When Brian Urlacher(notes) sees Cedric Benson(notes) burst through the line of scrimmage in a Cincinnati Bengals jersey on Sunday, it stands to reason that the Chicago Bears' injured defensive leader will have a hard time suppressing his inner middle linebacker.
Given Benson's tumultuous and disappointing three-season stint with the Bears – and the career resuscitation he has enjoyed since joining the Bengals last September – doesn't Urlacher wish he could smack his former teammate into submission?
"Not at all," Urlacher said Wednesday. "The dude is playing his ass off, and it doesn't bother me. I didn't have a problem with Cedric; he just didn't fit here, I guess. But we've got Matt Forte(notes) now. It worked out good for him, and it worked out good for us."
If only most Bears fans were so evolved. After I wrote about Benson's perspective on his unlikely turnaround last August, many Chicago loyalists regaled me with the email equivalent of sticking one's finger down one's throat.
I'm sure the same fans were thrilled earlier this week when Benson, who's third in the NFL with 531 rushing yards, charged that the Bears had tried to blackball him after he was released by the franchise in June 2008.
If watching Benson perform for his new team the way he never could for his old one is a jarring experience for Bears fans, they can take solace in the fact that they won't be alone. On a Sunday that accentuates the transitory and turbulent nature of the modern-day NFL, a league in which timing and context can dramatically alter the fortunes of players and franchises, ghosts will be everywhere:
• At Land Shark Stadium in South Florida, Miami Dolphins fans will have to confront the quarterback who got away – MVP candidate Drew Brees(notes). The pinpoint passer has led the undefeated New Orleans Saints on an awesome offensive rampage while Miami's passing game struggles with inconsistency, and the Dolphins could have had him. Twice.
• Minnesota Vikings fans are in a great mood after their team's 6-0 start. But with all the criticism Brad Childress has absorbed during his four-year tenure, the sight of his former defensive coordinator roaming the sidelines for the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field might be a tad unnerving. If Mike Tomlin's team prevails on Sunday, how many people in the Twin Cities will be smacking their foreheads, Homer Simpson-style, and thinking, "How come Dan Rooney knew this guy was a rising star while Zygi Wilf was subjecting us to Chilly Ball?"
• In Dallas, Atlanta Falcons fans will get to see their team's revamped defense battle a Cowboys offense coordinated by Jason Garrett, who twice interviewed for Atlanta's head coaching job in January 2008. But Garrett withdrew his name from consideration shortly after his second interview, signing a new deal to remain in Dallas, and newly hired Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff gave the job to unheralded Mike Smith(notes). Suffice it to say that, so far, no one in Atlanta is complaining.
• On Sunday night at Giants Stadium, 38-year-old quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) will lead the Arizona Cardinals into battle against his former understudy, Eli Manning(notes). When New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin benched Warner nine games into the 2004 season, logic suggested that the two-time league MVP was careening toward career oblivion – a notion reinforced when the team released him after the season. "When he left here, a lot of people were wondering, 'What does Kurt Warner have left?' " veteran middle linebacker Antonio Pierce(notes) recalled Thursday night. "Then you watch him last year take the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, and you see what he's doing now, and you say, 'Man, he's still got it.' I don't know what fountain of youth he's drinking from, but it's working for him."
It's tough for Pierce or anyone associated with the Giants to look back with regret on the team's decision to choose Manning, the No. 1 overall pick in the '04 draft, over the seemingly in-decline Warner. With Manning at the helm, New York won a Super Bowl two seasons ago and currently leads the NFC East with a 5-1 record.
Similarly, as Urlacher suggested, the Bears have been productive at running back since taking Benson fourth overall in the '05 draft – first with Thomas Jones(notes) (their starter in the team's Super Bowl XLI loss to the Indianapolis Colts) and now with Forte, a second-year back from Tulane.
It remains to be seen what kind of head coach Garrett will be if and when he gets his opportunity, but his star has fallen somewhat as the Cowboys' offense has performed inconsistently since an '07 playoff defeat to the Giants. Smith, meanwhile, was the 2008 NFL Coach of the Year after leading the Falcons to a stunning playoff appearance, and Atlanta is 4-1 in '09 and chasing the Saints in the NFC South.
While Tomlin last February became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl (at 36), his hiring in Pittsburgh after the '06 season was a surprise – and firing Childress after a single season and replacing him with a first-year defensive coordinator wasn't a realistic scenario for the Vikings. Besides, with Brett Favre(notes) running the offense in '09, Childress suddenly seems like a much better coach than he did in the previous three campaigns.
The only fan base that can legitimately claim to be tortured by Sunday's revisiting is the one in greater Miami, where Brees acknowledged to the New Orleans Times Picayune earlier this week that he was hoping to land as a free agent in March 2006.
Instead, Brees signed with the much more covetous Saints – a development for which Dolphins fans can thank one of their least favorite figures, former head coach Nick Saban. It was Saban who, scared away by the shoulder injury that Brees had sustained in his final game with the San Diego Chargers in '05, made the decision to trade for Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper(notes) (who was coming off reconstructive knee surgery) rather than make an unqualified run at Brees.
Even worse, the Dolphins had already passed on Brees once, drafting former Wisconsin cornerback Jamar Fletcher(notes) with the 26th overall pick in the '01 draft – six selections before the Chargers took Brees – because they were happy with incumbent quarterback Jay Fielder.
The sordid numbers: Fletcher started six games in three years for the Dolphins. Culpepper, who struggled with mobility in the wake of his knee surgery, was released by Miami in July 2007, six months after Saban bolted for the University of Alabama.
The Dolphins have started seven quarterbacks since '06 and have had three head coaches in that time. Brees, meanwhile, has started every game for Sean Payton's Saints since signing with the team, throwing for more than 100 touchdown passes and 15,000 yards during that span. Earlier this week, he told the Times-Picayune that New Orleans "is where I belong, and I felt like this was a calling."
The only catch was, he didn't realize it until after things fell through with the Dolphins.
Warner, undoubtedly, can relate – we've had many conversations about how frustrated he was after washing out with the Rams (the team he quarterbacked to two Super Bowls in three seasons, earning MVP honors in the team's Super Bowl XXXIV triumph over the Titans) and Giants and being relegated to backup duty with the Cardinals.
It wasn't until last season's stirring stretch run that Warner reaffirmed his virility, ultimately cementing his status as a future Hall of Famer. And though Pierce resisted the temptation to root for his former teammate in Super Bowl XLIII – "I didn't want another NFC team to win, when I thought it should've been us in that game," Pierce explained – he has nothing but respect and admiration for the ghost he'll be staring at across the line of scrimmage on Sunday.
"Everybody knew what was going on when Kurt was here," Pierce said. "You draft Eli Manning No. 1 overall, and you know he's going to end up being the guy. It just happened a little sooner than everyone expected, but hey, it worked out for both parties. We got a new face of the franchise and won a championship, and Kurt went to Arizona and took the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl. How can anyone complain?"
In today's NFL, why bother? Just wait a couple of years and reassess, and chances are things won't be as bad as you thought they were.
Unless, of course, you're a Detroit Lions fan.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
The Kansas City Chiefs, coming off their first victory of the season, will upset the Chargers, coming off a crushing defeat in a game they regarded as "must-win", at Arrowhead Stadium. … Matt Ryan(notes) and Tony Romo(notes) will wage a back-and-forth battle at Cowboys Stadium, and the Falcons will prevail at the end. … Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald(notes) and the Cardinals' defense will bring their "A" games and surprise the Giants in New Jersey.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
Oakland, where I can see if the Raiders' revival is for real – and if the Jets can end their freefall. With Rex Ryan on one sideline and a bunch of dudes with skeletons on their shoulders in the stands, it won't be subtle.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. According to Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent, former teammate Jim Zorn almost quit as the Washington Redskins' coach last Sunday night – until executive vice president Vinny Cerrato ordered him to "pipe down, go back to your office and wait for further instruction."
2. Emboldened by the launch of regional websites in Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, Dallas, L.A. and New York, ESPN plans to unveil a new Mississippi-based site called espnfavre.com.
3. Furious after being compared to "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" glutton Augustus Gloop, Browns coach Eric Mangini raided his Pittsburgh hotel minibar and devoured five Snickers bars – and, after forgetting to pay the tab upon checkout, later billed himself $1,701 for each.
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
So far I've managed to make it through the first six weeks without using any of the league's four remaining undefeated teams. Last Sunday the Packers, with a 26-0 thrashing of the Lions, joined the Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Redskins and New England Patriots as facilitators of my survival. Now, at last, it's time to turn to one of the Infallible Four: I'm taking the Colts to put it on the winless Rams in St. Louis. I know, I know – it's a total setup. But I've seen both teams play, and I'll take my chances.
MY BUDDIES' ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
Two weeks ago, my buddy Malibu dubiously traded Donovan McNabb(notes) to his son, A-Man, for Julius Jones(notes). The deal was so lopsided that it drew the attention of the league's other participants, who suspected him of aiding and abetting a family member with a much more realistic chance of winning the 12-team league. Malibu's explanation: "I was channeling A.J. Smith – the personnel genius." Can you tell that Malibu's a bit bitter about the state of his beloved Chargers? "My demise is tied to theirs," Malibu says. "I drafted LT [No. 2 overall]. I put my faith in them. It's horrendous." Now, adding to the indignity, Malibu's last-place team, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which dropped to 1-5 with last week's 12-point loss to Varmint Poontang (Drew Brees, DeAngelo Williams(notes), Leon Washington(notes)), must deal with the trade's fallout head-on this week. Sabbath faces A-Man's Man Up Willis U … a 4-2 team which features quarterbacks McNabb and Eli Manning, halfbacks Ronnie Brown(notes) and Laurence Maroney(notes), wideouts Randy Moss(notes), Chad Ochocinco(notes) and Jacoby Jones(notes) and tight end Owen Daniels(notes). Malibu, meanwhile, will be able to resist the temptation to play Jones (the Seahawks have a bye) – he's going with Marion Barber(notes), Reggie Bush(notes) and LT (over Darren Sproles(notes)) and teaming Steve Breaston(notes) (we're hoping for a big game given Anquan Boldin's(notes) iffy ankle) with Hines Ward(notes) and Johnny Knox(notes) at the expense of Bernard Berrian(notes) and Pierre Garcon(notes). My input: With Todd Heap(notes) on a bye, I tried to get Visanthe Shiancoe(notes) (waiver claim denied) but ended up with the Packers' Donald Lee(notes), who I chose over Kevin Boss(notes); and I waived Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers(notes) and picked up the Texans' Kris Brown(notes).
On a more promising note, UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb's Harsh Reality improved to 3-3 with a 95-67 thumping of Madden's Madness, as Mason Crosby(notes) and the Packers' defense led a well-balanced attack. Blessedly, the winning lineup did not include Braylon Edwards(notes), who remains on the trading block. She's trying to swing a deal this week for another back, as Chris Johnson, Jones and LenDale White(notes) all have byes. In the meantime, Gottlieb cut White and signed Mewelde Moore(notes) (in my opinion, the lesser of many available evils, because he could catch a bunch of passes against the Vikings, his former team) as a fallback option. She also inserted Edwards into the lineup ahead of Berrian. "Ideally," Gottlieb says, "we'll trade Braylon for a back, and neither he nor Moore will be in the lineup come Sunday." (Alas, negotiations last week for a trade of Edwards and Marion Barber for Steven Jackson and the Giants' Steve Smith broke down.) She also chose Vernon Davis(notes) (at Texans) over Greg Olsen(notes) (at Bengals) and stuck with Carson Palmer(notes) (vs. Bears) over newly acquired Chad Henne(notes) (vs. Saints). "Henne has to prove it more than once," explains Gottlieb, who cut Trent Edwards(notes) to sign Henne after her waiver claim for Matt Hasselbeck(notes) was denied. This week's opponent, Petoriates (4-2), features Jay Cutler(notes), Steve Slaton(notes), Ronnie Brown, Marshawn Lynch(notes), Randy Moss, Kevin Walter(notes) and Tony Gonzalez(notes).
Does Gottlieb have a chance? Will Malibu's demise continue? Here's Y! Sports guru Brad Evans to tell us what's what:
Malibu's collusive act is a punishable offense. Several swift kicks to the bread basket provided by his Chargers hero Nate Kaeding(notes) would likely balance the scales of justice. But a blowout loss levied by his son, A-Man, might also do the trick, though dad should put forth a valiant effort against Man U's terrifically balanced squad.
LT and Breaston are the real X-factors in this contest. If the former league MVP experiences an '07 flashback, he will gash a vulnerable Kansas City defense on the road. The Chiefs have allowed 4.9 yards per carry and 149.5 total yards per game to rushers this season. However, if LT continues to travel down Shaun Alexander(notes) Avenue, an appalling 1-6 record awaits. To instill a sense of false confidence, maybe Malibu should don a Peyton Manning(notes) jersey, a la Jeff Fisher, so he too can "feel like a winner."
As for UCSB's sideline barker, packaging Chris Johnson with Banana Hands (Braylon) would be a savvy move. Due to Tennessee's defensive and vertical shortcomings – Vince Young(notes) isn't the solution – Captain Quick will undoubtedly face numerous overloaded boxes, a frightening prospect. With his price-tag still exorbitant, she could potentially net a more dependable rusher (i.e. Frank Gore(notes)) and another player with significant upside (i.e. Hakeem Nicks(notes)/LeSean McCoy) for the pair. After the Petoriates demoralize Da Coach – their matchups are very fantasy friendly – she'll certainly be more willing to shop marquee talent.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
It seems to me that Antonio Pierce has tapped into a masterful motivational strategy to which the rest of the league hasn't yet caught up: Insulting the manhood of a vanquished opponent as a means of firing up said opponent for the following week's game. In this case, after the Giants crushed the Raiders 44-7, Pierce was well aware that Oakland would next face the Eagles, one of New York's NFC East rivals. So when he was asked about the Raiders two days later on Sirius NFL Radio by host Alex Marvez, I think Pierce knew exactly what he was doing when he piled on, saying that the game "felt like a scrimmage, like a practice …" and mocking the Raiders for their lack of emotion.
Pierce had no reason to hold back – the Giants and Raiders won't play again for another four years, unless they happen to meet in the Super Bowl. (Let me come to my senses and retype that last sentence: Pierce had no reason to hold back – the Giants and Raiders won't play again for another four years.) Sure enough, the Raiders placed printed copies of Pierce's quotes around their locker room last week, then went out and played with focus and intensity in a 13-9 upset of Philly. Given that Oakland still has games to come against the two other NFC East teams, the Cowboys and Redskins, Pierce can only hope there's a carryover effect. "If I could've scripted that any more perfectly, I would've," Pierce said Thursday. "The thing is, I didn't even know they were playing the Eagles – but I'm glad they were." (Pierce is one of the league's most intelligent players, so I'm not sure if I believe that.) I asked if he thought other players would try to replicate his technique. "They should," he said, laughing. "Why not? It worked once, so keep it going. I don't think it'll be me again, though. I shot my wad with this one."
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Armen Keteyian of CBS News, one of the world's great investigative reporters. Many of us had lingering questions after Nashville police classified the July 4 deaths of Steve McNair(notes) and his young love interest, Sahel "Jenny" Kazemi, as a murder-suicide. Keteyian actually went out and tried to get answers, resulting in an illuminating, two-part report for CBS' "The Early Show." In light of this new evidence, how can Nashville police investigators not reopen the investigation? If nothing else, they should hold a news conference as soon as possible to respond to the information uncovered by Keteyian.
DISPATCHES FROM THE LAIR OF THE BEAR
When you're in the worst mood ever, is there anything more cathartic than beating up on your little brother? After Saturday's 45-26 victory over UCLA at the Rose Bowl, sophomore kicker David Seawright and the rest of the Golden Bears – and those of us whose moods are affected by their fortunes – would say, "Not really." Whereas my reaction can be summed up with five letters (FUCLA), Seawright's is a bit more eloquent …
Something about drubbing a school from Los Angeles really fuses a student body.
Last Saturday a team came together as one, stood firm and defiant amid doubters, and proved the true value of belief and trust transformed into ambition.
The Cal campus, which for three weeks suffered from the degradation of back-to-back lopsided losses, was subsequently switched from a body deeply divided to one united by a game opening drive which resulted in pay dirt.
Sport's innate ability to connect extends beyond college campuses into a broader culture. Whether through a shared passion for the game, the mutual adulation of victory or the distress of defeat, the realm of athletics achieves what little else can – the unification of those who have little or even nothing else in common.
Athletics have long served as ice-breakers between in-laws, water-cooler banter among colleagues, and aided directly in business pursuits of all sorts.
And even the most bitter of Cal fans found pleasure in our first non-forfeited victory in the Rose Bowl since 1993, even if it wasn't on New Year's Day.
Perhaps, in a time where much of society appears divided, sports have more value than ever.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Perhaps visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris and Reading manager Brendan Rodgers should commiserate over a few pints this weekend, for the first year of each man's new gig couldn't be any more of a nightmare. The Royals' miserable season continued with a pair of road defeats: a 3-1 setback against league-leading West Bromwich Albion last Saturday and a 4-1 drubbing by Queens Park Rangers on Tuesday. Against West Brom, a brilliant start punctuated by Matt Mills' sixth-minute goal off a back-post header (set up by teammate Brian Howard's(notes) free kick) quickly unraveled, and the Baggies dominated the second half. Three days later at Loftus Road, QPR scored a pair of first-half goals after Rangers' Ben Watson was sent off to give the Royals an 11-to-10 advantage; Reading lost that edge early in the second half when captain Ivar Ingimarsson received his second yellow card. Howard's goal in the 86th minute prevented the shutout, and afterward Rodgers was bleeding all over the place. "I'm probably the most disappointed I've ever been in football," he said at the start of his postmatch news conference. "As the leader of the team, I've got to reflect on what's happening. The emotion of it is very, very tough right now. … I will fight for my life to turn it around." The next round takes place Monday at Madejski Stadium where the Royals, still 21st in the 24-team Football League Championship table (and two points above the relegation line), host eighth-place Leicester City.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
From my perspective, Jeff Fisher's decision to wear a Peyton Manning jersey Tuesday while introducing former Colts coach Tony Dungy at a Nashville-area charity event was harmless and humorous. Then again, I'm an unabashed fan of both Fisher andthe concept of public theater. Others, like my colleague Charles Robinson, weren't so amused by Fisher's stunt. A whole bunch of Titans fans, and possibly some of Tennessee's players, are similarly grumpy in the wake of a 59-0 humiliation against the Patriots and a stunning 0-6 start. So who's right? Obviously, I am. But for the sake of public theater, here's the critics' version of Evil Jeff Fisher doing the Alice Cooper thing, to the tune of "Eighteen."
Lines of angry Titans fans
Marching outside with pitchforks
I'm in my office drawin' up game plans
Don't they know that I'm The Man?
I wore his jersey – that's true
Is that a problem for you?
Bud, what you gonna do?
I gotta get out of this place
I'll throw it in my owner's face
I got Belichick's brain and Rex Ryan's tact
Kerry and Vince are my quarterbacks
One is too old and the other just pouts
If I had Peyton then I could air it out So I'm
I get confused every day
Worse than my owner's toupee
I gotta get away
Balls soar out of my throwing hand
Balls soar with a spiral tight
Clark in the middle
Garcon on the right
How you like that Titans fans?
I'm eighteen and I LIKE IT
Yes I like
Oh I like it
I'm eighteen and I LIKE IT