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Monday, September 11, 2006
Updated: September 13, 8:38 PM ET
Follow the Monday money

By Gregg Easterbrook
Special to Page 2

Man, let's hope you enjoyed that first-of-a-kind Monday Night Football doubleheader on ESPN. Airing those games cost ESPN only $129 million. And that's just for the rights fees. Cameras, techies and announcers are extra: ESPN had about 150 production personnel at each game. Typically, prime-time network programming costs a couple million dollars an hour. This year, ESPN is paying $1.1 billion for the Monday Night Football package, which works out to $65 million per contest and about $20 million per hour. Ten times the normal cost of prime-time programming. Sure hope you liked those games!

All rights fees shot up in the new round of NFL network contracts in effect this season, reflecting the incredible popularity of professional football. For television broadcast rights, the NFL now gets about $3.7 billion annually from ESPN, CBS, Fox, NBC and DirecTV (which holds the odious monopoly on the wonderful NFL Sunday Ticket), plus advertising income from the league's upcoming self-published games on NFL Network, plus additional millions for radio and cell phone broadcast rights from Sirius and Sprint. Forty years ago, commentators were shocked when NBC and CBS agreed to pay about $340 million (in today's dollars) per year to broadcast NFL games. Now the same rights are selling for considerably north of $4 billion, a dozen times as much as a generation ago. This fall, just two weekends of games will bring the league the present-dollar value of all pro football broadcasting in 1966.

The way the latest NFL-NFLPA agreement works, for all intents and purposes, broadcast fees go directly to players. Ticket sales cover the clubs' expenses (coaching, facilities, overhead), and owners make their profit on everything left over (local radio rights, tie-in marketing, parking and food sales). Let's stop to consider what this means to the average NFL athlete. This season, average NFL pay -- monies actually received, not contract paper value -- will be somewhat more than $1.7 million per gentleman. That's almost exactly the $3.7 billion in broadcast rights fees, divided by roughly 2,000 NFL players on rosters or on injured reserve.

Gold bricks
This represents 17 seconds of Monday Night Football. We hope you enjoyed it!

Now think about the amount the typical NFL player will earn this year just from ESPN. Ready? An average of $550,000 per player. That's the amount ESPN is putting in the average NFL player's purse for the 2006 season, and for seasons to come. From ESPN directly to you, dear NFL player: $550,000. The sum works out to $32,000 per Monday Night Football game. If you are an NFL player, every time you tune in Monday Night Football this season, bear in mind ESPN is sending you $32,000 worth of thanks. The next-highest rights fee on the landscape works out to about $12,000 from CBS to each NFL player for each game the Columbia Broadcasting System airs. So guys, ESPN is being almost three times as nice to you and your families as CBS! Remember this when interview requests come in.

In other football news, often TMQ approves of going for it on fourth-and-short. The situation is different within likely field goal range, in which case my rule becomes: Kick Early, Go For It Late. Through the first three quarters, usually it's best to put three points on the board. (Exception: If way behind, gamble early.) Once the fourth quarter is reached, when the endgame is clear and the coach knows how many points are needed to take the lead or ice the lead, then go for it. Many's the coach who went for the first down in likely field goal range in the first three quarters, then by the fourth quarter really, really wished he had sent in the kicker. Field goals are not letdowns or wimpy plays. Field goals are critical: In 2005, one in four NFL games was decided by three or fewer points.

Never was TMQ's law of Kick Early, Go For It Late on better display than Sunday. Leading Denver 9-0 in the second quarter, St. Louis faced fourth-and-3 on the Broncos' 33. Scott Linehan sent in Jeff Wilkins, whose three points proved essential in the fourth-quarter dynamic of the Rams' victory. Trailing Detroit 3-0, NFC defending champion Seattle faced fourth-and-goal on the Lions' 2 in the second quarter. Mike Holmgren sent in Josh Brown, whose three points proved the game's margin of victory. Had it been the fourth quarter, either team might have been advised to gamble. Because it wasn't the fourth quarter, Kick Early, Go For It Late ruled.

Jeff Wilkins
Three in the hand is worth six in the -- no, Reggie Bush fouls that up.

Now for the flip side. Leading New England 17-7 early in the third quarter, Buffalo faced fourth-and-1 on the Patriots' 7. A gamble here is surely attractive, as success would position the Bills for a commanding lead. But it's still early in the third quarter, and a 20-7 lead sounds awfully good. Equally important, Buffalo had been controlling play; a missed gamble might change that. As the Bills reached this decision point, my son Grant immediately said, "They should kick; 20-7 is a great lead, but if they miss the first down, New England will get the momentum and make them pay." Buffalo gambled and missed; the Patriots responded with a 93-yard touchdown drive that was pure momentum. In fact, rarely has momentum so swung. To the point of the fourth-down try, Buffalo had gained 250 yards while holding New England to 109 yards; for the remainder of the contest, New England gained 210 yards while holding Buffalo to minus-10 yards. New England won 19-17. As the clock showed all-naughts, Bills faithful really, really wished the team had simply booted a field goal.

Should Kick Early, Go For It Late be waived when a team reaches the goal line? In an upcoming column, I'll look at the data collected by David Romer of the University of California at Berkeley, whose studies maintain NFL teams almost always should go for the touchdown on fourth down at the opponent's 1- or 2-yard line.

In other football news, before Sunday's Arizona-San Francisco contest, many Cardinals players experienced anxiety attacks and had to receive counseling from a psychologist. It seems Cardinals players were disoriented and frightened to look up and see the home stands full of people.

Fergie
Fergie performed at the Cardinals' home opener -- but she's celebrating! That will be 15 yards, young lady.

And in still more news, a just-out football book contends Tuesday Morning Quarterback is wrong about the blitz. See below. Note to ESPN copy editors: The phrase "Tuesday Morning Quarterback is wrong" is strictly a hypothetical, does not require fact checking and will not be repeated.

Stats of the Week: The Oakland Raiders had as many sacks (9) and punts (9) as first downs (9).

Stats of the Week No. 2: The Baltimore defense outscored the Tampa Bay offense.

Stats of the Week No. 3: David Carr has been sacked 213 times in 60 career starts, an average of four sacks per start.

Stats of the Week No. 4: The Falcons outrushed the Panthers by 187 yards -- in Carolina.

Stats of the Week No. 5: The Ravens outrushed the Buccaneers by 77 yards -- in Tampa.

Stats of the Week No. 6: The Saints outrushed the Browns by 65 yards -- in Cleveland.

Stats of the Week No. 7: The Eagles outrushed the Texans by 60 yards -- in Houston. (Yes, that says "the Eagles outrushed.")

Stats of the Week No. 8: Someone named Rex Grossman significantly outperformed Brett Favre.

Stats of the Week No. 9: Stretching back to last season, Pittsburgh has won nine consecutive games.

Stats of the Week No. 10: Before that streak started, Pittsburgh lost three consecutive games.

Eagles cheerleader
An hour on the treadmill or an hour mooning with TMQ? Unfortunately, it's an easy call for Janet.

Cheerleader of the Week: No NFL cheer squad disrobes with more enthusiasm than the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders. Those who click on "cheerleaders" at the Eagles' Web site are greeted by this screen that cautions of "age-appropriate content." Thus guaranteeing everyone will click "continue"! The Eagles' cutting-edge cheerleaders lingerie calendar may be purchased here. The season's first Cheerleader of the Week is Janet, a real estate agent who minored in psychology, which means your lines will not work on her. Janet's team bio says that if she could take only one item to a desert island, it would be a treadmill. Now that's the cheer-babe spirit! Note: One of the questions on the Eagles cheerleaders bio pages is, "What can you never say no to?" The most common answer is "Chocolate." Strangely, not a one of the cheerleaders responds, "Football columnists."

Sweet Play of the Week: With two picks in the first round of the 2006 draft, Eric "I Was a Teenage Coach" Mangini went offensive line, offensive line, and it's already paying dividends. Score tied with 2:15 remaining, Jersey/B on the Tennessee 12, Chad Pennington had perfect pass protection as he scanned the field and found Chris Baker for the winning touchdown.

Sweet Play of the Week No. 2: Arizona leading San Francisco 14-7, the Cards faced second-and-goal on the Niners 6. Play-fake, and TMQ counted one-thousand 1, one-thousand 2, one-thousand 3, one-thousand 4, one-thousand 5, one-thousand 6, one-thousand 7 before Kurt Warner casually tossed a touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin. Blocking in Arizona!

Sweet Play of the Week No. 3: Game scoreless, Pittsburgh goes for it on fourth-and-1 on the Miami 39. (Thank goodness no Preposterous Punt -- one reason the Steelers are champs is that they do not launch mincing fraidy-cat punts in these situations.) Charlie Batch fakes the fullback belly, then shifts the ball to his left hand to quick-flip to Willie Parker running left; 4 yards and the first down, and the Steelers record the game's first touchdown on the possession. The switch-hands-flip play on fourth-and-1 -- maybe it has a name in Steelers' nomenclature -- originally was installed in Pittsburgh by former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. It's interesting that Pittsburgh still uses the action although Mularkey no longer is employed by the Steelers; usually when a coach departs, anything that suggests his touch is erased. And where did Mularkey depart to? The Miami sideline, from which he watched his own play contribute to the Dolphins' defeat.

Buck-Buck-Brawckkkkkkk: Score tied at 6-all, Detroit faced fourth-and-4 on the Seattle 37 with 3:20 remaining. This is the Maroon Zone -- too far for a field goal try, too close to punt. Manly men go for it in the Maroon Zone! But wait, the game is being played indoors, meaning ideal field goal conditions. It's a 54-yard attempt, and Detroit's Jason Hanson has hit 27 figgies from 50 or more in his career. So try a field goal! Or go for it! Upset the NFC defending champs! Boom goes the punt into the end zone for a pathetic 17-yard net, and the Lions never touched the ball again, the Blue Men Group winning on the final play. Note to new Lions' coach Rod Marinelli: Victories must be seized; they do not come in the mail.

Jeremy Shockey
The tight end position has become critical to an offense.

Sour Play of the Week: Indianapolis leading 26-21, the Giants had the ball on their 23, no timeouts, 57 seconds remaining. Eli Manning threw an 11-yard pass for the first down to Jeremy Shockey at the sidelines. But Shockey didn't step out, rather, turned back toward the field and dove forward for an extra yard. What a boneheaded play! The Giants got off just two more plays and the clock expired with the Giants at midfield; had Shockey simply stepped out of bounds, his team would have had at least one more snap.

Sour Play of the Week No. 2: The Texans ahead 7-0, Philadelphia faced first-and-10 on the Houston 42. Donovan McNabb ran a nice play-fake in which he hid the ball on his hip -- why don't more quarterbacks play-fake this way? Donte' Stallworth ran a streak. Texans safety C.C. Brown made the high school mistake of "looking into the backfield," trying to guess what McNabb was going to do, rather than covering his man. Stallworth caught the long touchdown while Brown stood like topiary covering no one. When you're the deep safety and someone from a pass-wacky team gets behind you, that is one sour play.

Sour Play of the Week No. 3: Baltimore leading the Bucs 20-0 late in the third quarter, the Nevermores faced third-and-10 on their own 6; a stop here was essential for Tampa to have hope. Baltimore play-faked, and tight end Daniel Wilcox ran a short crossing pattern; Tampa safety Jermaine Phillips not only bit on the play-fake (it's third-and-10!) but made the high school mistake of "looking into the backfield," trying to guess what Baltimore quarterback Steve McNair was going to do, rather than covering his man. Wilcox caught for 35 yards while Phillips stood like topiary covering no one. By the time Tampa got the ball again, it was too late.

Oh Ye Mortals, Trifle Not with the Football Gods: Few football-game scenes are more ridiculous than when a defender dances and struts after a routine play. On Sunday in the Texans-Eagles game, David Carr simply slipped and fell down; Philadelphia defender Trent Cole one-hand-touched Carr to end the play. Cole then jumped up and danced as if he'd just won the Heisman Trophy. Excessive defender dancing may tempt the football gods to exact vengeance. In the first Monday Night Football game, early on Troy Williamson of Minnesota beat Carlos Rogers of Washington, then dropped what would have been a long touchdown pass. Rogers jumped up and danced and strutted, pointing to himself -- as if he'd just done something magnificent, rather than been beaten and the beneficiary of good fortune. Skies darkened and lighting flashed above my house as the football gods signaled their displeasure with this rodomontade.

Redskins cheerleader
Some parts of the Redskins' organization went all-out at FedEx Field on Monday Night Football; it just wasn't the team.

Later in the game Marcus Robinson badly beat Rogers for a touchdown reception, exacting the penalty. Tactics note: On the Robinson touchdown, Minnesota faced third-and-5 on the Washington 20. The Redskins rushed four, dropping seven into coverage, with both safeties in standard Cover 2 dropping deep. The Vikings sent out four receivers. Yet with seven to cover four, Robinson was singled on Rogers in the corner of the end zone. Both Washington safeties stood in the center of the field like topiary, covering no one.

They Knew Too Much -- and Knew It Too Soon: Home fans were booing loudly in the third quarter at Reliant Stadium as the Moo Cows yet again looked clueless on offense. Don't you think cell phones had something to do with the boos? ESPN and Sprint now sell cell phones that transmit live data on games in progress. So, the Houston crowd not only knew the home team looked awful, they knew Reggie Bush was having a spectacular debut for New Orleans. And they knew they could have been watching Bush.

Stop Me Before I Start the Stop Me Before I Blitz Again Item Again! Game scoreless in the second quarter, the defending champion Steelers face third-and-2 on the Marine Mammals' 27. Here comes the blitz -- and 27-yard touchdown pass to the unknown Nate Washington from Tiffin University. Later, it's Pittsburgh 14, Miami 10, the Dolphins facing third-and-7 on their own 23. Here comes the blitz -- and 52-yard completion to Marty Booker, setting up a Miami touchdown. Yes, the blitz sometimes works: a Jacksonville six-blitz on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter forced Drew Bledsoe into a killer intentional grounding. But the blitz tactic backfires pretty regularly; more below.

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again (Manning Brothers Edition)! Hey, Manning sure looked good at quarterback on Sunday night! (I'm just tossing out that line in case somebody hasn't already used it.) Big brother Manning loves it when defenses blitz. His whole game boils down to "Please Brer Wolf, don't throw me into that blitz patch!" Yet repeatedly, the Giants did just what Peyton wanted and blitzed him. Indianapolis 16, Jersey/A 14 at the start of the fourth quarter; six-man Giants blitz, 20-yard completion plus a penalty sets up the Lucky Charms for a short touchdown run. Peyton's touchdown pass to Dallas Clark also came against a big blitz. In contrast, with five minutes remaining and Indianapolis facing third-and-11, the Giants did not blitz, which seemed to confuse Peyton; incompletion. Eli knows his bro -- why didn't he tell Giants coaches not to blitz Peyton? Aesthetics note: the touchdown to Clark was an unusually fun-looking play. Indianapolis faced third-and-goal on the Jersey/A 2. Play-fake rollout by Indy, zone blitz by the G-Men. Peyton sprinted all the way back to the 17-yard line -- it looked as though he was going to run out of the building -- then threw for a touchdown to Clark, who was covered by defensive end Michael Strahan.

Peyton Manning
Brer Eli, please don't throw me into that blitz patch!

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again (Run Blitz Edition)! Although passing-downs blitzing gets all the attention, there are run blitzes -- defensive calls in which linebackers shoot gaps at the snap, aiming not for the quarterback but to drop the runner in the backfield. Run blitzing has the same Achilles' heel as pass blitzing: It'd better work or else. Score tied at 3, Cincinnati facing third-and-1, Kansas City coaches called a seven-man run blitz. The linebackers shot into the backfield and missed Rudi Johnson, who went 22 yards for the touchdown, setting in motion another big Sunday loss by a home team with a big rep.

Preposterous Punt Avoided! Reader Mike Skelly of Erie, Pa., notes that as Pittsburgh lined up for its play on that fourth-and-1 on the Miami 39, John Madden opined, "I don't think the Steelers should go for it in this type of game, they should punt." This is the Maroon Zone -- too far for a field goal try, too close to punt. In the Maroon Zone, manly men go for it! A punt most likely would have rolled into the end zone for a net of 19 yards in field position for Pittsburgh; the successful fourth-down run set up a touchdown. Skelly offers this haiku,

Madden fraidy-cat
in the Maroon Zone. Madden
should read TMQ.

On Page 1, Frey Fools a Major Publisher: Friday, Random House announced that buyers of the hardcover of James Frey's fabricated memoir "A Million Little Pieces" could receive a refund by returning the original of page 163, a page arbitrarily chosen. Personally, I preferred page 105. That's the page on which Frey rescues Jennifer Aniston from a burning building, convenes a round of Middle East peace talks and discovers radium. If you want a refund for Tuesday Morning Quarterback, you must return an original printout of the 2001 column announcing the Hal Rothman Award. TMQ is free. So a refund would be -- oh, forget it.

They Should Have Had Themselves Processed Through the Atavachron: Friday was also the 40th anniversary of the first broadcast of the first "Star Trek" serial, staring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Many fan-made tributes are proliferating on the Web. Here's the script for mine:

CHEKHOV: Captain, amidst the incredible vastness of the galaxy, which is 1018 kilometers across and 99.999999 percent void, we once again find ourselves directly in the path of another ship.

SCOTTY: The engines can't take any more!

KIRK: I haven't ordered you to push the engines till they fail. I'll do that later.

SULU: They're hailing us.

KIRK: On screen. And why can't we get NFL Sunday Ticket on screen? This is the year 2269, surely the DirecTV monopoly has expired by now.

[On the viewscreen, we see an old man with a long beard.]

FATHER TIME. Greetings, cast and crew. You can't hide from me in syndication.

SPOCK: Logically, I believe we are about to be confronted with our own mortality. And I say "logically" because whenever I say this, people assume I must be right.

KIRK: Raise shields! Fire phasers!

SPOCK: Our weapons are having no effect. And I cannot attempt a mind meld.

YEOMAN JANICE. I could offer you a tuna melt.

KIRK: Warp factor nine! (Enterprise jumps to warp speed.)

CHEKHOV: We're not getting away. In fact -- no matter how fast we go, Father Time just keeps gaining on us.

KIRK: We'll set course for the City on the Edge of Forever and transit the portal back to Earth in the year 1966. Then we'll have our youth again! Plus, we'll buy IBM and short AT&T.

SPOCK: Logically, returning to 1966 would force us to listen to Joni Mitchell.

KIRK: Then we'll go to Talos IV. The cerebrum-beings there will give us back our illusion of youth. That, and more!

SCOTTY: Our bodies are starting to fail! Our arteries are clogged, and our heart ventricles cannot take this stress!

KIRK: We'll travel to the Genesis Planet, where our cellular tissue will be restored! Or we'll ask the Organians to help us; they're omnipotent, plus they wear white robes, so you know they must be good guys.

SPOCK: Jim. We've always known mortality comes for everyone, Jim. Well, actually not for me, since I'm Vulcan.

KIRK: Starfleet will rescue us.

SPOCK: Jim. Starfleet never existed, Jim. This ship, our voyages -- they represent the lost youth of Baby Boomers. Episodes like "The City on the Edge of Forever" symbolize our generation's dream that there will be an actual place we can go to escape aging. Millions cling to "Star Trek" because it evokes a time of adolescence, promise and anticipation. But we're old now, and so are our fans. You saw the demographics for "Star Trek: Enterprise."

KIRK: We can't grow old. I don't believe in the no-win scenario!

SULU: Father Time is hailing us, captain.

FATHER TIME: Come with me. We'll have a nice glass of tranya and talk this out.

KIRK: Listen! This is about the human dream, the dream of tomorrow coming after today, the dream of standing atop a hill built of dreams and shouting for all creation to hear that we are what we dreamed we could become when we began to dream that we could dream of dreams. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?

SPOCK: No.

DOCTOR McCOY: [Enters.] Jim, it's time for your Zocor. And you don't want to be late for the shuffleboard tournament.

KIRK: Mr. Chekhov, sensors to maximum! Find our lost youth!

FATHER TIME: [To audience.] For those of you who were born after "Star Trek" and think it's funny how wrinkled or flabby the show's stars have grown -- just remember, I will come for you, too, and you too will be astonished how fast your lives went past.

SPOCK: [Puts hand on Kirk's temple.] Forget.

KIRK: Forget? Every year, it gets harder to remember!

Preposterous Punt Not Avoided: Reader Kevin Tlougan of Woodbury, Minn., notes that on the first possession of the season's first game, Miami punted in the Maroon Zone, booming a kick on fourth-and-5 from the Pittsburgh 44. "The first possession of the first game of the new NFL season ends with a Preposterous Punt. Is this an omen?" If so, it's an omen of bad football.

Why Tactics Matter: In their openers, two 2005 playoff teams -- Carolina and City of Tampa -- were destroyed on their own fields. The Ravens' defense played so well the Bucs' offense recorded negative-7 points. Carolina's defense "overpursued," and Atlanta seemed to be expecting that. Several nice Warrick Dunn and Michael Vick runs came when all Panthers' defenders went the same way, nobody stayed home and the Falcons' ball carrier cut back. Atlanta coaches must have seen Carolina overpursuit in film.

Brett Favre
Bat Masterson rode the range too long. Sylvester Stallone didn't know when to quit. Brett Favre ...

This Fulfills My Obligation to Say Something About the Chicago-Green Bay Game: The Bears had six defensive or special-teams return touchdowns in 2005, and after Sunday already have a return touchdown in 2006. This team is most dangerous when its offense is off the field! As for the Packers -- they were great in 1966. They were great in 1996. It's 2006.

Reader Kyle Kirchhevel of Jacksonville adds, "Brett Favre walked off Lambeau Field and up the tunnel before the game was over because his poor little ego couldn't handle shaking hands with the Bears who shut him out. When Randy Moss walked off a moment early in 2004 at Washington, he got incinerated by the sports press. Why is it OK for Favre to do what was wrong for Moss to do?" I did not see the ending of Packers-Bears -- it's hard to believe anyone but immediate family members was watching -- but if Favre did indeed walk off early to avoid shaking hands, he deserves a round of criticism. Favre is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he has been flattered too much by the sports media. Hard as it might seem for him to believe, the Packers' season is not about him personally.

Professional Athletes Are Supposed To Run! In the Baltimore-City of Tampa game, 340-pound Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata caught a deflected-pass interception and ran 60 yards down the sideline before stepping out of bounds on the Bucs' 9. Ngata was not tackled, rather, simply stepped out of bounds, apparently exhausted from his efforts; the Ravens had to settle for a field goal. After the play, the television announcers gushed about how impressive it was that a 340-pound man could run so far. Ngata is a professional athlete! The announcers should have said that it was embarrassing that a highly paid professional athlete is in such poor shape he had to stop after running a mere 60 yards. Any NFL player, including any lineman, ought to be able to run a dozen such wind sprints back-to-back.

Don't Suggest She End by Saying, "Courage": Edward R. Murrow had "good night and good luck"; Walter Cronkite had "and that's the way it is." What will Katie Couric's sign-off line be? CBS News is asking for suggestions. My nominated Couric sign-off line: "Thanks for watching, and if the overnights aren't good, tomorrow's show will be completely different." Alternatively, "Thanks for watching, and sorry we did so many feature stories that we never got around to mentioning the news."

Supernova
Nature's weapon of mass destruction.

Cosmic Thoughts -- Bummer Edition: Recently, I was creeped out by this supernova. Detected Feb. 18 by Swift, a satellite launched to look for gamma-ray bursts, the exploding star already was the 24th supernova discovered at that early point in 2006. As instruments improve, exploding stars appear more common than cosmologists had expected, and that's not the best news we might have heard. Coded GRB 060218, this star detonation began as a gamma-ray burst that lasted 33 minutes -- absolutely stunning because previous gamma-ray bursts from space have lasted a few seconds at the most. The gamma rays came from 470 million light-years away. That was discomfiting because strong gamma-ray bursts usually emanate from what astronomers call the "deep field," billions of light-years distant and thus billions of years back in the past. A distance of 470 million light-years means the GRB 060218 supernova happened 470 million years ago. That is ancient by human reckoning, but many cosmologists had been assuming the kind of extremely massive detonations thought to cause strong gamma-ray busts occurred only in the misty eons immediately after the Big Bang. The working assumption was that since life appeared on Earth, there had been no stellar mega-explosion. Now we know there has.

For several days as the giant dying star GRB 060218 collapsed, this single supernova shined brighter than all 100 billion other suns in its galaxy combined. The detonation was so inexpressibly luminous that, though 470 million light-years distant, it could be seen by telescopes on Earth. And not just fancy telescopes at the tops of mountains: A few days after the Swift satellite detected the gamma-ray surge, an amateur astronomer in the Netherlands sighted the forming supernova through a backyard telescope. The stellar coordinates hit the Web -- it was at RA: 03:21:39.71 Dec: +16:52:02.6 -- and soon amateur astronomers the world over were marveling at the glistening beacon from the cosmic past. This explosion released so much energy that it happened 470 million years ago yet the light could travel for that protracted period, plus pass through the gas and dust of roughly a hundred galaxies along the way, and still illuminate mirrors of backyard telescopes on Earth.

Now here's what creeped me out: had GRB 060218 happened in our galaxy, life on Earth would have ended Feb. 18.

Gamma rays are a deadly form of radiation. Routine gamma-ray bursts course through the Milky Way, our galaxy, all the time, and the threat from them appears small. Recently Krzysztof Stanek, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State and one of the hot names in astronomy -- reader Jim Yrkoski of Warsaw, Poland, notes I missed one "z" in Stanek's name the last time I cited him -- calculates that a regular supernova causing a routine gamma-ray burst would need to detonate within about 3,000 light-years of Earth to expose our world to enough radiation to cause a calamity. Only a small portion of the Milky Way, and none of the larger universe beyond, is within 3,000 light-years of our world.

Woolly mammoth
Extinct, just like the Wing T.

This does not rule out "nearby" gamma-ray bursts as causes of past extinctions. About 340,000 years ago, a supernova called Geminga exploded 180 light-years from Earth, which is much too close. Calculations suggest Geminga was bright enough to rival the full moon; our Homo erectus ancestors must have looked up on it in wonder. The Geminga supernova is believed to have blown off much of the ozone layer, exposing Earth to solar and cosmic radiation that killed many mammals, including many of those ancestors. Another supernova, Vela, about 1,500 light-years away, detonated 11,300 years ago. About the same time, several large mammals of North America and Eurasia fell extinct: among them, the woolly mammoth, the giant sloth and the glyptodon, an armadillo larger than a bear. There's a lively archeological debate about whether these extinctions were triggered by climate change or by people armed with new hunting tools such as bow and arrow. Maybe the extinctions were caused by the supernova bathing Earth in gamma rays.

At any rate, Vela and Geminga were normal supernovas that caused relatively mild gamma bombardments lasting just seconds. If a 33-minute, incredibly powerful gamma-ray burst similar to the one associated with GRB 060218 happened anywhere in the Milky Way or any nearby galaxy, Earth would be sterilized; any life that might exist on other planets in our galaxy and nearby galaxies also would end. Most likely, the gamma radiation from GRB 060218 ended all life in numerous galaxies near the explosion. After GRB 060218, a team of astronomers led by Andrew Fruchter of the Space Telescope Science Institute calculated that the class of extremely massive blue star that caused this mega-supernova probably is not found in the Milky Way. That's some consolation. But February's ultimate supernova tells us nature has a doomsday weapon -- and that creeps me out.

Interstellar bonus: The Swift satellite has a marketing slogan.

Hidden Plays: Hidden plays are ones that never make highlight reels but that stop or sustain drives. St. Louis leading heavily favored Denver 9-0 in the second quarter, the Broncos had third-and-1 on their 29. Denver play-faked hoping for the big gain, and instead Jake Plummer was sacked by Les Mouflons' Fakhir Brown for a 10-yard loss. Shortly thereafter, it was St. Louis 12, Denver 0. Plummer's back-to-back interceptions are what sports radio talked about, but those came late, when the cause was nearly lost. It was after the sack on third-and-1 that you felt St. Louis really could win the game.

Food Should Have a Sense of Humor: Peter Pan's "no sugar added" version contains more calories and fat per serving than regular Peter Pan peanut butter.

Braylon Edwards -- the Next Charles Rogers? Nothing makes a quarterback wince more than the well-thrown pass that caroms off a careless receiver for an interception; the pick is the receiver's fault but is charged against the quarterback. The Saints leading Cleveland 19-14, the Browns had first down on the New Orleans 45 at the two-minute mark. Charlie Frye threw it perfectly to Edwards, third overall choice of the 2005 draft. Edwards carelessly allowed the ball to carom off his hands; the deflection was intercepted by New Orleans, ending the game.

Don't Miss This Story: Rarely will you encounter a human-interest story as touching as this one, summarized by Sean Coughlan of the BBC last week. Be sure to read the reader comments appended, from those who knew the late Harold and Olive Edwards. Imagine living out your days in a quiet English town running a store selling antiquarian books, tending your garden, arguing about adjectives, popping down to the pub and having this magnificent impact on another human life. And the pictures of Marina Aidova! Not only was she perfectly fetching as a child, she can still beam as an adult despite her childhood deprivation: Compare that to the millions who have been given everything and can only complain.

Robinson jersey
Koren Robinson, youth role model!

How Long Until the Vikings Accept Escort-Agency Ads on Their Web Site? Although Koren Robinson was waived by the Vikings after he was charged with multiple counts of drunken driving, Minnesota continues to offer his jersey for sale. Indeed, as reader Adam Palmer of Tulsa, Okla., notes, the Vikes will sell you a Robinson youth jersey. Some role model!

Sominex Presents the NFL Game of the Week: Seattle 9, Detroit 6. Here are the drive results, starting with the victors': Blocked field goal, fumble, missed field goal, field goal, field goal, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, field goal. For Detroit: field goal, punt, fumble, punt, punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, field goal, punt. Offensive line note: the vaunted Hawks front five looked pretty normal without Steve Hutchinson.

Four Books That Belong Near Your Remote: As the football artificial universe resumes, Tuesday Morning Quarterback has armed himself with four annuals: the league's own NFL Record and Fact Book, the Pro Football Guide published by The Sporting News, KC Joyner's Scientific Football 2006 (he also writes for ESPN Insider) and Pro Football Prospectus by Aaron Schatz and the independent consortium called Football Outsiders. I commend all four to gridiron enthusiasts. The first two settle arguments, and they make for pleasant Sunday afternoon reading when your local network affiliate decides to show a pairing of cellar dwellers instead of the week's marquee game. Scientific Football offers more football data than you would have believed possible, and is an absolute must-have for anyone who believes sports, real or fantasy, is best understood by the numbers. Pro Football Prospectus offers hundreds of pages of Bill James-style analytical breakdowns. Although the stats are sometimes excessively fastidious -- the book's formulas predict the Vikings will win 5.9 games in 2006, for example -- if I could own only one book about the NFL, Pro Football Prospectus would be it.

But avast, ye mateys, what's this? The latest edition of Pro Football Prospectus contains an entire chapter analyzing whether Tuesday Morning Quarterback's "Stop Me Before I Blitz Again!" is correct. And -- this is hard to grasp -- the authors think I'm wrong.

TMQ has long contended blitzing is prone to backfire. Each year, I chart every down for a playoff weekend, and annually my charts show that offenses gain more yards and score more touchdowns against the blitz than against regular defense -- and that this holds even if you adjust for down and distance. Here is last season's blitz analysis column. I found that offenses averaged 4.3 yards per play against conventional defense and 8.7 yards per play against the blitz and scored touchdowns on 2.6 percent of plays against conventional defense and on 6.7 percent of plays against the blitz; that conventional defense forced the offense to kick three times as often as blitzing forced a kick; and that there was no difference between blitzing and conventional defense in terms of forcing turnovers.

Pro Football Prospectus objects to my playoff-weekend approach, calling four games too small a sample. One weekend of charting every play is the most I can stand! Schatz and his pals from Football Outsiders (who, in another of those historical-dialectic reversals, are rapidly becoming insiders) charted every 2005 NFL passing down, some 16,188 of them. Their conclusion: "Overall, [defensive] performance is the same whether the defense sends three, four, or five men after the quarterback. On a six-man blitz, the defense clearly has the upper hand. Send seven or eight across the line, and suddenly the offense is gaining more yards per pass." The finding appears to be that offenses can usually handle five rushers but that six rushers might overwhelm blocking, making the six-blitz the effective tactic; however, a seven- or eight-blitz means a receiver covered by no one, causing the mega-blitz to backfire. The book's advice to defensive coaches: Call the six-blitz.

Could I have been so wrong? Of course not, or I wouldn't be setting it up this way!

For all its prodigious charting, Pro Football Prospectus considered only passing plays. My annual analysis takes into account runs, as well, and a draw against the blitz can be a devastating play for the offense. The big difference between the sets of stats might be regular season versus playoffs. Pro Football Prospectus charts the regular season, in which many contests pit good teams against bad teams; I chart the playoffs, which pit good against good. Perhaps when a good defense blitzes a bad offense, the blitz works -- just as most tactics work when good teams play bad teams. In the postseason, when a good defense blitzes a good offenses, the blitz backfires. Good offensive lines handle the extra pressure, and good quarterbacks get the ball out fast to the hot receiver.

If blitzing works better during the regular season than the playoffs, we'd expect to see the best teams blitz steadily less come January. And that is exactly what happened last season. During the regular season, the Steelers blitzed more than anyone else in the league -- Pat Kirwan of NFL.com calculated that Pittsburgh blitzed on 32 percent of its 2005 regular-season defensive snaps, versus the league average of about 15 percent blitzing. As the playoffs progressed, Pittsburgh backed away from the blitz, dropping into conventional defense. Against Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs, the Steelers blitzed on 18 percent of Bengals plays; in the second round, Pittsburgh blitzed on 25 percent of Colts plays; in the AFC championship, Pittsburgh blitzed on 16 percent of Broncos plays; in the Super Bowl, the Steelers blitzed on 13 percent of Seahawks plays. That is to say -- on the day they won the NFL championship, the Steelers blitzed less than the league average. Pittsburgh showed blitz constantly in the playoffs but usually backed out, tricking opposition quarterbacks into expecting an uncovered hot receiver who was, instead, covered. Maybe the lesson to be learned from melding my stats with the Pro Football Prospectus analysis is: Once you get to the playoffs, blitz less.

Vince Lombardi
Like TMQ, Lombardi shunned the blitz. Unlike TMQ, he forbade water breaks.

Vince Lombardi, after all, called blitzing "the weapon of weaklings." Meanwhile, reader Darren Staley of Millers Creek, N.C., points out that the Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! viewpoint seems to be catching on. Gil Brandt recently wrote on NFL.com that "blitzing will be down this year, because teams don't want to subject themselves to allowing big plays." We'll see whether Gil is proven right, and remind me someday to tell you my Gil Brandt story from 1975. (It's true: I have a three-decades-old Brandt story!)

Adventures in Officiating: After the multiple zebra miscues of the playoffs, we have a new officiating uniform, but do we have new results? The offensive pass interference call against Tim Carter of the Giants with four minutes remaining Sunday, negating a first down and leading to the game-deciding interception on the next snap, looked bogus -- and I speak as someone who believes offensive pass interference should be called more often. The Patriots were flagged for just one 5-yard infraction, although there were at least four plays on which a Patriots offensive lineman wrapped both arms around a Buffalo pass-rusher, and the Flying Elvii benefited from an extremely convenient inadvertent whistle that ended a play when a Buffalo runner had 50 yards of green grass between him and the end zone.

Meanwhile, the Bills were hit with seven penalties, including a ticky-tack nudge-in-the-back call that wiped out a fourth-quarter first down in New England territory and changed a scoring opportunity into a punt. Worst, it is outrageous that no flag flew when Cincinnati's Robert Geathers dove at Kansas City quarterback Trent Green while he was sliding. The feet-first-slide rule is unambiguous: "Whenever a runner declares himself down by sliding feet first on the ground, the ball is dead." Any contact constitutes unnecessary roughness. Geathers pile-drived into Green as he slide, and the pile-drive is itself illegal. Not only should flags have flown, Geathers should have been ejected. Instead, the officials were staring off into space.

Come on Mike Pereira, supervisor of NFL officials, your guys are messing up week in and week out. Maybe the league needs new blood in this department: Pereira is no Jerry Seeman, that's for sure. And maybe NFL officials -- who work part-time, unlike the full-time officials of other pro sports -- simply are not up to the task as weekend warriors. The National Football League is the richest sport. Wouldn't some funding for full-time officials be worth a try?

Four Presidential Names in the Same Play: Reader Jeff Miller of Columbus, Ohio, reports that during the Saints-Browns game, "The stadium announcer called a play as 'Bush is the ball carrier, tackled by Washington, McKinley and Jackson.'"

Obscure College Score of the Week: Massachusetts Maritime 19, MIT 0. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a football team? What, composed entirely of 5-7 guys with thick-rimmed glasses? It turns out the MIT football roster includes a 6-5, 268-pound tight end. This guy goes to MIT? And leave it to MIT to make its athletic department sound like some sort of classified defense installation.

Obscure College Score of the Week No. 2: Webber 13, Shorter 6. Located in Rome, Ga., Shorter College asks parents to make donations while their children are attending -- to expect parents to pay and donate simultaneously seems a little brassy even by the standards of contemporary college money obsession. Shorter's honor code runs a phenomenal 9,542 words. For those accused of violating the code, there is a 24-point trial procedure followed by a 14-point appeal procedure.

Cupcakes
The cupcake teams: Fear their wrath!

The Revenge of the Cupcakes! The big-deal unlimited-budget programs of the University of Colorado and Northwestern already have lost home games to Division I-AA clubs (Montana State and New Hampshire) they paid to come and be clobbered. Perennial cupcake Troy University, paid to travel to Tallahassee and be clobbered, instead was leading Florida State midway through the fourth quarter before running out of gas. The hapless University of Buffalo, which Auburn, Wisconsin and Boston College have hired to appear at their stadiums and be clobbered, took Bowling Green to triple overtime. And kudos to the Eastern Washington Eagles, a Division I-AA school hired by BCS pretender West Virginia so the Mountaineers could take the day off, for kicking a field goal that prevented West Virginia from boasting of a shutout. (Here the Mountaineers boast, anyway, claiming they "grounded" the Eagles, although it's a joke that a stacked team such as West Virginia is playing an overmatched I-AA club.) It's coming -- I can feel it -- the Revenge of the Cupcakes is in the air. College football's second echelon is tired of being hired to be clobbered. Sometime this season, a cupcake team is going to stage a major upset of a Top 25 school. Thus sayeth the football gods.

Running Up the Score? Reader Mary Sue Borst of Alexandria, Va., writes, "Watching the Penn State-Notre Dame game, I was appalled at the unsportsmanlike conduct of Charlie Weis and the Irish coaching staff. Late in the third quarter with Notre Dame up 27-3, Weis called a fake punt that set up another touchdown. NBC showed the Penn State sideline after the fake punt and humiliation was apparent on the faces of the players. Penn State may have lost the game, but still has dignity and class. Where is the class and sportsmanship on the part of Notre Dame?"

I winced when that fake punt started, too. The problem is that most college coaches and many high school coaches want to impress pollsters, and so have an incentive to run up the score. Polls are not a factor in the pros, which is a reason running up the score is rare there. Also in the pros, teams often play each other twice a year; or at least know they could see the opponent again soon, with most of its starters still on the field and still smarting from any bad sportsmanship. In high school and college, there is so much year-to-year personnel turnover that a coach knows the next time the teams meet, most opponents' starters will not be boiling over past poor sportsmanship. Here's your vengeance, Mary Sue -- Weis' call was bad tactics. If you have a fake punt, why waste it when ahead by 24? Now he can't call the play when he really needs it.

Reader Animadversion: Got a complaint or a deeply held grievance? Write me at TMQ_ESPN@yahoo.com. Include your real name and the name of your hometown and I might quote you by name unless you instruct me otherwise. Note: Giving your hometown improves your odds of being quoted.

Next Week: Paramount announces plans for the next "Star Trek" motion picture, "Where No Non-Gendered Individual Has Gone," in which Kirk and Spock travel through time to attend a Grateful Dead concert, then -- upon returning to the future -- find they have altered history and no longer qualify for Medicare.

In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" and other books. He is also a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sound off to Page 2 here.