Thursday, October 20, 2005
Updated: October 22, 11:50 AM ET
The NFL's northern exposure
By David Fleming
I found him in a nasty rundown bar in Windsor. Inside, it smelled like mop bucket water and ashtrays. He was slumped over onto the bar, mumbling to himself with his cheek resting against a half-filled mug of flat brew. The elastic waistband of his underpants had been torn free and it looped down out the back of his pants, almost to the ground.
Above him was a snowy TV screen, showing what seemed like a never-ending loop of Joey Harrington interceptions, reports from the Vikings Love Boat cruise on Lake Minnetonka, Mike Ditka erectile dysfunction ads and clips from Brett Favre's last few playoff performances.
The guy on his right was passed out. Although his face was partially disguised by the word "idiot" written in black Sharpie, I recognized him right away. It was another one of the football guys everyone loves to hate: Prevent Defense. The dude on his left just sat there staring straight ahead into the mirror behind the bar while adjusting his mullet, trying to get it to fall exactly right onto the collar of his burgundy Members Only jacket. It had been a long time since I'd seen Run-n-Shoot.
The guy in the middle looked up at me as I stood in the doorway. He looked like a mix of Ryan Cabrera, Hulk Hogan and Gary Bettman and he reeked almost as bad as Bill Romanowski's putrid new book.
"You NFC North?" I asked.
He nodded and motioned to a booth behind him, under a neon sign for Strohs. We sat down and before I could even get my notebook out to ask a question, his face fell into his hands and he started that really awkward kind of drunk crying.
"It's been a pretty rough season for you so far, eh?"
NFC North's head popped up off the table. His face was bright red.
"ROUGH? ROUGH? Oh, see, I knew I should have never agreed to this interview. ROUGH? You don't know the half of it, man. I just read somewhere that since they reorganized the divisions in 2002 I'm an NFL worst 89-118. Yesterday, the NFC West e-mailed me a headline from Green Bay this week that read: 'Despite 1-4 Start Packers are one game out of 1st.' The NFC West is mocking me, you can't get much lower than that. At least that's what I thought -- and then you showed up."
I tried to hold my laughter in, I really did, but it was no use. The noise woke up Prevent Defense, but then his head fell back against the bar with a thunk and he was snoring again in no time.
"You think this is funny ... DO YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY? Did you see what Detroit PSL did to my shorts?"
"It's a high school league, OK -- I got beat up by a high school league. Oh man what was I thinking? Did you know I once had a chance to be the MAC? I should'a listened to my mom, she wanted me to go to veterinary school. Coulda opened my own vet office. Put that in your story."
"Well, look at it this way: You're on your way to becoming the first division in football since the strike season to send a team with a losing record to the playoffs. Do you have any idea the time and thought and money and marketing that has gone into the NFL system of parity? Do you know how hard you have to work in this league to be mediocre? I mean, you're about to ruin the whole experiment. That's no small feat my friend."
I had pushed too hard, I knew it right away. NFC North stood up. He wobbled a bit and then put his hands up like a boxer from the 1800s. Then, while spitting at me in a way that covered my face with pieces of pretzel, he said, "You wanna take this outside, pretty boy?"
I whispered, trying not to embarrass him any more than I already had. "Do you really want to do that?" I said. "I mean, you have six total wins. Six. But if you discount wins against your own teams and the New Orleans Saints, you've got one."
"Is that ... is that bad?" He sat back down and signaled for another Strohs.
"Well," I told him, "five other divisions have twice as many wins as you do. One of your teams just got beat by Chris Weinke. The Minnesota Vikings, the most disheveled guys on the planet, are in SECOND PLACE RIGHT NOW. In their final 10 plays last week the Lions gained negative 2 yards."
"Well, you can't technically gain negative two yards. And besides, the kids don't care about that. The kids are more into stats and fantasy football and raw numbers and all that stuff."
"You can add Kyle Orton's and Joey Harrington's passer ratings and it is still lower than Carson Palmer's."
"Seriously, and other than Thomas Jones, you don't have a running back or wideout in the top 25."
"Wait ... "
"Did I mention you have four of the game's worst 11 offenses?"
NFC North held up his hand, saying, "Stop, stop, please. Enough. Maybe what I have is a marketing problem. Maybe I need a new nickname or something. The Black and Blue Division is so ... so antiquated. I need something more hip, more appropriate ... "
Cutting him off I asked, "How about 'The Whack but True Conference?'"
"'Whack but True?' I don't get it. I'm not that clever. Who do I look like, the Ivy League?"
"Think about it. It describes you to a T. The Whizzinator. The Super Bowl ticket scalping. The Moss Moon. Have you seen what they did to Soldier Field? Wait ... did you hear that? Another Packer just got hurt. Here, try this one: Matt Millen got a contract extension in Detroit after winning 18 games in four seasons. I gotta tell you, if Tampa was still in this division they'd have already locked up a first-round playoff bye. Everything you do is whack, but it's true."
At this point, NFC North looked like a guy in an intervention who finally cracks and agrees to go to rehab. "Personally? I blame that damn Bears Super Bowl Shuffle," he said. "How 'bout you, when do you think it happened?"
"2000 NFC Championship Game: Giants 41, Vikes 0. No one's really taken you seriously since then."
NFC North rubbed his eyes and nodded his head. He let out a long, noisy sigh. "Yeah, yeah ... that was brutal. Well, at least I have my bye week coming up."
"It's come and gone, dude, come and gone. Right now the only thing you have going for you is, I think, you never employed Romo." At this point I raised my hand, signaling to the bartender for two double shots of Jagermeister.
"So it's only gonna get worse, Flem? But what about the NBA and all this nonsense with dress codes? Why don't people pick on him? Or the White Sox, yeah what about the White Sox, I heard their theme song is a Journey tune ... ?"
"Sorry, buddy. I can't touch that one since I can't stop listening to Depeche Mode's new stuff."
"Well, so when will it end?"
"I dunno. Maybe after the 6-10 Bears lose in the first round of the playoffs when some other 9-7 team sits home ... or no, wait, probably not until the Super Bowl in Detroit, which I'm sure will be a huuuge hit."
"Oh dear lord," said the NFC North.
And just like that the interview was over.
NFC North got up and walked back to the bar, and as he left me, I saw him reaching around, trying to retuck his waistband back into his pants.
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in the fall by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.