Sports Nut

New Jersey Resplendent

It would have taken a man with a heart of stone (or, alternatively, any woman) to keep a dry eye watching Dan Marino at his number-retirement night, walking across the field in a business suit rather than pads. Ye gods, that gentleman could throw the football. The question of whether Marino was the greatest quarterback or merely the greatest passer will fuel years of sports-bar arguments conducted over micro-brewed unfiltered half-dark white wheat ale and shots of frozen boysenberry-almond schnapps. But if you were open and wanted the ball to arrive exactly at the center of your sternum in exactly one microsecond—often, even if you weren’t open—Marino was your man. Come back again in another life, OK?

Marino retirement bonus: During the halftime ceremony, Miami shot off so many fireworks that a pall of smoke hung over the ballpark (official name: Your Trademark Here Stadium) as the second half began. The Dolphins took the kickoff and quickly moved for their first touchdown, as Baltimore defenders seemed to have trouble seeing who had the ball.

Monday Night Football complaints below; also, special Dennis Miller gushing praise item.

Best Plays of the Week: Best No. 1. Cleaving to a principle explained in an earlier TMQ—that defenses ignore trick-play decoy receivers (quarterbacks split wide, etc.) unless they have been shown to be able to run real routes and make real catches—the Jets sent cornerback Marcus Coleman, who had never once run out for a pass, in as their Hail Mary target on what was assumed to be a pro forma wasted play from midfield on the final snap of the first half against Buffalo. Sure enough, Bills defenders ignored Coleman as completely as if he’d been the Natural Law Party candidate at a presidential debate. This gentleman sprinted uncovered straight through an ultra-prevent defense composed entirely of backpedaling DBs and leapt for a touchdown as the clock ticked to 0:00.

Best No. 2. Tampa Bay threw for six to SUV-sized lineman Randall McDaniel, who lined up as an eligible receiver in a trick formation and was, in keeping with the rule above, completely ignored. McDaniel officially becomes the slowest player ever to catch an NFL touchdown pass. (Postwar era only.)

Best No. 3. Reaching the Steelers 13-yard line with a few minutes to play, Cleveland did not go pass-wacky but pounded the ball for five straight running plays. The result was that the Browns (Release 2.0) had to settle for a field goal and only a three-point lead, but left so little time on the clock that Pittsburgh bungled its comeback attempt. (See next item.)

Best No. 4. On fourth down at the Indigenous Persons three-yard line, Dallas quarterback Randall Cunningham faked a quick step right, then flipped the ball left to Emmitt Smith. Emmitt Smith is the NFL’s all-time touchdown leader among running backs. Yet the Persons seemed to have no idea, not a clue, that he was going to get the ball and bought the fake. You could practically see money-crazed Owner/Twerp Daniel Snyder screaming in his box, “What do you mean I’m not allowed to order players killed!”

Worst Plays of the Week: Worst No. 1. Criticizing the Steelers for botched offense seems at this point a little like criticizing Bill Clinton for his recently announced agreement, on leaving office, to become audition director for Baywatch. Nevertheless we must face the fact that, trailing by three with 35 seconds remaining, Pittsburgh had a first down and a stopped clock at the Cleveland nine-yard line and through substitution confusion and a succession of clock-management snafus, never got a field-goal attempt airborne. The Steelers did look quite formidable with twice the normal numbers of players in to block for the place-kicker as time expired, though.

Worst No. 2. Facing fourth and goal on the Minnesota four and trailing by 14 at the start of the fourth quarter, New England went for it. P-Men coaches kept just six men back to block despite an expect-the-blitz down-and-distance; the Vikings blitzed, and Drew Bledsoe was immediately sacked. Later, facing fourth down with two minutes to play and now trailing by eight—if they’d taken that FG, it would have been five—the Patriots again kept just six in to block on a blitzing down. Another instant sack.

Worst No. 3. After hitting Randall McDaniel with the trick touchdown pass in the first half, Tampa tried the same thing in the same situation in the second half. The term “element of surprise” includes the word “surprise.” The result of the play can be summarized with the technical term “clang.”

Stat of the Week: The Rams have scored an incredible 119 points in three games, which puts them on the pace for 7,543 points in the decade. (Actual figure at the current rate.) That photonic vortex beam generator Kurt Warner brought with him from his homeworld on the star-cruiser sure seems to be paying off!

Quote of the Week: New England safety Lawyer Milloy, denouncing sportswriters who say there is turmoil inside the 0-3 Patriots organization: “You guys can’t possibly understand what’s going on in here, because a lot of times we don’t know what’s going on in here.”

Great Moments in Management: During preseason the Bills’ rookie kick-returner had fumble problems, so just prior to opening day, Buffalo traded him for Denver returner Chris Watson. The normally astute Bills management seemed not to have checked the fumble charts, which show Watson led all NFL returners in coughing up the ball last season; nor to have read the Denver Post, which reported that the Broncos were relieved to unload a liability. On Sunday, Watson fumbled away two consecutive punts in the fourth quarter, causing Buffalo to self-destruct.

New Jersey Resplendent: Everyone’s noting that the two New York City teams have not been a combined 6-0 since the late Eisenhower administration. But aha, then they actually were New York City teams! Since both now play in New Jersey (official state motto: Don’t Worry, That Stuff Is Biodegradable), this marks the first time in NFL history—in fact, the first time in the entire recorded history of known civilization—that the Garden State has been 6-0.

Here is how the NFL standings break down by state: adjusting for the fact, pointed out by many irked New-York-area readers, that the Washington Indigenous Persons are really the Maryland Indigenous Persons:

New Jersey: 6-0
Florida: 7-2
Missouri: 4-2
New York: 2-1
Maryland: 3-3
Ohio: 2-3
Texas: 1-2
California: 2-7
Pennsylvania: 1-4
All other single-team states: 16-20

The Curse of Potential: Under the NFL’s quarterback rating formula, a Pro Bowl year is a figure of about 100, while if every single pass thrown by a quarterback simply clangs to the ground incomplete, the rating is 40. After three appearances Ryan Leaf, second pick in the 1998 draft, has a QB rating of 32.6. He’s worse than pure incompletions. Ye gods.

Reader Haiku of the Week: TMQ reserves the right to go haiku without warning, in times and places of its own choosing. This week, however, will be given over to verse submitted by readers.

This from reader W. E. White:

The rush attempt fails
The passes—all incomplete
We are the Steelers

Here, from reader David Waghalter:

New team in Houston
Houstonians much too long
Settle for Texans

This, from a reader screen-named Betty Boop:

Monday Night once more
No one to talk to again
I take up haiku

And a reader screen-named Woman Reader writes:

If I have to read
One more Cindy Crawford ref
It’s one too many

TMQ takes your point on that last one. Cindy never calls anymore, anyway. What a blunder it was to mispronounce “Versace” in front of her. (Wait, that was a ref.)

Readers are invited to continue to submit football haiku or heroic couplets. No blank verse, though: TMQ is a traditionalist. Use “The Fray,” and title your entries “Football Haiku” or “Football Heroic Couplets,” and so on. Don’t try to cheat on the iambic pentameter. TMQ once took an English lit course in college—”The Analogy as a Metaphor for Symbolism”—and will catch you.

Gorzon, Activate the Nedney Unit! Sebastian Janikowski, the Oakland Raiders’ No.-1-draft-pick huge-bonus place-kicker, is now two-for-five in field-goal attempts. On Sunday, he fell down on his rear while attempting a kickoff. Joe Nedney, the minimum-salary kicker Oakland cut to make room for Janikowski, went four-for-four kicking for the Broncos as they defeated—the Raiders.

Hidden Indicator of the Week: Five teams scored touchdowns in the final minute of the first half, but no team scored a touchdown in the final minute of the second half. This is the kind of hidden indicator that is essential to an insider’s understanding of the NFL. Unfortunately, Tuesday Morning Quarterback has no idea what it means.

Running Items Department

Obscure College Score of the Week: (New item.) Tuesday Morning Quarterback has long experienced a sense of peace and contentment whenever reading, on Sunday mornings in the fall, those long columns of scores from football games involving obscure schools such as Bemidji State, Ferrum, Indiana of Pennsylvania, Lenoir-Rhyne, Ursinus, and Wisconsin-Stout.

TMQ has no idea where these schools are (particularly Indiana of Pennsylvania) or whether they actually exist (some determined prankster may be calling a “Lenoir-Rhyne” score into the Associated Press weekly). Yet TMQ finds it reassuring to think that at hundreds of small schools in the glorious autumn, people strap on pads, tape their fingers, and slam into each other repetitively, all for the sheer inexplicable joy of it. Audiences clap, bands play, car alarms go off in the parking lot: the cycle of life. How comforting to know that long after we have left this Earth, each Saturday all over the country, people will still be slamming into each other pointlessly and—well, I’m entering a contemplative state. Better stop before I go haiku.

Obscure College Score of the Week: Chadron State 66, Colorado Mines 2.

Most Magnificent Dennis Miller Moment: TMQ was so, so wrong about Miller. He’s brilliant! That waffling crack to Al and Dan, “Oh, you men with your football talk!” Nobody’s ever brought drag sensibility to network football commentary before, and it’s so original in show business, so unusual. And dropping the names Dante and Stephen Hawking! Sure the references were incomprehensible, but they did what they were supposed to do—impress us! And his predictions at the “top” of the broadcast, as booth types gratingly say: that Deion Sanders and Brad Johnson would have the game’s big nights? So what if Sanders fumbled a punt, and Johnson threw the killer interception in the fourth, nobody remembered by 11:45 p.m. what Miller had said at 9:15 p.m. And oh, how masterfully Miller praised Owner/Twerp Daniel Snyder! The key to understanding Hollywood self-promotion is that the kneepads are put on whenever the money guys are in view, and Dennis Miller now brings that sensibility to Monday Night Football. What a genius!

The Stephen Hawking remark: “Deion Sanders has a sense of the moment like Stephen Hawking.” That’s it, no further comment or explanation.

Hawking once postulated that perception of time would accelerate in proportion to any rise in the Hubble Constant, then reverse during cosmological contraction if lambda was overcome. Maybe this is what Miller was alluding to. Readers are invited to submit explanations of Miller’s comment—if any are possible—via The Fray, titling entries “Sanders-Hawking Postulate.”

New York Times Final-Score Score: The Paper of Record goes 0-14 in its quixotic attempt to predict an actual final score, bringing the season’s Times Final-Score Score 0-44 combined.

Times predicted: San Diego 20, Kansas City 17. Actual: Kansas City 42, San Diego 20. Times predicted: Carolina 28, Atlanta 24. Actual: Atlanta 15, Carolina 10. Times predicted: Eagles 17, Packers 14. Actual: Packers 6, Eagles 3. Times predicted: Tampa 13, Detroit 9. Actual: Tampa 31, Detroit 10. But wait, in the Dolphins-Ravens game, the Times projected a final of 20-6 and barely missed the actual of 19-6! Unfortunately the Times said Baltimore 20, Miami 6 and the actual was Miami 19, Baltimore 6.

TMQ’s Irrefutable Reasons to Torment the Times: Several readers have written in suggesting the New York Times’ quixotic quest to predict an exact final score isn’t really that at all: Rather, it is a coded way of signaling point-spread advice. The Times has a policy of not printing the spread, to discourage the sin of wagering—although this does not prevent the paper from reporting in detail on IPOs.

According to this theory, when the Times projects, say, a final of Washington 28, Dallas 21 (Friday’s edition), and the line is Washington giving 10 (Friday’s line), the Multicolored Lady through this artifice is covertly advising clued-in readers to cash their Halliburton options and let it all ride on the Cowboys. Sounds pretty good as hidden advice, since the final was Dallas 27, Washington 21, meaning Cowboys bettors collected.

Tuesday Morning Quarterback would like to believe that the Times is so amusingly devious as to plant hidden messages in football predictions, especially if clandestine control of the sports pages by the Israeli government could somehow be worked into the theory. But TMQ takes Times predictions at face value. Why? Because viewed as encrypted betting advice, the Times predictions finished 7-7 against the spread this week, which sounds more like chance than a hidden hand. And many predictions did not follow the secret-advice form.

Two examples: Friday, when the spread was Broncos plus three at Oakland, the Times predicted a final of Raiders 24, Broncos 21. What, the Times was signaling readers that it thinks this game will wash against the line? Not even the guys at Gamblers Anonymous try to call ties.

And on Friday, when the line was San Diego plus four at Kansas City, the Times predicted a final of Bolts 20, Chiefs 17. It wasn’t necessary to forecast a San Diego victory in order to send Times readers an encrypted message to sell their Chagalls and bet on the Bolts; predicting that San Diego would lose by less than four would have encoded the same hidden command. Projection of a Bolts straight-up win was unattractive as a cipher because the chance of being wrong was very high: Kansas City has the league’s best home record in the last decade, while San Diego is in such dire straights, it started the great Moses Moreno at QB. As we now know, San Diego not only failed to win straight-up but failed to cover the spread by 29: If this is betting code, Times readers had best grab hold of their wallets. Thus TMQ believes the only rational explanation for the Times prediction was that the paper actually believed San Diego would win. (Wait, we said “rational” explanation.)

Of course, perhaps as part of the conspiracy, the Times deliberately inserts a few misleading calls such as the San Diego projection, in order to throw naïfs like TMQ off the scent. Or to steer bettors way from games the Israeli government is wagering on.

TMQ Trivia Challenge: Last week, Tuesday Morning Quarterback offered a trivia question he was sure would send readers scurrying to the darkest recesses of sports archives, if not flying to London to hop the Tube to the British Museum. Instead the first correct reply came in with scorching Rams-like speed a mere 23 minutes after the column posted.

Here was the question:

Below are the names of four small colleges that have sent only one player to the NFL, followed by the names of four NFL athletes from single-player schools. Match each player to his alma mater.

Schools: Brockport State, Isothermal CC of North Carolina, Mount Senario, Shippensberg. Players: Rob Davis, Percy Howard, Craig Jay, Mike Jones.

Some readers questioned whether an “Isothermal Community College” actually exists. It’s there, in lovely Spindale, N.C.: Check out its Web site, which offers no explanation of why the school is named after a feature on weather charts. Maybe there was once a great man named Jeremiah Isothermal.

Others wrote in to question the existence of Mount Senario. It’s “on the banks of the Flambeau River in Ladysmith, Wisconsin,” as its home page declares.

TMQ just loves the name of this school, which sounds like an objective in a Pentagon war game: “Blue team will assault Mount Senario at oh five hundred hours.”

With his Rams-like blistering speed, Bill Peterson, who declined to publish his hometown (or to say whether he is a member of Homo sapiens—given the response time, TMQ suspects the involvement of an experimental AI), was first to give the correct matches:

Brockport State—Mike Jones
Isothermal—Percy Howard
Mount Senario—Craig Jay
Shippensberg—Rob Davis

Here is this week’s TMQ Trivia Challenge:

Dan Marino was introduced at his number-retirement ceremony by the only other player whose number the Dolphins have retired, Bob Griese. In whose honor was each of the following jerseys put to pasture?

Arizona: No. 99
Denver: No. 18
Green Bay: No. 3
New Jersey Giants: No. 4
San Francisco: No. 73

Offer your replies via The Fray, titling the entry “Trivia Answer.”

First correct reply will be cited in next week’s column. And you might get a TMQ cap at season’s end, but remember, the final decision will be completely arbitrary and we promise nothing.