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George still grasping for one last shot at glory

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Jeff George swears he hasn't lost his fastball, even as he dreams, at 41, of an unlikely comeback into a league that last saw him throw a pass eight years ago.

He certainly hasn't lost his sense of humor.

George, mindful that he has served as a point of reference in recent weeks for critics of disgruntled Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, was asked Tuesday in a telephone interview whether he viewed such a comparison as insulting or complimentary.

"Oh, that's a huge compliment," George said, drawing out his Indiana drawl for sarcastic effect. "I mean, you can't get any better than that."

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George, left, watches preseason action from the sidelines in '06.
(Elaine ThompsonAP Photo)

Lest George be accused of taking a shot at Cutler, the strong-armed passer who became steamed at his superiors after they contemplated trading him for former New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel last month, the first overall pick of the 1990 NFL draft believes Broncos coach Josh McDaniels is to blame for the conflict.

"Really, it's unfortunate that a team would do that," George said. "I know people say he's a crybaby and needs to suck it up, and I understand a coach saying that every position is open for competition. But it's different when it comes to quarterbacks. You need to be a little sensitive to that position.

"The quarterback position is so fragile, and people just don't understand what goes into it. It's not just on Sundays that you're on the spot. You're the leader of the team. You're the face of the franchise. The minute it comes out that they're thinking about getting rid of you for someone else, you feel like the coach isn't on your side, and there's a trust issue.

"If your teammates are seeing that the coach is already putting you on the trading block or trying to push you out, in the back of their minds they'll wonder if the team is committed to you, and it's tough for you to lead. Can Jay go back to Denver and lead that team and have everybody believe in him? It's gonna be tough."

In fairness, George also believes that Cutler is wrong to boycott the team's offseason training program, saying, "I would tell him to just go in, bust your butt and work as hard as you can over the offseason. Go in and be a leader like you think you can be. Don't give 'em any excuse to say you're a crybaby."

Besides, as much as he would like to counsel Cutler not to repeat some of his mistakes, George has his own issues. He wants one more shot at NFL glory, and he can't even scare up so much as a tryout.

"I've been trying to figure out how to get back in, and it just amazes me that I'm not on somebody's roster," George said. "I've been throwing two or three times a week, and every time I go out there to throw, I can't believe I'm not a backup somewhere. I know it's a young man's game, but you can't tell me I'm not better than some of the quarterbacks that are out there. I look at teams like Minnesota or Chicago, and I want to scream at the people in charge, 'What are you thinking?' "

George, who last got a sniff from the Oakland Raiders – he spent five days on the team's roster shortly before the start of the 2006 season, his second stint with the Silver and Black – isn't bitter about his plight. For the most part, he's happy watching his 12-year-old son, Jeffrey, tear it up on the suburban Indianapolis youth-sports circuit ("He was the quarterback of his seventh-grade team," Jeff says, "and they just went undefeated for the first time in the junior high's history"), with daughter Jordan, 10, and son Jayden, 8, also occupying his and wife Teresa's attention.

Yet the competitor in George can't let it go, especially when he sees teams like the Vikings, for whom he put up huge numbers while going 8-2 as a starter in 1999, and the Cowboys, who struggled last season when Tony Romo missed several weeks with an injury and 40-year-old backup Brad Johnson was ineffective.

"If I was in Minnesota," George said, "I guarantee I'd be wearing a ring right now. I just can't get over why somebody like [coach] Brad Childress wouldn't take a look at me and have me as the third guy on their roster. Put me in and I'll pick up right where I left off in '99, but this time with Adrian Peterson, so I wouldn't have to throw it nearly as much."

Yet when Childress, during the 2007 season, was asked if he had any interest in George, the coach was dismissive, saying, "Probably maybe [he could] go to a fantasy camp or something like that. 'Downside' would probably be, I think, kind."

Similarly, though George yearns for a spot on the Cowboys' roster – "If Tony Romo goes down," he said, "who's better out there to run the Dallas offense than somebody like me – someone who knows how to throw to veteran receivers and get the ball downfield and keep them happy?" – it's clear that his love is destined to be unrequited.

"I would think it's way past his time," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said Thursday. "Being that he sat out all those years, plus he's [over] 40, and he wasn't exactly what everybody was looking for to start out with, I just don't see it. I'd say his chances are slim and none. I know we wouldn't be interested, but you never can tell with someone like Al Davis, so maybe the Raiders would bite."

George understands that his reputation as a selfish, divisive presence with a penchant for pouting isn't helping his quest, and there's not a whole lot he can do about that now. It's a subject I first explored nearly 12 years ago while reporting a Sports Illustrated feature that ran after George signed a five-year, $27-million contract with the Raiders. George had landed in Oakland after unhappy endings in his hometown of Indianapolis (the Colts traded up to draft him but shipped him off after four seasons) and Atlanta (where he infamously engaged in a sideline spat with coach June Jones that led to his being suspended and released).

Having done my share of due diligence over the years, I've concluded that while George might have displayed some immaturity and petulance at times (hey, I can relate), he's far from the locker-room cancer he's often portrayed to be. If there are a few players and coaches that feel that way, they are vastly outnumbered by a base of supporters as diverse as devout Christian Steve Wisniewski, the ex-Raiders guard, and polarizing Patriots wideout Randy Moss, one of George's prime targets in Minnesota.

As for his relationship with Jones, who is now the SMU head coach? "June's one of my best friends," said George, who suggested the two of us speak. (Jones and I played phone-tag on Thursday.)

I asked George about the disastrous end to the 2000 season, when the Redskins fired Norv Turner and George – replacing Brad Johnson – started the final two games for interim coach Terry Robiskie. Stories soon circulated that George, a gifted play-caller by reputation, had been a rebellious saboteur who recklessly called audibles against his coach's wishes.

"Everybody tries to use you as a scapegoat in an effort to save their jobs," George said. "That's the way it is. When Norv was in Washington, you weren't even allowed to call audibles – that's the way the offense was set up. So at the end of the year after Terry came in we were in Dallas and we were losing late in the fourth quarter and had a third-and-20. I said to [wideout] Irving Fryar in the huddle, 'If you get one-on-one coverage I'll put it up and we'll try to get a first down.' Sure enough, I saw man-to-man on the outside, and I threw it to Irving and it was incomplete. That was it. But people ran with it to try to save their butts."

The next year George lasted only two games as new Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer's starter before being released, and despite subsequent signings by the Seahawks (as an emergency quarterback late in the '02 season), Bears (as a backup for the second part of the '04 season) and Raiders, he has yet to take another snap.

It's not for lack of persistence. "I can honestly say that if it doesn't work out for me, I have exhausted every avenue," George said. "Guys like [ex-Broncos coach] Mike Shanahan, I used to wear him out. I'd bug him just about every week, and he was the nicest guy – he always returned my calls. But I wore him out."

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George will likely always be remembered for his run-in with Jones, left.
(Curtis Compton/AP Photo)

When I saw George in Tampa the day before Super Bowl XLIII, he was excited about Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner's surprising revival at 37 and hopeful that it could help persuade teams to take his comeback efforts seriously. "If your job is on the line," George said, "wouldn't you trust a guy who has been there over some 23-year-old, at least as your backup?"

George, who runs daily, said he is 20 pounds lighter than he was as a player (he was last listed at 218) and is about as fast – yes, it's a relative term – as he was coming out of college. As for his incredibly gifted right arm, George insisted it's nearly as potent as it ever was. "I can probably chuck it 78 yards," he said, "compared to when I was coming out [of college] and could throw it 85."

On Tuesday, an unseasonably warm day in Indy, George went to a local high school, where one of his receivers from back in the day at Warren Central High is now the head coach, and enlisted the services of some eager juniors and seniors from his buddy's team. The eager targets laid out for balls in an effort to please their famous guest. It was, George agreed, a scene that conjured images of Warren Beatty's Joe Pendleton, having inhabited the body of deceased multi-millionaire Leo Farnsworth, throwing to the hired help in the backyard of his mansion in "Heaven Can Wait."

In the movie, of course, Pendleton winds up returning as ex-teammate Tom Jarrett and winning the NFL's biggest game in dramatic fashion. George harbors similar fantasies, saying, "I know if someone just gives me a chance, I know I can realize my dream of taking a team to the Super Bowl."

At the same time, he's a realist – and a man who, at the very least, knows how to goof on his own image.

"Hey, the economy's struggling," George said, laughing. "If you threw me into a preseason game to see how I'd do, there are a lot of people who'd be curious, even if a lot of them were rooting for me to fail. I think it would generate some excitement."

At this desperate stage – as George would say – you can't get any better than that.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Despite my deep and abiding respect for police officers, were I to have been transported into the body of Texans running back Ryan Moats during last week's incident, I would have ended up in jail. … If former Alabama tackle Andre Smith shows up on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras and wants to score some beads, he will have to purchase them. … A year from now at the NFL owners meetings, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will complete the trifecta by picking the Bengals to win the AFC North.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. In an effort to settle a lawsuit filed by his former maid, Lakers star Kobe Bryant bought Maria Jimenez a $4 million ring – but his wife, Vanessa, forced her to retrieve it from a bag of dog feces.

2. The fact that Eric Mangini extended an offer to Brett Favre to serve as a quarterback consultant during Browns training camp proves the two men are totally tight.

3. Inspired by the plaque outside Florida's new football facility commemorating quarterback Tim Tebow's speech to the team following a home defeat to Ole Miss last September, the 49ers have commissioned a bronze statue of coach Mike Singletary, sans pants, next to the hill he recently had constructed near the team's practice fields.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

If you were JaMarcus Russell, and you wanted to miss the first week of the Raiders' offseason workout program (I know, it's voluntary but starting quarterbacks simply don't skip out on these things), would you worry about whether it might trigger your head coach's disapproval? I wouldn't, given that Raiders owner Al Davis, in the infamous overhead-projector-aided press conference he conducted after dismissing Russell's previous head coach, cited Lane Kiffin's lack of faith in the young quarterback as a justification for firing Kiffin "with cause." In other words, the mere act of questioning Russell's impending greatness, even in private, is a sin of such immense proportions that it can (in Davis' singular universe) cost someone millions. Can you blame Russell for feeling as though he's untouchable?

On Thursday I phoned former Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp to run all of this by him, and he said, "Let's call the kid and find out." Sapp picked up a second mobile device, got Russell on the line and asked, "Why the hell you ain't in?" A few seconds later, Sapp said, "Oh, gotcha – that's good enough for me." After saying goodbye to Russell, Sapp told me, "He was back home with his mom. She hurt her knee and had some ACL surgery." All of that makes Russell's absence from the start of OTAs sound totally understandable, and head coach Tom Cable would've had every reason to excuse him. Yet here's the problem: Earlier this week at the NFL owners meetings, Cable spoke somewhat critically of Russell's commitment, saying the player needed to "accept the responsibility of being an NFL quarterback." Timed to coincide with Russell's absence from OTAs, these comments seemed to be an expression of Cable's dissatisfaction that the quarterback wasn't there. The Raiders, naturally, did nothing to help Russell publicly. A public relations staff that found time to bombard reporters with Davis' correspondence to the University of Tennessee president complaining about Kiffin, in advance of the new Vols coach's arbitration proceedings in his case against the Raiders earlier this month, couldn't even issue a simple statement saying Russell was missing the start of OTAs because of a family medical issue. Then again, given that he's untouchable in the eyes of his owner, I don't think Russell is all that worried about it.

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

I'll start by pouring a massive shot for my fantasy-football comrade, Lindsay Gottlieb, whose first year as a college head coach ended with UCSB's 74-39 defeat to Stanford in the first round of the NCAA tournament last Saturday. Gottlieb was named Big West Coach of the Year after leading the Gauchos to a league-best 15-1 regular season record, and UCSB clinched its tourney berth by winning the conference tournament. She doesn't have the horses to compete with a juggernaut like Tara VanDerveer's Cardinal – yet – but Gottlieb is on her way.

Speaking of fantasy adventurers, I'm also toasting my buddy Malibu's son, A-Man, for earning acceptance into another University of California school (hint: It's the Center of the Universe). Then there's my own little man, whose fourth-grade basketball team, the Stinky Cheese, did a pretty fair Tarkanian-era UNLV impression in rolling to an unofficial league championship. That means I'm lining up the grenadine shots for Greg, Jack, Kevin, Lucas, Sam, Trevor, Wade, Yiorgos and Coach Dave.

On a more somber note, many of you have asked about my old SI colleague, Paul Zimmerman, who is battling his way back after suffering a pair of strokes last fall. His wife, Linda (a.k.a. the Flaming Redhead), has a blog detailing the couple's struggles, and though she paints a sobering picture, it is clear that both she and Dr. Z are resilient warriors. Finally, let's all send our thoughts and prayers to the loved ones of the four Oakland police officers killed in a horrific shooting spree last Saturday, a crime of unimaginably despicable proportions that robbed a great city of some of its loyal public servants.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

I proclaimed four years ago in my book Golden Girl that Teri McKeever was the best swimming coach in the country – and the sight of her getting tossed into the pool last Saturday night in College Station, Texas, was further confirmation that her intuitive and cutting-edge coaching style is unmatched. McKeever's ninth-ranked Bears rose up to capture their first NCAA women's swimming and diving championship, pulling out the victory by winning the final relay (400-yard freestyle) off a sizzling anchor leg by Swimmer of the Year Dana Vollmer. As McKeever was quick to note after the meet, this triumph was for all of the people who helped the program ascend to this level over the past several decades, and I think I got text messages along the lines of "Holy [expletive]" from about a third of them as the three-day meet played out.

Two nights after McKeever's big moment, another awesome Cal coach, Joanne Boyle, guided her basketball team to what was probably its most comprehensively impressive performance in her four-year tenure: a 99-73 thrashing of Virginia to take the Golden Bears to the Sweet 16 for the first time. Their draw is daunting – a meeting with undefeated and top-ranked Connecticut awaits Sunday in Trenton, N.J. – but seniors Ashley Walker and Devanei Hampton won't go down without a fight. For more on McKeever and Boyle, check out my new semi-regular column, Pure Silver, on Bear Territory, Cal's Rivals.com page.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Colbert's rap video

ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS

It's been a while since we checked in on my adopted English soccer side, and Reading's push for automatic promotion to the Premier League has hit a bit of a rough patch. The Royals, with 68 points, sit in third place in the Football League Championship table, four behind second-place Birmingham and nine behind league-leading Wolverhampton, with one fewer game played than each. (The top two teams gain automatic promotion, while the third- through sixth-place finishers have a playoff for the remaining spot.) Since we left off, Reading has played five games – a victory, a defeat and three draws, most recently a 0-0 snoozer at Crystal Palace.

Seven games remain, but before the Royals travel to Coventry City for an April 4 showdown, many of their players are suiting up for World Cup qualifiers for their international sides, including: Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Noel and Stephen Hunt (Ireland); Andre Bikey (Cameroon); Kalifa Cisse (Mali); Adam Federici (Australia); Brynjar Gunnarsson (Iceland); Marek Matejovsky (Czech Republic); and Marcus Hahnemann, who'll go to El Salvador as a backup keeper for the U.S. squad. One piece of pleasant news for the Royals is the return of Dave Kitson, the redheaded striker who last summer moved to Premier League side Stoke City for 5.5 million pounds – the highest transfer fee ever paid by that club. In one of those English soccer-isms that are tough for outsiders like me to understand, Kitson is back "on loan" at Reading until the end of the season.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

Bill Belichick wasn't at the owners meetings to see the mob scene around his former offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, as reporters probed for answers about the new Broncos coach's fractured relationship with franchise quarterback Jay Cutler in the wake of an aborted trade for ex-Patriots backup Matt Cassel. Yet Belichick, in a phone interview with foxsports.com's Alex Marvez, did concede that the reason he took less than perceived value for Cassel in a trade with the Chiefs was a desire to clear salary-cap space as quickly as possible. I'm thinking he and his boss, Pats owner Robert Kraft, weren't especially broken up about the collateral damage – and I've asked Steve Miller, in a reworking of his '70s standard "Take the Money and Run," to expound upon my conspiracy theory:

This here's a story about Billy B. and Bobby K.
Two powerbrokers searchin' for some cap space
They had the greatest passer in the human race
And an expensive backup that they were lookin' to trade

They caught the Chiefs in, ooh, a big lasso
Said, "Make a deal, cause we don't want no hassle"
Scottie P. sent a 2 for Vrabel and Cassel
Billy B. took the money and run

Go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run

Joshie Mack is the new sheriff of the Rockies
(clap clap clap clap clap)
Ex-Pats assistant, kinda young and cocky
He thought his quarterback was sorta sucky
He makes his livin' off of Pat Bowlen's stock, B

Brian X., whoa, called up Tampa Bay
Billy B. caught wind of it and Josh got played
They leaked the story, hey
That Cassel got away
Jay Cutler went south and they're still laughing today

Singin' go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run (oh Lord)
Go on take the money and run (hoo hoo hoo)
Go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run