JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – He could have done the interview in a cozy chair near his locker, or on the motorized cart that a team official had brought to shuttle his family through the players' parking lot. Instead, David Garrard stood outside Jacksonville Municipal Stadium Sunday evening and talked about the stellar season he never saw coming while cradling his nine-week-old son, Justin, in his passing arm.
As Garrard recalled the emotional day in late August on which learned he had won a Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback competition he didn't know existed, jumpy Justin squirmed and wiggled, seemingly eager to do a fullback dive.
Fortunately, his father is the NFL's foremost expert on ball security – not to mention one of the league's most surprising stars of 2007. The baby, like Jacksonville's offense in Sunday's 36-14 victory over the Buffalo Bills, was in excellent hands.
On a day in which Garrard threw for a career-high 296 yards and extended his team-record streak of passes without an interception to 209, the Jaguars (8-3) won their fourth consecutive game to set up a loaded rematch with the Colts (9-2) in Indianapolis next Sunday for the inside track to an AFC South title. And while the supposition has been that none of this maneuvering really matters – that it's the New England Patriots' league to shred, and everyone else is playing for a more pleasant end-of-the-year pizza party – the Eagles' inspired effort in Foxborough Sunday night served as a reminder that the Lombardi Trophy has not yet been inscribed.
"I believe that no matter who we play, if we bring our 'A' game, we can overtake anybody," Garrard said long before the Pats had run their record to 11-0 with a 31-28, come-from-behind victory over Philly. "In this league, if you get enough turnovers, you'll probably win."
Left unsaid was that if you don't turn the ball over, your odds of winning go up substantially as well. And Garrard, who missed 3½ games after spraining his left ankle in the second quarter of Jacksonville's 29-7 defeat to the Colts on Oct. 22, happens to be the NFL's only starting quarterback who has yet to throw an interception in 2007.
If you saw that coming three months ago, you probably also tabbed Missouri to be atop the BCS standings heading into December.
Even Garrard went into training camp believing he'd already blown his chance to be a starter in Jacksonville, having gone 5-5 after Byron Leftwich missed the final 10 games of 2006 with a severe ankle injury. Garrard, a fourth-round pick out of East Carolina in 2002, had 10 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, with seven of those picks coming in two nightmarish games (defeats to the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans).
When coach Jack Del Rio announced in February that Leftwich, the seventh overall pick of the '03 NFL draft, would go into this season as the team's unquestioned starter, Garrard was shocked and upset. "That was a sad time," he recalled, "because I felt I'd done enough to at least be able to compete for the job."
Protective friends and family members told him he should try to force his way to a team that would appreciate his skills. But Garrard resisted, he said, "because I had my chance last year, and the games we lost were my fault, and my fault only. I decided not to be mad at the coaches or the organization and to try to make myself better."
Meanwhile, a power struggle was playing out behind the scenes between Jags vice president of player personnel James Harris, a pocket passer for 12 NFL seasons who regarded the slow-as-dial-up-Internet Leftwich as a quarterback in his image, and Del Rio, who appreciated Garrard's mobility.
After Leftwich struggled in the preseason while Garrard thrived against second-team defenses, the coach successfully persuaded ownership to make a stunning move: On Aug. 31, the day after the Jags' final preseason game and nine days before their season opener, the team announced that Garrard would be promoted while Leftwich would be traded or released. (He was waived the following day and signed with the Falcons on Sept. 18.)
Learning of the move, Garrard said, "felt like a dream" – an analogy bolstered by the fact that he was snoozing in the players' lounge next to the team's locker room as the drama unfolded. "It was right before a team meeting, and I had just seen on the ticker on TV that 'Byron Leftwich will start the Jaguars' season opener,'" Garrard remembered. "Then one of my teammates, Bobby McCray, came in and said, 'Well, congratulations.' I said, 'For what?' and he said, 'Come on, you know what's going on. They cut B-Left and you're the starting quarterback.'
"I said, 'Yeah, whatever.' Players mess with each other like that all the time, and I was sure it was a joke. I mean, who cuts your starting quarterback right before the season and says the backup is the starter?"
A few minutes later Garrard was in Del Rio's office, and later that day he slipped into his black Mercedes S550 and made perhaps the most surreal drive of his life. Talking to his wife, Mary, through his cell-phone earpiece, Garrard slogged through traffic on I-95 and let out a career's worth of emotion. "I was screaming, crying, just going crazy," he recalled. "A lot of prayers had gone out for that moment to happen, and I almost had to pull off the road because I was starting to lose my focus. My phone was ringing every five seconds. By the end of the day I had 130 missed calls."
Outgoing, funny and appreciative of his opportunity, Garrard is a hit in the locker room, especially among the relatively undistinguished receiving corps that has benefited from his judicious and efficient play. (His 103.1 passer rating ranks fourth.)
"Whooo-hoo, David Garrard is pretty good , man," says wideout Dennis Northcutt, Jacksonville's leading receiver. "In any job, there are some people you enjoy working with and being around, and Dave is one of those guys. In order for your team to have a chance to win a Super Bowl, you have to have a quarterback who has guts, heart and who's a leader by example, and he's all of that. Without a leader at quarterback, it's hard – trust me, I've been there. Dave works at his trade, studies film and if something isn't there he's not going to force it."
With a physical, swarming defense that has held eight of its 11 opponents under 18 points and a two-pronged rushing attack featuring veteran Fred Taylor (14 carries, 104 yards on Sunday) and second-year sparkplug Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jags may be good enough to beat most teams simply by minimizing mistakes.
"I'm not going to be one of those guys who's going to try to squeeze balls in there where they shouldn't be," Garrard said. "On this team, with this running game and this defense, I really don't have to."
He looked down at his baby boy, who was sucking a pacifier with the word "adorable" inscribed on its outer shell, and finished his thought.
"This team is hungry," he said. "And so am I."
Young Justin, in all his squirming splendor, undoubtedly could relate.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Back in September, the Seattle Seahawks appeared to be driving for a game-winning field goal against the Arizona Cardinals, but a botched handoff between Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander led to a fumble that set up a decisive kick by Arizona's Neil Rackers. Given that history, Seattle defensive end Patrick Kerney didn't feel all that sheepish about the bizarre happenings on Sunday that put the Seahawks (7-4) firmly in charge of the NFC West race while putting the Cardinals (5-6 after a brutal overtime defeat to the San Francisco 49ers) in a very precarious position. "I guess if you're patient enough, things will come back around," Kerney said late Sunday night after returning home from St. Louis, where a fumbled snap by Rams quarterback Gus Frerotte on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line allowed Seattle to escape with a 24-19 victory. Earlier in the season Kerney, signed to a reported six-year, $39.5-million contract over the offseason after eight seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, grew impatient with his own lack of production. After the team's fifth game, a 21-0 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kerney told defensive coordinator John Marshall he felt like he needed to make more game-changing plays. "I'd had a lot of near-misses, a lot of hurries," Kerney said. "I just kept it at, had faith and understood that it's a long season." On Sunday, Kerney had three sacks (for the second consecutive game) and an interception and is now in position to earn his second Pro Bowl berth.
• Congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the many 5-6 NFC teams that are hoping the Detroit Lions are in full collapse mode, for going into Gillette Stadium and battling to the finish. I don't know about all that "creating a blueprint for future Pats opponents" talk, but credit Philly for playing physical, passionate and proactive football while having the guts to take chances, from Andy Reid's successful onside kick to defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's creative blitzes. And A.J. Feeley looks a lot better when he's not getting his butt kicked behind a dubious offensive line in Miami.
• If the Chicago Bears somehow make it back to the playoffs to defend their NFC Championship, no one can accuse them of not earning it. As with their gritty victory in Green Bay in early October, Chicago needed to summon all of its collective mettle to defeat the Denver Broncos in overtime Sunday, including a brilliant touchdown catch by Bernard Berrian in the final minute of regulation and one of the most timely blocked punts imaginable.
• Sundays have been a Bay Area bummer for the last few football seasons, but this one provided the rare double dose of pleasure for Raiders and 49ers fans. Oakland (3-8) pulled out a 20-17 victory over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, breaking its nine-game losing streak to K.C. and its league-record string of 17 consecutive defeats to AFC West opponents. San Francisco (3-8), under the steady guidance of veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer (25 for 39, 256 yards, two TDs, no interceptions), stunned Arizona in overtime after Rackers' miss and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain fell on a Kurt Warner fumble in the end zone, breaking an eight-game losing streak. The 49ers completed a season sweep of the Cards, bringing back memories of 2004, when San Francisco won only two games – both 31-28 overtime victories over Arizona. This was Dilfer's second consecutive strong outing, the difference this time being that players like Frank Gore and Arnaz Battle stepped up and made things happen to help him. As I wrote last Sunday, expect Dilfer to remain the Niners' starter for the rest of this season, even if Alex Smith is cleared to return. After that … there are no guarantees that Smith will play for the 49ers again. Meanwhile, with the Raiders heading home to host the Broncos, I'm wondering whether we can at least get a peek at JaMarcus Russell. What'd you say, Al – uh, I mean, Lane?
• Somehow, Warner threw for 484 yards – a career high for the two-time MVP – and lost the game. But he wasn't the only ex-Arena League player to come up big on Sunday. Defensive end Greg White, the reigning Arena League defensive player of the year, had four tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles in the Bucs' 19-13 victory over the Redskins, one which kept Tampa Bay (7-4) two games ahead of the Saints in the NFC South, with the two teams set to meet Sunday in New Orleans. Why am I picturing a group of White's old Orlando Predators teammates pounding the table at a local Hooters in celebration of his heroics?
• Chad Johnson, welcome back, and unlike all those grumpy ex-players and ex-coaches on TV, I enjoyed your latest end zone celebration in Cincy's 35-6 thrashing of the fading Houston Titans. But next time you do something like impersonating a TV cameraman that will incur a 15-yard celebration penalty, you might want to wait until the victory is already well in hand.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• The Cardinals, Broncos, Rams, Redskins, Eagles and Chiefs all put their fans through hell on Sunday, and it's possible players and coaches on each of those six teams will look back and say, "That was the day that cost us a shot at the playoffs." But the fans I feel for the most are the ones in Carolina, who, subjected to another episode of David Carr Hesitation Theater, chanted "We Want Moore" – that would be undrafted rookie quarterback Matt Moore – in the second quarter of a 31-6 defeat to the Saints. Or were they chanting "We Want More"? At this point, either would be appropriate. And though I'm not one of those people who thinks coach John Fox should be fired if the Panthers' flameout continues, I wonder how long it will be until someone starts a "We Want Cowher" chant.
• The latest sign that the Lions, losers of three straight, are cracking in the face of adversity: wideout Roy Williams expressed some dissatisfaction with offensive coordinator Mike Martz in a recent radio interview. I love the candor, but I'm still unsure whether this team is equipped to handle the pressure it'll face over the final five weeks of the season.
• Because he plays in the nation's largest media market, and because he is a member of football's most conspicuous passing family, Eli Manning's lousy games will always be amplified beyond those of many of his peers. With four interceptions Sunday, three returned for touchdowns, in a dismal 41-17 home defeat to the Vikings, Manning ensured that he'll spend at least the next six days reading that he's a colossal disappointment whose future as the Giants' franchise quarterback beyond this season is in serious doubt. Realistically, Manning – barring a total collapse – will have a chance to get it done in the playoffs in an eminently winnable conference. Then, and only then, will those larger decisions be made.
• Instant replay is a good thing, I guess, but the rules have to be applied evenly, and that means that in the final two minutes of each half any significant play that could possibly be overturned needs to be reviewed. Somehow, replay officials chose not to review Jabar Gaffney's 19-yard touchdown catch 12 seconds before halftime in the Pats-Eagles game – he appeared to get his feet down exceptionally close to the line at the back of the end zone, though it wasn't totally conclusive on NBC's telecast – yet how many times have we seen them look at and overturn second-down spots near midfield in the same situation? Either give coaches an extra challenge that can only be used in the final two minutes, or err on the side of across-the-board scrutiny.
• What I like about Vince Young: After going 19 of 31 for 246 yards with an interception in the Titans' defeat to the Bengals, Tennessee's third consecutive loss after a 6-2 start, the second-year quarterback sat alone on the team bench for seven minutes with his head bowed, talking to nobody except for the two Cincinnati players who approached him. Don't let the raw athletic talent blind you – this guy cares, deeply, and will figure out a way to improve his and his team's performance before too long. If Tennessee can pull out of this and sneak into the playoffs, I think Young is capable of pulling off even the most shocking of upsets.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The robust popularity of the Dave Matthews Band.
2. Why anyone, let alone a coach as smart as Mike Shanahan, would kick the ball to Devin Hester in a competitive game, ever. The Broncos almost certainly could've rolled over the Bears and stayed tied with the Chargers atop the AFC West had they simply kept the ball away from the NFL's most dangerous return man since … well … I don't think there's ever been another player as dangerous as Hester, with the possible exception of Deion Sanders, who rarely took on those duties fulltime. Trust me, as a Cal fan who has seen DeSean Jackson do some pretty magical things as a punt returner on the collegiate level, I know how frustrating it is when other teams simply stop kicking to a gamebreaker. It's also the best thing those teams could do, strategically. Maddeningly, the Broncos twice said goodbye to seven-point leads in the second half because they let Hester take kicks to the house. Just for good measure, they let the Bears block a punt with 7:14 remaining, launching a 14-point Chicago comeback that forced overtime. When your special teams are that dubious, you need to try very hard to keep them out of compromising positions, and playing keep-away from Hester is a no-brainer.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
This college football season has been truly maddening: Team after team succumbs to its vulnerabilities, opening the door for a talented upstart to join the nation's elite. And through it all, my California Golden Bears have revealed themselves to be, quite possibly, the most fraudulent team ever to have been ranked No. 2 at midseason. I could go on and on about the probable causes, but now is not the time to bag on the program I hold near and dear. Instead, I want to turn my attention to the Bay Area's second most accomplished academic institution and focus on the misery and humiliation that we in Golden Bear Nation plan to inflict upon the Red Menace next Saturday at 4 p.m. Pacific Time in that cute little rectangle Stanfurd now calls its stadium. Cal has a chance to win its sixth consecutive Big Game, something the Bears have yet to do over the 110 games of the series, and that alone is cause for all of the consumption, intensity and outright enmity toward the wretched sea of red that we true blues can muster. Yeah, I know, the game is five days away. I'll be worse by then, as will about 15,000 of my hoarsest friends. Thanks for that drastically reduced ticket allotment, Furdies; you know we'll out-cheer you anyway. Politely take your seats, and prepare to feel our pain.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Why would we care that your arrogant self (came) back to Jacksonville? I'm only sorry you're not freezing your sorry, insulting-nice-people-for-no-reason ass off in Chicago or some other winter wonderland. I hate sharing our beautiful weather and sunshine with you."
Ah, Joy – you are aptly named.
"While running the risk of sounding like a homer, I'd say you could make a pretty good argument for Chargers' center, Nick Hardwick, as one of the top 8 injuries. He was the heart and soul of an offensive line that sent three players to Hawaii a year ago (if you count alternates Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman) and his attitude has been visibly absent, not to mention (Cory) Withrow and (Philip) Rivers have at least one fumbled snap a game."
Hardwick is a great, not good, player, and his absence has been a big blow. But the Chargers were struggling even before he went down, and I see their problems as much deeper than one man's injury.
"No mention of the Pro Bowlers the Denver Broncos have lost this year? Javon Walker? John Lynch? Tom Nalen? Ben Hamilton? Travis Henry? Etc. …"
I thought about including Walker, but the Broncos' passing game has looked pretty good over the past few games, and even after Sunday's atrocity they're still in contention for a division title – which is about the best this team was going to be able to accomplish if healthy, in my estimation. As for the last player you mentioned, I always regret missing an opportunity to include King Henry IX in a column.
"Very well said concerning the damage (Orlando) Pace's injury caused to the Rams, but more importantly, you made a very salient point about those who often declare the OL to be the pinnacle of importance to any NFL team, yet completely ignore it when this obviously manifests itself. I certainly see it with more than just the '07 Rams; time after time I see teams lose OL depth and it never gets talked about in sports media, yet a mediocre first-string back goes down and the team is suddenly lost at sea. It'd be one thing if those very same writers didn't constantly profess their love for the 'guys in the trench' … anyway, this has always bugged me, so … well done, mate."
No problem. And to be fair, I've been as guilty of ignoring the line's impact as anyone at times.
"I really enjoy reading your column. As far as the eight injuries that have impacted this season the most, I would add a ninth … Albert Haynesworth's absence from the Titans for the (previous) two games. They would likely (have been) 8-2 instead of 6-4 right now had he been there to stop the run."
I'm not sure you can claim that Haynesworth's presence alone would have reversed those outcomes, but I'm pretty confident that a certain run-stopping-beast's agent will be submitting a similar argument at season's end.
"Good article 'What a Pain' but it (should) have included the Buccaneers' Twelve man IR list (at least make them No. 9 in your listing). Losing the starting RB, LT, FB and KR man as well as some valuable backups has to have made a big impact?"
I thought about including Cadillac Williams, but Jon Gruden and the Bucs have done such a good job of persevering without him (and the other injured players) that I decided against it.
"What about the 49ers' Alex Smith injury in game 4? They (had) gone 0-7, including that game, since Seattle tossed him to the turf and injured his throwing shoulder. That was devastating to a young, emerging offense. And what about Manny Lawson? The Niners were 2-1 before the injuries."
Thanks for the email, but I humbly reject its central premise: That the 49ers, with a healthy Smith and Lawson, would be a remotely competitive team.
"Ummm … did you actually watch the Lions against the Giants? They did give the game away. (The missed tackles alone were enough to make a difference.) (Jon) Kitna was hardly being 'whiny'; he was placing the blame where it belonged – on his team. Now, if only they respond."
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Ummm … maybe next game.
"If the Lions lose (on Thanksgiving), I'll run naked over the Ambassador Bridge into Canada and pay your way into every strip club! That's if you want to visit the most dangerous city in America."
Honestly, I'm less scared for my safety in Detroit than I am for the safety of the motorists on the Ambassador Bridge.
"Hey Mikey, what is your problem with the Lions? They have been on a rebuilding streak and will most likely continue for the next few years. Unlike the Pats, the Lions don't have the pocket book to bring in players like (Randy) Moss and (Tom) Brady. I give 100 percent kudos to Kitna and (Roy) Williams for being able to make the Lions a team in the making! Back off Dude! The Lions are in a comeback. Mark my words, The 2020 Super Bowl champs."
I have to assume that this email was composed in jest, because it is so wrong on some many levels (shared TV revenues and a salary cap make the Lions as able to spend as the Pats or anyone else; Moss took a big pay cut to come to New England; rebuilding "streaks" in the NFL last weeks, not years, as I was just discussing with some people in Green Bay the other day). I like how you capitalized "Dude," though – that's respect.
"How come you continuously leave the Colts at No. 2 on your power rankings? Aren't the power rankings supposed to suggest which teams are playing better at the moment? (You had the Titans at No. 4 a couple weeks ago, a sign of how you thought they were playing at the time) The Colts had lost two of their previous three games, granted they lost to the NFL's team version of Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl. They barely beat a Chiefs team, led in the rushing category by the newly retired Priest (Holmes) … I'm not saying they don't have a really good team, but the Packers and Cowboys are certainly playing better ball than the Colts. … The winner of the Nov 29 matchup should rightfully be No. 2 in the power rankings."
Right, they should be No. 2 – in your power rankings. Meanwhile, the team that I think is second-best will be No. 2 in mine.
"So what should the Patriots do when they have a huge lead? Kick a field goal and you are rubbing it in the opposing team's face. Go for it on fourth down, giving the opposing defense a chance to stop you, is running up the score. How do you think the pundits and fans of other teams would react if they took a knee or punted? I am interested in advice as to what they should do in that situation rather than criticisms of whatever they do."
In my opinion, on fourth-and-1 in the red zone in the fourth quarter of a 42-10 game – yes, kick a field goal. But again it doesn't matter what you or I think. Bill Belichick and the Patriots can do what they want, and they shouldn't waste any time or energy worrying about how people react to it.
"I've been meaning to write and tell you 'good job' or 'keep up the good work' for a while, but I am sure your self-esteem is just fine. With that being said, I'm glad Yahoo! decided you were worth the investment. When Steve Kerr left to GM the Phoenix Suns, Yahoo! Sports and specifically the basketball page, definitely lost a little something. Although I wouldn't consider you the football equivalent of Mr. Kerr (as you, I'm sure have no aspirations to become the GM for your underdog Arizona Cardinals) it sure has been nice for Yahoo! to pick up a columnist who writes about the NFL like it should be. Anyway, I do not have a specific 'question or comment'' I would like to send your way, just a couple things for some of the other readers. 1. To Christian of Hendersonville, N.C. Re: Packer fans mooning the opposing team's players. Do you think that is what provoked Randy Moss to 'moon' the fans after a touchdown? Maybe. That or just because he's Randy Moss. 2. To Rob Priode of Lenoir, N.C. Re: Shawne Merriman I don't know about you, but when I watched Maurice Jones-Drew 'light' Merriman up, it reminded me of a certain scene from the movie 'The Program' with James Caan. By the way, are you related to Peter Gallagher, because I swear by your eyebrows that you are?"
London, Ontario, Canada
Wow, Jamie, I think you may have just ruined Peter Gallagher's day … while making Steve Kerr's and mine. I only wish you could have experienced our co-authored column, "The Riptide," in the pages of the Palisades High School Tideline during the 1982-83 school year. We dominated that paper, just as we do pro basketball and sports journalism now.
"I want to get a few things out of the way first: I don't spell well; I am a raving Bucs fan; and I love your column. I am not sure what stating those things up front will do, but who knows. It is just past midseason and I look around at all of the other sports writers and wonder, why do they continue to write? The Pats are the Super Bowl champs! (according to them of course) We fans of other teams should all just drink our beer and be quiet. A tip of the hat to Robin regarding her knowledge of football and her team. I have another reason why guys ask her dumb questions and treat her like she couldn't possibly know anything about football. It's because our breasts prevent us from learning or retaining any information about sports. (I type this wearing my Lee Roy Selmon jersey.) My husband actually tried to calm me down when the Bucs won the Super Bowl. He once tried to change the channel to golf (!) when a football game was on. We had to buy a new universal remote after that, the old one was thrown out the window (it was snowing). Some men just don't get that we like sports, too. Thanks for the great column, Michael, and your truly well developed sense of humor."
Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Either you spell very well, or you're smart enough to use spell-check (or even an old-school dictionary) – which sets you apart from so many others. And I admire your restraint in throwing the remote out the window; given the transgression, it could have been your husband who got tossed out into the snow.
"No question, just want to tell you how awesome your columns are. Love them to death. From a Football Fanatic."
You ladies are making me blush. Now, if you could only do something about Joy E. from Jacksonville … "I was just wondering why you spend so much time making sure that readers know you're best buds with the athletes you cover. We get it, Mike. You know them, and more importantly, they know you. You're the story, right?"
And you're just now discovering this? "How did you get his job? I really think you are probably the worst sports writer in history. Your voice is incredible grating too. Please shut up in print and in voice."
Listen to me very closely, Peter: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Life of a kicker."
– Text from Rachel Rackers after her husband missed a 32-yard field goal in overtime of the Cardinals' defeat to the 49ers.