Making sense of the NFL

Trying to make some sense of this topsy-turvy NFL season might end up requiring professional help.

Updated: October 21, 2003, 6:03 PM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

30-second column
Fire Dan Reeves? Fire Dave Wannstedt? Dick Jauron? Jim Fassel? Please. If anyone should get canned this early in the season it's Detroit Lions GM Matt Millen. You know Matt, the "old school" spit-n-duct tape guy who came in with no front office experience and turned the Lions, a team that was 9-7, into the Motor City Kittys, a team with a 6-32 record over the last three seasons. That record includes perhaps the best barometer of this franchise's heart: a 19-game losing streak on the road. Millen's two biggest moves have been to call one of his players a "devout coward" and to draft Joey Harrington, who on Sunday had a QB rating of 7.1. This off-season Millen also continued his maddening habit of signing and/or drafting players who simply don't fit the team's schemes, leaving the Lions with a roster full of square pegs in round holes. And there's nothing worse in football than a guy put in the wrong position where he's just helplessly overmatched. Right Matt?
Flem File Five
Top Five Active QBs who have broken their thumbs:
5. Tim Couch
4. Jay Fiedler
3. Kurt Warner
2. Brett Favre
1. Steve McNair
Flemister File
Wherein we continue to follow the exploits of FlemFile mascot and former Washington TE Zeron Flemister.

So now I'm in trouble with ZFlem's family. It seems that ever since his wild Week 6 -- cut by Washington, signed by Cleveland, cut by Cleveland, resigned by Washington -- Z's cell phone has been ringing off the hook with family and friends seeking an explanation. He's told them to just go online and read the news themselves. But what they really hate is that he had time to explain it to millions, er, dozens of FlemFilers but not Grammama.

"I hate to be rude but I set my phone down for a few minutes and I get 6-7 messages," says ZFlem. "Not many people understand how this league works. They think it's like getting transferred from one Wal-Mart to another. It's hard to explain, man. I haven't even gotten to unpack my bags yet." Second on the depth chart at TE, ZFlem is fully healed and making an impact on special teams for the Redskins, who are in a three-game free fall and, perhaps, still feeling the affect of the FlemFile curse. (These things are hard to turn off.) "It's getting tense around here," says Z, "we need to bounce back or we're looking at another year out of the playoffs."

The WHYLO (Who Helped You Log On) of the Week
Tons of complimentary email regarding last week's column about how the NFL has become a league of Tackle Me Elmos. Giving me plenty of Old School cred, Don writes, "Way to go with the column on tackling. I'm a 71-year-old ex-jock, Honorable Mention All New England 1952, who played cornerback for UMass. It seems there's better sports writing going on in America these days than there is poetry being written. My son just emailed me your article on tackling. You got it right, from Deion right on down the line. Thanks."

But the best stuff came in response to my mentioning an ubermullet I spotted in the Tennessee crowd. Says Steve, "If you feel cool bashing the south...fine....but at least acknowledge that the guy with the ubermullet had a girlfriend who was hotter than yours." P May was also not pleased with my notes section calling them "ridiculously trivial. Ridiculing mullets is extremely cliché. In fact, I bet you've had more than one in your life. Also, no one cares what you were listening to when you wrote your article. You were probably reminiscing the time in 11th grade when you cried at the Morrissey concert when he by happenstance glanced your way. In other words, stay away from making yourself seem hip, smart or metropolitan at the expense of your readers. P.S. I am aware that this letter is probably riddled with spelling and grammatical errors."

Thankfully, most readers have a sense of hair helmet humor. Doctor Jon wrote in to inform me that the mullet I described has an actual name: "a skullet." Dave writes, "I have your Tennessee ubermullet beat. In the Mall of America I saw one with mutton chops running down the side of the face exactly the same length as the hair on the sides of the head." Steve says, "The mullet you describe actually has a name here in the south. That one is known as a B.B.-- Business in Front, Badass in the Back. Kentucky Waterfall is also acceptable."

Finally, my nickname for Nashville (NashVegas, which comes from an ad for a revue-style show I ran across a few years ago) sent one reader into full panic. Allan writes, "In your article, you made what is seemingly a facetious remark in calling the Titans NashVegas. Being a Titans fan, and considering myself relatively knowledgeable in football, I feel like I might be missing something here. Are there rumors of Tennessee moving to Las Vegas? Please fill me in as I'm not sure I could stick with the Titans through another move."

Yes Allan they are moving to Las Vegas -- next week in fact. And their new name will be the Las Vegas WHYLO's.

Flem Gems
I've seen many-a-team fall apart in the NFL but nothing quite like the brutal injury and insubordination freefall taking place in Georgia. ... If the NFL can't figure out the OT coin flip I suggest they let the players do Rock-Paper-Scissors. ... Coaching in the NFL today has become almost 50% dealing with injuries. ... By my count, Terrell Owens has five drops in his last two games. When is someone gonna scream and stomp up and down in front of him while he sits on the bench? ... After another MAC snack -- a 49-3 win over Ball State -- my Lil' RedHawks are now RANKED 23RD IN THE FIRST BOWL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES POLL. LOOK OUT SOONERS. As big of a homer as I am with Miami, I never thought I'd write a sentence that contained the words BCS and RedHawks. ... How did I ever forget to include the Cleveland Browns in my Tackle Me Elmo my column last week? The biggest hit of the season for the Brownies was when someone bumped into Tim Couch by accident before the Chargers game. ... You can learn all you need to know about someone in five minutes of pick-up basketball. ... I wish I could download the addictive bassline from the White Stripes' Seven Nation Army to use as the ring tone for my cell. ... Please stop with the excruciating slow mo replays of Denver QB Steve Beuerlein's crooked finger or NYG guard Rich Seubert's hobbled right leg. ... Even after rushing for 200 yards and the Chargers first win of the season RB LaDainian Tomlinson was in a bad mood Monday about not getting to run in one final score. Who does this guy think he is? David Boston? ... Brian Russell's six picks are every bit as impressive as anything Randy Moss has done so far in Minnie when you consider this: DBs tend to drop half the passes that hit their hands because most of them are, after all, failed wideouts. ... At 2-4 the Bengals are only one game out of first in the AFC North.


"Hey Doc, thanks for seeing me on such short notice."

No problem Flem come on in. This works for me, too. I actually had a free hour between my group therapy sessions and, quite frankly, I don't think I can listen to one more whiny Sox or Cubs fan. So, tell me, what's troubling you today?

"Well I'm confused."


"What's that Doc?"

Nothing. Nothing. Please go on. You're confused, conflicted, hurt, angry, upset, torn -- about what Flem?

"The NFL, Doc. The NFL. Parity is messing with my mind again. You can't get a handle on things anymore. From week to week, shoot, from day-to-day, everything changes on every team. The league's motto should be: Wassupwitdat? There are no more gimmies. No more certainties. The Seahawks are good. The Falcons are bad. Up is down. Down is up..."

Cats and dogs living together...mass hysteria!

"Yeah, something like that."

Sigourney Weaver in that torn dress thingy ... reeerrrooww ... Are you the gate keeper? ... Uh. oh, it's the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man ... Whatever you do, don't cross the streams!


Sorry. Sorry, love Ghostbusters. Ah hem. OK. Go on. I believe the last time we chatted you were ripping some guy in Dallas named Mr. Tuna Can.

"The Tuna, you know, Bill Parcells."

Right. You said he burnt bridges in New England and New York. That he went back on his word to never coach again, meddled behind Tony Dungy's back in Tampa and left the Bucs high and dry. You said he would regret taking the Cowboys job, that the lack of talent there would finally take the elastic outta his sans-a-belt slacks."

"The Cowboys are 5-1, Doc. Their defense is ranked No. 1 in the NFL. Quincy Carter's passer rating is 30-something points better than Donovan McNabb's. And the Tuna? Dangit, he's done an unbelievable job. He's amazing. He's a genius in strategy and motivation. He's gonna coach a CFL team into the NFL playoffs."

Oh my. This is worse than I thought. Hold on a second Flem.

Click. Janet? Yes. Clear my schedule please. And no more phone calls. Thank you. OK. Please. Continue.

"Then there's New England, Doc."

Ah yes, blown out 31-0 in the season opener. Riddled with injuries and an inconsistent Tom Brady. 'They're fiiiiiiiinished', is how I think you put it.

"Their 5-2 and atop the AFC East."

Hmm. Interesting. Go on.

"Mike Vick can't run .. Jamal Lewis can't stop ... Tampa's defense can't tackle and the world champs season has gone like this: win, loss, win, loss, win, loss ... all that stuff about Steve Spurrier, you know, how he was adapting to the pro game, making changes, learning how to win?"

Yeah, go on.

"Well the 'Skins have lost four of their last five. They look disorganized and half asleep. Poor Patrick Ramsey has spent the last three games looking for receivers downfield through his earhole."

Uh huh. Now Flem, I need to ask you a very important question.

"Oh wow, a break through already? Thank you Doc. Thank you. You're good."

No no. Don't be ridiculous. In my fantasy football league -- my team name is Nuts4Sports, by the way -- you can only start one punter, so should I go with Todd Sauerbrun or Mitch Berger?

"Come on Doc."

Oh OK. Geez. Always so worried about yourself Mr. whinylittlesportswriterbabypants.

"Excuse me?"

Nothing. Nothing. OK, well, let's refocus on some things we absolutely know for sure. That might help. How about Kurt Warner and Warren Sapp? Now I know lots of folks were very high on these guys coming into the season.

"So far Kurt's wife has had more of an impact on the Rams and Sapp has made more news with his pre-game, uh, skipping."

Randy Moss. How 'bout him? You've never been very high on him.

"Doc ... ?"


"He's amazing. He's so good he's lifted an entire franchise to the top of the NFL. He worked his tail off in the offseason. He's been a team guy. And whatever your beef is with his NFL Diva act, you gotta give the guy his due as a player. He made Terrell Owens look silly. Did you see that lateral on Sunday? How can a guy be so relaxed and focused at the same time. It ain't right. It just ain't right."

Well then, you weren't joking. Up is down in the NFL. Down is up. How is my team doing, Super Bowl or toilet bowl? Don't know. Can't tell. Is your season over? Give it five minutes things will change.


Well then let's focus on the Browns. I know you have deep issues with them because your father used to force you to attend their games.

"Yeah, they continue to torture me. They gave up 295 yards rushing to Jamal Lewis, then they held the Steelers to 60 yards on the ground, then gave up 200 to LaDainian Tomlinson. Kelly Holcomb is their QB. No, wait, it's Tim Couch. No, Holcomb. No, Couch. AHHHHHGG."

OK. OK. Chill out. Relax. Take a pill.

"Really, you're gonna prescribe something for me? Make it all better. Thank you Doc. Thank you so much."

No, that's just an expression. Duh.


Let's play word association. I'll throw out a name or a word and you yell out the first thing that comes to mind and we'll see just how much of this topsy-turvy thing is being cooked up inside your own noodle.

OK, here we go ... Gus Frerotte.

"Undefeated as a starter. Passer rating of 119-something."

Comeback Player of the Year, Tommy Maddox.

"Has guided his team all the way to 2-4 and a tie in the standings with Cincinnati."

The doo-doo bird Seahawks.

"5-1, atop of the NFC West."

Last week you said the Titans can't tackle.

"They held Stephen Davis to 20 yards on Sunday."

AH HA! How about defensive guru Tony Dungy?

"His offense just pulled off the greatest comeback in the history of the NFL."


"Finished after Week 1. Back on course in Week 5. Finished again in Week 6."

NFL MVP Rich Gannon and the AFC Champ Oakland Raiders?

"2-5 and their receivers don't know the difference between the end zone and the 1-yard line."

Hall of Famer Brett Favre?

"Lost to the Cardinals."

How about Kansas City's horrific defense from last year?

"Uh, now they're 7-0 pal."

West Coast genius Andy Reid.

"Philly is ranked dead last in offense. Had enough yet, Doc?"

No. No. Now I know I'm forgetting someone. I know if we search hard enough we can find something that never seems to change in the NFL. Come on help me out. You're the quote-unquote NFL expert.

"The Lions are 1-5."

Uh huh, go on. Run with that.

"They're in last place ... again."

Yes, yes, go on.

"They've lost 19 road games in a row. It's been 12 years since they won a playoff game. They're ranked 25th in passing offense and 25th in passing defense."

Excellent. Now you see? Even in the bizarro world that has become the NFL, some things never change. Well, our time is up for this week.

"Thanks Doc."

No problem, Flem.

Now, if you don't mind, on your way out ... send in Grady Little.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at