|ESPN.com: Page 2||[Print without images]|
In a 24-hour span last weekend, I watched "Victory" on cable and the Patriots-Colts battle on CBS. The two events had more in common than you might think.
If you don't remember what happened in "Victory," the Nazis organized a war-time soccer game between a German squad and a team of POWs led by a potbellied Michael Caine and the stunt double used for every Michael Caine soccer scene. The great Sly Stallone plans the team's escape for halftime, then convinces the Irish goalie to break his own arm so Sly can steal his spot and lead the escape -- the single most improbable moment in sports movie history. It's not just that the goalie would say, "That's OK, I'll stay here; you guys can escape," but that he'd break his own arm to make it happen -- followed by the Allies' falling behind and eschewing the escape to play the second half (the second most improbable moment in sports movie history), rallying to "tie" the game on a goal that's disallowed, tying the game on Pele's bicycle kick, then clinching a tie in extra time after Sly catches Werner Roth's penalty kick (the third most improbable moment in sports movie history). That's when the crowd charges the field, overpowers the Nazi soldiers and allows everyone to escape. The End.
From the time the movie was released in 1981, I have measured every real-life contest with shady officiating against that Nazis-Allies game. (Important note: Even though it's a fictional movie, I've seen "Victory" so many times during the past 25 years that I now feel like the game actually happened.) So the irony of enduring the Pats-Colts game so close to my umpteenth "Victory" viewing was just too bizarre. In fact, here's how bizarre it was -- while watching "Victory," I thought to myself, "I hope this isn't how the Pats game is called tomorrow."
As it turned out, I wasn't far off. Nobody outside of Boston made a big deal about the officiating because the Patriots prevailed. And besides, everyone was more interested in making excuses for the Colts (which reminds me, you can play the "Indy really missed Marvin Harrison card" so long as you also mention all the key guys New England was missing in the AFC Championship Game last January) and taking solace in the closeness of the game (giving everyone hope that New England's 19-0 season isn't a foregone conclusion). Few noticed the Patriots needed just nine minutes of quality football to defeat an undefeated Super Bowl champion on the road, or that they pulled off the comeback despite having 95 percent of the borderline calls go against them.
I knew the Pats were in trouble less than three minutes into the game, when Aaron Moorehead's entire left foot landed out of bounds on a first-down catch. Standing 10 feet away from him on either side, two officials improbably decided Moorehead landed inbounds, forcing the Patriots to waste a challenge to overturn a miserable call. Of course, that moment wasn't one-tenth as egregious as the play when Ellis Hobbs got tackled from behind by Reggie Wayne while trying to catch an interception (8:58 remaining, second quarter), followed by the officials' whistling Hobbs for a 40-yard pass interference penalty because he made the mistake of bringing down Wayne's arms with his back. Hey, Indianapolis, here's a free first-and-goal for you guys. Enjoy!
(Note: Watch NFL Network's replay of the game for the split-screen explanation by Mike Pereira, NFL vice president of officiating, who claims Hobbs impeded Wayne's path to the ball and initiated contact before turning around to find the football. Only one problem ... as Pereira is telling us this, the split-screen replay shows Hobbs turning around before there was any contact. It's an incredible 10 seconds of TV. I wish we could hire Pereira to describe other things that allegedly didn't happen while we show videotape to prove the opposite was true. "As this tape by Rick Salomon proves, Paris Hilton has never had sex with someone on camera ...")
Throughout the game, the sketchy calls kept coming and coming. Like the head-scratching no-call when Dallas Clark pulled down Rodney Harrison as Harrison tried to catch an end-zone interception on Indy's first drive (10:09 remaining, first quarter). Like Asante Samuel's drawing a pass-interference penalty on an uncatchable 40-yard bomb that set up Indy's first field goal (4:14 remaining, first quarter). Like the incredible no-call when Moorehead blocked Rashad Baker in the back (how did Jim Nantz and Phil Simms both miss this?!?!?!?) to spring Joe Addai's 73-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. Like the 15-yard "unsportsmanlike conduct" call on Matt Light after Gary Brackett's interception, of which CBS couldn't even find a replay (14:04 remaining, fourth quarter).
Wait, there's more! There was the no-call when Rosie Colvin got held while trying to sack Peyton Manning on a crucial third-and-15 that the Colts ended up converting on their last touchdown drive (12:52 remaining, fourth quarter). Or the no-call on Indy's final drive when Bryan Fletcher was blocking Colvin at the end of a running play, got frustrated and ripped Colvin's helmet off right in front of an official (2:55 remaining, fourth quarter). Or the no-call when Kevin Faulk got hooked directly in front of an official while reaching for a third-and-21 pass over the middle, followed by Tom Brady's flipping out and berating the official involved. Or a pivotal first-and-goal interference call on Randy Moss when he made the mistake of running forward for five yards and turning around, which nearly murdered the Pats because they were trailing by 10 points and suddenly looking at first-and-goal from the 12 with less than nine minutes to play.
All in all, the Pats were whistled for a whopping 146 yards in penalties, a single-game record for the franchise. At one point, after a rarely seen "blocking someone while they're out of bounds" penalty on Willie Andrews, my dad called me just to say, "They're calling things that I never even knew were penalties!!!" It's one thing to have incompetent officiating for a football game; it's another thing to see nearly every call and non-call benefit the same team. In 60 minutes of play, only one borderline call went against the Colts -- a holding penalty on their second-to-last drive that erased a 25-yard Addai run. The final tally for the Colts: four penalties, 25 yards. We haven't seen homefield advantage work that well since Hitler invaded Russia.
With the Patriots playing at such a high level, you could argue the referees subconsciously favored Indy. After all, nobody likes rooting for Goliath. We've seen this happen in basketball, when unstoppable big men like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal were treated differently than everyone else by the officials; any defender was allowed to push, prod, elbow and basically clobber them for 48 minutes a game. But we've never seen it in football. So, yeah, you could say this happened. You could also say Roger Goodell doesn't want the Patriots to go 19-0, and the referees acted accordingly Sunday.
So let's just settle on the word "fishy." That Pats-Colts game was a little fishy. In fact, it passed six of the seven checkmarks on the Fishy Officiating Test. Here are those checkmarks, which I just made up 90 seconds ago:
You can't rank one fishy contest above another; you can only add them to the collection of ongoing examples. For instance, I would never argue Jessica Alba was prettier than Jaclyn Smith, just that both of them have secured a place in the Beautiful Pantheon for eternity. The same goes for the Fishy Sporting Event Pantheon. When Richard Steele stopped the Chavez-Taylor fight with two seconds remaining and Taylor leading every card, that wasn't any more or less fishy than Game 6 of the Kings-Lakers series in 2002, or the Soviets stealing the '72 gold medal from the USA hoops team, or Vince McMahon stealing Bret Hart's WWF title and giving it to Shawn Michaels, or the Steelers-Seahawks Super Bowl, or Games 3 and 4 of the 2006 NBA Finals between the Heat and Mavs, or even Robert Parish being allowed to remain in Game 5 of the '87 Eastern Conference finals after punching out Bill Laimbeer just a few feet from referee Jack Madden. The degrees of fishiness didn't matter as much as the general odor of rotten fish.
Still, I have to ask a simple question: Is the rest of the season going to be like this?
Was everything that "happened" (for lack of a better word) in Indy just a one-time deal? Was it just an elaborate coincidence the Patriots couldn't buy a single break for the entire game? Was the NFL unveiling a new way of evening the score against New England because a $500,000 fine and the loss of a No. 1 pick weren't enough? Did the league decide no NFL team could conventionally stop the Pats, so they'll have to play against opponents AND referees for the rest of the season? Does the NFL have a hidden trigger much like the one used in the "Madden" video games, when everything starts going against your team as soon as it becomes clear there's a chance for an undefeated season?
There's no way to definitively answer the previous paragraph. But if you're a fan of the Patriots, you've never felt as passionately about them as you do right now. The same "us against them" mentality that galvanized the coaches and players ended up galvanizing the fans as well. You should see some of the texts and e-mails I received from friends during Sunday's game -- genuine anger and incoherence from some of the most rational people I know -- or the remains of my living room remote control, which didn't survive a 95-mph throw across the room after the no-call on Faulk. Like everyone else who loves the Patriots, this season has become so personal that it's difficult to adequately describe. It's almost like watching a family member get raked through the coals, like being a member of Sen. Craig's family, only if he wasn't such a creep.
So that made it especially satisfying to watch them prevail in Indianapolis under such unfriendly "conditions." After the final three kneels and a delightfully icy handshake between Belichick and Dungy, I grabbed my dogs for a prolonged victory walk -- still wearing my good luck Wes Welker jersey -- and mulled a scenario in which the Pats finished 19-0, then picked first in the 2008 draft with the first-rounder acquired from San Francisco last spring. The amazing thing? It's not impossible. (Yeah, the Rams and Dolphins would need to win a couple of games apiece, but it's not impossible.) Upon my return home, I e-mailed a few Patriot friends to remind them that the 2-6 Niners had lost again and we were looking at a top-five pick. Just for kicks, I included Mel Kiper's top 10 prospects to whet everyone's collective appetite.
After a few minutes, one of them happily e-mailed back, "I love it, [bleep] everybody!"
For better or worse, that's our mantra for the 2007 season. After the legitimacy of the three Super Bowl titles was questioned, there was only one response: 19-0. The players keep saying they're taking it one game at a time; I say they're full of crap. They want to join the '72 Dolphins and destroy everyone along the way. Why? Because bleep everybody, that's why. After Welker clinched the Colts game with a crucial first-down catch, he defiantly hopped up and screamed at the poor cornerback covering him, "YOU F------ SUCK!" Unquestionably, it was the defining play of the season -- not just that the Patriots converted the exact same situation that killed them last January (when they could have clinched a Super Bowl trip with one more completion on third-and-short), but that Welker displayed such arrogant disdain after finishing the Colts off.
Normally, I hate crap like that. Not this time.
Once you enter "bleep-everybody" mode, it becomes a state of mind. You can't shake it. After they slaughtered the Redskins, everyone debated the merits of the Pats' running up the score and missed the larger point -- namely, that those inflated scores were serving a larger competitive purpose. Remember those few minutes right before the Tyson-Spinks fight, when poor Spinks looked like he might lose control of his bowels. He didn't want to get embarrassed or beaten up. You could see it. Just like the Dolphins and Redskins last month. Those blowouts weren't shocking because of the scores as much as the complacency and lethargy of the losing teams. They didn't seem outraged, offended or even mildly ticked off. They just wanted to get the hell out of there. If the "Eff-You TD" sprung from a certain place -- revenge, pride, hostility, whatever -- it's now emerged as a legitimate tactical weapon. Belichick doesn't care about running up the score; he cares that every inferior Patriots opponent looks like Spinks before the Tyson fight.
And I never thought I'd condone this stuff. Believe me. As my friend Jamie wrote to me this week, "I sit there and openly root for them to run it up on teams. I thought I had experienced every emotion as a fan; this is totally new."
Great way to put it. Since you couldn't fully understand this feeling until it happens to you, here's an example you might grasp: One of the smartest scenes in "Sopranos" history happened in the first episode of the final season, when a drunken Bobby Bacala sucker-punched an even more inebriated Tony and the two guys squared off. Even though Tony started the brawl by repeatedly insulting Bobby's wife, and even though Bobby was a better person and a better family man, you know who we were rooting for in the fight? Tony. He might have been a flawed and unredeemable person in almost every respect, but we were more invested in him. Deep down, we liked Tony. We forgive him for all his sins. What separated those final two shows from anything else in television history was the simple fact that we really, really, REALLY didn't want him to get killed. So what if he was a terrible, selfish, evil guy? We didn't care. We wanted him to live. That's what made "The Sopranos" such a groundbreaking show -- rooting for a bad guy was a totally new way to watch television.
So if you wouldn't blame me for rooting for a scumbag like Tony against Bobby, then don't blame me for sticking with my Patriots. The players have always handled themselves with class, on and off the field. When everyone wanted them punished after CameraGate, they took their penalty without a whimper. When everyone wanted to turn them into villains, they puffed their chests and gave everyone an endless loop of Tony Montana's "Say hello to the bad guy!" scene in "Scarface" for the next two months. Like it or not, everyone's getting something out of this. We get to watch one of the greatest NFL teams ever. We get to argue about them constantly. We get a world-class villain. And if they stumble some time in the next three months, we might even get a potential upset on the level of USA 4, USSR 3.
Again, this is totally new -- not just for Patriots fans, but for everyone rooting against them. Normally, we have to watch a sports movie like "Victory" to find a good villain. This is happening in real time. And the quest for an undefeated season lingers over everything -- it's like watching someone throw a no-hitter, only if the no-hitter lasted for five straight months. Only two years ago, I wrote that the Colts would be crazy for pursuing an undefeated season and risking injuries when the only thing that mattered was a Super Bowl title. Now? I guess I'm a hypocrite. If you asked any Patriots fan to pick between two doors that determined the rest of the season -- behind Door No. 1, the team would lose once but have a 100 percent chance to win the Super Bowl, and behind Door No. 2, there would be two-in-three chance at a 19-0 season or a one-in-three chance that the team would lose in the playoffs -- a surprising number of fans would roll the dice with that second door. Including me.
If the undefeated season doesn't happen for the Patriots, let's hope it's because they were outplayed and not because of something more sinister. And let's hope this is the final time an NFL game gets compared to a soccer movie starring Sly Stallone and a bunch of Nazis ... and the comparison isn't a stretch.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.