not pull off off another miracle, perceiving McNabb did, turned on Favre like hyenas and jackals fighting over carrion after Brett heaved up another rainbow in overtime that Dawkins picked. In fact, Javon Walker, likely exhausted, stopped running on the play. It was a sellout blitz; Brett threw it up there, hoping Walker would make a play. Or if not, at least knock it down.

Air McNair threw a similar ball to Drew Bennett at the end of the New England game to beat a sellout blitz. Bennett happened to be there. Didn't catch it, but you can't blame Air for hurling it. On those plays, both Favre and McNair, if they could've escaped, would have. But age, or infirmity, or injury, or pure defensive footspeed prevented it; so they tried to make the play they felt was available. McNair's was a fourth-down play; he had to heave it out there. I suppose Brett could've thrown it over everybody and come back on another down, since it was first; but I can't fault him for trying.

Anyway. McNabb is the only reason the Iggles have a ghost of a prayer against Carolina. The Panthrax are better up and down the D-line. They can get pressure with their awesome front four and cover with seven. McNabb gives the Eagles a chance -- a chance that, for some reason, I think he'll take. But Carolina will certainly cover the 5 1/2-point spread, because one through 53, they're better.

If McNabb happens not to beat them, what it will do is give wags something to tongue each other over. It will not reflect poorly on what he's already accomplished, in this and prior seasons, and in the 2004 playoffs. Well, it probably will, but only to big fat idiots.

What about to you?

***

Peyton has the same one chance in three that McNabb has.

Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning dissected the Chiefs defense in their divisional playoff game.
Recently, we (?) composed a Page 2 column called "Master and Commander", about the Indy Cult; we asked for e-mail responses at Ralpwiley@aol.com about why Manning is resented so out there among the great unwashed fan base. I got so many replies, and was surprised at some of the rancor. Seems Peyton is perceived to have been given something, a bit like McNabb, oddly, only in a different way. There is a feeling Peyt was born with the football equivalent of a silver spoon in his mouth, has had it far too easy, won a DNA genetic lottery ticket from his dad, and is arrogant, wears an ugly facemask, etc.

I had the feeling there was something else, though. I think also Peyton is not a wink-wink bigot; he's not among the vast majority that are susceptible to being beak-fed from the talons of the great conversative birds of prey, which include my friend Rush.

Peyton doesn't need to go there.

Charlie P., from up Beantown way, hit me up on e-mail and stuck up for Archie, Peyt, Eli and the House of Manning. Charlie P. had done a piece on them for Esquire or some such, and said they were cool, and down, although they were from Drew, Mississippi, home of an infamous oppressive penal colony, Parchman Farms.

Little did my old friend and contemporary Charlie P. know. I'm nearly a contemporary of Archie's. He's much older; but when he was at Ole Miss, me and my boys were living in segregation, a hundred or so miles up the road, playing football for the Memphis Melrose high school Golden Wildcats, where we had an equal football tradition and history to that of Ole Miss. If you doubt this, check your local NFL rosters. There are at least four or five Memphis Melrose alumni playing in the NFL even today, including Jerome Woods, the All-Pro safety of the Chiefs, Dwayne Robertson, the Jets' No. 1 draft pick last year, and Ced Wilson, the 49er wideout.

As a kid, I was hooked on Friday nights, watching Bobby Smith play wide. When later he changed his named to Bingo Smith of the Cleveland Cavs, I felt it was a comedown for him. One of my good old instructive high school coaches, Jesse Wilburn, was also an old Golden Wildcat. He had to be cut out of his uni after his Tennessee State team beat a Florida A&M team featuring Willie Galimore. You may never have seen Galimore play. If not, it is your loss.

We practiced from eight to five in 100-degree heat for the entire month of August. Back then, when I was there apprenticing on the game, we all had a good feeling about this Archie Manning, even though we never met him and he played in the lily-white SEC. I can't explain this to you. You could just feel he didn't need the advantage of any prejudice and bigotry. He didn't have to keep us down to lift himself up. He was just a great player. Simply great.

Frankly, I wish I could've played with the man. It was something about his manner, the way he moved, acted. Howie Long explained it to me later when discussing John Elway, when Howie was a player with the Raiders in L.A. Howie was going on to me about how great John Elway was (as if I didn't know -- I hit the Stanford campus at the same time as John, he a freshman Cube breaking the fingers of unwitting wide receivers, I mean literally, me as a facile cubbie on the Stanford football beat for the Oakland Tribune).

Howie paused his rave review, look at me quite sincerely and said, "Ralph, man ... he's like a brother!" I arched brow. Howie said, "Aw, here comes that brother sh--." So I gently reminded Howie he was the one who brought up brothers, not me. Howie looked as if someone had hit him in the face with an ax handle, but recovered and moved on to prattle away about some other subject. I knew Howie'd be good on TV. He was good on his feet. I liked him.

Later on, in 1988, Jesse Wilburn's son, Barry, who also went to Melrose High and then later to Ole Miss -- times had changed -- intercepted John Elway twice in a Super Bowl, as a Washington "Redskin." I guess the old man named Norman Maclean was right: All things do meld into one, and a river runs through it.

***

Brandon Stokley
Brandon Stokley has emerged as a go-to receiver for Peyton Manning.
See Peyt's feet? See how quick they move? See how quickly he gets them under him and into firing position? That's crucial. Hard to get to him before he sets and fires. The playoff numbers speak for themselves. 44-for-56 for 681 yards and 8 touchdowns and no picks, in two playoff games? And people were talking about that he was a prove-it-to-me player? Oh yeah? I think you better bite down on that mouthpiece, baby. Think you better bow up.

I didn't understand it back when I wrote about Limbaugh and McNabb and Peyton in "In a Rush to make a big impact" on Friday Oct. 3, 2003, on Page 2, and I don't now. Really, McNabb and Manning are two sides of the same coin. The way I put it then was, " ... to the trained eyes, and not even to every trained eye, but certainly to mine, Peyton Manning is a great quarterback. The fact that he has not won a playoff game -- yet! -- speaks more to the quality of the team around him than to Peyton ... but there is an undercurrent of false hipness and currency to a (media) perception about Peyton Manning's supposed shortcomings. Is it based on the color of his skin? Absurd, I know, but is it? That's what Rush was preying on."

Now I hear Bryan Cox saying how Peyt's sick numbers came against bad D. No, they came against bad playoff D. And I don't care if it came against the ESPN anchorman flag football team. That's some Cubing right there. That's doing some hurling.

You may be blind. But I ain't.

***

So I looked at the playoffs and what did I see? Vanderjagt being ridiculous looking back at me, once again last week, when he repeated his faking-being-a-real-football-player routine on another kickoff return for a TD against the Cult, this one by the Chiefs' Dante Hall, just as VJ did a few weeks ago vs. Bethel Johnson and the Patriotics.

In December's "Master and Commander" column about the Cult, I pointed out Vanderjagt's evasive moves, how he did a 180 away from the action, thereby removing himself from the path of Johnson during a critical return in the Patriotics' crucial win over the Cult that gave Beantown home-field ad.

Some readers, particularly some Canadian readers (Vanderjagt is Canadian) then e-mailed in to give me heck about this, saying that Vanderjagt was basically right about Manning and Dungy, right in calling them soft, not hard enough to win big playoff games. Even Rod Freaking Strickland, of all people, was recently quoted in the Orlando paper saying, "Vanderjagt, that's my man (?)". Their point: I didn't know what I was talking about by saying that VJ had baldly avoided Bethel Johnson -- Bethel had just put a good move on him.

Right.

I looked out there and what did I see? Apparently, Dante Hall put the same move on Vanderjagt as Bethel did. But before that -- long before -- as the last man between Hall and the goal line, Vanderjagt had repeated his let-me-turn-my-back-and-make-it-look-like-I'm-being-faked-out move, a 180 away from the action. He then trailed the play, once again, just as he had against Bethel Johnson. Then, for effect, he dived at Hall's feet, faking a slap move at his ankles.

He disgusts me. As a football player, I mean. As a kicker, I'd hire him in a heartbeat. I have no problem with him as a kicker. I have a problem with him being a kicker and then calling out Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy on their football manhood. And I don't really have a problem with that. I have a problem with people buying it.

There, I've said it. It's out. I feel better.

Mike Vanderjagt & Dante Hall
Mike Vanderjagt makes a lame attempt at bringing down Dante Hall.
See, VJ never understood why Peyton had blown him off before last season's Cult playoff blowout loss to the Jets, when Vanderjagt said, puppy-like, "We're gonna win this game, we're gonna do this, and that, right Peyt?" Peyton gave him a jaded look, and said, "Yeah, right."

That's how all the criticism got started. VJ didn't understand then, and might not now, that Peyton sees right through his I'm-a-real-football-player fašade. Peyton knows "we" aren't going to do anything. If anything, he, Peyton, will do it, he and his real football-playing teammates. Contrast Vanderjagt's talk-only bravado and rabbit-like instincts with the Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins, who executed an onside kick against the Panthers and then stuck his nose in there and recovered the ball himself.

I know. I should let go of Vanderjagt. But his play won't let me.

Go back and look at it, pilgrims.

***

In last month's "Master and Commander" piece on the Colts, I gave you Brandon Stokley as the closest today to Lance Alworth and Don Maynard. And that has sort of worked out as well. You may ask how on earth do I see this stuff? In my mind, I go back to Jesse Wilburn, those eight-hour, 100-degree days, working and working until Coach Wilburn finally says, "Wiley -- 80-yard bomb. Perfect."

So how do I know these things? Luck, I guess. I suppose you could say I'm blowing my own horn.

But if I don't, who will? Exactly.

So there you have it. Take the points (if you must) and Carolina. But take McNabb to find a way and will a way to win the game.

And on the other side, the Patriotics are better. But the Colts have the lucky horseshoe and Peyt Manning on their side. Counter-intuitively, take the Cult.

... Assuming Vanderjagt doesn't have to make a last-second tackle.

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.