Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Friday, September 16, 2005
Updated: September 19, 11:46 AM ET
Searching for the truth in the NFL

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Near the beginning of "And The Band Played On" -- only the most underrated made-for-cable movie of all time -- the Centers for Disease Control meets to discuss the statistics of a deadly virus sweeping through the gay community. Nobody can come up with an explanation. Everyone falls silent. Finally, the CDC head (played by That Guy Hall of Famer Saul Rubinek) glances around the room and asks, "All right, what do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?"

That ends up being a running theme in the movie. What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?

I mention this for two reasons. First, I wanted to be the first sports columnist ever to lead a football gambling column with a relevant story about AIDS and the Center of Disease Control. And second, when I was watching this movie for the 130th time this week and waiting for the scene in which Matthew Modine screams at the blood bank bosses who refuse to use the hepatitis B test for blood donors, "How many people have to die? Give us a number so we won't annoy you anymore!" ... the scene with the CDC head leapt out at me. I never really thought about it before.

What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?

Well, isn't that gambling? Isn't that what I try to figure out every week? So after a goofy Week 1, I'm applying CDC principles to the Week 2 slate.

Principle No. 1: What do we think?

We think three teams could end up being better than we originally thought ...

1. Tampa Bay
Frisky defensively, well-coached, played with some swagger last week, dangerous offensively because they have two playmakers (Cadillac Williams and Mike Clayton). Plus, Jon Gruden is in the Alec Baldwin Club, along with Jeff Fisher, Bill Cowher and Marty Schottenheimer. You know how Alec Baldwin can make crappy movies for a few years, but all it takes is one good movie and you're thinking, "Alec Baldwin, I love that guy, he's great," and forget about the crappy movies? That's what all four of those coaches are like. You can't keep them down for longer than 2-3 years. You just can't.

2. Dallas
To be fair, San Diego gave that game away (I could spend 10 paragraphs on that subject alone), and Bledsoe was dying to throw one of those Classic Bledsoe Interceptions that became his trademark over the years; at least four different times in the second half, he threw a ball up for grabs that landed within 12 inches of the nearest Charger. But the Dallas defense made some big stops and rallied back twice in the same game (and on the road, no less). So who knows? Parcells might be smart enough to figure out exactly how to maximize someone as limited as Bledsoe without letting Drew kill his season. We'll see. Personally, I still think Drew is like Johnny Fairplay in "Kill Reality" -- in other words, this could end being the football equivalent of Fairplay's being asked to leave the house as he's saying, "Wait, where does it say in my contract that I can't defecate on one of my roommates?"

3. N.Y. Giants
The final score of the Arizona game (42-19) was deceiving since the game hinged on consecutive plays: Denny Green's inexplicably going for two with 23 minutes remaining in the game (which would have raised eyebrows in a friendly game of "Madden," much less real life), and Willie Ponder's (I'm convinced they make these names up in Tagliabue's office) bolting down the sidelines on the ensuing kickoff. Suddenly it was 28-19, the Cards had to start throwing and that was that. With that said, the Giants' offense looked much better than I thought it would (Manning, Barber, Plax, Shockey, even Brandon Jacobs, who should pretend he's from Nigeria so we could call him "The New Nigerian Nightmare").

Could the Giants go 10-6 with that cream-puff schedule? Absolutely. Whatever happens, one thing's for sure: The way these guys have rallied around each other after Jesse Palmer's D-list celebrity career came to an abrupt end ... I mean, if that doesn't put a lump in your throat, what would?

Conversely, we think that these three teams could end up being worse than we thought ...

1. Carolina
A little too much preseason Super Bowl hype, coupled with a discouraging Week 1 home loss and the deadly Kris Jenkins injury, and now they have the champs coming into town for Week 2 ... this feels like it could end badly, doesn't it?

(And yes, I picked the Panthers to win the NFC last week. I will now gouge my eyes out with a shrimp fork.)

2. Minnesota
Wow. Not even Peter King's suddenly-slender appearance on "Inside the NFL" was as jarring as the Vikings' offense last Sunday. Couldn't have been worse. You can't exaggerate it. It was like they were trying to throw the game.

(And while we're here, could somebody alert me about something as important as the King thing next time? How does Peter manage to go Nicole Ritchie on us when he's chugging down two triple lattes a day? And if he's going to stay that skinny, couldn't HBO have hired George Wendt to play the role of Peter King this season? I'm outraged by this. Like everyone else, I like my likable/knowledgeable/jolly football analysts to look, you know, jolly. Could this be a convoluted attempt by King to distance himself from his "Longest Yard" cameo? And if it is, then why didn't John Madden do the same thing after "The Replacements" came out?)

(Parentheses for the parentheses: I love "Inside the NFL." It's one of my five favorite shows -- I have even learned to enjoy Cris Carter, especially when he's being rudely interrupted. But how can a show this consistently great keep screwing up its "comedy" segments so egregiously? It's like they call meetings and say, "All right, who's the most overrated comedian in the country right now ... who's the next Wanda Sykes? Um ... what about that guy on the "Daily Show" who rants and raves and isn't actually funny? Lewis Black? That's a hot show, right? Can we get him? Someone call his agent!")

3. Atlanta
To recap: They're playing a revenge game at home, on a Monday night, no less ... there's a pregame fight that results in the other team's only run-stopping linebacker's getting thrown out ... the best player on the other team (McNabb) gets walloped on the first series, leading to a D-plus performance (as it turns out, he was injured seriously enough that he's questionable for Week 2) ... the opposing kicker missed two sub 50-yard field goals ... Vick connected on a touchdown bomb and evaded trouble about 10-12 other times (amazing game from him) ... T.O. looked like he was only intermittently interested in the proceedings ... and the crowd was so loud down the stretch that McNabb couldn't even call audibles. And yet, with all of that going for them, here was the final score: 14-10.

(Translation: I wasn't impressed.)

Principle No. 2: What do we know?

We know three teams are better than anyone thought ...

1. Miami
Perfectly coached last week. A pleasure to watch. They didn't have half the talent of the Broncos, but they hung in there, came up with a big goal-line stand, harassed Plummer a few times, then pulled away in the second half as the Broncos wilted in the heat. At home, the Fins are going to be tough. I'm telling you.

(By the way, it's so nice to have another good coach in the league -- it gives me the same fuzzy feeling I get when an enjoyable magazine launches. Why aren't there more good NFL coaches and good magazines? Combined, the number can't be higher than 14-15, right? Why is that?)

2. Pittsburgh
Two words: Willie Parker. The Steelers went from "slow, plodding and predictable" to "explosive and unpredictable" about as fast as Jerome Bettis could say, "my calf hurts." Of course, this is leading to one of my all-time favorite sports scenarios -- when the injured starter goes into the coach's office and says, "Good news, I feel great, I'm ready to go," followed by the coach's stuttering and stammering and saying, "Ah, geez, um ... why don't you take another week to make sure you're fine?"

3. New Orleans
From a talent standpoint? No surprises here. From all the teams I watched in the preseason (thanks to TiVo and the increasingly invaluable NFL Network), the Saints were the one team that jumped out at me. Then Katrina happened. As I wrote last Friday, "I have absolutely no idea what will happen with them this season -- they could go 2-14, they could go 12-4, nothing would surprise me. No team has ever been in a situation like this before, in any sport, so how can we pretend to know what will happen?"

Well, we have our answer. Tagliabue's incredible decision to bone them over on Monday night's location, along with everything else that hardened them over the last two weeks, seemingly instilled an "us and the city of New Orleans versus everyone else" attitude in them. These guys seem committed. They seem angry. They seem focused. They seem like they love one another, like they have a common purpose. I mean, would YOU want to play them right now? Me neither. Fantastic sports story in progress.

(With that said, the studio guys on every network needed to calm down last week. I know the upset victory gave everyone in New Orleans a tiny boost, and it was a beautiful thing, but that's all it was -- a tiny, temporary boost -- and yet some announcers made it seem like a huge victory for everyone back home. Not to be harsh, but do you really think there was a city worker dragging water-logged corpses into a truck who stopped for a second and said, "Hey, did anyone catch a score of the Saints game?" It just seems like we overrate the impact of sports sometimes, and this was one of those times. I will now remove my fake Mitch Albom ears.)

Conversely, we know three teams are worse than many people thought ...

1. Green Bay
In my ongoing "Which of the Mikes are getting canned first?" pool, the odds currently look like this: Sherman: 1-1 ... Martz: 3-2 ... Holmgren: 5-2 ... Tice: 3-1 ... Shanahan: 4-1 ... Mularkey: 200-1 ... Nolan: 500-1.

2. Seattle
Last 15 games (including playoffs): Six wins, nine losses. Of course, this didn't stop my editor K.J. (diehard Seattle fan) from arguing on Sunday that the Seahawks would still go 10-6 and win the NFC West, even as they were getting wiped out in Jacksonville. I argued that they would go 6-10 at best. We kept going back and forth. Finally, after watching the Cards and Rams self-destruct, we agreed to compromise -- the Hawks can go 6-10 AND win the NFC West at the same time. Glad we worked that out.

3. N.Y. Jets
Shaky coach, shaky QB, shaky defense. Any time you get more than two "shaky's" in there, that's trouble.

Which reminds me, it's time to finally unveil my Shaky Scale. Here's how it works -- rate every team's coach and quarterback on a Shaky Scale from 1 to 10, with Brady and Belichick being a "1" and the Norv Turners and Patrick Ramseys of the world counting as perfect "10's." When you add the scores for each team's coach and QB, if it's 15 or higher, then that team can't possibly make the playoffs. That's the real reason the Saints kept falling short every year, because Brooks (7) and Haslett (8) are a combined 15. Can they beat the odds this season? We'll see.

Anyway, here are the combinations that reach or surpass "15" for the 2005 season:

Jets (18) -- Edwards is an 8; Pennington is a 10 with his bum shoulder.
Texans (18) -- Perfect 10 for Capers, an 8 for David Carr.
Raiders (18) -- Perfect 10 for Turner, 8 for Collins (although they could hit 20 soon).
Broncos (16) -- Plummer is a 9, Shanahan is a 7 (and climbing).
Redskins (15) -- An 8 for Brunell, 7 for Gibbs (remember, we're grading the 2005 Gibbs).
Lions (15) -- Harrington gets a 9, Mariucci a 6.
Rams (15) -- Bulger gets a 4, Martz gets an 11.

(I know, I had to cheat on that last one, but come on -- Martz challenged the opening kickoff last week and lost! It's like he's running out of ways to screw up. And just for the record, Culpepper is one more stinkfest away from moving up to a 5, which would move him and Tice into the pack at 15. Keep an eye on this one.)

Principle No. 3: What can we prove?

I can prove five things ...

1. The two best teams in the National Football League are the Colts and Patriots. Was anyone else thoroughly impressed by the Colts on Sunday night? This was the first time during the Manning Era that I thought to myself, "My God, they might actually win the Super Bowl this season." That Week 9 game in New England looms as the biggest middle-of-the-season clash between two great teams since the 49ers-Giants game in 1990 -- and that game was so good. I remember having a huge term paper due the following day, debating whether to write the paper or watch the game, then saying to myself, "Screw it, I'm watching the game."

(That's right, college ... $21,000 a year at the time. And you know what? I think I already told that story in an old column. And I don't care.)

2. Everyone needs to stick Kansas City on their radar screen. Two years ago, the Chiefs addressed their defensive problems by simply changing defensive coordinators, which was like HBO's replacing "Mind of the Married Man" with "The Comeback." This year, they brought in some real defensive talent, and that two-headed running back (Holmes and L.J.) pushes them to another level -- there's never a time when this offense can't pound the ball with an elite back who has fresh legs. What a weapon to have. Dangerous team. Fortunately for Pats fans and Colts fans, they're already banged up (major guys, too) and it's not even October yet.

3. Seven wins WILL take either the NFC North, the NFC West or both. Of the 10 worst teams in the league, it's not improbable that eight of them could come from those two divisions (with Houston and Cleveland the exceptions). I still think 'Zona and the Bears will come through, but we'll see.

4. I'm letting Phoenix reader Chris E. carry this one:

"Most OVERRATED Invention of 2005 ... I read your column that mentioned the new DirecTV NFL package that included a Red Zone package as well as the "Eight games at the same time" channel. I had already signed up for it and was anxiously awaiting kickoff today. I must have missed something in the fine print -- it seems you need something called a D10 interactive receiver to fully utilize the features of the "Eight games" channel. Otherwise you were stuck, like I was, watching the games but listening to some GOD AWFUL music. I was not able to 'toggle' between the games on the screen and listen to those particular announcers. Now, I enjoy the "NFL Music" just as much as the next guy, but I swear they started throwing in some tracks from Arena Rock. After calling DirecTV regarding this issue, I found out that there are no D10 interactive receivers that are HD. Who was the genius behind this debacle? As for the Red Zone channel, they should have called it the "Who Just Crossed the 50 Yard Line" channel. I swear, I missed multiple scores in other games while watching the Bills move into field-goal position AGAIN! Hopefully they will fix these mistakes for Week 2 -- we can only hope that somebody was asleep at the wheel today."

(Couldn't agree more. I haven't been that disappointed with a new channel since the Yes Network launched and I found out it was an all-Yankee channel instead of an all-porn channel. Devastating day.)

5. Philly seems headed for the Season From Hell. Actually, I can't prove this -- it's a gut feeling. But with McNabb looking like the latest victim of the "Madden" curse, the ongoing T.O. saga, the Buckhalter/Pinkston injuries, Corey Simon's odd departure, the Trotter/Mathis fight, McNabb's injury in Week 1, nice starts from the Cowboys and Giants and everything else ... I mean, if you were making a "Season From Hell" recipe from scratch, every ingredient for Philly would be there so far. As always, stay tuned.

Onto the Week 2 picks ...

(Home teams in caps)

TEXANS (+6) over Steelers
I was set to take Pittsburgh and write the obligatory, "Note to Dom Capers: Start buying boxes and brown tape right now, just to be safe" joke ... and then Roethlisberger got downgraded to "questionable," leading to one of the scariest sentences in recent gambling history: "If Roethlisberger can't go, Tommy Maddox takes over for the visiting Steelers."

(Um ... I'm taking the points.)

Vikings (+3) over BENGALS
On behalf of the Guys Who Own Daunte Culpepper In Their Fantasy League And Are Officially Sweating Bullets Association, I'd like to announce that our next meeting is at 5 p.m. at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

JETS (-6) over Dolphins
As much as I like the Dolphins, and as much as I like Saban ...

(Warning: Gus Frerotte on the road ... )

(Warning: Gus Frerotte on the road ... )

(WARNING: GUS FREROTTE ON THE ROAD!!!!)

I can't. I just can't.

BEARS (+1.5) over Lions
Here's where the Bears start making their 2005 Sleeper run. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

TITANS (+3.5) over Ravens
When Baltimore fans derisively cheered an injured Kyle Boller last week, that made me think of something: Can you imagine any other career in which you could suffer an injury, but because you stink at your job so much, everyone else in your office will start cheering derisively as you're helped out of the building? Do you ever bounce back from that one? Instead of creating complicated statistics that only like 0.3 percent of the human population can understand, I wish the Football Outsider guys would research stuff like "Effectiveness of shaky quarterbacks in the weeks and months after a T.I.B. (traumatic injury booing)." Now that's the stuff that would be fascinating. Has any quarterback ever bounced back from that situation before and thrived in front of those same fans?

(Time for the Ray Lewis E-Mail of the Month, courtesy of Tyler in Champaign, Ill.: "Did you happen to catch the 9/11 pregame ceremony before the Colts/Ravens game? It involved Ray Lewis running out from the tunnel waving the flag like a crazy man. I gotta say ... this was the scariest damn thing I have ever seen in my life. I used to think that Suge Knight was the scariest man on the planet ... I take that back. Seriously, the intensity Lewis had in his eyes before he ran out of the tunnel made me pee on myself. I think I screamed out a womanly "eeeehhhh!" when he made eye contact with me through the TV. And why aren't the Iraqi rebels seeing this? I swear, if our government sent Ray Lewis to Iraq, all hyped up and intense, and put a tunnel up for him to run out of, screaming and waiving the flag, they would all surrender on the spot. Guaranteed. And then they would ask for a change of pants.")

EAGLES (-13) over Niners
Rarely do you get the Letdown Game for a crummy team on the road, coupled with the Something To Prove Game at home for an alleged Super Bowl contender. Thank you, Gambling Gods.

Jaguars (+9) over COLTS
Other than the champs, the Jags seem to be the only team in the AFC that isn't terrified of Indy. By the way, was Manning kicking those audibles into another gear on Sunday night or what? Do you think he acts like this in other aspects of his life? Like, if he's eating at a restaurant, does he change his order five times? Is he constantly returning appliances and electronics? What's his sex life like? Imagine him working as a driving school instructor? Go left at this light ... actually, go right ... screw it, go straight ...

BUCS (-2.5) over Bills
I know, I know ... I'm already turning my back on the AFC-NFC rule.

Patriots (-3) over PANTHERS
Not with this one though. And here's where you expect me to mention New England's impossible schedule over the next five weeks, how they're the first team in NFL history to play four games on the road in five weeks against teams that averaged 11 wins last season, and how this is doubly ironic since Indy was handed a cream-puff schedule that included a bye right before their Week 9 game in Foxboro. But you know what? I'm classier than that. I would never even think of convoluted ways to bring this stuff up.

Speaking of the Pats, every week in this space, I am allowing one dissenting view on the defending world champs. This week's e-mail comes from Mike in Dunedin, Fla.:

"Three reasons why the Patriots will not repeat: 1) Coors Lite commercial; 2) Diet Pepsi commercial; 3) Visa commercial."

SEAHAWKS (-1) over Falcons
I like Alge Crumpler. Good tight end. But when he's your No. 1 target, and nobody else is close ... I mean, that's not good.

CARDS (-1) over Rams
We're officially entering the "Mike Martz is going to get fired soon, and so I find myself wistfully thinking about the good old days, and all the jokes I'm about to lose, and all the ridiculous things he did ... " Era.

Chargers (+3) over BRONCOS
Would you want to be lining up across from Antonio Gates this week? Me neither. And since I have nothing else to add, three thoughts about "Survivor" last night:

1. Note to the "Survivor" producers: Not nearly enough good-looking women this season. Next time you're choosing between the struggling actress with 36C's and Lydia the Professional Fishmonger, go with the struggling actress. Just trust me.

2. As much as I like having Stephenie back, the person who plucked her eyebrows before the show started was apparently the same person who built Denny Green's two-point conversion chart. What the hell? On the bright side, it did lead to an entire hour of "This tribe has really raised my eyebrows" jokes.

3. You probably know that former NFL QB Gary Hogeboom is one of the tribe members this season, which was initially disappointing for me because, if a former NFL QB ever went on "Survivor," I had always hoped it would be Jeff George (just to see how fast he would get voted off). But here's what you didn't know -- Hogeboom acts and speaks like Carl Spackler in "Caddyshack." It's uncanny -- he even does the crooked jaw thing. And now that I have mentioned it, you will never be able to watch him on this show again without waiting for him to scream, "It's a little harsh ... here, cannonball it. Cannonball it right back. And then one more right on top of it. Cannonball! Cannonball coming!"

PACKERS (-6) over Browns
Favre's last stand: 375 yards, five TD's, 37-14 win, lots of hugs on the sidelines, the obligatory gushing from the usual media suspects ... and the Packers won't win another game until December.

RAIDERS (+1) over Chiefs
I could see this Raiders team going 6-2 at home and 0-8 on the road, with 250 penalties committed along the way. But good Lord, what will Randy Moss be capable of during his virgin regular season game in front of those crazy Raiders fans? This could be the week he lets out the Mushroom Fro, catches five TD's and unveils the Touchdown Poop Dance. Anything's possible.

Redskins (+6) over COWBOYS
Feels like a three-point game to me ... as well as a three-nap game. Is anyone else getting sleepy just thinking about this game?

Saints (+3) over GIANTS
And I'm still kicking myself for going against them last week. One final thought, courtesy of Philly reader John Semmer:

"There was an idea put forth by the morning show on 610 WIP in Philadelphia this morning, and I think you should take up the cause. They suggested that New Orleans be rebuilt as the permanent home of the Super Bowl. The NFL should rebuild the SuperDome, and announce that as soon as existing commitments are honored, the SB goes to New Orleans permanently. Spread the word."

(Done and done.)

Last week: 9-7.
Season: 9-7.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" hits bookstores on October 1st and is available right now on Amazon.com.

His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" hits bookstores on October 1st and is available right now on Amazon.com.