TAMPA, Fla. – The naked model at the slamming Moves Magazine Super Bowl party Wednesday night sauntered past the sushi bar creating a small stir, what with the red and white body paint covering her R-rated regions. Bearing the Arizona Cardinals' logo and the familiar No. 13 jersey number of the team's evangelical Christian quarterback, the design scheme was drenched in irrefutable irony.
So take heart, Jackie Smith and Rich Gannon: When people refer to the "Biggest Busts in Super Bowl History," they are no longer talking about you.
As for everybody else? Take a chill pill. We're going through some challenging times in the U.S. and across the football-watching world, but nothing about Sunday's game between the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers should be causing us to get our panties (sprayed-on or otherwise) in a bunch.
Look, I know the wretched excess of the two-week buildup for Super Bowl XLIII – and of the NFL in general – tends to get us worked up about everything from Ben Roethlisberger's ribs to the real Kurt Warner's glove-covered hands. I understand that money and bragging rights and legacies are on the line, and that football is not a subtle game, and that the passion of the paying and viewing customers is what drives the process in the first place.
That's all good, and I'm proud to play my part. It's just that the anger, negativity and over-the-top intensity swirling about as we prepare to end another highly entertaining football season has me pleading for a dose of perspective.
We're getting ready to watch a football game, and a potentially thrilling one at that, in many cases with beers and chips and homemade chili and family and friends at our disposal. It's a de facto national holiday, and it's the only time this year that this many people around the world will be paying attention to the same thing at the same time.
As far as I can tell, that's the closest thing to a Kumbaya moment we can expect to experience in the near future.
Yet everywhere I turn, bitterness abounds. Talk to the typical Eagles fan and, rather than celebrating a highly successful season, he or she is down on quarterback Donovan McNabb and angry about the team's inability to complete an epic NFC championship game comeback in Arizona. The day after the Eagles' divisional-round playoff upset of the defending champion Giants, my buddy Bob shared an email from a Philly fan which stated, "If we don't win it all, the only thing this will have done is screwed up our draft position." Nice.
The other day on Radio Row, I went on the air with Nestor Aparicio of WNST-AM in Baltimore, and we started discussing the Ravens. I figured he'd be thrilled about the team's surprising appearance in the AFC championship game after its 5-11 finish in '07 and psyched about its exceptionally promising future, with a young franchise quarterback in Joe Flacco, a successful first-time coach in John Harbaugh and a revitalized future Hall of Famer in middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
"Life sucks," Nasty Nestor said, living up to his nickname. "This season was a disaster. I hate the Steelers."
Patriots loyalists are enraged that their 11-5 team, which destroyed the Cardinals by 40 points in December, didn't make the playoffs – and that Spygate (gasp!) has come up in pre-Super Bowl conversations.
Fans of the other 27 teams not in Tampa, many of which already have new head coaches, harbor similar misgivings. Even Cardinals fans ("No one respects our team") and Steelers fans (here we go again with the Terrible Towel desecration) have their moments of grumpiness.
And, of course, one of these fan bases will be collectively crushed come Super Sunday night, while the other will merrily engage in car-burning and other acts of raucous celebration.
Obviously, each team's annual goal is to win a championship (except for the Lions, who simply strive to win a game). Yet the collective goal of the NFL is to engross and amuse, and in that sense the 2008 season has delivered.
I'm picturing Russell Crowe's Maximus in "Gladiator" screaming at the riveted Romans, "Are you not entertained?" while thinking of all the cool things that have happened since last summer:
• Brett Favre and the Packers endured the end of a 17-year marriage as the future Hall of Famer tried to spur the Jets to greatness while replacement Aaron Rodgers hung tough amid a messy unraveling in Titletown. In the end, at least for this season, everybody suffered.
• A new wave of young quarterbacks, including Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, Rodgers and Trent Edwards, pushed toward potential stardom while four forgotten members of the old guard (Warner, Kerry Collins, Gus Frerotte and Chad Pennington) resurfaced as viable team leaders.
• The Falcons' Matt Ryan had one of the most impressive seasons by a rookie quarterback in league history, helping Atlanta and fellow rookie Mike Smith (the NFL's coach of the year) escape the stench of the Michael Vick scandal.
• The Dolphins went from 1-15 in '07 to AFC East champions, one of the great single-season turnarounds in sports history.
• The Steelers, Ravens and Titans featured three of the most relentless, punishing defenses in recent memory.
• Warner, seven years removed from his glory days with the Rams, completed a stunning personal comeback that likely clinched his eventual Hall of Fame induction with a breathtaking game-winning drive in the NFC championship game.
I could go on and on (talk about wretched excess), but I need to get to another party, where I'm sure I'll experience scenes like the one I saw Wednesday night: McNabb, smiling as he passed through an admiring crowd of NFL peers and other partygoers, trailed by the equally gregarious Lewis, mingling with members of the Giants and Chiefs and Browns and other teams, everyone enjoying themselves to the fullest.
Those guys get it. Some of the rest of you don't. And while we're on the subject of taking things too seriously, it's time to make my long-awaited prediction on who will win Sunday's game.
As some of you recall, I picked the Steelers in the immediate aftermath of their title game triumph over the Ravens, and I still perceive Pittsburgh to be the better team. Yet I've also been more bullish on the Cardinals than virtually anyone in my business, both at the start of the season and throughout the postseason, and I have a very high degree of faith in Warner's abilities.
Before officially deciding to stick with the Steelers, I called up someone whose opinion I respect immensely and asked who he thought I should pick.
"You've got to go with the Cardinals," he said. "You can't give up on them now."
He elaborated: "Look, Kurt Warner is really hot right now, and Anquan Boldin is healthy again, which can make a big difference. Pittsburgh has a great defense, but Arizona's offense is really hard to stop. And I think Arizona's defense can handle Pittsburgh's offense. Besides, the Cardinals deserve this. They've waited so long."
I was pretty much sold.
"Oh, one more thing," he said. "The Cardinals rock."
I thanked my 9-year-old son for his assistance – and gave silent thanks that the Warner jersey he'll be wearing on Sunday will not be of the body-paint variety – and arrived at my final decision.
I'm picking the Cardinals. And whatever the outcome, I'm certain that Sunday will be Super.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Boldin will score the game's first touchdown and will come up big consistently for the Cardinals as he engages in a night's worth of image-repair. … The overwhelmingly pro-Steelers crowd will be treated to a defensive touchdown. … In a tear-jerking moment, Jennifer Hudson will absolutely nail the national anthem; Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, while eschewing the customary multiple encores, will put on a passionate and memorable halftime performance.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
Bed. For a long, long time. Thank you.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. Having fined tight end Martellus Bennett for conduct detrimental to the team following an explicit video release on the Internet, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatened to levy a similar penalty on "any reporter who gives us a bad rap."
2. After firing coach Jon Gruden, at least in part, because they discovered he sometimes makes disingenuous statements to players, Bucs Co-Chairmen Bryan, Edward and Joel Glazer were also surprised to learn that cornerback Ronde Barber has an identical twin.
3. Upon being asked at media day, "Why do they call you Big Ben?" in the presence of a pre-adolescent reporter, Roethlisberger quickly texted Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas – aka Pimp Juice – and pleaded for advice on how to answer the question.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Yo, NFL PR army – I love y'all, but if there's any way you could stop spamming (or, in this case, sending every single quote sheet from the Super Bowl interview sessions as a separate email) me and everyone else in downtown Tampa, that would be awesome. This would have been a great idea in, like, 2003, but you're paralyzing our BlackBerrys, and it's maddening. Then again, the constant vibration is kind of nice, especially at the parties.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Steelers wideout Santonio Holmes, for having the courage and the candor to reveal at media day that he once dealt drugs on a street corner in his rural South Florida town when he was in the "fourth or fifth grade" – and to Miami Herald writer Jeff Darlington for getting Holmes to open up in such a conspicuous setting. I get that media day is a spectacle, and that some non-traditional reporters ask some silly questions, and I certainly am not averse to having some fun with it myself. However, it is also a time when players like Holmes, the Cardinals' Darnell Dockett (who talked about stealing cars as a youth in the wake of his mother's murder before turning his life around) and the Steelers' Aaron Smith (whose son is battling leukemia) are available to share their stories with journalists willing to wade through the madness and ask probing questions, and I think that gets lost on a lot of people at times, including me and many of my peers.
Sure, a few players might view the exercise as a distraction or an annoyance, but most of them are excited to be in the Super Bowl and to have an opportunity to revel in the attention. It's their day, and good journalism greatly enriches the experience. Speaking of journalism, I'm doing a shot for Chargers president Dean Spanos, whom I assume shares my beliefs about general manager A.J. Smith's mocking comments toward LaDainian Tomlinson and thus was behind the GM's sorta-kinda apology to the halfback.
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
My favorite aquatically inclined ladies – the ones who make up the Golden Bears' fourth-ranked women's swim team – will be on display at Spieker Pool in meets against USC Friday and UCLA Saturday, with studs such as former Olympian Dana Vollmer, Lauren Rogers, Lauren Boyle, Madison Kennedy, Hannah Wilson and Amanda Sims whipping through the cold water. Meanwhile, on Jan. 22, things were warm and fuzzy at nearby Haas Pavilion as President Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, returned from the inaugural festivities two days earlier to coach the Oregon State Beavers against Mike Montgomery's Cal hoops team. When Robinson was introduced before the game, he got a rousing ovation, led by the student section. "Tuesday was a special, special day for me, for my family, for the country and the reception the students gave me almost choked me up as much as Tuesday did," Robinson said afterward. "Cal students are going to have a spot in my heart. They didn't have to do that. It was a fantastic gesture from a bunch of kids." That's right, y'all – we've got a friend in the White House. Or, at least, a brother-in-law of a friend. It would've been nice if Cal's players hadn't also been so hospitable, blowing an 11-point lead with 9:37 left to play in a 69-65 defeat. Oh well. God bless America.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
In an impressive outing that buoyed its promotion hopes, Reading completed a season sweep of first-place Wolverhampton, beating Wolves 1-0 at Madejski Stadium last Tuesday to move to within two points of the top spot in the Football League Championship table. The game's only score was an own-goal less than two minutes in, but it was set up by an aggressive Royals push indicative of their spirited overall play. After Reading's Chris Armstrong floated a cross from the left side, teammate Noel Hunt aggressively fought for the ball inside the penalty area, and frazzled Wolverhampton defender Neill Collins, in an attempt to clear, flicked a header past keeper Wayne Hennessey. The Royals kept the pressure on for most of the night, thrilling 23,009 fans and remaining two points ahead of third-place Birmingham. The Royals hit the road Saturday to face Queens Park Rangers.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Michael – Thanks to your great articles, I went out and bought 'All Things Possible.' (I could only find it in a used bookstore. Sorry.) As a long time Cardinals fan (for the whole 20 years), I wanted something with more meat than the usual Yahoo! Sports articles. I had intended for the book to be a light read during the week leading up to the Big Game. I started the book Sunday … and finished it that day. I was so riveted by the story, I could not put it down. While I do not share Kurt's Christian beliefs, I have a great deal of respect for his faith. I will be cheering for the Cardinals on Sunday, and especially for a great man to win what he has so richly earned!"
Thanks for taking the time and initiative to soak up Kurt's story – and if I ever get cool enough to hire a personal publicist, please apply.
"Mike, I rarely agree with your articles so in this instance I had to email and express my wholehearted support. As a San Diego transplant and long time sports fan I have grown accustomed to watching the Chargers (and Padres) consistently underachieve. Due to my history as a fan of both franchises I have supported AJ, despite his interpersonal issues, because he has assembled talent unlike any I have ever seen on a San Diego sports team. That said, his recent treatment of LT is deplorable and threatens to further damage the chemistry of a team that seems to have no direction. LT, like Junior Seau and Tony Gwynn, is an exceptional athlete that loves the city of San Diego and seems to do everything right in his personal life.
While his recent injury diminished season and high cap figure warrant discussion about his future with the team, his place in the history of the organization is assured. AJ Smith's treatment of LT is an embarrassment to the team and needs to be dealt with. During and after the Ryan Leaf years I would often say 'at least it can't get any worse' or 'at least we know where the bottom is' but frankly, watching this Charger team erode and listening to the GM's classlessness has caused me to rethink my position. To the Spanos family, fix this fast! Charger fans need further embarrassment like Padre fans need another fire sale!"
Salt Lake City
I know you don't speak for all Chargers fans – trust me – but for what it's worth, I'd say about five-sixths of the emails I received expressed a similar sentiment.
"Is it possible that you've actually written an article that will not incur the wrath of a single reader? I can only think of one guy who would possibly stand up for the behavior of AJ Smith, and he's too busy mocking you to actually send an email."
Oh, trust me: It's pretty far from possible …
"Whoa. Spank yourself hard misinterpreting what AJ Smith said when replying to LT's quote about wanting to stay in San Diego. What are ya? Some irrational rumormonger with nothing better to do with your time than to create issues where there was none? AJ didn't mock LT. AJ EMPATHIZED with LT, saying that he too loves San Diego, it's where he got his GM start like LT got his start as a player, and that he wants to stay in San Diego, just like LT does. What part of AJ's statement was mocking LT? Absolutely none of it. You on the other hand should be mocked for acting like a irrational muckraker and the Ann Coulter of sports columnists, making something ugly out of nothing."
Oh no you didn't!
"Silver – While I'm usually not a fan of your views (I'm a huge Pats fan) … I have to give you credit. You write some badass articles, clearly have the respect of the professional athletes and your line 'Cuz I'm so mad that Fitz is making twice as much as me' was nothing short of glorious. +1 for you, my friend."
New York City
Thanks – I could use that plus-one on the Super Bowl party circuit.
"Mike, I don't know if you can swing it with the jack you make at Yahoo!, but after reading your article about AJ Smith; Can you please buy the Chargers?"
I can't swing it – but I wish my buddy Malibu would.
"Mike, I think what you meant to say here: 'We have preset recipes that measure out each ingredient, and eliminating the sherbet while proportionately increasing the others requires math skills that are beyond our inclination and capabilities,' better reads as: 'We have preset recipes that measure out each ingredient, and eliminating the sherbet while proportionately increasing the others requires me to throw off a carefully kept and checked inventory and piss off my on-a-power-trip manager, neither of which I am willing to do for $6.50 an hour.'"
Nice. You put the smooth in smoothie.
"Mike, this article is beneath you. You talk about all these horrible scenarios for the Cardinals and at the end tell their fans to savor Super Bowl Sunday? That's like taking a crap in the pool and telling people to enjoy their swim. I normally like your articles, look forward to reading them, and still do. But I am getting tired of you media types trying to generate controversy before these big games. I'm starting to believe the media is having too big an effect on the game. Look at what happened in Dallas, do you think the media didn't have a hand in their collapse? It shouldn't be up to the players to not listen to you guys. I know you get pissed when someone criticizes you, why shouldn't they? You guys are not on the field, it's not your place to start trouble for those on it. I understand the business aspect of it, but there's got to be a better more responsible way for you guys to get the job done without affecting the play on the field."
I am so darn powerful. It's awesome.
"What's up Michael? Born in Boston, I should have a soft spot in my heart for the Patriots. But I moved to Chicago when I was 4, two months after the Super Bowl Shuffle dominated 46-10. I was an instant Bear fan, even at the tender age of 4. From that point on, I've never supported the Pats, and I simply can not get enough of Spygate. It was overblown by ESPN for sure, but I love hearing the thoughts inside heads, who may have been directly affected, like Warner and Whisenhunt. LOVE IT. Need more of it. Can't wait to hear all of the idiots from New England calling 'Bull…' regarding Spygate, let's at least hope they can spell it correctly."
While it would be fun to review those responses … let's not and say we did.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Like Steelers owner Dan Rooney, Springsteen campaigned actively for President Obama, who has expressed his support for the black-and-gold in Sunday's game. So if you believe in the associative property of supportiveness, the Boss will be channeling his inner Terrible Towel before and after his halftime gig – and, in his head, belting out something like this (to the tune of "Mary Queen of Arkansas"):
Tomlin King of Steeltown, it's not too early for dreamin'
Out went The Chin you stepped right in, and kept LeBeau and all his scheming
Tomlin, my king, your bubble jacket's stylin'
No, you're not too young to get it done – your mystique is beguiling
Well I'm an ecstatic Democrat, at the Lincoln I played
Here at the Super Bowl with the fat cats, then I'll pack for your parade
Tomlin, my king, Ben's throws for S. Holmes aren't missing
You're the man who'll hoist the Lombardi, whose ass they will all be kissing
You came from Minnesota – Pittsburgh was a circus after Cowher's departure
Whisenhunt or Grimm would step in and quickly restore order
But Dan saw the soul of old Chuck Noll and your interview was gleaming
The Rooney Rule is so damn cool, and now the league you're reaming
Tomlin King of Steeltown, your phat rims are decevin'
You ride Big Ben and make him win, and you got his teammates believin'
And in your eyes Tomlin I can see the dude who starred in "Juice"
I don't understand how can you ride them so tight and have 'em so damn loose
But I know a place where we can go Tomlin
Where we can roll to the club and drink all of the finest wines
We won't be inviting Plaxico
But Polamalu is fine